Rome wasn’t built in a day and it certainly takes longer than a day to marvel at its architecture, art, fashion, and, of course, phenomenal food. It is possible to see the major highlights of Rome in 3 days.
Plan ahead, buy advance tickets to the most popular tourist spots, be willing to miss out on a few things, wear comfortable shoes, and set off on a whirlwind adventure of Rome!
This was our first trip here so we focused on the major tourist destinations and conquered Rome in 3 days.
Day 1 in Rome
Spanish Steps, Keats-Shelley House, Trevi Fountain, and Pantheon
Our first stop of the day was at the Spanish Steps and the Piazza di Spagna for the obligatory people-watching and photo ops. The steps were built in 1725 and are named for the nearby Spanish Embassy, though they lead to a French church, Chiesa Trinita dei Monti.
Keats-Shelley House Museum
Directly beside the Spanish Steps, we stumbled upon a literary treasure! The Keats-Shelley House is a museum devoted to the British Romantic poets who called Italy home. It is where John Keats spent his final months along with his friend, Joseph Severn, who took care of him until his death in 1821 at the age of 25.
Although the museum bears Percy Shelley’s name, he never visited Keats in Rome, but the museum founders wished to recognize the importance of Italy in Shelley’s also short life. He would drown off the coast of Tuscany only a year after Keats’ death at the age of 29.
The home was facing demolition in 1903 until a group of British and American diplomats and writers raised funds to purchase and restore it. It is well worth a visit to wander through the rooms admiring the numerous artifacts, photos, manuscripts, and furnishings. The library is swoon-worthy for the bibliophile!
About 1/3 mile away is the Trevi Fountain, built in 1732, and fed by a 1st century BC underground aqueduct. The tradition is to throw a coin into the water and you’ll be guaranteed a return trip to Rome. The fountain is a very popular tourist spot so expect massive crowds, scam artists, and pick pockets. Toss a coin, appreciate the beauty of the baroque sculptures, snap a few selfies, and move along.
Walking about another 1/3 mile to the Piazza della Rotunda, the imposing architectural presence of the Pantheon is suddenly in front of you. Built as a temple around AD 125, it is the best preserved monument from ancient Rome. Flanked with 16 Corinthian columns, massive bronze doors, and the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever built, the Pantheon is a must-see.
We arrived at the Pantheon after closing so we did not get the chance to view the interior of the building, its significant art collection, or gaze up at the architectural masterpiece of the dome. We will save this for a later return trip to Rome per our coin-toss wish at the Trevi Fountain.
Rome at Night
Our day was rounded out doing as the Romans do…strolling down side streets, admiring the latest fashion trends, and enjoying a wonderful moonlight meal.
Day 2 in Rome
Our second day was spent exploring Ancient Rome. You could spend weeks, months, if not an entire lifetime, exploring and learning about ancient Rome. There is so much to see and do in this area!
We started at Il Vittoriano which was actually built in 1885 to honor Italy’s first king, Vittorio Emanuale. It’s worth the stair climbing to the top for the magnificent views of ancient Rome.
Theater of Marcellus
The remains of the Theater of Marcellus to the right of Il Vittoriano caught our eye so we wandered over to check it out. We learned that construction on the theater began in 17 BC and was formally finished in 12 BC with seating for 20,000. At the time it was the largest and most important theater in ancient Rome until it fell out of use in the 4th century AD. Now, six lanes of traffic rush by on one side and modern apartments have a view from the other side. This inter-mingling of ancient and modern can be seen throughout Rome. It is something I find endlessly fascinating.
By now it was raining and it was lunchtime! We went in the closest café down a side street near the Theater of Marcellus, Antico Caffe del Teatro Marcello. Inside this small, deli-style space, are the most amazing panini sandwiches. I cannot eat a sandwich since without automatically thinking of how wonderful the food was at Antico Caffe del Teatro Marcello. Check it out when you are in ancient Rome! You won’t be disappointed.
Luckily the sun came out in time for our adventures to continue. We took the long route through ancient Rome, climbing up Capitoline Hill to get to the heart of what once was the center of the Roman Empire.
The Roman Forum was the social, political, religious, and commercial hub of the Roman Empire. This is where the City of Rome first began. Today, you can still see the foundational layout and symmetry of the ancient city. Tip: buy one of the tourist guides that have the transparent photo overlays showing you what currently exists and what it looked like during the heyday of the Roman Empire.
As you make your way closer to the Coliseum, you reach Palatine Hill—the birthplace of Rome on April 21, 753 BC. From its humble beginnings as a tiny village, it eventually became the site of Imperial palaces and opulent villas of the wealthiest in ancient Rome.
At the end of the street–Via dei Fori Imperiali—you are now face-to-face with the Coliseum. Tip: there are several places to buy tickets for the Coliseum. Don’t wait until you are at the front gate where lines are the longest. We found only a handful of people buying tickets at the kiosk near the entrance to the Roman Forum. We did not buy “skip the line” tickets and waited about 20 minutes before entering the Coliseum, despite the line being quite long it was very efficient.
Day 3 in Rome & Vatican City
We devoted the entire last day to seeing the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. We did not go inside the Basilica or climb the dome on this trip due to the time restraint.
We very highly recommend purchasing advance tickets to the Vatican Museums/Sistine Chapel (it’s the same admissions ticket) and St. Peter’s Basilica if you want to go inside the church or climb the dome. We used City Wonders (www.citywonders.com) for advance tickets to the Vatican Museums. It was well worth the price!
With advance tickets, you will skip the general public line and instead enter with your tour operator using a special door. There is still a line but the wait is significantly reduced by hours. The general public line to enter the Vatican Museums on the day we were there was approximately 1 mile long based on my Fitbit measurement! You can purchase tickets that include a tour guide for the museums or choose to go solo. We walked the galleries on our own listening to the handheld audio included with our City Wonders tickets.
The Vatican Museums are home to one the world’s greatest art collections spanning nearly 4.5 miles before reaching the Sistine Chapel. The museums and galleries are contained within two palaces joined via connected walkways and courtyards. The structure is massive and can be very overwhelming so pick and choose where you want to spend more time and where you simply pass through the exhibit. You will need to walk through each museum in order to eventually end at the Sistine Chapel.
The Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel are the crowd favorites. The Raphael Rooms consist of four frescoed chambers painted in the early 16th century and contain his great masterpiece, The School of Athens, as well as depictions of various scenes from both ancient and Renaissance Rome.
The Sistine Chapel contains two of the world’s most famous works of art—Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes and the Last Judgment. Walking in to the chapel and looking up at the ceiling is a breathtaking experience! There are no photos allowed in the Sistine Chapel and this is strictly enforced.
St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica is free to enter. Expect very long lines and a strict dress code is enforced (no visible knees or bare shoulders). We did not enter the Basilica on this trip, only admired the architect from St. Peter’s Square. There are numerous specialized tours and experiences that can be booked for St. Peter’s Basilica if you have a specific interest.
Our Journey Comes to an End
There is so much to do in Rome!
We gained a better understanding of how to navigate the city and where to spend more time on our next trip. The ancient and modern city co-exist to create a place full of energy and life.
In our 3 days we were able to take in the big highlights of history, culture, and beauty. We were able to conquer Rome in 3 days and walked away with a greater appreciation of Roman life.
Rome: Past & Present with Reconstructions by R. A. Staccioli
The Complete Poems by John Keats
Selected Poems and Prose by Percy Shelley