How To Spend 3 Fantastic Days in Rome
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
Endlessly inspiring and ethereal, Rome is the perfect place for a long weekend city break or geographical cure. Here's my 3 day itinerary for visiting Rome, aptly dubbed the Eternal City. My itinerary provides a detailed DIY guide for visiting Rome. It covers Rome's must see sites and historic landmarks, as well as some hidden gems.
I must admit that last time I visited Rome in July, I was underwhelmed. Though prepared to be dazzled by ruin lust, I was frustrated by the mega lines, sweaty crowds, and selfie sticks. I huffily vowed never to return ... during high season.
Fast forward 5 years, I found a cheap flight to Rome in late February. I booked a week at an adorable Air Bnb in Trastevere and bought my ticket to the magical mecca of carbs and ancient architecture.
I'm happy to report that Rome in February-March is drastically different than the over-touristed summer months. The lines are minimal, the insane heat gone, and you can better appreciate all the history and art that's before you.
A Short History of Ancient Rome
To properly visit ancient Rome, you've got to have a rough overview of its tumultuous 1,000 year history.
Ancient Rome lasted from approximately 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. In 509 B. C., Rome overthrew its Etruscan conquerers to kick things off. For the next 500 years or so, Rome was a republic governed by senators. Though patricians (or aristocrats) dominated political discourse, eventually the plebeians (or middle class) gained power.
In 82 A.D., Lucius Cornelius Sulla challenged Senate rule. The Senate decreed him dictator after a bloody civil war with Gaius Marius. Historians generally revile Sulla as a maniacal dictator who engaged in bloody purges of his political enemies. Sulla eventually retired and Senate rule was restored. But his tenure threatened the foundations of the Roman constitution.
After Sulla, it wasn't long before Julius Caesar came to power. Casear bridged the gap between the Roman republic and the Roman empire. A military genius, Caesar crowned himself "dictator for life" in 44 B.C.
Shortly thereafter, Caesar was assassinated by Brutus, in a conspiracy with senators. They feared Caesar would crown himself king. But Caesar had adopted reforms and was beloved by the people. His death made him a martyr and incited civil wars that led to the downfall of the republic.
Caesar's heir, Octavian, came out on top of the struggle. He went head-to-head with Mark Anthony and his lover Cleopatra and won, becoming the first emperor of Rome.
Octavian adopted the name Augustus and is generally considered Rome's greatest emperor. Augustus was a savvy politician and ushered in a lasting peace. His descendants, the Caesarian emperors, ruled for almost 100 years, ending with the Nero.
Nero was an infamous and profligate emperor. He killed his mother and two wives. Legend holds that he set the great fire of Rome so that he could rebuild the city to his liking. Post fire, Nero built the Golden House, his massive pleasure palace. For his misdeeds, Nero was declared a public enemy and committed suicide.
After Nero's death, Emperor Vespasian restored peace to Rome. The empire prospered and was at its zenith under Emperors Trajan and Hadrian.
Trajan embarked on an ambitious public building program, creating landmarks that still stand today. Hadrian was also an architect. He built the Pantheon, the Temple of Venus and Roma in the forum, Castel Sant’ Angelo, and a grand villa in Tivoli.
After Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius ruled from 161 to 180. He fought off the barbarians and wrote a philosophical treatise, Meditations. But Marcus Aurelius was succeeded by his debauched and sadistic son Commodus, a succession that marked the beginning of the end for the Roman empire.
Eventually, as a result of military overspending, over expansion, and political instability, the Roman empire began to crumble. The introduction of Christianity by Emperor Constantine also undercut the empire, shifting the focus from the divine right of emperors to the glory of a sole deity.
Rome could no longer keep its grip on its far flung lands. Nor keep the barbarians at bay. The empire fell in 476. The glamor and glory of ancient Rome was replaced with the Dark Ages.
Perfect 3 Day Itinerary and Travel Guide for Rome
Having spent a week rediscovering every nook and cranny of Rome on my third visit, I have decided ideas about the best itinerary for 3 days.
Three days is a decent amount of time to spend in Rome. But there's an astonishing amount to see. You'll need a plan of attack and pre-purchased tickets if you want to hit all the key sites.
So channel your badass gladiator and read on for the full scoop on must see monuments and things to do in Rome.
Day 1 in Rome
Day 1 AM: Imperial Ruins
This was my third time doing the Imperial tour of Rome, which includes the iconic Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum. I never tire of it. These sites can be visited with one ticket and are Rome's biggest draw.
1. The Colosseum
The 600 foot high Flavian Amphitheatre, nicknamed the Colosseum, was inaugurated in 80 A.D. with a grand 10 day festival. Since then, it's been synonymous with gladiators, chariots, and the emperor's famous "thumbs up or thumbs down" edict. In the arena, gladiators and wild animals fought to the death.
The top level of the Colosseum was reopened in 2017. It provides sweeping views and may be the highlight of your visit.
On this visit, I booked a tour with The Roman Guy that included a visit to the "Hypogeom" or the Colosseum Underground. There's limited space on the underground tour, so you must book it well in advance. A standard tour won't take your there.
Led by a knowable archaeologist, the underground tour was divine. In the hypogeum, we inspected animal cages, gladiator corridors, back stairs used by the slaves, trap doors, and the launching point for mock naval battles.
If you're DIY-ing the Colosseum, you need to reserve your entry time online well in advance. This is true even if you have a skip-the-line Roma Pass. If you buy your ticket directly from the official website, you will specify the exact time and date. You can't visit the Colosseum without a reserved entry time!
2. Palatine Hill
On Palatine Hill, you can see where the rich and famous of Imperial Rome lived. Built circa 81 A.D., the sprawling Domitian's Palace is the most impressive ruin.
Emperor Domitian was a member of the Falvian dynasty. Unlike his father Vespasian and his brother Titus, who were civic minded, a megalomaniacal Domitian was only interested in palatial architecture.
Another highlight of Palatine Hill is the House of Augustus. You can only see it via a guided tour with a special Super Pass or a special tour such as the VIP Caesar’s Palace tour with the Colosseum & Roman Forum. Augustus' House isn't included on the standard tours and only open certain days a week.
While you're on Palatine Hill, be sure to pop in at least briefly to the Palatine Museum. The Museums contains statues and frescos from imperial Palatine. The Augustus and Nero rooms are particularly delightful. Audiovisual displays reconstruct the palaces' luxury.