• Leslie

How To Spend 3 Fantastic Days in Rome

Updated: Jul 21

the Trevi fountain in Rome

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 sights 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.

scenic street in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood

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.

statue of Julius Caesar in the Round Hall of the Vatican Museums

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.

bust of Emperor Hadrian in the National Museum of Rome

chunks of what was a massive 30 foot statue of Emperor Constantine in the Capitoline Museum

a bust of Commodus, dressed up in animal skins, in the Capitoline Museum

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.

Trajan's Market on the Via dei Fori Imperiali

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.

the Colosseum, the symbol of Rome dating from 80 A.D.

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!

The animal cages in the Colosseum Underground. A trap door above let the animals into the center stage.

Domitian's Palace on Palantine Hill

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.

frescos in Augustus' House on Palatine Hill

a rare surviving likeness of Emperor Nero in the Palatine Museum

The Palatine Museum also has a rare surviving bust of Emperor Nero. As I mentioned above, Nero was the emperor who "fiddled while Rome burned." He was removed from power during a political coup and all images of him were destroyed.

If you'd like to visit the ruins of Nero's Golden House, Domus Aurea, it's now open after years of excavation. Located on the Oppian Hill, you can only visit on Saturday or Sunday (after March 20) with a hard hat. The Golden House is one of Rome's newer sites and still a hidden gem.

If you want to know more about all the sites on Palatine Hill, here's my guide. Many of the most interesting sites can only be accessed with the S.U.P.E.R. Pass. Click here to read about how to buy and use that pass.

3. The Roman Forum

After Palantine Hill, you move on to the Roman Forum. I advise having a guided tour here. There's not much signage. It will be difficult to divine what you're looking at without a guide to decipher the lovely rubble.

the Roman Forum, with the Temple of Saturn on the left

The forum is a rectangular valley running from Arch of Titus to the Capitoline Hill. The main road is the Via Sacre. The forum was the beating heart of Rome, the seat of power, and its central showpiece. It was a grandiose district consisting of white temples, grand basilicas, and vibrant public spaces.

Stroll by the Arch of Titus, the Basilica of Constantine, the Temple and House of the Vestal Virgins, and the 3 columns of the Temple of Castor and Pollux. You'll also find a small temple to Julius Caesar. Inside, is a mound of dirt covered with coins and flowers that marks his grave.

the picturesque Rione Monti in Rome, with the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in the background

Day 1 PM: Monti and Capitoline Hill

When you're done exploring the ruins, head to Rome's adjacent Monti neighborhood, just 5 minutes away. Monti is Rome's trendiest off the beaten path district. Formerly a slum in ancient Rome, now it's gentrified and packed with unique shops and hip eateries.

Be sure to get off the main drag and explore Mont's side streets. If you want to grab a quick lunch, get avocado toast or a panini at Fehu. Or pick a cute ivy covered cafe, like Aromaticus Monti or La Carbonara, to settle down and relax after your Imperial tour.

Monti has one absolute must see site -- the Santa Maria Maggiore Church. Personally, I liked it better than St. Peters' Basilica. It's much older, dating to the 5th century A.D. And it has absolutely breathtaking mosaics in the triumphal arch and nave.

Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome's Monti neighborhood

view from the Vittoria Emanuel "wedding cake" monument over Capitoline Hill

When you're done in Monti, head over to the the Vittoria Emanuel Monument on Capitoline Hill, also known as the "typewriter" or "wedding cake" building. For views, hike up to the second floor.

For even better views, take the elevator to the viewing terrace. It's a fairly pricey 10 euros, but I thought it was worth every penny. I personally thought this view was better than the view from St. Peter's Basilica because it was closer to the ancient Roman sites.

When you're done swooning over views, head back down the stairs. Take a left at the bottom of the stairs and then another left. A few 100 feet later, you'll see Michelangelo's stairway, rising to the Piazza del Campidoglio at the top of Capitoline Hill.

Take the stairs up. At the top is the Capitoline Museums, housed in two buildings connected by an underground passage. Inside, are some of Rome's greatest treasures -- the statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback, the original She-Wolf of Rome that suckled Romulus and Remus, and ancient statues.

statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Piazza del Campidoglio (the original is in the Capitoline Museum)

the Capitoline she-wolf who suckled the twins Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome

After exiting the museum, head down the alleyway on the right side of the square under an arched building. That will take you to a viewpoint over the Roman Forum. This is the best view you'll have of the forum.

When hunger calls after this hectic day, head to the Jewish Ghetto neighborhood. It's just a stone's throw away, on the banks of the Tiber River. I just wandered around the evocative place. But Rick Steve's has a good stroll for this neighborhood, if you want something more structured. And I can recommend a great restaurant, Ba'ghetto, for dinner.

the Pantheon, Rome's most ancient temple

Day 2 in Rome

Day 2 AM: the "Heart of Rome" Stroll

Begin day 2 with a classic walk through historic Rome. Start at Campo de' Fiori and end at the Spanish Steps, visiting the Trevi Fountain and Pantheon along the way.

Campo de' Fiori is Rome's colorful market square. In the center is a statue of Giordano Bruno, a 16th century friar and philosopher who was burned at the stake for his scientific theories. Here, you'll find fresh produce and can pick up some souvenirs like olive oil, pasta, or limoncello.

Your next stop is the Piazza Navona. This famous square is a long rectangle, dotted with fountains and outdoor cafes. It dates back to the time of Domitian, who used it as a racetrack. But today's buildings date from the 16th century.

If you're ready for an early lunch, try Pizzeria da Baffetto near the Piazza Navona.

the Four Rivers Fountain by Bernini in the center of the Piazza Navona

Then we're off to Rome's most famous temple, the 2,000 year old Pantheon, set in a lively piazza. This is my favorite building in Rome. The entrance boasts massive 40 foot single piece granite columns. The pediment proclaims that Marcus Agrippa, Augustus' right hand man, built the Pantheon. In fact, it was built by Hadrian.

Inside is a magnificent dome with a giant oculus (or eye in the sky) that inspired the dome of St. Peter's Basilica. If it's raining, water falls through the oculus and out the drains in the floor.

One of the greatest painters of the Renaissance, Raphael, is buried in the Pantheon. His tomb sports a sculpture by Lorenzo Lotti that Raphael himself commissioned.

Then stroll to the Piazza Colonna. This square features the massive Column of Marcus Aurelius carved from Carrara marble. Reliefs wrap around the column telling stories of Marcus Aurelius' war exploits. The exploits were exaggerated because Rome had already begun losing skirmishes with the barbarians.

the Trevi fountain with the figure "Ocean" in the center

Further on is the famous Trevi Fountain, an imposing Baroque monument designed by architect Nicola Salvi. The fountain is 85 feet high and 65 feet wide, making it Rome's largest fountain. In the center is the figure "Ocean." Water pours from 24 spouts. If you're superstitious, toss a coin over your shoulder to ensure your return to Rome.

If you didn't lunch at Pizzeria da Baffetto near Pizza Navona, there's a cute little hole in the wall restaurant nearby, Ristorante Sora Lucia, which serves up delicious gnocchi for locals. Piccolo Buco is also a tiny and delicious pizzeria only one minute from the fountain.

After lunch, head down Via Sistina to the Spanish Steps. I think they're a bit overrated, but the staircase is one of Rome's iconic sites. At the foot of the steps is another famous Bernini fountain, the Sinking Boat Fountain.

As of 2019, you can no longer sit on the Spanish Steps, as it's classified as a national monument. A new law cracked down on “bad behavior” in Rome. If you're caught sitting on the Spanish Steps, you risk paying a €400 fine.

the Sinking Boat Fountain in the Piazza di Spagna in front of the Spanish Steps

the Borghese Gallery, one of the world's greatest museums

Day 2 PM: Borghese Gallery

After lunch, take in one of my favorite art museums in the world -- The Borghese Gallery. You may think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not. Incredible masterpieces are set in a stunning villa filled with frescos and marble.

The villa was commissioned in 1613 by Cardinal Scipione Borghese to house his impressive collection of Roman, Renaissance, and Baroque art. The cardinal was a fan of Bernini and helped him rise to fame. An ardent and obsessed collector, he acquired art work unscrupulous means, once stealing a painting from a convent altar in the dead of night.

You've got to make a reservation online well in advance to visit the Borghese Gallery. Only a set number of people are allowed in every two hours. Unless it's low season, you must leave after your time slot.

Your visit will start in the Pinacoteca, or painting gallery, on the upper floor. But budget most of your time for the first floor. Arrive early and only carry a very small purse or bag. Everything else must be checked, no exceptions. There are information placards in each room. But an audio guide will educate you on the must see highlights more easily.

bust of Cardinal Scipione Borghese by Bernini

Bernini, The Rape of Persephone, 1621-22 (rape meant kidnapping back then)

Bernini, David, 1624

In the Pinacoteca, you'll find some Bernini self portraits and smaller sculptures. You'll also find two of Raphael's most famous works -- The Deposition and Young Woman with a Unicorn. Both paintings are currently undergoing diagnostics for conservation work.

The bottom floor is overflowing with perfectly arranged masterpieces. The sculptures by Bernini, who almost single handedly invented the Barqoue style, steal the show. The most beautiful ones are The Rape of Persephone, Apollo and Daphne, and David.

There's also a stunning work by Antonio Canova, Pauline Borghese as Venus. And a room filled with Caravaggio's art, including his famous David with the Head of Goliath. If you want more, here's my complete guide to visiting the Borghese Gallery.

Piazza del Popolo

When you're done admiring the art, I recommend heading over to the west side of the Borghese Gardens, towards the Piazza del Popolo. The view from the terrace overlooking the Piazza del Popolo is quite beautiful, particularly at sunset.

There are some good restaurants near the Borghese Gallery, if you want to stay in the area for dinner. For gourmet food, try Oliver Glowig (Michelin-starred) or Sapori del Lord Byron. For a cozy informal setting, try Girarrosto Toscano.

Alternatively, you can take a food tour in Rome and find out what and where the locals eat.

view of Sant' Angelo Bridge and St. Peter's Basilica

Day 3 in Rome

Day 3 AM: Vatican City

Start off day 3 in Rome with a bang by visiting Vatican City. Unless you arrive on a weekend. You don't want to go on a weekend, ever. It's too crowded. So if your time in Rome falls on a Saturday or Sunday, flip flop the days of my sample itinerary around and push the Vatican to a weekday.

Unless you're there in winter, it's essential to have skip the line tickets or you'll wait for hours. You can book a guided tour or do a DIY through the Vatican museums with an audio guide.

The Vatican holds one of the world's greatest art collections. Some of the most famous art works on the planet are there. If you're an art or history lover, the Vatican is a must see site in Rome.

Much of the work was collected by Pope Julius II, who left a staggering legacy. Julius rebuilt St. Peters Basilica. He commissioned Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Rooms. In 1506, he founded the Vatican Museums.

Raphael, School of Athens, 1509-11, in the Raphael Rooms of the Vatican

The highlight of the Vatican is the Sistine Chapel, adorned with Michelangelo frescos. Michelangelo spent 4 years toiling away on the 9 ceiling panels, which depict scenes from Genesis and seem to open up the chapel to heaven. And he did it standing up, not laying down as legend holds.

In 1533, Pope Julius II summoned him back to Rome to paint The Last Judgment on the altar wall. This fresco is more monumental in style than Michelangelo's ceiling frescos. In the middle, Christ is excessively youthful and floats on clouds. He's depicted more like Apollo than the suffering bearded savior one expects.

When you're done admiring the Vatican treasures, head to St. Peter's Basilica. This is the most famous church in Christendom. Designed by Bramante, Raphael and Michelangelo, it’s a true Renaissance masterpiece.

The dome of St. Peters, designed by Michelangelo, is the tallest in the world. The basilica is the burial place of St. Peter and past popes, has the famous Bernini Baldachine altar, and Michelangelo's tragically beautiful Pieta.

detail from Michelangelo's The Last Judgment, on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel

St. Peter's Square as seen from the dome of St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter's is free to enter. If you're on your own, pick up an audio guide inside. It will take you on an hour long tour.

For just €6, you can climb up a narrow flight of stairs to inspect the dome at close range. There's also an elevator for €8. From there, you’ll have a bird’s eye view of the nave below. Continue higher to stand on the outside of the dome. This is where you have the iconic view of St. Peter's Square and a panoramic view of Rome.

When you're done Vatican-ing, head to the nearby Castle Sant' Angelo. The castle is a cylindrical beauty at the end of the Sant’Angelo Bridge. It was once Hadrian's Masoleum. It then served as a fortress, castle, and (now) museum.

enjoying Vatican City on a blustery day in Rome

view of St. Peters from the Castle Sant' Angelo in the late afternoon

It's worth going inside if you have more than 3 days. The terrace on top serves up stunning views of St. Peters and the surrounding area. But since you've only got a half day left, I recommend you take a taxi to Rome's atmospheric Trastevere neighborhood.

Day 3 PM: Trastevere

Trastevere is a village within a city, with the laidback vibes of small town Italy. Its lovely cobbled and cafe-lined streets are vastly quieter than the cacaphony of central Rome. If you haven't yet had lunch, grab a delicious panini at La Proscuitteria.

Then head to Villa Farnesina, an underrated small museum in a beautiful setting. It's only open weekdays until 2:00 pm. If you can get there at 1:00 pm, you'll have an hour, which is all you need.

This sumptuously decorated villa was built in the early 1500s for one of Europe's richest Renaissance men, Agostino Chigi. The villa has some magnificent Raphael frescos.

Raphael frescos in the Loggia of Psyche in the Villa Farnesina

12th century mosaics showing Christ and his mother flanked by saints in the Santa Maria Basilica in Trastevere

Then stroll to the Piazza di Santa Maria, which is the heart of Trastevere. Head into the Sant Maria Basilica, the oldest church dedicated to Mary in Rome. The church itself dates from the 3rd century. But it's outfitted with a 12th century Romanesque bell tower. Inside, in the apse, you can admire the beautiful 12th century mosaics.

Spend some time wandering the quaint alleys of Trastevere, admiring the golden and coral homes. Then visit the Church of Santa Cecelia. The exterior is a mishmash of architectural styles. But the interior is a luminous gold and cream combination.

It's time for happy hour. Settle in for some wine at Enoteca Ferrara. If you want to eat in Trastevere, try Ombre Rosse. Another restaurant I enjoyed is La Sora Lella on Isola Tiberna. It's one of Rome's oldest restaurants, serving up classic rustic food in a casual setting.

How To Get Around Rome

Rome is a fairly walkable city. So bring comfortable shoes. I easily clocked 10 miles a day. I'm not really a fan of the metro. It's only 3 lines, very crowded, and known for pickpocketing. The bus system was too confusing for my taste.

I thought it was easier and fastest to use taxis, if you're going a fair distance (like from the Vatican to Trastevere). Look for them at taxi stands. It's not very easy to flag them down on the street. Most will pretend they don't take credit cards, so be sure to have cash. You can also use Uber.

While I had decent luck with taxis, one place you won't fare well is Fiumicino Airport. The cabs aren't well regulated and known to rip off tourists. Arrange a private transfer with your hotel or Air Bnb host. Or take the train. The Leonardo Express leaves every 15 minutes.

Definitely don't have a car in Rome. The drivers are very aggressive and many streets are teeny tiny.

Gelateria del Teatro -- a great place for gelato and cannoli

Other Tips for Visiting Rome

Try to visit Rome in the off season. Rome is one of the world's most popular cities. It can be a chaotic crowded mess. If you must visit in high season, it's essential to invest in skip the line tickets. Otherwise, the bulk of your day will be standing in lines and you won't see nearly as much.

If you’re in Rome for at least 3 days, consider purchasing the Roma Pass. For just 38 euros, You'll have full access to public transportation, admission to two museums, and discounts on performance and exhibition tickets.

Alternatively, try the more comprehensive Omnia Rome and Vatican Card. It consists of the Roma Pass and an Omnia Card. Most importantly, it gives you skip the line access at the Vatican Museums, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Colosseum.

bridge linking Trastevere and Isola Tibernia

Be forewarned, the Vatican and many of Rome's churches have a strict dress code. If you're wearing sleeveless tops or shorts, you could be denied access. Your shoulders and knees need to be covered.

Make sure to carry cash. You'll need cash for small purchases, like gelato or espresso. Taxis also seem only to take cash.

If you're a first timer in Rome, you may want to stay in the historic center around the Pantheon or Piazza Navona. But it can be loud and crowded. If you don't mind walking, it's better to stay slightly off center. I stayed in Trastevere, which I loved. Monti would also make a good base.

For more information on Rome, check out some of my other in depth guides to must see sites and museums.

Hidden Gems in Rome

Bernini Guide to Rome

Caravaggio Guide to Rome

Guide to the Best Museums in Rome

Complete Guide to Palatine Hill

Must See Archaeological Sites & Ruins

Guide to the Famed Borghese Gallery

If you'd like to spend 3 days in Rome, pin it for later.