How To Spend 5 Days in Rome, the Eternal City
Endlessly inspiring and ethereal, Rome is the magical mecca of carbs and ancient architecture. It's a grand showcase of Western civilization, full of Imperial pomp and circumstance. Rome has spent centuries accumulating layers of beauty, history, and romance -- just waiting for its admirers to arrive.
Here's my recommended 5 day itinerary for visiting Rome, aptly dubbed the Eternal City. This itinerary provides a detailed step by step guide for visiting Rome. It covers Rome's must see sights and attractions, historic landmarks, magnificent ruins, secret hidden gems, and possible day trips. Everything!
Day 1: Imperial Rome, Monti, Capitoline Hill
Day 2: Centro Historico, Borghese Gallery
Day 3: Vatican City, Trastevere
Day 4: Rome Hidden Gems
Day 5: Day Trip to Tivoli or Orvieto
You may be tempted to rush through Rome in fewer than 5 days. I have myself. But Rome has so much to offer and discover -- mind blowing art, charming neighborhoods, perfect wine bars. It's better to slowly savor the wealth of art and cuisine 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 49 B.C., 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 on March 15 44 B.C., in a conspiracy with senators. Chaos ensued. 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 Rome's first emperor.
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 reviled Emperor Nero.
Nero was an infamous and profligate ruler. 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 Roman 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 Roman Forum, Castle Sant’Angelo, and Villa Adriani in nearby Tivoli.
Eventually, as a result of military overspending, over expansion, and political instability, the Roman empire slowly crumbled. The introduction of Christianity by Emperor Constantine further 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. But Rome rebounded from its medieval gloom, creating some of the most spectacular art and architecture of the Renaissance.
Perfect 5 Day Itinerary and Travel Guide for Rome
Having spent a full week rediscovering every nook and cranny of Rome on my fourth visit, I have decided ideas about the best itinerary for 5 days.
Five days is a fair amount of time to spend in Rome, especially by American standards. But, still, there's an astonishing amount to see. You'll need a plan of attack and pre-purchased tickets if you want to hit all of Rome's key cultural sites and ramble among the rubble properly.
So channel your badass gladiator and read on for the full scoop on what to see, do, eat, and gasp at 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 must see sites are the arena floor (where the action happened) and the special boxes and podiums reserved for the emperor, vestal virgins, and the senators. The top level of the Colosseum (with the peasant seats) 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 "Hypogeum" 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 incredibly interesting. 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
Palatine Hill has enough raw beauty and buried mystery to restore the rosy tint of Rome to any jaundiced eye. 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.
While you're on Palatine Hill, be sure to pop in, at least briefly, to the Palatine Museum. The museum contains statues and frescos from Imperial Palatine. The Augustus and Nero rooms are particularly delightful. Audiovisual displays reconstruct the palace's luxury.
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 want to know more about all the sites on Palatine Hill, here's my complete guide. Many of the most interesting sites can only be accessed with the S.U.P.E.R. Pass. Click here to read about exactly how to buy and use that pass.
3. The Roman Forum
After Palatine Hill, you move on to the Roman Forum, the very core of antiquity. This was where Rome shouted "Caesar has been murdered" and crowded to hear Mark Anthony's eulogy.
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 and ruins.
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 public 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 (home to the sacred flame of Rome), 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.
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 Monti's side streets. Ai Tre Scalini is a cute local wine bar. 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.
READ: Hidden Gems in Rome
When you're done in Monti, head over to the the Vittorio Emanuel II 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 around the back up 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 wonderful 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 other ancient statues.
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.
On your way, try to find the Largo di Torre Argentina. These are the ruins of the Theater of Pompey, the very spot where Caesar was assassinated.
I just wandered around the evocative Jewish Ghetto. But Rick Steves has a good stroll for this neighborhood, if you want something more structured. And I can recommend a great restaurant, Ba Ghetto, for dinner.
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, Piazza Navona, and the Pantheon along the way.
1. Campo de' Fiori
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 imprisoned in Castle Sant'Angelo and 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. There are also a cluster of contemporary art galleries near the Campo.
2. Piazza Navona
Your next stop is the Piazza Navona, sometimes called the Square of Fountains. Piazza Navona is the very symbol of Rome.
This famous square is a long rectangle, dotted with beautiful fountains designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini and outdoor cafes. It dates back to the time of Domitian, who used it as a racetrack. Today's buildings date from the 16th century.
Be sure to pop into the beautiful church of Sant'Agnese designed by Borromini. Borromini was an Italian architect who helped launch Roman Baroque architecture. Sant'Agnese Church in the Piazza Navona is one of his best works. Everyone goes to Piazza Navona and admires the striking concave facade. Most people don't step inside the church. Do it, it's free!
3. Church of Sant'Agnese and St. Louis of the French
The Church of Sant'Agnese on Piazza Navona was designed by the great architect Borromini. It's one of his best works. Everyone admires the striking concave facade, but few step inside the church.
Do it, it's free! Pink and white marble covers the walls. The bright and simple interior is filled with Baroque statues. Beautiful frescos decorate the dome.
Just one block from Piazza Navona is the Church of St. Louis of the French. You can enter for free. The Contarelli Chapel holds three stunning Caravaggio paintings. If you're an art lover, you can't miss this spot.
Then you'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 domes of St. Peter's Basilica and the Duomo in Florence. If it's raining, water falls through the oculus and drains out 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. If you're ready to grab lunch near the Pantheon, there's some exquisite food at La Ciambella.
5. Piazza Colonna
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.
6. Trevi Fountain
Further on is the famous Trevi Fountain, an imposing Baroque monument designed by architect Nicola Salvi. The fountain was immortalized in Fellin's La Dolce Vita.
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. Over 3,000 euros are collected from the fountain daily and donated to charity.
If you didn't lunch earlier, you have options. 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 Trevi Fountain. And La Prosciutteria serves up killer porchetta sandwiches.
7. Spanish Steps
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.
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 by unscrupulous means, once stealing a painting from a convent altar in the dead of night.
READ: Bernini Guide to Rome
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.
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 highlights and details, here's my complete guide to visiting the Borghese Gallery.
When you're done admiring the exquisite art, I recommend heading over to the west side of the Borghese Gardens, towards the Piazza del Popolo. The cobbled Renaissance square is home to Rome's north gate and its largest obelisk.
Pop into the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo to see two beautiful Caravaggio paintings for free. Climb the stairs to the Pincio Terrace (directly above the piazza at the end of Via del Corso). The view of the rooftops of Rome 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.
READ: Caravaggio Guide to Rome
Day 3 in Rome
Day 3 AM: Vatican City
Start off day 3 in Rome with a bang by visiting Vatican City, the spiritual and administrative center of the Roman Catholic Church. 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. It's a treasure trove of cultural and religious artifacts. Some of the most famous art works on the planet are there. If you're an art or history lover, the Vatican is an absolute 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 Vatican's Raphael Rooms. In 1506, he founded the Vatican Museums.
The real 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 Bernini's famous Baldachine altar, a plethora of Bernini sculptures, and Michelangelo's tragically beautiful Pieta.
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. Click here for other ticket and tour options.
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.
If you want to see St. Peter's tomb in the crypt, you need to sign up for a 1.5 hour tour of the necropolis. Only 250 visitors are allowed per day, so you need to reserve a spot well in advance.
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, papal residence, and (now) museum.
It's worth going inside if you're a real history buff. The Terrace of the Angel on top serves up stunning views of St. Peters and the surrounding area. From here, unless you want to burn off some pasta, I recommend taking 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 cacophony of central Rome. If you haven't yet had lunch, grab a delicious panini at La Proscuitteria (there's a branch in Trastevere as well).
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.
Then stroll to the lively 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, which has a huge wine list. You can eat here too. I had a divine puttanesca.
If you want to move on 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. You've got to make reservations for both places.
Day 4 in Rome
Day 4 AM: Tour Houses of Augustus & Livia
Today, I advise focusing on two of Rome's must see restricted archaeological sites for history buffs -- the Houses of Augustus and Livia and Nero's Golden House, Domus Aurea.
These are relatively new archaeological sites, only open certain days a week, and often skipped by tourists. But they are absolutely fascinating and boast some of the best frescos in Rome! The Houses of Augustus and Livia can only be visited with Rome's S.U.P.E.R. pass, which you can read about here. And you have to make a reservation online for a time slot.
The Houses of Augustus and Livia are the homes of Rome's first emperor and his wife. The House of Augustus was modest by imperial standards, especially given Augustus' enormous wealth. But he didn't want to appear as an over the top tyrant.
The House of Augustus is celebrated for its lavish red Pompeian frescoes. They were first unveiled to the public in 2014, the 2,000 year anniversary of Augustus' death, after years of restoration. The most exquisite frescos are in the Pine Room, the Room of the Masks, and the Room of the Perspective Paintings.
First excavated in 1839, Livia's House was attributed to her when her honorific name was found stamped on a lead pipe. Built in the first century B.C., Livia's house was actually a bit larger and grander than her husband's house.
The best preserved section is the atrium and three adjoining rooms. The central room (the tablinum) was the most richly decorated. Known as the Room of Polyphemus, it had mythological frescos showing Mercury kidnapping the nymph Io.
In the dining room, there was a stunning garden fresco that made the walls almost disappear. The fresco has flowering trees, blossoms, and flying birds in delicate faded hues of purple, blue, and yellow. The original fresco was moved to the Palazzo Massimo all Terme museum. An replica is now in the House of Livia.
If you've bought the S.U.P.E.R. Pass and want to squeeze in another site on Palatine Hill, head to Domus Transitoria. (Again, you have to reserve a specific time slot online in advance, so be organized.) The Emperor Nero's first palace was built between 60 and 64 BC. The palace had a short life. It was destroyed in the great fire of Rome in 64 BC.
But the ruins of Domus Transitoria were recently discovered, excavated, and opened for visitors in April 2019. You enter and descend a staircase to inspect the site underground. Virtual reality headsets bring the dank place to life, allowing visitors to see vignettes of the palace in its former glory.
If you're hungry, there's a good pizzeria near Palatine Hill called La Prezzemolina. Trattoria Luzzi is excellent and isn't too far afield either.