“If we could be reborn wherever we chose, how crowded Rome would be, populated by souls who had spent their previous lives longing to inhabit a villa on the Janiculum Hill.” –Francine Prose
Ah, Rome. People who have spent a lifetime there haven’t seen it all. The ruins, the art, the churches. Good heck, there’s even a city (a necropolis–a city of dead people) below the city! So how does a tourist with limited time make the most of the Eternal City?
In this post, I’ll break down the must-sees, some time- and sanity-saving tips, and some advice for actually enjoying the city, rather than just checking off the sights. And then we’ll cover some logistics.
Let’s start with the things you don’t want to miss.
These sites are the heart of Rome, where it all started. Walk in the footsteps of emperors, soldiers, slaves, and you know, regular people, from 2,000 years ago. For a more detailed overview of the history and other information about these sites, see my post Ancient Rome: Basics for Travelers.
This museum (yeah, it’s just one, but it’s called Museums–don’t ask me) houses all sorts of treasures from Ancient Rome: pottery, sculpture, jewelry, coins, etc.
And these guys, Romulus and Remus.
This is where you’ll find the Sistine Chapel, which means it’s also where you’ll find all the LINES of HUMANS. MASSES of them. But guess what? You can make a reservation ahead of time and skip to the front. Or you can book a group tour like this one. Either way, do not waste your precious time standing in that line that winds around the outside of the Vatican walls.
Note: These museums aren’t included on your Roma Pass.
Anyway, you wouldn’t know it from the way people rush through these halls and galleries, but there is actually so much more to the Vatican Museums than the Sistine Chapel. I particularly love the hall of maps that show how Italy’s cities and borders have changed over time. Aside from being fascinating, they’re beautiful, at least to this italophile. Oh, and the ceiling along the way is no big deal. Just kidding, it’s obviously a show stealer, as all Italian ceilings seem to be.
What stood out to me most about the Vatican Museums were all these sculptures shoved haphazardly to sides and corners of the corridors. In any other museum in the world, any one of these little treasures would be displayed proudly and prominently. But not here. This place is oozing so much art, they literally have no place to put it. These are photos of beautiful abundance.
The giant tapestries. Am I the only one amazed by this medium?
At the end of the corral–I mean Vatican Museum–you enter the Sistine Chapel (where photos are not allowed). Take your time to study and enjoy and appreciate the work that went into its creation (this book is a huge help). My wish for you is a place on one of the coveted benches, in between non-sweaty people who smell like petunias.
Okay, pay attention, because I’m about to save you more time! If you want to see St. Peter’s (and you do) don’t exit the Sistine Chapel through the regular exit. If you do, you’ll end up outside and back in a long line to get inside the Basilica. Instead, exit through the door that says Tour Groups. Walk down the stairs and they will deliver you into a space that will knock your ever-loving socks off. Welcome to St. Peter’s Basilica.
No amount of photos or Rick Steves videos could have prepared me for the splendor of this building. I’m not a religious person, but St. Peter’s honestly moved me, from the moment I entered it until long after I left. I ambled the streets in an awed daze for awhile. The magnitude of the Basilica dwarfs the visitor. The luxury and workmanship and opulent detail in every corner overwhelm–in the best way. I could wander the chapels and study their stories for hours.
Here’s Bernini’s baldacchino. It’s just so much bigger than I ever comprehended before I stood next to it.
A list of all the popes, going back to St. Peter.
Here’s a view from the entrance (which is not where you will be entering).
If you want to hike to the top of the cupola (hint: you do), it costs 6 euros for the stairs and 7 for the elevator (bring cash). If you can, I recommend the stairs. There’s nothing like walking up a 12-inch-wide staircase while bending to the right with the curve of the dome to make the experience completely legit.
This is from the gallery inside (shot through the fencing).
And these are the mosaics along the gallery wall.
Take a breather before your final ascent.
And seriously, these are the stairs on the last stretch (this was on my way down). Crazy.
And this. This is what it’s all about. My God, it’s amazing. I love this city.
After you come back down, you’ll get one last pass through the Basilica. Don’t miss Michelangelo’s Pieta. Again, I’ve studied this sculpture and always loved it. But being in its presence was awe inspiring, even for a heathen like me.
These are the Swiss guards outside St. Peter’s. They’ve been guarding the Vatican since the late 15th century. And even though Switzerland outlawed foreign military service in 1874, their constitution makes an exception for these guys.
And the facade.
The Borghese Gallery is the collection of Scipione Borghese, a cardinal that had a flair for the dramatic. That’s why he loved the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Baroque sculptor extraordinaire. But you’ll also find some rooms painted by Raphael, as well as works from Caravaggio, Titian, and Rubens.
The Borghese Gallery is included on your Roma Pass, BUT you must make an appointment. Not just to skip the line, but to enter at all. They only let in a set number of people for each time slot, so if you don’t plan ahead, you won’t get in. And that would be an absolute travesty, because this is THE museum for baroque painting and sculpture. It’s one of my favorite art museums ever. (What can I say? I like drama.) They have an online reservation system, but you can’t use your Roma Pass with it. You have to call: +39 06 32810. They’re open Monday to Friday, 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, and Saturdays, 9:00 am to 1:00 pm.
You only get two hours here before they kick you out. So it’s not a bad idea to scope out the works you don’t want to miss. Here are some goodies.
Bernini’s Rape of Persephone
Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne
The level of detail and movement is incredible. This is marble, people. Stone.
Madonna and Child with St. Anne, by Caravaggio. (That dude has a super dramatic life story. Check it out.) Amazon link.
Okay, now that we’ve hit the must-sees, I’m going to tell you my secret for planning a super satisfying visit to Rome. Are you ready for this?
Don’t plan anymore. This city is crawling with beauty and character and history and surprises around literally every corner. And it’s pretty compact. If you wander enough, you’re bound to find a lot of great stuff. So just start strolling. Here are some of the things you’ll likely bump into.
The Spanish Steps
Campo dei Fiori
The Trevi Fountain. I really hope your view is better than mine, although it was pretty cool to get right up close to the action.
Unintentional vignettes that just happen to be gorgeously Italian.
Monument to Vittorio Emanuele, first King of Italy
Inside is the Museum of the Italian Reunification. I wandered in and happily dropped 5 euros. I was literally the only person there, which was too bad. Did you know Italy as we know it is younger than the United States? They were only unified in 1860. It’s an inspiring story, and I never would have put it on my list, but I’m so glad I stumbled onto it.
Close up with the carabinieri. Fun fact: My great grandpa was a carabinieri.
The views from the monument are gorgeous. So much Italian pride up in here.
Oh, and you get great views of the ruins, like this one of Trajan’s Forum.
And the Roman Forum.
And there’s the Colosseum in the background.
There are beautiful churches on every corner in Rome, and they all have unique artwork and histories. Step inside and check them out! You won’t regret it. If nothing else, it’s a nice break from the crowds and noise. These less frequented churches are peaceful and serene.
Santa Maria in Cosmedin
These are St. Valentine’s relics. Yeah.
La Bocca della Verita, the Mouth of Truth. If you’ve seen Roman Holiday and/or Only You, you know that this photo is evidence of my truth-telling. If I were lying, it would bite my hand off! See? You can trust me.
There is a line for this photo, but not for the church itself, which is free. My only advice is that you not wear a loose, flowy shirt and then lean to the side, because it makes you look like a balloon in the photo you’ve been dreaming of since you were a Robert-Downey-Jr-obsessed teenager trying to pull off Marisa Tomei’s little red scarf habit (spoiler: I couldn’t do it). See Exhibit A:
Trastevere is a little residential neighborhood across the river from the big city part of Rome. It’s adorable. You probably want to wander over here. Some people say it’s the sweet, charming, “true” Italy part of Rome. I wouldn’t say it’s like a remote village or anything, but it’s definitely different from the city and worth a stroll.
I don’t want to shock you, but you’ll find more churches there, too. This is Santa Maria in Trastevere. But for real, I love churches. And like I said, I’m a straight up heathen. Go figure.
And how cute is this? This little puppet is legit painting that picture. So Italy.
Here’s how to make it all happen:
Transportation from Fiumicino to Rome: Take the Leonardo Express train. It’s nonstop, about 30 minutes, and only 14 euros.
Where to stay: I stayed at the Hotel Regina Baglioni. It’s a boutique hotel with lovely traditional Italian decor. Very clean and classy. And the location can’t be beat, right next to the Villa Borghese.
Where to eat: As a traveler, I don’t find specific restaurant recommendations very useful. I end up wasting time getting to them, and in the process I walk right past dozens of equally delicious places. So my advice for Rome is to eat all the pizza. I love Roman pizza so much more than Neapolitan pizza (which is what you’re probably used to if you live in the U.S., even when you eat authentic Italian pizza.) In Rome the crust and toppings are totally different. This post has a breakdown of the differences. Bonus: pizza is inexpensive and you can eat it while you’re wandering the city. (Same goes for gelato. Eat all of that, too.) For dinner, just stay away from any place near hot tourist spots and any place that has a guy outside trying to convince you to come in.
*Critical note about entering Italian churches: Many churches in Italy, including St. Peter’s Basilica, require that your knees and shoulders are covered in order for you to enter. They will not let you in if you aren’t dressed to code. If it’s a hot day and you’re wearing a tank top, just be sure to bring a pashmina or something to cover your shoulders. It would be so sad if you were one of the many people who are daily denied entry after standing in line for hours (except you’re not going to stand in line for hours, because of what we’ve already talked about. But you will lose your reservation.)
Lots of cities have one of these deals. It’s the pass you buy that gets you into several different attractions, and I usually think they’re a great deal. The Roma Pass is 38.50 euros for a 72-hour pass and 28 euros for a 48-hour pass. It covers dozens of attractions, the first two are free with the 72-hour pass, and the first one is free with the 48-hour pass. After that, you can purchase discounted tickets for any other places on the list. Roma Pass also covers all of the city’s public transportation from the time you first use it until the hour that it expires.
I’m gonna be really honest with you and say that I’m not so sure the price is always worth it. Depending on which attractions you decide to visit, you may or may not recoup your money. BUT I would absolutely buy it anyway, and the reason is the skip-the-line privileges at the Colosseum. You’ll understand when you see the schmucks who didn’t plan ahead, standing in the regular line for actual hours while you get to skip up to the Groups entrance. When you have limited time in a city you may never visit again, time is money. So even if you fall short a couple euros’ worth of free or discounted admissions, the hours you save make it well worth it.
Don’t bother purchasing the Roma Pass online. You still have to pick it up at a PIT (tourism point of sale), so you might as well just buy it there. You can also buy at Trenitalia offices and several subway stations. I got mine at Termini, which is the station where you’ll likely land coming in on a train from Fiumicino. Easy as pie.
Phew! If you made it this far, I hereby award you a virtual Golden Kiss for fortitude.
Do you have any questions or tips for first-timer’s in Rome?
*This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you.
Ready for your solo mom vacation?
Get your FREE Mom's Flight Out manifesto and commit to making room in your life for solo travel.