That night, I arrived late at Rome’s main train station, the Termini, and had to leave the morning from Rome’s international airport, Fiumicino, a day after – giving me around 36 hours, or one full day to run through the eternal city (and yes, I just need to put the Vatican on the list, it’s a must-see!).
So, I don’t think it’s strange at all that I use “Run!” twice in this article’s title – it was indeed a “Run! Run! Roma!” mission. We all know that this is not an ideal situation, and I am not saying this is something that I recommend; We all know one should spend at least a week to truly experience what Rome has to offer. Having said that, we all have our moments like this: we are on a time crunch, we are on a layover, or we are on a business trip that only leaves us a short time to explore the city. If you do, the following is a one-day itinerary to cover the absolute essentials in Rome, especially for first-timers.
You might ask – Is it at all doable? Luckily, the historic Roman city is not big, and it is possible to visit most of the key attractions on foot, it saves a lot of time on traffic. But again, I am not saying that this is something I recommended, this is just a plan for those on a time crunch.
Back to turning the “mission impossible” possible. The key is about precise planning, good preparations and avoiding the queues. Without further delay, let’s look at the itinerary for a short time in Rome.
1-day Rome Walking Tour
Piazza Barberini — Spanish Steps — Piazza del Popolo — Vatican Museum Guided tour (plus Sistine Chapel @ 10:30am) — Vatican Post Office — Saint Peter’s Square
Saint Peter’s Basilica — Castel Sant’ Angelo (outside) — Ponte Sant’ Angelo — Piazza Navona — Pantheon — Trevi Fountain — Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II — Roman Forum — Colosseum (outside)
Piazza Barberini to Spanish Steps
Rome – the eternal city. The city has so much history, and so many stories to tell. Angels and Demons, Eat. Pray. Love., and Roman Holiday, are some of my favorite movies that happened in Rome. As a result, many of the locations that I picked in this plan are based on the footprint of these works.
I stayed in a small hostel within walking distance to the Colosseum, but I started my walking tour at 8 am from the train station (Termini), and took the metro to the Piazza Barberini. Remember, Rome is a popular travel destination and it could get really crowded. You will have the advantage of waking up a little bit earlier to beat the crowd before everyone gets there. There, I saw three famous locations – the Triton Fountain, the Barberini Palace, and the Fountain of Bees. Since two of them were fountains and they were rather close, I admired the beauty of the art, took a few fabulous group shots (and selfies), and wasted no time heading north along the Via Sistina to the Trinità dei Monti – the church located on top of the Spanish steps.
Why are the Spanish Steps famous?
Spanish Steps were built in the 18th century (1723-1725), not only because the steps are beautifully designed, it was also a popular meeting place for artists, painters, and poets to find their muse and inspirations. Some may find the steps are actually “nothing special”, this location has a unique sentiment to the locals.
In 1986, the first Mcdonald’s in Italy was opened near the Spanish Steps – it stirred up protests against opening a fast-food chain near a place with such elegance and beauty, and eventually led to the foundation of the international Slow Food movement three years later.
Today, the steps are a perfect location where visitors can just sit on the steps, enjoy some gelato and take in the breathtaking view of Rome at the top. The steps are open to the public and they are free, so it gets crowded in the afternoon – visit there early in the morning if you want to take pictures of the Spanish Steps with a lesser crowd.
Take a walk down the steps and imagine what the artist did in the past: From Trinità dei Monti, this spot offers a great view of Rome’s old city from a higher point. Don’t forget to check out the early baroque fountain, Fountain of the Old Boat, at the lower end of the steps, it was designed by Pietro Bernini.
After I ran the steps and took some pictures, I continued my walking tour up north along Via del Babuino and arrived at Santa Maria del Miracoli and Santa Maria di Montesanto at the end of the road – they are always referred to as the ‘twin’ churches with some subtle differences.
Piazza del Popolo
I loved this plaza. Piazza del Popolo has a great open space, the morning sunlight just felt comfortable. On the other side of the plaza stood the Basilica Parrocchiale Santa Maria del Popolo. If you are a fan of the book “Angels and Demons” (I am), you would remember the Chigi Chapel in the church, exactly where the sculpture of Habakkuk and the angel was, pointing out the path of the Illuminati. The church looks rather ordinary from the outside, yet it houses a lot of artworks from great masters like Raphael, Bernini, and Caravaggio.
Anyway, I walked fast (it was “run run”), and luckily I had some time to spare. There was a viewpoint up the hill right behind the Fountain (Fontana della Dea di Roma, the viale Gabriele DÁnnunzio). It took around 10-15 minutes to walk up there but I saw a GREAT panoramic view of the Roman skyline all the way to the Giant Dome of Saint Peter’s Cathedral. – not to miss.
Coming back down in amazement, I took the metro at the Flaminio station and headed to the Ottaviano station. I said I was on a schedule; because I had an appointment with the Vatican. 🙂 Back then I had to use a facsimile for a guided tour reservation, but now, you could do it online. So, don’t miss the fortunate opportunity of using modern digital technology. The queue could be so long that you might end up queuing for hours.
Another way to skip the queue is to have a travel pass. The Omnia Card is a 72-hour pass that combines free transportation, site visit, and discount offer. Having said that, I would still highly recommend the guided tour of the Vatican because there are so many incredible works and the guided tour was quite informative.
I have to say of all the art museums I visited, Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani) was still the most core-shakingly impressive to me. Thankfully (Thank you, Thank you, Thank you) I made the decision and booked a guided tour. Paying a little bit more paid off well as the tour guide was definitely knowledgeable (and cool, not as bubbly), and she made the walkthrough much easier and more pleasant.
The museums housed the work of many greatest Renaissance artists from Leonardo da Vinci, Giovanni Bellini, Raphael, Caravaggio, Correggio to Titian. What a list of great names. Many of the artworks are Frescos (kind of like wall paintings) and I would never forget how I gasped the second I entered the Gallery of Maps. How insanely beautiful as EVERY corner of the corridor is painted, and my eyes just didn’t know which way to go.
My guided tour was around 2 hours; and after it ended, visitors may go back to the museum. Seriously, you have no idea how can so many great works (seriously great work) and art fill in one place. It is really hard to write about the Vatican as there are so, so many treasures to be explored, and I will try my best to do so in the future, I do have a list of must-sees below for now. I could easily go deeper into the detail of each influential work and create ten more articles. Since I only had a day in Rome, so sadly (huh, next time!) I had to move on to the Sistine Chapel, where I saw Michelangelo’s frescoes (I thought everyone knows?) The creation of Adam. The chapel was packed, but the painting was huge. Visitors were not allowed to take pictures, not to ruin the paintings, and once I went out of the exit, I found myself at Saint Peter’s Square already.
Vatican Museum must-sees
– which I could spend days exploring
- The Pinacoteca (Vatican’s painting gallery)
- Pio-Clementino Museum (& the Octagonal Courtyard)
- Gregorian Egyptian Museum
- Gallery of Geographic Maps
- The Pavilion of the Coaches
- The Rotunda Room and Porphyry Basin
- Apollo Belvedere (sculpture)
- Laocoön (sculpture)
- Pinecone Courtyard (and the modern art bronze sphere created by Arnaldo Pomodoro)
- The Transfiguration (Raphael’s Painting)
- The Papal Apartments
- Raphael’s School of Athens
- The Spiral Staircase
- The Tapestries Hall
- The Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, and the Creation of Adam)
To find out some other incredible traditional art galleries in the world, check out My Top 10 Classical Art Galleries in the World!
Saint Peter’s Basilica
After mailing postcards in the Vatican post office (you will see it from the way out of the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican is small after all), taking sneak photos of the Swiss Guards and their flamboyant uniforms, and having a quick lunch @ the food cart nearby the square. It’s about time to head inside the giant architecture – the Saint Peter’s Basilica. I have never seen anything that’s quite big (Of course, Saint Peter’s Basilica is the largest cathedral in the world, and it’s 4 times larger than the second-largest cathedral in the world in terms of volume), and trust me: it was impressive, jaw-dropping, wowing. I had to gasp in awe as I enter because it was just so… huge. In every corner there is a sculpture, and in every corner there is art. My heading was spinning at all angles I was worried that I broke my neck. Of course, there were thousands of artworks that were worth admiring, and I would probably go back to Rome (you will know how later) to appreciate them one by one. After the breathtaking experience in the Basilica, my Run! Run! Experience continued in Rome.
Check out more about my favorite cathedrals at the Top 16 Most Spectacular Cathedrals in the World!
Castel Sant’ Angelo to Piazza Navona
If you have a few more days in the city, I would definitely recommend you purchase a Roma Pass. It gives you free access to many local museums and it saves you time looking for queues and lining it. Leaving the Saint Peter’s Basilica, I saw the Castel Sant’ Angelo – a unique towering cylindrical building that leads to Piazza Navona. Sadly I didn’t have enough time to explore what was inside the site, so I just took a few pictures of the exterior. It is now a museum featuring a number of showcased in the courtyard, Hadrian’s mausoleum, the Pope’s apartments, Giretto and grande loggia, and the top terrace. Walked through the Ponte Sant’ Angelo across the Tevere River.
Piazza Navona is only 15 minutes away. In the center of the Piazza was the Fountain of the Four Rivers with an Egyptian obelisk (yet another key location of the story Angels and Demons), and I enjoyed some snacks and a cup of coffee in the nearby cafes and walked around the shops. Both locations (Castel Sant’ Angelo and Piazza Navona) are also featured in the storyline of Angels and Demons. Remember when Cardinal and Professor Langdon (almost) were drowned in the fountain?
Angels and Demons
If you are a fan of Dan Brown – you must know who is Robert Langdon. His adventure in the series was so intense that you may lose sleep wanting to finish the book as soon as possible. In case you don’t have the time, watch the three blockbuster movies that were played by Tom Hanks to have a taste of the Langdon’s world.
Angels & Demons is the first one to watch – because this is the first novel of the series that starts it all. The mystery thriller took places in Rome, Italy, where Dr. Langdon, partnered with beautiful CERN scientist Dr. Vittoria Vetra, in the quest to recover a missing vial of antimatter from an Illuminati terrorist, who planned on destroying the Roman Catholic Church by annihilating the entire Vatican City.
So why do I love the movie? The story is filled with brilliant plots, heart-racing catch-and-chase scenes, riddle-solving that based on ancient symbology, secret societies, and conspiracy theories, all under the backdrop of the Eternal City. Follow Dr. Langdon’s path and visit the heritage sites in Rome, from the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Santa Maria del Popolo, Sistine Chapel, Saint Peter’s Square to Basilica, Castel Sant’ Angelo and Passetto… Trust me, the movie takes you through a journey like no others; You will definitely see the paintings and sculptures, symbols, and architecture from a completely different point of view.
Pantheon & Trevi Fountain
Exiting the Piazza Navona and I continued my walk to the Pantheon – the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. It looks different from the rest of the Roman churches as it’s more ancient in the Roman Empire’s era. It was one of the most ancient religious worship places back in the 7th century.
Entry is free, and take a tour around the structure and head to the Trevi Fountain – My hotel was quite near to the fountain and so I had time to say goodbye to Rome the next morning @ the fountain – only I was there. However, in the afternoon the fountain was so crowded I had to squeeze me just to get to the edge of the pool.
Trevi Fountain and the coin toss. The fountain was originally a freshwater supply, connected to two aqueducts in ancient Rome. Several projects were launched in an attempt to beautify the fountain, and eventually, Italian architect Nicola Salvi won the commission in a design contest and began the construction in 1732. The project was completed in 1762 and remained so for more than 250 years – a 26-meter high, 20-meter-wide Baroque-style fountain that we see today.
Why is it Romantic? The fountain was featured in many iconic love comedies, including Roman Holiday, La Dolce Vita, and Three Coins in the Fountain. The award-winning movie has left quite a legacy because now, any first-timers simply must throw a coin (or three) when they visit the fountain. It is believed that throwing one coin over your shoulder guarantees a return trip to Rome, two coins would find love, and three coins symbolize wedding bells. Over 3,000 euros are thrown into the fountain every day, and the money has been donated to the needy in Rome.
Roman Forum & Colosseum
It was not enough time to enter and marvel at the Colosseum. It still looks jaw-dropping from the outside.
Colosseum: One of the New Seven Wonders of the World
The Colosseum, while I didn’t write about much in this article, it’s one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, together with Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, Chichén Itzá, and more; it is the largest ancient Rome ruins, the arena for bloody animal fights “Damnatio ad bestias”. While this sport is not continued anymore, the architectural wonder remained. The round shape arena took inspiration from ancient Greek, the two half-circle theatres are combined to form a stage with an audience platform around.
Seven Wonders of the World
So what are the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World?
- Great Pyramid of Giza, El Giza, Egypt the only one that still exists.
- Colossus of Rhodes, in Rhodes, on the Greek island of the same name.
- Hanging Gardens of Babylon, in Babylon, near present-day Hillah, Babil province, in Iraq.
- Lighthouse of Alexandria, in Alexandria, Egypt.
- Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, in Halicarnassus, Achaemenid Empire, modern day Turkey.
- Statue of Zeus at Olympia, in Olympia, Greece.
- Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, in Ephesus (near the modern town of Selçuk in present-day Turkey).
New Seven Wonders of the World
Colosseum emerged toward the end of the Roman Empire, and while Colosseum in Rome is the grandest, it’s not the only one. The construction began during Vespasianus in the year 72, and was completed until his son Titus, used it for ceremonies during that time. Further work was completed from the years 81 to 96. Originally, the Colosseum was called Flavius, it was renamed the Colosseo in the 7th century and remained so until today. While it’s been known as the performance stage of animal fights, it’s been used as a fortress in the Middle Ages, and marble and rocks were taken during Renaissance to build churches and bridges until the church stopped it in 1749.
The Roman Forum was a historic site located at the center of the city, for being the most important location of various religious, political, and social activities: like the triumphal processions and elections, the venue of public speeches, criminal trials, and gladiatorial matches, and so much more. After the fall of the Roman Kingdom, natural disasters, weathering, pollution, and people robbing stones and columns of this archeological treasure, turned the forum into ruins. However, the spirit of the site was still here, and whatever had left and survived shed light on what the once-great empire looked like.
On the way to the Colosseum before getting to the Via del Fori Imperiali, I saw the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, at the Piazza Venezia. It is a monument, a museum, and a viewing terrace, but it’s beautiful and famous (and convenient) – you gotta look at it.
Eat and dance into the night
The walking tour ends before dinner time at about 6:30 pm, and while most of the attractions are closed, it’s time to end the 10-hour craziness and look for a cutesy, sweet place for dinner and rest your legs. For some ideas about what and where to eat in Rome, check out my Rome food guide.
Travel Tips in Rome
- Of the utmost importance – The Vatican Museum Guided tour: 32 Euro (Trust me, it will worth it) http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/z-Info/MV_Info_Servizi_Visite.html
- Walking in the narrow and maze alleys and of the old city could be both exciting and confusing; Just headed in the correct direction, followed the signs, and relax – you will get to the places.
- I sugget booking a hotel near the train station for the shortest distance dragging your heavy luggage around on the cobbled road to Rome.
- Trevi Fountain / Spanish Steps are deserted in the early morning, and it has better light for pictures. It’s like a zoo in the afternoon – your choice.
- Download podcast of Rome (actually all Itlay) travel guide – it’s free! Listen to it when you are actually on site.
- Customize the route as you please – first, you need a map and make hard decisions. Be realistic, you know you cannot go to every museum.
- If you do have time, get a Roma Pass, it covers most of the entrance fees to famous museums in Rome (including the Colosseum, Castel Sant’ Angelo, etc)