Given that I arrived late at the Termini and left in the morning from Fiumicino a day after – technically, I only had just one full day to run through the eternal city on this trip (and yeah, right that includes the Vatican, but it’s a must-see!).
So, I think you wouldn’t disagree if I use “Run!” twice in the title – it was indeed a “Run! Run! Roma!” experience. After all, not everyone had seven days to spend a vacation in one place (although Rome definitely needs that much time). It is just to share my own experience and point of view here, as I believe there is always a time wanderlust had only a day or two in one place for business or transit and want to do the impossible, and wonder if they would go back in the future.
You might ask – Is it at all doable? The historic Roman city is not big, I managed to go through the essentials on foot in 1 day – at least, that’s what I did – But again, I am not saying I recommended it, this is just for those who had a short time in Roma, and want to get as much as possible.
Back to turning the “mission impossible” possible. The key is about good planning, preparations and avoiding the queues. The following is my crazy itinerary in case the same “one-day” situation dawn on you one day. 😛
Piazza Barberini > Spanish Steps > Piazza del Popolo > Vatican Museum Guided tour (plus Sistine Chapel @ 10:30am)> Vatican Post Office > Saint Peter’s Square > Lunch
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)
8:00 AM Piazza Barberini to Spanish Steps
Rome – the eternal city. It 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 with the backdrop of Rome. Therefore, many of the locations that I picked are based on the footprint of these works.
I stayed in a small hostel within walking distance to the Colosseum, but I started off @ 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? The steps were built in the 18th century (1723-1725), and because the steps are beautifully designed, it was a popular meeting place for artists, painters, and poets to find their muse and inspirations. So, 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.
Take a walk down the steps and imagine what the artist did in the past: I looked down the steps from Trinità dei Monti and it offers a great view of Rome’s old city from a higher point. I reckoned I was rather lucky because the place was quiet and deserted at ~ 9 am. It gets really crowded in the afternoon. Don’t forget to check out the early baroque fountain, Fountain of the Old Boat, at the lower end of the steps, it’s 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.
9:00 AM 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, and 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.
10:00 AM The Vatican
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 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 for all the art museums I visited, the Vatican Museum (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.
The tour was around 2 hours; and after it ended, visitors may go back to the museum. Seriously, you have no idea that how can so many great works (seriously great work) and art fill in one place. I could easily go deeper into detail of each influential work and create ten more posts (someday!). 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.
Some 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)
Check out more about my favorite cathedrals at My Top 12 Cathedral in Europe (2)!
1:30 PM Siant 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. Every corner there is a sculpture, and every corner there is an art. My heading was spinning at all angles I was worried that I broke my neck. Of course, there were thousands of artworks that 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.
2:45 PM Castel Sant’ Angelo to Piazza Navona
If you have a few more days in the city, I would definitely recommend you to purchase a Roma Pass. It gives you free access to many local museums and it saves you time looking for queues and lining in 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’s inside the site, and 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 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?
3:45 PM 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’s one of the most ancient religious worship place back in the 7th century.
Entry is free, and take a tour around the structure and I headed 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 me was there. However, in the afternoon the fountain was so crowded I had to squeeze myself just to get to the edge of the pool.
Trevi Fountain and the coin toss. The fountain was originally a fresh water 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 guarantee 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.
4:45 PM Roman Forum
It was a run! run! Roma, so I knew I had no chance going into the Colosseum (that day! But looking at it outside, still drop your jaws); Walk through the Roman Forum is free (future note: heard that not anymore after I went! Oh no, and I am shocked!). I didn’t waste any sunlight and headed south from the Trevi Fountain afterward. 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.
So I supposed at 6:30 PM (Roman Forum closes) it’s time to end the 10-hour craziness and look for a cutesy, sweet place for dinner and rest your legs.
Check out more about my pick of the world’s top 10 art galleries!
Some Travel Tips for You
- 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 suggest 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)