Ultimate guide to Rome for first time visitors

I was overwhelmed (probably for the first time) while researching on what to do in Rome. It’s an ancient and well preserved city plus the rich history and architecture makes prioritizing a daunting task. You may be walking on a random street and suddenly an impressive structure is right in front of you. For the history, architecture, food and vibe, I loved Rome. However, I hated how dirty it is so don’t be surprised by the amount of trash lying on the streets and sidewalks. It almost gives an impression of a city in ruins. Despite that I think Rome is a city that needs to be experienced. When I think about my time there, the good memories definitely overshadow some not so great moments.

How to get around Rome: Public transport is decent. I found using trains much easier and we walked a lot as well. Buses don’t run on time which makes it very unpredictable.

3 day itinerary

Day 1: Basilica Di Santa Maria Maggiore, Colloseum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish steps

We flew in from Singapore and arrived early morning. We checked into our cute apartment and freshened up. Our hosts were a middle aged Hungarian couple who helped us out and gave some great tips. Thanks to the jetlag we immediately set out to explore the city.

First stop was the amazingly impressive Basilica Di Santa Maria Maggiore, originally built in the mid 4th century (yeah most of the stuff in Rome is that old!!). I was gobsmacked by the church interiors. The frescoes, the sculptures and all the gold in the ceiling is very very beautiful. I think it’s the most beautiful church I have seen till date.

After lunch, we visited the iconic Colloseum. Make sure you buy tickets in advance and book your time slot (this is mandatory). A ticket to Colloseum also covers the Roman Forum and Palatine hill. You can choose to spend a day covering all three or like us, you can break it into two visits because the ticket is valid for a period of 3 days. So, on our first evening, we only covered the Colloseum. My impression–the structure itself is not that impressive. It’s a ruin of what was once an amphitheater in Ancient Rome that hosted games for the public including gladiator games. I think the history associated with it is much more impressive and I would highly recommend getting the audio and video guide to appreciate the history. A first century amphitheater, the largest of its kind at that time, built to entertain about 80000 spectators. Now if you combine that piece of info with what’s in front of you, you do feel the feels.

We took a leisurely stroll from the Colloseum to Piazza di Spagna via Trevi Fountain. Trevi Fountain is massive; I had not imagined it to be this big. It’s the largest baroque fountain in the city. You will like Spanish steps if you are also a fan of the movie Roman Holiday like me. That scene where Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn are chatting on the steps came to life when I saw the place. By the way, there is nothing Spanish about these steps. There is a Spanish embassy at the Piazza and hence the name for the square as well at these steps. Spolier: too many people at Spanish steps and Trevi fountain all the time!

Trevi Fountain
Spanish Steps
Piazza Di Spagna

The street theatre in Rome is super good. I can’t forget the opera singers singing ‘Time to say goodbye’ near the restaurant at which we had dinner close to Piazza di Spagna.

Day 2: Piazza del Popolo, Piazza Navona, Pantheon, River Tiber, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill

We did a walking tour with Rome’s Ultimate and would highly recommend them. The guides give great stories and snippets from history. Part of the walk is also a bit off the beaten track which makes it very enjoyable. Rome has a plethora of Piazzas or a public Plaza but Piazza Navona is the most stunning with Bernini’s sculptures. His depiction of the 4 continents and the details are mind-blowing!

Spanish steps in the morning
Trevi Fountain
Porta Del Popolo
Piazza Navona

Pantheon, another symbol of Rome, was originally a pagan temple and is now one the most well preserved buildings in the city. The dome, with an open oculus, is the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world!

Pantheon with the obelisk in front
Castel Sant’angelo across River Tiber

After the walk, we explored Palatine hill and Roman Forum. Roman Forum (now a ruin) was basically the centre of activity for the ancient Roman empire/republic. Many important government buildings of the city were located here including places of worship. It is where speeches, trials, elections etc were held. I had recently watched Roman empire on Netflix so a lot history was fresh in my mind and reading some familiar names was exciting.

Roman Forum from the Palatine hill

Palatine hill is where imperial palace was located. The royalty and the rich stayed on the hills and looked down on the commoners who stayed on the plains!

Palatine hill from the Roman Forum

My husband is a crazy football fan so when he saw tickets for AS Roma vs Sassuolo match being sold at Piazza Di Spagna in the morning he quickly bought 2. How could I say no? He was looking like a kid who just found a box of candy!! So we spent our evening watching the match (Roma won) at Stadio Olympico. It was a fun experience watching with locals.

Day 3: Vatican city and Castel Sant’angelo

We spent half a day at Vatican, the smallest sovereign state in the world and the headquarters of the Roman Catholic church. It’s located within Rome separated by walls. We did the tour with Walks of Italy and again will highly recommend these guys. It was a very organized, small group tour and our guide was super informative.

Vatican museums house a lot of art of great value right form Michaelangelo and Berinini to Raphael. The Sistine chapel with Michaelangelo’s frescoes is very impressive. A lot of jaw dropping moments during the tour so you can’t skip Vatican!

Jaw = Dropped!
Changing of Swiss guards at Vatican
Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Square

The St. Peter’s Basilica itself is massive (largest in the world) and interiors are pretty but not as beautiful as Santa Maria Maggiore.

Next stop was Castel Sant’angelo mainly for the lovely views from the roof. We then went to Terrazza Del Pincio to watch sunset over Rome. From the Piazza Del Popolo start climbing up the hill which will bring you to this terrace. I personally preferred the view from the castle–was more peaceful with fewer people and the view was across the river so more scenic in my opinion.

Vatican from the Castle
View from the terrace of the Castle
Castel Sant’angelo from Bernini’s Bridge of Angels
Bernini’s Bridge from the Castle
Piazza del Popolo
Piazza from the hill

Where to eat: I think you can walk into any eatery in Rome (and maybe Italy) and the food at worst will be average. I have not had a single cup of below average coffee or bad food during my 2 weeks in Italy. Food in Rome is just another level. Here are some of my favorite places-

1. Regoli for their traditional Roman pastries. We revisited this place because the pastries were soooo good. I still dream about them. Go earlier in the day because by evening they are sold out.

2. Monti: A cosy family owned place. Best ragu I have ever had.

3. Tre Caffe: Great for morning coffee and sandwiches

4. Pastaio Di Roma: Decent pasta and good for a quick bite which is super cheap

5. Cipasso: Great for romantic dinner in quiet alleys. Crositinis are to die for.

6. Osteria Nuvolari: Simple and good food near Vatican. Try their cacio e pepe.

7. Pompi: Must try Tiramisu. There are a number of outlets. We also tried their Canoli

8. Ombre Rosse for nice Cafe style food in Trastevere. Most eateries here will have huge queues post sunset so go early to avoid queuing up.

8. Panella: Great for coffee and pastries. Loved their Sicilian pizza.

9. Leornardo: Good option near Spanish steps. Loved the pizza, gnocchi and the opera singers!

10. Forno Feliziani: Morning coffee and sandwiches near Vatican

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