Three Days in Rome

What to see and do if you only have three days to spend in Rome, Italy

Note: This is the itinerary to follow if you actually have three full days in Rome. I say that because many of you will be arriving in Rome from somewhere else to start your Italian vacation, in which case—sad to say—you don't actually have three full days to spend here, since much of that first morning will be spent arriving (at the airport or train station), perhaps clearing customs, getting into town, and settling into your hotel.

Below is the itinerary if Rome is just another stop on your itinerary and you genuinely have three full days to spend. (This separate page has a three-day itinerary for those arriving in Rome on "Day 1.")

Day 1 in Rome

The Sistine Chapel cieling
The Sistine Chapel cieling.
MORNING: Be up bright and early so that you beat the legions of tour buses to the grandiose church of St. Peter's Basilica, which opens at 7am.

See Michelangelo's Pietà and the other amazing sights inside, and tour the tombs of popes under the basilica before climbing its dome (opens at 8am) for a panoramic sweep of the city across the river.

By 9am, have exited the church, turned left under the start of the colonnade surrounding St. Peter's Square out front, and be walking around the Vatican walls to get to the entrance to the world-famous Vatican Museums, which open at 9am.

Spend the rest of the morning amid its artistic wonders: the Pinacoteca painting gallery with Raphael's Transfiguration and Caravaggio's Deposition; the Raphael Rooms; the famous antiquities of the Pio Clementino Museum; and Michelangelo's incomparable Sistine Chapel ceiling.

AFTERNOON: By early afternoon, start making your way south toward the the medieval Trastevere district (I suggest walking, and pausing at Da Giovanni for lunch along the way).

As you get into Trastevere on Via della Lungara, you'll pass the Galleria d'Arte Antica-Palazzo Corsini on the right (fine Old Masters paintings... though if you're all art-ed out after the Vatican, I won't tell anyone you skipped it), and the amazing Villa Farnesina on the left (well worth 30 minutes of your time).

In Trastevere proper, make the rounds of its famous churches, including Santa Cecilia in Trastevere and Santa Maria in Trastevere.

EVENING: Otherwise, just wander the tangle of cobblestone alleyways before finding a trattoria for dinner—shouldn't be hard; Trastevere has the highest concentrations of restaurants in Rome.

Day 2 in Rome

MORNING: Yesterday was all about Christian Rome; today it's time for ancient Rome.

Start with a baroque jewebox of a site, the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria which has some fabulously tehatrical Bernini sculptures.

Stroll southeast on Via E. Orlando to the elegant traffic circle of Piazza della Repubblica and check out Santa Maria degli Angeli flanking its north side (converted by Michelangelo out of a section of the ancient Baths of Diocletian).

Continue southeast on Via d. Terme di Dicleziano to spend an hour amid the antiquities of the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme branch of the Museo Nazionale Romano.

Retracing your steps a bit, a hundred meters in front of the museum (left side of the street) is the Terme Diocleziano stop for the 84 bus headed through Piazza dei Cinquecento. It will turn down Via Cavour; get off just after the road bends to the right at Cavour/Annibaldi (5 stops).

Climb up the steps of the tunnel-like street leading up off the left side of Via Cavour to get to the tiny piazza hiding the famous church of San Pietro in Vincoli were you can see Michelangelo's Moses. Retrace your steps back down through the tunnel to Via Cavour, turngin left, and having a light lunch in in the old-school wine bar Cavour 313.

AFTERNOON: Continue down Via Cavour to Via dei Fori Imperiali and the Imperial Forums (the best bit of them, Trajan's markets, are up to your right) and try to arrive at the Roman Forum by 2pm.

Spend an hour or so wandering the ruins where orators once held forth, senators debated, and Julius Caesar strode the streets, and climbing up to see the ruins of the imperial palaces on the Palatine Hill.

By 3pm, be out the Forum's southeast entrance above which looms the adjacent icon of Rome: the Colosseum. You just kind of look at it, take a peek inside at the floor plan, and you're done (save time in the often long lines by booking your entry ahead).

Next to the giant amphitheater, between it and the Forum exit you used earlier, is the Arch of Constantine (which many people don't even see when they first walk right pass it, since the Colosseum is filling their view).

If you manage to get out of the Colosseum by 4pm, you're in good shape and have time for both of the next sights. If it's closer to 5pm, you only have time for one, so pick.

  1. Walk around the back of the Colosseum and a few long blocks southeast along Via San Giovanni in Laterano to tour the church of San Clemente, with medieval mosaics glittering in the apse, Renaissance frescoes in the chapels, and a door off the gift shop leading down to the first of several basements that provide an unparalleled tour through Rome's layer cake of history: below the current, medieval church is a 4th century church, and below that is a pagan temple to Mithras and the remains of several ancient Roman buildings, streets, and the splashing waters of a still-functioning aqueduct (go ahead and fill your water bottle; the water is clean, cold, and delicious).

  2. Catch bus 60 to head back up Via dei Fori Imperiali to Piazza Venezia (2 stops), at the north end of the Forum. Nearby is the elevated square Piazza del Campidoglio, where the Capitoline Museums will entertain you with ancient sculptures and Renaissance and baroque paintings until 7pm.

EVENING: Make sure that before sunset you nip around the back of the right side of the central building on Piazza del Campidoglio where you're treated to a surprise panorama of the Forum from above, with the Palatine Hill and the Colosseum as a backdrop.

Day 3 in Rome

MORNING: Spend the day exploring the heart of the city, the Tiber Bend area, the Tridente/Spanish Steps, and Villa Borghese park.

Just north of the gracious, fountain-studded Piazza Navona, sits the frescoed Renaissance villa of the Palazzo Altemps, now housing a gaggle of fabulous antiquities as a branch of the Museo Nazionale Romano.

Heading south past the church of Sant'Agostino (works by Caravaggio and Raphael inside) and San Luigi de Francesi (more great Caravaggios) you come to the courtyard hiding the curly-cue dome atop Sant'Ivo.

Walk through the courtyard, past the church, and out the east side of the building to Piazza Sant'Eustachio, home to the most famous cappuccino in Rome at the Caffé Sant'Eustachio.

The dome inside the Pantheon
The dome inside the Pantheon.
Just a bit farther east is the noble Pantheon, the only ancient Roman temple to survive the millennia virtually intact and one of the best sights in all of Rome (if you skip everything else on this day, at least see the Pantheon).

The area around the Pantheon is the best spot in Rome for ice cream fans, so don't forget to try some gelato (Italian ice cream) in between the sights (gotta keep your strength up, after all).

Just south of the Pantheon, on the piazza with the Bernini statue of an elephant carrying a tiny obelisk on its back, rises Santa Maria sopra Minerva, a gothic church decorated by Michelangelo and Filippino Lippi.

This is a good time—and a good area—for some lunch—perhaps at Enoteca Corsi.

AFTERNOON: After lunch, perhaps pop into the formerly private art collection in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj before heading north, past the baroque optical illusions in the church of Sant'Ignazio and the ancient Roman Column of Marcus Aurelius.

Across Via del Corso to the left is Largo Chigi, where you can grab bus 52 or 53 to the Pinciana/Museo Borghese stop (8 stops; you'll see a park across the street called the Villa Borghese).

Enter the park and take the first path on your right (Viale di Museo Borghese) to get to the Galleria Borghese by 3pm (TIP: you will need to purchase tickets in advance for this; see the "Before You Leave" sidebar at the end of this itinerary). Tour its collections of amazing early Bernini sculptures and Raphael and Caravaggio paintings until the museum closes at 5pm.

The evening passeggiata along Rome's Via del Corso.
The evening passeggiata along Via del Cors
Make your way through the Villa Borghese park to the top of the lively Spanish Steps. Mingle for a while, then window shop down fashionable Via dei Condotti and the surrounding streets.

If you make it all the way north to Piazza del Popolo before the fabulous church of Santa Maria del Popolo at the far end of the square closes (works by Raphael, Caravaggio, and Bernini inside), so much the better.

Before you leave home:
 Book plane tickets
 Book hotels
 Check train times
 Book entry tickets:
  Definitely: Galleria Borghese, Papal audience
  Recommended: Colosseum, Vatican
 Practice your Italian

EVENING: By the time you get to the Corso, one of Rome's main drags, the evening passeggiata see-and-be-seen stroll will be in full swing and you can strut your stuff with the Romans until it's time for a hearty and well-deserved dinner in the Old City.

Before you turn in for the night, be sure you stroll to the famous Trevi Fountain, into which it is tradition to toss a few coins in order to ensure that, one day, you'll return to the Eternal City.

Tips & links

This is merely a blueprint

You really should spend your time on whatever catches your own interest. Some people would rather get a root canal than spend a day strolling the boutique-lined streets radiating from the Spanish Steps, but for others a day of window-shopping would rank as the highlight of their trip. Same goes for cramming a dozen churches and museums into a single day: heaven for some, hell on earth for others. For some less-famous sights to visit, check out Reid's List: Rome.

Adjusting the schedule

Keep in mind that you may have to adjust these itineraries in case one of the days you're in town happens to fall on a Monday (when most museums are closed) or a Sunday (when many things are closed, and those that remain open tend to operate on shorter hours). » more

Save time by booking ahead

You can avoid long lines to get into the Colosseum and the Vatican Museums—and ensure entry to the Galleria Borghese, which releases a limited number of tickets per day—by paying a few euro extra to reserve tickets and an entry time before you leave. Also, you have to book (free) papal audience tickets in advance. » more

Considering an alternative day in Rome

All these itineraries are designed for the first-time visitor who wants to be sure he or she gets to all the highlights—all the must-sees.

But what if you want to avoid the crowds that pack those highlights, or you've already done the Vatican, St. Peter's, the Forum, and the Colosseum and are looking for less famous—but still rewarding—sights?

As luck would have it, I have whipped up Reid's List of Rome sights and experiences devoted entirely to this purpose.

These are sights from the B-list (sometimes the C-list) that I happen to love and that are definitely worthy of your time—in some cases, perhaps more worthy than some of the more famous sights

If you're arriving in Rome by ship (or, more accurately, arriving into Civitavecchia, which is the cruise ship port for Rome but is actually located an hour north of the city), you are not prisoner to the cruise ship's overpriced shore excursions. You can arrange your own tour (or your own transport into Rome), either with our partners at Viator.com, or completely D.I.Y. » more

Consider daily tours

Prefer to leave some of the planning and information-providing to a professional? Consider signing up for a guided tour—doesn't have to be a standard bus tour; our partners at Viator and Context Travel offer loads of neighborhood and thematic walking tours, private guides, and other fun ways to explore the capital as well. » more

How long does Rome take?

Planning your day: Rome wasn't built in a day, and you'd be hard-pressed to see it in that brief a time as well. Still, you can cram a lot into just a day or three.

To help you get the most out of your limited time in the Eternal City, here are some perfect itineraries, whether you have one, two, three, or four days to spend in Rome.

» Rome itineraries

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