Best Itinerary to Rome for first time visitors

Planning a trip to Rome? Not been before?  Read this guide for the best itinerary to Rome for first time visitors.

Mr CW promises to take me to Rome

Rome glinted and glimmered in the distance as we headed to the airport at the end of our honeymoon.  Mr CW promised that we return soon and he would introduce me to the Eternal City.  Seventeen years and two children later and we finally made it.  I relinquished my customary holiday organisation and handed over to Mr CW.  We were in Rome for three days, saw all the major sites and were not completely exhausted at the end of every day. 

Mr CW’s Best Itinerary to Rome for First Time Visitors

The Colosseum, the Forum, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, St Peters and the Vatican; these were the places that were on my list to see in Rome.  Thankfully Mr CW agreed.  Added into the list was drinking coffee and eating ice cream.  Here is Mr CW’s three day guide to Rome for First Time Visitors.

Day One: Ancient Rome here we come

Ancient Rome was on MR CWs Rome Itinerary for day one.  Comfy shoes on, water and snacks packed.  We headed off to discover  the Colosseum and the Forum.  On the way we took in the Arch of Constantine and the Vittoriano

Colosseum

Inside the Colosseum Rome

The Colosseum was the sports arena for Ancient Rome, so brilliant is its design for getting lots of people in and out quickly and then offering a tip top view that it has been copied by pretty well every stadium since.  Next time you visit Wembley take a look around you and thank the Romans for their top class planning skills.  So iconic is the Colesseum that it was on every Olympic winners medal until the Sydney games in 2000.  You will have seen pictures of the Colosseum.  You may even have visited other Colesseums around the world. But you will still be awestruck when you step into the arena.  

Whatever else you do when visiting Rome for the first time the Colesseum is one thing that you must, must do. Turns out that it is the top of lots of other peoples lists too, expect queues, really, really long queues.  To avid the queues book ahead and arrive 10 minutes before your time slot. 

  • Rome Colosseum 
  • Open: Daily 8.30am – 7.15pm (4.30pm in winter)
  • Admission:  Tickets also cover entry to the Forum and Palatine Hill.  24 hour tickets €16 plus a booking fee, there are also tickets that give 48 hour access and entry into some extra special areas but on your first visit the basic 24 hour ticket is probably enough
TOP TIP:  if your visit coincides with the first Sunday of the month you are in luck as visiting the Forum and Colosseum is FREE on the first Sunday BUT tickets are first come, first served so you will need to be up very early and be prepared to queue.

Arch of Constantine

Arch of Constantine Rome

As you stroll from the Colosseum to the Forum you will pass the Arch of Constantine.  Anywhere other than Rome this huge arch dating from the fourth century would be a major talked about landmark, it would be on all the posters.  Here is it just another magnificent monument.  Take time to look up and admire the inscription that dedicates the arch to Constantine for his wisdom.  Constantine was the emperor who made Christianity the official religion of the the Roman Empire.

  • Arch of Constantine
  • Open: All day, every day
  • Admission: Free

Forum and Palatine Hill

Forum Temple of Vesta Rome

Before visiting Rome I confess that I thought that the Forum was a building and was maybe a bit small.  How wrong I was.  Nothing had prepared me for the sheer scale of the Forum, it is bigger than many English villages.  The ruins are quite simply amazing.  Look here and you will see the Temple of Vesta where the Vestal Virgins lived, over there the Temple to Julius Caesar built just two years after his death, turn round and behind you rises the Palatine Hill site of the palace of the Emperor Augustus.  

Excavations of this enormous site did not begin until the nineteenth century and are still going on today.  The Forum is all ruins, you need quite a bit of imagination to envisage the place thronged with life but it is amazing.  The queues at the gate opposite the Colosseum can get quite long, the Palatine Hill entrance is usually less crowded and less than 5 minutes walk away.  Head toward the arch of Constantine, keep on walking down Via San Gregorio and the entrance is about halfway along the road.

TOP TIP: Take water and snacks with you when you visit the Colosseum and Forum as there are lots of places to sit but nowhere to buy a coffee/snack.

Vittoriano

Vittoriano Rome aka Wedding Cake

As you leave the Forum and leave Ancient Rome behind head toward the Centro Storico you will encounter the Palazzo lined Piazza Venezia.  Turn around a look behind you at the HUGE white marble edifice rising up between you and the Forum.  This is the Vittoriano built at the end of the nineteenth century to celebrate the unification of Italy and the new King Vittorio Emanuele II.  Some call it the wedding cake due to is vast tiered whiteness.  Right in the centre sits Vittorio Emanuele astride a horse in what is one of the world’s largest statues.  You can go inside the monument but we thought that this was a treat best saved for another time.

  • Vittoriano
  • Free to look but €17 to go inside (ticket includes the Palazzo Venezia)

Day Two Rome for First Time Visitors Itinerary

Another early start to beat the crowds on day two of our Rome for first time visitors itinerary but with lots of stops for ice cream, coffee and lunch.  Exploring the Centro Storico especially the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon is what Mr CW had planned for us on our second day.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain Rome

You will hear the Trevi Fountain way before you see it, rather you will hear the chattering crowd that surrounds it.  Everybody is trying to get close enough to throw a coin into the fountain to ensure their return to the Eternal City, whilst taking a selfie of the moment.  Don’t for a second think about not joining them.  The water gushing out fancy Baroque statues is stunning.   If you want to see the fountain without the crowds come early, before 7.30am at the latest.

  • Trevi Fountain
  • Open: all day, every day
  • Admission: Free

Pantheon

Pantheon interior Rome

The Pantheon is the most complete ancient Roman building in Rome today.  This spot has been home to a temple since 25BC. Emperor Hadrian (the same one that Hadrian’s Wall built) had the Pantheon build in AD125.  About 500 years later it became a Christian church.  Officially the Pantheon is called Basilica di Santa Maria ad Martyres and is still a church.

Look up to see the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.  Yes it is still the largest in the world getting on for 2,000 years after it was built. Lets just stop for a moment.  Not only that, it is beautiful.  Light spills into the interior from the oculus in the roof, creating shafts of light reaching down highlighting the dust motes as they go.

  • Pantheon 
  • Open: Daily 9am – 7pm
  • Admission: €15 book online, free on the first Sunday of the month

Spanish Steps

Empty Spanish Steps Trinita dei Monti

Just a set a of steps really, but what steps.  Three flights, each divided into three leading up to the church of the Trinita dei Monti.  People have been gathering on these steps just to soak up the Roman atmosphere for centuries.  However since 2019 sitting on the steps is a no no.  Sit down on one of the 136 steps and you face a fine of €250

  • Spanish Steps
  • Open: All day, every day
  • Admission: Free

Elafantino or the Elephant Statue

Bernini Elephant Statue Rome

As you zigzag through the narrow streets of the Centro Storico just behind the Pantheon in the Piazza della Minerva you can see the most wonderful elephant statue.  Bernini designed the tiny elephant with an enormous 6th century Egyptian obelisk rearing out of his back. It celebrates the reign of Pope Alexander VII showing that strength can support wisdom.  It made me smile.

  • Open: All day, every day
  • Admission: Free

Gammarelli: The Pope’s Outfitters

Gammerelli Rome Pope's outfitters shopfront

Making clerical garments is big business in Rome and the tiny streets behind the Pantheon are the centre of the trade.  If you have ever fancied owning a set of clerical robes this is the place to look.  Right next door to the elephant on Via di Santa Chiara is Gammerelli.  Every time a new Pope is elected Gammerelli send over three sets of snowy white papal garments to ensure that there will be one in the new Pontiff’s size.

  • Gammerelli
  • Open: Gazing in the window, all day, every day.
  • COST: Free

Day Three: Vatican Museums and St Peter’s

Day Three of Mr CW’s Itinerary for first time visitors to Rome was the Vatican and St Peter’s taking in a stroll along the Tiber.

Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel

The actual Vatican is home to Pope and so not open to the public.  What you can see is the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel.  Not Museum singular but Museums plural.  The Popes have acquired many works of art over the centuries and the collections range from ancient Egyptian right up the most modern of art. 

Gallery of Maps Vatican Rome
Gallery of Maps – looking up so you can’t see the vast crowds

We pre-booked tickets for as soon as the Museums opened.  We still needed to queue.  Inside the crowds were insane.  Essentially we were in what seemed to be the longest and most lavishly decorated queue in the world.  The works of art are astounding.  Step out of the main stream and you find yourself in virtually empty rooms.  Most people are here to see the Sistine Chapel. Whilst we crept through the magnificent map room many people didn’t look up from their phones, it isn’t the Sistine chapel.  

Once at the Sistine Chapel.  You are herded in, packed in like sardines. Silence and no photo taking is the order of the day.  There are Swiss Guards who shout at people sneaking a shot.  They are the unlucky ones.  Most people are chattering and taking snaps.  Your time is strictly limited and you are herded out.  Next time.  I will pay to go on an early morning tour and hopefully escape the crowds.

  • Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel
  • Open: Monday – Saturday 8am – 7pm, last Sunday of the month 9am – 2pm
  • Admission: adults €20, book online, when you get to the Vatican museums you will need to show either a digital or paper version of your ticket and proof of identity (passport).  Once booked the tickets can not be changed to a different name. 

St Peter’s Basilica

St Peters seen from across the River Tiber Rome
St Peter’s seen from the Tiber

I have to confess that we didn’t get inside St Peter’s the queues were huge …. four hours long and they can be longer.  We were besieged by touts offering to sell us fast track tours including the Sistine Chapel, when we explained we already had tickets for the Vatican Museums they had an answer for that too.  We satisfied ourselves with looking at the outside of St Peter’s and wandering round the impressive square.  Next time I will either get up very, very early or book a tour.

Walk along the banks of the Tiber

Reflection of Castel Sant Angelo Rome in the River Tiber
Castel Sant Angelo seen from the banks of the Tiber

Rome is a small city and we walked everywhere only catching trains/metro to and from the airport. Strolling along the banks of the Tiber as we made our way from the Spanish Steps to the Vatican was fantastic.  You get great views across the river to Castel Sant ‘Angelo (opera buffs will know that this where Tosca throws herself down to her death) and on to St Peter’s.

Eating and drinking in Rome

Deli Rome Olives Pesto

An important part of our visit to Rome was the food. Breakfast was coffee and tiny cakes eaten whilst standing up.  We had frequent stops for Gelato or Ice-cream.  Every place we stopped for coffee and ice-cream was delicious.  For lunch we popped in delicatessens, pointed at the meat that we wanted, watched it being carved and placed in a panini and then ate them propped up against the narrow ledges at the side of the shop.  In the evening we at pasta at places chosen at random and all excellent.  I realise this doesn’t help, but essentially every where was excellent.  

  • L’Antica Enoteca, Via Della Croce, 76b Mr CW and I headed out on our own for an aperitif at L’Antica Enoteca.  My Negroni was perfect.  When we revisit we will come back for dinner.
  • Antico Caffé Greco, Via Condotti 86. As we were staying in the building where Keats and Shelly stayed when in Rome we thought that we should go for coffee and cakes where they did.  Bryon popped into Antico Caffé Greco too.  Expensive and we were put in a back room that didn’t have the Byronic vibe of the salon we walked through to get to our table.

Where we stayed in Rome

Our Rome accommodation was pretty special.  The Landmark Trust apartment in the Piazza di Spagna.  At the base of the Spanish Steps in the building that Keats and Shelley stayed in when they were in Rome.  Read more about our Roman Room with a View here.

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