Rome has a way of capturing your heart from the moment you set foot in the city. Maybe it’s the history you see everywhere you look. Maybe it’s the food, where it’s near impossible to find a bad meal. Maybe it’s the spiritual feeling you have being surrounded by some of the greatest religious sites of major religions both ancient and new. Maybe it’s the narrow streets that encourage walking and makes you feel like it’s nothing to walk miles in a day. It could be a magic blend of all of this combined. Regardless, Rome has a way of captivating you. I’ve put together this guide to help you plan your trip so you can focus more on the magic of Rome, Italy when you are there.
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The first time I stepped foot in the city of Rome, I was 22 years old, single, and on a backpacking trip with my best friend. We stayed in cheap hotels and hostels, eating picnic lunches from the supermarket, and working to spend as little money as possible while exploring this amazing city. The next time I visited – 21 years later – I was traveling on a rare couple’s trip, away from children and (most) of the stressors of life, exploring this city (with a bigger budget than I had years ago). It was a different trip, but it was no less magical. The information in this guide is more geared towards a couples trip, but can easily be adapted for a trip with teens or older kids.
How to Get to Rome
Rome is a major world destination, so it should easy to get to Rome from anywhere in the world.
- Flying – You will fly into FCO airport. The airport is quite outside the city limits so plan accordingly. It will take 30-60 minutes to get into the center of town from the airport. The cheapest option is a bus to Rome Termini, the main train station. There is an express train from the airport to Rome Termini. Finally a taxi, the most expensive options, (it cost us ~60€) but you can go directly to your hotel. (My husband was on a business trip, so we choose this option)
- Train – Europe has a fantastic train system that connects all the countries together via high-speed rail and Italy is no exception. There are several high seed trains that will take you to Rome Termini, the main station that is very close to city center. From there you can easily get a bus, taxi, or walk to your hotel. Note, this area is known for pickpockets so as I tell my children “Walk with a sense of urgency!”, keep a hand on all your stuff, and move on from there as quickly as possible.
- Car – You can drive to Rome…to an extent. Note that almost all of the city center is what is called a Black Zone, meaning you need to be a taxi, delivery van, or have a special permit to drive in that area. It’s part of why the city is so walkable. However, it is not very drivable. If you are driving in, stay in a hotel further out that offers parking, and expect to have to take mass transit in to all the places you want to see.
Major Sites to Visit
Rome was founded in 753BC, and throughout its history has been a major hub in the European Continent. First founded by the Romans, one of the world first major empires, it regained importance in the middle ages, when it became the home of the pope, the leader of the new religion called Christianity. Thanks to its importance throughout history, Rome is steeped in it. When thinking about where to visit Rome, you will want to think about it in a few key groups
Rome is the home and birthplace of one of the greatest empires in the ancient world. Being in the birthplace means that you have thousands of ruins you can see embedded all over the city.
- Colosseum – This is the most famous spot in Rome and a must visit. However, being a crowded spot, expect lines to be long. It is highly suggested you get a timed entry ticket to avoid waiting hours in line for especially during the busy season. We chose to book a guided tour through GetYourGuide. Having a guide gave meaning to the ruins and helped us understand what you are looking for and can get you to the good spots to take photos. If you choose to go independently, I highly suggest you download an audio guide such as Rick Steve’s free Audio Guide of the Colosseum.
- Roman Forum – Right next to the Colosseum, this is one of the largest sites in Rome of Roman era ruins. There are ruins of temples, the original living area of the Roman popes (religious leaders) and their gardens, and the burial plot of Caesar. Many of the guided tours through GetYourGuide include the Roman Forum with the Colosseum, which is how we choose to explore the area. Rick Steve’s also has a free Audio Guide of the Forum in his Rick Steve’s Europe App.
- Pantheon – An ancient temple to all the Gods that has managed to be maintained throughout the centuries. It was saved when Christianity decided to turn it into a church. The huge dome was built by the ancient Romans and has a hole in the roof, which is the temples only source of light. Today it is both a church, a testament to the Romans, and even the burial ground of famous Italian painters and royalty. It’s free to enter, but note you must dress modestly (no shoulders showing, cover the knees). You can follow Rick Steve’s free audio guide off his Rick Steve’s Europe App to better understand the temple.
Rome is also the head of Christianity, where the pope settled and lives. As you can imagine there are thousands of churches all over the city being so close to the seat of power. You cannot leave Rome without experiencing some of its remarkable religions’ sights.
- Vatican Museum – The Vatican is the home to the Pope, and a seat of the Catholic religion. Settled since medieval times, Vatican City was designated a separate sovereignty in 1929. Today, after going through security, you can visit the Vatican Museums, which houses such treasures as the Tapestry Room, the rooms painted by Rafael, and more. This is also how you can access the Sistine Capel and marvel at the ceiling painted by Michelangelo. I highly suggest at a minimum, to download an audio tour from Rick Steves, as there are few markers in the museum. We choose to do a guided tour with GetYourGuide, where the tour guide explained the art in amazing detail. In addition, those who enter the Vatican with a guided tour are taken out a different entrance in the Sistine Chapel, which skips the security line for Saint Peters Basilica.
- Saint Peters Basilica & Dome – Saint Peters Basilica was built over where Saint Peter was crucified. It’s a massive structure, so massive there are actually markers on the floor to show where other major churches in the world would fit inside. Even as massive as it is, it can still feel quite small so you don’t realize it’s scale. You will see amazing art by Michelangelo and Botticelli and can even visit monuments to more recent popes such as Pope John XXIII (who brought in Vatican II reforms), and Pope John Paul II. One of the most amazing experiences is to go up to the Dome. There are no skip the line tickets for the Dome, so be prepared to wait. But once you take the elevator to the top, you get an idea of exactly how massive and high that dome is. You can also choose to climb an additional 300+ steps to the very top and get a view of Rome, but I choose to save my knees instead. We used Rick Steve’s audio tour of Saint Peters to understand what we were seeing, but you can just as easily just sit and take in the beauty and feel the spirituality of the place. There were also several guided tours you can book through a site such as GetYourGuide or WithLocals.
- Sant’Agnese in Agone – This church created by Borromini, a student of Bernini, is located in the center of Piazza Navona. I entered this church during one of my solo exploring days and literally lost my breath the minute I stepped in. Every inch is covered in beautiful art work, statues, and details. You didn’t know where to look, there was so much all around. I took a few minutes to sit, pray, and enjoy being in such a beautiful place. Worth stopping since you are sure to be in this plaza.
Plazas and Fountains
Rome, while a large city, has the feel of a small town as it’s broken into many neighborhoods where people are known to gather at the piazzas and walk, people watch, attend the market, and meet with their neighbors. Piazzas are THE place to people watch. Due to the aqueducts which the Romans built to bring water into the city, many of the piazzas have public fountains, which the townspeople used to use to get their water from. There are still plenty of free public fountains all around the city where you can fill up your reusable water bottle and get fresh, clean and free water!
- Piazza Navona – A beautiful long plaza that was at one point a chariot racing track. It’s known for the Sant’Agnese in Agone church, the beautiful fountains, and of course the 3 fountains made by Bernini. Make sure to sit at a café in this plaza and get a coffee or drink, then just watch the people go by and drink in the culture.
- Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi – The 4 Rivers Fountain is one of Bernini’s most famous fountains. Right in the center of Plaza, it has a tall obelus, and four men who represent the major rivers in the 4 (at the time known) areas of the world: Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. It’s beautiful to look at and you should make sure to walk all around to admire each piece.
- Trevi Fountain – Built in the 1700s, this fountain was made famous by the movie Roman Holiday. Legend has it that if you throw a coin in over your shoulder, you will return to Rome one day. I did it in 2002 and made It back 20 years later! One warning, this fountain plaza was by far the most crowded out of all the places I went to. There was never really a time when it was not crowded, not even when we went at 10pm at night. It is also known to have a lot of pickpockets. So make sure to go, to throw in a coin, but to also keep your hands on your pockets and bags, and leave as soon as you can.
- Plaza Campo de’ Fiori – This beautiful square has a market in the mornings that’s worth visiting. The market has fabulous cured, salted meats, cheese, different oils, vinegar and sauces to buy, some freshly squeezed juices, and that’s just the food! There was also clothing, and other trinkets geared toward locals. We loved wandering the market and brought home a ton of fun treats for home.
- Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps – Piazza di Spanga, or the Spanish Plaza, was created in the 1600s and was named such becuase of it’s closeness to the Spanish embassy. The steps are famous mostly for being beautiful, but functionally, they do take to the top of a steep slop to the front of a French Church. Many come for the Instagram photos, but don’t miss the Bernini sinking boat fountain at the bottom of the steps.
Additional Hot Spots
There are a few places you may want to visit in Rome, if you have extra time, that are not usually listed in the top spots, but are worth the visit.
- Jewish Quarter – Rick Steve’s has an audio guide about the Jewish Quarter and I decided to follow it along during one of my free days. Right by the Ponte Fabricio, there is the massive Jewish temple, purposely built on the spot that was once the forced Jewish Ghetto. In this area do you not only get to see a neighborhood that maintains much of its Jewish roots, from a bakery whose traditions date back to the middle ages, to traditional Kosher restaurants, you can also see ancient Roman Ruins and a theater that is older than the Colosseum!
- Castel Sant’Angelo – A beautiful castle on the banks of the River Tiber, this ancient structure was originally a mausoleum for Roman Emperor Hadrian and his family. It later served as a fortress and castle for popes before the papal palace was built in Vatican City. We happened to go on the first Sunday of the month when it was free, but the lines were a long wait. However, we went in and found the wait was worth it. When you go all the way to the top, you get beautiful views of Rome and Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Where to Eat
Ok, you cannot talk about visiting Rome without talking about food. In Rome you can find all the Italian food you would expect from all over the country, since Rome is the seat of the modern government for Italy. However, there are a few dishes that are truly Roman that you need to eat. Carbonara and Cacio e Pepe are dishes that are truly uniquely roman. That being said, you cannot go wrong with almost any pasta dish in Rome. You also must have Roman pizza and make sure to stop for some gelato or limoncello to finish off the night. Here is what we ate and our top places to eat:
- Pizza Zaza – One of the many pay by weight pizza places throughout the city, this is supposed to be one of the best pizza places by the Pantheon. I had a white pizza with smoked salmon, and it was fantastic. But it doesn’t have places to sit, so have them fold it over and give you paper so you can eat it like a sandwich.
- Pizza & Sandwich Da Pasquale – Another fantastic pizza spot pretty close to the Vatican and Saint Peters Square. The pizza is amazing, there are seats outside, and the owner is fun and loves to chat!
- Bonci – This is consistently voted the best pizza in Rome and for good reason. The chief brings in fresh ingredients from all around and makes the crust so fluffy and thick. This place is insanely popular, but worth the wait. We went when on a food tour and got to charge four different flavors, all of which were amazing.
- Trapizzino – All over Italy you will see sandwiches as a quick meal. Generally, just some meat or veggies in between two slices of white bread. Here at Trapizzino, they make a pocket of pizza crust as the bread, with the fillings such as meatballs or eggplant in the pocket. It has the shape of the triangle sandwich but with so much more flavor and heft. Wash it down with a good beer or glass of wine.
- Antico Arco – We attended a group dinner here and had a set menu that included some of the best Carbonara we had on the trip (topped with truffle shavings, yum!). I keep dreaming of this dish throughout the trip.
- Zia Rilla – A small family run restaurant, we had some of the most amazing carbonara and tiramisu. It’s a small place, but everything is made fresh and with love.
- Trattoria Lilli – I have a friend who owns a tour company and recommended we visit this place and order the carbonara, the cacio e pepe, and to finish it up with a limoncello. We followed his instructions and it did not disappoint. Not only was everything cooked to perfection, but the trattoria was exactly what you expected from a small, family only place frequented by locals.
- Unique Al Palatino –If you want a nicer, sit-down affair, I would highly suggest the restaurant inside the Kolbe Hotel. The seating is in the outside garden and is named one of the most romantic restaurants in Rome. The ravioli was fantastic, but the side of spinach was also amazing. We finished off with tiramisu and espresso before heading up for the day.
- Il Gelato di San Crispino – Don’t be tempted by the big gelato shops by the Trevi Fountain. Walk a short block and a half, go down the small alley, and eat gelato at Il Gelato di San Crispino at the small shop where no one speaks English. 3 Euros and the best gelato we had in Italy.
Where to Stay
We were in Rome so my husband could attend and speak at a conference. Because the conference was in the middle of our trip, we ended up staying in three different hotels. This actually proved to be an excellent opportunity to check out 3 very different hotels, all of which ended up serving our needs perfectly for each part of the trip. Note that in Europe, hotel rooms typically hold 2 people, 3 max. A family of four would have to reserve a family suite (not always available) or book two rooms. All the hotels included breakfast with the room fee.
- Hotel Modigliani (3-Stars)– This small, boutique hotel is centrally located near the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. We were able to walk all over central Rome from this hotel. The room was small, but comfortable, and had a balcony that overlooked the garden. The morning breakfast had fresh eggs, the most amazing cakes in the morning, and fresh buffalo mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes. Not to mention the espresso machine with all you need.
- Kolbe Hotel (4-Stars) – Kolbe is located closer to the Roman Forum. Kolbe has a more modern feel with a big comfortable reception filled with sleek furniture. The room was big with a king sized bed, deep colored curtains, and modern furniture in the room. The bathroom was larger with a tub, and different jets available for the shower. The breakfast had warm options (eggs and sausage) as well as amazing pastries, yogurts, and salted meats. The only downsize to the breakfast was no buffalo mozzarella in the morning. However, the amazing onsite restaurant more than made up for it.
- Rome Cavalieri (5-Stars) – This luxury hotel sits up in the hills north of Vatican City. This is a Waldorf Astoria property and has all the luxury amenities you would expect. The rooms are suites, with a king-sized beds, a sofa and work space, huge balcony, and an enormous bathroom filled with mirrors, a fantastic shower, and a soaking jacuzzi tub. The hotel also had all the amenities with a spa, hot tub and sauna, and two pools – 1 heated indoor pool and a deep outdoor pool. There is also a gym, shopping, multiple restaurants on site, and one of the largest private art collections in Rome, all throughout the hotel for your viewing pleasure. The only issue with this hotel is location. It is outside the central areas and not anywhere near mass transit. There is a free shuttle to the Spanish Steps once an hour, and it’s a 30-minute walk down the hill to Vatican City, but you are not going to want to walk back up. The only other option is taxi, which is the main way we got to and from sites from this hotel.
When my husband was first offered the speaking role, we looked into going as a family and I did some research into vacation rentals. I found that Airbnb and VRBO had many affordable apartment options located within central Rome. While this option does not include free breakfast, it would have more space for a family to spread out, often could include a washer, and a kitchen so you can run down to the local market and get a few items to keep stocked for breakfast. Generally, booking an apartment for the family is cheaper than booking two hotel rooms in a 3-star or higher hotel.
How to Get Around
Rome is a large city that can feel quite small. I think because it is organized into a series of neighborhoods that all have their own unique flair. But getting around Rome can be quite easy.
- Walking – Honestly this is the easiest and often fastest way to get around. Much of the city is very walkable. Unless you are trying to get from Vatican City to the Colosseum in a day, it’s best to walk to your nearest destination. Along the way, check out a street market, a local shop, or the seemingly non-descript church or fountain. There is so much you see just by wandering the streets.
- Public Transit – There is an underground Metro in Rome that has stops at major locations. There are also buses that can take you to various points in the city. However, they will need to stick to bigger streets so note that it can often take almost as long to take than bus than to walk from point A to point B. However, after a long day (or week) of walking, you might still be willing to ride. Just note that you cannot pay cash on the bus, you will need to find a station that sells tickets, or download the app and pay online prior to getting on a bus.
- Taxi – Taxi is the fastest (but also the most expensive) way to get around. Taxis are easy to flag down, or you can use the FreeNow app to call a taxi similar to an Uber. We found the taxis generally affordable and good options after a long day of walking.
- Car –Just no. Much of the city streets are blocked off only accessible by taxi or those who have a special permit. And there is no parking. Renting a car will just be an exercise in frustration.
How to Structure Your Trip
Once this trip turned into a couples trip, I had dreams of a very different structure to our day, where we could see so much more and move so much faster. While some of that was true, we actually found our rule of about two major sites/excursions a day are continued to be what worked best for us. Much our days were structured very similar to how we travel with our teens/tweens. The difference is you move quicker, can linger longer if you want to, and get a bit more done with a smaller group. However, here is how we generally planned and structured our trip.
- Start with a Walking Tour – Set up a walking tour, or something like a Hop On Hop Off Bus early in the trip. An overall walking tour will help you adjust to the time zone, and more importantly, help you get a feel of the city. I personally prefer a walking tour in Rome because it is such a walkable city. We used Rick Steve’s Europe App to do the free Historic Rome walking tour that takes you from Piazza Campo de’ Fiori to the Spanish steps, and lets you cover a lot of ground on some of the must see sites in Rome. Hop On Hop Off has an audio tour to listen to, and lets you sit and enjoy seeing sites while driving around the city. Just note that some sights you might not see unless you get off because so many streets are closed off to busses, so there is still some walking involved.
- Get out early in the day – An advantage of breakfast being offered in the hotel is it’s open early and lets you get out early. Rome is busy, even in the shoulder season. The earlier you can get out, the more likely you are to avoid the crowds.
- Plan for two big sites or excursions a day: One activity in the morning, and one in the afternoon lets you have time for a leisurely lunch and or enjoy the sites without feeling like you are rushing from place to place.
- Book Timed Entry or Guided Tours for the things you must see – Without timed entry, expect long lines and longer waits. We went in the shoulder season and waited over an hour to enter Castel Sant’Angelo, and the dome of Saint Peters Basilica (and this was after waiting 20 minutes to enter Saint Peters). We planned a bit late for this trip and couldn’t get skip the line tickets to most of what we wanted. We opted for guided tours so we could not only avoid the hours long waits. However, it had the advantage of helping us get a better understanding of what we were looking at and learn additional information we wouldn’t have had otherwise. Guided tours additionally offer access to different entrances and areas that the general public are not allowed. To make sure you don’t spend your entire vacation in line, these additional costs are worth saving your sanity.
- Group Together Themes – You’ll find that the Colosseum and the Roman Forum are near each other. In addition, Saint Peters Basilica and Musee Vatican are in the same location. Grouping together what you want to see in the same area makes it easier to structure your days and to save your legs from walking from one corner of the city to another. And if you have tweens or teens with you, they will appreciate you saving their legs, since they can get surprisingly tired form all the walking.
- Do a Food Tour – Okay, maybe this is personal to us foodies, but I highly suggest booking a food tour. One of the major ways to know the culture of a place is through food. And Italy is no exception. Maybe we lucked out in having such a good food tour from Get Your Guide, but it was one of the highlights of our trip. I would say, if you have a picky younger eater, than it might be better to skip this excursion, or leave them with someone safe. More adventurous younger eaters will appreciate the tour, but will not be able to partake in the wine, which is some of the best part.
- Plan a minimum of 3-4 Days – This is the minimum amount of time you will need to see all the major sites in Rome you will want to see without feeling overly rushed. If you have more time, you can consider a day trip. We did a wine tasting tour in Frascati. Ostia Antica is also nearby and is said to have Roman Ruins as good a Pompeii, but less visited. If you are ambitious, you can even do a day trip to Florence, as it’s a 1.5 hour trip by rapid train.
What to bring
When you are in Rome, understand that you will be walking A LOT, like miles a day! As I mentioned earlier, you often will find that public transit and walking times will be similar, and you are tempted to walk everywhere because there is so much to see each step you take. Every time you turn a corner you see something new. But by the end of the day, you are exhausted. Here are a few things I recommend you pack for this trip are:
- A Good Walking Shoe: Make sure you have shoes in which you can walk miles. I wore my faithful Rothy’s Sneakers. I packed Rothy Points for one a night out, and sandals that came out once—to wear to the pool. My husband swears by his Skechers GoWalk Sneakers as his long days of walking.
- Selfie Stick/Tripod: This trip I did a lot of solo exploring, and I wasn’t always comfortable handing off my phone to someone. I have found that the selfie stick, while annoying, can get in the whole group when we travel as a family. On this trip, we used it to get nice full length pictures of the two of us. I have and really liked this Self-Stick/Tripod, which allows you to set up your phone with a tripod so you can take pictures from a distance with a Bluetooth remote, and it does not feel as intrusive as a selfie stick.
- A Good Day Bag: You need a bag that will carry all the essentials for the day (hand sanitizer, masks, your phone and wallet, snacks, etc.) Due to injured shoulders, I cannot use my trusty Pincnel backpack which held the family’s snacks, battery back-up, cord, hand sanitizer, etc. I brought this belt bag from Target that I could hold just my phone, wallet, some lipstick, and my husband carried all the extra in his Tamrac camera bag. On solo days I had to carry this (much less stylish) Sierra Designs hip pack I grabbed at Target days before leaving. Doesn’t fit my usual style, but holds all the backpack held and doesn’t hurt my shoulders.
- A Battery Backup: There will be no place to charge your phone all day and you will be going from place to place. Have a good battery backup that can charge two phones at once and can-do multiple charges. A must have for every trip.
- A Versatile Charging Cord: I am from a mixed family. That is right, we use both Android and iPhones. I bring a cord that can charge either phone with the battery backup.
- Reusable Water Bottle: Rome is one of the few places in Europe where not only is the water drinkable, but there are free fountains all over the city for you to fill up. Do you part in reducing your plastic footprint. Bring a reusable water bottle and get free water like the ancient Romans.
Other Important Tips
Here are some other important tips that you need to think about when visiting Rome
- Make sure to prioritize a few places/activities and plan around them: There are many popular places in Rome, and many have long waits or require you to pay extra for timed entry tickets. Pick a few things that are important to you to see and plan around them. Splurge on Skip the Line Passes and/or Guided Tours to help you get the most out of what you are seeing.
- Download the Rick Steve’s Europe App: I have talked about this both in our Paris and Lisbon Trips, and it came in handy in Rome as well. Rick Steve’s have a slew of free audio walking tours on his app. They come in handy in all the major sites, but they also were nice to guide you through different neighborhoods. I really enjoyed the historic city walk, and found the Jewish Quarter to be fascinating.
- Plan to each lunch a bit away from the major sites: This is true for most major tourist sites in Europe, the food right outside will be overpriced and subpar. Walking even just a block or two from them will exponentially increase the quality of the food. You can use some of the recommendations I have above, but you can also just use Google. We found if it had an above 4 star review, it was pretty good.
Rome was absolutely amazing, and something my husband had dreamed about for years. I loved returning to a city I saw at a pivotal time in my youth, and to experience it with the love of my life. (If you want to hear a funny story about my original trip to Italy, check out this Throwback Thursday post). We both missed the kids a ton and found ourselves thinking about how much they would have enjoyed some the of the experiences we had. We agree we absolutely have to take them here one day to experience it for themselves. Full of history, culture, art, and amazing food, there is something for everyone in Rome. Coming to the city and seeing all you want requires a little bit of planning. But no matter how much or little you plan, you can’t help but enjoy this classic Italian city and all it has to offer.
Editor: SKS (Son)