tips on exploring any travel destination in 3 days or less

3 Days in…Rome, Italy!

The Eternal City is somewhere you can spend several days exploring and feel as if you’ve barely scratched the surface. I mean this both figuratively and literally, as in addition to all of the wonderful sites you can see while walking around above-ground, there are many ancient treasures hidden below the city’s surface which will enchant any history lover. While it’s certainly not possible to see everything in 3 days, I will give you some tips on how to maximize your time during a short trip to Rome with a mix of the must-see sights and a few lesser-known gems.

  • Day 1: Walking tour of Rome’s famous sites
  • Day 2: Vatican & Colosseum
  • Day 3: Underground Rome tour

Where to stay: Most of the major sites in Rome are located in a relatively small area in the city center.  Staying in the Campo di Fiore neighborhood puts you in a great position to explore due to its central location between the Vatican, Colosseum, and Trevi Fountain. While several hotels are located in this area, it has some drawbacks – lots of tourists and higher prices. For a more relaxed vibe, I would recommend the Trastevere neighborhood on the opposite side of the Tiber River from Campo, or the Jewish Quarter, just east of Campo. These neighborhoods have less hotels, but many AirBnB options, and provide a great home base for exploring Rome. We loved our apartment in the Jewish Quarter for its quiet, but central location and air-conditioning, despite it being a steep 5-floor walk-up!

Day 1

Dust yourself off from that train ride or cross-Atlantic flight, store your bags at your AirBnB/hotel or at the luggage storage area at Termini train station, order a cappuccino and get ready for a full day of exploring on foot! I don’t like to schedule anything with a set time on my first day in case I run into travel delays. This easy self-guided walking tour will serve as a great way to orient yourself to the city and stretch your legs after your journey, but being that it’s day 1 and you’re likely jet-lagged, there will be plenty of opportunities to relax with a glass of wine or do some people watching while enjoying a delicious hazelnut gelato.

Start off at the Theatre of Marcellus [left, below], which was built in the 1st century BC and used as an open-air theater for musical and theatric performances, and the Temple of Apollo Sosianus [right, below], which was built in the 5th century BC, for your first taste of ancient Rome.

Next, make the short walk to Piazza Venezia. Pictured below is the Altare della Patria, which is a monument dedicated to the first king of unified Italy, Victor Emmanuel, and was completed in 1925 AD. Many Romans have mixed views on this monument, criticizing it for its grandiosity and for the fact that a portion of the ancient Capitoline Hill was destroyed to build it, but it is worth making a visit if only to marvel at the sheer scale of it. Fun fact: it’s been nicknamed the “wedding cake” and “the set of false teeth” by Romans who are less than fond of it.

From Piazza Venezia, it’s a short walk to the Trevi Fountain. It will likely be midday when you arrive here, and if you happen to be visiting during the summer high season, be aware that the fountain will be extremely crowded. The photo at the top of my post was taken during one of these crowded times by holding my camera high over my head and blindly taking a lucky photo, but if you prefer to visit the fountain when the crowds are thinner, I suggest going early in the morning before 9:00 am. Though also crowded in the evenings, I highly recommend making a stop here during that time as well, as the Trevi looks beautiful lit up against the night sky.

Not that gelato ever needs an excuse, but at this point you’ve done quite a bit of walking and should treat yourself with one at Giolitti, which comes highly recommended by my sister-in-law who spent a semester in Rome and has sampled many of the gelato shops there. You have the option of sitting at a table out-front with waiter service or ordering to-go at the gelato counter and then finding a seat on a stoop or curb; both options will provide some excellent people watching opportunities.

Once you’ve satisfied your sweet tooth, take the short walk to the Pantheon [left, below] through the windy streets this area of the city is known for. There will likely be a line of people waiting to get in, but it moves quickly and is worth the wait to see the dome [right, below] from the church’s interior and wonder how all of that concrete has remained up there and intact since approximately 126 AD. Admission is free and the hours are 9:00 am to 7:30 pm Mon-Sat and 9:00 am to 6:00 pm Sun.

Finally, end your first day with a stroll around the ever-charming Piazza Navona, pictured below, which has operated as a public space since the 15th century AD and contains Bernini’s famous Fountain of the Four Rivers. It should be the perfect time of day to enjoy some aperitivo at one of the many restaurants in the square. Aperitivo loosely translates to “happy hour” and is typically enjoyed between 7 and 9 pm. Drinks aren’t discounted, but with your beverage of choice, you will typically receive a plate of snacks (think bruschetta and olives). If you aren’t feeling the crowded square, I would suggest the nearby Vinoteca Novecento, which has a quieter location in one of Rome’s charming alley-like streets and makes a mean Aperol Spritz in addition to its impressive wine list!

Day 2

If you’re staying near the Jewish Quarter, start your day with a visit to Pasticceria Boccione for a pizza ebraica, a neighborhood specialty that consists of a slightly-burnt-on-purpose bread stuffed with raisins and nuts [below].

No first time visit to Rome is complete without a visit to the Vatican, but this is something best booked in advance to avoid standing in the sometimes several hours long line to get in. We booked our tour with a company called City Wonders, which allowed us to skip the line to get into the Vatican grounds and included a knowledgeable guide and headsets so that we could hear her among the crowds.

The 3-4 hour tour covered all of the main sites – the Vatican Museum which includes ancient tapestries, maps and sculpture, the Vatican apartment which was once the Papal residence and contains several frescoes by Raphael, Michaelangelo’s awe-inspiring masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica [above]. One important item to note is that the Sistine Chapel and Basilica have a dress code. Shoulders must be covered (a scarf of cardigan that you keep in your bag and wrap around your shoulders for these parts of the tour is acceptable.) Knees must be covered as well, but as long as you aren’t wearing short-shorts, you should be okay if they are partially exposed.

After the Vatican, take a leisurely stroll south to the Trastevere neighborhood, where you’ll be greeted by several outdoor cafes and restaurants. Grab some lunch, explore the neighborhood’s charming boutiques and experience some of Rome’s most photogenic streets [below].

In addition to providing the perfect backdrop for your Instagram photos during the day, Trastevere is also a great place to visit during the evening hours when its bar and restaurant scene really come to life. Restaurants worth checking out include Checco er Carettiere and Osteria Cacio e Pepe.

Next up on Day 2’s agenda is a visit to the Colosseum, and I hope that you’ll learn from my mistake and book in advance!

On the Colosseum’s website, there is an option to book a timed tour with a Colosseum guide which includes a visit to the basement and 3rd levels. Tickets are very limited and sell out quickly due to their low price (11 EUR) and ability to see parts of the Colosseum that aren’t typically open to the public. You will need to purchase them the month before your intended visit on the day specified on this website. My intended tour was in June, so the website listed the sale date of these tickets as May 15. I didn’t get a chance to buy that day, and when I logged in on May 17, they were completely sold out.

Another option is to book a night tour with one of the many independent tour providers in Rome (check Viator for options). Keep in mind that these tours also sell out early, so reserve your spot well before your trip. We did not reserve either of these tours in advance, and therefore opted to visit the Colosseum only from the outside in the evening [above] instead of waiting in the long line for regular admission tickets. You have to sometimes go with the flow when you travel, but I will not be repeating this mistake next time!

Day 3

For your last day in Rome, we will be descending below the city’s surface to explore ancient Rome! The Crypts, Bones, and Catacombs tour offered by Walks of Italy is honestly one of the best tours I’ve ever been on. Our guide, Andrea, was an art historian and extremely knowledgeable about ancient Roman history. On the tour, we visited the Capuchin crypts which are decorated by the bones of nearly 4,000 Capuchin friars, the Catacomb of Priscilla, one of the many catacombs where early Christians buried their dead below the city’s surface, and there Basilica of San Nicola in Carcere where you will descend into the church’s “basement” and find yourself on an ancient Roman street lined with temples.

Pictured above is a 3rd century chapel found inside of the Catacomb of Priscilla, still amazingly intact due to spending its lifetime in the dark!

After a morning spent exploring the dark side of Rome, grab a bite to eat and a spritz somewhere outdoors or if you fancy some retail therapy, head to the Spanish Steps and visit some of the high-end stores and boutiques located near there.

In my opinion, no trip to Rome is complete without a large bowl of cacio e pepe, so make a reservation for your last evening at Flavio al Velavevodetto and order up a dish of gooey, cheesy goodness [above]. Also notable are the suppli, which are cheesy, fried rice balls similar to arancini. Admittedly, this isn’t the healthiest of meals, but over the past three days, you will have likely averaged around 10 miles/day of walking – it’s all about balance!

Retire to your apartment or hotel to rest up for the next day’s travels or if you’re feeling energetic, take a walk across the river to have a farewell glass of wine in the Trastevere neighborhood and toast to a wonderful three days in Rome!


A few last notes:

  • Getting there: From Rome Fiumicino airport, you have a few train options to get into the city center (Leonardo Express is the most direct, but also the most expensive!) There are also several private shuttle buses you can book in advance (your hotel may provide transportation for free or a small fee), cabs are queued in front of the airport, or you can order an Uber.
  • Transportation: Unlike some other European cities, Rome has Uber! I will not pass any judgment if you want to skip one of the walks I’ve recommended and order an Uber or hail a cab (cabs are also plentiful).
  • Money: Italy uses the Euro. Credit cards are widely accepted in Rome (try to find one with low or no foreign transaction fees). It’s always good to have some cash for small purchases (like gelato!) – my preferred method to withdraw cash is via bank ATM.



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