The best way to see the popular sights of Rome
Rome, the Eternal City, is one of the most enchanting and beautiful cities in the world. Whether you’re in to history, religion, architecture, food, wine, shopping, museums, or just like seeing some of the most famous landmarks on earth, Rome undoubtedly has it all. One of the challenges this brings is that everyone in the world wants to see it, and often it feels like they all went the same week you did. It’s not a conspiracy against your beloved vacation, it’s pretty much always crowded. Don’t let this deter you, though, from visiting such an iconic city because it’s still more than worth it. Take it from a couple who often goes to great lengths to avoid crowded places, you should go. There are so many things to enjoy in this city, you can’t possibly experience everything that is Roma in one day. But if you have two days…. we are about to share some advice that will give you a really good dose, plus you’ll have some of these sights all to yourself.
Let’s start with the most important piece of information for enjoying Rome (or any touristy landmarks)…. the early bird gets the worm. There are multiple famous landmarks in Rome and once the sun comes up, you will not find them unoccupied until long after the sun goes down. We highly recommend committing to getting up early for 2 days and your experience will be much different than the other million visitors that will be throwing elbows and fighting for selfie position 3 hours later. There are always people that say… “what kind of vacation is it if you are getting up so early just to go out and take some pictures. Is that really enjoying your vacation?” My response…. The first time you sit with your loved one in the middle of the road, with no other humans to be seen, and watch the sun rise over one the Seven Wonders of the New World, you will have your answer. We do it in every place we go, and it never gets old.
The reason we recommend two days is because Rome is sort of divided into two sections…. West of the Tiber River is Vatican City, and the other side of the river is the City Center. Since you have agreed to commit to 2 early days, make sure to base which day you do first around the schedule of the Vatican. The Center City and the landmarks will be there every day, but Vatican City has more schedule restrictions. A couple of quick notes about Vatican City:
- The Vatican Museum is not open on Sundays unless it’s the last Sunday of the month. The last Sunday of the month is free so crowds will be high. Don’t plan your Sunday to walk around that side of town because the museum will be closed and all the disappointed people that can’t get in will wander over to St. Peter’s Basilica so the line to get in there will be even worse.
- The Pope does a service on Wednesdays if that is something that you would like to see. It is recommended to request access in advance.
- Check for random closings to St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pope can close it whenever he chooses so just check the site in advance to make sure it is business as usual.
Ok, now that we’ve got some basic info out of the way, here is our road map for sightseeing in Rome:
We arrived on a Friday evening so we planned on getting our early days out of the way our first two days while our bodies were still a little off from the time difference. Since the Vatican is closed on Sundays, we opted to do it on Saturday and hit the Center City sights on Sunday morning.
Stop 1- 5:30am (sunrise at 6am)- St. Peter’s Square (or Piazza San Pietro)
This plaza is beautiful before the sun comes up. You can see the Basilica from many vantage points around Rome, but seeing it all lit up in front of you is a whole different perspective. The plaza, although empty of pedestrians, was still very safe and there were multiple police officers roaming the area. You can walk around, take pictures of the Basilica, the plaza, the streets, and everything else around with no one to bother you but an occasional pigeon. After some pictures, we stayed here and watched the sun come up and then headed over to….
Stop 2- 7:00 am-Musei Vaticani
By far the best money we spent in Rome was the early entry and breakfast at the museum. A regular entry ticket is $20 when you book ahead of time. Our ticket was $65 per person (link for tickets), but we were walked in the door at 7:15 am (Doors don’t open to the general public until 9am to purchase tickets and later to enter). We were walked to the Courtyard of the Pine Cone and were served a buffet breakfast that got us energized for our upcoming morning, much thanks to the multiple cappuccinos. Sitting and drinking coffee in the courtyard of one of the most famous museums in the world was a pretty darn cool first morning in Rome.
We finished breakfast by 7:45. Now the breakfast was fine, but the real value of the extra $45 came next. There was no line, no crowds, no people except the few that opted to pay for the early entry like we did, and they quickly disappeared into the large museum as they went their own ways.
Our main goal was obviously to see Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, so we took our first right out of the courtyard and headed that way. With so few people in the museum and the doors not even opening to the rest of Rome until 9-9:30, we never really saw any other people until we arrived at the Sistine Chapel. Even then there were only a few people inside. We literally have videos of us walking through the museum completely by ourselves. The horror stories of pushing and fighting your way in with shoulder to shoulder people do not exist when you buy the early entry ticket. We won’t be posting any shots of inside the famed Sistine Chapel. It is highly forbidden to take photos or videos once inside as it is considered a sacred place. It’s definitely possible to do it, although I’m sure some people get their devices confiscated, but out of respect for the museum and chapel itself, we put away all of our cameras and just looked up in awe.
After that we continued wandering around and made our way back toward the entrance. When there are no other people in the museum, the time it takes you to walk through and see everything is cut in half. By the time we were walking out the exit, they had just started letting people in and as we walked around the corner, we were very thankful we paid the extra money for the early entry. The line was easily in the thousands of people and it wrapped all the way back around to the Basilica.
Stop 3- 9:30am- Back to St. Peter’s Basilica
Since you opted to enter the Vatican Museum early, that means you didn’t get first in line at the Basilica. That’s ok, you have to pick your battles. By the time you get back to the Basilica, there will be a line already formed, and it will look bad, but it moves rather quickly. You should get in line and walk up to the top of the dome to get an amazing view of St Peter’s Square from above. Just remember to abide by the proper dress code which pretty much states to cover your shoulders and knees.
Stop 4- 11am (depending on how quickly you get through the line above)- Walk along the Tiber River
For the rest of the morning, while everyone else is still waiting in line at the Museum, you can leisurely stroll around the streets and the river, across the bridge, or through the park. It is a nice area to walk around, and you can even visit the Castel Sant’Angelo.
Stop 5- 12:00- Lunch
Now that you spent your first morning sightseeing, you are free to do whatever you want for the rest of the day. Go find an amazing cafe to grab some lunch, or a great gelateria, or join the rest of the Italians and take a nap between 1 and 3pm and get ready for the evening. Just don’t drink too much wine on the first night…. you have one more early day and it’s worth it. Let’s skip over (for now) your afternoon, dinner, and night out plans and get right to the next morning.
The below route is an efficient way to get to all the sights below in order.
Stop 1- 5:30am- Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi)
Trevi Fountain, from what we saw, was the most popular spot in Rome which is why you need to go there first. We arrived there before the sun came up, and shortly after others came. There was even a girl doing a bridal shoot that was probably not pleased that we were also there that early. This fountain will be packed with hundreds, if not thousands, of people from that point, until late at night. So go early, take your pictures and throw your coins in, then move on.
Stop 2- 6am- Pantheon
The Pantheon was actually much bigger than we thought it was going to be. Pictures don’t do it justice. The columns were massive.
We weren’t able to go inside this early, but we wanted to get as much stuff in while the rest of Rome was sleeping so we stopped for a few pics here and then headed on to….
Stop 3- 6:15am- Monument of Victor Emmanuel II (Vittorio Emanuele II)
This monument, also called Altare della Patria (or Alter of the Fatherland) is in honor of the first King of unified Italy. It is an immense, impressive monument and you can see it from quite a distance away which will help guide you along our sightseeing path.
From the front of this monument, you will be able to look past it to your slight left (about your 10 o’clock) and you will be able to see……
Stop 4- 6:45am- The Colosseum and Roman Forum
As you walk from Altare della Patria to the Colosseum, you will walk past the Ancient Ruins of the Roman Forum. You won’t be going inside just yet, but you can add that later if you’d like.
It works out nicely because the sun will have risen just enough to start shining light through the archways of the awe inspiring Colosseum. Colosseo is one of the 7 Wonders of the New World which is on our bucketlist. To think of the unbelievable events that took place in that stadium is pretty crazy. When you walk up to the front of the building, you can look to your left and see a stairway that brings you up to a street above the ground level. From this street there is a wall that makes for a great vantage point for photos.
Stop 5- 7:30- The Secret Keyhole at Aventine Hill
This next stop, Aventine Hill and the Knights of Malta keyhole, is a little farther away than the others, but offers a really cool view point, as well as a nice plaza overlooking the city.
Once you get up to the top to the location of the Knights of Malta, you will see a large green door with an odd keyhole. Walk up to the keyhole and look into it, and you will see an amazing view of a tree lined tunnel framing the Basilica in the distance. It is quite extraordinary.
Stop 6- 8:30am- Back to the Colosseum
Now that you have had some time to see everything, you can make your way back to the Colosseum or the Roman Forum and go inside now that they will be open. You will be amazed how many people will have gathered from the time you were there an hour ago until now. If you plan on entering, hopefully you have pre-purchased a ticket online which will let you avoid standing in line to buy a ticket. There will still be a line to get in, but it will be much shorter than waiting in two lines. Once inside, you can go at your own pace and spend as much or as little time exploring as you like.
Great news!!!! You’re done and it’s only 10am! AND….. you saw it all without worrying about catching a selfie stick to the eyeball! The trip will have taken you about 3 miles walking but it seems like less since it’s only about .5-.75 miles between each place. You now have the rest of the day to relax and enjoy your vacation however you want to and not have to worry about cramming in more sights. There are so many more to see including museums, churches, and plazas (don’t forget the Spanish Steps), but you just checked off the main ones so you can spend the rest of your time in Rome at your own pace and no need to rush. So go find some amazingly fresh food and enjoy a prosecco… you’ve earned it.
Trip Summary: Rome, Italy
Lodging: Rome Cavalieri, Waldorf Astoria– This hotel was the epitome of luxury. Everywhere we went there were 6 people opening doors for us. The sweeping city views from the room, and especially from the Michelin Restaurant on the top floor are unbeatable. They even have a pillow menu in the room with 22 different selections.
Good places to eat: Everywhere! There are amazing city view restaurants like La Pergola and Mirabelle, which will require reservations well ahead of time, but there are unbelievable restaurants and cafes around every corner. Find a nice restaurant with outdoor seating, grab a table and people watch over a bottle of Brunello.
Activities: Sightseeing, museums, tours, historical sites, great food and wine
Do’s: Get up early and enjoy the sights before millions of other tourists, explore by walking- it is such a beautiful city with so much to look at, embrace the culture- dine at a restaurant like the locals and enjoy all the courses. It’s an awesome experience but walking back will be harder.
Don’t’s: Don’t try to drive a rental car through the city- most of the area is restricted unless you register your plate and you will get some surprise charges on your rental car bill. Plus, unless you’re used to driving in this city, it may be intimidating. The Rome Cavalieri offers a shuttle back and forth every 30 min into town, or you can take cabs for about 12 Euros. Don’t forget to check if the attractions you are interested in visiting inside offer “skip the lines” access- Anytime you don’t have to wait in line in a city with this many people will save you significant time.