3 days in Rome: an itinerary for first-time visitors

Planning a trip to Rome? Here are our top picks...

Stay: Hotel Indigo - Rome

Discount pass: Roma Pass

Walking tour: Rome in a day

Food tour: Testaccio food tour

Day trip: Assisi and Orvieto

Rich in history, culture and cuisine, the Eternal City of Rome is a must-see destination for many travellers. In this three-day itinerary, we provide a compact and yet comprehensive guide to the must-see sights of Rome - from the ancient grandeur of the Colosseum, to the sublime artistic and architectural wonders of the Vatican, and the captivating charm of vibrant neighbourhoods like Trastevere.

To get the most out of your trip, book your accommodation in a central location. Ponte offers easy access to many main attractions, making it a solid choice for a short trip. Rome is a bustling city year-round, but be prepared for larger crowds in the summer months of July and August.

Keep in mind, pre-booking tickets for popular attractions is a smart move to avoid the queues, and consider enlisting a local guide to enrich your historical understanding of the sites.

Skyline of historic Rome with the Colosseum in the distance.

How long should I spend in Rome?

Deciding how long to spend in Rome largely depends on your travel style and what you're interested in seeing. With countless historical sites, world-class museums, charming neighbourhoods and excellent eateries, you could easily fill several weeks exploring the city.

For a more in-depth exploration, a week in Rome allows you to delve beyond the historic center. You'll have time to wander through the cobblestone streets of lesser-known neighbourhoods like Testaccio or Prati, visit more niche museums, discover local eateries, and even take a day trip to a nearby town. A week also allows for a more leisurely pace, where you can really take in la dolce vita, the sweet life that Italians know so well.

However, if your time is limited, a three-day trip can be just as rewarding. While it won't allow you to see everything, it's enough time to explore the major attractions. You can marvel at the ancient wonders of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum and dedicate a full day to the awe-inspiring Vatican City, as well as seeing the highlights of Rome's historic centre.

The interior of the Colosseum

Day 1: the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum

Start your trip to Rome with a trip some of best Roman ruins of all. The Colosseum is near the station and you need to prebook your tickets to avoid queues. Visiting the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum is included in the entry fee. If you want to learn more about the Colosseum and its history, consider booking the full experience tour which involves seeing the underground and upper level.

From the Colosseum, it’s an easy walk through Palatine Hill to the Roman Forum. Palatine Hill is essentially a park on the hillside, with ruins peeking through, so you may find a tour helpful if you want more context about what you’re seeing. It’s a bit easier to imagine the Roman Forum as it looked in ancient times, with the remains of temples and pillars strewn through the grass and flowers.

After seeing the ruins, you’ll probably want lunch and a break in your hotel or a local café. Before dinner, take a stroll along the Tiber River if the weather is nice, and watch the sunset. There are often buskers in this part of the city and there are many opportunities for gorgeous photos. After dinner, take the opportunity to see Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps at night – it’s a very different experience to seeing them during the day.

Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, Rome

Day 2: the Vatican

For your second day in Rome, dedicate your time to exploring the wonders of Vatican City, the smallest sovereign state in the world. Given the sheer amount of art, history, and architectural grandeur that lies within its borders, allotting a full day for the Vatican can be well worth it.

Once again, I recommend doing a tour of the Vatican – it means you can bypass the queues, it gives what you’re seeing context, and you even have the option of visiting the Vatican before it opens to the public. Remember, the Vatican enforces a strict dress code—no shorts, mini skirts, or sleeveless shirts are allowed—so dress appropriately.

Start your day early, with a visit to St. Peter's Basilica, the largest church in the world and a central symbol of the Catholic faith. This Renaissance-era masterpiece, designed by legendary artists like Michelangelo and Bernini, is teeming with remarkable works of art, including Michelangelo's "Pieta" and the stunning bronze Baldachin. Consider climbing the 551 steps up to the dome for a breathtaking view of St. Peter's Square and the city beyond.

From St. Peter's Basilica, move on to the Vatican Museums, a vast complex housing an incredible collection of art and historical artefacts accumulated by the Roman Catholic Church over centuries. The Museums feature 54 galleries, or "salas", including the mesmerising spiral staircase at the entrance, the Gallery of the Maps, the Raphael Rooms, and culminating in the Sistine Chapel.

Frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel, arguably the highlight of the Vatican Museums, is an art lover's dream. Home to Michelangelo's world-renowned frescoes—"The Last Judgment" on the altar wall and the iconic biblical scenes on the ceiling, including the "Creation of Adam". Remember that speaking is prohibited within the chapel, so absorb its beauty in silent reverence.

For those who are intrigued by the mystic, the Vatican Necropolis, also known as the Scavi, lies beneath the St. Peter's Basilica. It requires special permission to visit and needs to be booked well in advance due to limited slots each day. The Necropolis is believed to be the burial site of St. Peter, the first Pope, and is a fascinating labyrinth of tombs and mausoleums from ancient Rome.

Take a break from sightseeing with a leisurely lunch in one of the restaurants or cafes nearby. Try a slice of pizza "al taglio" (by the cut), or a panino filled with Italian cheeses and cured meats.

Round out your day at the Vatican Gardens, an oasis of calm amidst the hustle and bustle of Vatican City. Spanning over half of the city-state's 44 hectares, the meticulously manicured gardens are adorned with fountains, grottoes, and sculptures, alongside a diverse variety of plants and flowers.

After a full day at the Vatican, if you have energy left, wander towards Castel Sant'Angelo just outside Vatican City, originally Emperor Hadrian’s Mausoleum. At night, the castle is beautifully illuminated, making for a stunning end to your day.

The entrance to the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, Italy

Day 3: Castel Sant'Angelo, Villa Borghese and Trastevere

After breakfast, go for a walk along the historic centre, seeing the Piazza Navona, Pantheon and Trevi Fountain before they get too crowded. From there, you have a few options, depending on your interests

If you haven't had enough of history and museums, spend the morning at Castel Sant'Angelo, a Roman museum which was originally built as a tomb for the emperor, Hadrian. You can wander around the castle and admire the huge collection of art, medieval firearms and military artifacts. The upper floors are decorated with Renaissance interiors and frescoes. The view from the terrace is also stunning.

Then, cross the bridge and wander through the Villa Borghese, a large park in central Rome. Along with lawns, gardens and playgrounds, it’s also dotted with museums, galleries and a lake. It’s a lovely spot for a picnic on a sunny day.

Another (or additional) option is visiting the Palazzo Barberini. Home to a collection of older art, you can see works by many Renaissance artists here, including Tintoretto, El Greco, Caravaggio. The building is also beautiful and there is a small garden.

In the afternoon, head to Trastevere for a food tour of this fascinating neighbourhood. You’ll spend a few hours sampling local food (usually enough for dinner) and drinks. Otherwise, just take a wander through the streets and pick a restaurant for dinner. Then head to one of the bars in the area for after-dinner drinks.

Picturesque street view in Trastevere, Rome

If you have more time in Rome

  • Delve further into Rome’s wonderful food scene by visiting Campo de’ Fiori, Rome’s famous market known for its fruit, vegetables and flowers. You can also spend more time wandering through Trastevere and visiting the local eateries. For a more local experience, try visiting Testaccio, which is known for its great food and nightlife.

  • For a very unusual experience, head to the Capuchin Crypts at the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. The Crypts are in six chapels, five of which are decorated with the bones of dead monks. It’s strangely beautiful and incredibly disturbing at the same time. Visiting the crypts is a sobering experience but also oddly peaceful. Be aware that photos are not allowed in the crypts.

  • For a more active activity, try cycling along the Appian Way, one of Rome’s very first paved roads. It’s a lovely route which passes by the ancient aqueduct, decorative mansions and castles, old statues and tombs. There are also some fascinating monuments and an archaeological site along the road.

  • Take a day trip to the ancient harbour town of Ostia Antica. Comparable to Pompeii, it offers well-preserved ruins, including ancient apartments, baths, and amphitheatres, that paint a vivid picture of life during the height of the Roman Empire. Alternatively, head to the Castelli Romani. This collection of wine-producing hill-towns offers a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of Rome.

Planning a trip to Rome? Read our guide on where to stay in Rome, get an indication of Rome travel costs or get travel tips from a local.

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Roxanne de Bruyn

Author - Roxanne de Bruyn

Roxanne is the founder and editor of Faraway Worlds. She is a freelance writer and guidebook author and has written for several travel publications, including Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor and The Culture Trip. With a background in communications, she has studied ancient history, comparative religion and international development, and has a particular interest in sustainable tourism.

Originally from South Africa, Roxanne has travelled widely and loves learning the stories of the places she visits. She enjoys cooking, dance and yoga, and usually travels with her husband and young son. She is based in New Zealand.

Last Updated 19 February 2024


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