Your First Time in Rome Guide
Rome is a fantastic city and is probably on everyone’s itinerary who visits Italy or Europe for the first time.
The city is full of historical sights, big and popular ones, but also countless more.
The real question is, which sights should you make sure not to miss, and what are lesser known ones worth adding to your itinerary, without creating a jam-packed trip that ends in chaos?
There are definitely ways to find a good mix of the big popular sights, adding a few more special ones in-between, and still making space for time by yourself, exploring the city on your own.
With Monograms Travel I was surprised to find an “un” tour operator who provides exactly this. So I went with them to Rome and actually pretty much did the kind of trip that I would also have done by myself, with the only difference being that I had to spend far less time organizing it.
With that experience now, I can recommend the following itinerary.
My Rome City Trip Guide:
Day 1 in Rome:
You’d probably already had an early start to the day that you arrive. Check-in at the hotel and take it easy for a bit. Don’t go crazy right away, it’s best to first get a feel of the place. You can just explore the neighborhood around the hotel. Ask a local or your Monograms local expert for some good tips. As I had a few excursions over the next few days with Monograms, their local expert recommended a few things I could do on my own, which were also not too far away. So I walked 15 minutes and visited the Spanish Steps in Rome.
These are definitely a must-see, even if it’s just to tick-them off your list. You’ll see many other places are there to do that, too. Apart from that, the steps are really impressive. Make sure that you get there at the right time, especially if you want the fountain to make it into your photo. The fountain is often in the shade of the surrounding buildings — at around 5.30 – 6 pm the sun is at a point where it shines through the street, hitting exactly the fountain and the Spanish Steps in the back of it. The beautiful evening light will make a fab photo! Late morning may also be okay as the sun will be on the steps and fountain, but there may be more shade on the steps. I haven’t checked it myself, so let me know via the comments if that is really the case.
Be there on time, as the street is not big and the buildings quickly bring in the shade again. If you are there a bit too early, rest a bit on the steps and watch the crowds taking their selfies. This is actually a lot of fun, as you’ll spot some fun characters.
There are also some rules and a few police officers around to make sure that you stick to those.
- You are not allowed to picnic on the steps.
- You are fine with a drink, but no food is allowed and you are not allowed to sit directly next to the fountain.
- Both rules make sense when you see the amount of people every hour visiting the Spanish Steps.
On the way back to the hotel, get a bit lost and wander through the streets. Or ask for a restaurant recommendation. Choosing the right restaurant can be a bit of a task in Rome. There are hundreds of restaurants and quite a few of them should not be on your list, as they don’t have the best food and are overpriced. On the other hand though, the food in Rome and Italy in general is so delicious. Further down I’ll share a few restaurants where I went, but you can definitely also go with the recommendations of the Monograms local expert, they had great options for me!
Day 2 in Rome – Highlights of Rome
Make this your day of seeing Rome’s main attractions. Have a good breakfast, put your comfy walking shoes on and explore the must-sees of Rome. With seeing the highlights on your second day, you can then decide on your third day if you would like to go deeper into any of those, see other sights in the city or if you would like to maybe step out of the city center itself.
The Vatican City:
This one is going to get busy during the day. There are options to buy a ticket to skip the line and I highly recommend you to get that one. With Monograms you have that one, but even better, they got the first entry time to visit the Vatican City before it actually opens to the “normal crowds” at 8am in the morning. So while the others have to wait till 9am, you are already inside exploring. Don’t get worried if you suddenly find yourself standing in a long line with the skip the line ticket. We were a bit further back in that line, but entered the Vatican 15 minutes after they opened the doors at 8am.
This is an art masterpiece, painted by Michelangelo, but it’s also the place where the new pope gets selected.
The whole room is full of frescos where Michelangelo painted the ceiling, which is simply spectacular and which actually changed the course of Western art. Many other artists copied his “new” style.
Most people with the early entrance rush straight to the Sistine chapel and guess what happens then? There will be lots of people in that room and that’s why I would recommend to go easy and explore the galleries towards it for about 45 minutes, so that you are at the Sistine chapel at 9 am. That way the early bird crowds will be gone and you’ll be there before the first official visitors are going to enter the Vatican.
St Peters Basilica:
The St Peters Basilica is massive. It was built in Renaissance architecture and it’s the largest church in the world. The interior of the basilica is just as impressive as its size. It’s decorated in marble with many sculptures and reliefs. You can see the massive dome from many places around in Rome. Just in front of the basilica you’ll find St Peter’s Square, where the pope regularly holds his mass.
If possible, don’t visit the Vatican on a Thursday. Why? The pope gives his official audience greeting and mass on a Wednesday, which over 80,000 people attend. It’s then not possible to visit the St Peter’s dome and the museums on this day, which means more people come the day after (Thursdays).
Fun fact: The Vatican is its own independent country, so you can add this officially to the list of countries you have visited. It’s the smallest state of the world with around 0,44 m² and with only 800 – 1,000 people living here, also the smallest one in population.
The Colosseum in Rome is the biggest amphitheater ever built and it only took 10 years to complete (AD 80). It was used to entertain the general public of Rome. It was the place for public spectacles like gladiator contests, executions, re-enactments of famous battles and dramas, animal hunts and even sea battles! Yes, at specific times the Romans “flooded” the inner circle with water and had sea battles in the Colosseum. Incredible! Up to 80,000 people were able to watch the spectacles and it was free to attend them.
Most know the Colosseum’s function as a place for gladiator fights and nowadays it’s hard to understand how people could watch how others fought each other, sometimes till death. But not all gladiators died, actually “only” about 5-8% of them did. The gladiators often belonged to some noble families and it was not that easy to have a successful gladiator. The gladiators trained a lot and it was a big loss to loose them. The audience wanted to see a good fight and so most gladiators did not loose their life when they lost a fight. Then there were again “shows” where those who were condemned to death had to enter the arena naked and had to fight wild animals like lions, rhinos, panthers, tigers, leopards and crocodiles.
Nowadays the Colosseum is a ruin, as it got damaged by a huge earthquake in 1349. It also got misused to build other buildings, where people simply took its stones or metal out of it and used it to build other houses.
It is a very impressive building and there is no way that you can miss that sight! Still, it’s a little hard to imagine how this place might have “lived” in the past and I do hope that the tourism board or smart tour operators will find ways to use modern technology (like augmented reality) to give it that extra touch, to let people travel in time and to experience this stunning sight like it might have been centuries ago.
Tip: Get the skip-the-line Colosseum tickets online before you go!
The Pantheon is a former Roman temple, nowadays turned into a church. What makes it so special is the huge hole in its roof. No, this hole did not come from an earthquake or similar event. It’s there on purpose and it looks amazing when the sun shines through it. The Pantheon is one of the best preserved of all Ancient Roman buildings and its dome is the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.
The Trevi fountain is actually only the backside of a building, the Palazzo Poli. It’s the biggest fountain in baroque style in Rome and for sure one of the most popular fountains in the world. Thanks to the movie Three Coins in the Fountain, the fountain earns around €3,000 each day, thanks to people throwing coins into the fountain. To “get” good luck, you throw a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder… they say.
Once a week the fountain needs to be cleaned from the coins, which makes around €1,100,000 per year. That money is used to subsidize a supermarket for Rome’s needy. There is always a huge crowd of people at the fountain, no matter if it’s during the day or the night. No matter the time of the day, this is a stunning fountain and you should not miss the Trevi fountain.
Day 3 and Day 4 – More Sights and Things To Do in Rome
You have now explored Rome by yourself and have seen the must-see highlights of the city. On day three and four you can dive deeper into the city and endless further sights or choose activities to make this trip even more unforgettable.
No matter where you go in Rome, you’ll find plenty of amazing sights. I would recommend to just get lost. I usually decide to head towards a specific direction where I would like to see something or expect at least a nice view or similar. I don’t go straight there, but keep my eyes open for interesting looking streets, parks or inner courtyards. So I’ll head there via detours and those detours are usually the highlight of my trips. Sometimes it’s a nice cafe, park or a cool looking building.
Here are more things I loved about Rome.
– Temple of Hadrian, suddenly I stood in front of this huge temple with its massive pillars. An amazing building.
– Catacombs in the outskirts of Rome; Rome was always a busy city with many people living in it. And people die. In the old days the Christians were buried in huge catacombs, which you can visit. There are several ones and I’ve been to Catacombe Domitilla and San Callisto. There wasn’t a big difference between those, but it’s worth visiting at least one. The catacombs have four levels and up to 150,000 people buried in their up to 12-kilometer long hallways. You can only access them with a guided tour, which makes sense, as you don’t want to get lost in the catacombs.
– Church Chiesa di Sant’ Ignazio di Loyola with its super fresco beneath its ceiling and its artificial painted dome. If you are interested in art, then you simply have to visit the many churches in Rome. That’s where you see some of the masterpieces of the old day’s artists. What amused me is that quite a few churches charged to light up those paintings. Seriously? Not that many people go into churches anymore and here they have these stunning pieces of art and don’t show them without paying?
– Tiber Island, which gives you the feeling of being in a tiny village in the center of this massive city. There are more cafes and restaurants to go to and of course more churches to explore.
– Ancient Appian Way; I did my first ever ebike tour, which took us out of the city. It’s a tour I can really recommend, as it takes you to one of the catacombs (San Callisto is included in the price) and then shows you the real big architectural masterpieces of the Roman Empire, its roads and aqueducts. The buildings in Rome are stunning, but to build those roads over those super long distances is something which is easily underrated. The ancient Appian Way is a wonderful cobblestone street lined with trees and it’s actually also quite nice to get out of the busy, traffic-congested city. The tour also takes you to the remaining of an old aqueduct, which is another highlight of Roman architecture. This tour could also easily be done with a regular bike, but it was actually an interesting experience to do this with an ebike.
– Italian Cooking course; Italian cuisine is about pasta, pizza and gelato, right? Why not do a cooking course to learn how to cook those delicious dishes? I mean, seriously… you won’t need a cooking course to make a pizza or gelato, but there are some extra little tips you can get from an Italian chef and with those you can then create the authentic Roman pizza. And not to forget that you are going to eat it afterwards yourself and simply have a fun night out.
As you can see, there are so many things to see and do in Rome and I just mentioned a few. The city is packed full of them.
What’s missing? Food! There are also restaurants everywhere, but quite a few are more just there to fill your stomach without really being worth paying for. Then you find the cafes and bars next to the major sights where you can pay up to €13 for a regular glass of beer (0.3l).
I’ve been to a few restaurants which I can definitely recommend to you, as their food tasted really good and the prices were also fine. It’s a huge city, so there are countless good restaurants, but I would recommend doing your research and/or asking a local for some tips.
Cafes and restaurants I’ve been to and can recommend in Rome:
– Antico caffe del teatro Marcello, the right place to drink an espresso and it has old historical photos on its walls.
– La Matriciana, good Italian cuisine. Try their Tonnarelli cacio e pepe.
– Alessio Restaurant, very busy place. Expect to wait or better reserve a table.
– Casa Bleve, a bit upper class, but with still good prices and good wines.
Restaurants which were recommended to me in Rome:
– Sora Lella
– Da Giggetto Hostaria
– Nonna Betta
– Osteria San Daniele
Where I stayed in Rome:
– Starhotels Metropole; this was definitely a good choice. Its rooms were spacious and had a very good standard. The location of the hotel was also good as it’s within walking distance to most sights or at least only a short taxi ride away. The train station is also not too far away. You have to know that the train station is not really the area you want to hang-out, especially in the evening. It’s a bit dodgy there, with pick pockets (though you have those everywhere in Rome) and other not so happy folks.
The Italians are not known for an awesome breakfast and you can’t expect that either at the Starhotels Metropole, which is a kind of surprising, as the other standards of the hotel are really good. For breakfast you can expect orange/water syrup instead of proper orange juice. So my recommendation is, stay here, but when in Rome, do as the Romans do… which would be to get your breakfast on the go at a cafe in Rome and rather enjoy that experience.
Altogether, I had some amazing days in Rome and can highly recommend to visit this city. You’ll find many awesome cities in Europe, but this one is unique and stunning. It’s full of historical sights, fun things to do and good food. I can also recommend to visit it with Monograms, like I did. There was no hassle after arriving and wondering what the best way into town would be from the airport, as they pick you up and get you to your hotel. Their local experts know the city really well and can give you some good tips on things to do and where to eat.
You can trust that they will choose a good hotel for you and I liked that they provide you a highlight tour on your first day after arrival, so that you get to know a bit more of the city. Then their chosen extra excursions and partners are also well chosen and there are plenty for each destination, so that you’ll find the right one fitting your interests. And if you should prefer to explore a city yourself, I can only recommend you to do that. Get lost for a while and see what’s around the next corner.
Tip: book your accommodation in Rome in advance as hotels can full up quickly, particularly during high season! Read our Rome Accommodation Guide if you’re looking for somewhere to stay while in Rome! We’ve also covered the top things to do in our Rome Activity Guide.