Is it even possible to fit over 2000 years of history into just seven days? When it comes to Rome, even a month may not be long enough to experience everything this city has to offer. But with a week holiday at hand, you can definitely see the sights that the Eternal City is known for and even get off the well-beaten path. Just remember, ambling through the city while staring in awe at beautiful buildings and monuments is part of the Rome experience. So don’t plan your days down to the minute. Instead, take your time and enjoy “la dolce vita”—the sweet life—when in Rome.
Day 1: See Rome’s Big Three: The Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and the Pantheon
These three destinations are the absolute essentials: If you haven’t seen them, you haven’t seen Rome. Consider starting your day at the Colosseum, as the crowds are sparse first thing in the morning. Even if lines are long or slow, it’s worth it—Rome’s great gladiatorial arena is the most thrilling of the Eternal City’s ancient sights. It remains the largest amphitheater ever built. After spending several hours there—don’t rush your visit—make your way to the Roman Forum. It’s a sprawl of ruins that was once the social, political and commercial hub of the Roman empire, a grand district of temples, basilicas and public spaces. This was the place for public meetings, law courts, and gladiatorial combats, and was once lined with shops and open-air markets–and with a little imagination, you can envision it at the height of its glory as you pick your way through. (PS, don’t miss seeing the Palatine Museum on Palatine Hill, where you can get the best views of the Roman Forum; entry is included on your ticket.) Finally, head to the Pantheon, the best preserved of the ancient Roman monuments and a striking example of the Roman Empire’s ahead-of-its-time architecture. To wit: The Pantheon dome remains the single largest, unreinforced concrete dome in the entire world.
Day 2: Pay a Visit to Vatican City
No trip to Rome is complete without visiting Vatican City and the Vatican Museums–a literal treasure trove of cultural and religious artifacts, as well as where some of the most astonishing artwork in the world is on display. With over 1400 rooms, this is the largest museum complex in the world. There’s galleries with 3,000 years of art, the famous Sistine Chapel with ceilings filled with Michelangelo’s famous frescoes, and parts of the papal palace. One of the most impressive and un-missable halls is the Hall of Maps, with murals of old maps of the papal lands arcing above you.
While you’re in the Holy See, plan to people-watch in the massive plaza of St. Peter’s Square, located in front of St. Peter’s Basilica (it’s large enough to hold 400,000 people!). St. Peter’s Basilica itself is of course a must-see, and be sure to climb all the way to the top of its dome for 360-degree views of Rome. Before you leave Vatican City, unwind by walking through the Vatican Gardens, 23 hectares of lovely landscaped land with a small villa and medieval fortifications that separates the Vatican from Rome on the north and west sides. And PS, just south of Vatican City is Castel Sant’Angelo, where popes sought solace during sieges. If you want an absolutely stunning view of Vatican City and the Tiber, climb to the top.
Day 3: Find the ‘Real’ Rome by Exploring In and Around the Trastevere Neighborhood
Just south of Vatican City is Trastevere, a popular neighborhood often compared to New York City’s Greenwich Village or Paris’s Left Bank due to its charming cobblestone streets and narrow roads. It’s far enough from the city center to be quieter and much less crowded, and a good place to get a glimpse at what everyday life is like for Romans. The ‘hood is filled with numerous restaurants and shops to stroll through, or plan a visit on a Sunday to wander the massive Porta Portese weekly street market and snap up souvenirs. While in the area, don’t miss seeing the Basilica di Santa Maria, said to be the oldest church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Rome, and notable for stunning golden mosaics on its facade. As you leave the neighborhood, don’t miss walking to tiny Tiber Island right in the middle of the Tiber River–it only takes about ten steps to enter or depart, and is especially atmospheric at dusk when the when the only Roman bridge that has survived, Ponte Fabriccio, is all lit up. Another nearby destination you can pair with a visit to Trastevere is a visit to Gianicolo Hill, or the Janiculum. It’s a hike, but provides incredible panoramic views of the Eternal City from the top.
Day 4: Climb the Spanish Steps, Shop Via Condotti, and Take in the Trevi Fountain.
The famous 135 Spanish Steps, which connect lower Piazza di Spagna with the upper Piazza Trinita dei Monti (dominated by the alluring Trinita dei Monti church), are a must-do, if only for the stunning views from the top piazza. The elegant, butterfly-design staircase has long been a popular gathering place for Romans. In fact, you may recognize the stairs from the classic Audrey Hepburn film A Roman Holiday, where they were the ideal location for Gregory Peck’s character to bump into Hepburn. (Just note that while Hepburn famously enjoyed gelato while sitting on the steps, eating there is not allowed today in order to keep the steps pristine.)
While you’re in the area, take the time to stroll Via Condotti, Rome’s most fashionable street—it starts at the Steps and heads west. This is the haute couture strip that houses Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Bulgari, Dior, Armani, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and much more, and is a destination in itself. With your shopping finished, make your way south to the late Baroque masterpiece that is the Trevi Fountain, arguably the best known and most beautiful of the city’s numerous fountains. According to the popular legend, if you toss a coin into the fountain, fate will someday bring you back to Rome.
Day 5: Visit Circus Maximus, Aventine Hill, Giardino degli Aranci, and perhaps a museum.
Circus Maximus is a former chariot racetrack first constructed in the 6th century, the first and largest stadium of ancient Rome (and still one of the largest sports arenas ever built). Today its a massive public park and concert venue. Pay a visit to gawk at the gigantic grassy oval space and envision bands like the Rolling Stones playing for tens of thousands there in 2014–or if the timing works out, take in a show there yourself. After visiting, head to Aventine Hill. This is where you’ll find the Giardino degli Aranci, a garden renown for its orange trees and for its spectacular terrace offering an incredible view of Rome. With a little more time, go looking for the door to the Priory of the Knights of Malta up on the Aventine Hill, just past the orange grove. This is a “secret” keyhole, which, when you peep through, frames a perfect view of Saint Peter’s Basilica across the city.
With a little more time, this is an excellent day to also take in one of Rome’s top museums, the Capitoline Museums. This is the world’s oldest public museum, with a collection of classical sculpture that’s among Italy’s finest.
Day 6: Discover the Spoils of Rome’s Borghese Family
The powerful Borgheses, an Italian noble family that has included rulers, philosophers and even a pope, were once the private owners of the awe-inspiring Villa Borghese Gardens that are now open to the public. This is Rome’s answer to Central Park in New York City, and it’s the most popular public park in the Eternal City. Spend some time walking in the lush surroundings, where you’ll stumble across dozens of statues, the 100-year old Bioparco—one of Europe’s oldest zoological gardens—plus a romantic artificial lake where you can rent a row boat, and even a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.
Then, visit the Borghese Gallery housed in the former Villa Borghese Pinciana. It houses houses much of the Borgheses’ collection of paintings, sculpture and antiquities. The numerous Bernini sculptures are a particular highlight. Keep walking until you reach the breathtaking Terraza del Pincio with views over Piazza del Popolo (the People’s Square)—then descend the stairs to explore the square, too.
Day 7: Stay Out Late and Experience Real Roman Nightlife
As films like La Dolce Vita demonstrate, Romans know how to party. If this is your last day in Rome, a bacchanalia is in order—and it’s time to get off the beaten path. And as most of central Rome has been covered in the first six days of your trip, get out of the Centro Storico and head to the epicenter of Roman nightlife in Testaccio. South of the Colosseum and east of Trastevere, it’s a former working class neighborhood that’s now filled with great food, bars, and nightclubs, and is active ’til dawn.
If you go during the day, don’t miss Testaccio Market, a.k.a., ground zero for fresh produce, historic butchers, street food, pastries, and wine, as well as the neighborhood’s distinctive landmark, the 121-foot-high pyramid constructed in the year 12 BC as the tomb of Roman magistrate Caius Cestius. If you go at night, head straight to the area of Via di Monte Testaccio, one of Rome’s most famous nightlife locations for late-night drinking and dancing.