When it comes to traveling, some of us might not have the luxury of spending many days in one place. Whether it’s due to rushed planning or limited vacation time off from work, it can be hectic trying to research and cram in as much as possible into sightseeing a city or country. In the end, it might be exhausting, and it perhaps could detract you from enjoying your adventure away from home.
Having been inspired by the many Internet articles (one of the most-famous including the New York Times’ “36 Hours in…” segment) that showcase ideal itineraries in a set destination, I’d thought that I would also start a similar series on this blog to offer some of my own suggestions of things to do, see, and eat in well-renown cities in the world.
What makes my series different from the others online would be the fact that I’m by no means a professional traveler (e.g. no sponsors, all-paid resorts, etc.), and that what I will suggest are based on my own personal experiences having visited a certain place at least twice, in order to ensure a more-comprehensive outlook on the city itself.
Many online articles in the same vein also tend to cater towards mid-to-upper class travelers who can actually afford hotels and fine-dining restaurants, which I assume many people in their 20’s, even 30’s, can’t have. That’s why I’m catering this series to the budget-friendly, backpack-traveler nomad who doesn’t mind staying in hostels, taking overnight buses, or eating at hole-in-the-wall joints while still getting a fulfilling experience in traveling. This one’s for you, folks!
PS Check out more of my “72-Hour” posts here!
72 Hours in Rome: Things to See and Do
Steeped in ancient history, this Italian capital is home to some of the most awe-inspiring architecture dating back over 2000 years ago, including one of the Seven Wonders of the World: the Roman Colosseum. Others include the Pantheon from the 2nd century BCE, along with more-modern wonders like the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps from the 18th century BCE. It feels as if you’ve stepped back in time as you walk the cobblestone streets of Rome, all the while channeling your inner Lizzie McGuire wherever you go (millennials, you better get the reference)!
I have visited Rome twice, once in 2006 as a teenager and later in 2017 as a full-fledged adult. Whereas I had a single, whirlwind day of visiting the highlights during the first visit, I was able to slow down and spend several days exploring the smaller sights when I returned 11 years later. I also visited Rome in different parts of the year, the first time in the summer and the second in the winter; as a result, it made for unique experiences from different perspectives.
Rome gets a bad rep for being over-crowded and over-touristy, as much as it’s the same for other cities in Italy such as Venice. Heck, Italy is generally perceived to be over-run by tourists. But even if parts of Rome can be generic and gimmicky, I’ve still found the city to be one of my favorites I’ve visited in all of the country. There are dozens of historically-significant monuments to keep you busy all day (and for days) and the food is impeccable, if you know where to look…that said, if you ever go to Rome and have 72 hours to spare, here’s what I would recommend for you:
PS: All of the sites that will be mentioned in this post are all center within Municipio I, the heart of the city. While I’m aware that there are other sites worth seeing outside of this quarter, much of what to see for first-timers are concentrated in this particular area of Rome.
First day in the city, and it’s time to hit the ground running! An early rise (i.e. before 10:00) is sure to guarantee you a spot on a Roman Colosseum tour. There’s also the option of purchasing “Skip the Line” tickets to get in, but I often find that you buy them from scalpers and they tend to be shady…you could also choose to visit the Colosseum on your own, but I’ve found that a tour is more-efficient, as it not only gives historic details of the site, but it also tends to combine nearby sights– the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill— which is a great bang for your buck! Expect for a three-hour to half-day tour of these sites, and do be mindful of any pickpockets or hawkers in the area.
After a quick bite at any of the cafes or osterie (informal dining) around the Roman Forum, it’s time for an afternoon spent in the western corner of Rome. Passing the Forum, you’ll also pass through the Altare della Patria, a majestic monument from the early 20th century in honor of Vittorio Emanuele II, the king who unified Italy. You can then spend the rest of the afternoon mingling in the vicinity of the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, and the Trevi Fountain, all within 5-6 minutes of each other on-foot. I especially encourage you to enjoy the Trevi Fountain by making a wish and tossing a coin behind your left shoulder with your right hand, before enjoying some gelato at one of the sweet shops in the plaza.
Just before the sun sets, cross over the Tiber River and head uphill to the Trastevere district, a quieter and more residential part of Rome. Enjoy the golden hour at the top of the Belvedere del Gianicolo, the city’s rustic red and yellow rooftops in all of their splendor. Enjoy your evening with dinner in one of the dozen restaurants in Trastevere; any of the options for Italian food are solid, as well as away from the hustle-and-bustle of Piazza Navona or the Colosseum.
It is another early rise to head over to the Vatican City. Technically, it’s a completely-different country, but being that it’s enclaved in Rome, it’s often combined as a visit for tourist-goers who visit the Italian capital for the first time. It’s also highly-recommended you go with a tour, as you can beat the crowds and combine sightseeing of the museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. The tour lasts about half of the day (3-4 hours), and you can say that you visited an additional country at the end of it!
There are plenty of restaurants to dine in or take away in Vatican City; I would grab a quick slice of pizza (portion is enormous) before heading back to Rome proper for the afternoon. Just before crossing the Tiber River, you can chance upon the Castel Sant’ Angelo, a 2nd-century mausoleum dedicated to Roman Emperor Hadrian. Spend the rest of the northern corner of Rome, where you can get more stunning views of the city from the hilltop of the Villa Borghese estate, before heading down the famed Spanish Steps. Adjacent to the steps is the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, dedicated to 19th-century Romantic poet John Keats, who died in the house from tuberculosis. If you’re a big fan of Keats and/or Romantic poetry, it’s worth a visit!
A dinner at any restaurant between Piazza Navona and Piazza Coronari is encouraged, as it’s one of the liveliest parts of town. Besides the dozens of traditional osterie and trattorie for Italian food, there are also plenty of bars and clubs to relish the night away with. Not only that, but at every block you turn, there’s some sort of historic monument to marvel at, and there really is that sort of magic of walking the warmly-lit cobblestone streets at the end of the night.
Tired from the past two days of sightseeing? Your third (and final) day in Rome is your catch-up day, either with sleep and/or with other sights you’d previously missed out on. This is the day to check out the lesser-known, miscellaneous sights, as well as perhaps revisit a few of the ones that really captured your attention.
Heading south of the city, I suggest a pop-over at the Mouth of Truth, a marble disk with a history as obscure as its intended purpose: historians speculate it was used as some kind of drainage system, but even today, it remains a mystery. Legend has it that the Mouth of Truth would bite the hand off of those who lied, and tourists line up to stick their hand inside the opening for the risk. Gimmicky as it sounds, it’s still a neat exhibit to check out!
Further south is the Non-Catholic Cemetery of Rome. Morbid as it sounds, the site does house a few distinctive sights, including the well-preserved Pyramid of Caius Cestius, who was a senator in 100 BCE and the grave of poet John Keats (with Joseph Severn’s, his caretaker, buried alongside). Even cemeteries come with fascination, especially the burials of those famous in history.
Another fun activity to spend your last day in Rome is what I call “basilica hunting.” Specifically for the “Four Great Basilicas of Rome,” these papal basilicas are the crowned jewels not only of the city, but also of the world. Each contain stunning Holy Doors that inspire even the non-religious for a visit. Plus, they are all free! The four basilicas are scattered all over Rome, although one of them, St. Peter’s Basilica, is technically in the Vatican City. The remainders are St. Paul Outside the Walls (San Paolo Fuori le Mure) in the south, Archbasilica of St. John Lateran (Arcibasilica di San Giovanni in Laterano) in the east, and Papal Basilica of St Mary Major (Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore). I’ve been to all but St. Paul Outside the Walls, and I can vouch that the golden floor-to-ceiling interiors of each are worth seeing in one’s lifetime.
There still remains much more to see in Rome than what’s been listed in this post, for a taste of it during your first visit, it’ll be a solid start to inspire you to return again and again. After all, Rome is the “Eternal City,” and it’s the gateway to what the Italians call “la dolce vita.”
Have you been to Rome before? Let me know!