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3 Day Rome Itinerary: The Best Route for First Timers

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Ahh Rome, the Eternal City. I certainly feel like I will love Rome for eternity, but unfortunately, we only had three days to spend there last summer with our daughters.

I have visited Rome before, and was so excited to take Craig and our girls there to experience the city for the first time and allow them to see why it stole my heart.

Since it’s new to Craig and my daughters, I planned the perfect 3 day itinerary for Rome that ticks off all the bucket list moments, the best attractions, the highlights, and unmissable landmarks.

Craig and the girls came away ever in awe of the city, and me even more so! On my first visit, I was a backpacker who didn’t get much of a chance to dive deep into the culture – especially its delicious food- and cute neighborhoods. This was an experience that took Rome from a loved city in Europe to my favorite!

It would be a shame to keep our perfect itinerary to ourselves, so here’s what we did in 3 days in Rome!

But first…

Are 3 Days Enough To See Rome?

aeiral view of roman forum and colosseum in the background
The Roman Forum and Colosseum

I would say that three days is the minimum amount of time you need to explore Rome to see the main attractions. 

It’s a huge city with a lot of history to uncover, and many of the attractions you can spend several hours in. To see the Colosseum and The Forum, you need at least half a day for both if you opt for a guided tour, which will eat into your time. Visiting The Vatican is also another half day, minimum.

If you only have three days, I have to warn you, it will be a full-on three days with little chance to stop and rest. 

If you have more time at your disposal, I recommend you spend five days in Rome.

There are also many cute neighborhoods to explore and you could also spend a day shopping, as Rome is a huge fashion hub.

Five days allows you to explore more leisurely and have a day or two simply sitting back and enjoying the beat of Rome in a piazza or coffee shop, rather than attraction hopping.

The Best 3 Day Itinerary for Rome

people sitting at tables outside bar on cobblestone street
Cool areas in Rome

The following itinerary can be completed in any order. We’ve organized it so that you hit the top attractions first, with the first two days being quite full on, and the third day being more chilled.

You can swap these days around to better suit your interests. 

You should also book your attractions in advance and adjust your itinerary according to ticket availability. The Vatican Museums and The Colosseum are incredibly popular, and it’s rare you can book for the next day or on the day, so if you’ve left it to the last minute you may need to reshuffle this itinerary around to accommodate the wait. 

Day One: Historic Rome

Stop 1: The Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill

caroline and kaylra looking at colosseum from the otuside
Why not get in for free?

Ok, so you’ve come to Rome, of course your first stop has to be the Ancient Wonder of the World, The Colosseum.

This ancient amphitheater is the world’s most famous Roman monument and dates back to the year 70 AD. 

This impressive marble stadium was once large enough to house 50,000 spectators, who came to witness gladiator fights, chariot races, and other gruesome battles.

When visiting The Colosseum, we highly recommend you book a tour that gives you special access to the Arena floor. This is not accessible to all ticket holders and is only available on special tours. 

We didn’t know this, so we missed out on the opportunity to walk where gladiators stood. Sigh…don’t make the same mistake we did, check out this guided tour that includes the Arena Floor + The Forum + Palatine Hill.

caz and savannah walking along the cobblestone road of Via Sacra roman forum
Via Sacra

Just a short walk across the road from the Colosseum is the Roman Forum, which was once the ancient market of Rome.

You can wander around the ruins of ancient government buildings, temples, and market stores.

Within The Forum complex is Palatine Hill, one of seven hills in Rome. This is an important place in Rome as it’s said to be the place where Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus, were taken in by the she-wolf and where Hercules defeated Cacus.

You’ll find most tours offer The Forum, Colosseum, and Palatine Hill combined since they are all next to each other, so be sure to allow half a day to explore them all.

You can learn more about these three places in our complete guide to visiting the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill (including all the mistakes we made!)

Stop 2: Lunch at Centro Storico or Monti

people walking down street in rome
Monti Neighborhood

After a morning spent wandering around the ancient Roman wonders, your legs are probably tired and your stomach must be rumbling.

Head into Centro Storico, the beating heart of Rome, to find a restaurant with al fresco dining. There are so many restaurants, and you’ll find choosing between them overwhelming. 

Our top tip is to choose one down a side street, rather than in a piazza. These are much cheaper and less touristy. You’ll find most of the restaurants in the piazzas have mediocre food and high prices. This is just one of the things we wish we knew before we visited Rome.

You may also want to eat in the back streets of the Monti neighborhood, right near the Colosseum. We found a cute restaurant here that served delicious food far from the crowds at decent prices. Just leave yourself enough time to get to your next scheduled attraction.

Stop 3: The Pantheon

Mom and daughter looking at an historic building in Rome
First tour of the day at the Pantheon

After lunch, head to The Pantheon to see another marvel of Roman engineering. This beautiful building was once a Pagan Temple, built in 125 AD.

It was then converted into a church by the Romans and is now a museum and resting place for Rome’s greatest artists and royals, such as  King Vittorio Emanuele II, King Umberto 1, and his wife Queen Margherita of Savoy, and the Renaissance artist, Raphael.

It’s most famous for the circular opening in the ceiling, known as “The Eye” or “The Eye of God”, which was built as the only light source for the building.

What about when it rains? I hear you ask. Well, the Romans thought about that. They built a sloping floor, with 22 hidden holes, which will transport the water into the underground cisterns.

Pretty cool, huh? 

It doesn’t take long to see The Pantheon, after all, it’s only one room, but we recommend you get the audio guide with your ticket so you can learn more about its construction and history. You can get your audio guide + entrance ticket here.

Stop 4: The Spanish Steps

savannah walking up the spanish steps

After visiting The Pantheon, wander over to another iconic landmark, The Spanish Steps. The steps were built between 1723 and 1726. They lead from the Piazza di Spagna square to the French monastery church, Trinita dei Monti, at the top.

The steps are a great place to sit and watch people watching, but they don’t take too long to see.

Grab a coffee in the piazza or dip into the designer stores nearby (if your wallet allows).

Unfortunately, you cannot eat, drink, or smoke on the steps, so you’ll find this is just a flying visit.

Stop 5: Trevi Fountain

caz and savannah looking at the trevi fountain
Trevi Fountain

A short walk from The Spanish Steps takes you to another iconic landmark in Rome. The Trevi Fountain is probably the most famous fountain in the world.

It was built in 1762, following the design by Nicola Salvi, who died before it was completed, and so it was completed by Giuseppe Pannini. The design tells the story of Oceanus, the god of water. The entire fountain is 26.3 meters x 49.15 meters, making it one of the largest Baroque fountains in the world. 

One of the most unmissable things to do in Rome is throw a coin in the fountain to ensure your return to the city. The way to do it is to stand with your back to the fountain and toss a coin over your left shoulder with your right hand.

You may need to wait for the crowds to disperse a bit before you can toss your coin. Also note that the fountain is drained on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 8am to 9am, so if you do deviate from this itinerary, make sure you visit the fountain in the evenings.

I also think the fountain looks beautiful when painted in the sun’s soft setting rays.

Day Two: The Vatican

Stop 1: The Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel

caz and the girls hugging outside the vatican
The Vatican Rome

Get up early on the second day and head over to a new country – The Vatican. Although it’s the world’s smallest country, there are no border patrols or passport stamps, but it’s still cool to say you’ve walked into a new country.

The first stop has to be The Vatican Museum, which contains over 20,000 artifacts and artwork (on display, there’s a further 50,000 not on display) that has been curated by the Catholic Church over the years.

The museum was founded in the 16th century by Pope Julias II, and it’s so big you could be in there all day. In fact, the museum itself is beautiful, with gold-gilded designs and frescoes on the ceiling.

white building with bronze circular sculpture in front of it

The biggest attraction of the Vatican Museum is the Sistine Chapel, which is famous for being the place where Michaelangelo painted The Hand of God. You can’t take photos inside the chapel, but it’s a wonderful place to sit and contemplate.

I highly recommend you get a guided tour so you can be shown some of the highlights, otherwise, you’ll be overwhelmed looking at everything. This is the small-group tour of the Vatican that we did.

At the very least, get a skip-the-line entrance ticket, otherwise prepare to queue for up to 2 hours.

How to Tour The Vatican: A Complete Guide To Visiting the Vatican

Stop 2: St Peter’s Basilica

people inside st peter's basilica looking at its stunning design
Inside St Peter’s Basilica

Make your way over to Saint Peter’s Basilica, just across from the Vatican Museums. 

The basilica is the most holy place in the Catholic Church. It’s famous for housing several works of Renaissance art, including Michelangelo’s Pieta. It’s also the burial site of St. Peter, who was the leader of the twelve Apostles of Jesus and the first Pope.

Don’t forget this is a holy place and a pilgrimage site for many Catholics, so if you’re visiting Rome with kids, make sure they are quiet and respectful.

Again, make sure to book your skip-the-line tickets in advance to avoid queuing. It’s free to enter the actual church, but you have to pay to enter the crypt of St Peter and climb the dome. There are also often long queues to enter the church, especially in the summer.

There are also tours that take you to climb the dome and into the crypt. This is the tour that we did with Livtours.

Stop 3: Vatican Post Office

Before you leave, make a whistle stop at the post office within the walls of The Vatican to get your passport stamped. You don’t need to get a stamp, but it makes for a unique keepsake.

Stop 4: Castel Sant’Angelo

People exploring the streets of Rome
Castel Sa

Just outside The Vatican is The Castel Sant’Angelo, which is a former fortress and prison that is also the resting place for Emperor Hadrian and his family in 135 AD. 

As the oldest castle in Italy, it’s an important historic landmark and is now a museum containing seven levels of exhibits dedicated to the fortress’s history. You can explore the Papal quarters and execution grounds, and head to the top of the tower for incredible views.

Check out skip-the-line tickets to Castel Sant Angelo here.

Stop 5: Late Lunch at Piazza Navona

people sitting around Piazza navona
Piazza Navona

There are many piazzas in Rome, each with its own unique architecture and design. One of our favorites is Piazza Navona, which is said to be the most beautiful of the squares in Rome.

It is located on the former stadium grounds, which were used for athletic competitions in 86 CE. The stadium could once hold 20,000 spectators, and it’s still easy to see how races and competitions would have looked as the square still has the same elongated shape.

Today, the square features three beautiful fountains from the 16th century; Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of Four Rivers), Fontana del Moro, and Fontana di Nettuno. 

The most famous fountain is the La Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi which was designed by Bernini and constructed in 1651 for the pope.

pizza in rome

Surrounding the square are many trattorias where you can stop for lunch – but remember our earlier advice, you’ll find cheaper options down the side streets!

We had a delicious anchovy pizza just a block away from Piazza Navona – it was probably still considered expensive. But it was €8 and big enough to share!!

Stop 6: The Rome Catacombs

Rome Catacombs
Rome Catacombs

The Roman catacombs are somewhat of a hidden gem attraction, and not many people go to see them. Possibly because they are located outside the main center of Rome.

The Rome Catacombs date back to the 3rd Century AD, and were the burial place for half a million Christians and Jews, as well as 16 Popes.

They are only open to tourists with a guide, so make sure to book in advance. There are several catacombs outside the city, but the largest and most important is the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus – check out this guided tour of the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus here.

We missed them because we ran out of time, but our teen said she would have loved to go, so if you’re looking for things to do in Rome with teens, add this to your list.

Day Three: Food and Culture

Stop 1: Villa Borghese Gardens and Galleria Borghese

craig and girls sitting on grass looking at phones in the borghese Gardens
Borghese Gardens

I’m sure your legs are aching after all the walking and attraction hopping of the first two days, so on the final day of this 3 day Rome itinerary, we’re going to take it slow.

Starting off with a breakfast picnic in the Villa Borghese Gardens. These are the third-largest landscaped gardens in the city, and are where you’ll find the Rome Zoo, Pincio’s Water Clock, and Silvano Toti Globe Theatre.

It’s the perfect place to sit under a tree with a pastry and a takeaway coffee and reminisce about how great Rome is. 

Afterward, head into the villa itself to check out the Borghese Gallery. Here you can marvel at world-renowned artwork by some of the most famous Renaissance painters such as Raphael, Titian, and Caravaggio.

Stop 2: Trastevere Food Tour

fork holding up twisted spaghetti above a bowl

One of the most fun things we did in Rome was a food tour. Actually, we have done a few, because we love food!

We learned that there was more to Italian food than pizza and pasta, and the street food scene in Rome is actually really good.

Our favorite food tour was in the Trastevere neighborhood, because it’s more local and residential, meaning you get more home-cooked food and authentic dishes. 

If you don’t want to stay in Trastevere, here’s a guide to some other Rome food tours you might like.

We also did this Roman street food tour which was fantastic!

Stop 3: Wander around Trastevere Neighborhood

caz and the girls walking down rome street with colorful buildings
Trastevere

Trastevere is the former working-class district of Rome and is where you will find a vibrant, bohemian atmosphere.

It’s famous for its quaint, narrow cobbled streets, Renaissance architecture, and medieval houses. Located South of the Colosseum, it has a more local vibe, allowing you to feel the beat of Italian life without everything feeling like a tourist trap.

In the daytime, Trastevere is quiet, idyllic, and romantic. At night, it’s a haven for backpackers looking for nightlife, with lively bars and tons of energy.

people sitting outside bar in trastervere

We loved the Trastevere neighborhood, so don’t just come here for the food tour, spend some time walking around its quaint side streets and dip into the boutique stores.

If you haven’t done some souvenir shopping yet, this is a good place to find some more unique items to take home.

Stop 4: Janiculum Hill

Panoramic view of Rome from Janiculum hill, Italy
view of Rome from Janiculum hill, Italy

What better way to end your time in Rome than by admiring sweeping city views from the top of Janiculum Hill, the second-tallest hill in the city?

Gaze out over the domes and bell towers of Rome, before heading to the church of San Pietro in Montorio which is believed to be where St Peter was crucified. There’s a small shrine on the spot where he was said to have died.

Janiculum Hill is best visited at sunset when the skies are awash in pinks and purples. This is what makes Janiculum Hill one of the most romantic places in Rome.

Map of this 3 Day Rome Itinerary

Getting Around Rome

sunset over the Tiber river in Trastevere
Tiber River sunset

Rome is a very walkable city. As long as you have good walking shoes on, you can walk to pretty much all the attractions in this itinerary (aside from The Catacombs).

As well as walking, you can also take the metro (we don’t recommend it – it’s known to have pickpockets) or there’s an extensive bus network. There is also a tram that connects The Vatican to the Villa Borghese area.

You can also use Uber for taxis. It’s expensive, but it’s convenient if you don’t want to work out the bus network.

This is a great overview of Rome’s public transport.

Where to Stay in Rome

We love staying in the Trastevere neighborhood because it’s less touristy and quaint, but on your first trip to Rome, I actually think you’d be better off staying somewhere more central.

Palazzo Navona Hotel

The Palazzo Navona Hotel is probably the best-located hotel for a first-time visitor to Rome. It’s located near Palazzo Navona, as you can probably guess from the name, and is just a stone’s throw from the Pantheon. 

It offers 4-star luxury, with modern décor and good-sized, comfortable rooms. See rates and availability here.

Terrazze Navona

For something a little more boutique, consider Terrazze Navona, just 984 feet from Piazza Navona. It has beautiful rooms decorated in Renaissance flare but with modern amenities. See rates and availability here.

Grotta Pinta Apartments

If you prefer vacation rentals, then you can find some well-equipped, spacious apartment rentals at Grotta Pinta apartments. They have modern 1-2 bedroom apartments that can sleep up to four guests. They are just a short walk from Piazza Navona Square and feature modern furnishings and fittings. See rates and availability here.

Best Time to Visit Rome

bridge over tiber river

The best time to visit Rome is the Spring when the weather is warm and sunny, but not too hot. The summer brings with it all the crowds who are off on their school holidays. It’s also incredibly hot in the summer, which can lead to heat-related issues.

Winter tends to be cold in Rome, but not too busy. You may have a few rainy days, but you have the beauty of seeing Rome without crowds of people (well, smaller crowds).

Before You Go

caz and craig enjoying an aperol spritz in trastevere
Aperitivio Hour in Trastervere

This is just a snapshot of what you can do in Rome, but if you only have three days at your disposal, we honestly think this itinerary covers all the best places and attractions.

Rome is an incredible city and it’s not surprising that it’s so popular.

Before you go, we just want to leave you with some words of advice about visiting Rome;

  • Keep an eye on your belongings. Rome is pretty safe, but pickpockets are rampant, especially around touristy areas.
  • Wear comfy walking shoes. You can walk everywhere, but the roads are mostly cobbled, and it can take it out on your knees.
  • Carry a water bottle and fill it up at the free water fountains in the piazzas.
  • Try to avoid the midday heat. It gets hot in the middle of the day, especially in the summer.
  • Book attractions in advance. You may miss out on seeing some of the most iconic places in Rome if you don’t!

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