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Conquer Rome in a day: Essential guide to 24 incredible hours in Rome

Rome in a day. It wasn’t built in a day, and seeing everything the Eternal City has to offer in just 24 hours is certainly a Herculean task. However, if you plan carefully and take a thoughtful pick-and-choose approach to what you do and don’t want to see, you can definitely have an unforgettable experience. And you know what really comes in handy? A complete guide from someone who has been there already!

This jam-packed itinerary crams in the major Roman attractions, as well as some lesser-known gems. You’ll find quick guides to the essential tickets you need to book in advance, the best transfers, passes, and hop-on-hop-off buses, the best-guided tours, night tours, and walking tours, not to mention, the best places to stay in Rome.

So put on your most comfortable walking shoes and let’s get started on this epic Roman walking tour!

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Tiber River and St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome

What Not to Miss

You need to allow 4 hours and often a full-half day to see the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. Once you’ve added another half-day for the Forum, Palatine Hill, and the Colosseum, you are really cramming full your day in Rome, especially as you also need to see the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon!

If you can get through this essential Rome itinerary, then the other sites you visit as you make your way through central Rome on the way to these unmissable Roman experiences is a bonus.

There are early entry tours that allow you to see spectacular sites like the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum before the regular opening hours, and also on night tours. This allows you to add a couple of hours more sightseeing to your one day in Rome.

When just the thought of having only one day in Rome seems too daunting

This one-day Rome itinerary needn’t be done as a self-guided tour. There are lots of tours that will take you to many of these sites with all of the transport taken care of. It’s even possible to combine a couple of them to see even more!

There is, however, one fantastic guided tour of Rome in one day that really does do it all in one day! It includes the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Colosseum, Forum and Palatine Hill, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps is Rome: Historic Center and Vatican Skip-the-line Guided Tour.

It’s a small group tour that includes skip-the-line tickets for all of the above except for the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps which don’t require tickets. It’s operated by Rome Group Tours and can be canceled with no charge and a full refund up to 24 hours before the tour.

An even more inclusive tour of Rome is Rome: Squares, Vatican & Colosseum Tour, Lunch & Transfers. This tour includes transfers to and from your accommodation and meals and visits to all of the locations above plus Piazza Navona and a traditional lunch.

Where to Stay in Rome

This amazing Rome in a Day itinerary assumes you are spending the entire day in Rome and so will have a least one if not two nights in Rome. For really short trips to Rome with a very late or very early flight, Best Western Hotel Rome Airport is a simple, quiet, and reputable hotel very close to Rome Fiumicino airport with a quick shuttle bus to and from the airport.

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Simple Roman hotel in Travestere

Otherwise, in order to see Rome in a day (or more), I love staying in Travestere. Full of bars, and restaurants, with a fun and youthful vibe on weekends – I can walk to many sites and it’s simple to take the trams. Here are the three best picks in Travestere:

Villa Agrippina Gran Meliá – The Leading Hotels of the World – A superb 5-star hotel experience with an exquisite formal area, elegant rooms with terraces and private pools, and a swimming pool area that is highly reviewed and causes guests to return each year to chill out by. Only a 5-minute walk to the Vatican.

Horti 14 Borgo Travestere – 4-star hotel with spacious, modern rooms, great staff, and a contemporary bar and pool area in a quiet spot.

Hotel Santa Maria – Fantastic 3-star hotel with lovely homely rooms, breakfast courtyard, sitting rooms, and terraces – quiet and right in the heart of Travestere.

Advance Purchase Rome Entry Tickets Quick Guide

If you want to see Rome in a day, you will need to purchase all the major entrance tickets several months in advance. I have never been able to secure a ticket on the official sites, even 6 months in advance.

Here are the essential and best skip-the-line electronic entrance tickets to buy online well in advance of your day in Rome. The tickets for the guided tours sell out more slowly than the entrance tickets, but unless you’re booking very early, it’s probably your only option. Some sites only allow entrance with a guided tour.

How to Get Around Rome Quickly

From shuttle buses, trains, and private transfers, to City Passes and Hop-o Hop-off buses, here’s how to get around quickly so that you can get in and out of the city center and nail your day in Rome itinerary.

The Colosseum

Start your day in Rome at its most iconic attraction, one that instantly transports anyone visiting Rome back to the days of the Roman Empire.

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The exterior of the Colosseum, Rome, Italy

Explore the Colosseum, both the largest amphitheater ever built in ancient times and the largest amphitheater still standing today. Thousands of years ago, it welcomed crowds in similar numbers to modern sports arenas, as Ancient Romans gathered to watch all kinds of spectacles, ranging from hunts, executions, battle reenactments, plays, and – of course – gladiatorial contests.

And while the site has served myriad other purposes down the years – including being used for housing, as a workshop, and as religious quarters – it is the image of gladiators which will pop into your mind’s eye as you enter the structure.

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Colosseum, Rome, Italy

As you can imagine, most visitors to Rome want to see the Colosseum, so make sure you buy a skip-the-line ticket before making your way there. The Colosseum is not open some days and on other days it is free and the length of the queue is eye-watering.

It’s now possible to tour the previously off-limits underground areas of the Colosseum and its also popular to tour the Colosseum at night, which is worth considering if you’re only spending one day in Rome and want to see the other major Rome attractions in a slightly less frantic fashion!

Check out these best VIP access tours

Roman Forum

Many of the express skip-the-line tickets give you entrance not only to the Colosseum but also to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, your next two stops.

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Roman Forum, Rome, Italy

While we may associate gladiators chiefly with the Colosseum, the Roman Forum also played host to bloody battles some two thousand years ago. More significantly, it was the site of some of the most important governmental buildings of Ancient Rome, some of whose ruins are still standing.

Wander around the plaza and imagine the reality of daily life in Ancient Rome: triumphant soldiers returning from foreign expeditions, some of the most famous thinkers in European civilization debating the hot topics of the day, and Rome’s criminals being tried and sentenced.

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Rome Forum, Rome, Italy

Sitting in the small valley between Palatine Hill and Capitoline Hill, the Forum is a surprisingly verdant space dotted with amazing architectural excavations, the likes of which you would be hard-pushed to find in any other city.

I am always amazed that the Roman Forum and the Colosseum – these key landmarks of ancient Rome – have been preserved in the historic city center. Along with Palatine Hill, they are always on my Rome itinerary, and I never tire of seeing them juxtaposed with other iconic landmarks of other eras. For me, it’s what makes Rome the eternal city.

Palatine Hill

Next, make the climb up from the Roman Forum to Palatine Hill. To give you an idea of its illustrious past, the word palace actually comes from this hill!

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Hippodrome of Domitian (Palatine Stadium), Palatine Hill, Rome

Tip: To reduce waiting times and avoid long lines, enter the Forum and Palatine Hill from the entrance closest to the Colosseum. It’s called the Palatine Hill entrance and it’s midway down the road that runs between the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, called the Via di San Gregorio.

Discover how Ancient Rome’s richest and most influential citizens – emperors, aristocrats, politicians – lived up in these hills, away from the hoi polloi below. Enjoy the fine view of both the Forum and the Colosseum on one side, and Circus Maximus on the other.

This famous Hill is the mythological birthplace of Rome, the spot where Romulus founded the city. By touring the various remains here, you get a very tangible feel for ancient Roman history.

You can also learn how its position in Rome’s history was first fortified by Emperor Augustus, who built the Domus Augusti here. Some rooms of this private residence are still standing to this day, and you can admire the surviving Roman frescoes. Similarly, beautiful frescoes are to be found in Casa di Livia, thought to be Augustus’ wife’s residence.

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Domus Augusti, Palatine Hill, Rome

Elsewhere, you discover how Augustus’ successors added to the hill’s importance. Nero, Tiberius, and Septimius Severus all had major constructions built here, but all of their constructions were dwarfed by that of Domitian.

The castle he had built was so magnificent that Roman emperors saw fit to make it their official residence for the next five centuries. Its fate was ultimately sealed when it was destroyed by an earthquake in 847.

Today you can wander the remains of the palace, which is divided into three parts: the Domus Flavia, Domus Augustana, and the “garden”. While it requires a little more imagination than the Colosseum, it will offer you a step back into a bygone age.

Trevi Fountain

Take a thirty-minute walk from the hill to the Trevi Fountain, and make the most of what there is to see on the way.

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Trevi Fountain, Rome, Italy

You will want to stop for a photo at the Altare Della Patria (“Altar of the Fatherland”). It’s in Piazza Venezia is a monumental tribute to Victor Emmanuel II, the first King of a unified Italy.

If you are open to going out of your way a little, cut through Piazza Campidoglio – a square designed by none other than Michelangelo!

Closer to the fountain is Galleria Sciarra, a much more recent modern masterpiece. This ornate, covered courtyard, built in the late nineteenth century, is a glorious explosion of color.

When you arrive at the fountain itself, you might reflect on how the name Trevi comes from “tre vie” – “three roads” in Italian – as the fountain is indeed at the heart of a picturesque square.

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Crowds at the Trevi Fountain, Rome, Italy

Take a look at the centerpiece of the Trevi Fountain, whose figures are an interesting collection of symbolic characters. Standing over the others is Oceanus, with seahorses and mermen at his sides. The thought behind the work is to represent the various characteristics of the world’s seas – as they were known at the time.

Follow the example of the millions of other visitors who have come here since the 1700s, thrown a coin into the water, and make a wish. It is such a common activity that in 2006, Caritas, a local charity, sought permission to collect the coins. So you can rest assured, whether your dream comes true or not, your money will be going to a good cause.

(Of course, you have to get close enough to the fountain to do that. I took this picture in April, but you should see the crowds in August!)

When making your donation, consider this: if you throw one coin into the Trevi Fountain, that means you are bound to return to Rome. Two coins mean you will find love. Three means marriage.

So if you are traveling with your partner, keep an eye on how many coins they throw in!

Campo de’ Fiori

Take a 15-minute walk southwest of the Trevi Fountain to Campo de’ Fiori. It is one of those markets that grace many a city center, which can feel both slightly touristy and undeniably attractive at the same time.

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Campo de’ Fioro, Rome, Italy

Walk along the stalls to see some of Italy’s best produce, including fruit, vegetables, olive oil, and wine.

Anyone thinking about buying a souvenir to take home should bear in mind that products here come at a premium, but the quality of produce is still good.

Similarly, you can try an excellent if pricy version of one of Rome’s signature dishes – pasta carbonara – at La Carbonara restaurant (Campo de’ Fiori, 23). (You have to stop to eat sometime on this one-day Rome itinerary!)

Piazza Navona

Just five minutes or so up the road is Piazza Navona, a beautiful plaza built on the ruins of the ancient stadium that Domitian (him again!) had built for athletics and horse racing.

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Piazza Navona, Rome. Italy

Today, the chief activity in Piazza Navona is tourism, but it is a distinctly beautiful spot.

Fans of baroque architecture will want to check out the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, which dates to the 17th century.

Opposite it stands a second church, Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore. While the building was renovated in the 19th century, it was actually begun in the 15th, and before that, it was home to a church from the 12th century.

There are cafés and gelaterias in the square, so this might be the perfect spot for a cappuccino or a gelato, allowing you to take in the three amazing fountains.

The Fontana del Moro depicts a North-African man wrestling with a dolphin. The Fontana del Nettuno portrays Neptune showing a squid who is a god of the sea. The Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi represents four of the world’s major rivers: the Danube, the Ganges, the Nile, and the Rio de la Plata.

This is also your chance to admire the Obelisco Agonale a solemn, imposing replica of an Egyptian obelisk that towers over the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi. It’s not hard to see why Piazza Navona is one of Europe’s great squares.

The Pantheon

Now, take a short walk along Via del Salvatore to arrive at the Piazza della Rotonda which is where you’ll find the Pantheon.

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Pantheon, Piazza della Rotonda, Rome, Italy

Despite being around 2,000 years old (!), this former Roman temple is in remarkably good condition.

The entrance is free, although it’s a good idea to reserve a ticket in advance if you are going on a weekend or public holiday. The queue outside is disorderly and can fill the whole of Piazza della Rotonda, but squeeze your way in – it’s an essential first-day in Rome experience!

Inside, there is plenty to see. Check out the tomb of Italian master Raphael, which is adorned with a sculpture of the Virgin and Child, Madonna del Sasso (1523-24), by one of Raphael’s pupils, Lorenzetto.

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Interior of the Pantheon. Rome, Italy

Another highlight is the oculus, a 25-foot opening at the center of the pantheon’s dome, which creates a truly spiritual effect when the sun’s rays pass through it.

Finally, marvel at the dome itself. An architectural marvel, it remains the largest unsupported concrete dome in the world.

Centro Storico and Castel Sant’angelo

From the Pantheon, the walk to St Peter’s Square takes you through Centro Storico, the historic center of Rome.

Castel Sant Angelo and bridge over River Tiber in Rome, Italy.
Castel Sant Angelo and bridge of River Tiber, Rome, Italy

Head down Via dei Coronari towards the Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge, looking out for photo opportunities on the way.

The bridge itself is picture-perfect, its sturdy sides guarded by a chorus of angels.

On the opposite side of the bridge stands Castel Sant’Angelo. Commissioned almost two thousand years ago by Emperor Hadrian with the idea that it would be his mausoleum, the building has served many purposes in the centuries since.

Today it houses a museum that is divided into four sections, which tell the history of the building. It’s an incredible museum, but if time is short, I’d personally skip Castel Sant’Angelo and see it and Villa Borghese on your next trip.

St. Peter’s Square and Saint Peter’s Basilica

Take a left at the Castel Sant’Angelo and head west towards St Peter’s Square.

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St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City, Rome

If you have followed this itinerary to the letter, you might not have much time (or energy!) to explore too much, but it is definitely worth taking in the square, recognizable from so many popes’ speeches, before heading inside St Peter’s Basilica.

St Peter’s Basilica is arguably the most important church in the world and was built on the site of the crucifixion of Peter, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples and the founder of the church. Thought to be the largest on earth, it contains many must-see elements.

Head first to La Pietà, Michelangelo’s heart-rending depiction of the Virgin Mary holding her dead son in her arms. Carved out of a single block of Carrara marble, it’s actually an early work of Michelangelo, pre-dating his David by some five years, but is an equally masterful piece.

Next, gaze up at the cupola, also designed by Michelangelo around 40 years later, though he never saw it completed.

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St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Rome

The cupola’s 16 windows, which help to cast light on the frescos, mosaics, and figures within, inspired similar domes in many religious buildings around the world, including St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

If you want to climb to the top of the dome for a closer look at the artwork and an amazing view out of the square, you have to buy a specific ticket for €8 inside the basilica, assuming it’s not sold out – purchase online in advance as the crowds are ferocious at any time of year.

The journey to the top is not for everyone – there are more than 500 steps and some tight squeezes to boot, but if you can handle that, the view is more than enough reward.

For the more spiritual among you, the altar will have a special allure.

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Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Rome

Known as the Papal Altar, it can only be presided over by the pope himself and is built directly upon the tomb of Saint Peter.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed the altar, along with the Baldacchino, a kind of canopy made of bronze that shelters the altar, and St Peter’s Chair.

The chair is a humble wooden chair, traditionally said to have been used by Saint Peter, which is preserved in a gilt bronze casing.

Another notable piece to visit is the bronze statue Saint Peter Enthroned. Peter sits on a marble throne, holding the keys to the kingdom of heaving in his left hand and blessing his followers with the right. Look out for his right foot – such is the devotion that this statue has commanded, it has actually been worn down by the kisses planted upon it by countless pilgrims.

Vatican Museums

At this point, you might be wondering when the Sistine Chapel is going to make an appearance!

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Hall of the Candelabras, Vatican Museums, Rome

As I noted above, any one day Rome itinerary is going to involve being selective – brutally so – and that is certainly the case if you want to explore Vatican City.

There is so much to see, any visit is likely to occupy most of your day and will mean seeing little or none of the rest of the city.

However, if that is what your heart desires, I will take you through some of the other major highlights. The Vatican Museums consist of 54 galleries and more than 70,000 works of art, so it can seem unfair to focus on a handful of major attractions, but on such a tight schedule, needs must!

The Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel is one of the most famous buildings in the world, and home to one of the most reproduced and imitated artworks: The Creation of Adam.

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Michelangelo’s frescoes (The Creation of Adam) in Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Several decades later, Michelangelo returned here to paint The Last Judgment, another masterpiece.

The chapel is the last of the Vatican museums and so is usually the last place to visit, but given its importance, you might want to make a beeline to it.

Apart from Michelangelo’s famous ceiling, the chapel is covered in frescos by his contemporaries including Botticelli and is truly an overwhelming visual experience.

As you can imagine, the demand to see the chapel is extremely high, so buying a ticket in advance is absolutely essential. And, photography is not just forbidden, but there are a bunch of security guys making sure you don’t!

Tip: It’s worth buying a small set of binoculars even if the only time you ever use them, is to see the iconic image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel!

The Raphael Rooms

You might also want to visit The Raphael Rooms, four rooms that house major works by Michelangelo’s best-known disciple.

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Raphael rooms, Vatican City, Rome

Definitely make time to see the Stanza della Segnatura, whose four paintings depict Theology, Poetry, Philosophy, and Justice.

Among these, look out for The School of Athens – which represents philosophy. One of the most popular paintings in the city, it shows Aristotle and Plato chatting in a large gathering. Raphael included himself and many fellow artists in the painting, so it’s a fascinating piece to gaze at with Google close at hand.

The Gallery of Maps (Galleria delle carte geografiche) is something completely different, and much more to my taste!

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Gallery of Maps, Vatican Museums, Rome

If you have any interest in geography or Italy itself, this 120-meter-long gallery is captivating. (I seem to find everything interesting!)

Like the Sistine Chapel, it was a labor of love for its creator, Ignazio Danti, who spent three years completing the 40 panels which make up the gallery.

Despite being commissioned in 1580, the maps, which chart every region of Italy and include perspective paintings of the principal cities, were incredibly accurate for their time.

The Octagonal Courtyard

This covered courtyard in the Pio-Clementine Museum is believed to be the oldest part of the Vatican Museums and is notable for two famous sculptures.

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Laocoon and His Sons (Laocoon Group), Gallery of Statues, Pio-Clementino Museum, Vatican Museums, Vatican City

The Apollo Belvedere – such a major attraction that the site was once known as The Belvedere Courtyard – is thought to date from the second century.

Along with Michelangelo’s David, it has long been acclaimed as the image of aesthetic perfection.

You should also seek out Laocoon and His Sons, a very different piece. Like The Apollo it is an ancient piece – most likely mentioned by Pliny the Elder – which was recovered in the 1500s.

However, unlike Apollo, it is an unsettling work, depicting the agony of a Trojan priest as he and his children are attacked by sea serpents.

Ponte Umberto I

Whether your day was focused on Vatican City or the rest of Rome’s attractions, it is very likely close to sunset.

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Sunset at Ponte Umberto, Rome, Italy

A wonderful place to watch the sun go down is Ponte Umberto, another of Rome’s historic bridges just upstream from Ponte Sant’Angelo.

There are plenty of photo opportunities here, from the classical court of justice on the north side of the river, to a perfect shot of the Vatican City.

Piazza di Spagna

Walking along the other bank of the river and turning right before the Ponte Cavour will lead you to Via Tomacelli. This road flows into Via dei Condotti which takes you to Piazza di Spagna.

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Piazza di Spagna, Spanish Steps, and Bernini’s Barcaccia, Rome

The Spanish Steps have long been a classic meeting place for locals and visitors alike, and since the 1950s, fans of Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday have added to their numbers.

Walk up the Spanish Steps from the square, passing the Spanish Embassy – which gives the square and its steps the name – to the Trinità dei Monti church.

The church is still maintained by the French state and a French diplomat actually secured the funding for the Spanish Steps.

Note how the staircase is split into three tiers, representing the three members of the Holy Trinity.

The view from the top is very special, offering vistas of both the plaza below and the Roman skyline. At the foot of the Spanish Steps, keep an eye out for La Barcaccia, a highly symbolic fountain by Bernini.

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Restaurants in Trastevere, Rome, Italy.

After the Tiber river flooded the city in 1598, Bernini and his father made this sculpture of a half-submerged boat.

The foreign influence in the area is not just Spanish and Italian. To the right of the Spanish Steps, poetry lovers will be moved to find the Keats-Shelley Memorial House. the final home of British Romantic poet John Keats, who came to Italy to die after being diagnosed with tuberculosis.

The house contains a museum featuring, among other things, manuscripts, Keats’ deathbed, a lock of his hair, and his death mask.

If you make it to the Piazza di Spagna a little earlier in the day, there is another British presence.

Babington’s Tea Room has served High Tea since 1893, and while a cup of English tea in Rome might seem incongruous, the tea room is actually a testament to the city’s central role in the Grand Tour, which brought many well-heeled Brits to Rome centuries ago.

So even if you only get to spend one day in Rome, follow their lead and make it grand before heading out into the Roman night to a traditional-style trattoria for a pasta dinner!

Final Thoughts

Visiting Rome in a day is for first-timers to Rome. It is a tiny but powerful glimpse of the treats you can savor on a longer trip next time.

My only regret: no time for the Borghese Museum and grounds on this trip. It’s possible though to swap out Castel Sant’Angelo for the equally iconic landmark, Villa Borghese depending upon your love of art and sculpture!