We all know Rome wasn’t built in a day. But believe it or not, it is possible to see the best that this incredibly beautiful city has to offer in the space of only 24 hours. All you need is a decent pair of shoes and a healthy dose of espresso to get you started. (Followed by cocktails. And then prosecco. And then more cocktails. But we’ll get to that later.)
The key to seeing Rome’s best bits in such a short space of time is to keep moving, or more precisely, to avoid queues like the plague. No standing around in the heat, wedged between hot, disgruntled tourists in a queue that hasn’t moved an inch in the last 15 minutes. You may wonder what the point is in visiting Rome if you’re not going to see the interior of its most famous attractions: St Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum. I hear you. I would have loved to have seen inside all of these places and if I were to come back with 2 weeks to spare and all my pre-booked, fast-track tickets ready I would absolutely visit all of them. But I had 24 hours, and tight purse strings, and I did not want to waste the entire day in a queue. Especially when the famous Italian organisational skills (ahem) are hard at work here. There are no signs at the Vatican to indicate which queue you should even be in as there are apparently different lines for people with tickets and those without. At the Colosseum noone seems to know which line they should be in or what they are doing or if they are actually in the queue for the Roman Forum next door, or if they’ll get all the way to the front of the queue only to be turned away for wearing Hawaiian-print shorts. The only people you can ask are the touts and hawkers who will invariably try to sell you overpriced ‘queue-jump’ tickets for various overpriced tours. It’s madness, and the tourists who have actually decided to brave the queues look stressed and miserable.
So, we skipped the queues and did Rome our way. Who needs to actually see inside the Colosseum when you can climb the stairs opposite and take pictures like these?
When you only have one full day to see the city, the most important thing is to stay somewhere in a good location. We wanted to book a hostel that was both as central and as good value as possible and we found an absolute gem in B&B’s City House which seemed too good to be true. A stone’s throw from the Pantheon and less than a 10 minute walk from the Trevi fountain and Piazza Navona the entrance to this hostel sits unassumingly on the buzzing Via della Maddalena. B&B’s couldn’t be more central if it tried. The dorm rooms are reasonably priced, as are the doubles with shared bathroom. Forget standard hostel bathrooms with grey cubicles and strip lighting, this shared bathroom is as clean and homey as your own and the hostel feels more like a tucked-away boutique hotel, without the price tag.
As for seeing the sights, if you hit Rome’s cobbled streets early enough, you can cover the city completely on foot and avoid taking any public transport. (Always a plus in my opinion, public transport networks in major cities can be majorly confusing!) We are out of the hostel by 8am and in the ancient Pantheon by 8.05, gazing up at the impressive oculus in the domed ceiling. This early in the day there are no queues and we had this incredible place almost to ourselves. Rather than join a tour, we had previously downloaded a free podcast by Rick Steves onto our phones. This gave a bit of context to ‘all the old stuff’, and I’d definitely recommend this to anyone that wants to learn about the history of a place without paying a hefty fee for a guided tour!
Seeing as it’s still early in the day we decide to head over the bridge to Vatican City to see whether the queues are as bad as people say. They are. An enormous, chaotic snake of a queue has already formed at St Peter’s Square. Rather than even attempt to find the end of it, we wander leisurely around the square, taking in the impressive view of the basilica while dodging large groups of Chinese tourists and disgruntled families who assume everyone is trying to jump the queue. Along the wide street that leads up to St Peter’s you can look inside several churches which are uncrowded and peaceful, such as the lovely Santa Maria in Traspontina, just a few metres from St Peters Square. If, like me, you’re not at all religious you can still appreciate the incredible frescoes painted on the ceilings, not to mention it’s a welcome break from the tourists and the heat outside.
From Vatican City we walk back across the river in the rough direction of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. (Don’t be deterred by what Google maps may tell you, it’s really not that far on foot!) As we wander down the shady streets we begin to hear the enticing sound of gushing water. A few twists and turns later we suddenly find ourselves at the famous Trevi Fountain, which seems to pop up out of nowhere in a small square filled with kissing couples and coin-tossing tourists.
From here, it’s a short stroll to pretty Piazza Navona where you’ll find not one but three impressive fountains. This popular spot is the perfect place to take an espresso break or grab a slice of pizza and people watch. Or just take a seat and admire the impressively carved architecture… (ahem).
Over at the Colosseum, it’s another hectic swarm of confused queueing and jostling to get inside. We take the steps opposite, away from the heaving crowds and unhelpful hawkers down below, and find a quiet spot to take in the iconic view. The sprawling Roman forum is just next door and Palatine Hill can be seen behind in the distance. This is the ancient heart of the city and it’s an unmissable part of any trip to Rome. Even without visiting inside, it’s impossible not to feel in awe of this giant ancient wonder.
We continue up the steps opposite the Colosseum, ambling down cobbled streets that lead to small, fountain-filled piazzas, stopping for a cold drink or yet another cup of gelato. We peek inside the countless charming churches that seem to stand on every street, turn a corner to find ourselves in a courtyard filled with orange and lemon trees. This is the best way to see the city, just keep walking and take it all in. (Although Google maps does help if, like me, you have zero sense of direction and want to avoid getting completely lost or going round in circles!)
Eventually we find ourselves at the very top of the gorgeous Spanish Steps, the traditional meeting place of artists, poets and bohemians. The steps spill out onto the busy Piazza di Spagna below, crowded with tourists, locals and covered in bright pink flowers. A super photogenic photo spot!
By this point it is late afternoon and, we have to admit, our feet are feeling pretty tired so we head back to the hostel for a power nap. (Yep, this one day itinerary even includes a nap!) But as soon as the sun starts to go down, it’s time to get up and get back out there because as every Italian knows, 6pm is aperitivo time. The best part of the day and an absolute must if you are visiting the city, aperitivo is the British equivalent of a long happy hour. But here in Rome, it is so much more than that. There is nothing quite like sipping cocktails as the sun goes down, at a busy street-side bar, listening to the buzz of excited, post-work chatter as everyone winds down after a long day in the city. Romans know their stuff when it comes to shaking a good cocktail, and in most bars your drink will be served with a light plate of something delicious to snack on while you sip.
Our evening unfolds slowly, hopping from bar to bar, starting at Gusto which is widely reputed to be the best aperitivo bar in the city due to its fantastic free buffet. The cocktails are delicious and you can take as many trips to the heavily laden buffet table as you like. If you’re on a tight budget but still want to dine in style, this is a great way to enjoy a light meal without forking out at a pricey restaurant.
After drinks at Gusto we head down Via del Pace, one of the small streets that lead off Piazza Navona, and apparently an aperitivo hotspot. The busy bars along this charming street are filled with locals and tourists alike. Make sure you do as the Romans do and order a classic Aperol Spritz, served with yet another plate of something delicious.
Although by this point we have eaten enough to feed a small army we can’t resist tucking into a pizza washed down with a bottle of prosecco at Pummerola, just opposite B&B’s City House back on Via della Maddalena. This place does the BEST pizza, the staff are friendly and it’s fantastic value for money despite it’s great location. (If you still have room after dinner, the gelateria next door serves 150 different flavours of gelato, at just 2.50 euros for two scoops! I can highly recommend the salted caramel and profiterole…)
No visit to Rome would feel complete without a trip across the river to the youthful, vibrant neighbourhood of Trastevere and the hip, late night hotspot that is Freni e Frizioni. This popular bar is always rammed, but you can take your drinks outside and join Rome’s cool kids on the steps that lead down to the river. Try the Green Day cocktail, a refreshing mix between a mojito and a slush puppy. Heaven.
At 2 am, after bar-hopping our way around the city and dragging our tired feet back across the bridge, we hear the familiar sound of running water and find ourselves back at the Trevi fountain. Lit up and illuminating the whole piazza, the fountain is almost deserted at this hour. Legend goes that anyone who throws a coin into the fountain will return to Rome some day so I rummage around my purse looking for a stray euro. But I realise that I don’t need to throw in a coin to be sure of coming back. I may have seen a lot in just one day, but I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of the sights and secrets this beautiful, ancient city has to offer.
Roma, mi manchi già!