1 Day in Rome Itinerary: Walking Tour of the City’s 16 Top Sites

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Rome’s Famous Sites in One Day - St Peter’s Square

No one traveling to the Eternal City wants to be limited to one day for a tour of Rome. But life happens – a flight cancellation at Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport, limited free time before or after a business trip, or as a stopover on an Italian cruise before heading to Florence or Venice. If visiting Rome as a first-time visitor or returning for the 10th time, here’s the plan for a day-long walk to see 16 spectacular, iconic sites.

15,000 Steps, One Full Day, All the Must-See Sites

This walking tour is roughly split into two parts. Start with the highlights of Ancient Rome from Circus Maximus to Piazza Navona. Then see the splendors of Post-Imperial Rome from Piazza Navona to St. Peter’s Cathedral. Start by taking Metro B (blue) public transport to the Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo) stop or a taxi to the Piazza di Porta Capena.

To make good use of time, the one-day Rome itinerary only includes two extended stops, the Colosseum/Roman Forums and St. Peter’s. Start in the early morning around 8 or 9 am with an eye to finishing before St. Peter’s Basilica closes at 7 pm.

Before embarking, best to buy a Colosseum/Forum ticket well in advance at Coop Culture, the only official (and cheapest) site to buy tickets. At a minimum, you should buy a single-day admission ticket to the Roman Forum/Palatine Hills.

Rome is a city perpetually under repair. Prepare yourself mentally for blocked entrances, closed buildings, and scaffolding at well-known sites.

SheBuysTravel Tip: There is no delicate way to say this, but one of my least favorite travel tips is to encourage people to carry toilet paper or wipes while on a long walk in Rome. Public restrooms are scarce and don’t always have amenities.

Rome’s Famous Sites in One Day - Circus Maximus.
Circus Maximus. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo)

On this sightseeing tour, Circus Maximus is the largest and one of the least impressive sights unless an Italian celebration or concert is underway. Measuring a third-of-a-mile long almost to the Tiber River, this was the largest stadium in the Roman Empire. At full capacity, more than 250,000 people could witness chariot races, gladiatorial contests, and other public events. Today the stands are gone, replaced by a grassy park in the valley between the Aventine and Palatine hills. The ruins of the palatial homes from the Palatine Hills particularly frame the north side. A new twist on guided tours is to rent a Virtual Reality tour for your next visit.

Was Ben-Hur filmed here? No, the film crew created the famous chariot race at Cinecittà in Rome, the largest film studio in Europe.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The Rome Metro is easy to use but the smallest system in Europe and isn’t close to many hotels. Best to save energy for the day and splurge on a taxi to start this Roma tour.

Rome’s Famous Sites in One Day - Baths of Caracalla.
Baths of Caracalla. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Baths of Caracella (Terme di Caracalla)

Just a five-minute walk from Circus Maximus past the Stadio delle Terme di Caracalla (a stadium used for track and field) along the appropriately named Viale delle Terme di Caracalla is the Baths of Caracalla. Arriving here, the outer walls stand tall, enclosing a vast area that was once filled with pools, gardens, and other bathing facilities. Built between the years 212 and 216 under the direction of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, more commonly known as Emperor Caracalla, the Baths were one of the greatest and most spectacular thermal complexes in ancient times.

Inside the Baths, there are no statues or frescoes so best to enjoy the exterior. Skip the tour inside.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The Baths are open each day at 9 am daily and the cost is 13 Euro for admission for adults. Tickets are available here at Coopculture.it.  The baths are cavernous so a guided tour is helpful in envisioning how thousands of Romans would have congregated here daily.

Rome’s Famous Sites in One Day - Arch of Constantine.
Arch of Constantine. Photo credit R.C. Staab

Arch of Constantine (Arco di Costantino)

Take a short walk north along Via di S. Gregorio, staying on the west side in the shadow of the Palatine Hills. For a moment, imagine yourself in the 4th century, returning with the troops from a victory far afield in Roman Europe.  Ahead is an impressive arch as crowds wait to cheer your army’s entrance to the city center.  Today, the crowds are still there but it’s the march of tourists who admire the Arch of Constantine, a triumphal arch dedicated to the emperor Constantine the Great to commemorate his victory over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. This masterpiece of Roman architecture with friezes and sculptures has served as an inspiration for architects of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the Marble Arch in England (both in cities that were once part of the Roman Empire).

Rome’s Famous Sites in One Day - The Colosseum.
The Colosseum. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

The Colosseum (Colosseo)

Looming over the Arch of Constantine is the most iconic landmark of the Roman Empire – the Colosseum. Built between 72 and 80, it’s the largest amphitheater in the world with a seating capacity of 50,000 spectators. Although it was used for a variety of religious ceremonies and festivals, it’s arguably best known as an arena for gladiatorial contests, animal hunts, and public executions.

Even after almost 2000 years, the Colosseum is the most intact landmark from Ancient Rome and well worth the visit by either buying an admission ticket (usually gobbled up by all the tour companies) or joining a guided tour.  Because there is a limit of 3,000 people on any given day, planning months in advance is crucial. Give yourself enough time to climb up to the stands for the view.  

SheBuysTravel Tip: While there are many tour operators and ticket sellers offering Colosseum tickets, it’s best to stick with reliable companies such as Viator or Getyourguide.  Seriously, buy your tickets six or seven months ahead. Worst-case scenario is to stand in line for day-of tickets or bargain with the ticket scalpers on site.

Rome’s Famous Sites in One Day - Roman Forum & Palatine Hill.
Roman Forum & Palatine Hill. Photo credit R.C. Staab

The Roman Forum (Foro Romano)

From the Colosseum, follow the crowds to a short distance to another triumphal arch – the Arch of Titus – but first pay to enter the Roman Forum. Because this was once Central Rome, the invaders who helped destroy the Empire also destroyed most of the temples, government buildings, and businesses that served about a million people in and around Rome. First is the Temple of Saturn, the financial center of ancient Rome, and the House of the Vestal Virgins. Entering the Forum proper, walk past the Temple of Jupiter, the Senate House, and the Basilica Julia.

Continue north toward the tall building with a bell tower on top. As of October 2023, there is only one exit to the Capitoline hills at the far end – saving considerable time from back-tracking and going all around the Forum on the outside. Stay to the left and follow the signs to the toilet. From there, take the ramp up the incline to the exit, and then once outside the gate, take the curve up the hill staying to the right as much as possible. Make sure to look back for an excellent view of the Roman Forum.

SheBuysTravel Tip: If you’ve skipped buying a ticket to the Colosseum, go to Coopculture.it to buy a single ticket to the Roman Forum/Palatine Hills. If you’ve waited until the last minute, across from the main entrance near the Colosseum, the guards can point to a QR code: a relatively quick way to buy a Forum ticket for immediate use. Any guidebook or audio guide is helpful here. Either download an app from your phone or buy a guide online at GetYourGuide.

Rome’s Famous Sites in One Day - Piazza del Campidoglio.
Piazza del Campidoglio. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Piazza del Campidoglio

Coming from the Roman Forum, what a surprise to see the 16th-century Piazza di Campidoglio majestically appear on top of Capitoline Hill, the most important of Rome’s seven hills. Designed by Michelangelo, this exquisite Piazza is surrounded by the Palazzo Senatorio, the seat of the Rome City Council, and the Capitoline Museums in the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuovo. At the center of the Piazza is the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor from the 2nd century.

Tickets with a multimedia experience are here if you want to return another day.

Rome’s Famous Sites in One Day - Romulus and Remus Statue
Romulus and Remus Statue (under repair 2023). Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Capitoline Wolf

Back in the direction of the Roman Forum on the other side of the Piazza is a bronze sculpture that sits on top of a column. This is Capitoline Wolf, a she-wolf nursing two twins, Romulus and Remus. The twin brothers are the main figures in the story of the founding of Rome by Romulus, following his fratricide of Remus. The image of a she-wolf suckling the twins in their infancy has been a symbol of the city of Rome and the ancient Romans since at least the 3rd century BC.

Descend the gently sloping staircase, the Cordonata, and note how the steps differ from the norm.  Michelangelo designed the stairs, as well as the series of reliefs depicting various scenes from Roman history.

At the bottom of the stairs, turn right to follow the white marble wall until a much larger, less subtle staircase appears on the right.

Rome’s Famous Sites in One Day - Vittorio Emanuele II Monument.
Vittorio Emanuele II Monument. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Vittorio Emanuele II Monument (Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II)

The Vittorio Emanuele II memorial was built to commemorate the unification of Italy and to honor Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a unified Italy. This grand monument, built between 1885 and 1935, is decorated with a variety of statues, reliefs, and inscriptions, with the equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel II taking center stage. The monument has also been criticized for its scale and location on the revered Capitoline Hill. Italians derisively call it “macchina da scrivere” or “torta nuziale.” The English translations are “typewriter” and “wedding cake.”

Rome’s Famous Sites in One Day - Piazza Venezia.
Piazza Venezia. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Piazza Venezia

The Piazza across the street from the “wedding cake” is the next stop. Because it sits at the crossroads of the Via del Corso, the Via dei Fori Imperiali, and the Via Nazionale,Piazza Venezia is a mad scene of honking cars, trucks, and buses almost 24 hours a day. Be very, very cautious crossing the traffic here.

Stop at this important square for a moment and gaze at Palazzo Venezia with its simple second-floor balcony holding an Italian flag.  Imagine people gathering to hear Vittoria Emmaneul II announcing the unification of Italy or people gathering to hear the news of Italy declaring war on the Ottoman Empire or watching Mussolini from the balcony of Palazzo Venezia announce Italy’s entry into World War II. During that war, Mussolini would often address the crowds from this balcony or hold parades and ceremonies in the square.

Around the corner to the left and to the left again is an interior plaza inside the Palazzo.  It’s well worth a stop and rest in its shaded courtyard.

Tickets are available here.

Rome’s Famous Sites in One Day - Piazza Navona.
Piazza Navona. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Piazza Navona

Leaving Piazza Venezia at the far end away from the “wedding cake,” make a left and follow Via del Plebiscito for about a half mile, staying slightly to the right.  You will see signs pointing toward Piazza Navona, but if not, make a right near the Museum of Rome on a pedestrian thruway, Via della Cuccagna in front of San Pantaleo church. A short walk north is Piazza Navona, considered the heart of Rome for its people-watching, cafes, and lively street entertainment.  It’s the Italian version of Times Square or Piccadilly Circus but much more tasteful and relaxed.

Piazza Navona is a feast for the eyes with its Baroque buildings and fountains. Sculpture by the renowned Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the Fontana dei Fiumi (the Fountain of the Four Rivers) is particularly impressive with its towering obelisk and statues representing the four major rivers of the world: the Nile, the Danube, the Ganges, and the Río de la Plata.  

This is the perfect time for lunch at one of the many outdoor cafes, sip an aperitivo, or grab a gelato to soak up the atmosphere of this lively and vibrant square.

An underground tour of the ruins of the Stadium of Domitian, the former site of the ancient Olympic Games is available at the Piazza.

Having walked 2.5 miles from Circus Maximus to Piazza Navona, you’ve reached the halfway point of this walking tour.

Rome’s Famous Sites in One Day - Pantheon.
Pantheon. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Pantheon

With a bite to eat digested, time to move farther into the city center. Exit to the right of Bernini’s fountain via Corsia Anola, make a left, and then a quick right on Via del Salvatore, and follow the crowds to the Piazza della Rotonda. Here is the Pantheon, one of the best-preserved ancient Roman buildings. It was originally built as a temple to all the Roman gods in the 1st century, and it has been in continuous use ever since.

When it was destroyed by fire, Emperor Hadrian reconstructed thePantheon in 126-128. With its columns, pediment, and massive concrete dome, it has inspired architects for almost 2000 years including the Pantheon in Paris, the U.S. Capitol, and numerous capitol buildings in America.

The interior of the Pantheon is even more impressive with the dome of the rotunda pierced by a central oculus, the only source of natural light.

Up until the summer of 2023, entry was free. Now, a ticket is now required (5 euros) which can be purchased here. A more in-depth tour is offered here.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The new ticketing system has caused much confusion and consternation especially because the site was free to visit for almost 2000 years!  If this is a must-see site, then before you arrive, splurge on a skip-the-line ticket from Viator or GetYourGuide.

Rome’s Famous Sites in One Day - Trevi Fountain.
Trevi Fountain. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain)

Turning your back on the Pantheon, exit the Piazza della Rotonda at the far northern end, and on the right by the Hotel Pantheon, you will find a narrow street, Via del Pastini. Walk six long blocks following other tourists on a pilgrimage to the site most memorialized in cinema – the Fontana di Trevi.  

American films Three Coins in a Fountain and Roman Holiday introduced many Americans for the first time to an old Roman tradition. It is said that if you toss a coin into the fountain, you will return to Rome one day. For a more dramatic and even more iconic moment in all of cinema, marvel at the scene from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita when two lovers, Anita Ekberg, and Marcello Mastroianni, walk through the empty streets late at night and meet in the middle of the fountain for a romantic moment with a surprising end.

Despite what you’ve seen in photos, the Trevi Fountain is in a relatively small piazza overwhelmed by the size and grandeur of the fountain. The fountain is over 80 feet tall and 160 feet wide with Oceanus, the god of the sea, overseeing the tritons, horses, and shells that Pietro Bracci and Nicola Salvi sculpted.

For the curious, take an underground group tour to see the remains of the aqueduct under the fountain.

Rome’s Famous Sites in One Day - Spanish Steps.
Spanish Steps. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti(Spanish Steps)

Exit the Piazza di Trevi on the far right along Via del Lavatore and walk four long blocks to a plaza where you’ll turn left on Via del Traforo. Continue straight on this road which turns into Via dei Due Macelli and arrive with thousands of tourists at the Piazza di Spagna looking up 135 steps to the Trinita dei Monti church.

The name relates to its origin when a French diplomat funded the stair to connect the church, then under the patronage of the Bourbon kings of France, to the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See in the Palazzo Monaldeschi at the bottom of the steps.  The steps are made of white travertine marble and are decorated with a variety of sculptures and fountains interspersed with a vibrant flowering garden. The central fountain at the bottom of the steps is known as the Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Longboat).

As there are still two miles ahead on the tour, no time to climb the steps.  

SheBuysTravel Tip: While certainly people will be sitting on the steps, be aware that a new city ordinance gives police the authority to fine people 250 euros for sitting on the steps and 400 euros for damaging them or dirtying them which includes eating food.

Rome’s Famous Sites in One Day - Castel Sant’ Angelo.
Castel Sant’ Angelo. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Castel Sant’ Angelo

Take the main road, Via Dei Condotti, away from the steps for about half a mile toward the Tiber River, making sure to continue to the splendid Ponte Umberto I that crosses the river. The travertine bridge was dedicated to Umberto I, King of Italy, who inaugurated the bridge together with his consort Margherita of Savoy.

Looming on the other side of the river is Castel Sant’Angelo, a former papal fortress built in the 2nd century, which was also used as a prison and papal residence over the centuries. As one might hope to see, the castle is surrounded by a moat and is accessible by a bridge.

Although today the Castel is not part of the Vatican City, there is still an underground passage that was built in the 13th century connecting it to St. Peter’s. The passageway was used by several popes over the centuries, including Pope Clement VII in 1527 during the Sack of Rome. Clement VII was able to escape to Castel Sant’Angelo while the city was being looted and pillaged. Click here for tour information.

Rome’s Famous Sites in One Day - St. Peter’s Square.
St. Peter’s Square. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square)

Crossing the bridge and staying to the left, in the distance one can see St. Peter’s Basilica. Follow the wide Via della Conciliazione to enter the Vatican City–the smallest country in the world with just over 100 acres and a population of about 800 people. Vatican City has its own constitution, government, currency, postal service, police force, and military (the colorful Swiss Guard).

For Catholics, this is the most sacred site in their religion and arguably the most beautiful public space in all of Europe, maybe the world.

The square is designed in the Baroque style, characterized by its grand scale, use of geometrical shapes, and lavish ornamentation. With nearly 300 columns and statues, the colonnade is designed with the idea that the Mother Church is embracing its followers in her arms. For a more practical purpose, Pope Alexander VII directed Bernini to design it so the greatest number of people could see the Pope give his blessing, either from the middle of the façade of the church or from a window in the Vatican Palace (to the right when facing the basilica).  At the center of the square is an Egyptian obelisk, brought here from Egypt in the 1st century – one of the oldest obelisks in the world.

Be prepared to go through two security lines to enter the Piazza.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Papal Masses are typically held on Sundays and holidays, while Papal Audiences are held on Wednesdays. Both events are free and open to the public, but tickets are required for Papal Audiences.

Rome’s Famous Sites in One Day - St. Peter’s Basilica.
St. Peter’s Basilica. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano (St. Peter’s Basilica)

The final stop on the one-day tour is the domed building that dominates the city’s skyline – St. Peter Basilica.  Designed by four architects, including Bernini and Michelangelo, the Basilica is the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture and the largest church in the world. Walk inside and gaze up. It’s more like a city than a church. One can imagine Romans meeting here for religious and social purposes throughout the centuries since it opened in 1626.

Highlights of St. Peter’s

There are three must-stops on a tour of St. Peter’s.  First, after walking in on the right, there will be a crowd lined up to see Michelangelo’s Pieta, a marble sculpture that depicts the moment Jesus is taken down from the cross and lays in the arms of Mary. This is one of the most famous works of art in the world and requires no admission fee, only patience to stand in front of it.

Towards the center of the church is the bronze statue of St. Peter, dating back to the 5th century. There will be another line here for people to pray to the Apostle and kiss or touch the right foot of the statue.

Dominating the center of the church is St. Peter’s Baldachin, a large Baroque sculpted bronze canopy over the high altar designed by Bernini. Catholic tradition holds that the basilica is the burial site of Saint Peter, chief among Jesus’s apostles and essentially the first pope. Saint Peter’s tomb is supposedly directly below the altar as well as the burial crypt of 91 popes including Pope Benedict XVI who died in January of this year. There is a fee of 13 euros to enter the crypt at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The basilica is free to enter and is open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summer. Times vary in the winter. The church may be closed if an outdoor event or mass is being held.  The Dome is accessible and offers a fantastic view of Rome. The cost is 8 euros if you take the elevator part-way or 6 euros if you are willing to climb the 551 steps to the top. Basic information from the Vatican about visiting St. Peter’s is here. You can combine a trip to the dome with a guided tour of the church.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The Vatican Museums with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s fresco are separate from St. Peter’s and require admission. Typically, the wait in line to enter lasts several hours.

Map of Rome One Day

Rome’s Famous Sites in One Day - Mario Lopez with his favorite Jersey book.
Mario Lopez with his favorite Jersey book. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

A tourism and culture expert, R.C Staab has been quoted in and his photos are featured in numerous publications including the New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, and CNN. Click on the title for his latest book, New York City Scavenger: The Ultimate Search for New York City’s Hidden Treasures, which explores Manhattan from Battery Park to Washington Heights with both famous and unexpected sites in all neighborhoods, including Times Square, Or if you are heading to the Jersey Shore, do what TV, film and stage celeb Mario Lopez does and pick up a copy of the book, 100 Things to Do at the Jersey Shore Before You Die. Visit www.100ThingsJerseyShore.com to order your autographed copy.

R.C. Staab is a New York-based author, playwright, musical theater writer and lyricist. His latest book, New York City Scavenger: The Ultimate Search for New York City’s Hidden Treasures, was published in Spring 2023. His first book 100 Things to Do at the Jersey Shore Before You Die was published in 2020 and is now in its second printing. In 2021, he walked the entire 139-mile coastline of the Jersey Shore from Sandy Hook to Cape May the book, generating more than 200,000 views on social media. He frequently contributes to New Jersey Monthly magazine and online travel publications. He is long-time member of the Society of American Travel Writers having traveled to 49 of the 50 US States and more than 60 countries. He specializes in cultural tourism, adventure travel and historical sites. His off-Broadway musicals and plays have been produced in New York, San Francisco, England and the Midwest. He is a two-time nominee for England’s Best New Song competition. He lives in New York City with his wife, Valari, and his dog, Skye.
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