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Rome and the Vatican for the super busy – a two-day walking tour

by Silke Elzner

To be perfectly honest with you, you cannot “do” Rome in just two days. You also cannot do it in three days, or five days, or a week. Rome is an attention seeker who really needs more time to explore. More than 2,000 years of history have accumulated here, brought to the surface in the most surprising ways, oftentimes haphazardly and lacking any control.

Different building styles, not just side by side, but seemingly on top of each other, bursting free from their seed shells like seedlings with no regard for their neighbours. Elbowing their way out into the streets and the squares, each one of them trying to out-do the other.

Rome is a confusing place. Thousands of years of history all squeezed into a tiny historic centre, one building more exciting, more inspiring than the next. Palaces, monuments and churches, classic ruins, medieval foundations, fountains, squares and modern roundabouts – turn the next courner and your senses will be overrun with yet a new set of impressions, another amazing sight in its own right.

So it’s fair to say that you cannot comprehend or get the essence of the Eternal City during the course of just a weekend trip.

But this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be travelling to Rome at all. You can make the best out of the situation and take with you as much as possible. Let me share with you our walking itinerary of Rome which we followed when we spent two days in Rome last summer. Even though we were visiting for two days only we managed to see ancient ruins, hidden gems, some of the most renown tourist sites, and the Vatican. To top it off, we ate like kings in one of the most charming and oldest quarters of Rome.

Take this post as a guide for your own planning. There is no need to follow all the steps we’ve taken to have a great time in Rome. You may want to skip whatever does not interest you. Be warned: this tour ended up to be around 40km of walking distance, mostly due to all the walking we did in the Vatican and in the Roman Forum. You don’t need to be that crazy. Choose and pick what you like, keep the rest for your next trip.

Rome Hotel Suggestion

First of all, we stayed at the wonderful Hotel Ponte Sisto, a former convent just a couple of steps from the Tiber. We were really happy with our choice due to the convenient location right next to the gorgeous Jewish Quarter and the old quarter of Trastevere on the other side of the river. The room was bright, clean and friendly and overlooked the peaceful courtyard where breakfast is served on clear and warm days. Staying at this hotel was blissfully relaxing and I am happy to recommend it to anyone. If you are booking with Booking.com, using this link here which will send me a small commission. This helps me finance my travels. It would be much appreciated!

Day 1: Ruins, monuments and tourist attractions

Since we arrived in the late morning hours we decided to have an early lunch first before setting off to conquer the city. Pizzaria Osteria Da Otello in Trastevere proved to be a great lunch destination (not all restaurants are opened during lunch hour in Trastevere, but this one served us pizza, lasagne and tiramisu, all of it simply delicious). The food was so good, we knew we were off to a good start.

From Da Otello we set off to see our very first sights of the city. Our first stop was a surprise find.

In fact, the Piazza dei Calcarari looked like a surprise find also for the experts. An open hole, an excavation site surrounded by busy city streets and old apartment blocks. A mix of medieval brick structures and oven older ruins – columns aplenty. The whole site looked so fresh and new, not even the archaeologists seem finished with it as we could see their equipment lying around everywhere.

What you will mostly see here are the medieval limekilns of the city. Major culprit when it comes to the demolition of ancient buildings around the city, as it was here that the mortar for the ‘modern’ buildings was produced. This is a prime example of how Rome works: you turn a corner and suddenly you are confronted with something as amazing as this, and it’s not even mentioned in any of the major guidebooks.

Medieval ruins at Piazza dei CalcarariPiazza dei Calcarari

Our original first stop, however, was the famous Pantheon. The Pantheon is a very rewarding experience and definitely well worth a visit. You will find it sitting on a tiny square, the pediment littered with bulletholes from the war, blackened by the fumes of the city, and really not that appealing from the outside at all.

Come insight though and be blown away by the amazing cupola with the open gaping hole in the middle, the oculus, one of the wonders of ancient architecture. The Pantheon is almost 2,000 years old, an unbelievable age, and has been used for many purposes over the centuries, most notably as a temple, a church and a tomb. Today, you can simply walk inside and marvel over the brilliance of the architects and the beauty of the Christian artwork inside. Best of all: entry is free.

Bullet holes in Pantheon

From here we walked to one of the most famous landmarks of Rome, the Trevi Fountain. We knew that the Trevi Fountain would be covered in scaffolding for major restoration works (it is now reopened), so we decided to do something else instead: We visited the little known Città dell’Acqua.

This is a tiny museum just south of the Trevi Fountain, somewhat of a hidden gem that is easily overlooked in all the chaos that makes up the city of Rome. What makes this museum so remarkable is that it’s an actual archaeological site underneath one of the buildings, a cinema. It was uncovered when the former Cinema Trevi was built. Città dell’Acqua means “City of Water”, and part of the site is an ancient aqueduct which delivers water to the nearby Trevi Fountain. You can also see remnants of a Roman villa, apartment blocks and pipes, as well as a collection of shards, pottery and glass. The admission fee is modest, but do check for opening times before including this museum in your itinerary.

Città del'Acqua

The next attractions can be taken in as part of your walk to the famous Piazza Navona. The monumental Altare della Patria, the Altar of the Fatherland, will be on your way when you look down the Via del Corso – a sight so imposing, you don’t want to miss that!

Altare della Patria is just one of the things up see on this walking tour of Rome

The Piazza Colonna is another sight that you will be able to take in on your way. You are now in the middle of the shopping district, and maybe you will see temptations left and right, but do make sure you check out the wonderful column right in the middle of the rectangular square.

This is the Column of Marcus Aurelius, yet another monument you will come across that is roughly 2,000 years old. Again! Why I really loved this column is that it’s so pretty with its spiral relief made of Carrara marble. You may not realise that the column is actually hollow and that on the inside there is a spiral staircase which in the Middle Ages used to be a popular tourist attraction. These days, you cannot enter the column anymore, but at least you can marvel at the artistic exterior.

Column of Marcus Aurelius

And then, finally, you will arrive at the beautiful Piazza Navona, a bright and friendly looking square. The openness – for Rome unusual – comes from the fact that the square was built on the site of an ancient stadium, pretty much following the same dimensions.

The Piazza Navona is a wonderful example of the Roman Baroque architecture style, most notably the imposing Palazzo Pamphili which used to be the home of Pope Innocent X. The beautiful Fountain of the Four Rivers, or Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, gained notoriety thanks to thriller author Dan Brown, who immortalised the fountain in his book Angels and Demons. But this doesn’t really matter: the sculptures on the fountain, the flow of the cool water on a hot Roman summer’s day, the movement and the dramatic expression of the sculpture ensemble are simply outstanding.

Piazza Navona with the Palazzo PamphiliFountain on the Piazza Navona, Rome

We walked back to our hotel to change for dinner, again in quaint Trastevere, which is such a lovely place of the city that we instantly fell in love with it. On our way we took in the views of the Castel Sant’Angelo on the other side of the river, once fortress, residence and prison of the Pope, now a museum.

Castel Sant’Angelo

We were lucky to get a table – Trastevere is such a popular place with locals and tourist. We dined outside at Da Gildo in Via Della Scala, enjoying the views of the passer-by, the crazy traffic in the ancient lanes of the Trastevere and the countless street artists collecting coins from patrons for their performances. Fresh food, a glass of fruity vino – no better way to finish the day!


Day 2: The Vatican, the Colosseum and the Roman Forum

To be honest, three attractions of this caliber in one day, it doesn’t really do any of them justice. But then, if you only have one more day left, what do you want to do? I am not the kind of person to give up on one thing if it is humanly possible to do both. It’s a matter of setting priorities and making tough decisions on which parts to see and which aspects to focus on.

We started the day with a guided tour in the Vatican.

Guided tours are the only sensible way in, and even though I am not really a fan of guided tours (they can slow you down, or you struggle to keep up), this one worked out fine and was really useful as it bypasses all the queues and provides you with plenty of information. As you can see, many people like to visit the Vatican, and you will be surrounded by masses of people throughout your tour.

Tourists entering the Vatican

Trust me, avoiding the queues is one of the best decisions we could have ever made. We visited the Vatican Museums, a collection of the most exquisite Western art, presented in fantastic buildings and galleries – ancient maps, beautiful painted ceilings, perfectly modelled sculptures, tapestries and lots more – a stunning collection indeed. We walked through the papal apartments, each one of them more richly decorated with colourful wall and ceiling paintings than the next.

After that the highlight of any visit to the Vatican: the Sixtin Chapel. This is where you will find Michelangelo’s masterpieces, the Creation of Adam and the Last Judgement. Make sure you cover your shoulders before entry and in general follow a more conservative dress code in all of Vatican City. It is at the entrance to the Chapel that the guards really started stopping visitors that were not covered up enough and you don’t want to get embarrassed by them if they refuse your entry.

Before leaving the Vatican we also stopped at the marvellous St Peter’s Basilica, the biggest church in the world, and of course the St. Peter’s Square in front of it. Rows and rows of chairs were lined up in the square, just waiting for our Urbi and Orbi on the steps of the church. Pope for a day!

St Peter's Basilica panorama

From the Vatican we found our way down to the ancient city centre of Rome, where you will find the Colisseum. Again, we had pre-booked our entry to avoid the queues. If you want to do the same, we used GetGuide which offers a great choice of tours and reduced entry fares. It’s really easy to select what you need as you can read the comments of previous customers, so have a look!

We actually walked to the Colisseum from the Vatican but if that’s too far you might want to make use of the public transport system or even hail a taxi. Driving around in Rome is a murdereous adventure and something you must experience once in your lifetime anyway, so now is a good time to give it a try.

Our payment confirmation by GetGuide advised us that the ticket needed to be collected on the day and then an entry time slot for the Roman Forum needed to be picked. We decided to pick a time slot that allowed to visit the Colisseum first, as there were no appointments to keep and we could be flexible with our visit. Note that even though we were ticket holders we still had to queue to get into the Colisseum, so there is no easy way to bypass all waiting times here.

Colisseum Panorama

The Colisseum does live up to its hype but it comes with very little information. So maybe you want to read up before you enter the building or book a guided tour to learn more about what used to happen here some 2,000 years ago. We did not book the separate entry to the catacombs, the area under the arena, but this might be something you may want to look into, too.

From the Colisseum it is only a couple of steps to the Roman Forum. This is the old city centre of Ancient Rome, the powerhouse of an empire that pretty much ruled the whole known world at some stage.

A visit to the Roman Forum can easily take up a whole day. There is so much to see here, it is pretty overwhelming. Again, it makes sense to read up beforehand and to come up with a plan and a map that will help you navigate around the site.

Roman Forum

Alternatively, just start walking and look at the different buildings – churches, temples, public squares, private villas, gardens, shops, fountains, and enjoy the ride. It’s really up to you. I don’t think your experience will be diminished because you have not studied the whole background of this marvellous site. But visiting Rome and not visiting the Roman Forum really is inexcusable.

As the sun set, a voice from the loudspeakers urged us to find the exit gates as the site was about to close down for the day. It’s a beautiful time to visit the Roman Forum, less crowded, not as hot, and the warm glow of the setting sun painted beautiful colours onto the ancient ruins. To be honest, we took our time to find the exit.

With this we finished our two-day trip to Rome. Footsore and tired but full with impressions and great experiences.

Are we done with Rome? Most certainly not! We have hardly scratched the surface.

Make sure you come back to the blog in the next couple of weeks to read in more detail about some of the attractions mentioned above. If you haven’t done so yet, subscribe to the newsletter now – the form is right on the bottom of this post.