You could spend the rest of your life in the Eternal City without fully uncovering all of its secrets and history. Think about how many lifetimes have passed since its attractions were built—some predate modern times. You can actually visit ruins that emperors like Augustus, Hadrian, and Caesar, once inhabited. You can trace the steps of gladiators, wave to the ghosts of Popes past, and come face to face with Michelangelos and Berninis and Caravaggios.
But you haven’t got an eternity to see it all, much less to taste all the pasta, pizza, vino, and gelato—especially if you’re only staying for a long weekend. So, where to start? This guide should cover those bases, and help you accomplish as much as possible on your first Roman holiday. Divertiti!
Where to Stay
The first “Chapter” of many to come, the industrial-chic Chapter Roma opened its doors in May 2019, and is the solo venture for hotelier Marco Cilia. Rome-native Cilia previously worked as General Manager for notable properties like Hotel Americano in NYC and Blakes Hotel in London, and his taste is reflected in Chapter’s hip hybrid of luxury-boutique-design all in one. It’s tucked quietly into a sidestreet (Via di Santa Maria dei Calderari in Rome, a.k.a the “street of the blacksmiths”) in the riverside Regola district, a 5-10 minute walk to any central attraction. But more importantly: It’s just removed enough to escape the throngs of tourists. Upon entering, you’ll note the street-art-adorned lobby and bar (with additional event and dining spaces coming in 2019/2020), whereas the rooms themselves cradle you with cool colors and plush details. Together they create an authentic Roman experience, a city where high taste meets artful grit. We’re counting down to the inevitable introduction of more Chapters, curious to see how they honor each city they inhabit, since that’s the ethos of the brand.
Hotel de Russie
If you’ve been to Rome before, you probably waltzed right past Hotel de Russie, one of its most famous hotels without even realizing it. And that’s a testament to its design, a grandiose affair whose front door on boutique-lined Via del Babuino lies at the entrance to Piazza del Popolo. Head down Babuino for a few minutes. You’ll reach Piazza di Spagna, at the base of the Spanish Steps. Speaking of Piazzas, one of de Russie’s biggest draws is its “secret garden” that runs flush to verdant Villa Borghese, and the garden’s adjacent Piazzetta Valadier, where guests dine and enjoy al fresco aperitivo from Le Jardin de Russie Restaurant and Stravinskij Bar. The hotel is two centuries young, and was called “Paradise on Earth” by Jean Cocteau in 1917—a bold claim that still fits today. Each room is a reprieve from the Roman bustle, alternating between green-blue and sand-ivory tones. Book an onsite spa treatment at the ethereal de Russie Spa to highlight your escape, and you’ll be pampered with products from Irene Forte Skincare—she’s part of the Forte family behind the property. Father Rocco Forte is the hotelier, and his sister Olga Polizzi is the designer of each Rocco Forte property. After your first night in de Russie, or any other Rocco Forte property, you’re going to start planning vacations around these hotels.
Hotel de la Ville
We can’t mention Rocco Forte and Rome without suggesting a stay in the brand’s newest property, atop the Spanish Steps. Hotel de la Ville opened in May 2019 after a renovation to the 18th-Century Palazzo that was previously occupied by the Intercontinental. Designer Olga Polizzi collaborated with local artisans on the furnishings, which include handmade wallpaper, historic tapestries, and Italian textiles. Where Hotel de Russie’s public spaces feel like a quiet reprieve, Hotel de la Ville has more intentional electricity, with six different eating and dining spaces that invite locals and visitors alike, for gourmet Mediterranean, terrazza aperitivo with skyline views, and quiet craft cocktails if you need to take a work meeting. You’ll still get an escape from the city thanks to the hotel’s green-garnished courtyard, a Sicilian spa (also using Irene Forte Skincare products), and lavish accommodations, but you’re also at the heart of it all, atop the Steps and just off Via Condotti, one of Rome’s most notable luxury commerce streets.
What to Do
The truth is, you can barely scratch the surface in Rome on your first visit. You’ll need (and should) do a lot of the mainstay historic attractions. If you want to avoid inclement weather and long lines, then check the tour options at Get Your Guide. Many of which offer skip-the-line priority and guided tours that’ve been studied and perfected by the local Get Your Guide team. We’ll link to a couple of them below.
So, here are the things to prioritize for your trip for a manageable, well-balanced (albeit touristy) itinerary.
St. Peter’s Basilica + Sistine Chapel + Vatican City: You get to visit two countries in one visit—and the smallest nation in the world. This tour will take the better part of your day if you don’t plan around the long lines, so a skip-the-line guided tour is strongly encouraged. It’ll cover the highlights in all three spots, unless ancient Catholic relics are your jam. And, if you want to see Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel without a billion other hot, sweaty tourists, then select the early-entry Sistine Chapel tour to see it in peace with a select number of others. (You just have to arrive by 7:30 a.m.)
Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo and Barberini Gardens: This villa is the summer residence of the Pope, and a less-known add-on to your Vatican tour. Book a visit via train and connect it to your Vatican and Sistine Chapel tour.
Colosseum: The first-century, gladiator amphitheater is one of Rome’s most popular attractions, even though only one third of the original structure stands today. Again, a skip-the-line, efficiently guided tour is encouraged, especially if it allows you to see the Colosseum from the arena floor, after entering through the Gladiator’s Gate. Not all tours allow it, so prioritize the ones that do. It is too awesome to miss.
Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain: These two 18th-century attractions aren’t next to one another, but they are just 8 minutes apart by foot. They are arguably the city’s most Roman-ticized public attractions. The steps flow from the Trinità dei Monti church down into the Piazza di Spagna, creating a picture-perfect backdrop for your vacation. The Trevi Fountain is equally photogenic, some 26×49 meters in size—the largest baroque fountain in the city, and the luckiest one, too, hence all the tourists tossing in a coin while making a wish.
Food Tour: You’d be crazy not to do a guided food tour in Rome, since they cover so many flavors and foods. Gelato, pizza, suppli, pastries, seafood, wine, cheese—and anything in season, like fried artichokes in May. But I’d encourage you to book a private food tour and invest your dollars in that exclusive experience, so that you aren’t part of a 10- or 15-strong horde, just tiptoeing from one place to the next. A 2-on-1 tour will give you access to restaurants, more personable introductions to the local shop owners, and leisure meanderings with a local expert. You can get all sorts of exclusive experiences like this in Rome from Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s SideStory tours, though your stomach will point itself to the Testaccio food market tour or the tasting tour of Trastevere and Jewish Quarter. I speak from experience when I say that they offer access and personality like no group tour could. This is a honeymoon-caliber memory, and I’d rather not divulge the spots they took me on, so that it can be preserved for other private tours. So book one!
Pantheon: The Pantheon is a second-century temple commemorating the pagan Roman gods, and the most well-preserved ancient structure in all of Rome. You’ll marvel at its dome ceiling (the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, no less), with its famed oculus hole, through which light pours. An audio-guide tour won’t take more than 30 minutes, though you may want to give the experience an hour to really savor the experience.
Roman Forum and Palatine Hill: Next to the Colosseum, the Roman Forum is a collection of ancient ruins, a former marketplace in the Eternal City. See stairs, columns, basilicas, and temple ruins in quick succession. Overlooking it (and the Colosseum) is Palatine Hill, with its own archaeological prowess. Mythology claims that it’s where Romulus and Remus (the former founded Rome) were discovered by the she-wolf who raised them. You can visit the archeological site today for a small fee. This is where Bronze Age artifacts have been unearthed, signaling it as the original Roman establishment and potential birthplace of Augustus. You can visit the site of his former home, as well as his wife Livia’s, in addition to many other palaces, temples, and homes on the hill.
Castel Sant’Angelo: You can tour this former fortress, which was originally built by emperor Hadrian to serve as his mausoleum. It’s got Renaissance frescoes, a weaponry collection, gilded rooms, and a stunning panorama view of the city.
Villa Borghese + Borghese Gallery and Gardens: A sprawling park and museum grounds (with private garden), Borghese is a cultural and calm stop on your itinerary. The grounds were converted four centuries ago from a vineyard by the Borghese family. Cardinal Scipione Borghese, at the head, was the original patron of both Bernini and Caravaggio, which explains the gallery collection that showcases masterpieces from both artists, among other painters and sculptors. Consider a skip-the-line guided tour to enhance the experience and understand the context of the art and building itself.
Catacombs and Capuchin Crypt: Give half a day to a guided catacombs and crypts tour, which will introduce you to some 4,000 deceased Capuchin monks (or, their bones, that is), plus a tour of the 2,000-year-old catacombs that allowed early Christians a place to practice their once-forbidden religion.
Other Piazzas: Add some stars to your Google Maps, making certain to stumble through Piazzas Popolo, Venezia, Navona, and Cavour on your meanderings.
Parco degli Acquedotti: If you book bikes and fancy a photogenic adventure outside the city center, then pedal to this massive park with its astounding ancient aqueduct ruins.
Where to Eat and Drink
First and foremost, talk to the locals. Ask your hotel concierge for a recommendation, since the imitation places look just as authentic to outsiders. The locals know who runs each joint, and who’s simply overcharging the tourists. Here are some places I was recommended, and loved.
Terrazza Borromini: Reserve a spot for sunset aperitivo overlooking Piazza Navona, but don’t stay for dinner. It’s just the drinks and the view you want here.
Osteria da Fortunata: Says my Roman friend Marta, who took me here: “Order pasta al sugo di coda alla vaccinara or strozzapreti with guanciale and zucchini flowers or guanciale and artichokes (depending on the season).” Ok, Marta, you got it!
Da Flavio al Velavevodetto: Arguably (said with full awareness) the best cacio e pepe and tiramisu in all the land.
Black Market Monti: Live music and craft cocktails, plus hamburgers if you’re hankering for something besides pizza and pasta.
Gelato: Yeah yeah, we saved the best for last. Stop at each of these spots for a scoop or two; pick a favorite and visit it as your last stop before heading home. Giolitti is a staple in the heart of the city; you can’t miss its big neon green sign. (It’s my favorite.) La Romana has four locations around town, and Neve di Latte in Prati has humbler homegrown vibes and tastes every bit as sweet.