Rome has always been a popular destination for a European mini-break – but with so many treasures crammed into one city, how do you know where to start? Here’s my guide for how to spend the perfect two days in Rome.
How to Spend Two Days in Rome
Rome is one of my favourite cities in the world. It’s wildly romantic, has absurd quantities of ancient history casually lying around, and food so good you want to elope with it. The challenge is there’s too much to do. You can barely walk five steps in Rome without encountering an intriguing ancient ruin, a jaw-dropping Caravaggio, a tempting museum or just a fabulous piazza crying out to be explored. Or you’ll sit down in a café so friendly and comfortable you just want to stay put and people watch all day. I have never left Rome without wishing I had longer there.
The secret to a successful trip to Rome is threefold. Firstly, make peace with the fact you won’t see everything – it’s a good excuse to come back. Secondly, identify a couple of things you really want to see and build your time around that. Thirdly, allow yourself time to just get lost. For all its tourist attractions, the best experiences I’ve had in this wonderful city were the unexpected ones. The time I arrived late and hungry after a delayed flight and a tiny bar built a makeshift table out of crates so they could fit me in and feed me. The evening spent in a little wine bar with a barman so entertaining it felt like we were sitting in someone’s kitchen.
Like most of Italy it’s the people, the hospitality, the food and the lifestyle that make this a magical city. In the words of E. M. Forster, English author and Italy enthusiast, “…don’t, let me beg you, go with that awful tourist idea that Italy’s only a museum of antiquities and art. Love and understand the Italians, for the people are more marvellous than the land.”
When you visit you will find your own Rome – but here’s a suggested structure to help you on your way.
Where to Stay in Rome
The centre of Rome is wonderfully walkable – and by far the best way to explore is on foot. If you only have two days in Rome I recommend staying somewhere as central as possible so you’re already in the thick of things when you step out in the morning.
Gladiatorial glamour right next to the Colosseum. This is a great spot from which to explore Rome’s ancient ruins, and this intimate boutique hotel will look after you well after a long day’s exploring. The Michelin starred rooftop restaurant will give you one of the best meals with one of the best views in Rome.
With views out over the famous Piazza Del Popolo, this grand spa hotel is a sanctuary in bustling central Rome – and even boasts a secret garden to retreat to. A great location for sight-seeing and shopping – everywhere is walkable from here.
For a more edgy, modern take on luxury, try G Rough near the beautiful Piazza Navona. Located right in the thick of things, this hotel is high-end hipster chic – think bare plaster walls juxtaposed with classic Italian design.
What to do in Rome
Travel back in time and spend the morning exploring the extraordinary ruins of ancient Rome. One ticket gives you access to all of this for a two-day period. It’s worth booking in advance to avoid the queues, especially for the Colosseum. Book online or ask your hotel to arrange.
It’s also worth investing in an audio guide to understand exactly what you’re looking at and the history behind it. The first time I visited Rome I did not do this (I was young and trying to save money) and spent most of my time totally perplexed by what, I was quite sure, were fascinating piles of stone.
Despite being ransacked for stone over the centuries, there’s still a huge amount to see – and standing inside the Colosseum taking in its enormity and imagining its bloody history is well worth doing. The forum teaches you more about this incredibly advanced civilisation and the Palatine Hill is worth a visit for its views over Rome.
Snap back to the present with lunch at Caffe Propaganda, a five-minute walk from the Colosseum. This has a modern bistro vibe with a snazzy bar, black and white tiled floor, leather banquettes and menu that gives an updated take on Italian classics. Warm bread served from the oven in a paper bag, cannelloni, “melted” carbonara and, perhaps, a glass of red wine should prepare you for an afternoon’s exploring.
Altare Della Patria, Keats, Shelley and the Spanish Steps
In the afternoon, walk back to central Rome via the Altare Della Patria on Piazza Venezia. This vast monument to Victor Emmanuel II – the first king of a unified Italy – can be seen from most of Rome. It’s wildly over the top, and has divided opinion since it’s construction (many Romans view it as brash and tasteless) – but a lift installed in 2007 means you can now visit the top of it, which commands wonderful views over the whole of Rome. For this alone it’s worth a visit to get your bearings.
From here, make your way the bottom of the Spanish Steps in the famous Piazza Di Spagna. It’s about a 20 minute walk direct, but I recommend veering off the Via Del Corso (one of Rome’s major arteries) and taking a scenic route through the backstreets. Stop for an espresso pretty much anywhere and you’ll enjoy the best coffee you’ve ever tasted. This is also a major shopping area – from high-end Italian designers to well-curated department stores, Rome is a shoppers paradise.
If you love literature, pop into Keats-Shelley House, the museum at the base of the Spanish steps. These two titans of English Romantic poetry lived and are buried in Rome – and it was in this very building that the 25-year-old John Keats lost his battle with tuberculosis in 1821. I was a rather precious fan of Keats as a teenager and to walk in his footsteps and see hand-written manuscripts this close feels like a true privilege.
Take a well-deserved break with a sunset drink at Il Palazzetto wine bar – a hotel with great roof terrace at the top of the Spanish Steps. Outdoor heaters make this a good option for an early winter sunset – watch the sun go down over the fabulous Roman rooftops and enjoy a glass of something warming.
A trip to Italy would not be complete without a proper Italian pizza. Pizza Ciro was recommended by a Roman friend of mine – it’s where he takes his family for proper authentic Neapolitan pizza. Don’t expect silverware and white table cloths when stopping in for dinner here. Do expect fluffy dough, sweet tomatoes and delicious melting mozzarella. With food that good, who needs anything else?
Rome is a city made for night-time. Its fountains and monuments look devastatingly romantic – so a post dinner walk is a must. Fountains do not come much more iconic than the huge Baroque Trevi Fountain. Finished in 1762, the fountain is one of Rome’s many iconic landmarks. Whatever time you visit it you’ll find it busy – but fight your way through the crowds down to the side of it and you can usually find a quieter spot from which to marvel. Legend has it that by throwing a coin in the fountain you’ll guarantee your return to the city. So far this has worked well for me! Throw in a coin, then wander back to your hotel – unless something else catches your eye on the way.
Get up early in the morning and walk to the Vatican – which, if you’re staying centrally, will take you on a beautiful walk over the river Tiber. The queues for the Vatican museums can be hideous, especially in summer – so pre-book online in advance and take an early slot. Speaking truthfully, the Vatican museums are totally overwhelming. You could spend weeks here and still not cover off all the riches they hold. You become almost numb to the beauty on display – from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling to the rooms decorated in Raphael’s frescoes, this is an art history lesson on steroids.
Rather than trying to tick everything off, I recommend just walking and stopping if something interests you. And don’t feel bad if this isn’t your thing. There’s a pressure when visiting Rome to find Renaissance art fascinating – but if it’s not for you don’t worry, there are plenty of other things to do.
As well as the museums, it’s worth visiting St Peter’s basilica for the pure scale of the place. I’m not sure when I’ve ever been inside such a huge structure – it truly is awe-inspiring. One of my favourite things to do is to climb the Cupola – the large Dome on top of St Peter’s. The views of Rome from the top of the dome are stunning. It’s also a good work out – with 551 stairs in total. Work off some of that Italian food – or you can take an elevator for the first portion to save 320 steps. Please note, this is not an activity for the claustrophobic – as you reach the top the walls of the stairs close in at a dramatic angle. Tickets can be bought on-site – go to the entrance of St Peter’s and follow the signs.
If you can hold on for the 30 minute walk (or grab a taxi) indulge yourself with lunch at Pianostrada. I first visited Pianostrada when it was a tiny family run sandwich shop in Trastevere two years ago. Run by three generations of women, I was blown away by the friendly service and some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. The freshly baked focaccia with butter-soft parma ham and pear chutney still makes me salivate two years later. Since then it has moved location, grown to about 8 times the size and is now a buzzing restaurant so popular you’ll need to book in advance. The emphasis is still on street food – and it’s a great atmosphere. Airy, buzzing and wonderful service. Not to be missed.
The Pantheon and a Roman Wander
In the afternoon, wander up towards the Pantheon, one of Rome’s best-preserved ancient monuments. This former Roman temple, over 1,800 years old, has been used as a church in more recent centuries – and contains the tomb of Renaissance painter Raphael. Even without an interest in art or religion, this astonishing building is worth a look – and, amazingly, entrance to it is free of charge. The scale, age and completeness of the place is quite extraordinary – there’s nothing quite so humbling as looking at something that has existed for many centuries before you, and will live on long after you.
After this, break away from the crowds and explore the city streets. It would be a mistake to visit Rome without building in some “see what happens” time. So take an afternoon and just have a Roman adventure. Maybe you’ll do some shopping. Perhaps, you’ll pop into another nearby church and inspect a fabulous Caravaggio canvas, or you’ll just find a café and sit.
Il Piccolo | Via del Governo Vecchio, 74, 00186 Roma
It was during an unfocused wander that I discovered Il Piccolo – a tiny little wine bar near Piazza Navona. It’s places like this that make me love Italy. It’s not fancy – mis-matched wooden furniture, low lighting and the world’s smallest bathroom. But good wine, delicious platters of Italian meats and wines, and a warm and cosy atmosphere make this the perfect place to spend some pre-dinner time.
After dark, wander around the corner to stroll around Piazza Navona – another one of Rome’s magnificent squares. There are also plenty of eateries nearby if you don’t want to stray far. Mimi e Coco is a solid choice.
For great fresh Italian seafood, head for dinner at Pierluigi – a traditional Italian restaurant with a modern twist. If seafood’s not your thing don’t worry – it also offers great meat and pasta dishes, as well as good vegan and gluten-free options. The menu changes almost daily as it relies on fresh ingredients, and the service is impeccable. There’s also a cocktail bar for a little pre or post dinner refreshment.
Or for a real treat – book ahead for dinner at Aroma. This Michelin starred restaurant looking out over the Colosseum if life-changingly good food. I still dream about it.
As it’s your last evening – make it count. Speak to your hotel concierge and book a table for a late drink at The Jerry Thomas Project, a speakeasy. Warning – you’ll need a password to get in.