Rome in 48 Hours

Tired tourist

“What should I do in Rome with only 48 hours?”

A few friends are planning to visit Rome, and with only two days available for the Eternal City they are asking for my advice. The most sensible suggestion is obviously to spend more time in this amazing city, but one has to make do with however much time available. I suppose other people will encounter similar itinerary-planning challenge so here is a column on how to tackle it.

This is strictly a transport and sightseeing column, and it is divided into four sections split between morning and afternoon. Evening is freed up for dining at places like Trastevere or revisiting attractions when they are lit up by flood lights.

AM 1st day

9:00 – The Colosseum 

Get off at the Piazza Del Colosseo Metro Station on the B Line

Before you take the metro, get a Roma Pass at a newsstand, good for all transport and two attraction admission over three days, for €30. That’s good value as visiting the Colosseum alone is €12. Don’t buy the €90 OMNIA Vatican & Rome card. The addition of admission to the Vatican Museum with audio guide and hop-on, hop-off bus isn’t worth the extra €60.

The Colosseum is opened daily at 9am, and you will want to be there right when it opens its gates to avoid the worst of the crowd. Don’t make any eye contact with any tout or Centurion impersonator and head straight to the gate; with the pass you can skip the queue and get in through a reserved turnstile.

Some might find the Colosseum’s interior disappointing. Built in AD 80, this icon of the Roman Empire has seen better days as the stage and the entire seating area have fall into a state of ruin. 20 minutes should be enough time to circle around the amphitheatre once.

9:45 – Roman Forum

Included in the Colosseum’s ticket is the adjacent Roman Forum, where the remains of several important government buildings have stood since the time of the Roman Republic. One can easily spend hours here, but given our lack of time we will bypass the Palatine Hill, one of the Seven Hills of Rome and the point of origin of ancient Rome. Unfortunately it is very hard to make sense of this former residential district nowadays as all one can see are brick arches.

The first notable monument is the Arch of Titus, commissioned in AD 82 by the Emperor Domitian to commemorate his brother Titus’ military successes, including the Siege of Jerusalem 12 years earlier. If the arch looks familiar that’s because it is the inspiration for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Next up is a complex of Roman temples, the most well-preserved being the circular Temple of Vesta. Vesta is the Roman virgin goddess of hearth, and the only deity that inspired the dedication of full-time priests, the Vestal Virgins. These were usually girls from good social background who took a vow of chastity for 30 years in order to devote themselves to the study and teaching of the maintenance of Vesta’s sacred fire. Only six were allowed at any one time, and they were highly desirable marriage partners upon retirement as former Vestal Virgins were thought to bring good luck.

Continue east and climb the gentle slope towards the Tabularium, ancient Rome’s official record office. Look back to the direction of the Colosseum and you will enjoy the best view of the Forum, with the imposing columns of the Temple of Saturn and the Arch of Septimius Severus at the forefront.

11:15 – Piazza del Campidoglio

Leave the Forum by taking the stairs to the Capitoline Hill, another of Rome’s Seven Hills and home to the Michelangelo-designed Piazza del Campidoglio. I suggest coming back in the evening as this is one of Rome’s most beautiful night photography spot.

End your morning’s sightseeing at Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, located at the highest point of the Capitoline Hill, and descend a long flight of stairs to Via del Teatro di Marcello. To the north is Piazza Venezia and the generally-disliked Altare della Patria. This is Rome’s transport hub and you can take a bus to anywhere in central Rome for a lunch break before your afternoon sightseeing.

PM 1st day

15:00 – Piazza Navano

Get off at the Senato bus station

Many people like to do this walk at night but I suggest otherwise – this route becomes so packed with tourists after dark it is barely traversable.

We begin our afternoon walk at Piazza Navano, one of Rome’s most famous public space. You will notice the square has a long rectangular shape; it is built on the site of the Stadium of Domitian and has preserved the open space of the stadium. During the pontificate of Innocent X in the 17th century the piazza took on the present Baroque architectural style.

If you come back during dinner time, don’t be tempted by any of the overpriced restaurants at the piazza. Two blocks north on Via Giuseppe Zanardelli is a nondescript-looking eatery called Osteria de Memmo that serves decent food at an affordable price.

15:30 – Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè

Let’s take a coffee break at the much-celebrated but touristy Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè in between Piazza Navano and the Pantheon. Like I have already written, I personally didn’t find the severely overpriced coffee to be markedly better than its more humble competitors’, but often the value of a historic establishment has more to do with its atmosphere and tradition than the actual offering.

16:00 – Pantheon

A further two blocks east from Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè is the Pantheon, in my opinion the most impressive building in all of Rome. Founded in 126 AD, it has been continuously occupied since its inception, from a temple used to worship all Roman gods to 7th century onward a church dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs.

You can’t help but to look up once you have stepped inside the Pantheon. You are standing directly under the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, and it is not a fluke the Pantheon manage to hold onto this title. To prove the Romans knew what they were doing, chew on this stat – the height to the oculus and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 43.3 metres, so the whole interior would fit exactly within a cube.

If you visit on a sunny day, a beam of sun ray will shine through the 8.2m-wide oculus. Rain during the hot summer months cool down the building and is carried away through drains. Each visit is impacted by the time of the day, the season and the weather.

17:00 – Trevi Fountain

The last stop of this guided walk is the Trevi Fountain, perhaps the most well-known fountain in the world. The fountain was commissioned by Pope Clement XII in 1732 and took 30 years to complete. Often mistaken as part of the fountain, the two-storey backdrop is a separate building called Palazzo Poli. Tradition has it that by tossing coins over your shoulder into the fountain you can be assured to return to Rome, and by judging the €3,000 of coins collected each night many visitors are hoping this would not be their last visit.

Head north if you intend to go to the vastly overrated Spanish Steps, a place with only expensive shops and a very ordinary-looking flight of stairs. Or go two blocks west to Via del Corso to catch a bus to your dinner destination.

AM 2nd day

8:00 – Piazza Campo de’ Fiori

Get off at Corso Vittorio- Sant’Andrea Della Valle bus station

We begin early this day at Piazza Campo de’ Fiori where a fresh food market is held each morning. Grab a quick bite, then stock up on some fruit, cheese and bakery for lunch because you don’t want to be stuck at an overpriced tourist joint in the Vatican City.

11:00 – Castel Sant’Angelo

The walk from Piazza Campo de’ Fiori to Castel Sant’ Angelo contains some less-visited Renaissance gems in Rome, such as Palazzo Ricci, Palazzo Spada and Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte. Allow 1.5 hour to causally scroll along Via Giulia and the nearby side-streets before arriving at Castel Sant’ Angelo.

Originally built by the emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum in the 2nd century AD, it was converted to a military fortress in 401 and the ashes of Hadrian and his family were scattered nine years later during the sacking of Rome. Its later incarnations included being a treasure vault, luxury home for popes and a prison before becoming a museum.

You should use your Roma Pass’s second free attraction admission here. Most people prefer to use it at the Galleria Borghese because of its relatively expensive entrance fee, but we won’t be able to visit the gallery this time. The reason why we visit the castle is not for its barren interior; rather, dash to the rooftop terrace for a comprehensive view of the Vatican City, the world’s smallest nation-state.

Either have your picnic lunch by the Tigre, or walk west along Via della Conciliazione to St. Peter’s Square.

PM 2nd day

13:00 – Vatican City

Covered in detail here.

Note that the Vatican Museum requires around 2 hours to cover and it closes at 16:00. St. Peter’s Cathedral opens until 19:00 from April to September and closes one hour earlier the rest of the year. The cathedral’s dome closes one hour earlier than the rest of the cathedral.

You should try to:

  • Visit the Vatican Museum first
  • Arrive St. Peter’s by 16:00 the latest
  • Climb the dome first and then visit the rest of the cathedral
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