Rome was once the largest city in the world and was the capital of the Roman Empire (which included 20% of the world’s population). In a city full of Roman ruins, piazzas, churches, basilicas and museums, it can be hard to know where to start. We show you how to spend 5 days in Rome and see all the best sights.
Art is everywhere in Rome. The city is encrusted with the wonders of Michelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Pinturicchio, Bramante, Bernini and Borromini as though it were a heavy broach of the most rare and precious stones. Frescoes, statues, fountains, facades an domes vie for attention, but are constantly out-done by the wonder of ongoing city life in this bustling city. Here, ancient temples must compete with the taste of Tarocco oranges, espresso and fresh buffalo mozzarella; Michelangelo and Bernini are second only to the enoteca and the trattoria.
Day 1 – Understanding Rome
We’ll kick things off with an easy day getting our bearings in Rome.
Start at the Colosseum. We won’t go inside today (saving that for later), but feel free to explore the exterior and surroundings.
Via dei Fori Imperiali
Casually stroll down the Via dei Fori Imperiali, the road of the Imperial Forums. You’ll be walking alongside the Roman Forum, which we’ll also visit in the coming days. Continue along Via Alessandrina where you’ll see a number of different Forum ruins separate from the Roman Forum site (Forum of Nerva, Forum of Augustus and Trajan Forum).
Victor Emmanuel II Monument
When you come to Trajan’s Column, turn left and make your way to the Victor Emmanuel II Monument (he was the first king of unified Italy). Constructed between 1885 and 1925, it contrasts starkly with the surrounding area. That makes it quite controversial with the Romans, who have given it several nicknames including the wedding cake, the dentures, and the typewriter.
Piazza del Campidoglio and Capitoline Museums
Spend the afternoon at the Capitoline Museums, which are art and archeological museums on the Capitoline Hill directly behind the Typewriter building. Opened in 1734, they are considered the first museums in the world. Access the Capitoline Museums from the Piazza del Campidoglio, designed by Michelangelo. Inside you’ll find an important collection of Roman sculpture, including pieces of colossal statues that help paint a picture of the grandeur of Ancient Rome.
Day 2 – Vatican City
Vatican City is an independent country entirely within Rome’s city boundaries. (Don’t worry, there’s no passport control or customs to enter the Vatican.) Vatican City is an important location for Roman Catholics, but just as stunning and worth visiting for everybody else.
Saint Peter’s Square
You will access Vatican City and Saint Peter’s Basilica via Saint Peter’s Square. The square is bordered by a colonnade and the Vatican Obelisk stands in the centre.
Plan ahead and reserve tickets for the Vatican Necropolis. Excavated during the 1940s with the goal of finding St. Peter’s grave, the Necropolis descends 12 meters below Saint Peter’s Basilica. It includes an ancient Roman burial ground with mausoleums that contain artwork which show the evolution of pre-Christian to early Christian symbolism.
Access to the Necropolis is limited, so it’s important to reserve far in advance, and you may need to be flexible on the day and time of your visit. It’s worth it!
Saint Peter’s Basilica
The Vatican Necropolis tour takes 90 minutes and you exit within Saint Peter’s Basilica (saving you from the long entrance line for the Basilica). Saint Peter’s is one of the 4 Major Basilicas of Rome (2 others are included later in this itinerary) and is the largest church in the world.
We highly recommend taking the stairs or elevator to the dome and roof of Saint Peter’s in order to see the Basilica from a unique perspective, and to get unparalleled views of Rome.
After having thoroughly explored Saint Peter’s Basilica, exit by Saint Peter’s Square, and follow the Vatican City walls counter-clockwise to make your way to the Vatican Museums.
The Vatican Museums contain one of the largest collections of art in the world, amassed over centuries by various popes and cardinals. The pièce-de-resistance is without a doubt the Sistine Chapel, and while it gets crowded, it is a must-see. Plan to spend at least half the day at the Vatican Museums.
Day 3 – The Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Castel Sant’Angelo and Mausoleum of Augustus
We’ll start this day at the Pantheon, but don’t be surprised if you accidentally stumble upon it a few times during your visit. It’s central location means that all roads (seem to) lead there.
The Pantheon was built around 114 CE as a Roman temple, and is currently used as a Catholic church. The dome is a marvel of ancient engineering, and the dome’s oculus is a mesmerizing feature that seems to defy the laws of physics.
From the Pantheon, make your way to Piazza Navona, whose oblong shape traces the outline of the old Roman circus that used to stand there. The focal point of the Piazza is Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi). The square is surrounded by opulent baroque buildings, including the church Sant’Agnese in Agone, and the papal family palace Palazzo Pamphilj.
Next, head to Castel Sant’Angelo by way of the Sant’Angelo bridge. It’s officially known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian because Roman Emperor Hadrian commissioned it as his mausoleum in 123 CE. Beginning in the 14th century, it was converted into a castle and fortress by a succession of popes, and connected to Saint Peter’s Basilica by a fortified corridor, the Passetto di Borgo. Today, Castel Sant’Angelo is a museum. Access to the roof provides excellent views of Rome and Vatican City, including a clear view of the fortified corridor to Saint Peter’s.
Mausoleum of Augustus
Next we hit an even older mausoleum, the Mausoleum of Emperor Augustus, built in 28 BCE. It’s believed to have had a conical roof. Later uses included as a fortress, sculpture garden and concert venue. When we visited, it had been closed since 1937 and overgrown with vegetation from suffered decades of neglect.
The Mausoleum of Augustus has since undergone a comprehensive restoration and opened to the public. Visitors can walk through vaulted chambers to a panoramic walkway on the roof.
Day 4 – Colosseum and Roman Forum
No visit to Rome is complete without seeing the Colosseum. While the Romans built several amphitheatres throughout the Roman Empire, the Colosseum in Rome is the largest, most impressive and best-preserved. Get here early in the day, because its popularity means that the lineup forms quickly. Luckily, its large size can easily accommodate the hoards of visitors without feeling crowded.
After the Colosseum, spend the afternoon exploring the Roman Forum (Foro Romano). The Roman Forum was the heart of ancient Rome, with structures dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries BCE. Packed with temples and government buildings, this area would have been buzzing with the administrative and legal business for the Roman Empire.
To maximize your enjoyment of the Forum, invest in a good guide book that explains the ruins found throughout the Forum. While impressive, the rubble can get repetitive to the uninformed. But with a guide explaining the layout of the forum and the purpose of the different buildings from municipal buildings to temples to various gods, you can start to imagine the day-to-day life of people in Ancient Rome.
Make sure you get up close to the enormous Basilica of Maxentius (310 CE), the seat of the city prefects. All that remains is the north aisle of the basilica, which is divided into three massive barrel-vaulted niches. The gravity-defying central vault would have dwarfed that which remains now.
Day 5 – Historic churches and Trevi Fountain
Much of Rome’s best architecture is found in its churches. This final day is organized around some of the most stunning historically and architecturally important churches in Rome. If you’re curious to see more church architecture, we have a separate post featuring dozens of Roman churches.
San Giovanni in Laterano
We’ll start the day at the furthest point from central Rome at the Archbasilica San Giovanni in Laterno (St. John Lateran). This is the oldest and highest-ranking of the four Major Basilicas, giving it the title of archbasilica. It is the Cathedral of Rome, and with the Pope being the bishop of Rome, this is the seat of the Pope. The Pope’s elaborate throne can be seen in the apse of the church, but the nave ceiling is possibly the most impressive feature.
To the side of San Giovanni in Laterno is the Lateran Obelisk, the largest standing ancient Egyptian obelisk in the world. When it first came to Rome, it was installed at the centre of the Circus Maximus where it stool until the fall of the Roman Empire, and then was lost. It was re-discovered in the 16th century and erected at its current position.
San Clemente Basilica
A few block away, we’ll visit San Clemente Basilica. It’s unassuming from the outside, and the interior, while beautiful, is small. But San Clemente is more notable for the archeological history that lies beneath it.
The top level is the present Basilica, built in the Middle Ages, around 1100. Beneath that is an earlier basilica from the 4th century, converted from the home of a Roman nobleman, the basement of which was used as a Mithraic temple in the 2nd century. Below this is an even earlier villa from the period after the fall of the Roman empire. For a small entrance fee, you can access each of these levels.
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
Next, we’ll make our way to another Major Basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore. While there’s a small piazza at the front of the basilica, the larger and more impressive piazza is on the apse side, the Piazza dell’Esquilino, complete with an obelisk (this one is Roman, not Egyptian). Santa Maria Maggiore has an ornate coffered ceiling reminiscent of San Giovanni in Laterno.
Santa Maria della Vittoria
We’ll end the day with a visit to Santa Maria della Vittoria. In contrast to the Major Basilicas from earlier in the day, this is a small church, but it is opulently decorated. It’s worth the detour to see the Bernini masterpiece, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.
To cap off the day, return to the heart of Rome by passing by the Trevi Fountain. Despite the crowds, it’s a beautiful attraction and worth a quick walk by. Particularly nice to visit as the sun is setting and the fountain lights turn on.
Have you visited these attractions or tried this itinerary for your 5 days in Rome? Let us know what you thought in the comments!