A tour group with no more than six members led by a highly-qualified guide is the BEST way to see Rome in a day!
I had no choice, but to see Rome in a day.
My ship, the Viking Star, had docked in port the night before, and my plane was flying out the next day.
Fortunately, I had met Rachel Zitin from LivItaly Tours at TBEX North America, and she had invited me to join them for a guest tour the next time I visited Italy.
When the big day arrived, I was joined by my friends and fellow bloggers Charles and Julie McCool from McCool Travel and Fun in Fairfax VA. We caught the train from the Italian port city of Civitavecchia to the Rome Termini station, transferred to the Metro, and three stops later we exited at the Spagna station and met Rachel at the Spanish Steps.
Rachel, a dead-ringer for a kinder, gentler Hilary Swank, would lead the three of us on a custom whirlwind walking tour of the Eternal City, and before the day was over, I would split from the group for an adventure of my own.
Table of Contents
- 1 Highlights of Rome
- 1.1 1. The Spanish Steps & Piazza di Spagna
- 1.2 2. Column of the Immaculate Conception & Piazza Mignanelli
- 1.3 3. Basilica di Sant’Andrea delle Fratte
- 1.4 4. Acqua Vergine Antica Aqueduct
- 1.5 4. Fontana di Trevi
- 1.6 6. Temple of Hadrian & Piazza di Pietra
- 1.7 7. Pantheon & Piazza della Rotonda
- 1.8 8. Piazza di Sant’Eustachio
- 1.9 9. Piazza Navona
- 1.10 10. Piazza Campo de’ Fiori
- 1.11 12. Piazza Venezia
- 1.12 13. Via dei Fori Imperiali & Roman Fora
- 1.13 14. Colosseum
- 1.14 15. Vatican City & St. Peter’s Basilica
- 2 Final Thoughts
- 3 Map It!
- 4 Pin This Post!
- 5 Helpful Links
Highlights of Rome
1. The Spanish Steps & Piazza di Spagna
Having traveled to Europe three times in the final six months of 2015, one of the commonalities I noticed was that many historical sites were closed for cleaning or restoration, and those efforts occasionally impeded my visits. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a necessary inconvenience, and I fully support such preservation efforts. The Spanish Steps, prominently featured in the movie Roman Holiday (1953), was one of those “closed” sites, so we did not get to stake our territory and hang with the locals on the widest staircase in Europe. Still, we enjoyed seeing the steps and listening to Rachel’s intriguing stories about the Piazza di Spagna.
2. Column of the Immaculate Conception & Piazza Mignanelli
Toward the southeastern end of Piazza di Spagna we moved into Piazza Mignanelli and approached the Column of the Immaculate Conception, a 19th-century monument dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The base of this ancient Roman column is anchored by sculptures of four Old Testament figures: Moses, Isaiah, David, and Ezekiel, all of whom alluded prophetically to the virgin birth of Jesus. The view of the column against the Roman skies was celestial.
3. Basilica di Sant’Andrea delle Fratte
We headed south on the Via di Propaganda, until we reached Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, a 17th-century basilica dedicated to St. Andrew. Although this church houses many fine works of art, Sant’Andrea’s claim to fame is Bernini’s angels that flank either side of the presbytery. Prolific sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini is credited as a leader in the Baroque style of sculpture showing figures in motion as contrasted with the Renaissance style of figures in repose. The Angel with the Crown of Thorns (left) and the Angel with the Superscription (right) bear evident witness to their creator’s gift.
4. Acqua Vergine Antica Aqueduct
Continuing down the Via del Nazareno, we came upon a section of the Acqua Vergine Antica aqueduct that feeds Trevi Fountain. Three of eleven original Roman aqueducts still function in Rome today. When in Rome you are never far from a public drinking fountain called a “nasoni,” named after it’s nose-shaped spigot. The water for Rome’s 2000+ drinking fountains is clean and pure, and just eighteen hours from its source, it is always fresh. So don’t waste your money buying bottled water. Simply carry an empty with you and refill it as needed. There are several mobile apps available that map Rome’s fountain locations by GPS, but you should have no problem finding them on your own.
4. Fontana di Trevi
Next on our itinerary was the imposing Trevi Fountain. Rome’s largest and most beautiful Baroque fountain was built by papal commission and several architects over a thirty year period, finally reaching completion in 1762. For the second time that day, we would experience disappointment. The flowing water at the terminus of the aqueduct had been stopped for cleaning of the fountain. What can I say? Timing is everything. Still the Trevi’s splendor could not be denied. The Trevi fountain has been featured in several motion pictures such as La Dolce Vita (1960), Roman Holiday (1953), and most prominently Three Coins in a Fountain (1954). The coin-tossing tradition that began in that feature film yields approximately €3000 for charity each day.
6. Temple of Hadrian & Piazza di Pietra
Turning west, we crossed Via del Corso, noted for being a straight roadway among many winding streets and alleys, and headed toward Piazza di Pietra. The most prominent feature of the piazza is the Temple of Hadrian, or rather what’s left of it. The single surviving colonnade to the deified emperor Hadrian (yes, the same emperor who built the wall delineating the northern border of Brittania) is now the facade for a bank. So what happened to the rest of the building? The name Piazza di Pietra (Stone) gives us a clue. The piazza was built using stones from the temple ruins.
7. Pantheon & Piazza della Rotonda
One of the most classic and intriguing structures in Rome was the next stop on our walking tour. I was familiar with the Pantheon and recall the design from my World History classes, but entering through its original doors I was not prepared for the overwhelming enormity of my first visit. Under the emperor Hadrian, this third structure to be built on the site was completed in 126 AD. Its seamless, unreinforced dome of solid concrete alone is an architectural wonder to behold. Someone in our group commented that the dome pattern appeared futuristic, almost as if built by extraterrestrials, and indeed it did! I was further amazed by the open-air oculus and the barely-visible floor drains for efficiently clearing away precipitation. Dedicated as a Catholic church in 609 AD, the Pantheon is now the final resting place of kings and painters, including Raphael who died of a “mysterious illness” at age 37. The Pantheon is everything you expect it to be, and more.
8. Piazza di Sant’Eustachio
It was time for lunch so we stopped by Pizza Zazà for authentic organic Italian pizza at its best. I ordered a couple of slices with truffles, fennel and burrata. Although the earthy truffle flavor was new and unique and definitely an acquired taste, I liked it. I will be sampling the potato pizza on my next visit. After lunch we crossed the street to the historical Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè for coffee, or in my case a hot chocolate. LivItaly’s Heart of Rome tour includes your choice of a complimentary coffee or gelato.
After lunch, we walked over to Piazza Navona, built on the site of the former Stadium of Domitian. Three structures of note in the oblong piazza are Bernini’s central Fountain of the Four Rivers that encompasses an Egyptian obelisk, the Fountain of Neptune at the northern end, and the Moor Fountain (above) at the southern end. Piazza Navona has been a filming location for The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Angels & Demons (2009), and the James Bond thriller Spectre (2015).
10. Piazza Campo de’ Fiori
In operation since 1869, the daily market in Piazza Campo de’ Fiori was in full swing as we passed through. The merchants’ brilliant flowers and intricate pottery patterns disguised the piazza’s darker history as a place of public executions. The lone reminder of its dreadful past is the central statue honoring Dominican friar Giordano Bruno who was burned alive for heresy by the “holy” Roman Inquisition. As I write, I find myself more moved by memorials such as this to martyred freethinkers and progressive leaders who dared to challenge established belief systems in science and religion, than all the artistic and architectural wonders of Rome combined.
12. Piazza Venezia
Alas, you can’t visit every site in Rome in a day. Still, I mourned as we took the tram past Largo di Torre Argentina, a square holding the ruins of Pompey’s Theatre where Julius Caesar was murdered, as well as Rome’s famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) cat sanctuary.
We exited the tram at Piazza Venezia, the buzzing central hub of Rome. Rachel shared so many historical tidbits from so many eras that I cannot remember them all. I do recall the balcony where Mussolini gave his speeches and Pauline Bonaparte’s apartment, Trajan’s column, and a celebratory dinner inside the belly of a horse statue in front of the controversial National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II. In retrospect, am I the only one left questioning how Disney’s commercial billboards (above) add value to the exquisite experience that is architectural and historical Rome?
13. Via dei Fori Imperiali & Roman Fora
The walk down Mussolini’s Via dei Fori Imperiali was literally a walk through the Roman Forums. I was captivated by the active archaeological excavations and reconstructions on both sides of the 4-lane roadway, yet I could not help but wonder what undiscovered historical treasures lay beneath our feet as we proceeded toward Rome’s most famous site.
And suddenly, there we were . . . , and Rome’s most iconic structure did not disappoint!
The mere opportunity to tour the Colosseum is special, but what made our visit a truly rare experience was 1) not having to wait in line, 2) a privileged entrance with access to the underground and 3rd tier in addition to the arena level, and 3) a personal tour guide all prearranged by LivItaly Tours.
We emerged from the Colosseum, strolled past the Arch of Constantine, and viewed the Palatine from afar. But time was slipping away, and there was one more stop on my personal itinerary. We said our goodbyes, and as my friends headed to the gelato shop, I set out alone following Rachel’s map to my final destination of the day.
15. Vatican City & St. Peter’s Basilica
I could not leave without adding the smallest independent state in the world, situated entirely within the city of Rome, to my country count. A transfer, a short Metro ride, and several city blocks later, the walled enclave came into view. The sun was setting, yet the line of tourists and pilgrims moved steadily through security to view the grandeur of St. Peter’s Square and Basilica. I am not Catholic, and I struggle with the vast wealth and checkered history of organized religion. But as a spiritual person who appreciates fine art and architecture, I chose to embrace the setting and enjoy Bernini’s colonnade and Michelangelo’s Pietà for the treasures that they are.
I was privileged to visit the Vatican during a special period, the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. No matter your creed or religion, it would be difficult not to appreciate the declaration of Pope Francis that “the Holy Door will become a Door of Mercy through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instils hope.”
As darkness settled over the Eternal City, I caught the train back to the port of Civitavecchia, sorry that there was no time to see the Sistine Chapel or visit the site of the Circus Maximus, yet feeling utterly satisfied knowing I had discovered the best way to see Rome in a day.
Our LivItaly tour was a modified combination of the Heart of Rome Small Group Walking Tour and the Colosseum Underground & Ancient Rome Tour. Another option is the Rome in a Day VIP Small Group Tour. Whatever your needs may be, LivItaly Tours operates dozens of tours in cities across the country to fit every preference and budget. I vouch that they are everything they claim to be, so you can feel secure when booking with them online.
Having been a member of many tour groups of varying sizes over the years, I can say without a doubt that small groups are WAY better for many reasons. With LivItaly, not only do you have a semi-private tour with no more than six members, you have added flexibility with modifying your on-the-go itinerary to suit your needs. Your knowledgeable guides are qualified to respond readily to your questions, you can move through sites at your own pace, and you can choose when to eat lunch or take a restroom break on your own schedule, rather than having to accommodate the needs of 20-30 tourists as in large group tours.
Jerry and I enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share insider tips and little-known stories from destinations around the world. If you have visited Rome, what location intrigued you the most? And if you have a travel story to tell, we would love to hear it. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!