Years ago, when we visited Rome for the first time, I left the city after a 3-day trip with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was fascinated by its historical and cultural heritage, the fantastic masterpieces, and stunning architecture. Let’s not forget the food and wine! On the other hand, it was draining. It was August, and tourists, us included, packed the city wanting to see as much as they could under the sizzling summer temperatures. When we left, I was pleased for all we had seen but convinced that being there once would be enough.
I should have known better after I had tossed a coin in the Trevi Fountain that I’d certainly be back. Our daughter (who recently turned 12) asked for a 3-day Rome trip as a birthday gift. It was her dream to visit the Roman sites described in some of her favorite books from the series The Heroes of Olympus. She wanted to see the Coliseum, Roman Forum, Tiber River, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, and Pantheon. We couldn’t decline her wish.
Whereas I wanted to please my child, I was determined to do it right and make this trip a memorable experience for us. I succeeded, and consequently, I fell deeply in love with Rome! What did we do different this time? We had a better plan.
Here you will find our ultimate family-friendly 3-day Rome trip guide with valuable tips on how to visit Rome for the first time – or second – without taking away any bit of pleasure. It includes where to stay, the best time to sightsee, and the right way to visit the Vatican City, Roman Forum, and Colosseum.
First things first: where to stay in Rome
Convenience was our priority when we chose where to stay in Rome this time. We not only wanted to easily reach the majority of the sights on foot but also stop for a siesta whenever our feet would get tired from walking in the Eternal City. We stayed in two different hotels in the city center, aka the Centro Storico by Italians. The first three nights we stayed in the Vanity Hotel, a five-minute walk from Navona Piazza. Then we stayed in the Tre R Colosseo, which was meters away from the Colosseum. The incredible locations played a crucial role in our successful visit as they were walking distance to practically all the sites we wanted to see.
You can find other hotels in the historic center here.
How to explore Rome
Walking is, by far, the best way to explore Rome. Day or night, stroll on the uneven cobblestone streets and discover a hidden gem, stop for a delightful meal, and appreciate all the beauty that the city has to offer.
However, if the weather is either too warm or too chilly, or if you get tired from walking, the public transport system in Rome is cheap and easy to use. The bus system and Metro are integrated, meaning a standard ticket (€1.50) is valid for one Metro ride or all city buses for 100 minutes after the ticket validation. At the bus stops, each route is clearly laid out. On the metro, you can switch lines at Termini Station with one ticket.
Buy your ticket from a tabaccheria (tobacco shop) or vending machines at Metro stations and major bus stops before you board any public transport. You will have the option to choose from a single ticket or one, two, three, or seven-days travel pass. Once you buy it, you will need to activate it. When traveling by bus, the mechanical activation is within its interior.
Without any further ado, here is our 3-day Rome trip itinerary through the historical Centre:
3-Day Rome trip – Day 1
Vatican City and cooking class
For our first day of our 3-day Rome trip, we had two things on our agenda: the Vatican City in the morning and a cooking class in the evening. In between, we strolled along the historic, slow-moving Tiber River, stopped for a meal, and settled down for an afternoon siesta.Although Vatican City wasn’t on our daughter’s list, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to show her such treasure. Being the world’s smallest, fully independent country in both area and population, this tiny nation fits entirely within the Italian capital. The Vatican is the center of the Catholic Church and where the Pope’s official residence is. Furthermore, it holds two unmissable sights: Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museum and Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Ready for this? Andiamo!
How to visit St. Peter’s Basilica and Sistine Chapel
St. Peter’s Basilica and Sistine Chapel are popular destinations. Every day over 20,000 visitors enter those sites, so the line is always long. My recommendation is to book a tour for early morning or for the end of the day when it is less crowded. We booked a morning tour, which I can’t recommend highly enough. First of all, the length was perfect. It lasted about 3.5 hours and included the museums, Sistine Chapel, Saint Peter’s Basilica, and Saint Peter’s Square. Second, it gave us early access to the museums. Last but not least, it focused only on the highlights of each site.
Note: Although it is free to enter Saint Peter’s Basilica, you will need tickets to access the museums, which include the Sistine Chapel. Please be aware that shorts (applied for men and women) and skirts above the knees are not allowed inside the Vatican Museums and Saint Peter’s Basilica. Shoulders must be covered too.
Discover Saint Peter’s Basilica
Saint Peter’s Basilica stands on Vatican Hill, across the Tiber River from the historic center of Rome. The history behind its creation is almost as amazing as the building itself. Built upon St. Peter’s Tomb, this imposing structure was completed over a span of more than one hundred years.
Saint Peter’s Basilica holds a large number of works of art. Don’t miss Michelangelo’s acclaimed La Pietà, a marble sculpture of Mary holding the dead body of Jesus. Check out the holy door opened only for Jubilee Years, which is once every 25 years, and of course, the throne of Saint Peter that stands above Saint Peter’s Tomb.
Explore the Museums and be amazed at Sistine Chapel
The Vatican Museums hold one of the world’s biggest collections of artworks, including paintings, sculptures, and tapestries. Nevertheless, the Sistine Chapel, which attracts the greatest number of visitors in the Vatican City, is not only a valuable asset to the Vatican but to the world. Most of this recognition comes from the breathtaking frescos on its ceiling by Michelangelo.
The Sistine Chapel is the site of the papal ceremonies. Also, the Sacred College of Cardinals elects new popes in the Sistine Chapel.
Have a panoramic view of Rome from the Dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica
By the time we said good-bye to our guide in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica, it was close to noon. We had one more thing to check out before leaving the grounds of the Vatican: climb up to the dome in Saint Peter’s Basilica. If you have the stamina, it is a must-do.
When facing the Basilica, look for the sign “Cupola” on your right. Follow the sign until you reach the ticket office. Don’t get discouraged if the line to buy the tickets is long; it moves fast. Make sure you have cash; they do not accept credit cards. With a small difference in price, you have two options: climb all 551 steps to the top or take the elevator to the base of the dome. From there, you will wend your way by foot the 320 steps of the spiral staircase to the top of Michelangelo’s dome.
Where the elevator ride ends, walk into the gallery and admire the interior of the Basilica from above. Notice the marvelous mosaics on the walls and absorb all the beauty of the cupola close up. Then, proceed to the top of the dome to enjoy the 360-degree view of Saint Peter’s Square, Tiber River, and beyond.
Visit Piazza Navona at night
Have I already said that Piazza Navona was a five-minute walk from our hotel? Because our cooking class was on the other side of it, we couldn’t postpone crossing Rome’s renowned, beautiful, baroque plaza. It was a brief stop, but enough to see how vibrant and delightful it gets at night.
A mixture of musicians, street artists, and tourists made the square an interesting meeting place. Some folks gathered at restaurants and shops. Others posed for selfies near the three illuminated baroque fountains while street artists (some extremely talented) attracted the attention of those who circulated between the two ends of the square. The sound coming from a violin mixed with the voices and laughs from the crowd around us made Piazza Navona alive and cheerful. Everything worked like puzzle pieces completing the big picture, a charming piazza.
Take a gelato and pizza cooking class
What a fun way to spend a few hours on your 3-day Rome trip! We were a small group that, under the guidance of an Italian chef, had the most fabulous evening enjoying appetizers, drinking Prosecco, and learning how to make two of the most popular Italian dishes from scratch: gelato and pizza.
After greetings and handing out aprons, all students moved inside a modern kitchen. Our daughter was the only child in the group, but it turned out to be an advantage. When the chef announced that she would be his special helper, her eyes sparkled.
Each one of us had our own station around a big table. We started with the gelato. Following the chef’s orientation, we mixed and blended all ingredients into one smooth mixture, poured into small dishes, and placed in the fridge to chill.
The pizza came next. Starting with a bowl of flour, we mixed all the other ingredients until a dough was formed. We kneaded, rolled, and covered it with fresh sauce and our favorite toppings. Once the pizza baked, we sat down with our classmates and enjoyed the fruits of our labor. I must add, we had delicious results. This was one of the highlights of our trip!
3-Day Rome trip – Day 2
Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Pincio & Borghese Gardens, Pantheon, and Gladiator Museum
Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, and Spanish Steps are well-known for the flood of tourists they receive every day. There is no “skip the line” tour to see these sites. So, most of the time, you will be battling for a spot to barely see the real beauty of each of them. So, what can you do to beat the crowds and make the most of your visit? Get up early! Trust me; it will be a magical way to start your second day of your 3-day Rome trip!
We left the hotel by 6:00 am. Our jet lag helped us get up early. The lights were still on from the night before when we roamed through the quiet cobblestone alleys, fountains, and piazzas towards our destinations. Around 8:30 am, we had already visited all three landmarks. Best of all, there was no rush and almost no people around us.
For the rest of the day, there were stops for hot chocolate, cappuccinos, gelatos, and appetizing meals. In the afternoon, we visited the Pantheon. We also took a break for a power nap. At night, we returned to Piazza Navona, rested and energized. Plus, we attended to our daughter’s request by visiting the Gladiator Museum.
Enjoy the quietness on streets of Rome in the early morning
The daylight had just broken through when we arrived in Piazza Navona. Nobody was there. While it was vibrant and cheerful at night, it was grandiose and quiet in the early morning.
Piazza Navona, built on the site of the Stadium of Domitian, was a 1st-century competition arena that could hold approximately 20,000 spectators. In the 15th century, they paved it over, and for almost 300 years it hosted the city’s main market. The emptiness of the place enabled us to see the long, narrow shape that retraces the perimeter of the ancient stadium. The three baroque fountains (that we could barely see the night before) were stunning.
The highlight was the centerpiece, Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), which refers to the four great rivers known by the world: the Nile in Africa, the Danube in Europe, the Ganges in Asia, and the Rio de la Plata in the Americas. A large obelisk that had originally been part of the Circus of Maxentius rose in the center. The baroque church of Sant’Agnese in Agone and the Palazzo Pamphilj provide an impressive backdrop, and accentuate the glamour of the square.
Throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain
Trevi Fountain was a 12-minute walk from Piazza Navona. A few early birds were already there when we arrived, but the place was still peaceful. The empty space enhanced the grandeur of this masterpiece that stands 85 feet high and 65 feet across. It was mesmerizing!
Combining white-marble and emerald-water, the Trevi Fountain is the largest Baroque fountain in the city. It illustrates Tritons with two seahorses (one wild and one docile representing the moods of the sea) leading Oceanus, the god of water. The fountain was built at the end of an underground aqueduct during the ancient Roman era to supply water for the Roman Baths. The name Trevi refers to the three roads (tre vie) that converge at the fountain.
Follow the Roman tradition don’t forget to toss a coin into the fountain using your right hand over your left shoulder to ensure your return to the Eternal City. An interesting fact, we learned that up to €3000 is thrown into the fountain each day. The money is collected daily and goes to a non-profit organization that provides food to the poor and homeless of Rome. Let’s toss the coins!
Climb the Spanish Steps
Back on the streets, we reached the Spanish Steps in about 15 minutes. Piazza di Spagna was empty, and so was the Spanish Steps. I couldn’t stop thinking how different it was from the last time we were there (in the middle of the day) with hundreds of people sitting on those steps.
Completed in 1725, the 138 steps connected the Trinità dei Monti church on the top with the Piazza di Spagna below. The square and the steps in this area, named after the Palazzo di Spagna, is the seat of the Spanish Embassy for the Vatican.
Check out the baroque fountain of a sinking boat called Fontana della Barcaccia at the foot of the steps. Then, climb the stairway for good views of Rome.
Note: By the time we left the site around 8:30 am, small groups of people had already shown up.
Rest in the Villa Borghese
From the top of the Spanish Steps, it is a short walk to Villa Borghese. We spent a couple of hours walking around, but bikes are available for rent. Being the largest public park in Rome, Villa Borghese is an escape from the noise and bustle of everyday life in the city.
Besides the beautiful stretch of greenery, big trees, sculptures, and fountains, you will also find an artificial lake (which offers boat rental) from where you can have a good view of the Temple of Asclepius.
The views from the terrace of the Pincio Hill are spectacular. From there, you will have an extensive view of the Piazza del Popolo (The People’s Square) and the city of Rome.
Admire the Pantheon
The Pantheon, the best-preserved ancient building in Rome, is another spot not to be missed. Originally a pagan temple, the Pantheon (meaning temple of all gods) has been used as a church since the 7th century. Walk inside (free entry) and notice that while its exterior looks are imposing but aged, the interior is majestic and unblemished. Such contrast has been explained by archaeologists who found evidence that the original Pantheon built by Agrippa in 27 BC had burned down, except for the façade.
The most remarkable part of the building is the dome. Look up. The Oculus, an opening in the center of the dome, not only served as a source of natural light but also connected those in the temple with the gods. Notice that the floor is slightly sloped to allow the rainwater to drain.
Find a hidden gem like Cucina del Teatro
Although we avoided eating near the most popular attractions (normally overpriced and tasteless) during our 3-day Rome trip, we didn’t have to go far off our path to find outstanding flavors. That is how we discovered Cucina del Teatro, a modest, typical Italian restaurant on our way back from the Pantheon.
Cucina del Teatro first caught our attention with its charming, eye-catching surroundings on one of the narrow alleys near our hotel. The menu-board placed outside the restaurant with a flourishing list of mouth-watering meals convinced us to stop. The atmosphere was welcoming. Inside, a savory pasta prepared with fresh, simple ingredients paired with a glass of Prosecco was the perfect combination for a leisurely meal.
Make a quick stop at the Gladiator Museum
The Gladiator Museum is on Piazza Navona. While we were hanging out in the area at the end of the day, we checked it out. The museum was laid out over two small floors, which you can see in less than 30 minutes. It shows replicas of helmets, armor, and representative weaponry of the Roman gladiators and their opponents. The audio-guide explained the main pieces. Definitely an entertaining place for kids.
3-Day Rome trip – Day 3
Colosseum, Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, Piazza Venezia, Giardino degli Aranci, and Trastevere
Even though you will see all three sites when you buy ordinary tickets, I highly recommend a guided tour. We did the 9:00 am Colosseum and Roman Forum Half-Day Walking Underground Tour. The extra euros spent were worth it! First of all, the guide covered the three historical grounds, focusing on the highlights of each place. Second, no lines. At the Colosseum, we entered the building through a special entrance located on the back. Be aware that nearly five million people visit the Roman Colosseum every year; thus, the queues are always long. Last but not least, we had access to areas of the arena (underground and top tier) restricted to visitors with a guide.
Upon exiting the arena, you will walk along the Via Sacra, the main street of Ancient Rome that connects the Colosseum to Palatine Hill and Roman Forum. A large group of visitors stood in line by the entrance, but our guide led us through the crowd into the other two of Rome’s renowned ruins.
Whether you use a guided tour or buy a regular ticket, save your precious time on your 3-day Rome trip and book it in advance. If a guided tour is not an option, I recommend an audio-guide. The Colosseum, Roman Forum, and the Palatine regular ticket is valid for two consecutive days from the first use for one entrance to the Colosseum during the scheduled time and one entrance to the Roman Forum and Palatine during the period of validity of the ticket.
Walk inside the Colosseum
The Colosseum was the most desired site for our daughter. I don’t blame her. No 3-day Rome trip is complete without seeing this massive stone construction, the largest amphitheater ever built. Completed nearly 2000 years ago, the Colosseum is estimated to accommodate an average of 65,000 spectators at one time.
While the outside is exceptional, a visit inside the walls is a must. Visit the hypogeum (tunnels, chambers, and pits on the underground level beneath the arena floor) where prisoners and animals were kept and gladiators prepared for their encounters. Understand the seat arrangements that reflected the ancient Roman hierarchy who came to the Colosseum to watch gladiators dying in mortal combat and prisoners fighting wild beasts. Stand on the arena floor where battles took place and, from the top tier, have a magnificent panoramic view of the entire arena, the Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum.
Follow the Emperors’ steps in Palatine Hill and Roman Forum
Not much of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill remains, but what still exists is no less impressive. Palatine Hill, a superb area of towering pine trees and majestic ruins, is supposedly where the Romans founded the city. The Roman Emperors built their palaces on the top of the hill, and soon Palatine Hill became Rome’s wealthiest neighborhood. It was easy to understand why they chose such a spot: the views were incredible. From their private residences, they could look down the Roman Forum on one side and the Circus Maximus on the other.
The Forum, a rectangular-shaped area, sitting on the lower level of Palatine Hill, was the Romans’ center of political, religious, and social activities for centuries. Today, it’s an impressive collection of ruins of government buildings, temples, basilicas, and public spaces that attracts more than 4.5 million visitors every year. Although there were a few vantage points to see the ruins from above (one of them the lookout terrace on Palatine Hill), there was something wonderfully fascinating about walking in the footsteps of Julius Caesar, Nero, and other legendary rulers of the ancient Roman civilization. A few buildings and columns remain, but the rest of what you will see are fragments of how the Roman Empire would have looked in its glory days.
Note: Our guide gave us plenty of information about both sites when we were exploring the Palatine Hill. Once she finished, we explored both places at our own pace.
Walk by Vittoriano in Piazza Venezia
Our morning was fascinating but quite overwhelming with so much information about the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Roman Forum. To wind down, we emerged from the back gate of the Forum and walked up the street, near Piazza Venezia. From above, we took one last peek at the ruins. They were remarkable.
Once in Piazza Venezia, you can’t ignore the massive, white-marble building. Called Vittoriano (aka Wedding Cake), it was built in the early 20th century to honor Italy’s first king, Victor Emmanuel II, immortalized by his enormous statue in front of the building.
We didn’t go inside because we were tired, but I wish we did. It not only contains a small museum that documents Italian unification but also has a panoramic elevator to the top from where (according to our guide) you can see Rome laid out below you.
Click here for additional information about tickets for the lift.
Lunch at Osteria Barberini
This post is not about restaurants, but I must add a few words on this matter. During our 3-day Rome trip, we sampled some of Rome’s most beloved pasta specialties like cacio e pepe, carbonara, lasagna, and fettuccine al burro. We also tasted artichokes, cured meats, and of course, pizza and gelato.
Deciding where to eat in Rome (like any other touristy city) can be tricky. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell if a restaurant is serving authentic Italian food or whether it’s a tourist trap. We chose Osteria Barberini after a few people from our morning tour group were raving about their experience there. It didn’t disappoint. A lovely little place near one of the most beautiful squares of Rome, Piazza Barberini, offered the most delicious and creative dishes we had during the trip. Every dish we had was perfect. The cacio e pepe served with cream sauce and cheese in a parmesan crust bowl was out of this world. So was the truffle risotto.
Note: Because the place is small, I highly recommend a reservation.
Enjoy the view from the Giardino degli Aranci
It was late afternoon when we strolled from our hotel (near the Colosseum) towards Giardino degli Aranci (The Garden of Oranges) in Aventine Hill. Along the way, we walked by the site of the Circus Maximus, the largest chariot-racing arena the ancient world ever saw. Nowadays, not a lot remains, but the land gives a good idea of how immense it was.
As you walk into the garden, the first impression was of a fascinating grove of orange trees and stone pines soaring over the main pathway that aligns with a small terrace. From there, the view over the Tiber River and across the city to St. Peter’s church and Vittoriano was breathtaking. People settled quietly along the wall and looked out, trying to recognize well-known sites in Rome. Others spoke softly, laughed, and took photos. The music played by a violinist near us enhanced the beauty of the city itself. It was our last day of our 3-day Rome trip, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to say good-bye.
Dine in Trastevere
Trastevere is a quaint neighborhood across the Tiber River that extends from north of the Centro Storico to Giardino degli Aranci, in the south. I found it to be charming and romantic. Arrive early and wander on the narrow back streets and piazzas adorned with colorful buildings (some covered with dark ivy) that hold art studios, shops, cafes, bars, and, above all, restaurants that serve the most delicious food.
It was quiet at first. Small groups of tourists walked in and out of stores while others noticed and photographed lovely old walls, doors, and balconies on the cobblestone streets.
As the sun went down, lights came on, and the atmosphere changed. Locals and foreigners appeared from all directions while sellers set up souvenir stations in the picturesque alleyways. Trastevere was vibrant now. Tables inside and outside of trattorias started to fill, and the streets had almost a festive feeling. As time went by, people spilled out from trattorias and bars onto the streets while others walked in seeking a delightful, typical Italian meal. By the time we left, there was still that strong sense of joyfulness and excitement in the air.
Ciao for now, Rome! I threw another coin in the Trevi Fountain!