In Rome for another day, or on a return visit? Read my ideal itinerary for seeing the cultural sights, art and amazing architecture of the Eternal City – and sampling its foodie delights
If you have already queued to see the Colosseum, battled your way through the crowds at the Trevi Fountain, and walked around the well-known piazzas and ruins, you are probably wondering what to do on your second day or on a return trip to the eternal city. There is so much to see and do in this glorious capital; your only problem is how to fit it all in. Not to be missed are the mesmerising Vatican City with its infamous St Peter’s Basilica, the extraordinary Galleria Borghese museum and a wander around medieval Trastevere.
Morning magnificence in the Vatican City
To make the most of your day, try to get up early and hop on a metro to Ottaviano-San Pietro (St Peter's Square). This is the best time of day to appreciate fully the sheer size and wonder of the square while it is relatively uncrowded. It is truly splendid, and inspirational. You don’t have to be religious to feel humbled by the utter grandeur that surrounds you. Wander around the square, take in the sights, and watch the spiritual pilgrims, landscape artists and fervent locals who are drawn here every day.
The massive doors of the Basilica di San Pietro (St Peter's Basilica) open at 8am – and when they do, you will be carried away by the beauty and opulence (as well as the crowds) as you enter this amazing work of architecture. Its sheer size alone will root you to the spot. It is estimated that it can comfortably hold up to 60,000 people. From the exquisite frescoed walls to the impressive structure of Bernini’s bronze altar, this is a truly awe-inspiring space. The dome which towers almost 450ft above glistens with its gilt décor. This will probably be the most amazing and rewarding sight you will ever experience. Works by Michelangelo adorn the basilica, including the infamous Pieta. There are numerous hidden treasures to discover, and a visit underground to the entombed Popes is a must. If you are feeling energetic, climb the challenging stairs to the very top of the dome for jaw-dropping views over the Piazza and Rome. There’s also an elevator if you want to cheat!
No visit to the Vatican City is complete without visiting the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel which both contain some of the most valuable treasures and artefacts on the planet, making them among the richest visitor attractions in the world. Be wowed by Michelangelo’s masterpiece on the ceiling of the incomplete Sistine Chapel, said to have taken more than four years. Stop to explore and take in the wonder as you wander through the treasure troves of these sprawling museums that are really intriguing collections of all the riches collated over centuries by previous Popes.
Leisurely late lunch
Cafés are very expensive and over-rated in and around the Vatican City. Instead, head to one of the less crowded piazzas away from the main attractions such as Piazza del Popolo. Try either the fashionable Café Rosati or the equally chic Canova café – great spots for people-watching, a late leisurely lunch or an afternoon drink. If you are eating at either of these venues, I would recommend sitting inside and finishing with a less expensive drink or coffee on the terraces. After all, you are paying for the view!
Art in the afternoon
Work off your lunch by taking a stroll through the colourful landscaped gardens and shady lanes around the lake in the park of the Villa Borghese. Admire the many fountains, and countless statues that dot this restful green space. Not to be missed is the Galleria Borghese (00 39 06 32810, www.galleriaborghese.it). It is one of the smallest, most exclusive galleries in the world, and certainly the best in Italy with works by Bernini, Raphael, Caravaggio and many more Renaissance artists. You need to book your ticket in advance.
The Campo de' Fiori is at the heart of Rome, and considered by many to be the epicentre of Roman culture. An interesting open-air market is also held here most days. Try to get here as the market sellers are winding down and packing up. The noisy banter that takes place between them is entertainment in its own right. This lively spot is one of the best for an early evening drink. Any of the cafés or wine bars that line the square are equally good. It’s also a popular venue for the locals to meet and socialise after work.
The often under-rated district of Trastevere is where you can experience the real Rome, and mingle and eat with the locals. Even though it feels a bit isolated, as it is separated from the centre of the city by the river Tiber, this is one of the oldest parts of Rome – and an experience in itself. Crumbling old pink and terracotta buildings, some of which date back to medieval times, line narrow twisting alleyways. Hidden away among this labyrinth of cobbled streets you will find the Piazza di Santa Maria. This square is one of the most attractive in Rome, and any of the restaurants on or around this charming square are all good. There are almost far too many to choose from, but a real find is Osteria der Belli, a Sardinian family restaurant right on the square. It is great for fish dishes and seafood, and their fettuccine al ragu is simple but delicious. You can also eat really tasty local dishes for a reasonable price at Vincenzo alla Lungaretta (170-173 Via della Lungaretta). Great antipasti start at just €4. Ristorante Asinocotto (48 Via dei Vascellari) is an atmospheric wine bar and restaurant that is great for either dinner or just a quiet after-dinner drink.
Where to stay
Hotel Santa Maria (2 Vicolo del Piede) is a traditional three star Aldrovandi Palace (15 Via Ulisse Aldrovandi) is a spacious four-star hotel in a quiet spot, but just across the road from the Borghese gardens. Situated in lovely grounds, it even has a pool – a rarity in Rome. Rooms decorated in a classical, chic style are a good size, and start at just €170.