Rome offers so much that trying to cram it all into a trip even as long as a week can be a challenge. My sister came to visit me this past week and, knowing that it was unlikely she would be back in the Eternal City any time soon, I wanted to make sure she saw everything she wanted to.
Throughout the week, I started to realize that making the most of a short time in Rome is completely reliant on letting your curiosity and sense of adventure carry you throughout. If you're visiting Rome, go ahead and make a schedule, sure, but don't be afraid to stray from it. Every part of Rome wants to be seen, and denying yourself an extra moment of serenity in an empty part of the Palatine Hill or the chance to explore the city's hidden streets and secret histories simply because you want to make it to dinner at a certain hour won't just force you to miss seeing parts of the city, but will leave you feeling rushed and irritable.
Instead, give up a schedule for a list. Give yourself priorities, until you have created a group of sites and things to do that you feel you have to hit in order to feel satisfied by the time you leave. If you do choose to opt for a list, be sure to include some of what was on ours:
Make sure your first meal is a good one.
In Rome, it can be easy to fall into a tourist trap when you're near the city center. Across the Tiber, Trastevere offers a better selection. Its restaurants may be far from the sights, but that means its food is normally more authentic. Get pizza at a place like Dar Poeta or a take-out place like La Boccaccia, or find pasta and live music at Ombre Rosse. Walk Trastevere's maze of side streets with a full stomach, and sit on the steps of the in Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere. Let your first moments in Rome be a colorful introduction apart from the crowds in the city center.
When you do go to the center, do not rush.
Piazza Venezia can easily become a throughway toward the Roman Forum, especially because the Forum and Colosseum are in sight as soon as you enter the piazza. Take a moment to stand at the foot of the Altare della Patira (AKA "The Wedding Cake") and look up at the stark white columns, so tall that they can be seen from almost every one of the seven hills. Climb the 124 steps to Santa Maria in Ara Coeli and gape at the difference between the brick exterior and the decor inside. Stand on the top balconies of the Wedding Cake and count the domes of churches, scattered throughout the city and turning the sky to a series of cloud-patterned triumphal arches.
The Colosseum has its home amid hundreds of ruins.
They lead you straight to its doors. Do not ignore them. Take every moment to admire them as you walk. Once inside, circle the bottom level first. Rest on fallen columns and climb what steps aren't blocked off on the flattened remains of staircases. Go to the upper balcony only when you are satisfied that you have seen everything below. A bird's eye view of the inner tunnels accompanies exhibits filled with bones and decrepit pillars and a view of the Forum, blazing bright white against the deeps greens of the surrounding hills and trees. The view changes as you glance under each arch in the Colosseum's side, each becoming more beautiful than the last.
Do not ignore the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.
Your ticket to the Colosseum includes two consecutive days in the ruins adjacent to it, and an entire day could easily be dedicated to the vast amount of temples, arches, and homes that have been left behind. Reconstruct the Forum in your mind and then climb the Palatine Hill. Make an unnecessary amount of Emperor Palpatine jokes, and search every nook, crevice, and cave in the ancient architecture until the sun sets and the grounds close. Swear you missed something, no matter how long you spent inside.
Spend a rainy Thursday at the Vatican Museums, when the crowds are scarce.
The rainier the better. Keep your eyes distant as you pass another man trying to sell you an umbrella. Start with the Pinacoteca and come face to face with paintings by Raphael and the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in Rome. Loop through every museum. Do not dismiss anything. Just before you need to leave, give in to the signs for the Sistine Chapel. Stand beneath "The Creation of Adam" and study the ceiling until its frescoes seem to move on their own and your neck starts to hurt.
Most importantly, explore Rome every night.
That magical, romantic version of Rome you come expecting is best seen under moonlight. Watch the sunset over Rome from the top of the Spanish Steps, then watch the way blueberry ripples change the faces of the statues on the Trevi Fountain. Toss three coins into the fountain now that the crowds are gone: one to return to Rome, a second to find true love, the last to ensure a happy marriage. Go to the Pantheon before it closes and stare up at the stars through the oculus. Imagine a world of gods looking down on you. Get gelato at Giolitti around the corner, and walk toward the Colosseum while its melts into the crevices of your fingers. Sit on the stone wall that loops on one side of the Colosseum, and let your legs dangle over the steep slope below. Race down Via dei Fori Imperiali after midnight, when the Roman Forum is spotlit and empty, and the Colosseum's golden eyes illuminate the track at your back. Let Rome take you where it likes, no matter the hour, because though Rome is a city built on ruins, they will come back to life for you at night.