“I have finally arrived to this Capital of the World! I now see all the dreams of my youth coming to life,” the writer and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote. “Only in Rome is it possible to understand Rome.”

Indeed, as Italy’s capital and one of the birthplaces of Western civilization, Rome confounds the outside world with its blend of the ancient and modern. Perhaps that’s why it is the Eternal City. It’s a place with almost 3,000 years of history, yet it has always served as a model for the future. And although this city on the Tiber may not have been built in one day, it can be thoroughly explored (and very much appreciated) in as little as three.

Whether you’re coming for the weekend or stopping through on an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime trek through Europe, here’s how to spend 3 days in Rome.

Day 1: A Stroll Through Ancient Rome

Make your first day in Rome an exploration of ancient wonders—of the temples, landmarks, and ideas that were once the heart of the Roman Empire. Begin your walk as ancient Romans would have, in the social and political gathering space of the Forum. First developed in the 7th century B.C., this site holds the ruins of the Curia, the Temple of Caesar, and the House of the Vestal Virgins—and it’s a wise place to buy your combination ticket for the Colosseum.

roman colosseum
Colosseum | Photo courtesy of Bud Ellison

Take a detour just west of the Forum to the Jewish Ghetto, a hidden gem amidst more frequented attractions. Jewish culture melds with stunning Roman architecture for a stroll steeped in history. Heading east, revel in the Colosseum, the famed monument completed in 80 A.D. that once held as many as 50,000 spectators to watch gladiators battle to the death. Just beyond Capitoline Hill to the west is the Pantheon, Rome’s most incredibly preserved ancient monument with the largest and most influential unreinforced concrete dome ever built.

Getting a bit hungry? The nearby Trevi Fountain isn’t just a place for wishes—it’s also the site of L’Antico Forno, a market and bakery that serves some of the tastiest pizza al taglio in the city. Getting a bit winded? There’s no better summer refreshment than gelato, especially if it comes from Gelateria del Teatro or Gelateria dei Gracchi. Already thinking about dinner? You’ll be writing postcards home about the spaghetti alla carbonara at Pipero al Rex, as well as the cacio e pepe and the pasta all’amatriciana at Flavio al Velavevodetto.

trevi fountain
Trevi Fountain | Photo courtesy of Rachael Decker

Day 2: Admire The Wonders of Vatican City

Whether or not you count yourself among the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, it’s hard not to feel an overwhelming sense of awe in Vatican City. This sovereign state west of the Tiber is the home of the pope, the largest religious structure in the world, and countless masterpieces of art and architecture.

Although you’ll never escape the crowds, you should plan ahead and make an online reservation to visit the Vatican Museums. This unrivaled collection boasts such influential works as Laocoön and His Sons, The School of Athens by Raphael, and Michelangelo’s incomparable frescoes that adorn the Sistine Chapel. The adjacent St. Peter’s Basilica was erected over the tomb of St. Peter the Apostle, bearing the architectural marks of Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, Bernini, and Maderno.

vatican museums
The Vatican Museums | Photo courtesy of Rachael Decker

Hoping to see Pope Francis himself? Time your visit for Sunday at noon to hear the pontiff speak from his window. You can also secure tickets for the Wednesday general audience in St. Peter’s Square. Unless you’re on a budget, try to avoid the last Sunday of the month, when the museums are free and unthinkably crowded.

As the light begins to lower, walk back across the river for a glass of wine in Campo de’ Fiori. Take a few evening laps around Piazza Navona, then indulge in a plate of homemade pumpkin tortelli at Colline Emiliane.

Day 3: Savor La Dolce Vita in Trastevere

After witnessing centuries of history in the span of two days, make your final day in Rome a traveler’s choice. Itching to see a few more paintings? Make your way to the Borghese Gallery, but don’t forget the required reservations. Interested in doing a bit of people-watching? Find a seat in the Piazza del Popolo or the Piazza di Spagna to watch the world go by. But for a true taste of la dolce vita, simply wander south across the Ponte Sisto into Trastevere, the charming neighborhood west of the Tiber known for its flower-draped medieval streets.

trastevere neighborhood
Trastevere | Photo courtesy of Bruno

To catch a glimpse of the city’s most spectacular panorama, climb through Trastevere to the peak of Gianicolo. This eighth hill of Rome is beloved by locals, yet mysteriously neglected by tourists. You’ll find no better reward for your efforts than the suckling pig and wood-fired lasagna at La Tavernaccia.

Though Rome can easily keep you occupied for a week or more, this itinerary is a great place to start. Enjoy your 3 days in Rome—and let us know your favorite spots!

Featured photo courtesy of Rachael Decker

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Author: Maura O'Brien

Born and raised in Northern California and now based in Portland, Maura credits her mom with her sense of adventure. Maura has a special affinity for national parks, the Greek island of Folegandros, and a three-month trip across Europe with her sister that opened her eyes to the magic of travel.