Rome in a Day: The Grandeur

Rome: The Eternal City — How do you begin to take in 2,500 years of civilization during a short visit?

With only three nights to spend on our first visit to Rome, we needed to figure out how to make the most of our time in order to see the major sites, and yet be able to wander and explore on our own.

A hilltop view of Rome: The Eternal City

A hilltop view of Rome: The Eternal City

I decided to check out what might be available through Walks of Italy because I’d heard a lot of good things about the quality of their tours. “Rome in a Day” sounded like just what we needed. On this six-hour tour (a combination of their “Best of Rome with Colosseum and Historic Center” and the “Highlights of the Vatican” tours) we hit many of Rome’s most famous attractions with our knowledgeable, friendly, and very entertaining guides. So come along as we share some of the highlights. You may be surprised at all that we were able to see in just a few hours.

The Grandeur

“… the grandeur that was Rome ”  — Edgar Allan Poe in “To Helen”

As we walked around Rome viewing dramatic scenes of ancient ruins and famous landmarks, the old cliché that “Rome wasn’t built in a day” really hit home. Remnants of Rome’s grandeur remain in the many ruins of the city. There are the well-known sites and there are also those that appear unexpectedly — bits of façade or columns exposed in excavations, some of which are quite recent as new archaeological finds continue.


The Colosseum

The Colosseum

Probably the most iconic of the ancient Roman sites, the Colosseum impressed me more than I expected after a lifetime of seeing photos. It really does represent the grandeur of Rome perfectly. I’m sure my positive impression of visiting was enhanced by the fact that we had privileged access as part of the Walks of Italy tour group allowing us to bypass the long lines for tickets and entry.

It’s amazing to think about the events that took place in this amphitheater, the largest one in the Roman Empire, built in the 70s AD.  We entered through the imposing arches (there are three levels of them) that provided access to the seating areas where 50,000 spectators would witness gladiator fights, gruesome public executions, and other “entertainment”. We learned that the seating areas were assigned depending on social class and women were relegated to the least desirable seats at the top. The efficiency of the design amazingly enabled clearing the 50,000 through the 80 exits in just a few a few minutes. We also learned that a retractable canvas top was used to cover the seating area.

Colosseum scenes

Though I’d seen representations in movies, I was still surprised that the elaborate mechanisms beneath the wooden floor of the arena for moving stage effects or raising animals or combatants actually existed. Legend even speaks of the flooding of the arena floor for mock water battles — the Cirque du Soleil effects of ancient times. The grim fact that the sand that was put on the floor not just to reduce slipping, but to soak up the blood of combatants made the reality of some of the horrors strike home for me. The barbarism that went on here seems such a contrast to the architectural beauty and grandeur.

The maze of passageways and chambers beneath the floor of the Colosseum

The maze of passageways and chambers beneath the floor of the Colosseum

The Roman Forum

The Roman Forum

The Roman Forum

As a first-time visitor to Rome, I was in awe of the sights we were able to see as we walked along from the Colosseum, passing by the Roman Forum (which we did not tour, but the Walks of Italy ticket allows entry on your own through the next day). This was a central area of basilicas, temples, squares, and government buildings where business was transacted, people congregated, and nobility ruled.


We had taken a walk the previous night that took us by the Pantheon after opening hours. I loved the dramatic effect of the subtle lighting on the facade as we stood in the Piazza della Rotonda.

The columns of the Pantheon portico at night

The columns of the Pantheon portico at night

During the tour, we went inside. The 1900 year old Pantheon, the best-preserved ancient building in Rome, was built between 70 AD and 82 AD as a temple to the seven deities of the seven planets. It has been a Christian church since the 7th century. The concrete dome is the largest unreinforced dome in the world. The open oculus lets in natural light and during heavy rain storms there is momentary flooding of the floor until it’s emptied shortly after by the efficient draining system.

Side view of the Pantheon and the open oculus of the rotunda

Side view of the Pantheon and the open oculus of the rotunda

The Column of Marcus Aurelius

The Column of Marcus Aurelius

The Column of Marcus Aurelius

This Roman victory column in Piazza Colonna was built about 180-190 AD in honor of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius to commemorate his military campaigns. Made of 28 blocks of Carrara marble, it features a spiral relief with incredibly detailed carvings telling the stories of various battles, including the Roman Danubian Wars.

Trevi Fountain

Legend says that in 19 BC a virgin helped technicians locate a source of pure water about 8 miles from Rome. That scene and others are depicted on the facade of Palazzo Poli, the Trevi Fountain’s majestic backdrop. The fountain which was built in 1732-62 commemorates the arrival of the water.

I didn’t expect to get close enough to the Trevi Fountain to toss my coins into the water, so I wasn’t disappointed by the crowds as we passed in front of it. I was prepared for that but not that the fountain was undergoing restoration, but I guess in order to keep these treasures around, that must be done from time to time. I had learned from a 60 Minutes piece that numerous restoration projects under way in Rome are funded by patriotic moguls from the Italian fashion industry. The trend was begun by Diego Della Valle of Tod’s who donated 25 million euros for the restoration of the Colosseum, spurred by his Italian pride. Other fashion industry moguls followed suit donating funds to finance repairs for other Rome landmarks, including Fendi for the Trevi Fountain and Bulgari for cleaning and repairing the Spanish Steps.

Trevi Fountain and Palazzo Poli under construction

Trevi Fountain and Palazzo Poli

Of the many fountains in Rome, it is the largest and probably the most famous, in part for it being a prominent feature in movies, such as Three Coins in the Fountain, Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn. I used my imagination to envision the fountain in a more romantic light as portrayed in those films and hope to come back sometime after restoration and in the early morning before the crowds.

Spanish Steps

At the Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Square), tourists flock to the Spanish Steps — 135 stairs up to the Piazza Trinità dei Monti. Our guide provided historical background and interesting stories, such as how and why the building of the Spanish Steps in 1723–1725 was funded by the French to link the Bourbon Spanish embassy in the piazza below to Chiesa della Trinità dei Monti, the French church above the square which was commissioned by the King of France. The Spanish embassy is still located in the Piazza di Spagna. It was fun to see the location in person after seeing so many pictures and prominent film appearances such as in Roman Holiday.  We’ll go back at a quieter time to experience sitting on the steps.

Tourists sitting on the Spanish Steps (Fontana della Barcaccia at the foot) and tourists in the Piazza di Spagna

Tourists sitting on the Spanish Steps (with the Church Trinita dei Monti at the top and Fontana della Barcaccia at the foot) and tourists in the Piazza di Spagna

Along the way

There were many sights to catch my eye as we walked along the streets of Rome from one attraction to the other, such as the shopping areas pictured below.

Designer shops on Via Condotti

Designer shops on Via Condotti

While the well-heeled are shopping at Dior, Ferragamo, Gucci, Bulgari and other high-end designer shops on Via Condotti, members of the clergy are window-shopping for ecclesiastical garb and wares along Via dei Cestari. As we walked, I glimpsed a young priest admiring the wares in De Ritis, one of the oldest and most popular shops in the area. Until the tour, I never thought about where clergy members purchase their clothes. With the huge number of priests, seminarians, nuns, and novices who spend time in Rome, it makes sense that there would be so many shops with a religious specialty. Among them are shops that provide clothing and accessories for the pope himself. It’s not as common a sight in U.S. cities to see such a high percentage of priests and nuns, so it often made us take note – especially as we saw them walking around with full religious attire but accessorized with cell phones, earbuds, and shopping bags.

Display window of De Ritis eccelsiastical store and interior of Galleria Alberto Sordi

Display window of De Ritis eccelsiastical store and interior of Galleria Alberto Sordi

All tours should include gelato!

A generous serving of gelato is included as part of the tour. After our visit to the Pantheon, we stopped at Della Palma gelateria which is just a very short walk from there on Via della Maddalena. The timing was perfect; we were ready for a treat. The gelateria has 150 kinds of gelato, so it took a while to investigate them and choosing was a challenge. I ultimately decided on my go-to flavor, chocolate.  Mr. TWS had pistachio and deep, dark, chocolate. It was really good, but I have no way of knowing if it’s one of the best in Rome. Any gelateria suggestions for our next visit?

A few of the 150 flavors available at Della Palma gelateria

A few of the 150 flavors available at Della Palma gelateria

To be continued …

We were very pleased that the tour had met our objectives so well. Our guide secured taxis for each of us, took care of payment and we were on our way over the Tiber River for the second part of our walking tour of Rome in Vatican City.

This map isn’t an exact representation of our tour, but is meant to give you a general idea of the locations and routes of the “Rome in a Day” walking tour.


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45 thoughts on “Rome in a Day: The Grandeur

  1. Paula McInerny

    This brings back such lovely memories, and I remember that I felt that both the Colosseum and the Pantheon exceeded my expectations, much as The Eiffel Tower did.We actually got one of our gelato fixes just near the Pantheon at the iconic Caffe Giolitti. T think i enjoyed Via dei Cestari more and seeing the very elaborate ecclesiastical garments than i did Via Condotti, though I was looking for celebs.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Glad to bring back good memories. Thanks for the gelateria tip — I’m on a mission. 🙂 Via dei Cestari really opened my eyes to ecclesiastical shopping!

  2. Cheryl

    What a great way to see Italy! It looks like the Walks of Italy tour provided you a fabulous overview of all the major sites and of course gelato to cool down afterwards! I agree the colosseum is a masterpiece representing some amazing technology of the day. Walking around the colosseum, it is easy to imagine the sites and scenes occurring in its heyday. Wonderful overview of the great places to see in Rome! Ciao!

  3. Marcia

    Thanks for this, Cathy! I just decided not to do a side trip to Rome when I go to London next month because I was sure I wouldn’t have enough time to hit all the sites. Your post makes me realize I can.
    I like your description of the grandeur and barbarity at the Colosseum. A perfect metaphor for life – good and bad existing side by side.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Good to know that this post was timely for you. August will be very busy in Rome, but book ahead to be sure you get on the tour. Even with the short time we had, Mr. TWS and I were able to spend some good time wandering around Rome on our own, too.

  4. Agata

    Out of all wonders located in Rome you saw the most spectacular ones so well done. However, for me, Rome is the best when you live in the city for a couple of weeks or months. The best part is to watch this city through all seasons. I loved it!

  5. Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru

    I think if time is limited (and particularly if it’s a first visit), a guided small-group tour is the best choice. At the very least it will introduce you to locations you’ll want to visit again. Your Rome in a day tour with Walks of Italy looks to be an excellent resource, and I’ll remember it when we visit.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      I think that walking tour options have really become great resources for travelers. Especially with companies like Walks of Italy, you’re really getting a lot of value and the guides are extremely knowledgebale.

  6. Michele

    This looks like the perfect way to explore if you are time poor in Rome.We love walking tours they give you an interesting insight you often miss otherwise. We will add this to our list of things to do in Rome Thank you for sharing

  7. Michele Peterson

    Wow, you saw a lot with Walks of Italy! In addition to the many advantages of going with an experienced knowledgable guide, I agree that it’s absolutely critical to pre-book a tour in Rome if you don’t want to spend time waiting in line-ups. I couldn’t believe the length of the queues to get into the Colosseum!!

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Privileged access is a really big deal. I felt a little bit guilty — just a very wee bit 🙂 – walking past the Colosseum lines and it was only about 9 a.m. I know it gets even busier later!

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      My pleasure. I’m certain that if we had been on our own we wouldn’t have been able to see what we did in the same period of time. Having privileged access is key as is the fact that we had knowledgeable, experienced guides showing us the way.

  8. Elaine J. Masters

    Loved seeing the sites so recognizable from movies. That must be where my love for Rome began and you’ve rekindled it. Wonderful post and real too. Sadly modern tourism must take into account the impact of crowds. We’ve become such a mobile species.

  9. Megan | Traveling Nine to Fiver

    One of the most interesting things about Rome is that they almost never knock anything down, they just build on top of it. You can see the layers at the further end of the Roman Forum as a great example where you go from far below street level in the forum to a much more recent church at the top of the hill. It’s all fascinating. This is a great tour if you’ve only got a chance to spend a short time in the city! And for gelato I find the best places don’t use as much food coloring so the pistachio and banana are more of a brown color than the bright green and yellow you can find places. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Lisa Goodmurphy

    We had about the same amount of time in Rome pre-cruise a few years ago and I was amazed at how much we did manage to see in about 2.5 days. I do wish we would have booked a tour of the Colosseum though because not having done so resulted in a bit of a disaster for us! Love your photos!!

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Sorry about your Colosseum disaster! I was so glad that we had booked this tour and gotten special access. It’s the only way to go for the Colosseum and the Vatican Museums, too.

  11. Susan Moore

    I’ve heard good things about the Walks of Italy tours, and this is a marvelous way tour Rome especially when you have only a few days in the city. I haven’t been to Italy yet and your photos make me want to remedy that immediately!

  12. Leigh

    Sounds like a great though busy start to a visit in Rome. It’s been so many years since I was there that all I can remember is the Colosseum and gelato. Walks with Italy sounds like a great way to cut through what you should really see.

  13. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go

    I enjoyed tagging along with you on the Walks of Italy which certainly delivered upon its promise of showing you the highlights! I know how you feel when you say that you were surprised at being so impressed when you saw the Colosseum in person even though you’d seen many pictures of it. I’ve experienced that feeling several times when I finally see an icon that I’ve read about. I remember getting a lump in my throat a few years ago when I saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time. There’s a huge difference between reading about places and actually visiting and we constantly appreciate what an amazing gift travel can be.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      I also know that “lump in my throat” feeling seeing sites for the first time. That happened to me with the Statue of Liberty, too. We were on the ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island — I couldn’t believe I was actually seeing it.

  14. Susan Nelson

    You did it just right for the time you had in Rome. I envy those who are having their first experience in Rome because I remember how over the top I was when it was my first. When I saw the colosseum I walked right out into traffic pointing at it like a lost child. Amazing I was not hit! Needless to say, Rome blew me away and still does. I so enjoyed reliving the experience through your eyes and observations.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Thanks, Susan. I hope to be a repeat Rome visitor again — the sooner, the better! Watch out for that traffic!

  15. Suzanne Fluhr

    I knew there were Roman ruins in Rome (duh), but I didn’t expect to be encountering them around every corner and in basements. That kind of blew my American mind. I’ve now seen lots of Roman ruins all over Europe and most recently in Turkey and Israel, so I remember being kind of wowed by the Pantheon. You can definitely imagine what the Roman temples and buildings must have looked like back in the day. I’d say you definitely earned your gelato that day, but chocolate? Really? Actually, 150 flavors would probably be so overwhelming that I’d retreat to a comfortable default too.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Ha! I almost didn’t put that in there about the chocolate for fear of criticism of my lack of imagination. 🙂 Yes, Rome is incredible and like you, I wasn’t expecting the ruins “around every corner” — made it extra exciting to be there.

  16. Anita

    Love, love Rome…and love Walks of Italy, too! A good walking tour is definitely the way to go for any first-time exploration of a city like Rome, and helps you earn the right to unlimited gelato besides. Too bad about the Trevi Fountain, but that just means you have to return when it’s back to its old romantic self!

  17. Sophie

    I’ve heard good things about Walks of Italy. Your trip covered quite all kinds of good stuff. Definitely something I’ll consider next time (maybe in Milan, as that’s a city I don’t really know).

  18. Mary @ Green Global Travel

    Wow, that “Rome in a Day” tour sure looks successful – I can’t believe you got to see all of those amazing sites in one day! Great photo of the Roman Forum – one can definitely imagine the lively bustle of business and government that once ruled here.

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