There are two ways you can view the prospect of a day-long trip to Rome. The first way, which we found to be predominant on our cruise ship, is to panic at how much you want to do when you only have twelve hours in the city. The second way, which is my way, is to kick back and see what you can and leave the rest for another visit.
Here's the thing: I've been lucky enough to visit Rome four times in the last six years. On each of the previous three visits, I'd spent several days in Rome. I still haven't seen all there is to see in Rome. So why kill yourself trying to see it all in a day? Realize that you can't do it all, then focus on what you can reasonably do.
If there's one thing you've wanted to see your whole life--say, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Colosseum, or the Borghese Museum (I love the Borghese!)--then make that place your priority. If you finish with time to spare, move to the next thing. Or not. Rome is not a hurry-it-up place. I guarantee you, you'll have fun even if you're leisurely and miss most of the touristy sites.
Our cruise ship, like all cruise ships visiting Rome, docked at the port of Civitavecchia, which is about an hour away from the city. Rather than take a tourist bus from there to Rome, we took the port bus from the ship to where the (very long) pier meets land, then hopped off and walked a few blocks to the train station. Everyone in the station speaks English, and they're used to tourists asking how to get to Rome, so nabbing tickets on one of the frequent trains is easy. We got our tickets and were on board, heading into Rome, within forty minutes of getting off the ship. I loved seeing the coast and the villages on the way in--views that I think are better than those you get from a highway. In many cases, given Roman traffic, the trains are faster than the busses, too.
Once in Rome, we took the Metro to the Colosseum. I've been there before, but I love walking through the Colosseum and looking across at the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill from one of the Colosseum's upper levels.
On this trip, we did a Rick Steves Audio Tour of the Colosseum, which we'd downloaded onto our iPods before leaving home. The audio tour was easy to follow and worked out fine.
Another option--one I HIGHLY recommend if it's your first time in Rome--is to spend the money and hire a private guide from Rome Walks. We did this on a previous visit and thought it was worth every penny and then some. The guide who met us on that visit was a graduate student from the University of New Hampshire who'd been studying in Rome for nearly a year. He loved the city and its history, and it showed. He answered all our questions (as a history geek, I tend to have a lot of them) and took us to see the Colosseum, the Forum, and Palatine Hill over the course of one beautiful afternoon. Best of all, he did it in a reasonable amount of time--we saw what we wanted to see, skipped what we didn't--and he was great at ensuring we didn't get caught behind massive crowds. Hiring the guide made the most of our time on that trip. I've taken some of the company's group walks, too--their Twilight Rome Walk, as well as their Jewish Ghetto and Trastevere Walk--and would book another walk with them in a heartbeat.
After we finished our tour of the Colosseum, we made our way past the Forum (the entrance has moved since the last time I was there, making it harder to cut through--so we ended up walking past it rather than through it) on our way to the Pantheon. I adore the Pantheon and the square in front of it, so getting there for lunch was a priority on this trip. I think it's a fantastic people-watching spot. We grabbed pizza (not as good as the pizza in Sorrento, sadly), watched the tourists go by as we ate, then walked through the Pantheon itself before making our way to the Piazza Navona. There was an art market going on, so after watching a group of kids play in the Piazza Navona's Bernini fountain, we spent some time wandering through the market and enjoying the sunshine.
We hadn't made any plans for the afternoon, so we debated going to the Vatican. However, since the weather was so great and we wanted to spend more time outdoors, we opted to skip it on this trip and make our way to the Spanish Steps and then to the Trevi Fountain, which are also great people-watching spots (and near some good leather shopping, if you like shopping.)
First, however, we made a stop at my favorite gelateria, which isn't far from the Pantheon or Piazza Navona. If you're ever in Rome, try the Gelateria Della Palma on Via Maddalena. When you go inside, pay first at the register, then take your ticket to the ice cream counter. There are more flavors than you could imagine, even some made with soy for those of you whose stomachs can't tolerate the real thing. This photo shows about a quarter of their selections. I couldn't fit it all in one shot!
They have some exotic flavors, like chocolate pepperonicini, but I'm partial to simpler ones like the strawberry or the mint chocolate chip.
After visiting the Trevi Fountain to throw in the requisite coinage (thus guaranteeing a return trip to Rome), we walked along the Via Condotti, up the Spanish Steps, then made our way to Termini to catch the train back to Civitavecchia. We poked our noses inside a few of Rome's many churches (I HIGHLY recommend you do this anywhere you go in Europe, since you never know how beautiful or moving the scene may be inside) before making a pit stop at the Piazza delle Quattro Fontane to refill our water bottles at one of the four fountains so we'd have water for the train ride. The last time we stayed in Rome, we were in a hotel not far from here, so it was fun to stop here again.
We probably didn't see as much of Rome as some of the other people on our cruise ship did, but we truly enjoyed ourselves and we weren't wiped out at the end of the day by trying to cram in as much as possible. We even had a little bit of time to explore Civitavecchia before enjoying a late dinner and a phenomenal sunset.
Next on the agenda: Italy, Day Three: Lucca and Pisa