All roads lead to Rome, and then they converge in a giant traffic jam of Mercedes vans, Mini Coopers, Smart Cars and motorbikes. For travelers trying to maximize their time during a brief three-day stay, the congested highways and streets of the Eternal City might seem like an insurmountable obstacle. The savvy traveler, however, can learn how to conquer Rome's motorways like a mighty emperor.
Tour operators can help you make the most of your time. Appian Line (06-48-78-61), an Italian company offering itineraries throughout Italy, will send a shuttle to your hotel, then transport you to its central location at Piazza dell Esquilino to purchase tickets for a half or full day of Rome sightseeing by motorcoach. Appian Line tours cover the highlights, including the Colosseum, Roman Forum, St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel.
For more independent travel, consider taking underground trains or even trolleys. "Rome's Metropolitana (subway) is underused by tourists," said Kathy McCabe, editor and publisher of Dream of Italy, a subscription travel newsletter. "It can get you to places faster than buses, which may encounter traffic — especially during rush hour." Stops on the Metropolitina include the Colosseum, Spain Square and the Spanish Steps and St. Paul's Basilica.
Also, consider the Ciao Roma Trolley Tour, which loops through the city and allows you to jump on and off at major tourist attractions. Stops include the Piazza Venezia near the Roman Forum, The Colosseum, The Vatican and the Piazza del Popolo.
You may also wish to consider renting a vehicle.
"Rent a scooter and take in the sights as you are waiting in traffic," said Antonia Imperoli of the Italian Government Tourist Board in New York. "Always go to the front of the traffic line, to avoid the exhaust pipes!"
Time in traffic doesn't have to be a lost cause.
"Strike up a conversation with your fellow Italian in the next car and ask suggestions of where to enjoy a typical Italian dinner that evening," Imperoli said.
Travelers can also maximize their time when it comes to enjoying Rome's excellent cuisine.
"Italians eat quick meals and drink espresso while standing up," McCabe said. "There are tons of pizza places on every corner of Rome. You tell the person behind the counter how big a slice you would like, and he or she charges you by weight. Grab a drink and you can have lunch in 10 minutes."
Gulping breakfast and lunch is one thing. After the day's tours are done, food fanatics may wish to linger for hours over Italian specialties. Try prosciutto and honeydew melon, tortellini with meat sauce, pizza with spicy salami, antipasti of eggplant, peppers and beans, desserts such as tiramisu or panna cotti, and the best coffee in the entire world.
Here is a suggested itinerary if you only have three days in Rome.
Appian Line offers numerous half-day and full-day tours of Rome. Combine your favorite itineraries for a full day of sightseeing from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. See the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, Piazza Navonna with its "Fountain of the Four Rivers" by the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, St. Peter's Basilica, The Vatican, The Roman Forum, the Colosseum and St. Paul's Basilica. It's a long day of touring, but you'll cover many of Rome's highlights.
Appian Line offers the "Vatican Museums" tour year-round every morning except Sundays and religious holidays. Here's a chance to see one of the world's great collections of classical and Renaissance art. The climax of the tour is the Sistine Chapel. Its walls feature paintings by Perugino, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Signorelli and Michelangelo, and its ceiling was painted by Michelangelo from 1508 to 1512. Among the many ceiling panels tracing the creation of the world and the fall of man is the famous "Creation of Adam." As you stroll back to the tour bus, your guide will point out the Pope's apartment building.
Got walking shoes? Try an independent travel day with stops at the Borghese Museum, Villa Borghese Park, Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps. First stop: The Borghese Museum. Reservations are mandatory, so show up bright and early before the 8:30 a.m. opening time to purchase tickets, or make reservations in advance on the museum's Web site. Admission is strictly controlled so that only 360 people can tour the museum within a two-hour slot. See the highlights before your time runs out. They include Bernini's statue of "David" confronting the giant Goliath with only a sling. Bernini's sculpture of "Apollo and Daphne" depicts the nymph Daphne being turned into a laurel tree, pursued in vain by Apollo.
After two hours of strolling the museum, take a sit-down break with cappuccinos and a quick lunch in the museum snack bar. Head out the door for a nice long walk through the rest of the green, leafy Villa Borghese Park and down a long flight of stairs to Piazza del Popolo. It leads to several pedestrian-only shopping streets. If you're feeling energetic, you can stroll all the way down Via del Babuino to Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Square), the most famous square in Rome. Hail a cab and call it a day!
Robin Dalmas is a freelance writer and former MSNBC.com travel editor and producer.