II went to Rome this past March and loved it. It was a last minute thing though. My husband had to go on business trip and I got to tag along.
A great book to get when going to Rome is the Rick Stevens, ROME book. It is a secular book but it is so worth it in Rome. He tells you great places to eat, places to stay on a budget, how to get around the city walking or on public transportation, etc. He also warns you about things like pick pockets (sad but true) and not to have your picture taken with the gladiators at the coliseum because they will blackmail you for a lot of money. You NEED this book to learn the things you need to know about Rome.
So buy that book and carry it everywhere you go in Rome. Also, a lot of hotels and restaurants will give you discounts for having that book.
Other hints about Rome:
-Plan an ENTIRE day to visit the Vatican. You can prebuy tickets online to the Vatican for a discount. Also, it ensures you will get in because they only let so many people in per day. I don't know the website off-hand but Rick Steves gives the website in his book. Also, remember there is a dress code in the Vatican and they are very strict about it. No shoulders can be showing. I think the men had to wear pants too but I can't remember. You can look that up. It was warm when we went so I wore a skirt and a cotton blouse.
-If you are physically able, climb to the dome of St. Peter's Basilica. It is well worth the wait in line. Also visit the tombs in the Basilica.
-Send yourself a postcard from the Vatican post office so it will have the Vatican post mark. The Vatican is actually its own city. (I didn't know this until I went to Rome).
-Go to a Mass at the Vatican if you can get in. We happened to be there on Palm Sunday and we couldn't get to Mass, even to see it on the big screens outside but we did see a Mass in a very small chapel at Catacombs of Priscilla. We didn't understand a word of it but it was wonderful.
- Try to visit some catacombs. We visited the Catacombs of Priscilla that were a little outside of Rome. But Rick Steve's book got us there on public transportation.
-Make sure you do all the tourist stuff like see the coliseum, Trevi fountain (which is beautiful!!!) and throw a coin in the fountain. If you are short on time or want to save some money, you can skip going inside the colosseum and just see the outside.
-Eat some Italian ice cream, only eat fresh pasta. Be adventurous when ordering food. A lot of times we ordered by pictures and were pleasantly surprised. I had to learn the Italian words for clams, mussels, oysters, etc because I'm allergic to those but all of the restaurants were very accommodating.
-Whenever you can find an English speaking tour, pay the money and go on the tour. It is well worth the money. You learn so much more from them than anywhere else.
-Have a very open mind about things. Remember this is Europe. Remember the saying "when in Rome.....". :) For example, hotel rooms are going to be a lot smaller but they are quaint. We stayed in a very small room - it consisted of a bed and a bathroom. The shower was the size of a phone booth there was no tub but I LOVED it.
-Italians are a lot more affectionate than most Americans and public displays of affection are not a big deal to folks there. Just look the other way if you see it.
- Do NOT rent a car and do NOT attempt to drive in Rome. The red lights, lanes, etc are just suggestions to most drivers there. When I arrived in Rome, my husband and I stayed in the hotel his company put him in the first night that was just outside of Rome. However, it wasn't on the bus or subway line. I HATED riding in cabs there - you were risking your life every time you got in one. So we moved to a hotel inside the city. It was small but quaint and I loved it.
-Take advantage of public transportation, especially the subway. It's very easy to navigate, very safe and fast. There are subways, buses and trains.
-Be VERY careful crossing streets there. Just because you have the right of way doesn't mean cars will stop. Rick Steves talks about this in his book. The best way to cross the street is to find a local and follow them across.
I know there is so much more. I loved Rome!!!! Email me or PM me and I can tell you more.
Rome is not a very big city. I was only there three whole days and I feel like I got everything done. So your idea o traveling to other cities in Italy is a great idea.
I am not fond of group trips because I like to make my own schedule and if I fall in love with a certain site, I like to have the luxury of staying a little longer. However, I am sure a group trip would be great because they would make sure you see everything.
We did not use a travel agent because this trip was so last minute but when I travel, especially to foreign countries, I usually use an agent. They can get you the best deals and get you in a good hotel and they know what areas to stay away from. And they can schedule as many or as little activities that you want. Sorry that I can't recommend a travel agent but I think Rick Steves recommends some in his book. (you HAVE to get that book!!)
Whew, sorry for that long post. I got started and I couldn't stop.