Don’t want the usual tourist trip to Rome? See the other side of Rome. Here are the 10 amazing things to do in Rome Italy that aren’t on your list…yet!
There are so many wonderful things to do in Rome. Rome is not only one of the oldest but the most beautiful and unique cities in the world. A place where you can literally walk amongst the ruins of its two and a half thousand-year-old history. Sometimes called “Roma Aeterna” (The Eternal City) and “Caput Mundi” (Capital of the World), these two names communicate the two central notions of the ancient Roman culture.
My affection for Rome all started when I first visited the Italian capital back in 2006. Not only was it my first trip abroad, but it was also a sort of pilgrimage to travel back to the country where my dad and his family had emigrated from. My two-week trip set the wheels in motion to what eventually led to me studying Italian and moving to Rome in 2010.
I spent three incredible years exploring Rome and the regions of Italy. I was determined to see every corner before venturing beyond Italy’s borders. Each of its 20 regions is unique in its history, language, and culinary delights, but Rome is the one place all travellers must see in their lifetime.
I treasured my time getting to know Rome through visiting its hundreds of churches, archaeological sites, museums, and mouth-watering restaurants and gelateria’s. I was fortunate enough to have made very close friends with the locals who showed me Rome through their eyes. From taking me to a forno (bakery) at 3am to grab a delicious pizza bianca (a plain ‘white pizza’ sprinkled with coarse salt) after a night out on the town, to showing me an optical illusion involving the cupola of St Peter’s Basilica, my friends shared it all.
I cringe whenever people tell me they are only visiting Rome for only a couple of days. Don’t let the relatively small size of the historic centre fool you. There is so much more to Rome than the Trevi Fountain and Colosseum. Be aware that all these typical tourist hotspots are swarming with other like-minded tourists which makes for a rather stressful experience. What’s more, the surrounding restaurants take advantage of making a quick tourist buck by serving mediocre food, that’s why you’ll hear mixed reviews from people after their experience in Rome. Luckily, you’ve stumbled across my website where I’ll continue to share further insights on Rome. Be sure to subscribe for my newsletter in the footer so you don’t miss a beat.
That being said, promise me that you will stay in Rome for at least four days. That’s me being lenient, too! By all means, go ahead and see the attractions Rome is famous for, but make sure you allow enough time to go off the beaten track and visit these must-see beauties that will make your experience even more memorable.
1. Step Inside Santo Stefano Rotondo, the First Circular Church in Rome.
On a crisp autumn day, I accompanied my landlady Rosaria on a long walk. She took the opportunity to show me one of the largest and oldest circular churches in existence, Santo Stefano Rotondo. Upon stepping into this church, I immediately fell in love with its spiralling columns.
Built on top of a 2nd-century Mithraic temple, this church dates back to the 5th century A.D. and is dedicated to St. Stephen, the first martyr.
The altar in the centre of the church was ordered by Pope Gregory XIII (1572-85), along with the frescoes on outer arcade walls, painted by Antonio Tempesta and Niccolo Circignani, which portray the grisly deaths of 34 martyrs.
To check it’s ever changing open times, click here.
2. Visit a Three-Tiered Complex at St Clement Basilica Dating Back to 64 AD (Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano)
From the outside, St Clement Basilica looks like another basilica, but once inside you’ll be lead on a fascinating journey into the history of Rome.
In 1857, the Dominican Friar Mullouly who lived in the monastery at San Clement began excavating beneath the relatively modern church, which dates back to the 1200s. He was rewarded with one of the most interesting discoveries of his time; an early Christian basilica dating back to 350 A.D. Mullouly continued digging and discovered yet another, more ancient, layer from 1 A.D. All of this is located just a short walk from the Colosseum!
Upon entry, you will see the beautiful interior of St Clement Basilica which features a marvellous 12th-century apse mosaic depicting the “Trionfo della Croce” (Triumph of the Cross) and wonderful Renaissance frescoes in the Chapel of St Catherine.
For a small admission fee, you can explore the excavations of the lower two levels. Take the steps down to the 4th-century basilica which was mostly destroyed by Norman invaders in 1084. Look out for the faded 11th-century frescoes illustrating the life of San Clement.
Continue down another level to see a 1st-century Roman house and a dark, 2nd-century temple to Mithras which features an altar showing the god slaying a bull. To add to the atmosphere, you will hear the eerie sound of a subterranean river flowing through a Republic-era drain. This place is NOT to be missed!
3. See the Magical Optical Illusion of St Peter’s Dome
The view of St. Peter’s from Via Niccolò Piccolomini is awesome. Every time I head up there I’m fascinated and gobsmacked by the illusion that unfolds here. A special feature of this street is that it is perfectly aligned with the dome of St. Peters.
From the far end of this long hilltop road, the dome appears large and imposing, but as you walk towards the dome you’ll begin to see the optical illusion. The nearer you get, the smaller the dome appears to the point where it looks tiny. Wondering how the illusion works? Well, it’s said to be attributed to the layout of the buildings in the street.
The illusion is best enjoyed and more dramatic when viewed from a moving vehicle. It’s an ideal spot to end your day out in the city centre.
Via Niccolò Piccolomini is located here.
4. Wander Through Ancient Thermal Baths at the Baths of Caracalla (Le Terme di Caracalla)
Granted, this one may have made its way on to your list, but it’s worth mentioning. The Baths of Caracalla are the largest surviving ruins of an ancient baths complex in Rome. This is a must-add item to your list of things to do in Rome. The crumbling complex of brick walls, broken archways, and the remains of floor mosaics extends over an impressive 33 acres.
Commissioned by Septimius Severus before his death, the baths were named after his son, emperor Caracalla who reigned from AD 211-221. Caracalla is remembered as one of the most notorious of emperors due to the massacres and persecutions he authorised and initiated throughout the Empire. Despite his threatening demeanour, Caracalla proved to be a strong administrator evidenced by his granting Roman citizenship to all freemen throughout the Roman Empire.
The Baths of Caracalla were fed by a dedicated aqueduct that accommodated a staggering 1,600 bathers at a time. The baths provided two basic functions for ancient Romans; sanitation and an opportunity to socialise. There were two palaestra (gyms), two libraries (one for Greek texts, one for Latin texts), and plenty of shops.
Be sure to have a guided tour of this marvel. You’ll be fascinated to learn how the temperature of the water was controlled, and how each of the three major baths (tepidarium, calidarium, and frigidarium) were used.
If you’re visiting during the summer months you can even see live performances. The baths create a superb and dramatic backdrop while watching an opera.
5. Take Stroll Along the Oldest and Longest Road of Rome, Via Appia Antica
Remember the old saying “All Roads Lead to Rome”, well this road stretched all the way to the southeast of Italy in Brindisi! The Appian Way or Via Appia, was one of the earliest and strategically most important Roman roads of the ancient republic.
It was named after Appius Claudius Caecus, a Roman censor who began and completed the first 90 kilometres as a military road to the south in 312 BC during the Samnite Wars. The Appian Way was the first long road built specifically to transport troops outside the smaller region of greater Rome.
Via Appia Antica is a gorgeous cobbled road surrounded by towering pine trees, grassy fields, and dotted with ancient wonders. While you may not be able to visit all 300km, three major catacombs (San Callisto, San Sebastiano and Santa Domitilla) are open for guided tours. Wondering why there are so many catacombs here? Well, Roman law forbade burial places within city limits so the early Christians buried their dead in 300km of underground catacombs.
Another interesting fact is that Spartacus and six thousand of his slave rebels were crucified here in 71 BC. After the catacombs is Circus Maxentius which is much better-preserved compared to Circus Maximus. From here is the Tomb of Cecilia Metella, a round mausoleum which was later converted into a fortress.
The best time to visit is on a Sunday and public holidays when the whole area is closed to traffic thus becoming Rome’s biggest pedestrian zone. As you explore the ancient road you will you be rewarded with stunning views of the remains of seven Roman aqueducts dating back to the Republican and Imperial age. The ancient house, Villa dei Quintilli, situated here was so desirable that emperor Commodus murdered the owners to have it for himself.
6. Take the Pope’s Secret Escape Route at Il Passetto di Borgo
The Passetto di Borgo, or simply Passetto meaning small passage, is an elevated passage that links the Vatican City with Castel Sant’Angelo. This corridor, located in the district of Borgo, was erected in 1277 by Pope Nicholas III and extends for approximately 800 metres (2,600 ft.). On several occasions, it served as an escape route for Popes in danger.
In 1494, Pope Alexander VI crossed it when Charles VIII invaded the city. Then in 1527 during the Sack of Rome, Clement VII escaped to safety through this passage when troops of the Holy Roman Emperor massacred almost the entire Swiss Guard on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica.
This has to be one of the coolest things I’ve done in Rome. By walking in the footsteps of Pope’s who sought safety when Rome was under threat, you get a sense of how they must’ve felt as they fled along this passageway. Unfortunately, Il Passetto is only open in the summer for guided tours during the event “Notti d’Estate a Castel Sant’Angelo” (Summer Nights at Castel Sant’Angelo). Be sure to book your trip accordingly!
7. Marvel at the Best Private Art Collection at Galleria Borghese
They say the best museum in Rome is the city itself. But situated in Villa Borghese park is the Galleria Borghese. Its collections are housed in a magnificent 17th-century villa with 20 rooms featuring masterpieces of the renaissance and the beginnings of baroque art. If you only have the time for one art gallery in Rome, make it Galleria Borghese.
The collection was begun by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the most knowledgeable and ruthless art collector of his day. Scipione Borghese was an early patron of Gian Lorenzo Bernini and an ardent collector of works by Caravaggio. Amongst the gallery’s gems are paintings by Caravaggio including Boy with a Basket of Fruit and St Jerome Writing and Sacred and Profane Love by Titian.
My personal favourite part of the collection are the sensational sculptures by Bernini. Look out for Bernini’s “Ratto di Proserpina” (Rape of Proserpina) and “Apollo e Dafne” (Apollo and Daphne).
Closed on Monday’s, the Galleria Borghese must be booked advance as admittance is set at two-hourly intervals. This ensures you’ll have the pleasure of wandering around without having to navigate through the crowd.
8. Walk in The Steps of Gladiators Under the Colosseum Arena Floor.
Want to experience the Colosseum from a gladiator’s point of view? Then look no further than Dark Rome’s guided tour of the arena floor and third tier. Both sections are accessed by small private tours only, which means you can enjoy the spectacle that is the Colosseum without the crowds.
Below the arena floor you’ll see the subterranean backstage that was completely filled in during the 5th century AD, as a result, has preserved the area considerably. On the tour, you’ll see where slaves worked, where wild animals such as lions, tigers, hyenas, and bears were kept and see where gladiators rested, ate, and prayed.
Also included on the tour is special access to the third tier. Sitting at thirty-three metres high, this area offers unique views unseen from anywhere else in the Colosseum. Enjoy an uninterrupted view of both of the immense interior of the Colosseum as well as out across Rome.
9. Visit Quartiere Coppedè, a Hidden Fairy-Tale Neighbourhood
Unknown to most tourists and even the locals, Quartiere Coppedè gets its name from Gino Coppedè, a Florentine architect who designed and built the quarter between 1913 and 1926.
Upon entering this tiny neighbourhood from Via Tagliamento and Via Dora, you’ll see Tuscan turrets, Liberty sculptures, Moorish arches, Gothic gargoyles, frescoed façades, and palm-fringed gardens.
I was told of this magical place by my landlady, Rosaria who shared my passion for hidden Roman treasures. After mentioning my visit to my Italian friends, they were surprised they had never heard of it before. From then on they sought my advice on other hidden corners of Rome.
The best way to get here is by taking trams 3 or 19 to Piazza Buenos Aires
10. Explore a Baroque Palace at Palazzo Barberini
This gem was commissioned to celebrate the Barberini family’s rise to papal power in the 16th century, every inch of this palace will impress you. Starting with the large squared staircase by Bernini and the helicoidal staircase by Borromini. Upon entering the salon, your eyes will be drawn to the large and spectacular ceiling fresco by Pietro da Cortona called “Il Trionfo della Divina Provvidenza” (Triumph of Divine Providence) it was finished in just three years.
There are so many great paintings on display here that I’ve visited the palace at least four times already. Don’t miss the three works by Caravaggio including “San Francesco d’Assisi in meditazione” (St Francis in Meditation), “Narciso” (Narcissus) and the horrific “Giuditta e Oloferne” (Judith Beheading Holophernes).
Perhaps the most famous of paintings here is Raphael’s “La Fornarina” (The Baker’s Girl), a portrait of his mistress who worked in a bakery in Rome’s Trastevere neighbourhood.
Over to you!
Have you visited any of these places? What other top things to do in Rome would you recommend?
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