If any city on our planet can be called eternal, it has to be Rome. Rome is like a giant museum that smells of history and is filled with popular tourist attractions. However, there are also a lot of hidden gems in Rome that most tourists don’t know about.
For many travelers, all roads lead to Rome even today. Whether you have only a week, a month, or 10 days in Italy, Rome will probably be your starting and ending point. Many people fly to Rome from different parts of the world to see the magnificent Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Ancient Forum, etc.but Rome isn’t only about its main tourist attractions. In this article, we’ll share some secret and unusual places in Rome that aren’t mentioned in most tourist guides. Places that live in the shadows of the city’s most famous sights. So, if you’re looking for a different experience in Rome, keep reading!
Starting off this list of hidden gems in Rome off the beaten track, we have Via Piccolomini. If you’re looking for a less famous and less crowded version of the famous Borromini Perspective, look no further. Via Piccolomini is another fascinating optical illusion you might want to check out.
Via Piccolomini is basically a street located behind Villa Doria Pamphili Park that creates an optical illusion of St. Peter’s dome as you’re walking towards it; the dome seems to recede in the background and appears to be a lot smaller than it actually is. If you move the opposite way, the dome increases, appearing to be a lot larger than it actually is. Amazing, isn’t it?
Antica Farmacia della Scala
On the outside, Farmacia della Scala looks like a regular pharmacy in a bustling neighborhood. However, if you step inside, you’ll be in for a surprise. On the upper floor, you’ll find a surprisingly well-preserved 17th-century pharmacy that was once the pharmacy of the Papal Court. This pharmacy is still run by Carmelite monks who are open to showing visitors around. If you want to visit, note that you have to call and make an appointment before you visit the pharmacy.
Photo by Jbribeiro1 CC by SA 4.0
This villa is home to the French Academy and is oftentimes overlooked despite being located right next to the famous Spanish Steps. The villa was owned by Fernando Medici and Napoleon in the past and the best French artists, sculptors, and composers studied here; Debussy, Boucher, Berlioz, Garnier, and Grangonard just to name a few. Most tourists don’t know about this villa even though regular exhibitions and performances occur here almost every day.
Enjoying this article? Then, check out my post about Sicily off the beaten path.
Aventine Hill and the Knights of Malta Square
Speaking of hidden gems in Rome off the beaten track, we just can’t forget to mention Aventine Hill. It’s surprising how a place so close to the heart of ancient Rome can remain under-the-radar for so many people. Even though most people head to Palatine Hill, Aventine offers a view just as beautiful and with fewer tourists around. But this isn’t the main reason why you should check out this place.
At the hill, you’ll also find a tiny square devoted to the crusaders of Malta. Here, you’ll find a big gate with a keyhole that gives a perfectly symmetrical view of the dome of San Pietro and the surrounding area. Traveling around Rome can be confusing unless you decide to rent a car, if not booking your rides with a reliable yet affordable source is advisable.
This tiny street in Rome’s Flamino neighborhood looks a lot like London, hence, the name, Piccola Londra (Little London). The street is covered in colorful houses with beautiful gardens and fences. The street was designed in the 20th century when mayor Ernesto Nathan thought that Rome isn’t a proper European metropolis.
Quartiere Coppede is Rome’s smallest district with great accommodation options and one that’s often ignored by most visitors. However, if you’re one of the few curious souls that somehow end up visiting this district, you’ll feel like you just stepped into a fairy tale; you’ll see a lot of Liberty-style buildings decorated with grotesque figures, and a lot of Greet, Gothic, and medieval buildings. The neighborhood looks quite different than the rest of the city and even though it isn’t as historically significant as some other parts of Rome, it’s definitely worth visiting.
Plastificio Cerere is an old building turned into an alternative art hub of the capital. This old building housed one of the biggest pasta factories in Rome in the 20th century. It’s also one of the main reasons why more people in Rome didn’t starve during both world wars. The factory was closed in the 1960s and has since become a multifunctional art center. Today, a myriad of art exhibitions take place in the old factory building. If you’re a fan of alternative art, you’ll surely love this place.
The Ghetto Ebraico is home to one of the oldest Jewish communities outside of Israel. This ghetto was designed in the 1550s when all Jews of Rome were isolated from the rest of the city. The neighborhood still has an authentic Jewish charm and looks very different from the rest of the city. If you’re looking for an authentic experience, this is one of the hidden gems in Rome you shouldn’t miss.
Located in the Tiber River between Trastevere and the old Jewish Quarter, this is Rome’s only island. As such it is mentioned in several different legends. The most famous one is the one in which Ancient Rome was dealing with plague after which the city council decided to send a team to Greece to bring a sacred snake and honor the god of medicine, Asclepius.
On their way back, the boat crashed into Tiber Island and the snake escaped by curling around a branch. This gave birth to the famous symbol of medicine in which a snake is wrapped around a stick. Symbolically, there’s a hospital on the island today but it’s also worth visiting if you want to enjoy some nice views of the Tiber River and get away from Rome’s busy streets.
Arciconfraternita Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte
A church with skulls above the doorway and other things made of different human body parts might not sound very appealing which is probably one of the main reasons why this church doesn’t get a lot of visitors but it certainly is unique. The name of the church is rather descriptive and it translates to “the exterior of St. Mary of Eulogies and the dead”.
Inside, you’ll see a lot of skeletons and bones all over the place and even some of the chandeliers are made of human vertebrae. It’s certainly not for everyone but if you’re looking for a different experience in Rome, definitely check out this church.
Chiesa di Dio Padre Misericordioso
If there’s a competition for the most unusually-looking church in Rome, this would surely be one of the frontrunners. Built in 2003, the church is supposed to resemble a ship with curvy walls that allow a lot of light to fall inside. This marvelous architecture sample was a part of Pope John Paul 2nd’s project to mark the Jubilee of 2000. That’s why this church is also known as the Church of the Jubilee.
Basilica di Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio
With more than 900 churches in Rome, it’s no surprise that some of them remain under the radar. Even though it’s very hard to pick a few to mention in this list of hidden gems in Rome, my personal favorite is Santo Stefano Rotondo. Built in the 5th century, Santo Stefano Rotondo is the oldest centrally-planned basilica in Rome. The basilica is also famous for its stunning 16th-century frescoes portraying different martyrdom scenes, the interesting circular architecture, and the fascinating interior that smells of history.
Santa Maria del Piano
I just can’t complete this list of hidden gems in Rome without mentioning Santa Maria del Piano. If you like visiting abandoned places that have been forgotten by history, this old historic abbey is worth checking out. The abbey was built in the 9th century to celebrate the victory of Charlemagne over the Saracens.
Today, most of the decorative elements have been stolen or destroyed but the 20-meters tall bell tower from the 11th century is still standing. The church was abandoned when Napoleon conquered Rome and was subsequently used as a graveyard for people who died of cholera.x
This is the only place on this list of hidden gems in Rome located under a famous sight; the iconic Circus Maximus. According to archaeologists, this tiny subterranean space discovered in the 1930s was once a stronghold of the mysterious Mithras cult. Even though there are more Mithranian sights in different parts of Europe, we know very little about this cult and its religious practices except that they performed all of their rituals underground. The temple didn’t have any windows, could host up to 40 people, and features five chambers, including a central sanctuary with white marble.
Passetto di Borgo
Photo by Chris 73 CC by SA 3.0
At a glance, the Passetto de Borgo looks like one of Rome’s many fortification walls. But what you can’t see at a glance is that this wall hides a secret passage. The passage was used by Pope Clement VII as an escape route during the Sack of Rome in 1527. The wall was designed in the 850s and expanded during the 15th century but was never used until the Sack of Rome.
According to several historical sources, the Pope was hiding in the passage for over a month before ultimately managing to escape using a disguise. For years, the passage was not open for visitors. This changed in 2000 when, in honor of the Jubilee Year, the passage was open.
Photo by Chris 73 CC by SA 3.0
When you look at an ancient prison with an upside-down cross at the entrance, you might think this is blasphemy but this is probably the only case in the world where an upside-down cross is set as a tribute. Even though prisons were not very common in the golden days of the Roman Empire, this ancient prison survived the test of time. The prison is rather small and had two cells on top of each other, and it was mainly used as a transit point for prisoners that were either about to be evicted or sent to their trial.
Throughout the years, the prison was incorrectly linked to a tale from the Bible. This caused a lot of pilgrims to start visiting it and eventually, build a church above it. The church is still there today and the upside-down cross is a tribute to St. Peter who’s believed to have been crucified upside down.
It took more than two centuries for the people of Ancient Rome to “build” this hill of broken jars. Located next to the Tiber River, this mountain of jars was used throughout the years to store different kinds of goods (mostly olive oil).
This hill made entirely of ancient Roman jars was simply a garbage dump to the people of the time. Today, there are more than 80 million pots and this “hill” is 115 feet high and goes 50 meters below the modern streets of Rome. Interestingly, excavations in the past actually proved that this was not a mere dump but it was intentionally built by the Ancient Romans even though the reason remains relatively unclear even today.
Many people today forget about the rival city of Ancient Rome that almost ended Roman Civilization before it even started; the great Etruscan city of Veli. During its golden times, the city was the biggest trading city on the Tiber River. Today, the site consists only of mere remnants of what was once a great civilization.
Veli was sacked in 396 BC after a war with Rome that lasted more than a decade and lead to most of the city and its heritage being destroyed. Some of the main sights around are the remnants of the city gates, the Apollo Temple, and the Tomb of the Ducks which is widely believed to be the oldest painted graveyard in Italy.
Photo by Livioandronico2013 CC by SA 3.0
Finally, we round up this list of hidden gems in Rome off the beaten track with Via Sacra. Via Sacra is the ancient road that leads to the woods of Monte Cavo where an ancient cult worshipped Jupiter. This trek is a great option for people looking for some adventures around Rome and for people interested in archaeology or even mysticism. Today, there aren’t any remnants of the ancient temple but you can get an amazing view of volcanic lakes Nemi and Albano and the countryside surrounding the capital.
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Did you like this list of hidden gems in Rome off the beaten track? Which one was your favorite? Let us know in the comments!
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