What to Do in Rome off the Beaten Path
With over 10 million tourists a year, Rome is the third most visited city in Europe after London and Paris. And for good reason. It is a treasure trove of ancient monuments, history and art. Unfortunately, Rome is also one of those cities with a disproportionate focus on a handful of obvious sights such as the Colosseum or St. Peter’s Basilica. But what makes Rome so fantastic is not just the classics, it’s the sum of everything that lies in between.
Finding the not-so-obvious, however, can be quite daunting. Many Rome off the beaten path attractions are literally underground. If you wonder what to do in Rome beyond the well-trodden trail, you’ll be surprised that there’s a lot to discover. After first introducing our top things to do in Rome in a previous post, here are some of our favorite off-the-beaten-path attractions in and around Rome to get you started.
Wander Through the Jewish Ghetto and Trastevere
One of Rome’s most atmospheric neighborhoods is the Jewish Ghetto, home to a small Jewish community whose history stretches back over 2,000 years. The cobbled streets are lined with souvenir stores and kosher eateries. It’s a great place to experience the Jewish vibe and to taste some specialty foods only found here in Rome. Among our favorites were fried Jewish-style artichokes and Jewish Roman pizza, a sweet cake with dried fruit and nuts you definitely need to try.
If you want to dig a little deeper into local Jewish history, visit the interesting Museo Ebraico di Roma. Tony and I spent a couple of hours exploring two millennia of Roman Jewish history starting with the community’s Roman origins and the challenges Jewish Romans experienced with the rise of Catholicism leading to the creation of the ghetto and ultimately culminating in the Holocaust. There are Jewish museums all over Europe, but the age and continuity of the Jewish presence in Rome makes this museum a little different. We also liked the museum’s incredible textile collection; some of the intricately embroidered Torah covers were hundreds of years old. Our visit also included a tour of the Great Synagogue and the smaller Spanish Synagogue used by the Sephardic community. And just as a little side note, visitors are welcome to attend services here.
While in the area, definitely check out the amazing Teatro di Marcello, the eroded leftovers of an 11-century BC mini-Colosseum topped with a 16th-century apartment complex. It’s one of the weirdest and most fascinating buildings in Rome. Then head across the Tiber River via Tiberina Island to the nearby Trastevere neighborhood, another tourist favorite with atmospheric street life and a great artistic vibe. Make sure to check out Basilica Santa Maria’s golden 12th-century mosaics, and stop to watch the kooky performers on Piazza di Santa Maria.
Visit Rome’s Most Important Church (Hint: It’s Not St. Peter’s)
Every visitor to Rome heads straight for St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world (or second largest if your world includes Africa). Although it is often regarded as the most important church in Rome, it actually isn’t. Surprised? We definitely were. St. Peter’s is outranked by the Archbasilica of St. John in the Lateran, the official seat of the pope. Who knew the Vatican was just a temporary rental?
In order to learn a bit more about the history of the Archbasilica of St. John in the Lateran and the two papal basilicas Santa Maria Maggiore and St. Paul outside the Walls, we joined the Major Basilicas of Rome Tour with Walks of Italy. The tour with this company is no longer available, but Viator offers a popular full-day tour which includes a lot more: all the major basilicas, St. Peter’s, skip-the-line admission to the Vatican Museums, and the Sistine Chapel. This tour will appeal to religiously-minded visitors, history buffs, and art lovers.
During the tour, our guide took us on a spin through Catholic history, starting from the creation of the Lateran Archbasilica in 324 AD and leading us right up to the current year. We learned about Roman art and architecture and encountered holy relics such as the fragment of the table from THE last supper, the original chains of St. Paul, and even the blood of Jesus. Really? Apparently, it’s all here in Rome, even the Scala Sancta, the holy stairs Jesus walked on in Jerusalem. But the oddest relics we encountered, and the ones Tony enjoyed most, were the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul in the Lateran Archbasilica. Wow! Who knew the Pope’s official home contained two severed heads in a box?!
It’s moments like these when you suddenly realize that those missionaries weren’t so different from the tribes they were trying to convert. While we personally may have taken a more tongue-in-cheek approach to the content, we absolutely loved it. Interestingly, looking back at our time in Rome, this tour may have actually taught us more about what makes the city tick than anything else we did.
What to Do in Rome? Enjoy the City’s Ultimate Free Art Gallery
Rome is obviously blessed with amazing art, much of it housed in museums and galleries throughout the city. While visitors often complain about the high admission fees, there’s actually a lot of free art in many of Rome’s 950 churches. Just have a look around and discover the works of some of the most famous Renaissance and Baroque artists like Raphael, Caravaggio, Michelangelo or Bernini.
Check out the Chiesa di Sant’Agostino for Caravaggio’s Madonna di Loreto; the painting depicting Mary as a barefoot commoner caused an uproar when it was unveiled in 1604. While there, also look for Raphael’s fresco of the Prophet Isaiah. Visit the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Popolo for Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter and Raphael’s Creation of the World mosaic. In the Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi, you can find yet another Caravaggio, the famous St. Matthew Cycle. And during your quest for artistic freebies, don’t forget St. Peter’s Basilica, a virtual smorgasbord of famous works including Michelangelo’s ultra-famous Pietà. If that’s not enough Michelangelo, make your way to the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli where you can marvel at the artist’s colossal Moses statue. And don’t miss Michelangelo’s Cristo della Minerva found in the Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome’s only Gothic church.
Dan Brown freaks and art history buffs will want to make the pilgrimage to Bernini’s famous work The Ecstasy of St. Teresa in the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria. (Angels and Demons fans will recognize the sculpture as the “third altar of science.”) If you are more of a classic movie fan, drop by the Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin and reenact Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck’s classic scene in Roman Holiday at the La Bocca della Verità.
Yes, we spent an entire month bouncing from church to church, and even towards the end of our stay, we found ourselves still gasping in awe. Many of Rome’s churches rival famous palaces and villas in terms of opulence; it’s worth walking into as many as you can bear. This is definitely not the place to give in to church-fatigue.
Learn About the Dark Heart of Rome
Roaming around Rome, did you ever wonder why they have all those elaborate once-candle-lit portraits of the Virgin Mary built into isolated corners and dark side passages? Let’s just say they have a disturbingly practical purpose. Think that statue in Campo de’Fiori is just a nice piece of art? I don’t think so. To learn a bit more about the dark side of Rome AND get our supernatural bearings, we joined the Ghost and Mystery Night Walking Tour with City Wonders.
Our expert guide John took us on a two-hour whirlwind walking tour with a dash of campfire-style illumination aimed directly at the heart of Rome’s darkness. Moreover, he addressed a few essential questions. Was there really a female pope? What was life like in Rome’s most notorious prison? And where do ghosts like to hang out? If you happen to take this storytelling tour on the night of September 10, you might even run into (or through) Beatrice Cenci on Sant’Angelo Bridge; she is Rome’s most beloved murderess who was beheaded there on September 11, 1599.
We loved John’s engaging stories of cruel cardinals and workaholic executioners, of murderers who were drawn and quartered, and non-believers who were slow-roasted on spits. Times were tough then. The ghost tour is definitely a great twist on Roman history, especially if you like dark humor. If you are up for more mystery and intrigue, you should check out City Wonder’s Original Angels and Demons Tour or their Crypts and Catacombs Tour which will give you a glimpse of Rome attractions underground (more about that further down).
Stroll Along the Aurelian Walls and the Pyramid of Cestius
Most visitors may not know this, but Rome has an amazing city wall. Built in the 2nd century AD under emperors Aurelian and Probus, the defensive walls originally enclosed all seven hills of Rome. Today, roughly two thirds of the original 19-kilometer-long wall are still pretty much intact. It’s an incredible monument which deserves as much attention as any old Colosseum. At least in our opinion.
For wall fetishists, we recommend a half-day walk along one of the most interesting portions of the wall starting at the amazing Pyramid of Cestius. The white marble pyramid is an incredible highlight in itself. Take some time to check out nearby Porta San Paolo and wander into the peaceful cemetery behind the pyramid where English poets Keats and Shelley are buried. Continue along the outer side of the wall admiring the towers and multi-layer masonry until you reach Porta San Sebastiano; it’s the largest and best preserved gate of the Aurelian Walls. From the small Museum delle Mura inside the gate, you have access to the upper portions of the wall. Don’t miss the view out over the Appian Way as you peek through the crenellations. From the museum, follow the wall to your finishing point at the Lateran Archbasilica, Rome’s most important church.
You can also do the walk in reverse finishing at the Pyramid of Cestius near the Piramide metro stop. There’s one huge advantage doing it in this direction: you can go shopping at Eataly, Rome’s gigantic Italian food mall. Read more on that in our Roman Food Guide. Reward yourself with some fresh pumpkin pasta, aged Parmigiano or a classic Chianti before you head out for the even bigger challenge of following the wall all the way around the heart of Rome.
Explore the Mysterious Necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia
If the activities so far have not been “Rome off the beaten path” enough for you, head out of Rome to explore the spectacular UNESCO-recognized Etruscan burial sites of Cerveteri and Tarquinia. Not much is known about the Etruscans whose culture developed from around 800 BC. With no written records, all that’s left of this sophisticated civilization is their handiwork. Are you thinking, “More ruins?!” Well, maybe I should add that Etruscans had a liking for sexually graphic wall paintings.
Banditaccia Necropolis Cerveteri
The Necropolis of Banditaccia at Cerveteri is literally a city of the dead. It’s a sprawling area of grid-like streets and squares lined with hundreds of conical hand-hewn tufa tombs, some of which are almost 3,000 years old. It’s the ultimate playground for adventurers.
Tony and I spent several hours exploring the stunning burial chambers, both above and below ground. Can you believe these people actually carved beds, pillows and armchairs? Crazy. Even crazier is the fact that this amazing necropolis was virtually deserted during our visit. How can such an incredibly cool 3,000-year-old city of the dead – just an hour outside of Rome – not be completely overrun? It just goes to show how much there is to see in the region.
Monterozzi Necropolis Tarquinia
Another great discovery was the frescoed Etruscan tombs in the Monterozzi Necropolis in Tarquinia. The 7th-century BC site contains one of the world’s most important collections of pre-classical paintings. Out of over 6,000 tombs, nineteen are currently open to the public. Of course, Tony and I saw all of them. Unlike Cerveteri, the rooms in Tarquinia are sealed with Plexiglas to protect the fragile paintings. You can see them, but you can’t stick your head in for a closer look. As you go from tomb to tomb, don’t miss the erotic art. Tomba della Fustigazione depicts some friendly S&M while Tomba dei Tori shows two frolicking guys as well as a threesome. But it gets better. According to graffiti found in the Tomba Bartoccini, the Knights Templar took part in sexual rituals here during the Middle Ages. One last note, both sites are associated with museums which are well worth a visit for their incredible Etruscan art collections.
Watch the Beautiful Starling Murmurations in the Skies of Rome
While this seasonal phenomenon only occurs during the fall and winter months, watching the starlings at sunset was one of our favorite activities. Oddly, it took us more than a week before we even noticed the birds. But once we did, we couldn’t stop bird-watching.
As you look up, you see multiple flocks representing millions of birds morphing from one shape to another separating into multiple flocks and then merging back into a massive cloud. They rapidly switch directions and roll in the sky like waves, creating complex kinetic patterns. And the noise! A crescendo of warbling, chattering and whistling accompanies the visual display. It’s almost like a musical avian lava lamp in the sky.
If you are out and about at dusk, your best chances of seeing the swirling birds are from any high vantage point such as from the top of Castel Sant’Angelo or Capitoline Hill. Other good spots are along the Tiber River between bridges Ponte Sant’Angelo and Ponte Garibaldi where the starlings descend into the trees to settle in for the night.
Rome off the Beaten Path – Way off Underground
Rome is like an iceberg: for everything you see above ground, there’s a multitude of treasures hidden below the street level. If you were wondering why the city has been working on the metro system for decades, now you know. It’s an archaeological wonderland down there. In order for us to dig a little deeper and explore the incredible layers of history, we joined the Crypts and Catacombs Tour with City Wonders.
One of the best examples of this lasagna effect is the Basilica San Clemente, an amazing site you could easily miss on your own. Our passionate guide Rebecca, who humorously referred to San Clemente as “the time machine,” led us 20 meters straight down from the 12th-century basilica into an earlier 4th century basilica with some colorful surviving murals. From there, we descended into an earlier pagan temple where the all-male Roman cult of Mithras performed bizarre rituals and sacrifices. And below that, we walked through an intact Roman alleyway to brick apartments and an aqueduct. This is Rome in a nutshell; you can literally descend through two thousand years of history in half an hour.
Our underground explorations continued to the Catacombs of Santa Domitilla, a place where early Christians buried their dead and used to hide from persecution. As we wound our way through the humid tunnels, Rebecca helped interpret hidden symbols, and humored us with tales of visitors stealing bones. (There’s no shame in a little dark humor, but there certainly is in stealing bones.) We finished the night at the Capuchin Crypt, a chapel decorated with the skeletal remains of 4,000 monks. It’s a morbid but fascinating display of vertebrae chandeliers, robed skeletons and every conceivable form of bone art. Feel free to borrow some ideas for your next Halloween party.
If you are digging the underground theme, we also highly recommend a visit to the Domus Aurea, Emperor Nero’s golden palace which has been swallowed up by the earth over the millennia. It’s an incredible space with high-arched ceilings, domes, surviving mosaic floors, and gorgeous Grotesque frescoes.
As you pass from one vaulted chamber to another, it becomes increasingly hard to comprehend that this is all underground. And believe it or not, this represents just 20 percent of the original palace which was long ago covered in gold leaf. The highlight is the massive central dome which had a rotating inner ceiling powered by slaves. Insane!!!
You can only enter the Domus Aurea on a guided tour. Excavations are ongoing and you’ll be touring the work area clad in bright-yellow helmets. Domus Aurea tickets can be purchased online through CoopCulture. Unfortunately, free tours on the first Sunday of each month are NOT being offered anymore. You can also combine the Domus Aurea project with a guided visit to the Colosseum; tour tickets can be booked online on Viator or Walks of Italy.
Take in Rome’s Villas, Palazzos, and Museums Galore
Rome WILL overwhelm you in absolutely the best way. Art, art, architecture, architecture, painting, painting, statue, statue. If you love the Renaissance or gilded roofs or history or opulence, push through Vatican Museums overload and head off to the city’s unending selection of villas and palaces.
The most striking place to begin is the insanely beautiful Villa Borghese, which houses one of the most famous galleries in Rome. Every inch of the villa is a work of perfection; it feels like each wall, each window, each floor mosaic was specifically conceived to best present the art. The walls are covered with big-name pieces… Caravaggio… Raphael… Titian… Rubens… Veronese… Correggio, and gorgeous sculpture everywhere. It’s a virtual forest of Bernini masterpieces. It’s worth a visit for his Apollo and Daphne alone.
Still not enough? Don’t miss the Capitoline Museums housed in Palazzo dei Conservatori and Palazzo Nuovo. It’s like a graveyard for the ancient world’s best sculpture. You’re greeted at the entrance with a courtyard of massive marble body parts including a much-photographed giant foot and the colossal head of Constantine I. Inside, it gets even better. The world-famous Dying Gaul is here, a piece in every art history textbook, as well as the Wounded Warrior and the Capitoline She-Wolf, symbol of the city. The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius is so awesome that it gets its own room. But my personal favorite was Marforio, the giant river god, in the courtyard at the Palazzo Nuovo.
If history (or pop culture) is more your thing, you can walk in the footsteps of Galileo, Napoleon, Keith Richards, Madonna, and Diane Keaton at the Villa Medici. Galileo was kept here during his trial for heresy in Rome. The others were just visitors. If that combo of VIP guests sounds like a whole lot of attitude, that’s good because when Napoleon snagged the villa he decided to make it the home of the French Academy in Rome. The villa’s interior doesn’t compare to many of the other villas, but it has nice gardens and the first depiction of a turkey ever seen in Europe. (We snapped a few pictures until we realized that photography inside was not allowed, so no cameras or smart phones). The back facade of the villa is also loaded with ancient sculptures and panels that were taken from ancient monuments during the Renaissance and incorporated into the architecture.
Rome off the Beaten Path: Walk along the Appian Way
Yes, all roads do lead to Rome. And while Tony and I have literally taken pretty much every road known to man to get here, we have saved the best for last: the Via Appia Antica. Built in 312 BC, this is Rome’s most historic road and the wonder of its day. You can walk or bike for kilometers along the Appian Way which is lined with exclusive villas, ancient palaces and eerie catacombs. It’s also a chance to stroll over the same cobblestones (or should we say cobble-slabs?) where Caesar, Nero, Spartacus – and all those other great names – once traveled.
Make sure to check out one of the cool tomb-lined catacombs, San Sebastiano, Santa Domitilla or San Callisto. Your choice will probably depend on the opening hours which are all slightly different. As you move on, visit Villa di Massenzio where you’ll find the ruins of a 4th-century palace as well as the Mausoleum of Romolo and the Circo di Massenzio, the best preserved ancient racetrack in Rome. When we were there, the whole area was covered with wildflowers.
To get to this Rome off the beaten path attraction, it’s best to take one of the city buses. You can also walk from Porta San Sebastiano, but the traffic and lack of proper sidewalks at the start of the Appian Way makes this a little awkward. Bicycle rentals are also available at the park information office.
Plan Your Trip to Rome
When to Go – Rome is an amazing place, no matter what time of year. From October to April, however, tourist crowds clear out a bit and hotel rates tend to drop.
Accommodation – Rome has lots of accommodation, but during European summer vacation, make sure to book ahead. We recommend searching for great Rome hotels on HotelsCombined.com, a site which finds the best deals for you across numerous top hotel booking sites, including booking.com and agoda.
If you plan to stay for more than a few nights, it’s cheaper and more comfortable to stay in an Airbnb apartment (which we did). If you haven’t used Airbnb before and you click through this link here, you get a credit toward your first stay. The amount varies, but it’s usually between $25 and $35. Not bad.
Tours – Rome can be positively overwhelming, and navigating the city’s labyrinth of sightseeing hot spots can be challenging. For this reason, Rome is one of those places where visitors definitely benefit from taking a tour or two. During our month there, we joined several fantastic food and walking tours to take advantage of their insider knowledge and expert guides. We can highly recommend Storytelling Rome Tours for their insightful, off-the-beaten-path tours; Walks of Italy and City Wonders for their quality tours in and around Rome; Eating Italy Food Tours for their, well, authentic Italian food tours. Also, make sure to check out Viator, which offers a huge selection of Rome tours from skip-the-line, early-access and VIP tours to Tiber River cruises to exclusive private tours.
Guidebooks – We always travel with Lonely Planet guides. They are great for historical and cultural information, maps, walking tours, highlights, and itineraries. For Rome, you have several options, from more specific to more general. You can use the Lonely Planet Rome, the Lonely Planet Italy, or the Lonely Planet Europe if you are planning to travel to other European countries. If you prefer a more visual guidebook, we recommend the DK Eyewitness Travel Rome.