Rome needs no introduction. Tourists here can easily explore the obvious Rome landmarks. You can find information anywhere on what to see in Rome, and you can easily book tours of Rome’s attractions, such as the Colosseum, the St. Peter’s Basilica, the Spanish Steps, and the Trevi Fountain. These top things to do in Rome are famous for a reason – they are all amazing! But what if you have some extra time to spend in the city of Rome? Then you should do the off-the-beaten-path stuff described here. Here’s a guide for exploring the best kept secrets of Rome.
Before I start, you should know that I consider myself to be very lucky in that I had the opportunity to study abroad in Italy during college. I learned so much about this amazing city as a temporary local. If you’re ready to explore the not so famous places here, there are many great and relatively unknown sites in the city.
La Città Eterna
Rome is the Eternal City and has been a world major capital from the 650 BC Etruscan Era all the way to the 21st century Republic of Italy. Many rulers and emperors oversaw the construction of the capital, built on top of older ancient ruins.
Events after event influenced the construction of Rome. Everywhere you look in the city, you will be confronted by history. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say. The result is that there are so many beautiful things to see here, but the secrets of Rome are often overlooked.
The Pyramid of Cestius
There is only one ancient pyramid in Rome, and it is still standing after its completion in 12 BC. It is a burial monument for Caius Cestius, a politician during the Roman Empire. He fell in love with the idea of Egyptian pharaohs being interred inside pyramids and constructed his 120 ft/36m tall marble pyramid. It was located at the edge of the city at that time, but later was forcibly incorporated into the Aurelian City Wall in 271 AD.
Throughout history, sadly, his pyramidal tomb was raided. The treasures and original contents inside the chamber are long gone. After an intense renovation and cleaning in 2013, you can now visit the interior of this pyramid with an organized tour. The tour occurs on weekends and only in Italian. Still, you can see the empty chamber and some greatly preserved ancient frescoes inside. The tour lasts for an hour.
To join the tour, call +39 06 399 67700 (in English). They’ll give you more information about the hours and how to sign up for your spot.
The pyramid is in the up-and-coming Testaccio neighborhood. To get here by metro, look for the “Piramide” stop on Linea B. And yes, the Metro Station is named after the Pyramid.
Parco degli Acquedotti
One of the distinctive elements of Rome is its abundantly fresh water fountains. They’re everywhere in the city. The ancient Romans engineered a system to carry fresh water into the city through their famous aqueducts.
Aqueduct Park is part of the Appian Way Regional Park. Here, you can see one of the four major Roman aqueduct systems. The 45 mile Aqua Claudia system was completed in year 52 AD and is considered to be one of the four great aqueducts of Rome. It is a quiet spot, and one of the unusual places to visit in Rome.
Parco degli Acquedotti is accessible from the Rome Metro stops of Giulio Agricola or Subaugusta on Linea A.
Via Appia Antica
You’ve heard it before: All roads lead to Rome. The expression came from via Appia Antica, or the ancient Appian Way.
This is the oldest road system in Rome. It connected the expanding Roman Empire and dates back to 312 BC. If you are planning on checking it out, be prepared to be a little disappointed, as it is now an active modern road just like anywhere else in the world. That said, if you read about it prior to your visit, you’ll have more of an appreciation for the importance of this ancient road system.
If you are interested in Roman dark tours, one of the famous sites along here is the Catacombs of Callixtus. Don’t expect to see any human remains here though. The highlight of the catacombs is the crypt of Saint Cecilia. You can see a statue of her laying in her crypt.
Basilica of San Clemente
This small basilica has a humble 16th century façade, but underneath is what matters. For a small fee, you can visit the lower level where this 12th century basilica was built on top of an earlier 4th century clandestine church. This was the old site of a first century pagan temple. You can read more in our post, 10 lesser known Roman churches, which includes St. Clement Basilica.
Monte Testaccio Neighborhood
In a small ancient neighborhood south of Circus Maximus, Monte Testaccio stands proudly as a monument to the neighborhood’s identity.
The area around Mount Testaccio was once the capital of the ancient Roman wine trade. In the middle of the neighborhood, residents stacked all of the leftover amphorae – the clay jugs used to carry and store wine. Over time, this formed a 35m (115ft) hill. While this amphorae is one of the unusual places to visit in Rome, it is generally closed for public visits. However, you can book a guided tour in order to access the hill.
Katie Parla offers Rome walking tours that can take you there for a hike. Another option is a local Testaccio Ketumbar organic restaurant. They organize a visit + brunch combo. Make your reservations in advance through their respective sites.
The modern day Testaccio neighborhood is an exciting but lesser known part of Rome. It is located directly south of the Circus Maximus.
A few years ago, travelers discovered the neighborhood of Trastevere as an exciting area to explore. Since then, many new visitors have flocked into the once quaint and quiet neighborhood. And when they began to look for up-and-coming area of Rome, they discovered Testaccio.
Testaccio is now becoming a destination for foodies and wine enthusiasts. You can join one of the many food tours and wine tastings in Testaccio.
The Protestant Cemetery
Catholics believed that non-Catholics are not allowed to be buried in Catholic churches or in consecrated ground. Because of this, a patch of land was established as a burial ground for non-Catholics in early 1700s. As a result, Rome’s non-Catholic cemetery is one of the most densely populated burial grounds for famous and the important people. English poets John Keats and Percy Shelley are buried here, as well as Goethe’s only son, a handful diplomats, sculptors, authors, and scholars.
This famous cemetery has a few names: Cimitero Acattolico – non-Catholic Cemetery, Cimitero dei protestanti – Protestant Cemetery, Cimitero degli Inglesi – Englishmen’s Cemetery, and the Cimitero Acattolico per Stranieri – Non-Catholic Cemetery for foreigners. But not only are English and Protestants buried here. There are many Jews, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and other non-Catholics from all over the world.
In 1918, the cemetery was granted a special protected status: Zona Monumentale d’Interesse Nazionale, or Monument of the National Interest.
This cemetery is the ideal place to view the many Italian cypress trees, as well as pomegranate trees and picturesque meadows. As a backdrop, you can also see the impressive Pyramid of Caius Cestius and the Aurelian city wall.
Via Caio Cestio, 6, 00153 Roma RM
Facist Architecture of Rome
The Esposizione Universale Roma, or EUR in short, is a Mussolini-era residential and commercial district, located south of Rome city center. It was commissioned in 1935 to be the location of the 1942 World’s Fair, which never happened because of World War II. Mussolini envisioned EUR to be the new city center of fascist Rome. He planned the many huge, monumental limestone and white marble structures that are now part of the neighborhood.
After long delays, due to the rebuilding effort after the war, the EUR was finally finished just before the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Several buildings were used to host Olympics events due to their sheer sizes.
To get here, take the Rome Metro Blue Line B, which includes three EUR stops. Don’t forget your sunglasses when visiting EUR in a bright day. Many of the structures are extremely white and bright. Here are some EUR landmarks:
- Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana: Often referred as the Square Colosseum, this is an icon of fascist architecture and the main landmark of EUR. It is now the main headquarter for the luxury clothing company Fendi.
- Palazzo dei Ricevimenti e Congressi: This palazzo was used during the 1960 Summer Olympics for the fencing and pentathlon events.
- Museo della Civiltà Romana: The Museum of the Roman Civilization highlights ancient Roman civilization. It is one of the few museums located in the EUR. You can also find a planetarium as part of the museum. If you’re a movie buff – you will recognize the colonnade of the museum from the the James Bond film, Spectre, which was partly filmed here.
- Museo Nazionale dell’Alto Medioevo: National Museum of the Middle Ages
- José Martí monument: Strangely enough, this is a monument dedicated to Jose Marti, a national hero of Cuba.
Via Veneto, the American neighborhood
Via Veneto is one of the most beautiful and elegant roads in Rome. The classic 1960s movie, La Dolce Vita included many sights along its winding road.
Here are some of the highlights not to miss along the winding via Veneto:
- Bernini’s Triton Fountain: Located at Piazza Barberini, in front of the Linea A metro stop.
- S. Maria della Concezione dei Cappucini church: The macabre interior of this church is decorated with about 4,000 Capuchin monk’s skulls and bones. You can read more about this church, along with other lesser known Roman churches here.
- Fontana delle Api: Hundreds of refreshing drinking fountains can be found throughout Rome, but the Bees Fountain is one of the most beautiful! This fountain is often overlooked and one of the unusual places to visit in Rome
- Palazzo Margherita: At the end of via Veneto, this heavily-guarded grand palace is the home of the U.S. Embassy in Rome.
- Santa Susanna and Saint Patrick churches: Santa Susanna hosted The Mission of the Catholic American Community for over 90 years. Saint Patrick is now currently holds the tradition. They both are within walking distance of the American Embassy.
- Hard Rock Cafe and Burger King. Yes, North American visitors, you can dine at the Hard Rock Cafe in Rome and get American style (and portions) hamburgers, steaks, and french fries, complete with the bottomless refills of sodas! And if you prefer fast food, the Burger King is located next to the Barberini Metro stop, at the bottom of via Veneto!
Best Kept Secrets of Rome for Cats!
If you are a cat lover, the Largo di Torre Argentina is one of the two places in Rome where you can find cat shelters! Accidentally discovered in 1929 during the Mussolini era, this temple complex is one of the oldest ruins of Rome, dating back to 400-300 BC. It is believed to be the location where Julius Caesar was killed in 44 BC.
A group of volunteers established an official shelter organization near the Pantheon. Their focus is to spay and neuter cats, as well as to take care of injured cats. The shelter is a permanent home for several injured and blind cats, but any cat can come in and out as they please. Visitors are always welcome to visit, to adopt cats, and even to volunteer. If nothing else, you can donate to the shelter and observe napping cats from street level, around 20 feet above the ruins.
There are roughly 200-300 cats in the Largo di Torre Argentina, and there’s another active cat shelter nearby the Protestant Cemetery and the Pyramid of Cestius.
Largo di Torre Argentina
Via Florida, Rome, Italy (Navona / Pantheon / Campo de’ Fiori)
Phone. +39 06 6880 5611
For another opportunity to hang out with a cat, Rome has its own cat café. Check out the Romeow Cat Cafe, which happens to also be one of a handful of vegan restaurants in Rome. (If you can’t tell, we are big animal fans and have visited a few animals café around the world, including the hedgehog café in Tokyo, Japan.)
Romeow Cat Cafe (page in Italian)
Via Francesco Negri, 15, 00154 Roma RM
Best dessert place in Rome
Rome is a good place to satisfy your Italian food and sweet tooth cravings, and there are several excellent establishments to do just that.
Not far from St. Peter’s Basilica in the Prati neighborhood, you can find my favorite pastry shop, Dolce Maniera. While most tourists exit the Ottaviano/San Pietro Metro station and head to Vatican City, try going in the other direction.
Dolce Maniera is open 24 hours a day in a nondescript basement. Only the door is visible at street level. It is not a touristy place and the lines can be long from locals looking for tasty treats. In this “secret bakery,” you’ll find freshly-baked pasties for less than a Euro. You can grab a cappuccino and croissant filled with pistachio in the morning. Or try sandwiches and flatbread pizzas for lunch. Definitely don’t miss their Nutella cornetti.
Via Barletta, 27, 00192 Roma RM
Best gelato place in Rome
No trip to Rome is complete without tasting its famous gelato ice cream. There are many gelateria cafes around Rome and my Couchsurfing host took me to his favorite – Candy Cream gelateria. Sadly, none of their three locations are in the city center, but it is worth your time to go here, mingle with locals, and enjoy great gelato.
How to spot a genuine gelato shop: By tradition, gelato has to be artigianale, which means it must be made by hand with a traditional recipe. Many gelaterias proudly display that their gelato is artigianale. If you’re not sure, ask the attendant. Pay attention to the colors of the gelato. Purveyors can’t use preservatives or artificial colors. Any of the displayed flavors should reflect the following: whatever fruit is in season, the colors should match the ingredients. For example, banana flavored gelato should be white, not yellow. I tried the liquirizia, or licorice flavor, which was quite interesting.
Candy Cream Gelateria
Via Gregorio XI, 17, 00166 Roma RM
Via Tarsia, 65, 00135 Roma RM
Piazza Pietro Thouar, 41, 00135 Roma RM
Lesser known Vatican City tours
OK, so technically Vatican City is not Rome, but this tiny country’s prime location in the middle of Rome makes it worth considering in this list. Millions of visitors visit magnificent St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. But if you are planning on doing some other things here, read our list of Lesser Known Vatican City tours that you can join! And, of course, don’t miss out on the famous Scavi Tour. You’ll have to arrange that well in advance of your visit.
The Priory of the Knights of Malta Keyhole
Not all peepholes are bad! The Aventine Keyhole frames St. Peter’s Basilica, and is one of the most romantic sights to see in Rome. This secret view is located in Santa Marta del Priorato on Rome’s Aventine Hill. The Priory of the Knights of Malta built this 18th century monastery.
Through this keyhole, you can take a peek and see the Villa del Priorato di Malta garden and St. Peter’s Dome perfectly aligned in the distance.
S. Maria del Priorato
Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, 4, 00153 Roma RM
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