10 Most Underrated Things to Do in Rome
The classics may reign in this more than 2,700-year-old city, but these magical locations deserve a little extra attention.
Rome’s most famous sites are as spectacular as you’ve heard — those popes and emperors knew how to put on a show — but some of the most memorable corners of the Eternal City are its least known. If you’ve already visited the city’s greatest hits, then head to these 10 under-the-radar spots next.
Rome is a layer cake of history and nowhere is it easier to see that cross section of time than the complex of San Clemente, located in the shadow of the Colosseum. The ground layer is a medieval church built circa 1110. Down a set of stairs, the next layer dates from the fourth century: an early church that was built on the foundation of a noble home. The basement of that home, the third layer, holds a warehouse and served as a place of worship for followers of Mithras, a popular Persian god in Rome.
Bike Riding the Appian Way
Just south of the Aurelian Walls, the traditional boundaries of Rome, begins one of the oldest and most important roads in the world: the Appian Way. Built in 312 BCE, parts of the road are still used today by cars, pedestrians, and especially bicyclists. The large and uneven basalt stones are the original paving. Rent bikes at the Parco Regionale dell’Appia Antica office and peddle past Christian catacombs, Roman tombs, and the distant arches of the Claudian Aqueduct for a memorable afternoon excursion.
Tucked between the picturesque Via Giulia and Piazza Farnese, this tiny museum offers a glimpse into the Renaissance-era palazzo of the cardinals Bernardino and Fabrizio Spada. The four rooms are filled with artistic treasures by Titian, Gentileschi, and Bernini, but the must-see attraction is the false perspective by Borromini in the courtyard. The Baroque master created a 3D trompe l’oeil in the form of a colonnade that appears much longer than it actually is. Ask one of the museum attendants to show you how it works.
Built in Trastevere in the 16th century, when the area was considered the countryside, this beautiful villa features incredible frescoes by Raphael. Agostino Chigi, a wealthy Sienese banker, commissioned the young painter, who decorated the loggia with an impressive ceiling fresco depicting the marriage of Cupid and Psyche just in time for the banker’s own wedding to Venetian courtesan Francesca Ordeaschi. Chigi often hosted lavish meals at the villa and is said to have encouraged his guests to toss their silver plates into the nearby Tiber River, though he secretly had his servants set up nets to catch them.
Part of this palazzo — one of the oldest and largest in Rome — is still inhabited by the aristocratic Colonna family, who has resided here for 20 generations, and part of it is open as a museum exclusively on Saturday mornings. The Great Hall has been compared to Versailles and was used as the room where Audrey Hepburn met the press in “Roman Holiday.” The various rooms are covered in ceiling frescoes and feature paintings like Annibale Carracci’s “The Bean Eater.” Don’t miss the Princess Isabelle Apartment and the beautiful gardens with their statues and lovely views of Rome.
Just when you thought you’d seen all the noble palaces, there’s another one worth visiting and it’s small enough to see in an hour or less. Located near Piazza Navona, this aristocratic mansion was built in the 15th century and purchased by Cardinal Altemps in 1568. The palazzo is now one of the sites that make up the Museo Nazionale Romano and houses marble sculptures that date back to the Roman Empire, but it’s the intricate frescoes in the second-floor loggia that make this spot worth visiting.
Architecture fans will be charmed by this curious micro-neighborhood, which features buildings that look unlike anything else in Rome. Located in the Trieste area east of Villa Borghese park, it’s characterized by a series of 27 Art Nouveau buildings on and around Piazza Mincio that were designed by Gino Coppedè in the 1910s. Among the many decorative flourishes, you’ll find a cast-iron chandelier hanging from an archway between two buildings, a Madonna with child, and the Fontana delle Rane (a.k.a. Fountain of the Frogs). After ogling the architecture, head over to Pasticceria Gruè, which has won awards for its exquisite panettone, but also makes all kinds of delicious pastries and gelato.
South of the city center lies the Facist-era neighborhood of EUR, a special spot not many tourists know to visit. It was originally commissioned by dictator Benito Mussolini as a future site for a world’s fair. Think ancient Rome with a dark modern twist. The Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana — known by locals as the Colosseo Quadrato (a.k.a. the Square Colosseum) — is a particularly striking answer to the Colosseum. Now, it houses the Fendi headquarters, and though you can’t tour the entire thing, you can see the ground floor. Many of the other buildings nearby are used for conventions and events.
Street Art Spotting
Rome may be known for its ancient art, but street art is also an important part of the urban cityscape. Small-scale pieces can be seen in Trastevere, but to see massive — and very impressive — murals, go to Ostiense, San Lorenzo, and Pigneto. There, you can discover local talent like Alice Pasquini and Luca Maleonte. The old slaughterhouse in Testaccio is now home to a few walls that have been completely pasted over with sticker art. For a three-hour tour with an expert local guide, hop on the back of a Vespa for Scooteroma’s popular street art tour.
Fontana dell’Acqua Paola
So, you tossed a coin into the Trevi Fountain, but did you know that Rome is home to over 2,000 fountains? The ancient Romans built aqueducts that supplied water to the city, but it was in the 1600s and 1700s that the most monumental fountains were built. Known to Romans simply as the Fontanone, the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola is impressive for its scale and location on Gianicolo hill, which offers panoramic views of the city. It was featured in Paolo Sorrentino’s award-winning film, “The Great Beauty,” and makes a fantastic backdrop for photos.