Well-known sites such as the Colosseum and St Peter’s Basilica might get all the attention, but there’s more to Rome than just the big-ticket attractions. From optical illusions to secret neighbourhoods, discover the quirkiest, most unusual things to see and do in the Eternal City.
As the local saying goes, Roma, non basta una vita – one lifetime simply isn’t enough to see everything Rome has to offer. One of the city’s many joys is that its layers of culture and history slowly reveal themselves over time, making repeat visits an absolute must. While sightseers should undoubtedly see famed attractions such as the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon, there are equally arresting, if lesser-known, spots to enjoy as well. Dive deep into the Eternal City with a visit to these unique locations.
Comprising just a few streets near the upscale Parioli district, Quartiere Coppedè is a compact but charming neighbourhood with a whimsical, secret-garden feel. Designed by architect Gino Coppedè between 1913 and 1927, the area is a hodgepodge of Art Nouveau, Greek, Baroque and Medieval styles. Enter through the impressive archway off Via Tagliamento and take in the fantastical decorative elements such as cherubs, animal motifs and an intricate outdoor chandelier. Other visual delights of the neighbourhood include the Fountain of the Frogs, Spider Palace and Villini delle Fate (little fairy houses).
Though the Pyramid of Cestius is, in fact, a Roman copy of an Egyptian pyramid, it’s still ancient – and utterly unique. Built in 12 BC as the tomb and funerary monument of the powerful magistrate Gaius Cestius, the 36-metre-high (118-foot) structure stands on the border between Testaccio and Ostiense and is an emblem of the area’s skyline. The interior chambers of the pyramid, with newly restored frescoes, are only open on the third and fourth Saturdays and Sundays of the month. Tickets must be reserved online.
The old and new(ish) collide at Centrale Montemartini, a public power plant-turned-Classical art museum. Turbines, engines and other once-clattering machinery now form the backdrop to a number of works from the Musei Capitolini collection. In the cavernous Engine Room, two Mussolini-era motors tower over rows of marble busts and statues, while in the Boiler Room, intricate mosaics sit alongside sculptural elements unearthed in the gardens of ancient Rome’s upper class.
The Mouth of Truth, located in the portico of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin, is possibly Rome’s most over-rated monument, so skip the snaking queue outside and head directly inside the church for a more unusual sight, missed by many tourists. The side altar on the left of the building houses a gold-framed glass reliquary. Inside the box is the flower-adorned skull of St Valentine, a third-century saint killed for helping persecuted Christians. While the saint was initially buried in northern Rome, his body was later exhumed, and 10 churches across Europe now lay claim to his relics.
Rome has no shortage of beautiful churches but the Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio in the historic centre boasts a rather unexpected feature – a fake dome. The church was built between 1626 and 1650, but the planned cupola had to be scrapped due to a lack of funds. Instead, artist Andrea Pozzo was hired to paint an illusion of a dome onto the flat surface. It may have been the cheaper option but the depiction is actually pretty convincing. Look for a marble disk in the middle of the nave floor which marks the best spot to observe the illusion.
A closer look at Monte Testaccio reveals exactly what this artificial hill is made of – fragments of ancient Roman pottery. During ancient times, olive oil was transported around the Roman Empire in terracotta containers known as amphorae. Due to their porous nature, the amphorae couldn’t be reused, and an estimated 53 million of them were dumped at this site, creating a giant, and archaeologically fascinating, rubbish dump. Monte Testaccio is open to organised groups by reservation only. Tour operators also run guided visits for an additional fee.
The walls of the Museo dell’Altro e dell’Altrove di Metropoliz (MAAM) are adorned with the works of over 300 contemporary artists and street artists. Murals by the likes of Sten & Lex, Alice Pasquini and Borondo refer not just to the site’s previous use as a slaughterhouse but also its current function as home to around 200 migrants. Residents of this space, which highlights the discrimination and racism faced by migrants, have been threatened with eviction, and the future looks precarious for the site. MAAM is open on Saturdays only, and while admission is free, donations are welcome.
Situated in the Foro Italico in the northern part of Rome, the Stadio dei Marmi is an open-air stadium built under the direction of Benito Mussolini. Circled by 59 marble figures, each representing a different sporting discipline, the complex mixes classical Greek artistry with fascist ideas, and it was part of a bid to try and secure the hosting of the 1940 Summer Olympics in Rome (those games were cancelled due to war). When the atmospheric arena isn’t hosting events, such as the Italian Open, it’s a popular spot with residents who do laps of the track or run up and down the marble seats.
Try the city's most unusual gelato in this restaurant | Courtesy of Gessy Sferra
Rome has a gelateria on almost every corner, but Gelato d’Essai da Geppy Sferra is the city’s first gelato restaurant. Located in the eastern Centocelle area, the innovative venue invites diners to eat gelato for every course, not just dessert. Dishes change with the seasons and include creations like thinly sliced salmon with grapefruit and ginger gelato, sweet-and-sour pork with pineapple sorbet, and grilled polenta with broccoli, parmesan cream and liquorice gelato.
Hidden in Trastevere – one of Rome’s busiest neighbourhoods – is the ancient apothecary of Santa Maria della Scala. To unlock the door and see this treasure trove of medical artefacts, you’ll need to call ahead and arrange a visit. Guided tours are given by the same order of Carmelite monks who, centuries ago, dished out medicines to nobles, cardinals and popes. The on-site gift shop sells a selection of herbal remedies, as well as therapeutic brandy, grappa and limoncello.
While St Peter’s Basilica could never be described as a hidden gem, most visitors haven’t heard of Via Nicolò Piccolomini, an unassuming residential street that offers a fascinating optical illusion of the church’s iconic dome. As you travel down the street towards St Peter’s, the dome shrinks and appears to move into the distance. Move away from the dome, and it expands in size, rising into the foreground again. For the best results, hop on a scooter or jump in a taxi and do a few laps of this underappreciated location.
Tucked away on the grounds of Villa Torlonia, Casina delle Civette is an enchanting building that features turrets, archways, porticos and other decorative elements. Originally built as a refuge for the Torlonia family, it became known as the ‘Little House of the Owls’ after a number of owl-themed stained-glass windows were added in an extensive Art Nouveau redesign. While there is a fee to visit the Casina delle Civette, admission to the grounds of Villa Torlonia is free.