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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.
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 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.
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.
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.