Rome, a wondrous city full of countless contrasts. Stunning historical ruins, age-old monuments, and underground treasures showcase what once was ancient Rome. Traditional eateries, vibrant culture, and many must-see sights and attractions tie in the modern world with Rome’s archaic past. The city has a sort of mystic feel; drenched in ancient history and full of unique and unusual sights that are sure to leave you in deep contemplation. While in Rome, you should make a point of visiting places like the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Vatican Museums. These attractions are an absolute must, and shouldn't be skipped. However, what lies beyond the shadows of these tourist hot spots are far more unusual and hidden gems in Rome, waiting to be explored.
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There is a whole world of off the beaten path and majestic beauty when you go beyond the typical locations to explore Secret Rome. My advice, visit all the tourist attractions as efficiently as possible and then travel off the beaten path. The best way to maximize your time, save money, and see all the main sites is to get a Rome Pass, this way you won’t miss a thing!
After you’ve marveled at Rome’s surface level beauty, check out the wide selection of interesting hidden places to visit. Allow me to share with you ten of my favorite quirky and unusual things to do in Rome that tourists often never see. Get ready for a new perspective on the eternal city and a little unconventional exploration! I’ve also included a handy map at the end with points to all the main places in the article. Let’s start things off with a little test of fact or fiction.
I have a fascination with obscure legends. The Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth), carries one story that sends shivers up the spine of the superstitious and makes skeptics laugh in amusement. The ancient carving, pictured above, is found outside the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The pagan god carving is said to bite off the hands of liars. How is that for a useful lie detector? It sounds like there’s no mercy for anyone, even those willfully confessing their crimes.
There are many theories as to when or why the frieze came to be, but one of the most probable dates back to sometime during the 1st Century CE when judges used the medieval disk in trials. The accused would place their hands in the mouth of the image, and if found to be guilty of their crime, an axeman would chop off the person hands from inside the mouth. Eik, that’s not a pretty sight. Although this origin is doubtful, it doesn’t sound too far off, considering how they use to treat criminals those days.
While you’re here, head inside the Santa Maria Basilica and look to the alter on the left side of the church, that is if the Bocca della Verità didn’t already creep you out. On display is the skull of the patron saint of lovers, St. Valentine. At least that’s what the tattoo across the head says, which means it must be the truth, right? Many relics of the skull of St.Valentine can be found across the world, making this story more likely to be fiction; then again, there’s a little truth in everything.
If you hate fighting the crowds and want a private, unobstructed view of Rome’s most famous dome, head up to Piazza Knights of Malta on Aventine Hill. From here, you can peak through the keyhole in the large door for a unique view of St. Peter’s Basilica. Visiting during the day provides a beautiful scene although, exploring hidden spots like this in Rome at night, is more magical than you could imagine.
Where is next on our tour of Unusual Sites in Rome?
Hidden gems in Rome aren’t hard to come by, but when this is the case, they often require work to reach. Exploring Rome off the beaten path requires some intensity and a bit of sweat. Take a walk up from the west of the River Tiber to Piazzale Giuseppe Garibaldi atop Gianicolo Hill. Admiring a city from above is one of the best ways to gain a new perspective, and is precisely why I am recommending this spot in particular.
There’s plenty more to enjoy than just the city view. If you’re lucky enough to be in Piazzale Giuseppe Garibaldi at noon, you can witness the firing of the canon. While here, I’d suggest stopping by the Tempietto di Bramante, an architectural jewel in my opinion. Here you can enjoy one of the most beautiful displays of high renaissance art.
It is true in fact that Trastevere is far from hidden. Tourists to Rome flock to the charming neighborhood to enjoy the calm atmosphere, cute cafes, and excellent local food. The exploration tends to start and end around the Piazza di Santa Maria. If you don’t visit anything else in the area, you’re seriously missing out. Here are some of the hidden highlights you must fit in while exploring the bustling district of Trastevere.
To my excitement, I came across the Casina delle Civette, translated as ‘House of the Owls.’ I haven’t found this spot in any guidebook but, it’s worth a visit! The building resembles a Swiss cabin of sorts. The surreal style structure has been enhanced over the years, such as by the addition of stained glass windows. The best time to visit is as the sun is setting. The way the light shines through the building’s construction is breathtaking. The park offers several other sites to see and is worth wandering around. For instance, take in all the surrounding beauty of the whimsical house museum, I am sure you’ll enjoy.
One of the unique things to do in Rome is to follow the Appian Way. It’s not so much the road itself that is an incredible site, instead what you’ll encounter along the route. With so many stops to make, it’s best to take advantage of a guided tour to ensure you catch all the highlights. Roman aqueducts, Caffarella Park, St. Callixtus Catacombs and the Tomb of Caecilia Metella are some of the places you can visit.
If you’re anything like me, after spending hours exploring the hustle and bustle of a city like Rome, I search for peace and tranquility. Borghese park provides the perfect area for reflecting. The massive green oasis is located North from the Spanish Steps. Personally, the best way to explore is by bike, although walking through is an excellent option too! Top off your visit to the park by stopping by the Casa Valadier restaurant. From the dining room, you have a stunning view over Rome.
The Domus Aurea is one of the best of all the hidden gems in Rome. The Golden House once was one of the most ostentatious villas’ ever built in Rome’s civilization. Restoration works are still underway, although what is already excavated, is open to visitors. I haven’t toured the inside myself, however, from what I’ve heard, it’s an incredible site to see. The grandeur of the decor, elaborately designed stucco ceilings, gold leaf detailing and stunning frescos haven’t only inspired artists like Raphael but, continue to impress visitors time and time again.
There’s nothing quite as bone-chilling as a church full of bones. Maybe it’s not the most joyful sight to see, but, there’s no denying, it does fall into the realm of unusual things to do in Rome.
Thanks to a public art initiative in 2015, which brought together artists from across the world, the housing complex on Tor Marancia is beautifully adorned with grand scale murals. Eleven buildings showcase these incredible works of art, open for all to see. If street art lights you up, I’d also recommend visiting the districts of Ostiense and Pigneto. Locals classify both as Rome’s off the beaten path neighborhoods. For those who love street art, this is a must add to your list of places to visit in Rome.
If you still have time to explore some more parts of secret Rome, I highly recommend visiting the Quartiere Coppedè found partially hidden in an enclave in the Trieste neighborhood.
Alright, so there you have it, my top picks for the most unusual sites in Rome. For a recap, here they are again, along with a map to guide you there!
1. The Mouth of Truth - Ancient Lie Detector
2. Keyhole to the Cupola - Private View of St.Peter’s Basilica
3. Gianicolo Hill - Rome Panoramic City Views
4. Trastevere - Rome’s Most Charming District
5. House of the Owls - Surreal Sites
6. The Appian Way - The Queen of All Roads
7. Villa Borghese Gardens - City Oasis
8. Domus Aurea - Nero’s Golden House
9. Chiesa di Santa Maria della Concezione - Unusual Crypt
10. Tor Marancia - Street Art Galore