Rome appeals to a plethora of tastes and arouses a range of emotions…even in normally reserved people. The aesthete will be swept away. The history buff will swoon. The gourmand will be downright giddy. And for the artists, historians, and gourmets who may prefer to do things in Rome a little off the beaten path? They will be richly rewarded. This article highlights sights travelers may not get to see on their first trip to Rome, but should definitely make room to visit their second or third time around.
Once a working-class neighborhood, this area has become quite gentrified and consequently is getting as pricey as neighborhoods on the other side of the Tiber River (Trastevere literally means beyond the Tiber). Still, its scenic streets, eateries, shops, and bars are not to be missed. I like to cross over on the oldest bridge in town, Ponte Fabricio. First, I take a quick trip down the stairs to walk along the river’s edge and ponder Roman engineering (warning: it smells like urine on part of the stairs, but the odor passes quickly). The addition of volcanic ash made Roman cement stronger and capable of use in water. This ability struck fear in the hearts of enemies and increased Rome’s power. It’s neat to think about the power of cement and the famous Roman arch as you look up at the bridge. Ponte Fabricio leads to an island in the middle of the Tiber, Isola Tiberina, which connects to Trastevere.
If the chaos, traffic, and congestion of the city center has you screaming, “Mama Mia!” then Trastevere might be a nice alternative for you. I find it more relaxed, although not quieter, than the other side of the river. Walk along streets where people hang their wash out windows to dry. Admire flowering ivy covering the sides of buildings. Sit in a piazza and people watch. One of the greatest piazzas is the community living room of Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere. A lovely tiered 17th century fountain provides seating for locals to sit and chat about their day. Make sure you visit the Church of Santa Maria. The basilica stands on one of Rome’s oldest church sites where Christians once worshipped illegally. It is also the site where oil flowed for a day over two thousand years ago. Bring your coins and go to the left of the altar to light up the fabulous mosaic behind the main altar. This early medieval mosaic shows Jesus with the virgin Mary, as well as his flock of sheep. It is quite impressive!
If you are in the mood for cheap drinks in a festive atmosphere…and who isn’t…stroll over to Bar San Calisto. This lively neighborhood hotspot serves up no frills alcoholic beverages at bargain prices.
If you love palaces and/or Renaissance art, you simply must visit the Villa Farnesina. Peruzzi built this suburban villa along the banks of the Tiber for the banker Agostino Chigi at the beginning of the 1500s. The Renaissance villa passed to the Farnese family in 1580. There are amazing frescoes by Raphael. The ground floor holds a famous portrayal of Greek mythology, the Galatea. Raphael painted it. It looks out onto the garden which has luscious lemon trees. As I walked through the villa replete with hundreds of steps, I imagined how laborious climbing them all day would have been, especially while wearing layers of finery. What must it have been like to live here? I then looked at Raphael’s frescoes again and realized that as long as I wasn’t a servant I think I could have handled the burden.
To cross back over to the other side of the river, I recommend using the scenic Ponte Sisto which affords you a beautiful view of St. Peter’s dome. Before the bridge is a neat area where there are art galleries and some artisan workshops.
A trip to the Testaccio region of Rome brings a whole new flavor from the city center where many travelers spend their time. The train/metro station will drop you off at the very crowded station called Pyramide—aptly named because there is a pyramid there. As you exit the station, you will notice a massive pyramid coming out of the Aurelian Walls and across the street a huge gate with two massive towers. The gate is Porta San Paolo (4th century gate to St. Paul) and there is a museum within it. The walls are the famed Aurelian Walls that were used to protect the city. In the Middle Ages, Rome was characterized by hundreds of towers dotting the walled city. The towers marked the subdivision of the city into different family’s areas. It is almost impossible to fathom the amount of work it took to construct walls to encircle a city. Massive gates with colossal doors kept inhabitants safe and made sure only welcome visitors entered the city. Sentries would meet potential visitors to determine their worthiness for entry. Bearing gifts? You’re probably in. Bearing a gift of a Trojan horse? Probably not. The gates and walls tickle my fancy; I highly recommend standing by them and imagining how foes scaled these walls to attack Rome and how the Romans used the towers to repel attacks.
One can imagine how amazing the sight of the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius (12 BC) was upon entering Rome. It was built as a burial chamber for a magistrate of ancient Rome. Today, travelers can visit it, but only a few days a month so check with the tourism bureau before you go and secure your tickets ahead of time.
The Protestant Cemetery outside the city walls reinforces the supremacy of Catholicism in this papal area and makes one see how the city and its main religion are so indelibly intertwined. You may want to peruse around the cemetery, as some noted poets are buried there—John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. A Rome War Cemetery honoring those killed in the Second World War is also nearby.
Winding your way into the heart of the Testaccio region, you will pass an ancient trash heap of pottery—mainly jugs called amphorae. The pile of 53 million amphorae is known as Monte Testaccio and has a circumference of one mile, a height of 115 feet above ground and 49 feet below ground. It is one of the largest trash sites to exist from ancient times. Nearby is the Testaccio Food Market where locals dine on sandwiches stuffed with tripe (cow stomach) or boiled beef. There are lots of vendors to choose from at this lunchtime foodie haven.
Baths of Caracalla and Appian Way
Public bathing was once an important Roman ritually, thus huge bath complexes dotted the city so that citizens did not have far to walk in order to relax in the waters. Today, you can see the remnants of these complexes in several areas of the city. The Baths of Caracalla give a snapshot into the past to see what it was like for Romans who were able to enjoy these huge tubs (like swimming pools) of water in varying temperatures (they could go from heated to cool and back to heated again). Romans could enjoy a steam while a poor slave worked below ground to stoke a fire to keep the steam rising and the water temperatures hot. The baths were a luxury that the government ensured stayed inexpensive for its citizens so that even the poorest could go. The complexes looked like palaces with ornately colored marble and mosaic frescoes. Bath complexes were just one of the little comforts that made Rome great. Sadly, they were also cesspools, as doctors encouraged people with infectious diseases like boils to go bathe too and the warm water kept germs alive and thriving.
They say that all roads lead to Rome and if you are at the Baths of Caracalla you are near the ancient mega route that contributed to Rome’s greatness—the Appian Way. I initially thought about titling this article “Taking the Road Less Traveled in the Eternal City,” but when I thought about the places that I was encouraging my readers to visit I realized what a ridiculous misnomer this would have been. What road could have been more traveled than the Appian Way? Roman ingenuity that led to the construction of this ancient highway caused others to fear and respect the Romans. If the Romans could construct such sturdy roads, they could mobilize their legions quickly and conquer rapidly. They were not to be trifled with. Today, you can go to the city walls and visit the Museo delle Mura (Museum of the Walls) inside the large impressive gate, Porta San Sebastiano. From the museum start walking down exploring the via Appia Antica (Appian Way). You will see be able to visit the Church of Domine Quo Vadis, the Catacombs of St. Callixtus or St. Sebastian, the Mausoleum of Cecelia Metella, and the Circus of Maxentius. You may want to rent a bike. I would definitely bring a picnic lunch.
Day Trip to Ostia Antica
If you love history, a trip to the archaeological site of Ostia Antica is a must! The trip itself is super simple. For a 1.50€ one-way, you can hop on a train (and metro if needed) and take the 30-45 minute ride. Go a little further and you’re at the beach! Ostia was a port city that provided Rome with food, oil, grain, wine, and other goods. Like its better known neighbor to the south, Pompeii, you can see apartment buildings, bath complexes, theaters, temples, marketplaces, and all the remnants of a bustling city. However, Ostia has far fewer crowds and is much closer to Rome.
Before you go, I highly recommend getting a good map/guide for the site, or signing up for a tour. Rick Steves’ guides also provide detailed information about how to get to Ostia and he has audio tours (for free on his app) to accompany his guides.
Ostia Antica is quite peaceful…except for the occasional crop of school children that pop up here and there. Oftentimes, it was just my husband and I wandering throughout the ruins. Well, us and the little lizards that would scurry about. The market district was very interesting. Mosaic designs depicted what type of goods were being traded at each station. I got carried away taking pictures of the fish, boats, exotic animals (elephants), and sheaves of grain.
Unlike museums where everything is off limits, almost everything at Ostia Antica seemed to be open for exploration. I climbed atop theater stairs to survey the land. It was beautiful. Cypress trees and marble for as far as the eye could see. I stood there reveling in the beauty of the land…and listening to my husband sneeze. Note to those who suffer from allergies: bring antihistamines. There were a lot of allergens bothering my husband at the site.
My favorite aspect of the site were the public toilets though, not the modern ones—the ancient ones. The public latrines (see the picture) were made out of high quality marble. Everyone sat and talked with one another. They probably had someone playing music. There was water running underneath so the toilets were continually flushing. The Romans used a sponge on a stick to wipe themselves; they rinsed it off in the running water and left it in the hole under the seat. Did you know that Italians use the English word for privacy?
The site is quite large and can easily take a half day to explore. You will want to bring water and a snack, although there is a café onsite. Although we didn’t do this, I think it would be a lot of fun to take an hour or two at Ostia Antica in the morning, lunch in the modern city of Ostia, and then spend the afternoon at the beach.
Although by no means is this list comprehensive, I hope this article provides you with some fun things to do in Rome that are a little off the beaten path. Please see my other articles for Rome tourist attractions around the Colosseum area and things to do in Rome in the historic center. My next article highlights Renaissance and Baroque art by looking at Rome attractions near Piazza del Popolo and Vatican City. Ciao!
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5 thoughts on “Rome, Off the Beaten Path”
Do you provide tours? My first trip to Rome was to visit the. Vatican and see the School of Athens. Apparently it’s so,big we ran out of time. My second trip, to see the school of Athens, they said you had to let them know in advance if you want to see that way in advance. So now I will be going in March, and I wa t to see the School of Athens! Do you, or can you recommend someone who can give my husband and I a tour of the Vatican’s School of Athens. Thank you!
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Hi Karen, we don’t offer tours–yet, but I highly recommend our friends at The Roman Guy. Our tour guide for the “Privileged Entrance Vatican Tour” took us carefully through all the Raphael rooms and gave a detailed discuss of Raphael and his feelings about daVinci and Michelangelo (who he wasn’t crazy about until he saw the Sistine Chapel). The tour gave us entry to the museums before the regular opening and we had time in the Sistine Chapel with just a small group of people. It was great. Here is my post on it: https://roaminghistorian.com/2016/05/29/the-roman-guy-tour-review/ Also, here is a link to the tour we went on: https://theromanguy.com/tours/Rome/Sistine-Chapel-Vatican-Tour
If you decide to go alone, you will see it by walking through the “Hall of Maps” and then veering off into a little walkway that takes you to the Raphael rooms. The room with the “School of Athens” is the last one before the Sistine Chapel. Here are a couple maps–one from the Vatican (look for Stanze di Raffiello) and then a simpler and easier-to-read one from Rick Steves. http://www.museivaticani.va/content/dam/museivaticani/pdf/visita_musei/servizi_visitatori/mappa_musei_vaticani.pdf and http://podcasts.ricksteves.com/pdfs/rome-vatican-museums.pdf
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