When I first visited Rome at the awkward age of 14, the city grabbed me very much like Audrey Hepburn’s character in Roman Holiday. As I lapped up a chocolate gelato at Rome’s famous Trevi Fountain and tossed in a coin to ensure a return visit, I very well thought I had found paradise. I would return to Rome, but those visions at 14 seemed to fade a bit with the boatloads of crowds in my way on every visit. Instead of giving up on Rome, I resolved to find its hidden charms.
The always-popular city is known for several mainstays like the Coliseum, Sistine Chapel, and the Spanish Steps. As one of the world’s most visited cities, seeing millions of visitors each year, Rome can be a zoo, especially if you stick to its tried and true tourist sights. However, in a city of Rome’s scale, you can unearth treasures without the crowds if you just know where to look. If you want to roam with the Romans, follow the less traveled roads to these sights you might not know about in the Eternal City.
The Vatican Gardens
While the Vatican might be one of the most visited attractions in Rome, its gardens are another story. Used by popes for quiet and meditation since 1279, the Vatican Gardens stretch across 44 hectares of Vatican City. Perfectly manicured, the gardens are outfitted with grottoes, fountains, and monuments. Detailing 2,000 years of history, you can only visit the Vatican Gardens on a guided tour. Tickets are limited so you will want to book as far in advance as you can. The two-hour tour provides a crowd-free and tranquil look at Vatican City. Your ticket also buys you entry to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel.
Mussolini’s Underground Bunker
From wine cellar to bunker, travelers to Rome can head underground and explore Mussolini’s Bunker. Settled under Villa Torlonia, which belonged to a noble family before the Italian dictator, the bunker boasts 4m thick walls. Only opened to tourists in 2014, the stark space functioned as Mussolini’s bunker from 1940 to 1943. Built beneath his family estate at the time, you can take a guided tour of the chambers complete with anti-gas doors and air filtration systems.
Basilica di San Clemente
If you think you have seen one Rome church that you have seen them all, think again as you enter the Basilica di San Clemente. While much of Rome is built on layers upon layers of history, you often can’t see those layers. Basilica di San Clemente invites you to view its many layers that by exploring the 12th-century basilica. The structure rests on top of a 4th-century church, which sits on top of a second-century pagan temple and a first-century Roman house. You can explore the many layers of the church or stay ground level to bask at its 12th-century mosaic Triumph of the Cross.
Constructed by Emperor Nero in AD 64, the palace Domus Aurea could have been its own city. In fact, the huge complex covered a third of Rome back in the day. Lurking underground in the city, Domus Aurea was known for its over the top opulence. It was only rediscovered in the 15th century and opened up for tours in 2014. Guided tours are led by an archeologist and only on Saturdays and Sundays. You’ll adorn a hard-hat to roam through the 2,000-year-old palace complete with frescoes, or at least just the excavated portion. Domus Aurea has been off the tourist radar in part because they had to keep shutting it down due to constant flooding.
Galleria Nazionale D’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea
Rome is often examined for its ancient art and architecture, filling with museums detailing its past artistic greatness. However, you can catch a glimpse of Rome’s other side at the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art. The museum boasts the largest collection of Italian contemporary art with more than 4,000 paintings and sculptures. Most of the art hails from the 19th and 20th centuries. Not only can you see a wealth of Italian artists, but also the museum space includes a treasure trove of international artists like Van Gogh, Monet, Klimt and Jackson Pollock.
They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. This is certainly the case at Monte Testaccio. In Rome, you can sift through ancient Rome’s trash, if you so desire. Frequently referred to as the world’s largest ancient Roman trash dump, Monte Testaccio was constructed with the help of millions upon millions of broken jar shards by ancient Romans. The jars contained wine and olive oil, imported from all over the empire. As the jars couldn’t be reused, Romans started breaking them up and dumping them here. Also referred to Monte dei Cocci, overtime the hill grew to 49 meters high. Located right next to the ancient Tiber River port, archaeologists have been digging up the pieces to study Rome’s ancient trade patterns. Tours are offered of this ancient trash dump that’s surprisingly less stinky than it sounds.
Casina della Civette
You might think you know Rome’s architecture until you get a load of Casina delle Civette. Meaning, “House of Owls,” the structure looks decidedly out of place in Rome. Part Swiss cottage, gothic castle and farmhouse, the home was built between 1840 and 1930. Its art nouveau style was the design of Giuseppe Jappelli. The unusual piece of architecture in Rome invites you inside its fairytale-like structure to roam a detailed stained glass museum.
Terme di Caracalla
Head to the Roman Forum for ruins and you won’t be disappointed, but you’ll be sharing them with the crowds. For a bit more isolated ruin experience in Rome, head to Terme di Caracalla, one of the largest and best preserved examples of an ancient spa complex. The site details the remains of Emperor Caracalla’s vast bath structure. Set up in the southern part of the city, this massive spa was completed in AD 216. The original included baths, gyms, libraries, shops and gardens. Most of the ruins that you can see today hail from the central bathhouse. For a truly unique experience, if you visit in the summer, you can catch an opera or ballet performance held on site.
Rome’s classic attractions from St. Peter’s to the Pantheon to tossing that coin in the Trevi Fountain shouldn’t be missed, especially if it is your first time visiting the Eternal City. However, on those days when you tire of the crowds and want to go off the grid, Rome is just as enchanting at its lesser-known attractions and sights.
Have you been to Rome? Share your favorite lesser-known attractions in town with us in the comments below.