Ah, the Eternal City. Nothing captivates the imagination more when you think of Rome than its Colosseum, Imperial Forum, legendary museums and piazzas, and of course the Vatican. But if you’ve been to Italy recently, you know that the crowds that swarm this city can be almost unbearable at times, and even getting into some of these attractions is not guaranteed without advance planning and tickets. Instead, if you have the time (and the desire) to explore beyond the traditional tourist itinerary, here are some of the hidden gems in Rome that many visitors never see. And the best part is that you’ll get to enjoy them without hundreds or thousands of other people.
1. The Fairy-Tale Piazza Mincio/Quartiere Coppedè
In an affluent residential neighbourhood north of the historic centre of Rome off of Via Po is a small enclave of fairy-tale-like buildings clustered around a little square called Piazza Mincio – also known as the Quartiere Coppedè. These wonderful, whimsical buildings are an eclectic amalgamation of various architectural styles all centred around a small piazza and fountain. And they are unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere in the city.
The neighbourhood is actually quite ‘modern’ as it was built between 1915-1927 by architect Gino Coppedè, who obviously wanted to indulge his taste for more than just the Art Nouveau or Art Deco styles that were popular during this period. Many of the buildings reflect Greek influences as well, but also Gothic, Baroque and Medieval architectural features. It’s like Coppedè just couldn’t decide which style he liked most, so he mashed them all together in one place.
There are ornate, imaginative details, including all manner of decorative support figures (both human and animal), as well as beautiful balconies and terraces that are intricately designed. Decorated facades and exterior walls incorporate frescoes and colourful tilework, and there are wooden awnings and archways on some buildings that almost seem Moorish in design. The more you look, the more you see.
And since no Roman piazza is complete without a fountain, this hidden gem in Rome has a whimsical one of its own as well, the Fountain of the Frogs.
From the moment you enter this neighbourhood under the ornate Arco dei Palazzi degli Ambasciatori with its iron chandelier, you can’t help but feel that you’ve entered a place straight out of someone’s fanciful imagination. One that is not just far from the crowds, but far from the norm.
TIP: Google Maps can help with directions to Piazza Mincio. Click on the Transit symbol, and it will tell you the number of the bus(es) that goes right up Via Po. The archway is just off this street.
2. Villa Torlonia: Mussolini’s War-Time Refuge
Not far from Piazza Mincio, off Via Tagliamento is a pretty park called Villa Torlonia, which was the former 18th century estate and home of the Torlonia Familia. For more than 150 years, the estate was used by this aristocratic family and its descendants, but it gained notoriety in the 20th century thanks to a famous resident, Benito Mussolini, who lived here with his family from 1925 to 1943.
Mussolini used this estate as a refuge for his family during World War II, even converting the wine cellar into a bomb-proof bunker. Mussolini’s wife even insisting on planting a vegetable gardens to ensure they would be self-sufficient regardless of what was happening in the world. The family lived in the main palazzo, Casino Nobile, which was also where Mussolini played host to foreign dignitaries, including his ally, Adolf Hitler.
Today the palazzo is just one of several buildings in the Park and operates as both a museum and exhibition gallery, restored in the late 1990s as part of a comprehensive refurbishing of the park and its structures, and the results are very impressive. Many of the rooms reflect themes from ancient history, including an Egyptian Room, a. Bacchus Room, and the opulent Alexander’s Room that served as the Torlonia family’s dining hall.
The ballroom in particular is beautiful– a bit of a gem itself inside of this hidden gem in Rome – and it’s easy to imagine the 19th century princes and princesses of the Torlonia family holding elegant balls here.
3. The Quirky Casina delle Civette (House of the Owls)
On the same grounds as the main palazzo of Villa Torlonia, is a quirky little residence called the Casina delle Civette, or House of the Owls that actually served as the residence of Prince Giovanni Torlonia until 1938. Originally designed in 1840, the architect Giuseppe Jappelli wanted to achieve a rustic Swiss/Alpine cabin vibe with the house and so he used diverse construction materials and steep roof lines inspired by buildings found in the mountains.
That apparently wasn’t quirky enough for Prince Torlonia, because in the early 1900s, he decided to do some renovations of his own, transforming the Swiss cottage into what looks more like a Medieval hamlet. He added large windows, loggias, porticos and turrets to the L-shaped structure, while inside detailed woodwork and stained glass windows of every shape and design became the dominant features. In fact the name “House of the Owls” refers to the motif that is found throughout the house in these decorative elements.
Sadly, all this imaginative design was left to deteriorate after Torlonia’s death and the occupation that followed during the war. That decline was further exacerbated by vandalism and a fire in 1991 that left the house an abandoned ruin. A year later the Municipality of Rome took on the repair of the house as part of the Villa Torlonia estate refurbishment, and today you can tour a fully-restored main house and annex, which thanks to surviving documentation and photos has been meticulously brought back to life. It’s quite wonderful poking around this rabbit warren of stained-glass-lit nooks and crannies, and you won’t find anything like it elsewhere in the city.
TIP: Villa Torlonia is just off of Via Nomentana, and only a 13-minute walk southeast from Piazza Mincio, so it’s easy to visit both in the same general neighbourhood. The grounds of Villa Torlonia are free to wander, but its 4 buildings are museums (administered by Rome’s municipal museums) and tickets must be purchased to visit them. Audio guides and tickets can be bought individually for each location or you can purchase a combination ticket for all 4 for less than the price of 2 individual ones.
4. Creepy or Creative: the Bone Crypt of the Capuchin Friars
If art on the somewhat macabre side is something that piques your interest, you will definitely want to visit the Museum and Bone Crypt of the Capuchin Friars beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini right on Via Veneto. Like other bone crypts, including the Capela dos Ossos in Evora, Portugal, this is a decidedly different kind of hidden gem in Rome, but it is a place that is meant to be a silent reminder of our own mortality, regardless of whether you are a monk or a layperson. That message may be universal but the medium used to convey it is anything but usual…
Here you’ll find the skeletal remains of 3700 monks on display, skilfully and artistically arranged in designs that look like mandalas, architectural details, arched niches and overhead ceiling decorations. There are even functioning lanterns. Five underground crypts showcase these displays, alongside of which runs a hallway where visitors walk under ’embellished’ archways, stopping to gaze into these elaborately decorated displays.
It is a little creepy, for sure, particularly in the first crypt where a woman’s skeleton is suspended in the roof overhead holding the ‘scales of final judgement’ and it looks like she might come crashing down at any moment. There’s also the odd robed skeleton or two of monks tucked into niches or against the walls that are a little less ‘abstract’ than just the bone art.
Still, you have to hand it to the monk whose idea it was to tranform all those bones into such creative displays. They are definitely captivating, and the sheer number of bodies represented here is staggering.
Another interesting fact is that the soil in these crypts is considered to be sacred as it was apparently brought back from the Holy Land, perhaps even Jerusalem. Because it was so special, each monk who died was laid to rest in the soil for a time, before being exhumed to make room for the newly deceased. The exhumed bones were then added to the collections above ground. Pretty equitable, I suppose, given there’s only so much sacred soil to go around.
TIP: Tickets to the Bone Crypt (which includes a small museum as well with a Caravaggio painting of St. Francis in Meditation) cost 10 euros each. This also includes an audio guide. Note that there is absolutely NO PHOTOGRAPHY allowed inside the Bone Crypt, so if you want a photo to take home, you’ll need to purchase a postcard from the gift shop.
5. A One-of-a-Kind Keyhole on the Aventino
This hidden gem in Rome may not be as secret as it once was, but it definitely is not easily visible. That is because the treasure it hides lies behind a huge set of doors, and the only way to see it, is through a keyhole.
That keyhole is located on the gates belonging to a piece of sovereign property in Rome governed by the Knights of Malta (today the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and its embassy). What makes this keyhole so unique is that when you look through it, you are standing in one country (Italy), looking through another country (the property behind the doors is technically part of Malta), and seeing – perfectly framed at the end of a tree-lined garden – the dome of St. Peter’s basilica in the Vatican (a third country).
It’s almost like being in 3 places at once (well, that’s a stretch). But it is an unusual anomaly at the very least, and something you certainly can’t replicate in many places.
But even beyond this curious juxtaposition of nations, the location where you’ll find this keyhole is a bit of a gem in itself: the Aventine hill.
Although not hidden, the Aventino is a place that typically doesn’t make it onto every visitor’s itinerary, especially if they only have a few days to hit up the big monuments and museums. For this reason it is a relatively tranquil treasure in what can be a very busy city. The Aventino is home to a number of parks offering lovely views over the Tiber river, and because of this, the churches up here are a very popular spot for weddings.
But even if you find yourself at the bottom of the hill, there’s a beautiful Rose Garden near Circus Maximus that is home to over 1,000 species. This place has existed as a flower garden since the 3rd century BC, and just finding a rose garden like this in the historic centre of Rome may come as a surprise to many visitors.
TIP: As mentioned, the Aventine keyhole is more popular today than it once was (thanks to articles just like this!), so you probably can expect a lineup. Just be courteous, and don’t monopolize the view for too long.
6. Galleria Spada: An Optical Illusion Using Architectural Magic
As an architect, what do you do when your client wants a grandiose Baroque collonnade in his house, and you have less than 30 feet to work with? You fake it til you make it. Or both.
Which is exactly what Francesco Borromini did, when he was asked by Cardinal Bernardino Spada to renovate his 16th century palace in the heart of Rome, incorporating some of the trendy Baroque features of the day. Because of the footprint of the palazzo being the size it was, Borromini didn’t have the physical depth to create Spada’s fashionable Baroque walkway so instead he employed a little architectural magic to transform a 9-metre long space into his famous ‘Galleria prospettica’ which appears to be a colonnade more than 40 metres long.
Borromini did it by exaggerating the perspective in the walkway by physically shortening the columns and placing them in converging lines, angling the floor up and the ceiling down, and thereby creating the appearance of much more depth. The result is extremely effective and fools the eye into ‘seeing’ more length and depth than is actually there.
Enhancing the effect is the statue of Mars in the garden at the far end: it appears to be life-sized, but in fact it is only about 24 inches tall. Oh, and those ‘hedges’? They’re actually sculpted, too. Masterful.
It’s a brilliant technique and an optical illusion that still works as well today as it did 350 years ago.
TIP: The Perspective Gallery by Borromini can be found inside the courtyard of Palazzo Spada which also houses Galleria Spada, a small art gallery that includes pieces by Peter Paul Rubens, Caravaggio, Guido Reni, Domenichino and many others. Tickets cost 5 euros, except on the first Sunday of the month when admission is free.
7. To Infinity and Beyond at St. Ignazio Church
Optical illusions are used in many of the churches in Rome, usually taking the form of artwork that enhances what otherwise would just be a flat or architecturally boring structural feature. The most famous of these is Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, where Michelangelo created faux details like sculpted vaults and arched details where only a flat barrel vault existed.
Another church, La Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola, just off Via del Corso, is home to several painted tromp l’oeil frescoes that succeed in fooling the eye to great effect, creating an impressive dome where it doesn’t exist, and what looks like an open roof over the nave that reveals the sky and heavens above.
The Dome of Sant’Ignazio was initially meant to be an actual architectural feature. But when the papal grant that was used to build the church ran dry, plans for the dome had to be abandoned. Instead, it fell to Jesuit painter-priest Andrea Pozzo to try to achieve the illusion of a dome where only a flat ceiling exists. He achieved this by placing the vanishing point of the cupola off-centre, which makes the dome particularly convincing when you approach it from the back of the nave. The closer you are to the altar, however, where you can look directly up at the dome, the off-centred cupola gives the entire game away. Still, it’s fooled many a visitor.
For his open roof illusion depicting the Triumph of St Ignatius, Pozzo used paint and his mastery of perspective to visually ‘extend’ the physical columns in the church’s interior, giving the effect that the church is almost twice its actual height.
The columns soar into a heavenly sky, which in turn adds to the effect of height with its layered clouds and angels getting smaller and smaller the ‘higher’ they appear to be.
The work is amazing, and considered to be one of the best examples of artistic tromp l’oeil ever painted.
TIP: To help visitors view the ceiling (and photograph it more easily), the church of Sant’Ignazio has placed a large mirror in the aisle of the main nave where visitors can line up to take their turn viewing the ceiling. If you do choose to sit in a pew instead and gaze up, just be sure to keep track of your belongings, as clever thieves know these distracted visitors make easy pickpocket targets.
8. Art Nouveau Courtyard at Palazzo Sciarra
Looking up is always a good idea in Rome not just to admire the ceilings in its churches, but to take in some of the above-eye-level architecture in its beautiful buildings and palazzos. One of these is another hidden gem in Rome: Galleria Sciarra, a covered walkway/courtyard that connects a collection of 16th century buildings not far from the Trevi Fountain.
The walkway was actually constructed in the late 19th century by architect Giulio de Angelis, an innovative architect who had a particular fascination for the English Art Nouveau style of decoration. As a result, the facades of the buildings flanking the interior space are elaborately decorated and painted with scrollwork, stylized floral patterns and women as a dominant figurative theme. Above it all and protecting these details is a square glass and iron vaulted skylight.
Even though Galleria Sciarra is just steps from the unbelievably crowded Trevi Fountain, this gem is literally hidden in plain sight, but most visitors bypass it on the way to the Fountain. Which means those who do seek it out to admire its design are unlikely to find big crowds here.
9. Villa Farnesina for Fans of Raphael
The name of Raphael is one that is familiar to many visitors to Rome, so familiar in fact that his surname is almost superfluous. As one of the true celebrities of the Renaissance, Raphael Sanzio (he did have a surname!) made a name for himself as the Prince of Painters with all the influential aristocratic patrons of the 16th century, including popes. Which is why many visitors to Rome seek out his masterpieces in the Papal Apartments and Pinacoteca at the Vatican Pinacoteca and at Galleria Borghese.
But some of Raphael’s most colourful and beautiful fresco work can be found in a sumptuous palazzo not far from the banks of the Tiber River, the Villa Farnesina, once owned by a wealthy financier to the popes, Agostino Chigi. Chigi spared no expense on this estate, including commissioning the most in-demand artists of the time to decorate its rooms, one of which was Raphael.
Chigi wanted his villa to impress, and Raphael certainly made that happen with his contributions to the Loggia of Galatea where another artist of the day, Peruzzi, had begun painting mythological scenes from Homer’s Odyssey. The scene depicted the story of the nymph Galatea and the cyclops Polyphemus who pursues her romantically – only to be rejected by Galatea who sails off into the sunset with dolphins, sea gods and putti by her side.
Raphael’s depiction of Galatea set the stage for more work with Chigi in the future, even if Raphael made him wait 5 years before he was free to continue work on the Villa.
When he did continue, the next project was possibly the most beautiful one in the Villa: the ceiling of the loggia, a light-filled veranda leading out to the gardens. Here, Raphael wanted to bring the outdoors in, so he designed the ceiling to look like a pergola using garlands of greenery and fruit to create the effect.
These decorative elements framed two central frescoes depicting the Council of the Gods, and the Marriage of Cupid and Psyche, an appropriate theme since Agostino Chigi was preparing for his own marriage.
The Loggia frescoes are stunning, but credit cannot go to Raphael alone. He may have conceived of the design and the figures within, but his assistants carried out much of the actual painting. Still, the genius of Raphael made it all come together, and visitors who discover this treasure trove of art inside the Villa Farnesina are not disappointed.
TIP: Tickets to Villa Farnesina cost 12 euros (16 for guided tours), and you can get a discount of 2 euros if you’ve already purchased a ticket to the Museo Nationale Romano. Also, unlike the Vatican Museums or Galleria Borghese, visitors don’t need to purchase tickets in advance to guarantee entrance because it’s not nearly that busy.)
10. Aqueduct Park of Rome – a Path Off the Beaten Path
Visitors are not likely to find many crowds at Rome’s Aqueduct Park – that is unless you consider a few dozen local joggers and Roman families ‘crowds’. That’s because although easily accessible via Rome’s Metro A line, most tourists don’t have the time to fit this Park into their schedule. Which is a shame. Not only is this a relaxing green space where you can spend several hours walking alongside and admiring the ruins of the Roman Empire’s stunning aqueducts, the Aqueduct Park is one of the few decidedly local hangouts where you can escape the tourist throngs downtown.
The park is 240 hectares in size, so even a few hours won’t be enough time to explore it all, but the main attractions here are the aqueducts themselves, and unless you really are a student of ancient Roman engineering, it’s enough just to walk alongside these structures to appreciate their beauty and their function.
Some of these aqueducts date as far back as 269 BC but the more visible ones here are a little more ‘recent’ (like the 52 AD Claudia aqueduct that helped provide water to Rome’s million or so inhabitants of the time). This Acqua Claudia as it is known (named after Emperor Claudius) is the largest remaining one that can be seen above ground.
Visitors to the park are allowed to walk under and through these ancient conduits, but you should only do this where the archways have been reinforced, since there’s always the possibility that something may fall on your head. These aqueducts may have stood for thousands of years, but you don’t want to tempt the fates, either.
After spending time in the Park of the Aqueducts, if you are interested in seeing where two of the most important ones actually enter Rome, take the subway to the Manzoni stop and walk towards Porta Maggiore (about a 15 minute walk). Here, massive stone archways built to support two aqueducts did double-duty as an entrance to the city. One of these aqueducts was the Acqua Claudia which you saw in the Park. The aqueducts also did double-duty themselves as they were incorporated into the Aurelian Wall that still surrounds the historic centre of Rome.
Following the path of the aqueducts into Rome is a nice footnote to the Park visit. (And while maybe not a ‘hidden gem’ itself, as ruins of ancient monuments go the Porta Maggiore is no slouch, either.)
TIP: To get to the Park of the Aqueducts from central Rome, take Metro Line A and get off at either the Subaugusta or Lucio Sestio stop. You’ll need to walk about 10 minutes or so southwest-ish along residential streets to Via Lemonia behind which you can see the park. This is also a good opportunity if you want to buy a snack or panino which you can enjoy in the Park during your visit. Note: the park does close during certain months of the year, so be sure to check the website.
Much More to Explore
These 10 hidden gems in Rome are just a small fraction of the interesting and less-visited sights to be found in this storied city when you venture off the typical tourist routes. A great resource to discover more examples is Atlas Obscura, which looks for destinations and places that are quirky, unusual or as the name suggests, obscure. The advantage to exploring these places is that not only do you avoid many of the crowds around the more famous attractions, you might see a different part of the Eternal City – places where Romans actually live, work, and play. And who knows? You might even discover a neighbourhood pizzeria that has its own twist on local favourites – like potato pizza with french fries on top!
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.