Rome Away from the Crowds
Head a few streets over from the trophy sights and you’ll soon find your own quiet corner—be it a café-rimmed piazza, a cool new gallery space in a former power station, or a family-run Jewish patisserie. Read on for seven offbeat ways to properly slip under the skin of Rome. For more info on getting off the beaten path in Italy, see our Venice guide.
A pyramid? In Rome? You bet. One of the Italian capital’s most eye-catching monuments, Piramide Cestia seized its inspiration from Ancient Egypt, whose architecture was all the rage here in the first century BCE. The bombastic creation was commissioned as a tomb for Roman nobleman and magistrate Gaius Cestius. Hour-long guided tours (in Italian) run on the third and fourth Saturday and Sunday of the month.
For a more tranquil view of the brick-and-marble monolith, head to the adjacent Protestant Cemetery, where Romantic poets John Keats and Percy Shelley lie buried.
Overtures to Rome don’t get any more impressive than the ringside views from Monte Pincio. From these hilltop gardens, you can take in the full sweep of Rome and its jumble of terracotta rooftops, ancient monuments, piazzas, and churches. Look out for the copper dome of St Peter’s Basilica and the outline of Piazza del Popolo below. The whole city is reduced to postcard format up here, so bring your camera for some great photo ops, especially at sunset.
To reach the sculpture-dotted gardens and terrace of Monte Pincio, climb uphill from Piazza del Popolo or the Spanish Steps. You’ll soon lose the majority of the crowds. The classical-style gardens were late out in the early 19th century by Italian urban planner Giuseppe Valadier, under Napoleon’s orders. As you wander in the shade of umbrella pines, keep an eye out for the obelisk that Emperor Hadrian commissioned to commemorate his Greek lover, Antinoüs.
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Housed in Rome’s first electrical power station, which opened in 1912, the Centrale Montemartini presents a chronological romp of classical art and sculpture in an industrial setting. The cavernous interior of the revamped power station stands in striking contrast to the works on display. In the former boiler and engine rooms, artworks are shown among the machinery and furnaces that are still intact.
The exhibition spreads across several rooms, with highlights including original Greek and Roman marble statues and busts, elaborately carved sarcophagi and intricate mosaics depicting nautical and hunting scenes. Best of all, it’s rarely crowded unlike many museums in the city.
For an authentic slice of Rome, head straight for the central yet enticingly under-visited neighborhood of Testaccio (the closest metro stop is Piramide). This is where Romans go to hang out in markets, restaurants, and cafes by day, and in upbeat bars by night. Once home to the city’s butchers, the neighborhood has converted its former slaughterhouse into the contemporary art museum Mattatoio.
To this day Testaccio remains one of the best districts for nose-to-tail dining. Start in the Mercato di Testaccio, brimming with produce from sun-ripened fruit to prosciutto and creamy mozzarella. Come lunchtime, the market hums with hungry locals at street-food stands selling everything from fresh sushi to arancini (stuffed and breaded rice balls). A couple of blocks east is Salumeria Volpetti, an old-school deli with picnic fixings from aged gorgonzola to salami made with Barolo wine.
While you’re in the neighborhood, you should also check out Monte dei Cocci, an artificial mound made up of millions of shattered amphorae (ceramic vessels once used to transport grain, olive oil and wine along the river). Or for street art, swing south to Via del Porto Fluviale.
Dining choices abound, but favorites include brick-vaulted Taverna Volpetti for sharing platters and fresh pasta, Trapizzino for a gourmet take on a pizza pocket, and Osteria Fratelli Mori, a rare find of a family-run osteria, which cooks Roman classics like trippa alla Romana (tripe with tomato, mint and pecorino). You’ll eat, love and pray for second helpings…
Overlooked by many visitors to Rome, this weird and whimsical little neighborhood is tucked between Piazza Buenos Aires (the closest tram stop) and Via Tagliamento. There are no big sights as such, but it’s a delightfully compact, little-visited quarter for a mosey. The hodgepodge of building styles, reaching from medieval to baroque, ancient Greek to Art Nouveau, comes courtesy of namesake architect Gino Coppedè, who developed the district from 1913 to 1927.
Go for an aimless walk here and you’ll stumble across one-of-a-kind palazzi, ornamental archways and the Fontana delle Rane (Frog Fountain), where the Beatles supposedly took a dip after a gig at the nearby Piper Club in the 1960s.
Terme di Caracalla
The beauty-conscious Romans used to love to bathe in style—and it didn’t get more stylish back in 216 CE than these expansive thermal baths, which had a domed, marble-floored caldarium (hot room), a frigidarium (cold room) and a tepidarium (warm room) for splashing and steaming in. They were completed during the reign of Emperor Caracalla, the elder son of Septimius Severus.
An impressive feat of engineering, the baths took 9000 workers six years to complete, using a cool 2000 tons of material per day. Slaves were responsible for stoking the underground fires to heat the floor and walls. The baths would once have been sumptuous, replete with marble, mosaics, and frescoes.
Almost 2000 years on, the ruined baths are still spectacular, and far less crowded than other historic sites. Virtual video guides are available, and in summer occasional ballet and opera performances are staged here.
Rome’s pre-Christian Jewish community is among the world’s oldest. In 1555, Roman Jews—some 2000 of them—were forced to live in a walled ghetto where the gates were locked at night. They lived in miserable poverty: ruthlessly persecuted by their Catholic neighbors, unable to own property, and only given the most menial of jobs.
In 1888, the ghetto was virtually razed to the ground, and its Great Synagogue, erected in 1904, symbolized a new era of hope and equality. Today it’s the spiritual center of the district and houses the Museo Ebraico di Roma, giving insight into Rome’s Jewish heritage.
Now, this highly atmospheric area is made for walking. Faded pastel houses and Renaissance palazzi line cobbled lanes that lead to intimate piazzas, Jewish-Roman trattorias with sidewalk terraces, and kosher bakeries. For sweet, caramelized pizza ebraica (Jewish ‘pizza’ that’s actually more of a cookie) hot from the oven, seek out Pasticceria Boccione. Blink and you’ll miss the unnamed entrance.
Sight-wise, make for the arcaded courtyard of baroque Palazzo Mattei, the Teatro di Marcello, an ancient open-air theatre resembling the Colosseum, and the colonnaded Portico d’Ottavia. And bear in mind that many places close on Friday evening through Saturday for Shabbat.