Finding off the beaten path things to do in Rome: One of life’s great impossibilities? It goes without saying that Italy’s capital city is one of the most popular weekend break destinations in Europe. Besides, when most people travel to Italy for the first time, they don’t venture to places like Naples, or the quaint medieval villages of Puglia, they go to Rome.
With that said, there are still several off the beaten path things to do in Rome where most of the tourist hordes don’t roam. (I’m a poet!) As someone who prefers to venture to unusual places like Bhutan or rural Azerbaijan most of the time, I am not the kind of person who really likes being in crowded places, queuing for hours to see things, or being in areas where there are more travellers than locals! I was pretty happy at some of the “secret” places I was able to stumble across in the Italian capital.
My mum came to visit me in Rome when I lived in Southern Italy and I’ve drawn up the guide below to cover some of the places that we discovered. It’s a pretty extensive list so feel free to use the table of contents below to navigate to the relevant sections.
- 1 Quirky Off-the-Beaten-Path Rome Districts
- 2 Off-the-Beaten-Path Rome Art and Cultural Highlights
- 3 Spooky and Mystical Off-the-Beaten-Path Places to Visit in Rome
- 4 Off the beaten path places in Rome for spirituality and religion
- 5 Visit Lesser-Known Historical and Archaeological Sites in Rome
- 6 Alternative Off the Beaten Path Things to do in Rome
Quirky Off-the-Beaten-Path Rome Districts
Explore the Fairytale Streets of Quartiere Coppedè
Aside from the famous archaeological sites, one of the biggest highlights of taking a trip to Rome is the diverse quartieri (neighbourhoods) that the city is divided into. Quartiere Coppedè is one charming example.
Hidden away behind the central Quartiere Trieste, this obscure neighbourhood was envisaged by Architect Gino Coppedè at the early part of last century. A mishmash of different architectural styles have been used – from art nouveau to baroque. Some of the buildings have been adorned with eccentric murals and vivid frescoes making Quartiere Coppedè a fascinating place for an afternoon stroll.
Indulge in an Aperitivo in Trendy Ostiense
Indulging in an aperitivo is one of the things that you must try while in Italy. This is the Italian answer to happy hour. In the early evenings, ordering a drink (commonly an Aperol spritz) at an Italian bar or restaurant means that you are also met with a selection of small snacks and appetizers.
Rather than having your aperitivo among the tourists, head to trendy Doppio zeroo in the Ostiense neighborhood. This is a popular haunt among the Romans and serves up one of the best gourmet aperitivo buffets in town.
Head to Quadraro and Pigneto on a Quest for Quirky Graffiti
Those interested in street art will love wandering through the neighbourhoods of Quadraro and Pigneto – home to the best and most extensive collection of graffiti in town.
Pigneto was once an industrial district that is quickly developing into a hipster hangout spot. Pieces by notable street artists including Alt Novesette, Hopnn, and Hogre can be found here among the renovated warehouses that have been transformed into bars and cafes.
Quadraro has a more somber past and a lot of the art pieces found here are political or symbolise freedom and peace. In 1944, the neighbourhood was raided by the Nazis and over 1000 people were sent to concentration camps in Poland and Germany from here.
Hang Out in the Former Red Light District
Once upon a time, you would not want to be in Monti after dark. This inner-city suburb used to be Rome’s red-light district and was regarded as an intimidating slum for several decades. Today, Monti has a funky bohemian air about it. Many of the residents that live here are Writers, Artists, Architects, and other cultured creative types.
Monti is comprised of ochre-washed houses that sit on quaint cobbled streets. This is one of the best places in the city for al fresco dining, gourmet street food, and hipster coffee shops. The Piazza Della Madonna Dei Monti is bursting at the seams with bars and is a perfect off-the-beaten-path place for a nightcap.
Sample Local Delicacies at the Food Markets in Testaccio
Lovely Testaccio neighbourhood is a nice place to get a glimpse into local life in Rome. This is especially the case if you are able to schedule your visit so that it coincides with the local market. The Testaccio market is one of the oldest in the city and the stalls here sell everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to Sicilian street food.
Markets aside, there is plenty of history in Testaccio. Several tour operators offer walking tours of Testaccio that are thoroughly enjoyable. Look out for the Pyramid of Cestius, and the Protestant Cemetery which is the final resting place for several notable creatives including Keats and Shelley.
Off-the-Beaten-Path Rome Art and Cultural Highlights
Enter Villa Farnesina and See Some of Raphael’s Finest Works
Villa Farnesina is a beautiful Renaissance villa in Rome’s Trastevere neighbourhood. Dating back to the 15th century, the exquisite interior walls and ceilings are adorned with frescoes created by the likes of Raphael and Peruzzi. The Sala di Galatea – one of Raphael’s most important pieces, is contained here.
The villa is seldom crowded, and most of those that visit Rome have never even heard of it. Those with a particular appreciation for art and Raphael will surely be happy with the opportunity to see his artwork without being shoulder to shoulder with 4,506 others like they are in the Vatican.
Visit MAXXI for Local and International Contemporary Art
The best spot for modern and contemporary art in Rome is the MAXXI Gallery (aka the National Museum of the 21st Century Arts). Encapsulated inside a futuristic building designed by acclaimed architect Zaha Hadid, the museum showcases both permanent collections and seasonal exhibits that display the works of local and international contemporary artists.
Appreciate 16th Century Art Pieces at the Beautiful Palazzo Spada
The Palazzo Spada is a gorgeous 16th-century palace in Piazza Capo di Ferro that now houses the Galleria Spada art gallery. Both are named after Cardinal Spada who transformed the building when he purchased it in 1632.
The art gallery sits on the first floor of Palazzo Spada and expands over four rooms. 16th and 17th century works by notable artists such as Reubens, Caravaggio, and Titian are to be found here.
While the artwork is certainly beautiful, the architecture of the palace is also a major highlight. Spada hired the architect Borromini to renovate the palace.
Catch an Old-Fashioned Puppet Show in Villa Borghese
Rome’s Villa Borghese gardens are just a short walk from the Spanish Steps. The beautiful private gardens offer a nice escape from the crowded nearby sites and are filled with tranquil lakes, stunning flower arrangements, and ancient sculptures.
A walk through the gardens is pleasant, as is a picnic on the banks of the lake. The gardens of Villa Borghese are a popular spot for Romans to enjoy their lunch break or to unwind with a good book beneath the sun. Those interested can also check out a show at the old puppet theatre in the northeastern part of the park.
Take a Rome Food Tour
Taking a food tour is a great opportunity to see a new city through the eyes of a local. During my last trip to Rome, I took a tour that led me through the Jewish Ghetto and the trendy Trastevere neighbourhood.
Such an experience enables you to find local haunts and well-rated restaurants that you perhaps may not have found alone. Opting to do a tour during your first day or two in Rome also helps you to get your bearings.
Spooky and Mystical Off-the-Beaten-Path Places to Visit in Rome
See the Magical Doorway of a Mysterious Alchemist
The Fontana del Giardino di Piazza Vittorio is a small but picturesque park that awaits by Vittorio Emanuele metro station. In the midst of the park, there is a mysterious door that most people walk past without even noticing.
The doorway once led to an old 16th-century villa. It is all that remains after the rest of the mansion crumbled around it. The doorway has links with magic, alchemy, and the occult. Those who approach it will notice the obscure markings that dance around the door frame.
Legend has it that the Marquis of the villa met with an alchemist who taught him how to transform items into gold. The alchemist left behind pieces of gold and handed over the recipe, yet no one could understand it. It was then carved into the doorway in the hopes that someone who understood it would visit.
Venture into the Depths of the Roman Catacombs
If you share my fascination with the spooky and the macabre, you will be enthralled at the chance to venture into the dark depths of the Roman Catacombs that lie beneath the city. The catacombs were carved out by hand more than 2000 years ago.
Here lie the bodies of thousands of early Christians – from religious martyrs to local farmers and bakers. The graves are all packed closely together in a labyrinth-like network of narrow funeral tunnels. Take a tour of the Roman Catacombs for a journey back in time.
Visit the 17th Century Capuchin Crypt
Rome’s Capuchin Crypt (also referred to as the Museum and Crypt of the Capuchin Friars) is an obscure Rome attraction that is equal parts shocking and morbidly fascinating. The crypt lies in the small chapels deep beneath the church of Santa Maria della Conezione dei Cappuccini and is believed to hold the remains of more than 4,000 deceased friars.
The Capuchin Crypt is unlike any other, and it may be a little too macabre for some. Many of the skeletons and mummified bodies have not been buried but have been assembled into displays, or dressed and arranged into various positions. On one doorway, two severed arms cross over each other in a spooky display of the Capuchin coat of arms. At the Crypt of the Pelvises, hundreds of Pelvises are affixed to the walls.
Descend into the Underground Sanctuary of a Peculiar Ancient Cult
Hidden underground beside the Circus Maximus, there awaits a large, secret temple that was built in dedication to the god Mithras. The temple is well preserved and dates back to the 2nd century. A few inscriptions and frieze are scattered around the site but a lot of mystery surrounds the cult.
There are no scriptures or stories of the cult that have survived, and nobody is entirely sure where the cult of Mithras came from, nor what took place at these sites. Very few people know about the existence of this site and it is not open for general admission. If you want to visit, you need to organise a tour to do so.
Off the beaten path places in Rome for spirituality and religion
Visit an Old Abbey Where Eucalyptus is Transformed into Liquor
The Abbazia delle Tre Fontane (Abbey of the Three Fountains) is a Roman abbey that is steeped in history. Apparently, the abbey got its name after the beheading of Apostle Paul. His head bounced onto the ground in three different places, and fountains sprouted up in each spot – delightful!
Wandering around the abbey, its various sanctuaries and annexes is an interesting experience. Amidst the fragrant flower gardens and orchards, white-robed monks can be seen going about their daily business. The Abbazia delle Tre Fontane is a nice change of pace from Rome’s main attractions.
The highlight of visiting the abbey is taking up the chance to sample the Eucalittino liquor that is prepared by the monks here from the leaves of the Eucalyptus trees that grow on the property. The liquor is best enjoyed at the end of a hearty Italian dinner as a digestif and has a strong, aromatic minty flavour.
Watch Local Nonnas Pay Their Respects at the Per Grazia Ricevuta
The Per Grazia Ricevuta wall is a small shrine in Trastevere, central Rome that is dedicated to the Madonna (Virgin Mary). The wall is filled with plaques and inscriptions all paying homage to the Madonna and dating back to the 1950s. This little shrine is still very well maintained today and if you are lucky, your visit may coincide with one of the local nonnas stopping by to light a candle and say a prayer.
Follow the Pilgrimage Route to St Paul’s Outside the Wall
Towering above the streets of Rome in all of its opulence and grandeur, the church of St Paul’s Outside the Wall is the second largest church in the Italian capital. (The first being St Peters within the Vatican). Despite its beauty, the church’s location is a little far out of the centre and means that the site doesn’t get nearly as many visitors as it deserves.
It was here where St Paul was executed, under the instructions of Emperor Nero. For centuries after, the church became a pilgrimage site for people all over Italy’s Lazio region. At the main entrance courtyard, a statue of St Paul stands with his arms outstretched to welcome travelling pilgrims.
Admire the Impressive Interiors of the Basilica di Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio
Churches are to Rome what Buddhist temples are to Kyoto. There are more than 900 ornate churches in the Italian capital, each more breathtaking than the last. Part of the magic of exploring Rome is to be found in allowing yourself the time to get lost in its old narrow streets, and wandering inside chapels and religious buildings that look relatively nondescript from the outside yet open to reveal vivid frescoes and magnificent ceilings.
The Basilica di Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio stands out among the crowd as one of the most original and unique churches in the city. The church dates back to the 5th century and is renowned for its graphic 16th-century frescoes that depict various scenes of martyrdom. It’s strange circular interiors and columnated rooms are an architectural marvel.
Marvel at Layers of History at the Basilica di San Clemente
Rome is a city that is comprised of layer upon layer of history. That could not be more evident anywhere than it is in the Basilica di San Clemente. Stepping inside the ancient church provides a look at the last 2000 years of history in the Italian capital.
The beautiful whitewashed church of the Basilica di San Clemente was built in the 11th century. Inside, the church is decorated with mesmerising mosaics and intricately painted frescoes. That’s not the special thing about this church though…
If you descend down into the tombs, you can see the 4th-century church that the existing church was built on top of. Go further down still and you will see an old Pagan temple that dates back to the first century.
Visit Lesser-Known Historical and Archaeological Sites in Rome
Stroll the length of the Via Appia Antica
The Via Appia Antica is one of the oldest and most important roads in Rome. In ancient Roman times, the road was an important route for sending military officers down to Southern Italy.
Many of Rome’s most notable tourist attractions are situated on and around the Appia Antica so you are likely to encounter it at some point during your itinerary. That said, some sections of this old cobbled road remain relatively unexplored and lead past areas of beautiful greenery and adorable historic neighbourhoods. Walk the entire length of Rome’s Via Appia Antica to step in the footsteps of those Roman soldiers from centuries ago.
Follow the Footsteps of the Ancient Romans at the Ruined Baths of Caracalla
Named after the Emperor of Caracalla, the baths of the same name are what remains of a small collection of ancient Roman thermal pools. The baths are located just off Via Appia Antica and are the largest and most impressive site of this kind.
In a somewhat similar way to the Ottoman Turks and their hammams, ancient Romans would visit the baths for a little rest and relaxation, and to socialise among friends. Seldom crowded, the site provides a fascinating glimpse into what life was like as an affluent Roman.
Browse Fascinating Historical Exhibits at the Centrale Montemartini Museum
The Centrale Montemartini museum lies just off the Appian Way and combines two very interesting, yet very different exhibits. The museum contains what it labels “industrial archeology” – the remnants of old steam engines and machines from the last century, as well as ancient Greek and Roman sculptures.
It’s a strange pairing but somehow it works. The concept is that all aspects of the city’s history – regardless of how recent or ancient, are part of the fabric of its culture.
Take a Tour of Domus Aurea
Nothing makes you realise quite how extensive Rome’s ancient history is like seeing that excavation work around the city is still ongoing and that thousands of antiquities and structures still lay buried beneath the surface. To see a live archaeological site, plan a tour of Domus Aurea – the ruins of what was once a grand palace owned by Emperor Nero.
The 64AD palace was once laden with gold and spanned across ⅓ of Rome. Sadly, Nero’s predecessors tried to erase a lot of his memory and had many of the annexes and grounds of the palace destroyed and built over.
Tours of Domus Aurea must be booked in advance and are led by archaeologists. Some of the rooms are filled with beautiful frescoes but many are still being uncovered.
Stop by the Former Home of John Keats
In Rome’s Piazza di Spagna, you can find the Keats-Shelley memorial house. In 1820, John Keats moved into this apartment, drawing inspiration for his work from the vibrant Italian culture and warm climate. Sadly, Keats also died inside the same apartment due to tuberculosis.
This museum pays homage to the various Writers and Poets that once called Rome home. It also stocks one of the most comprehensive libraries of romantic poetry in the world. This place doesn’t necessarily appeal to everyone and is perhaps only suited to those who are passionate about poetry and literature.
See the Site Where Julius Caesar Was Assassinated
The Largo di Torre Argentina awaits in the Campo Marzio and is situated close to many of Rome’s main attractions (Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, etc). There are no plaques or information boards here so the area just looks like yet another collection of crumbling sun-bleached ruins.
Many people just walk straight past the Largo di Torre Argentina as they hurry for a bus or a cab back to their hotel, however, it was here where Julius Caesar was stabbed to death in 44 BC. A morbid fact perhaps, but an important moment in history nonetheless.
More pleasantly, in recent years the ruins have become something of a cat sanctuary, with dozens of friendly felines taking naps and play fighting in the old temples.
Sail Across to Historic Tiber Island
Tiber Island is forgotten by most visitors to Rome. That said, it is arguably one of the most picturesque parts of the city. The little island sits in the midst of the River Tiber (hence the name!) and is connected to the mainland by two bridges.
In ancient times, those suffering from the plague and other contagious diseases were shipped off to Tiber island along with criminals and conmen. It was considered one of the most dangerous places in the region. Today, walking the circumference of Tiber island is a pleasant atmospheric walk. You can also take time to duck inside the beautiful San Bartolomeo church – perhaps one of the most serene in the city.
Observe the “Small” Colosseum at The Theatre of Marcellus
The Teatro Marcello is a small theatre that is similar in style to the Colosseum, yet on a much smaller scale. The theatre was envisaged by Julius Caesar who gave instructions for building work to commence, yet was unfortunately assassinated before it could be completed.
Sadly you cannot enter the theatre as it has been renovated into an apartment complex, but you should certainly stop to admire it from the outside as you pass by.
Stop by The Protestant Cemetery
The Protestant Cemetery in Testaccio sounds like quite a morbid place to visit, but it contains the final resting place of dozens of celebrities and notable figures. English romantic poets Keats and Shelley are both buried here.
Many of the headstones and crypts here could be considered works of art in themselves. It’s also possible to take a tour of the graveyard if you are especially curious.
Alternative Off the Beaten Path Things to do in Rome
Shop for Quirky Clothing Pieces at Rome’s Vintage Stores
Like all major Italian cities, Rome offers ample opportunities for those hoping to indulge in a little retail therapy. The Italian capital boasts everything from upscale designer boutiques, to quirky stores and flea markets selling vintage and thrift items.
Those with an affection for unusual vintage pieces will not be disappointed in Rome. Wander down the Via del Governo Vecchio to find a street that is packed to the brim with eclectic vintage boutiques. As far as flea markets go, check out the Sunday Borghetto Flaminio market, and the Mercato Monti. The latter also sees young Italian designers set up stalls to sell their exquisite handmade items.
Enjoy a Little R&R at One of Rome’s Indulgent Spas
Once upon a time, the Romans loved to unwind at the end of the day at a thermal spa such as the Baths of Caracalla. There was a caldarium (hot bath), a tepidarium (warm bath) and a frigidarium (cold bath) and the facility was in some ways comparable to a Turkish hammam.
Today, there are still ample opportunities to relax and unwind in modern Rome.
The BAHR City Spa lies by the ruins of Emperor Nero’s private spa and offers an experience based on the concept of a traditional Roman spa. Soak in the various baths or book yourself in for a treatment package for the ultimate indulgent experience. Surrounded by serene and beautiful nature, the QC Terme Roma is also a spa facility that comes highly recommended.
Enjoy a Bird’s Eye View of the City from Gianicolo
Head to Piazzale Giuseppe Garibaldi to start your ascent up Gianicolo (Janiculum Hill). The steady climb to the top of the hill rewards you with incredible panoramas of Rome at every turn. Come in the early evening to watch the sunset as the sky is illuminated in hues of pinks and oranges.
Have a Picnic at the Parco degli Acquedotti
Parco degli Acquedotti is a lovely area of nature and greenery that obtained its name on account of the crumbling pillars of the old, defunct Roman aqueducts that still stand here. The large park is located 5 miles out of the centre of the city, along the old Appian Way.
Parco degli Acquedotti is typically peaceful – save for the occasional dog walker. In one portion of the park, sheep can be found grazing and it feels like you are a million miles away from the touristic heart of Rome. If you have plenty of time to spend in Rome, this is a nice spot for a picnic or a reflective afternoon walk.
Have any further questions about off the beaten path things to do in Rome or organising an Italy itinerary in general? I used to live in Italy (Naples) and would be happy to assist with any queries you may have. Safe travels. Andiamo! Melissa xo