Finding off-the-beaten-path things to do in Rome may sound like one of life’s great impossibilities. An oxymoron even.
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.
Falling in Love with Rome
Mixing sunbleached historical ruins, with tantalising regional cuisine, and a vibrant street life scene, Rome captures the hearts of all of those that visit. The Italian capital is the sheer embodiment of “la dolce vita” – the good life.
Rome’s history stems back over 3,000 years. Renowned historical structures such as the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, and the Colosseum point to the city’s golden age.
A long weekend in Rome is enough to see the highlights and a handful of hidden treasures. However, it would take months to truly scratch beneath the surface of this magical city.
Off the Beaten Path, Things to Do in Rome
Off-the-beaten-path things to do in Rome are plentiful and varied. Whether you consider yourself a history buff or someone who is looking to experience the local culture.
The 33 fabulous off-the-beaten-path things to do in Rome are divided into the below categories. Feel free to use the table of contents to navigate to the relevant sections.
- Off-the-beaten-path Rome districts
- Art and cultural highlights of Rome
- Spooky and mystical places to visit in Rome
- Spiritual and religious attractions in Rome
- Lesser-known historical and archaeological sites in Rome
- Alternative Rome attractions
Quirky Off-the-Beaten-Path Rome Districts
Each of Rome’s districts have their own quirky personalities. Taking the time to get lost among them is as important to understanding the culture of the city as visiting the Colosseum and the Spanish steps.
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.
This obscure neighbourhood was envisaged by Architect Gino Coppedè in the early part of the last century. It can be found hidden away behind the central Quartiere Trieste.
A mishmash of different architectural styles have been used here. You will find everything from art nouveau to baroque structures in Quartiere Coppedè.
Some of the buildings have been adorned with eccentric murals and vivid frescoes. All of these factors combine to make 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 at an Italian bar or restaurant means that you are also met with a selection of small snacks and appetizers. Italians commonly enjoy an Aperol spritz.
You will find many bars in Rome that offer an aperitivo. However, the central places are often laden with tourists. Their aperitivos are certainly not the best in town.
For a more authentic aperitivo experience, head to trendy Doppio zeroo in the Ostiense neighborhood. This is a popular haunt among the Romans. It 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. These districts are home to the best and most extensive collection of graffiti in town.
Pigneto was once an unsightly industrial district. However it is quickly developing into a hipster hangout spot.
Pieces by notable street artists including Alt Novesette, Hopnn, and Hogre can be found here. In this area, you will also find a plethora of renovated warehouses that have been transformed into bars and cafes. They make a great place to stop for a coffee or an evening tipple.
Quadraro has a somber past. This is reflected in the street art found in the area.
A lot of the art pieces here are political or symbolise freedom and peace. In 1944, the neighbourhood was raided by the Nazis. Over 1000 people were captured and sent to concentration camps in Poland and Germany.
Hang Out in the Former Red Light District
Rome’s Monti district was historically a place that you would not want to be after dark. This inner-city suburb used to be Rome’s red-light district. It was considered as being 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: A great place to eat, drink, and stay in Rome
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. If you are wondering where to stay in Rome, Monti is a great area with a local vibe.
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. The stalls here sell everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to Sicilian street food.
Testaccio oozes history
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. The latter is the final resting place for several notable creatives including Keats and Shelley.
Off-the-Beaten-Path Rome Art and Cultural Highlights
There are few cities in Europe, or even the world, that have the same artistic heritage as Rome. World-leading museums and galleries display the works of emerging and renowned artists from across Italy and the globe.
The various piazzas, churches, and structures across the city boast exquisite examples of various art movements through the ages. In Rome, you will find centuries-old churches adorned with colourful frescoes by the likes of Raphael, piazzas with sculptures by Michelangelo, and museums displaying paintings by Caravaggio.
The National Gallery of Modern Art, and the Raphael pieces at the Sistine Chapel may be well-known. However, some of the more off-the-beaten-path art highlights of Rome are detailed below.
Enter Villa Farnesina and See Some of Raphael’s Finest Works
Villa Farnesina is a beautiful 15th century Renaissance villa in Rome’s Trastevere neighbourhood. The villa’s exquisite interior walls and ceilings are adorned with frescoes created by the likes of Raphael and Peruzzi.
You can find the Sala di Galatea here. This is one of Raphael’s most important pieces.
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. This structure is also known as the National Museum of the 21st Century Arts.
The museum is encapsulated inside a futuristic building designed by acclaimed architect Zaha Hadid. It 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. Today, it 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.
The artwork here is certainly beautiful. However, the architecture of the palace is also a major highlight. Spada hired the architect Borromini to renovate the palace.
Experience Rome Art Week
If you happen to find yourself in Rome in October, you will have the opportunity to experience Rome art week. This annual celebration is now in its seventh year and will take place from Monday 24 to Saturday 29 October in 2022.
This celebration sees more than 150 Rome museums, galleries, and exhibition spaces open their doors and host events in celebration of contemporary art. Even outside of the venues, you will see something interesting on virtually every street corner. From street vendors selling unique pieces to wine and art events.
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.
They 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
If you have a morbid interest in the creepy and the macabre, these spooky off-the-beaten-path things to do in Rome will certainly not disappoint. The Italian capital boasts eerie abandoned places, underground catacombs, and cult hangouts.
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 middle of the park, there is a mysterious door. Most people walk past it without even noticing it’s there.
The doorway once led to an old 16th-century villa. It is all that remains after the rest of the mansion crumbled around it.
Links with magic and the occult
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. However, 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 are fascinated by the macabre, you will be enthralled at the chance to venture into the dark depths of the Roman Catacombs. These ancient burial sites 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. Everyone from religious martyrs to local farmers and bakers was laid to rest here.
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 is an obscure Rome attraction that is equal parts shocking and morbidly fascinating. It is also sometimes referred to as the Museum and Crypt of the Capuchin Friars.
The crypt lies in the small chapels deep beneath the church of Santa Maria Della Conezione dei Cappuccini. It 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. Instead, they 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 is a 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 are scattered around the site. However, a lot of mystery surrounds the cult.
There are no scriptures or stories of the cult that have survived. 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
Italy is a deeply religious and spiritual country. The vast majority of the population are Roman Catholic.
More than 83% of Italians follow Catholicism or other forms of Christianity. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that countless religious shrines and churches – both modern and historic, can be found around the city.
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. It is believed that 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. It 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. 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
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). It towers above the streets of Rome in all of its opulence and grandeur.
Despite its beauty, the church’s location is a little far out of the centre. As such, 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 one is 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. There are countless chapels and religious buildings that look relatively nondescript from the outside. However, they open to reveal vivid frescoes and magnificent ceilings.
The Basilica di Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio
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.
It is renowned for its graphic 16th-century frescoes that depict various scenes of martyrdom. Its 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.
Uncover a Hidden Pagan Temple
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.
However, the frescoes are not the special thing about this church. 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
The ruined baths of Caracalla, the long promenade of Via Appia Antica, and the Domus Aurea are all historical sites that you may have never heard of. However, they are equally as interesting as the most famous Rome attractions.
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. As such, you are likely to encounter it at some point during your itinerary.
However, some sections of this old cobbled road remain relatively unexplored. They 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
The baths of Caracalla were named after the emperor of the same name. They 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.
Ancient Romans would visit the baths for a little rest and relaxation, and to socialise among friends. The baths could be compared to Turkish hammams during the Ottoman era.
The site provides a fascinating glimpse into what life was like as an affluent Roman. Better yet, they are seldom crowded.
Browse Fascinating Historical Exhibits at the Centrale Montemartini Museum
The Centrale Montemartini museum lies just off the Appian Way. It combines two very interesting, yet very different exhibits.
The museum contains what it labels “industrial archeology”. This exhibit displays the remnants of old steam engines and machines from the last century. Additionally (and rather randomly), Montemartini contains 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. Thousands of antiquities and structures still lay buried beneath the surface.
To see a live archaeological site, plan a tour of Domus Aurea. These are 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. They 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
The Keats-Shelley memorial house is situated in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. 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. It 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 are all within the site’s vicinity.
The Site of Julius Caesar’s Assasination
There are no plaques or information boards here. As such, 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.
Cats Overtake the Ruins
More pleasantly, in recent years the ruins have become something of a cat sanctuary. Dozens of friendly felines take naps and play fight 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!). It 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. So too, were 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. This is 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. However, he was unfortunately assassinated before it could be completed.
Sadly you cannot enter the theatre. It has been renovated into an apartment complex. However, 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. However, it is 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
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). 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. It 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. The QC Terme Roma is also a spa facility that comes highly recommended. It is surrounded by serene and beautiful nature on the outskirts of town.
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. It 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.
It feels like you are a million miles away from the tourist 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 Southern Italy (Naples). I would be happy to assist with any queries you may have.
Safe travels. Andiamo! Melissa xo