• Leslie

Off the Beaten Path Rome: Hidden Gems in Rome For Culture Lovers

Updated: Aug 3

pretty street in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood
pretty street in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood

Here's my guide to discovering magnificent hidden gems and secret spots in Rome Italy. Hidden gems in Rome, you say? Can there be any? In reality, they're not that hard to come by. Rome has so many layers, it would take a lifetime to discover it properly.

The Eternal City is one of the world's most historic and popular places. It's a magnificent and chaotic tangle of ancient sites and Renaissance splendor. As you stroll through the city, you're transported to yesteryear, right and left. It can be overwhelming.

In fact, Rome is so densely packed with amazing buildings and museums, most tourists simply can't get to them all. They're busy with the main sites -- the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, and the Vatican. If you're looking for some more unusual things to do in Rome, here's my guide to ferreting out Rome's less touristy hidden gems.

How to get off the beaten path in Rome Italy: 33 hidden gems to discover

Some of these lesser known Roman wonders are overlooked landmarks, underrated museums, glamorous palazzos, or recently unveiled attractions that are still under the radar.

When you're done admiring Rome's must see historic landmarks, you can pick one (or a few) of these places and have a secret spot all to yourself. None of them are blighted by mass tourism, interminable queues, or the requirement of skip the line tickets.

Unusual and Off the Beaten Path Things To Do In Rome

Here's my handpicked list of 36 hidden gems and secret spots in Rome, just waiting to be explored by the discerning traveler or culture vulture.

the Catacombs of Priscilla

1. Catacombs of Priscilla

Dating back almost 2,000 years, the Catacombs of Priscilla are a series of catacombs built by early Christians. Known as the "Queen of the Catacombs" since antiquity, the catacombs house the bones of early popes and many Christian martyrs.

The Catacombs of Priscilla are considered one of Rome's most interesting underground sites, hidden away under Villa Ada Park. After five years of conservation and restoration, the Priscilla Catacombs opened to the public in 2018. Lasers were used to clean the religious frescoes on the walls.

A new function on Google Maps allows you to take a limited tour of the vast complex. You can also see the frescos on this Smarthistory video.

Address: Via Salaria 430

the tomb of Pope Julius II in St. Peter in Chains
the tomb of Pope Julius II in St. Peter in Chains

2. St. Peter in Chains | Michelangelo's Moses

Move over David, Michelangelo's Moses is the sculpture to see. It's hidden away in Basilica of St. Peter in Chains, an obscure church in the Monti district. It's not far from the much more famous Basilica of Santa Marie Maggiore (which you must see for its mosaics). But it boasts something just as unique -- Michelangelo sculptures.

In 1505, Pope Julius II, art patron extraordinaire, commissioned Michelangelo to build a three story marble tomb to be placed in St. Peter's Basilica. Michelangelo slaved away on it for years.

But his work was halted when Julius ordered him to paint the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican instead. When Julius died, funds for the project dried up and Michelangelo never finished it.

READ: Masterpieces of the Vatican

Michelangelo's Moses
Michelangelo's Moses

His assistants tried to piece together parts of the tomb. But some of the sculptures disappeared. Michelangelo's Prisoners are now in the Accademia in Florence and his Slaves are at the Louvre in Paris.

But there's one especially magnificent sculpture left that's definitely worth a stop, that of a horned Moses on the bottom level.

Moses has just returned from his meet up with God when he learns that his followers have been worshipping false gods. Though sitting, he's is full of movement -- a characteristic of Michelangelo's sculpture.

Address: Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli

a rare surviving likeness of Emperor Nero in the Palantine Museum
a rare surviving likeness of Emperor Nero in the Palantine Museum

3. Palatine Museum

Many people visiting Rome skip Palatine Hill, which is a mistake. It's a treasure trove of ancient Roman ruins. Or, if they do go, they often just inspect Domitian's Palace. They don't walk into the small Palatine Museum.

But this is a wonderful little museum! It contains a wealth of Roman artifacts discovered during excavations on Palatine Hill, from emperors' palaces and aristocrats' homes. You'll find frescos, sculptures, mosaics, and other objects. If you're a history buff, the Palatine Museum is a must visit site in Rome.

One of my favorite pieces was a rare bust of Emperor Nero, who reputedly fiddled while Rome burned. All likenesses of Nero were destroyed by decree. This bust is one of the few surviving relics of his time. There's also an interesting reconstruction of the Hut of Romulus, where Rome's founder Romulus once lived.

Address: Via di San Gegorio 30 in the Parco archeologico del Colosseo on Palatine Hill

Caravaggio paintings and busts in the Aldobrandini Hall
Caravaggio paintings and busts in the Aldobrandini Hall

4. Palazzo and Galleria Doria Pamphilj

The Doria Pamphilj Gallery is simply a joy to visit, a heady blend of yesteryear in situ art and magnificent architecture. It's a hidden gem in Rome, housed in a lavish 17th century Roman-Rococo palace.

The art collection was meticulously assembled and is still owned by a powerful Italian family, the Doria Pamphilj (pronounced Pom-fee-lee). The Doria Pamphilj Gallery boasts over 650 works spanning the 15th to the 18th century, including pieces by Velazquez, Raphael, Bernini, Caravaggio, Titian, Carracci, and Bruegel.

The best works are stashed in the Aldobrandini Gallery and the Aldobrandini Hall. The gallery's emblematic painting is Diego Velazquez's Portrait of Innocent X, which has a dedicated room. And the museum has a glittering Hall of Mirrors, reminiscent of the Palace of Versailles.

Here's my complete guide to visiting the Doria Pamphilj Gallery.

Address: Via del Corso 305

the picturesque Rione Monti in Rome, with the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in the background
the picturesque Rione Monti in Rome, with the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in the background

5. Monti Neighborhood

Monti is Rome's trendiest off the beaten path district. Formerly a slum in ancient Rome, now it's gentrified. It's packed with unique shops and hip eateries.

Be sure to get off the main drag and explore Monti's side streets. If you want to grab a quick lunch, get avocado toast or a panini at Fehu.

Or pick a cute ivy covered cafe, like Aromaticus Monti or La Carbonara, to settle down and relax after your Imperial tour. If it's gelato you crave, head to Fatamorgana.

Monti has one absolute must see site -- the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Personally, enjoyed it more than St. Peters' Basilica. It's less crowded and much older, dating to the 5th century A.D. And it has absolutely breathtaking mosaics in the triumphal arch and nave.

ancient garden frescos removed from the House of Livia on Palatine Hill in the Palazzo Massimo
ancient garden frescos removed from the House of Livia on Palatine Hill in the Palazzo Massimo

6. Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

Palazzo Massimo is a wonderful hidden gem museum in Rome. It's one of Rome's newer museum spaces. The museum is next to Rome's unlovely Termini station in the north. But don't let that put you off.

Once inside, you're in a magnificently restored building bursting with a wealth of fine sculptures, mosaics, and frescos. Three galleries on the ground floor are dedicated to busts and statuary from the last years of the Roman Republic. You can see the beautiful, and incredibly detailed, statue of Emperor Augustus.

The other two stand out sculptures are the Sleeping Hermaphrodite and the Discus Thrower, two of the better Roman copies made from Greek originals.

But my favorite part of this little museum is in Room II on the second floor. That rooms houses the exquisite garden frescos that were removed from the House of Livia on Palatine Hill for conservation. Livia was the third wife of Emperor Augustus. Other rooms contain frescos taken from the Villa Farnesina.

Address: Largo di Villa Peretti 2

Embassy palaces of the Coppede quarter in Rome
Embassy palaces of the Coppede quarter in Rome. The arch and chandelier mark the entrance.

7. Coppede Neighborhood

The Quartiere Coppede is perfect for a couple hours of aimless strolling with no crowds. If you have a visit planned to the fantastic Borghese Gallery, come here afterward.

Coppede sits between Via Salaria and Via Nomentana. You'll know you've arrived when you spot the dangling black iron outdoor chandelier hanging in an arch on Via Tagliamento.

The Coppede district is known for its fantastical over the top architecture. The area was designed and built by architect Gino Coppede from 1913-27. He used a mix of styles -- ancient Greek, Baroque, Art Deco, and Art Nouveau. You may feel like you've stepped into a fairytale, it's so unique and beguiling -- an unexpected delight in Rome.

The highlight is the Villino delle Fate, the House of Fairies. The Piazza Mincio also features a whimsical fountain of frogs. The Beatles were rumored to have taken a late night dip in the fountain. If you'd like to dine in Coppede, try Il Gargliano, which specializes in seafood.

Tiepolo triptych in the lobby of the Rome Cavalieri
Tiepolo triptych in the lobby of the Rome Cavalieri

8. Rome Cavalieri Art Collection

This secret art collection is housed in the one of a kind Rome Cavalieri, a 5 star Waldorf Astoria Hotel & Resort. It's a fantastic private cache of over 10,000 works from the 16th century to present.

Rome Cavalieri is more like a museum that rents rooms than a hotel. Even the lobby has a Tiepolo masterpiece. The hotel has beautiful views over St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican. It also boasts Rome's only Michelin restaurant with three stars.

The must see masterpieces from the collection include the precious Giambattista Tiepolo triptych, Francesco del Cairo's Judith and Holofernes, Zocce's sculpture of Minos, and Antonio Tardini's The Kiss.

If you're a guest or even just stopping by for a drink or dinner, you can schedule a tour with an in-house art historian. Even if you just step into the hotel lobby, you can see Old Master paintings, rare tapestries, sculptures, and Louis XV furniture.

Address: Via Alberto Cadlolo 101

the courtyard of the Galleria Sciarra
the courtyard of the Galleria Sciarra

9. Galleria Sciarra

This little architectural beauty is only minutes away from the Trevi Fountain. The exterior is unremarkable. But step inside (for free) and your jaw will drop. Its beautiful courtyard is a living museum, transporting visitors back to the height of the Art Nouveau movement.

The wealthy Sciarra family commissioned the opulent courtyard in the late 19th century. Every inch of the arcade walls are adorned with colorful murals painted by Giuseppe Cellini. The theme is the "glorification of women."

The glass and iron ceiling lets sunlight spill into the courtyard, illuminating the details in the frescoes. When the sun goes down, lights turn on to bathe the courtyard in a warm yellow glow.

Address: Via Marco Minghetti 10

gold mosaics in the apse of San Clemente
gold mosaics in the apse of San Clemente

10. Basilica of San Clemente

The Basilica di San Clemente is an 11th century church, built atop a 4th century church. It's located in Monti, just a short walk from the Colosseum. Inside, you'll see beautifully frescoed ceilings and original gold mosaics in the apse.

But the real treasures lie beneath the inlaid marble floors. San Clemente is one of Rome's best underground archaeological sites.

Underground, you'll find layers of Christian history. There are early Christian wall paintings, a 3rd century pagan temple, a 1st century residence, a secret Mithraic worship site, and the Cloaca Maxima (the sewer system of ancient Rome).

Address: Via Labicana 95. But the entrance is on Via San Giovanni in Laterno.

the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla
the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla

11. Baths of Caracalla

You've likely visited the Baths of Diocletian. But the Baths of Carcalla is a massive complex and one of Rome's best preserved ancient sites. Construction began in 206 AD, under the direction of Emperor Septimius Severus. His son, Caracalla, finished it 10 years later, after killing his brothers to seize exclusive control of the empire.

The baths could accommodate 1600 people. The original brick walls are still standing, a towering shell. They were once covered in stucco and marble. But that was long ago carried off by looters. The Farnese family also pilfered and excavated the baths.

The precious sculptures and mosaics from the Baths of Caracalla have been moved to museums. The famous Belvedere Torso is now in the Vatican Museums. The Farnese Bull and the Farnese Hercules are in Naple's Archaeological Museum. Two fountain shaped bathtubs are now in the Piazza Farnese in Rome.

In 2019, the underground tunnels that once heated the baths were opened to the public. It's not just for academics with torches. This was the technology center of the baths where slaves stoked ovens and tended fires.

Address: Viale delle Terme di Caracalla

Bramante's Tiempetto in San Pietro di Montorio
Bramante's Tiempetto in San Pietro di Montorio

12. Bramante's Tempietto

To escape the crowds, I suggest a pleasant walk uphill from the lovely Trastevere neighborhood to the Church of San Pietro in Montorio. This out of the way church once housed Raphael's Transfiguration before it was moved to the Vatican Museums.

In the church courtyard is a teeny tiny chapel, a church in its own right. It was built on the spot where St. Peter was martyred. It's a great example of High Renaissance architecture, one of Rome's only circular churches.

Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, named the "Catholic King and Queen" by Pope Alexander VI in 1494, commissioned the Tempietto in memory of their son John. They hired famed architect Bramante to build the church and Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed the crypt below it.

The circular temple reinterprets Brunelleschi’s harmonious style. It features Tuscan columns, an ornamental molding with a curved balcony, and a dome. Although one of Rome’s architectural jewels, the Tempietto is an often overlooked and tourist free.

Address: PIaza di S. Pietro in Montorio 2

Raphael's fresco of the wedding feast of Cupid and Psyche in Villa Farnesina
Raphael's fresco of the wedding feast of Cupid and Psyche in Villa Farnesina

13. Villa Farnesina

Designed by artist-architect Baldasarre Perruzi, Villa Farnesina is a magnificent off the beaten path museum, located in Trastevere. It's home to torrid love stories and secret Raphael paintings.

The wealthy banker Agostino Chigi built Villa Farnesina, then titled Villa Chigi, from 1506-11. Chigi wanted a show-offy party pad to entertain Roman VIPs. He created a beautiful space, a Roman pleasure garden, that was bright, airy, and infused with Renaissance beauty.

The villa is decorated with racy mythological frescos by Renaissance painters Raphael, Peruzzi, and Sebastian del Piombo. Check out the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche, the Hall of Galatea, and the Room of the Perspectives.

The highlight is the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche, painted by Raphael and his workshop. The beautiful and animated frescos will take your breath away. Cavorting gods and goddesses cover every inch of the walls. The theme is "love conquers all." In the next room, the Hall of Galatea, you'll find Raphael's famous Triumph of Galatea (above left).

If you want more information on this delightful Roman villa, here's my complete guide to visiting the Villa Farnesina.

Address: Via della Lungara 230

bridge leading from Trastevere to Isola Tibernia
bridge leading from Trastevere to Isola Tibernia

14. Isola Tibernia

The Isola Tibernia is a tiny picturesque island on the Tiber River, between the Jewish Ghetto district and Trastevere. It's known as a place of healing and the only island in Rome. Last time I was in Rome, I stayed in Trastevere. I crossed the bridge above almost every day en route to seeing Rome's many landmarks.

Ancient legends hold that Rome was once hit by a plague. To attempt its eradication, a delegation was sent to Greece to procure a snake to honor Asclepius the god medicine.

When the delegation returned with the snake in tow, their ship hit Isola Tibernia and sank. The snake survived by curling itself around a tree -- a symbol of medicine to this day.

From Isola Tibernia, you'll have fantastic views of the Tiber River. And there's a great little restaurant serving up classic Italian food in a rustic setting,

Panoramic view of Rome from the Janiculum terrace
Panoramic view of Rome from the Janiculum terrace

15. Janiculum Terrace

Want to burn off some calories from Rome's specialty pasta carbonara? Not far from the Trastevere is a terrace offering stunning views over Rome. It's a short but steep hike. From it, you can glimpse the Colosseum, St. Peter's, and the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument.

Janiculum Hill was originally a defensive location. It was the site of an epic battle between between Giuseppe Garibaldi and French troops. Statues of the battle heros line the path. There's also a magnificent fountain, called Il Fontanone. It rivals the Trevi Fountain, without the hordes of tourists.

Address: Piazzale Giuseppe Garibaldi

Rome's Magic Door, a rare existing alchemy site
Rome's Magic Door, a rare existing alchemy site

16. Alchemist's Magic Door

Rome's Magic Door, or Poreta Alchemica, is well known to Romans. But it's easy for tourists to miss. Hidden in Piazza Vittorio, the Magic Door -- a rather esoteric site -- is a gateway into the secretive world of 17th century alchemy. It's one of five remaining doors from the Villa Palombara.

Legend holds that Massimiliano Palombara met an alchemist who claimed he could turn metal into gold with a mysterious herb. Massimiliano hired him. But the next day the alchemist vanished. He left only a few flakes of gold and a "recipe," with symbols and equations, for the transformation.

Massimiliano posted an engraving of the recipe above the door, hoping someone would crack the code. But no one has deciphered its meaning.

Address: Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II

Palazzo Spada's Borromini Perspective Gallery
Palazzo Spada's Borromini Perspective Gallery

17. Palazzo Spada's Borromini Perspective Gallery

Palazzo Spada is located just a few minutes from Campo de’ Fiori. The Renaissance palazzo is named after Cardinal Spada, who purchased the palace in 1632. He hired the architect Borromini and beautifully transformed the building.

The palazzo's small art gallery consists of four rooms filled with 16th and 17th century work by Caravaggio, Reubens, and Titian. There are also some rare works by the female star of the Baroque, Artemisia Gentileschi.

But the museum's real highlight is the internal garden courtyard, where Borromini created a forced perspective trick or optical illusion. The long corridor of columns seems endless. But it's really only 28 feet in length. A towering sculpture appears at the end, but that's only 23 inches high.

For more information, here's my complete guide to visiting Palazzo Spada.

Address: Piazza Campo di Ferro 13

courtyard of the Palazzo Barberini
courtyard of the Palazzo Barberini

18. Palazzo Barberini | Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica

Palazzo Barberini is a very underrated museum in Rome. But it's definitely an art lover's art gallery. Recent restorations give it an unapologetically grand wow factor. And the museum holds some of Europe's classic paintings by the great masters.

The Barberini Palace is 12,000 square meters and has 187 rooms. It has beautiful staircases by architects Borromini and Bernini.

The palace is home to one of Raphael's most famous paintings, La Fornarina. It's a painting of the "baker's daughter," whom Raphael had fallen in love with while fresco painting in the Villa Farnesina.

Other master works include Caravaggio's Narcissus and Judith and Holofernes, Holbein's Henry VIII, and the ceiling fresco by Pietro da Cortona.

Though the painting is not very well preserved, I fell for Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi and her beautiful Self Portrait. I had just listened to an Art Curious podcast about her famous painting Judith Beheading Holofernes, which is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

She survived a rape by her tutor. After a move to Florence, she flourished and was the first woman admitted to the Accademia.

Here's my complete guide to the Palazzo Barberini.

Address: Via delle Quattro Fontane 13

Villa Giulia, the National Etruscan Museum in Rome
Villa Giulia

19. Villa Giulia | National Etruscan Museum

If you want an overlooked and empty museum, this is it! The Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giuli, housed in the Villa Giulia, is true Rome hidden gem. It's just a short stroll from the Borghese Gallery, so you could combine the two museums.

The villa was built by Julius III as a pleasure pad escape. Several architects were involved, with Michelangelo lending design advice.

If you have a passion for ancient Rome or the Etruscans, who lived around 600 B.C., this museum is for you. The collection is the greatest of its type in the world. Highlights include exquisite pieces of gold jewelry, the sarcophagus of the spouses (identical to the one in the Louvre), and the Pyrgi Tablets. There's a reconstructed Etruscan temple in the villa gardens.

Address: Piazzale di Villa Giulia 9

Teatro Marcello in Rome's Jewish Ghetto neighborhood
Teatro Marcello in Rome's Jewish Ghetto neighborhood

20. Teatro Marcello

Located in the Jewish Ghetto neighborhood of Rome, the Theater of Marcellus is easily overlooked by most tourists. But I walked past it everyday on the way home to my Air Bnb in Trastevere on my last visit. The monument isn't far from the gigantic white Monument of Victor Emanuel. And it looks like a mini-Colosseum.

The Theater of Marcellus is truly ancient. Julius Caesar launched construction and his heir Augustus inaugurated it in 12 BC. It could seat 20,0000. As you walk around it, you'll see both Doric and Ionic columns. There are ruins piled up all around it.

Unfortunately, you can only admire the exterior and walk along the amphitheater edge. In the 4th century BC, the theater started to crumble. Thereafter, it was used as a stone quarry and repurposed, like so much else, for other buildings in Rome.

Today, the Theater of Marcellus is a building that's half private and half public. If you look at the photo, you'll see luxury apartments lining the top. In the summer, there are sometimes concerts outside.

Address: Via del Teatro di Marcello

ruins of the House of Augustus on Palatine Hill
ruins of the House of Augustus on Palatine Hill

21. Houses of Augustus and Livia

The home of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, is located on the most sacred area of the Palatine Hill, next to the Temple of Apollo. The House of Augustus was modest by imperial standards, especially given Augustus' enormous wealth.

The House of Augustus is nonetheless celebrated for its lavish red Pompeian frescoes. They were first unveiled to the public in 2014, the 2,000 year anniversary of Augustus' death, after years of restoration. The most exquisite frescos are in the Pine Room, the Room of the Masks, and the Room of the Perspective Paintings -- so named for their recurring motifs.

If you book a special S.U.P.E.R. ticket to see the House of Augustus, you'll also see the House of Livia, Augustus' third wife. First excavated in 1839, Livia's House was attributed to her because Livia's honorific name was found stamped on a lead pipe. Built in the first century BC, Livia's house was actually a bit larger and grander than her husband's house.

garden frescos in the dining room of the House of Livia