8 Overlooked Places in Rome
Updated: Apr 9, 2021
They say Rome is the Eternal City—and it certainly seems that way as you can spend eternity there and still not get to explore it all. In actuality, Rome was dubbed eternal because of its 450-year empire and influence over the world. Today, while Rome is not a world empire anymore, its history has left much to explore.
It’s easy to idealize places—even if the stories they tell are tragic. After all, we travel to see or feel something out of the ordinary. Many places in Rome were hard to visit because I knew the history behind them. The Colosseum, for example, while an impressive structure, is where 400,000 people (not to mention thousands of animals) lost their lives over the peak years of its use. I felt that more profoundly than my admiration for architecture. All I’m saying is that it’s our responsibility as travelers to be mindful that we don’t glorify a person or place just because it is historically famous.
History aside, modern-day Rome is still a popular travel destination known for its well-preserved architecture, an array of churches, and of course, the fine Italian cuisine. When I moved to Rome in the Fall of 2009 on a study abroad trip, I had endeavored to see the classic sights: Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and the Vatican—and I was successful. Any first-time visitor should prioritize these famous landmarks. However, I found that Rome had more stories to tell. Here are eight overlooked places in La Città Eterna.
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The Borghese Gallery (Galleria Borghese) is a beautiful museum that was once the home of Camillo Borghese (Pope Paul V). Camillo, along with his nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, were avid art collectors, culminating in one of the largest collections of Italian Baroque paintings and sculptures of its time. After the Italian government acquired the villa and art collection in 1902, it officially became a museum. Today for €13,00, you can access the original collection in addition to specialized exhibitions and the gorgeous outside gardens.
2. Appian Way.
You’ve heard the phrase, “All roads lead to Rome,” well, Via Appia is one of Rome’s first and oldest roads, stretching 350 miles from the Roman Forum to Brindisi. Appian Way was an important development for ancient Rome because it provided trade access to the East. Historically it is connected to the 73 B.C. slave revolt, led by Spartacus, which resulted in the crucifixion of over 6,000 slaves by the Roman Army. To set an example, Rome lined Appian Way for 130 miles with the slaves' crucified bodies. Today, the road is a popular spot for walking or biking and goes past several monuments and natural areas. Appian Way also provides access to the Christian catacombs, San Sebastian, San Domitilla, San Callixtus, and the tomb of Cecilia Metella. Appian Way is free to visit, but there are several tours available for a more informative experience.
3. The Catacombs.
Beneath Appian Way sits a vast network of underground passageways: the Christian catacombs. The catacombs were built, in part, because of the Christian rejection of pagan cremation practices. They were prominent between the second and fifth centuries, during a time when Christianity was still banned. Logistically, lack of space and high land prices led to these vast underground cemeteries. Even after Christian persecution ended in 313 A.D. and churches could safely purchase land, the catacombs were still widely used until the fifth century. Today there are more than 60 catacombs in Rome alone, with only five accessible to the public: San Sebastian, San Domitilla, San Callixtus, Catacombs of Priscilla,and Catacombs of Saint Agnes. Consider contacting each of the catacombs for visitation information. A guided tour is also a great way to see these underground passages.
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Largo di Torre Argentina is located in the heart of Rome, in Campo Marzio. Close to the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, and Campo de’ Fiori, Largo di Torre Argentina can be easily missed. In fact, the first time I walked past the square, I thought it was just the ruins of an old park. As it turns out, this site holds the remains of four of the oldest temples in the capital and is where Julius Caesar was assassinated (by stabbing). Today, the square is also a cat sanctuary where dozens of stray cats can be seen lounging among the ruins. They are cared for by a privately funded animal protection organization. Several tramways and buses will take you past Largo di Torre Argentina. Some of the most popular are the Roma Trastevere Station (tramway 8), Roma Termini Station (bus 70), Roma San Pietro Station (bus 64), among others.
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Piazza Venezia is known for its towering Victor Emmanuel Monument, the 135-meter by 70-meter marble spectacle commissioned to honor King Victor Emmanuel II. However, the monument provides a perfect birds-eye view of Palazzo Venezia, the palace where fascist dictator Benito Mussolini took up office from 1922 to 1943. The balcony faces Piazza Venezia and is where Mussolini gave many of his famous speeches. Several significant events happened here, most notably the Italian Empire’s declaration (1936) and the war declaration on France and Britain (1940). Today the palace is a National Museum with a vast collection of artworks from the Commor Era to the early Renaissance. Visitors are welcome Monday through Saturday, and tickets are available on-site and online.
If there’s anything that Rome has in excess, it’s churches. After all, there are over 400 in Rome alone. So why go to Basilica di San Clemente? Basilica di San Clemente is unique because it’s the archeological nesting doll of Rome. What I mean is that this basilica consists of three layers: today’s Medieval-era building, an old Roman mansion, and a hidden fourth-century church. Initially, the site was a mansion owned by Titus Flavius Clemens, a Roman senator who converted to Christianity. Clemens’ mansion was an underground church in a time when Christianity was forbidden. Years later, a Mithraeum, or Temple of Mithras, was built at the same site for sun god worshipers. Once Christian persecution ended in 313 A.D., much of the Mithraeum was destroyed, and the location became a Christian meeting place once more. Today, visitors can see the beautiful mosaics of the twelfth-century basilica, marvel at the frescoes in the fourth century lower church, and admire the brickwork in the old Roman mansion.
7. Capuchin Crypt.
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The church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini is home to the unique Capuchin Crypt. The church was finished in 1631 under Cardinal Antonio Marcello Barberini, a member of the Capuchin friars. Barberini had the remains of the members of his order moved from the cemetery to the church’s crypt. He then had the bones symbolically placed on the walls, and the crypt became a place for friars to reflect, pray, and remember the frailty of life. Today visitors can tour the crypt, which contains six chapels decorated with the bones of 4,000 friars who died between 1528 and 1870. The macabre crypt is not for everyone, but it does make for a different experience than any other church in Rome.
8. Scala Sancta (Holy Stairs), The Lateran Palace.
Mazaki, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
The Lateran Palace is one of Rome’s holiest places, mainly because it houses one of the most famous spectacles for Christian pilgrims: Scala Sancta. The Scala Sancta (Holy Stairs) is the staircase that led to Pontius Pilate’s praetorium in Jerusalem—which means that Jesus Christ would have ascended these same stairs on the way to his trial. The staircase, which is made of white marble and encased by wood today, was moved to Rome in the fourth century by St. Helena. Visitors can climb the Scala Sancta, although out of respect, should do so on their knees. The steps lead to the Sancta Sanctorum on the first floor of the palace, which used to be the early popes’ private chapel. Inside, Sancta Sanctorum holds several well-preserved relics, which contributes to its nickname, the “Holiest of Holies.” The Lateran Palace is free to visit and is located at Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, 14. It is also within walking distance of the Colosseum and Basilica di San Clemente.
Rome is truly an eternal city and has many stories to tell. If you find that you have more time to explore this amazing city, these eight places are a good start. Be aware, however, that much of Rome’s history is dark and can be unsettling, but one thing is certain—you will leave a more conscious traveler.