Rome Has Secrets Too!
Rome was not built in a day and it would equally take more than a lifetime to really know the eternal city and all it’s secrets. It’s the kind of place that creates an inner struggle; to get off the beaten track is to discover it’s heartbeat but it’s a proportionate requirement that you see it’s popular sights too, the tourist attractions which draw over 10 million visitors a year. (Can you imagine all those selfie sticks?!)
Obviously there are sound reasons why people turn up in droves to see the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain, genuine wonders of the world. And, you have to forgive your shuffling, feet stepping neighbour as you both gaze in awe up at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, one of Rome’s top tourist attractions. But Rome itself is an actual museum and these famous awesome structures and works of art cast a shadowy veil upon slightly lesser wonders, masterpieces and phenomenons which in any other town would have a whole ticket booth, tour guide and gift shop attached to them! But, because of the big boys, some amazing hidden gems are left unturned and when you venture off the beaten track so few of these treasures and quirky sights are mentioned in the guidebooks. So let me introduce you to my top ten secret Rome attractions which I wish everyone could have an opportunity to see once they have had a photo taken with a gladiator and thrown a coin in the Trevi Fountain! Here you are – my list of Rome’s hidden gems…
Europe’s Only Ancient Pyramid
– Via Raffaele Persichetti
In any other place outside of Egypt an ancient pyramid would be celebrated and milked for the venerable cuneate that it is. You’d get prism-like biscuits with your espresso in the coffee shop and triangular screen-printed scarves would sell for €20 a piece. However, not in Rome. An insignificant little pyramid (about a third of the size of Egypt’s contributions to be exact) just gets left by the roadside. Literally. And there is nothing hidden about this triple-edged gem : Thousands of cars a day rush past this section of the old Aurelian city walls and barely give a nod to a piece of architecture that has been around 2,000 years and is in fact the only ancient pyramid in Europe!
So the story goes that Egyptomania had gripped Rome after its conquest of Egypt and it was at the request of a wealthy man, Gaius Cestius Epulo, that this tomb be built for his afterlife. However, with time these original details got lost amongst stories and fables and most locals started to believe that this was actually the tomb of Rome’s legendary founder Remus (the only other pyramid in Rome at the time was the proposed tomb of Romulus, Remus’ equally famous partner in crime, near Castel Sant Angelo, so you can see how the tale must have grown). It wasn’t until tunnel builders in the 1600’s found inscriptions that the old truth resurfaced and the pyramid was restored. It really is a beauty and I find it quite remarkable that it was, for a long while, venerated as Remus’ tomb, but after the truth emerged about it’s owner, Rome kinda forgot it existed – Gaius Cestius who??
Tip – best captured on camera from inside the Protestant Cemetery.
The Protestant Cemetery (Cimetero Acattolico)
Via Caio Cestio
Right next door to the pyramid is Rome’s only non-Catholic cemetery, how about that – 2 gems in one spot! But what is so special about this particular secret spot? First off, for all poetry fans, it is the final resting place for both Shelley and Keats. The day we visited, we arrived early morning and an ethereal light shone through the gaps in the trees and cast a romantic glow upon 4 volunteers cleaning a tombstone : a marble fellow from the 19th century lies on his side and rests his head upon his hand and enjoys the attention of the janitors like pilot fish preening a shark. This set the scene for what I would describe as the most beautiful cemetery I have ever visited. Partly because of the dappled sunlight through the trees and partly because of the beautifully sad sculptures that you encounter as you weave your way around the gravestones. Shelley himself described the spot as so captivating ‘it might make one in love with death, to be buried in so sweet a place’. And, not another tourist in sight – a real secret spot!
Tip – don’t miss the angel and the little boy (towards the back) and visit when the sun is low for the best photography light.
Church of Sant Andrea della Valle
– Piazza Vidoni
Rome is full of churches, almost a thousand in fact. So how do you decide which ones to visit? Byzantine, Gothic, Baroque, what is your choice of style? Some may blow you away with their detailed mosaics (Basilica of Saint Clement) which started life as a 1st century pagan temple, others hold renaissance artworks by the greats, Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Raphael (Basilica di Sant Agostino) that are priceless yet almost ignored by the masses, real hidden treasures. But, Sant Andrea della Valle, a short walk from the Pantheon, nearly knocked me off my feet when I entered the porch. The outside facade is so unassuming but the innards stand in bright contrast; gleaming gilded stonework borders rainbow frescos of epic proportions. You remember the Tango advert? That’s how I felt. Darn it, I’ve taken away the element of surprise for you! Nevertheless, I swear you will be nothing but impressed by this gleaming beauty. Also, if you’re interested, the holy name (tetragrammaton) of Yahweh can be seen in several places in Rome and this place is one of them : look out for a young boy beneath the huge domed ceiling with YHWH written in his turban.
Tip – Visit early evening when the golden hour light hit’s the gilt perfectly.
The Rooftop Bar At Martis Palace Hotel
– Via S. Giuseppe Calasanzio
Ready for a drink yet? Rooftop bars, or terraces, are always on our list of places to visit when we’re in a city, we want the best view with our cocktails and an opportunity to catch the sunset on our holidays. Rome is no exception but the search proved rather elusive. Hotel Minerva, a few blocks away, was our first port of call, and the detailed art deco foyer certainly got me excited, but when we reached the rooftop and picked up the menu, €20 for a glass of their cheapest red wine had us running for the stairs again (obviously after snapping a few photo’s of the view). However, 5 minutes later we stumbled across a little sign advertising 360 degree views of Rome and found ourselves sharing a terrace with a few cheeky seagulls watching the sun set behind the Vatican. The rooftop bar at Martis Palace Hotel is definitely a little secret that seems to be undiscovered as of yet; a glass of Prosecco was €5, it came with a bowl of nuts and a mini mozzarella and tomato burger thrown in for good measure. Definitely the best place to see the sunset in Rome and you’ll probably have it all to yourself!
Tip – there is no bar as such up there but there is a waiter hovering waiting to take your order, you don’t need to be a hotel resident.
The Best Gelato in Rome at Gelateria Giolitti
Via degli Uffici del Vicario, 40
Surely every Signor and his dog claims to have the best icecream in Rome? And how does one qualify? Well, for me there has to be a queue out of the door. So you could argue then that anything on this list of ‘hidden gems’ would contradict the qualifications of knowing if a particular gelateria will hit the spot or not? Well, for Gelateria Giolitti I am willing to bend the rules a bit : it is off the beaten track a little, up in the back streets from the Trevi Fountain, but it does seem to be quite well known. Maybe it’s 100 years of trading will do that for you! However, what makes it a gem for me is its traditionalism – the shop fitting is authentic and glamourous and your gelato is served to you by an old guy in a waistcoat. The flavours take your tastebuds on a journey and it’s not just a boring selection. My favourite is the beer and fig. There are plenty of great ice cream spots in Rome as I’m sure you’ll discover but this particular one comes with extra special suave and sophistication.
Tip – Pay for your ice cream first and obtain a ticket from the miserable girl on the till.
Piazzale 12 Ottobre 1492
Do you notice a theme here? Food and drink. If you’ve never heard of Eataly before, think of the Harrods food market but on 4 floors and serenely executed. Apart from the few tourists in the know who are making a pitstop of edible gift-buying before they head off to the airport, the majority of the customers are casually oozing self worth and confidence and buying their evening meal of beautifully packaged pasta and credibly sourced ingredients : their kitchen bins spill over with wrappers so chic they’d make graphic designers weep.
But it’s not just a supermarket for stylish Italians, it’s a restaurant too. Several actually. So, near the fresh pasta department is a non-pretentious eating area where you can savour the fresh pasta. And by the deli counter is a cafe serving deli food. On the coffee floor you can take your espresso standing up with the best of them. Don’t even get me started on the desert section – you will never have seen pastries so beautiful! So if you’re a bit of a foodie, make your way off the beaten track a bit to savour this chef’s paradise.
Tip – Park in the assigned car park. Vehicle break-ins are a real problem on the roads nearby. The car park is very secure. Alternatively, take the FL5 line to Ostiense.
The Aventine Keyhole
Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta
Nobody can say for sure whether this secret keyhole on Aventine Hill was a carefully contrived peephole or just a case of pure serendipity (I love to shoehorn that word in wherever I can!). Whatever the truth, how many places on this earth can you say you can see 3 countries from where you stand?
Standing in Italy, looking through Malta (the embassy of Malta is a sovereign entity) at St Peters Basilica in Vatican City is a quirky perspective. One you must queue for too, but not for long as this place still remains a relatively well kept secret of Rome. Many try to capture the picture on camera but if you do find yourself waiting in line for the privilege, make sure you don’t waste all of your turn just trying to take the perfect shot – it is a sight that should be pondered without the distractions of aperture and shutter speed. The keyhole lines up with an avenue of trees drawing your eye straight over the brink of the hill to the gigantic dome of St Peter’s, it’s definitely a sight not to miss and worth the climb up Aventine hill.
The Mouth Of Truth – Bocca Della Verita
Piazza della Bocca della Verita
Whether you believe the tales of this first century stone disc or not, this rocky human face is a little hidden gem you may want to see when you’re in Rome. An ancient lie detector that supposedly works by placing your hand in the open mouth – if you’re found telling a porky, the mouth of truth will bite off your hand. It’s origins are unknown but it’s a sight worth seeing, if only for the fact it was used in a scene in Roman Holiday with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn – I love a good movie location scouting!
Hidden Masterpieces By The Greats – For Free!
It’s no secret that the likes of Michelangelo and Caravaggio have moulded and painted this town into a living breathing work of art. Art is everywhere and you will find me salivating on any street corner. However, I’m always so surprised by how many masterpieces and hidden gems just go left unattended in Rome – no museum to house them, free to see and seemingly unnoticed by tourists and locals alike. I have to reign in my art obsessions when we’re travelling because the rest of the clan don’t quite have my level of appreciation but I have compiled a list for you that even Mr MLLH acknowledges are worth a visit….
Places To Find Michelangelo In Rome
- The church of San Pietro in Vincoli – a sculpture of Moses in marble which was commissioned for the tomb of Pope Julius II.
- Palazzo Farnese – Michelangelo finished the top floor after Sangello’s death. Amazing display of bricks and architraving.
- The Risen Christ – Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, to the left of the main altar.
Places To Find Caravaggio In Rome
- The church of San Luigi Dei Francesi – A trio of paintings depicting the life of Saint Matthew.
- Madonna dei Pellegrini – the church of Sant’Agostino. Considered scandalous because Mary’s dirty feet, painted because of the real models that Caravaggio used.
- The Crucifixion of Saint Peter and The Conversion of Saint Paul on the Way to Damascus – Santa Maria del Popolo, Cerasi Chapel
Places To Find Raphael In Rome
- Cappella Chigi – Santa Maria del Popolo – Just inside the west door around the arch of the Chigi Chapel. Finished about the same time as the Sistine Chapel and based on the painting style of Michelangelo.
- The Lone Prophet – the church of Sant Agostino.
The first time we inadvertently wandered into Quartiere Coppedè, we were just taking a wander from Villa Borghese after spending the morning there. We were having some in depth conversation, probably about the wonders of how good gelato is for you (it has eggs in it doesn’t it??) when we had to stop and take stock of where we found ourselves. Had we been picked up by a time machine and dropped into some other wonderful city in another dimension whilst debating mint choc chip versus pistachio? It certainly felt like it.
I had marginally noticed the giant outdoor chandelier as we passed beneath the entrance archway and registered a faint ‘how peculiar’ reflection, but it was the contrasting architecture which stopped us in our tracks – we definitely weren’t in ancient Rome anymore. You see, Quartiere Coppedè is an unexpected neighbourhood all on it’s own, and unique to it’s surroundings – you must see it to believe it! Mr Coppedè himself yielded a magical architectural wand upon 31,000 square meters of Rome back in the early twentieth century and what resulted was a fairytale mishmash of his wildest dreams. Art Nouveau meets Baroque, chews up a bit of Gothic and spits out something from Walt Disney, and when you’re all done looking at the buildings you may turn your attentions to the frescos and fountain of the frogs in Piazza Mincio.
It’s no wonder this area has been used for a few movies and if you find yourself lusting after one of the 40 or so apartments or villas then it’s only a mere €10,000 per square metre – that may give you another clue as to how desirable this secret neighbourhood in Rome is!
Tip – Quartiere Copedè is located between Piazza Buenos Aires and Via Tagliamento, easily reachable by Tram 19 & 3 or buses 92 & 38.
So, there you have it – the best unknown places to visit in Rome once you have taken in the usual spots and tourist attractions. Enjoy your tour and if you know of any hidden gems that I’ve missed off my list be sure to leave me a message below! Ciao for now!
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