Art and History have always been a passion for me, and so combining the two seemed like a natural course of action. I was studying Art History and was fascinated by the tiny details on a column such as a curved swirl of the ionic column, or a more elegant leafy Corinthian column. Even the smallest changes or design would separate the architecture by centuries.
Naturally, after studying this and Art throughout the ages Rome was a destination that I just had to visit. Popular for its ties to the Roman Empire and most of the tourist traps being centered around that century, there are some very unique places and experiences I would suggest doing or seeing. This will give you a glimpse into the alternate history, the religious confusion of the time, the darker underbelly of Rome and possibly a new site to visit.
Here are my Top Ten Unique Places in Rome :
1. Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano
This is by far my favorite site to visit whenever I am in Rome. It is not very well known, so you aren’t inundated by tourists and get to descend through history…..literally.
It is a 9-minute walk from the Colosseo east on Via Nicola Salvi, you turn right on Piazza di S. Clemente and it will be on your right-hand side. The exterior is very unassuming, it appears as any other dilapidated building would in the shadow of the ever famous Coliseum. Once you enter, a symbol of new life greets you in the Byzantine mosaic of the tree of life with the twelve doves symbolizing the apostles of Jesus Christ.
Exploring this church is like eating an artichoke, you have to pull each later back to get to the very heart of the best part. Make your way to the side door where you will descend into the fairly new discoveries below the surface of this church.
The first level you will find a FOURTH CENTURY Basilica, only discovered in the 18th century after it had been covered for the last 1,100 years with gravel!
Wait! Keep going down the stairs! In the bottom level, you will find the heart of the Lanterno, an ancient Roman house from the FIRST CENTURY! If this isn’t enough to tickle your historical fantasies, then visit the tomb of St Clement, the fourth Pope in world history after St Peter, st Linus and St. Anacletus, and the tomb of St Cyril the founder of the Savonic literature.
Address: Via Labicana, 95
Hours: Mon-Sat 9am-12:30pm/3pm-6pm; Sunday from 12pm-6pm
Fees: 10 Euros
2. Galleria Borghese
Between 1576 and 1633 the nephew of Pope Paul V, Cardinal Scipione Borghese began collecting some of the most stunning art pieces in his mansion. This collection included works by Tiziano, Raphael, Caravaggio, Rubens and Botticelli.
As you walk through the doors you feel as if you truly are walking into a Grand mansion, not a museum. As you ascend, the decorations on the walls become more lavish and then you turn a corner into a room and are hit with the vision of a statue of Bernini. I have always been a fan of art, and especially of the master sculptor’s of old, but nothing prepared me for the exquisite pieces in front of me.
You don’t just go to see a Bernini Statue, you have to go an EXPERIENCE a Bernini statue. The twisting, turning, facial expressions, attention to intricate details, angles and the way the statues are lit makes me to seem to come alive. I would suggest walking around each sculpture and truly soak in the master’s work.
Cardinal Borghese was attempting to re-inspire the people to recreate a new Golden Age of Art Appreciation. With his Uncle favoring him in the classical Papal Nepotism, Cardinal Borghese nearly tripled his wealth from 1609 to 1612 his wealth increased from 90,000 Scudi to 140,000 Scudi. This allowed him to continue his patronage for Caravaggio and Bernini.
Address: Piazzale del Museo Borghese, 5
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday: 8:30am – 7:30pm, Monday: closed
From July 6th to October 06th every Friday and Saturday evening opening (entry at 7 pm exit at 22)
Fees & Tickets: Pre-paid scheduled admissions for Borghese Gallery Museum only!
Adults: 11 euros, EU citizen (18-25) 6.50 Euros, Youth (<18) or Seniors (>65) is 2 Euros
I would highly suggest that you book your tickets in advance (right about the same time you book your flight). The museum is wildly popular and they do not allow more than a certain number of visitors in at a time. There are no walk-in’s, only reservations.
3. Underground Colosseum Tour
This is one of the MUST DO highlights for your trip if you want to see the Colosseum, but see it from a unique perspective. If you schedule online ahead of time, you can take an exclusive Underground Colosseum Tour.
During this tour, you will descend into the Gladiator pits, see the mechanisms that made the Gladiator Games work. While underground you see how the Colosseum was once filled with water and where the water was sourced. The backstage pully systems, the areas where the animals were kept and just how magnificent this architectural wonder of the world truly is. Seeing the Colosseum from the outside or from the tourist platforms is one thing, but seeing how it worked gives it a whole new appreciation.
If the Underground Tour is not enough, then you are also taken up an elevator to the top of the Colosseum where you are able to have a guided tour through the museum, as well as a fantastic birds-eye view of the interior or the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.
Opening Hours: By appointment only
Tickets: Book your Underground Colosseum Tickets ahead of time online
Address: Piazza del Colosseo, 1, 00184 Roma RM, Italy
How to get there: All roads lead to Rome, so if you are in Rome and can’t find this place….you are likely in the wrong country. If you are coming from a nearby city, use Rome2Rio.com to find the best route into the city.
4. San Pietro in Vincoli
Also known as Saint Peter in Chains was built to house the chains of Saint Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. The Empress Eudoxia gave Pope Leo I the chains as a present, after which the church was commissioned.
There is more to this church than the chains that held Saint Peter if you visit be sure to look at the Tomb of Pope Julius the II. In the center of this tomb is Michelangelo’s Moses statue.
According to legend, the chains of Saint Peter arrived to the Pope in 2 pieces, and miraculously joined together to form one piece. The chains are stored underneath the altar in a glass box. On either side of Michelangelo is statues of Leah and Rachel (likely completed by his students). The tomb itself was never finished for Pope Julius II, who ended up being buried in St Peter’s Basilica. Michelangelo had planned on 40 different statues for the tomb but was so focused on the Sistine Chapel that the tomb was never completed.
The church itself is very unique compared to other churches in Rome. There are not as many ornate decorations, skeletons are also seen on adjacent tombs both of which are highly unusual in Catholic churches.
The church itself is very dimly lit so it is difficult to get a decent photo. If you make a donation to the mausoleum then it will light up. I did not know that this is something that is very common with most of the churches in Rome.
Opening Hours: Every day: 8 am – 12:30 (midday) and 3:30 pm – 6 pm
Price: No Fee for Entrance
Address: San Pietro in Vincoli, Emilia-Romagna, Italy
How to get there: Buses 75 or 84 will take you near the Basilica. You can also go along Via Cavour, you will see a steep set of steps on Via San Francesco di Paola and the Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli.
These underground secret passageways were used by the Jewish, Pagan and early Christian Roman citizens to hide and as a place of burial from the 2nd-5th centuries. The burial grounds were discovered after investigative excavations were taking place next to a quarry. The word Catacomb means ‘next to a quarry’.
The Catacombs can be several miles long, each niche being hand dug for the particular burials. The deceased was then wrapped in a cloth, placed in the niche and either clay/marble or some other sustainable material was placed in front of the niche with the deceased name and religious symbol on it (usually Christian)
During Roman times, and especially the gladiator games, Christians were persecuted and tortured for their beliefs. The catacombs provided a place outside the city walls that allowed them to bury their dead and freely use and perform Christian rights, rituals and symbols when burying their loved ones. It wasn’t until the 3rd century that the persecutions stopped and they were allowed to worship freely.
Barbarian invasions of the 8th century resulted in many lootings of these catacombs, and so the Pope ordered all relics be moved to nearby churches.
You can now visit the burial grounds today with more than 60 catacombs now being discovered here, you can visit several of them that have been safely and properly excavated. The best catacomb to visit is the Catacombs of San Sebastiano (circa 136 AD), so named for the martyred soldier who converted to Christianity.
Other Catacombs include Catacombs of San Callisto, Catacombs of Priscilla, Catacombs of Domitilla, Catacombs of Sant’Agnese, Catacombs of San Valentino, and the Catacombs of St Callixtus.
Opening times: Each Catacomb has its own opening times but most are open from 10am-12pm and 2pm to 5pm with Agnese being open in the afternoons only between 4pm-6pm.
Fees: Adults: 8 Euros, Children <15 is 5 Euros (guides in English, Spanish, and Italian)
6. The Twin Churches of Rome:
Santa Maria dei Miracoli 1681, and the Montesanto built in 1679 grace the Piazza del Popolo facing the Northern gate of the Aurelian Walls.
Santa Maria dei Miracoli was started in 1675 by Girolamo Theodore. A bell tower and circular pattern were adopted in the design of the building. The lovely decorations inside are done by none other than Bernini’s pupil, Antonio Raggi. The altar of the Virgin Mary is what gave this church its name.
It is believed that the paint used to craft the image of the Virgin came from a miracle of when a woman prayed to an image of the Virgin Mary on the walls to save her drowning son in the Tiber. Her child was saved and the chapel was built in her honor.
Santa Maria in Montesanto was built in 1662 and completed in 1675. Carmelite monks occupied a church that was previously built on this site. and thus the church was named Montesanto or ‘Holy Mountain’ because of the ties to ‘Mt Carmel’. Although the buildings are very similar and a perfect place for a photo, they are also very different.
Address: Via del Corso, 528
Fees: No fee for entrance
How to get there: Enter Moovit and find your route now
Opening times: Monday to Sunday 7.00 am 12.30 pm / 4.00 pm – 7.30pm
7. Scala Sancta
These stairs are ones that lead to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem on which Christ stepped on his way to trial during the passion. Reportedly the stairs were brought to Rome by St Helena in the 4th century.
There is a prayer that people must pray on each step leading up to the Praetorium, or you can climb the steps to the top on either side of the sacred stairs. At the bottom of the staircase is the statue of Christ with hands outstretched and Judas betraying him by kissing him on the Cheek. You will also find a statue of Christ in Chains, helping to set the mood for the journey of prayer up to the Scala Sancta.
Prayer for each of the 28 steps
(Note: A Hail Mary and an invocation to your Patron Saint may be added to each step.)
1 st Step.
O My Jesus! By the anguish of heart Thou didst experience, on separating from Thy most holy mother, to go to Thy death, have mercy on me!
2 nd Step.
O My Jesus! By the confusion Thou didst feel and that caused Thee to sweat blood in the Garden of Olives, have mercy on me!
3 rd Step.
O My Jesus! By the intense grief that filled Thy heart on seeing Thyself betrayed by the perfidious Judas, have mercy on me!
4 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the confusion Thou didst feel, when led as a malefactor through the streets of Jerusalem, have mercy on me!
5 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the sweetness Thou didst show, when brought before the tribunal and struck in the face, have mercy on me!
6 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the patience Thou didst exhibit amid the outrages and mockeries, of which Thou wert the object throughout the night preceding Thy death, have mercy on me!
7 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the cruel insult Thou didst endure, when dragged many times on the Sacred Stairs, have mercy on me!
8 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the silence Thou didst observe in the presence of those who bore false witness against Thee, and of the iniquitous Pilate who unjustly condemned Thee, have mercy on me!
9 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the humiliation to which Thou didst subject Thyself amidst the derision of Herod and his court, have mercy on me!
10 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the shame Thou didst feel on being stripped of Thy garments and tied to the pillar to be scourged, have mercy on me!
11 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the pain Thou didst suffer on being scourged, when Thy body was all covered with wounds and bruises, have mercy on me!
12 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the torture of the sharp thorns, wherewith Thy adorable head was pierced, have mercy on me!
13 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the patience Thou didst exhibit when clothed with purple rags and with a reed in Thy hand, Thou wert derided and treated as a mocking, have mercy on me!
14 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the affliction, Thou didst feel when Thou didst hear the people cry out against Thee, and clamor for Thy death, have mercy on me!
15 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the humiliation to which Thou wert subject, on being compared with Barabbas, and on seeing that criminal preferred to Thine adorable person, have mercy on me!
16 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the resignation, wherewith Thou didst embrace the Cross, and proceed with it upon the road to Calvary, have mercy on me!
17 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the sorrow Thou didst feel on meeting Thy most holy Mother, and on witnessing the anguish of her heart, have mercy on me!
18 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the excessive weariness that overcame Thee, while bearing the burden of the cross on Thy shoulders, have mercy on me!
19 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the bitterness Thou didst experience, when the gall and vinegar touched Thy lips, have mercy on me!
20 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the agony, Thou didst endure, when Thy garments were roughly torn from Thee, have mercy on me!
21 st Step.
O My Jesus! By the pain, Thou didst suffer, when fastened with great nails to the cross of Calvary, have mercy on me!
22 nd Step.
O My Jesus! By the infinite charity that moved Thee to forgive Thine executioners and pray to Thy heavenly Father for them, have mercy on me!
23 rd Step.
O My Jesus! By the goodness with which Thou didst give paradise to the penitent thief, and Mary unto John, as his Mother, have mercy on me!
24 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the burning thirst with which Thou wast tortured on the gibbet of the Cross, have mercy on me!
25 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the torment, Thou didst suffer, on seeing Thyself abandoned by all, have mercy on me!
26 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the great love for me with which Thy Divine Heart was inflamed, on breathing forth Thy last sigh, have mercy on me!
27 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the boundless kindness Thou didst manifest, in permitting Thy side to be opened with a spear, have mercy on me!
28 th Step.
O My Jesus! By the tender condescension with which Thou didst permit Thy most sacred body to be placed in the arms of Thy mother, and afterward in the sepulcher, have mercy on me!
Address: Piazza di Spagna, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
Fees: No fees
How to get there: From the Metro Linea A (red line) take the exit at Spagna. Rome bus tours are too big to navigate the narrow streets. Catch a bus that heads to the Barberini, Piazza del Popolo / Flamino (about a 10-minute walk).
Opening times: open 24 hours
8. The Spanish Steps
These steps were built in 1725 to help link the church Trinita dei Monit with the Spanish square down below it. Why are the steps so famous then? The Unique design, flowers adorning the steps and the Romantic setting near the Spanish square has inspired artists and musicians for generations. The artists would attract the beautiful women to the stairs to pose as models, then the wealthy and elite would come to ‘browse’. Thus was born the meeting place for Roman society, the Spanish Stairs.
As you ascend the 135 stairs, look up to your right and you will see an apartment where the poet John Keats lived and died. Be sure to take a peek inside the church once you reach the top.
Although some tourists complain that ‘it’s just a bunch of stupid steps’, this staircase is both unique and pivotal to the Roman history. If you want to take the steps in, in all its beauty, be sure to visit in the early AM when there will be limited tourists.
Address: Piazza di Spagna, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
Hours: Always open
Traveler Tip: Don’t expect to stop for a picnic, eating on the steps after the restoration is forbidden. Although there is a McDonald’s conveniently placed at the bottom of the staircase in the Spanish Square, seems counterintuitive with the rule, but I’m not in charge….soooo….there is that.
9. Piazza Navona
This is truly an artist’s Paradise, Piazza Navona in Rome! To get here you must wander through the streets, rounding several corners before it opens up into a grand courtyard flanked by fountains and churches. It was golden hour when we arrived and the sun was peaking through the alleyways, popping out to highlight the many perfectly picturesque balconies surrounding the courtyard.
This plaza has been the focal point for the being the city’s main market since the 15th century. Another reason I fell in love with this plaza is that there is a Bernini fountain specifically designed for this square, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi. Here you will witness both visual movement and water flowing over muscular personifications of the different major rivers of the world. Stroll around the fountain and try to guess which one represents the Nile, Ganges, Danube and Rio de la Plata. This is why the fountain is now called the Fountain of the Four Rivers.
Behind the Fountain, you will see a beautiful Baroque style building, Sant’Agnese in Agone. This is thought to be named after St Agnes around 300AD who was martyred here. This church was impressive and worth a quick look, but I personally couldn’t wait to wander through the impromptu artistic market that was quickly developing as night settled in on Piazza Navona.
If you are a little too frazzled or dazed from hours of exploring, then stop by one of the surrounding cafes with outdoor seating and be serenaded by the artisans in the Piazza while eating your pasta 😉
Address: Piazza Navona, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
How to get there: There are no metro’s nearby, but if you take a bus (typically 40 or 60) there will be a stop near Piazza Navona towards the Termini station.
10. Torre Argentina (The Cat Sanctuary)
Although I am not a fan of Cats in my home, it is hard to deny these animals are an integral part of the Italian Culture. In Rome, these cats take refuge at the base of statues, bask in the sunlight on top of Roman columns and walk the parapets of the Colosseum.
There is a place that the city has classified officially as a Cat Sanctuary, the Torre Argentina. Here you will find over 150 feral friends sheltered. Volunteers come in and spay or neuter the cats to help control population size, as well as vaccinate the cats. There is a cat shop nearby, donations are accepted and you are even allowed to adopt a cat if you so desire.
The area was being excavated in 1927 when the ancient ruins of the four Republican-era pagan temples dating from 44BC. There is an annual re-enactment of the murder of Caesar on the Ides of March to honor his death.
Address: Entrance is at Largo di Torre Argentina – at the corner of Via Florida & Via di Torre Argentina
Fees: Donation based
Opening times: Open daily from noon to 6pm
With Rome being the pivotal place where all wander lusting travelers tend to visit, it may be worthwhile to seek out a few of the off the beaten path sites. You are sure to run into a local or two, experience ‘newer’ historical sites dating back to the 4th century.
Maybe you could even end up adopting a new furry friend and one of the most unique souvenirs, a Roman Kitty Cat. Whatever you decide to do in Rome, it is a place that has and will continue to inspire the artistic side within us all; thrill us with the idea of Roman times and educate us on the variety of historical facts it contains.
Have you ever been to Rome? What was your favorite place to visit?
Is there something or some destination near Rome you would suggest visiting that is off the beaten path?
As Always….Happy Travels, Happy Tales, see you on the Flip Side.
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