Find unusual things to do in Rome, from stunning skylines, hidden sects, secret passageways and seriously good food. Let's help get you off the beaten path in Rome, escape the crowds and see the best of the Eternal City.
Unusual Things To Do in Rome: Off the Beaten Path in Rome
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There are plenty of ways to get off the beaten path in Rome and enjoy the plethora of alternative things to do. But there are some things that are so special and so unique, you simply won't find them anything else. Let's talk about those. And after that, I've split this collection of unusual things to do in Rome into categories to help you find your way around.
Unique Things to do in Rome
Visit an Underground Sect
These days, it's hard to imagine at time without the Pope, the Vatican and Christianity in Rome. But ancient Rome was awash with groups who felt they'd discovered the religious secret.
Amid the marble columns and the fear and might of the Colosseum, many sects met in private in catacombs beneath the earth. And you can visit some of these meeting places today.
Context Travel offer tours led by docents (academics) who, quite literally, take you underground to show you the secret meeting places and worship rituals of sects in ancient Rome.
Take in the City Skyline
Rome is surprisingly short of skyline views but once I found one that worked, my word it was beautiful. The rooftop terrace at the Rome Cavalieri overlooks the city of the seven hills almost in its entirety. You can see the dome of St Paul's, the arc of the colosseum and the terracotta spread of a world city surprisingly bereft of skyscraper grey.
What's even better? The hotel also has a pool so if the heat from the city-slicker life is getting you down, you can hop on in and cool off with a dip.
Get Lost in Trastevere
Visit the narrow streets of “wrong side of the tracks” Trastevere, where green tendrils and scarlet petals spill out from lopsided windows and vespas laze in the shadows.
Twirls and swirls of thick white paint flick across shop windows, shadowed by shades of crimson and green. And call me romantic but the words seem to have been written with love.
Baccala e ceci. Il prosciutto del bon Gustaio. Porchetta di Ariccia.
Cardboard-boxed pasta curls and red wine line the shelves and the counters reveal rosemary-soaked pizza bianca.
But mostly, it’s all about the porchetta. Salty. Salted. Thickly cut and surprisingly melt in the mouth.
Give yourself the gift of time and wander around this beautiful neighbourhood by yourself, stopping for bites to eat.
Visit the Vatican Alone (Sort of)
Head to St Peter's Square after closing time and you may find yourselves the only ones there, save for the odd passing nun and ever watchful Swiss Guard.
Walk on foot from the squat Castel Sant’Angelo along the banks of the Tiber.
The columns seem taller and iridescent, the sainted stone statues more watchful, more close by. The Swiss Guards seem more relaxed and the pink tinge to the sky makes the fountain-footed obelisk appear to glow in charcoal and peach.
Even in the peak season of Rome's busiest year, I wandered around alone by following this trick.
Ponder Life at the Capuchin Crypt and Museum
There are many places around the world where you can see skeletons piled up in crypts. There you won't find quite so many where the bones have been turned into art. Not piled up neatly. But actually carved into set pieces and attached above an altar. It's a spooky sight to see in Rome, for sure, and not one for everyone.
Where? Via Vittorio Veneto, 27, Rome
Fun Things to do in Rome with Food and Drink
Take a Food Tour
True, Italy loves food. But Rome sometimes struggles with its own popularity. Which is a polite way of saying that some of the tourist traps serve awful food.
Book yourself onto a good food tour in Rome (here's one I would recommend) and learn the difference between parmesan and pecorino, pizza bianca and porchetta.
I opted for the four hour daylight tour, a voyage through around 20 or so different specialty shops, one open air market and not one but two sit down restaurants with an impromptu gelato and coffee stop thrown in.
It was a blur of gastronomic brilliance, with around ten or so fellow explorers. We saw pecorino cheese stacked waist high and bulbous cheese hanging from the rafters.
We tasted suppli, a deep fried rice ball, on the streets and sugar-dusted pastries indoors.
We sat for wine and pasta, stood for gelato, strolled past pumpkin and prosciutto in the market and slid forks through freshly sliced watermelon
And best of all, the people we met seemed pleased to see us too. Shopkeepers were ready, chefs passionate.
Through pregnancy and a few other issues, my diet was no longer carefree and I’d braced myself to sit on the culinary sidelines as it were.
But the Trasteverini weren’t having any of it.
When it came to gelato, they found me sorbet. For soft, gooey cheese, they substituted hard. Cured meat was swapped with cooked, and cream-laden dessert became so many different types of biscuits and coconut sweets that I struggled to take them all in.
And all without making a fuss, all with making me feel welcome.
Other food tours, which shall remain nameless, have a lot to learn.
I fell in foodie heaven. And it was definitely one of the best things to do in Rome. Curiously, it also helped me to see the off the beaten path side of Rome.
Enjoy an Aperitivo in one of Rome's Rooftop Bars
There's nothing like sipping a drink on a rooftop bar to make the experience feel more glamorous and cultured all at the same time. Way different to a hotel minibar. Time Out have curated 12 of the best rooftop bars in Rome but I'd like to highlight the following:
- Hotel Raphael - made famous by Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love, this prosecco spot lies close to the landmark Piazza Navona. Prices are not for the faint of heart.
- Minerva Roof Garden - serves 16 different types of martini within a hop, skip and a jump from the Pantheon.
- Hotel Capo d'Africa - watch the Colosseum lit up at night. Good enough for me.
Dine in Hipster Rome
Pizza and pasta are fantastic but even afficionados can begin to yearn for something else. Head to Ginger Sapori e Salute right in the heart of Rome. From breakfast til dinner they serve organic, sustainable, healthy food in (ahem) a highly instagrammable setting.
Bright white walls, hanging meats, small green plants and dashes of yellow bring a splash of the modern into the historic centre of Rome.
Alternative Art Spots in Rome
Listen to Musica at the Teatro di Marcello: The Colosseum's Little Sister
First time visitors to Rome may mistake the Teatro di Marcello for the Colosseum, but it's safe to relax. This was a real theatre, not another location for blood, guts and gore.
Commissioned during the reign of Julius Caesar but incomplete at the time of his murder, it had a rocky start to life but grew to become the most important theatre in ancient Rome. Today, you can still sit and listen to classical music amid the crumbling columns and it makes a good option to pair up with a visit to the Jewish Quarter.
Where? Via Del Teatro De Marcello, Rome.
Visit Versailles in Rome: The Galleria Doria Pamphilj
For an opulent art gallery, dripping in gold and priceless wealth, head to the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Centro Storico. As the Palace of Versailles has a Gallery of Mirrors, so to does this place.
The fact that it stood as a private residence, home to the man who would become Pope Innocent X in the 1600s, shows just how much wealth, power and influence there was swelling around the city at the time.
The rooms are filled with frescoes, portraits, landscapes and chandeliers. Looming sculptures overlook works by Raphael, Tintoretto, Titian, Caravaggio, Bernini, Velázquez and more.
A free audio guide narrated by Jonathan Pamphilj brings the family's anecdotes to life in this extraordinary, off the beaten path attraction in Rome.
Gaze at the Palazzo Barberini and the Galleria Corsini
Move into a 17th century palace at the Palazzo Barberini and find yourself alone with some of Caravaggio's best works. As the home of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, the main collection of older paintings in Rome, it's another place to feast and gorge on artistic creation.
Where? Find Palazzo Barberini on Via delle Quattro Fontane, 13, Rome.
Look Up in the Galleria Sciarra
All glass and light and razzle dazzle, the Galleria Sciarra forms part of the 16th century Palazzo Sciarra Colonna di Carbognano. Only one block and the pedestrian Via delle Muratte separate it from the world famous Trevi Fountain, and yet it still remains off the beaten path in Rome.
It's a gorgeous art nouveau courtyard with an 1890s iron and glass roof, closed for cleaning in 2018 but due to reopen in late 2019.
Where? Via Marco Minghetti, Rome.
Where? Via Santa Maria in Via, 30–31
Enjoy the Show at Le Domus Romane di Palazzo Valentini
Let a multimedia experience transport you back to the everyday houses of ancient Rome, recently discovered beneath a grand mansion. These virtual tours take place every 30 minutes and are great for older kids and adults who remain young at heart. Book at the Domus Romane di Palazzo Valentini website here.
Where? Via Foro Traiano 85, Rome.
Play with Illusions at the Galleria Spada
Worth a quick detour on a Sunday when free, the Galleria Spada's main highlight is the optical illusion of its line of columns. It was also rumoured to hold the sculpture of Pompey the Great, beneath which Julius Caesar fell to his death, but, alas, it seems the details aren't quite true.
It does hold another large art collection and is yet another testament to the wealth and prominence of Rome throughout the ages.
Where? Find the gallery entrance at Vicolo del Polverone 15B, Rome.
Packing Essentials for Rome
- Comfortable shoes. You'll be on your feet a lot.
- A scarf or pashmina to cover your shoulders for religious buildings. And wrap around your head when pretending to be an iconic film start in La Dolce Vita. Here's a gorgeous scarf in my favourite blue and another one in champagne.
- I still used my Lonely Planet Rome guide for background information and good suggestions on unusual things to do in Rome. Of course, if you're travelling further in Italy, it makes sense to buy the Lonely Planet Guide to Italy instead. I have both but you only really need one.
- See the Ultimate Travel Packing Checklist to make sure you don't miss a thing.
Where to Stay in Rome
My Favourite: The Rome Cavalieri Hotel
- In brief: The Rome Cavalieri, part of the Waldorf Astoria and Hilton Worldwide network marries cream and gold rooms with opulence, service and one of Rome's rare outdoor pools.
It’s a large place, a village within a village, and it’s some way out of town. At another time in life, I would have longed to be in among the action, the sweaty, cobbled trattoria-lined streets of the beating heart of Rome around the Vatican.
On this visit, I needed a sancturay.
There’s an indoor pool and gym, too, awash with marble and a Roman nose, because, let’s face it, even Rome lives within Europe’s greyer winter climes.
I tackled the basket of focaccia, walnut and olive bread with peppery olive oil and a first course of delicately spiced Roman rigatoncini “Amatriciana” pasta.
However, the suckling pork on a bed of lentils defeated me and I declined the option of dessert.
“You will need to change if you are to understand this country, “ the waiter told me. “We love to eat! Some days, that is all we do…”
The petits fours arrived whether I agreed to them or not… ;-)
The Cavalieri also houses La Pergola, the only restaurant with three Michelin-stars in Rome. Book well in advance.
What I Loved about the Rome Cavalieri
- That view of Rome. Really, truly, absolutely magnificent. A trip highlight in itself.
- Incredible service.
- Excellent sound-proofing – an extra door between the corridor, the bathroom and the bedroom.
- Heated towel rail within the room.
- Option of rainshower and focus shower effect.
- Vanity area in the bathroom
- Thoughtful touches – such as a dedicated “wet bag” for swimwear so you can have a last minute dip before heading to the airport.
- Pillow menu – excellent for those with allergies or musculoskeletal problems.
- The welcome prosecco and rainbow macarons.
- Extensive provision of toiletries. As it happened, this visit coincided with an assignment I was working on to do with lost luggage. Half my job was done by just opening the bathroom door.
- The Imperial Club Floor – a quieter, calmer place to check in and out and catch up with emails (while still enjoying that view.) Complimentary breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and pre and post dinner drinks amid 18th century Venetian masterpieces.