Updated October 2018
Rome is a city where centuries collide.
Modern life weaves around ancient ruins, medieval structures, and baroque sculptures in the Eternal City. With thousands of years of history, there is an overwhelming amount to see.
Of course, the most well-known monuments should not be missed — the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and so on. However, once you’ve gotten your fill of the popular sights and crowds, branch out and explore the city’s lesser-visited locales. From unique hilltop views to enchanting day trips, there are plenty of ways to dig deeper into the splendor of the Eternal City. Here’s your guide to some of Rome’s underrated places.
Villa Borghese gardens
For a tranquil escape from the chaos of Rome, visit the park and gardens surrounding Villa Borghese. Lush and vast, this is one of the Eternal City’s most enchanting areas. Tree-lined pathways give way to green parkland, dotted with cafés and classic statues. It also features a viewing area that offers a lovely look at the city. All manner of Roman life come together here. You’ll find children riding bicycles, couples taking a stroll, friends having drinks and families relaxing together. Pack a picnic and head up to Villa Borghese for a peaceful afternoon.
Above: The Villa Borghese gardens in the fall
Villa del Priorato di Malta
Just opposite Circus Maximus atop Aventine Hill sits the Villa del Priorato di Malta, which features a unique view of the city. The building isn’t open to the public, but if you peer through the keyhole on the imposing front doors, you’ll meet a curious sight — green hedges perfectly framing the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Above: The Rome Rose Garden in spring
Rome Rose Garden & Orange Garden (Giardino degli Aranci)
On your way up Aventine Hill, take some time to stop at the Rome Rose Garden and Giardino degli Aranci. The rose garden features more than 1,000 kinds of roses from around the world and it’s a lovely place to sit and pause. Just a bit further up the hill you’ll find the Giardino degli Aranci, or orange garden, which offers up lovely views over the Tiber toward the Vatican and toward the city center and Il Vittoriano in Piazza Venezia.
Above: Villa Borghese park in the spring
For another of Rome’s lesser visited sights, head up yet another of the city’s fabled hills. Gianicolo (sometimes referred to as Janiculum in English) is one of the tallest hills around and offers perhaps the most impressive views. A local favorite, families frequently congregate here, particularly during times of celebration. On the quirky side, a cannon is shot off every day at noon from atop Gianicolo. One potential downside of this spot is it’s not quite as easy to get to — it requires taking a tiny electric bus that winds up the hill — but it’s worth the trip.
Above: View of the city from Giardino degli Aranci
Not exactly unknown, yet often overlooked by visitors, is Trastevere. Trastevere is a rione (neighborhood) of Rome, located just south of Vatican City. Narrow cobblestone streets wind through ivy-covered buildings, making it a marvelous place to get lost. Sidewalk cafés and street vendors narrow the lanes further between the terra cotta-colored buildings. Life in this area centers around Piazza di Santa Maria, the main square, and since it’s near the American university, plenty of expats call this rione home. Don’t miss an opportunity to spend an evening strolling through Trastevere and taking in the local life.
Above: Taking part in the local lore at the Mouth of Truth
The Mouth of Truth
Live out your Roman Holiday dreams with a visit to the Mouth of Truth (Bocca della Verità). The Mouth of Truth is located just outside church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, next to Circus Maximus right along the Tiber River. It’s unclear what the original purpose of the disc was, but legend has it that if you stick your hand in its mouth and you’ve been untruthful, it will bite your hand off. It’s a silly, but fun activity, particularly for those who are fans of the 1953 Audrey Hepburn film.
Above: Galleria Doria Pamphilj
Galleria Doria Pamphilj
So many of Rome’s attractions are outdoors, it seems rare to find yourself venturing inside. Remarkably tucked away along bustling Via del Corso, just off Piazza Venezia, is Galleria Doria Pamphilj, a collection of art within Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. The extensive collection which includes paintings, sculptures, and furniture, is one of the largest privately owned collections in the city. Just as impressive is the interior decor, with intricate designs and gilded details at every turn. Take a moment away from the lively Roman streets and enjoy the quiet, beautiful interior of the gallery.
Above: A restaurant overlooking Lake Albano in Castel Gandolfo
Day Trips to Castel Gandolfo and Frascati
A number of charming towns sit perched atop the hills surrounding Rome. Among them are Castel Gandolfo and Frascati. Both are less than an hour by train from Termini station, and train tickets are about four euros round trip, making them ideal spots for day (or even afternoon) trips.
High in the Alban Hills overlooking Lake Albano, Castel Gandolfo is a scenic town known for being a vacation residence for the pope. The quiet main square features some cafes and shops, as well as a church. Wander down a side street to find small shops and delicious restaurants, many with great views of the lake. Take note of the mosaic signs, a lovely touch that ties the town together.
Above: Cathedral of San Pietro Apostolo in Frascati
Home to the white wine that shares its name, Frascati is a town about 12 miles southeast of Rome. In the main piazza you’ll find the Cathedral of San Pietro Apostolo, which was completed in the 17th century. Frascati is full of quaint shops and winding streets. An enjoyable afternoon here consists simply of wandering the side streets and sampling a glass of the local wine.
Above: Don’t forget to pause for a gelato break
Of course, while these places are a start, there is plenty, plenty more. Rome is often referred to as the world’s largest open air museum, and when you first arrive, the city can feel overwhelming. But simply take a cue from the Romans, descend into the chaos, and marvel at life in this ancient city.
In 1866, Hippolyte Taine wrote of Rome, “The most enchanting things, here are those one runs into unexpectedly along one’s way.”
These words are just as true today. Wander the streets, get lost, and discover the hidden marvels of the Eternal City.
A version of this article has appeared in The Malibu Times newspaper: http://www.malibutimes.com/malibu_life/article_eac6aff2-232a-11e4-8e5f-001a4bcf887a.html