Rome is a city filled with popular monuments, historic sights, and underrated places. It’s also 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, like the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and so on. (If you’ve only got two days in the city, here’s our itinerary for two perfect days in Rome.)
However, once you’ve gotten your fill of the popular sights and crowds, branch out and explore the the lesser-visited, underrated places in Rome. From unique hilltop views to enchanting day trips, there are plenty of ways to dig deeper into the splendor of the Eternal City. Plus, many of these lesser-visited spots are all close to the city center.
Time to take the Rome less traveled! Here’s your guide to some of the best underrated places in Rome, Italy.
Villa Borghese Gardens
For a tranquil escape from the chaos of Rome, visit the park and gardens surrounding Villa Borghese. This lush and vast park is one of the Eternal City’s most magical 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 walks 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.
To get to the Villa Borghese gardens, first get to Piazza del Popolo. Piazza del Popolo, the traditional northern entrance to Rome, is located at the end of Via del Corso near the Flaminio metro stop.
When you’re in the piazza, you’ll have the Porta del Popolo (an ancient gate) on one side with Via del Corso on the opposite side, flanked by twin churches. Then, the Tiber River is on another side, and opposite that, up above the piazza, is Villa Borghese and its gardens.
Take the stairs in front of Museo Leonardo da Vinci. At the top of the stairs, you’ll find an open area with wonderful city views. This is where the gardens begin. Continue strolling, find a nice place to sit, and enjoy the afternoon.
Another way to reach the Villa Borghese gardens is to take Viale della Trinità dei Monti to Viale Adamo Mickievicz or Viale Gabriele D’Annunzio. Viale della Trinità dei Monti is the street at the top of the Spanish Steps.
Once you reach this underrated place in Rome, all the hustle and bustle of the city falls away.
Villa del Priorato di Malta or the Knights of Malta Keyhole
Another underrated place in Rome is the Knights of Malta Keyhole.
Just opposite Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo) atop Aventine Hill sits the Villa del Priorato di Malta, also known as the Knights of Malta Keyhole, which features a unique view of the city. The property is a seat of the Sovereign Order of Malta.
The building isn’t open to the public, but visitors are welcome to have a peek through the front doors. There will likely be a few people waiting in line to catch a glimpse of what waits behind them.
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. It’s difficult to get a good photo of this one-of-a-kind view, which makes the experience all the more valuable.
To get to the Knights of Malta Keyhole, first go to Circus Maximus. Find Via del Circo Massimo and start walking up Clivo dei Publicii. When you come to a fork in the road, follow it to the right along Via di Santa Sabina. This street will lead to Piazza Dei Cavalieri Di Malta, where you’ll find the villa and the unique keyhole view.
Rome Rose Garden and Orange Garden
On your way up Aventine Hill to the Knights of Malta Keyhole, take some time to stop at the Rome Rose Garden (Roseto di Roma Capitale) and Orange Garden (Giardino degli Aranci). The Rome Rose Garden is located just opposite Circus Maximus and the Orange Garden is along Via di Santa Sabina. You’ll pass both on your way up the hill to the keyhole.
The rose garden features more than 1,000 kinds of roses from around the world. It’s a lovely place to stroll through and admire the flowers, or simply sit and pause.
It’s best to visit in the spring when the roses are in boom. Every May, an international rose competition takes place in the garden. Admission to the garden is free. Private tours are available as well. The street address of the garden is Via di Valle Murcia, 6, 00153 Rome.
Just a bit farther up the hill you’ll find the public Giardino degli Aranci, or Orange Garden.
This hidden square offers up lovely views over the Tiber River toward the Vatican, as well as toward city center and Il Vittoriano in Piazza Venezia. It’s a quiet, underrated place in Rome that’s perfect to pause and enjoy the views. The park is located at Piazza Pietro D’Illiria, 00153 Roma RM, Italy.
For another underrated sight in Rome, 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 some impressive views. At the top of the hill you’ll find Terrazza del Gianicolo, or Janiculum Terrace, where you can hang out and admire the view.
As a local favorite, families frequently congregate here, particularly for celebrations. On the quirky side, a cannon (Cannone del Gianicolo) 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, but it’s worth the trip. To get to Gianicolo, you’ll need to take a small bus that winds up the hill. The bus stop at Gianicolo is P.le G. Garibaldi. Buses 115 and 870 both stop there.
Alternatively, you could take a taxi as well. (Just make sure you only get a taxi from an official taxi stand, which are marked with signs.) It’s not particularly far from the Vatican or Trastevere, but it’s a very steep hill, so walking up wouldn’t be too pleasant. It’s not a bad walk down the hill through Trastevere, though.
Not exactly unknown, yet often overlooked by visitors, is Trastevere. Trastevere is a rione, or neighborhood, of Rome located just south of Vatican City. As it’s near the American university, plenty of expats call this rione home, but it’s full of Italian locals as well.
Narrow cobblestone streets wind through ivy-covered buildings, making it a marvelous place to get lost. Sidewalk cafés and street vendors narrow the lanes even more between the terra cotta-colored buildings.
Life in this area centers around Piazza di Santa Maria, the main square. Plus, it’s also where you’ll find the famous Porta Portese flea market every Sunday. Don’t miss an opportunity to spend an evening strolling through Trastevere and taking in the local life.
On public transit, you can get to Trastevere on a bus or a tram. Tram 8 goes right from Piazza Venezia over to Trastevere (hop off at Piazza Giuseppe Gioachino Belli for an easy stroll to Piazza di Santa Maria). It’s also not far from the city center, so depending on where in the center you’re coming from, you can walk across a number of bridges to get there, like Ponte Sisto or Ponte Garibaldi.
The Mouth of Truth (Bocca della Verità)
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.
The Mouth of Truth is a large disc with a face carved into it. It’s unclear what the original purpose of the disc was, but legend has it that if you stick your hand in its open 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.
The Mouth of Truth is located at Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Piazza della Bocca della Verità, 18, 00186 Roma RM, Italy. You can visit the Mouth of Truth during the church’s opening hours.
The church is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. in the winter and from 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in the summer. There is no entrance fee, but you may leave a donation.
Galleria Doria Pamphilj
So many of Rome’s attractions are outdoors, it seems rare to find yourself venturing inside. Our next underrated place in Rome is hidden in plain sight.
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 gallery’s 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.
The galleria is located at Via del Corso, 305, 00186 Roma RM, Italy. It is open every day from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. with the last admission at 6:00 p.m. (but is closed on some holidays). A full price ticket is 12 euros, a ticket for ages 6-26 is 8 euros, and admission is free for children up to five years old. Audioguides are available as well.
The Roman Ghetto (Ghetto di Roma), often referred to as the Jewish Ghetto, is an area of the Sant’Angelo district. This underrated place in Rome is centrally located between Largo di Torre Argentina and the Tiber River.
The Roman Ghetto began as a Jewish ghetto in 1555. As part of a decree of Pope Paul IV, the Jewish population of Rome was required to live in this area. This continued, with some interruptions, until the late 19th century.
Today, there are many places in this neighborhood dedicated to the area’s history and heritage. It’s home to the Great Synagogue of Rome (Tempio Maggiore di Roma), the largest synagogue in the city, which includes the Jewish Museum of Rome. There are also several kosher eateries and restaurants serving traditional Roman-Jewish cuisine.
The Great Synagogue of Rome is located at Lungotevere de’ Cenci, 00186 Comune di Roma RM, Italy.
This neighborhood is also full of peaceful squares, creative shops, and even more historical landmarks.
One popular spots in the area is Piazza Mattei. This piazza is home to the Turtle Fountain (Fontana delle Tartarughe), a famous late Italian Renaissance fountain.
The Marcello Theater (Teatro Marcello) is also in this area. This ancient Roman theater was completed in 13 BC and was one of the largest and most important theaters of the time. Today, musicians perform concerts during the summer at the Marcello Theater.
The Marcello Theater is located at Via del Teatro di Marcello, 00186 Comune di Roma RM, Italy.
There are also many art galleries and libraries lining the narrow avenues of this neighborhood. One gallery, for instance, is Il Museo del Louvre.
Spend some time wandering around this area and exploring its historical landmarks, creative shops, and restaurants.
Day Trips to Castel Gandolfo and Frascati
While there are plenty of sights to see in Rome, you can also find some lesser-visited, underrated places just outside the city.
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 just a few euros round trip, making them ideal spots for day 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 side streets 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.
To get to Castel Gandolfo, take the train from Termini Station. You can take a Trenitalia train from Roma Termini to Castel Gandolfo for around 2 euros each way.
Trains leave on this route once an hour or every two hours and the journey is about 40 minutes. You can buy tickets online ahead of time or at the station. Just make sure to be careful at Termini — it’s crowded, often not particularly clean, and full of pickpockets. (Find more tips for visiting Rome here.)
Home to the white wine that shares its name, Frascati is a town about 12 miles southeast of Rome. Near 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 narrow avenues and sampling a glass of the local wine.
To get to Frascati, take the train from Termini Station. You can take a Trenitalia train from Roma Termini to Frascati for around 2 euros each way. Trains depart each hour and the journey is about 30 minutes.
Of course, while these places are a great start, there is plenty, plenty more. While you shouldn’t miss out on the major attractions, like the Colosseum and the Pantheon, make sure to also explore some of the underrated places in Rome.
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. Cin cin!
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