In this new article of the series “Diary of a Wanderluster” called “66 hidden gems to see in Rome, Italy”, I will tell you more about a city that most have visited but only a few can tell to know.
Rome, also known as “The Eternal City”, is one of the most important touristy destinations of the world, because of the incalculable immensity of its archaeological and art treasures, as well as for the charm of its unique traditions, the beauty of its panoramic views, and the majesty of its magnificent “villas” (parks). It is the 2nd most visited city in the EU, after Paris, and receives an average of 7–10 million tourists a year, which sometimes doubles in holy years.
In this article, though, I will not tell you about popular landmarks and the most touristy attractions of the city. I will focus only on the most hidden and lesser-known gems this wonderful city offers to the eyes of people who know where to look for them.
I am not from Rome, but I am lucky enough to have a fantastic mother-in-law who grew up in Rome and a Roman couple of close friends who helped me out a lot with this article.
But, before buckling up and starting with this first part of “66 hidden gems to see in Rome, Italy”, let’s answer one of the most asked questions about Rome, which is “Which is the best time of the year to visit Rome?”.
Disclaimer: for the sake of comprehensiveness, I have split this article into 2 parts based on the location of every single gem. Click here to check the second part out.
What Is The Best Time of The Year To Visit Rome?
I found that April through early November is the best time of year to visit Rome as there is a greater chance that you’ll get beautiful, cloudless weather. The Colosseum and other historical landmarks draw tourists from around the world during this busy season, which raises accommodation prices.
Keep in mind that July and August typically have higher average high temperatures, well over 86°F (30°C). As a result, it is advised to wear a hat and sunglasses to shield oneself from the sun’s rays.
1. Villa Ada
Villa Ada, with a surface area of 180 hectares/450 acres, is Rome’s second-largest park, trailing only Villa Doria Pamphilj in size.
It was originally known as Villa Savoia since it was once home to the Savoia family, the Italian royalty. Before their possession, it was owned by the Pallavicini princes who redeveloped the area to include landscaped gardens and structures like the Belvedere, Cafehaus, and the Flora Temple.
In 1872 King Vittorio Emanuele II bought, renovated and improved the property, transforming it into a rustic English park. Following his death in 1878, his son, King Umberto I, sold the land to Count Giuseppe Telfener, who gave the Villa his wife’s name.
The city eventually gained the most bulk of the Villa, with only a small fraction being the private property of the Arab Republic of Egypt, where the Egyptian Republic Embassy and Consulate are located.
Its park is popular among residents of northern Rome because of its stunning scenery, which contains a variety of flora and fauna unique to the area’s history.
2. Catacombs of Priscilla
The Priscilla Catacombs, dating from the 2nd century, are an incredible 8 km/ 5 mi long crypts also known as the “Queen of Catacomb”.
Some think this moniker comes from the fact that it originally contained the mortal remains of Christian martyrs and popes, while others believe it comes from a remarkable mural in the Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman chapel. Priscilla, in any case, was the name of a devout Christian noblewoman from the affluent Acilii Glabrioni family who provided her territory as a burial site for early Christians and family members.
Around the turn of the 19th century, archaeologists discovered them in a state of near-total ruin. Some claim the catacombs were demolished by treasure hunters sent to Popes Innocent X and Clement IX in the mid-17th century. Others claim that early explorers defaced them because they thought they were cursed and needed to be destroyed.
Whatever the case may be, the Catacombs of Santa Priscilla continue to pose a threat to orthodox Catholic teachings, sparking debate about the role of women in the Church, as they depict several women who played key roles in early Christian communities and making historians question the Virgin Mary’s significance in early Christian history.
However, the Catacombs of Priscilla are renowned for another reason. They shattered the traditional picture of Roman catacombs being erected by the Church for Christian graves, as they were formerly privately owned by Rome’s illustrious Acilii Glabriones family, which may or may not have been Christian.
Admission fee: 8€/ 9.1$ p.p.
3. Villa Borghese
Villa Borghese is Rome’s most popular park and is home to several buildings, museums, and attractions.
In the 17th century, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a nephew of Pope Paul V and a patron of Bernini, commissioned the Villa to house the Borghese family’s art collections. It was next to Casino Nobile, known today as the Borghese Gallery (see point 4).
Cardinal Borghese had also plans for the gardens of the Villa that aspired to transform into Rome’s most extensive gardens. Substantially renovated in the 19th century in the naturalistic English style, they became a public park in 1903.
The Gardens are home to a number of interesting structures, including a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, an exquisite Elizabethan open-air theatre that performs a classic repertoire from late June to early October (for more information, visit the official website), the Temple of Asclepius, which was built in 1786 in a classical style as a memorial to the destroyed ancient temple of Asclepius on Tiber Island, and the hydro-chronometer (also known as a water clock).
4. Borghese Gallery
The Borghese Gallery holds one of the most impressive art collections in the world.
Cardinal Scipione Borghese, an ardent art collector specialized in ancient Roman art and works by Caravaggio, Bernini, Raphael, Titian, Correggio, Antonello da Messina, Giovanni Bellini, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Canova, among others, commissioned it.
The Gallery, expanded throughout time, was only sold to the Italian government in 1902, along with the rest of the Villa Borghese grounds.
Most of Scipione Borghese’s collection, which today spans two floors and 20 frescoed rooms, is still housed there and ranges from antique sculptures, bas-reliefs, and mosaics to paintings and sculptures from the 15th to the 19th century.
Admission fee: 13€/ 14.7$ p.p.
For a more private and exhaustive experience, I’d recommend checking out this 2-hour private guided tour or this 2.5-hour skip-the-line small-group guided tour.
5. Pincian Hill and Terrace
If you are looking for Rome’s points of interest, you shouldn’t miss the Pincian (Pincio in Italian) Terrace, connected to Borghese gardens by a pedestrian bridge that crosses Via del Muro Torto in the narrow cleft below.
Pincian Hill isn’t included among the Seven Hills of Rome but is one of the most favourite panoramic viewpoints by the Romans. Besides, it is immediately above Piazza del Popolo and Villa Medici, which you will see laying grandly at your feet!
Villa Borghese has several beautiful parts, as we already saw, but the most scenic and romantic of all is, without a doubt, is the Pincian Terrace!
Napoleon commissioned the current neo-classical layout of the Terrance to architect Giuseppe Valadier, who in 1816 also created the majestic Piazza del Popolo.
The name “Pincian” comes from one of the ancient Roman families that settled here: the Pincii.
6. Casina Valadier
Located just beside the Pincian Terrace, Casina Valadier is a wonderful neo-classic villa comprising three floors and a private garden of 2500m² / 27000ft².
It now hosts a refined cafe and restaurant for special occasions with food (and prices) to match with an unparalleled view over Rome.
7. Villa Medici
The regal Villa Medici, erected in 1564 and gained in 1576 by Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici, has been developed by Florentine architect Bartolomeo Ammanati.
While the Villa’s outside is plain, the interior is colourful and perfectly suited to the Florentine palace style.
Velasquez visited here in the 17th century, and we know that from 1630 to 1633, the villa accommodated Galileo Galilei, who was under house arrest because of his “heretic” beliefs.
The Medici dynasty died out in 1737, and they passed the villa down to the Lorraine line. Napoleon purchased the villa in 1801, and two years later, he moved the French Academy’s Roman offices here, which was founded in Paris in 1666 by Louis XIV, France’s Sun King.
The French Academy is still housed in Villa Medici today.
The Renaissance-style villa’s exterior is like an open-air museum, with hundreds of statues, reliefs, and antique marble fragments discovered on the grounds, including Augustus’ famed marble garlands.
The cleverly crafted 7-hectare/17-acre gardens are evocative of Cosimo de’ Medici’s magnificent botanical gardens in Florence.
Admission fee: 12€/ 14$ p.p. (it includes the Renaissance garden and historical apartments).
8. Villa Albani-Torlonia
This villa, which has been in the Torlonia family since 1867, was built in the mid-18th century for Cardinal Alessandro Albani, nephew of Pope Clement XI, to house Winckelmann’s famed antiquities collection.
The villa, terraces, and stairways were part of the complex, along with a hemicycle with the Caffeehaus, an Italian garden, fountains, various smaller structures, and a small temple that served as an aviary on the opposite side. The antiquities from the cardinal’s distinguished collection were displayed in the villa’s garden.
The villa is one of the most eloquent representations of the antiquarian taste that arose in the mid-18th century, at the crossroads between Rococo and Neoclassicism when Rome had become a favoured Grand Tour destination.
Niccolò da Foligno, Perugino, Gherardo delle Notti, van Dyck, Tintoretto, Ribera, Guercino, Giulio Romano, Borgognone, Luca Giordano, David, and Vanvitelli are among the artists represented in the Art Gallery.
Free admission. Even though on the website they firmly encourage you to contribute to the Foundations projects and activities with a recommended minimum contribution of 50€/ 56.6$ p.p.
9. House of the Owls in Villa Albani-Torlonia
The House of the Owls (Casina delle Civette) is a fairytale house in the Villa Torlonia park dedicated to owls, hence the name.
They created this unusual complex as a “Swiss chalet” for Prince Alessandro Torlonia in 1840. However, at the request of Prince Giovanni Torlonia “the younger,” who lived there until he died in 1938, they afterwards changed it into the style of a “mediaeval hamlet.”
The Villa was purchased by the City of Rome in 1978, and after extensive repair work, they gave the fantasy small villa to the city and now houses a stained glass museum.
Expect to be wowed by its bespoke romantic motifs of owls, swans, and peacocks, while the nooks and crannies of its wonderfully restored interior are a treat to explore, especially for youngsters.
Admission fee: 7€/ 8$ p.p.
10. Coppedè Neighbourhood
Coppedè Neighbourhood is a strange and unexpected location in the city’s northern reaches.
In 1919, Florentine architect Gino Coppedè (from whom the area gets its current name) brought the magical blend of Ancient Greek, Roman Baroque, Mannerist, Medieval, and general Art Nouveau jumble to reality. The Coppedè neighbourhood contains roughly 40 structures, all of which were planned by Coppedè.
Piazza Mincio, the hub of quartier Coppedè, is a small square surrounded by Coppedè and his team’s buildings, with the Fountain of the Frogs (Fontana delle Rane) in the centre.
The Frogs fountain is full of intricate elements and carvings inspired by nature, particularly the many frog sculptures that give it its name. It’s a great ornamental item that reminds me of another natural-themed artwork, the famed tortoise fountain in Piazza Mattei, which this one pays respect to.
There are very stunning buildings all around the square.
The massive archway that serves as a gateway to the area from Via Tagliamento is the most striking. This arch connects two residences and was erected as a nod to the majesty of ancient Roman architecture. The arch has two sides, both of which are intricately carved, but it is the inside that is truly remarkable: if you walk beneath it and look up, you will discover a gorgeous cobalt ceiling and an outside candelabra.
Another fascinating structure in the area is the so-called Spider Building (Palazzo del Ragno), which is easily identifiable because of a large mosaic of a spider above its main door. Although the use of a spider as decoration may appear odd, it is in keeping with the natural theme of most of the architectural aspects in the plaza and appears to be a tribute to architects’ painstakingly precise labour.
The so-called Fairies’ House (Villino delle Fate), a charming house made of three chalets sharing the external walls and a fantastic-looking turret, is perhaps the most distinctive of all the buildings here. The edifice has a notable medieval feel, which can be seen in the frescoes on the walkway and the small loggia, which are clear references to the architecture seen in many places in Italy with a significant medieval past.
11. Church of Our Lady of Sorrows
The Church of Our Lady of Sorrows (Chiesa di Santa Maria Addolorata) in Piazza Buenos Aires is the national church for expatriates from Argentina.
The structure, dating from the first decade of the twentieth century, is a magnificent example of neo-Romanesque architecture with a typical basilica layout.
Giambattista Conti beautifully embellished with mosaic work both floors of the façade.
A mosaic with a floral vine-scroll motif on a green background adorns the archivolts and the wall area above the arches. A pair of peacocks sip from a vase in the centre, while two wreaths with the Marian monogram in Greek MPΘY “Mary, Mother of God” hang over the two side arches.
There are two registers in the mosaic. On the cavetto, the one above has a golden background. In the Book, there is a depiction of the Lamb of God with the Seven Seals in the centre, flanked by colourfully portrayed emblems of the four Evangelists. The bottom register features four-date palms, which represent Paradise, as well as twelve accurately depicted sheep on a flowery meadow, which represents the Twelve Apostles.
The mosaic surrounds a row of three round-headed windows with transennas or carved stone fenestration. They adorned the central one with a cross pattern. A mosaic panel of the Argentina flag hangs above the single entrance.
The bell tower is a free-standing red-brick structure that imitates the city’s old Romanesque campanile.
12. Church of Our Lady of Victory
The Church of Our Lady of Victory (Santa Maria della Vittoria) is a 17th-century Baroque basilica dedicated to Emperor Ferdinand II’s victory at the Battle of White Mountain, which marked the end of the Thirty Years’ War’s Bohemian era.
Since its appearance in American author Dan Brown’s work Angels & Demons, it has become highly popular.
Although the church’s exterior isn’t particularly stunning, the interior is lavishly ornamented.
The Cornaro Chapel, which houses Bernini’s sculpture “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa d’Avila,” is one of the most noteworthy elements of the church. It is regarded as a Baroque sculptural masterpiece, and even now, people are enchanted by the scenic structure, which depicts the saint suspended in the centre of a very white and delicate cloud.
The enormous Fountain of Moses (Fontana dell’Acqua Felice) rises near the church, built to mark the completion of the Acqua Felice aqueduct.
13. Opera House
The Opera House (Teatro dell’Opera), originally known as Teatro Costanzi, after Domenico Costanzi, the visionary entrepreneur who commissioned it at the end of the 19th century, was built in a Renaissance-Revival (or neo-renaissance) style with some Baroque aspects.
Inaugurated in 1880, it was purchased by the town in 1926, and renamed “Royal Opera House” (as Italy was still a monarchy at the time).
Following the end of World War II and the formation of the Italian Republic, the “royal” adjective was removed from the opera house’s name. They restored it in 1958 and resembled what it is today.
In over a century of life, it has seen its prestige grow exponentially and its prestigious aces have been trodden by the likes of Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Aureliano Pertile, Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Montserrat Caballé, Rajna Kabaivanska, Mario Del Monaco, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti, and by illustrious conductors such as Toscanini, Von Karajan, Abbado, Mehta, Maazel, Rostropovich, Sinopoli, and Riccardo Muti.
It now stages lavish opera productions intermingled with ballets. It has its orchestra and ballet company, both of which are of excellent quality.
They provide guided and tailored tours in Italian, English, Japanese, and Russian, for individuals and small groups to illustrate the architectural and artistic history of the Opera House, with a focus on the illustrious names in music history and political history associated with it.
14. Salone Margherita Teather
Salone Margherita Theatre, most famously known by locals as “Bagaglino”, was built in liberty style in 1898 and named after Margherita of Savoia, wife of King Umberto I of Savoia.
At first, the theatre hosted typical vaudeville shows in a way that flaunted more luxury and refinement than any other theatre in Rome.
In the 1910s, the theatre’s playbill featured the best comedians and the most sought-after soubrettes of the age. Throughout the 20th century, the theatre was always a home for the revue, Roman comedy, vaudeville, and operettas.
Unfortunately, it is now (Dec 2021) closed and the re-opening day is still undetermined.
15. Capuchin Crypt
The Capuchin Crypt, also known as the Museum and Crypt of the Capuchin Friars, is a series of small chapels beneath the 17th-century Church of Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins (Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini), which houses the bones and mummified remains of about 4,000 people. As a result, they frequently referred it to as the “Bone Church of Rome.”
The Capuchin order considers the bones of former friars to be a solemn and painful reminder of our mortality and passaging life on Earth, rather than a grotesque sight. “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be,” reads an inscription in the crypt.
The ossuary, a collection of thousands of human bones that have been employed in the ornate decoration of the walls and ceilings, is the most well-known feature. Since 2012, a well-designed new museum dedicated to the Capuchins’ and the church’s histories complemented the crypt.
Admission fee: 8.5€/ 9.6$ p.p.
If you’re looking for a guided tour with a skip-the-line advantage, I’d recommend having a look at this 1-hour tour for a full immersion experience.
16. Piazza Barberini
Piazza Barberini, created on Cardinal Francesco Barberini’s instructions in 1625, is named after one of Rome’s most influential Renaissance families. It is located at the end of Via Veneto, a short distance from the square is the Palazzo Barberini, a splendid Baroque palace that houses the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica (see the point 17).
The Fountain of the Triton (Fontana del Tritone), created in 1643 by Bernini, stands in the square’s centre. Four dolphins support Triton, the god of the sea, as he creates a water jet from a seashell.
Another of Benini’s works, the Fountain of the Bees (Fontana delle Api), lies tucked away in one of the square’s corners. The fountain, built in 1644 in honour of Pope Urban VIII, is adorned with huge bees, which are the Barberini family’s emblem
17. Palazzo Barberini
Palazzo Barberini is a 17th-century Baroque palace in Piazza Barberini that today houses Rome’s most important national collection of earlier paintings, the “Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica.”
Maffeo Barberini, who eventually became Pope Urban VIII, founded it. Carlo Maderno, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Francesco Borromini, among the most imaginative artists of the time, transformed it into a gorgeous palace, that now has 187 rooms (with bees, the Barberini’s insignia, throughout) and covers 12000 m2/ 129000 ft2.
Palazzo Barberini and the less-visited Corsini Gallery are the two galleries that make up a museum that houses around 5000 paintings, sculptures, and frescoes, most of which are from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Raphael (La Fornaria), Filippo Lippi (The Annunciation), Caravaggio (Judith beheads Holofernes and Narcissus), Tintoretto, El Greco, and Bronzini are among the highlights of Palazzo Barberini collection.
Admission fee: 12€/ 13.5$ p.p.
18. Palazzo Colonna
Palazzo Colonna is one of Rome’s oldest and most opulent private residences. It was built in the 14th century by the Colonna family, who have lived there for the past eight centuries.
The construction took five centuries, resulting in the overlapping of diverse architectural styles, interiors, and exteriors that characterize and reflect the various times. The palace’s facade is Renaissance-style, while the interior was designed by Baroque architects Bernini, Carlo Fontana, Johan Paul Schor, and Antonio del Grande.
The gorgeous and stately Colonna Gallery, a true jewel of the Roman Baroque erected throughout the 1600s, displays the family’s art treasures, which include sculptures, frescoes, valuable furniture, and, most notably, paintings by well-known Italian and international artists from the 15th and 16th centuries, such Pinturicchio, Tintoretto, Cosmè Tura, Carracci, Guido Reni, Salvator Rosa, Bronzino, Guercino, and Vanvitelli.
Admission fee: short tour 15€/ 16.9$ p.p. (includes Gallery, Pio Apartment and gardens); full tour 25€/ 28$ p.p. (includes Gallery, Pio Apartment, Princess Isabelle Apartment and gardens). It opens only on Saturday mornings.
19. Mausoleum of Augustus
Augustus’ Mausoleum is the world’s largest circular mausoleum and the largest tomb in the Roman world with a diameter of 87 meters (285 feet) and a height of 42 meters (138 feet).
There were several rooms in the mausoleum’s heart that previously housed the Imperial family’s urns. The innermost, just beneath the statue at the top of the monument, most likely held the bones of Augustus himself. From the entryway, a thin corridor led to the interior chambers, which were flanked on either side by two pink granite obelisks, moved to Piazza dell’Esquilino and the Quirinal fountain.
With the Roman Empire long gone, the Colonna family fortified the Mausoleum and turned it into a castle during the Middle Ages. As possession changed hands, the Mausoleum housed a hanging garden, an amphitheatre used for bullfighting and firework displays, a theatre and, at the beginning of the 20th century, it became one of the most famous music halls of Europe, bearing the name of Auditorium Augusteo.
They attempted restoration of the monument during the Fascist era, which involved dismantling the auditorium and other structures that had been built on top of the Mausoleum over the ages. The war, however, halted this restoration, and Augustus’ tomb was left to its own devices once more.
New archaeological investigations in the sepulchre and surrounding square began in 2007, and in 2016 the mausoleum underwent a conservative restoration, returning it to its rightful place in the city’s and world’s archaeological heritage. After years of restoration, it is now open to the public for visits as of March 2021.
Admission fee: 4€/ 4.5$ p.p.
20. Little London
You can find Little London (Piccola Londra) in Via Bernardo Celentano, a short (only 200 m/ 219yd long), private street entirely designed in English urban style in the heart of the Flaminio district.
It is made of two rows of small houses, each with a private garden outside and all designed in a nice and elegant Liberty style in 1909 by Architect Quadrio Pirani, who wished to recreate the feel of a residential suburb of London as an architectural experiment.
This is the perfect spot for a retreat from the famed hustle and bustle of Rome’s city centre: an oasis of pastel-coloured houses, Victorian street lamps and tiny gardens. The peace and tranquillity of this street, which brings to mind the hushed boulevards of London, will instantly charm you reserved for the city’s elite, Chelsea and Mayfair.
21. Milvian Bridge
Milvian Bridge (Ponte Milvio), originally built of stone in the 2nd century, is perhaps one of the Roman Empire’s most important, yet lesser-known (or rather neglected) landmarks.
It was the site of the Battle of Milvian Bridge, fought between Constantine I and Maxitius in the year 312 and won by Constantine I, who converted to Christianity right after. According to legend, Constantine saw a cross in the sky with the inscription “with this emblem you will conquer” before the fight.
Despite being one of the Tiber River bridges with the longest history, it was put on the back burner for many years until Italian novelist Federico Moccia included it in two of his novels, that, in the early 2000s, became extremely popular among young readers. So much so that they released a movie adaptation in 2007.
In the first novel, which is essentially a love story between the two main adolescent protagonists, they prove their love for each other by securing a padlock to one of the bridge’s streetlights and tossing the key into the river.
Since then, Milvian Bridge has become one of Rome’s most prominent tourist attractions, as well as a favourite spot for couples in love who come to confirm their love for one another by leaving a padlock on the bridge.
The trend eventually turned into a problem for the Rome bridge, as there were so many padlocks affixed to the streetlights that some of them tilted over and even fell. As a result, the Rome City Council decided in 2012 to remove the thousands of padlocks left behind and prohibited the installation of new ones.
22. Basilica of St Lawrence Outside the Walls
The Basilica of Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls, located just before the Monumental Cemetery Verano, is part of the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome. Those make up a pilgrimage path to Rome worth a plenary indulgence to pilgrims.
Inside are the remains of Saint Stephen and the tomb of Saint Lawrence, martyred in 258 AD, as well as other famous figures such as Italian Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi and five Popes: Saint Zosimo, Saint Sixtus III, Sant Hilarius, Damasus II, and Pope Pius IX.
The foundation of this church may be traced back to the year 330 when Emperor Constantine ordered the construction of a large basilica with a cemetery called “Basilica Maior” near Saint Lawrence’s grave, to which they erected a modest oratory. By the late 6th century, Pope Pelagius II had built a new cathedral, the “Basilica Minor,” which not only replaced the oratory but also housed the Saint’s grave. The basilica did not become what it is now until the 13th century when the two churches were merged.
A large square precedes the church and features a column with a statue of Saint Lawrence on it. The monastery is next to the church, as is the magnificent 13th-century Romanesque bell tower.
Six ornate columns support the entry portico, which is topped with capitals in the Ionic style of the Middle Ages. It has remarkable murals on the walls showing the lives of Saint Lawrence and Saint Stephen, besides sarcophagi and marble slabs.
Two marble lions greet you as you enter the basilica on either side of the entrance gate.
Finally, the Catacombs of Ciriaca, which can be viewed on request, can be accessed from the courtyard. It has a collection of early Christian paintings that are worth seeing.
23. Basilica of St Mary Major
Built on a pagan temple, the Basilica of St Mary Major (Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore) was built in the mid-4th century under the orders of Pope Liberius.
According to legend, the Virgin appeared before the Pope with the instructions for building the church, and the shape of the floor was designed based on a miraculous snowfall.
Over the years, the basilica has had many names, but they finally called it “St Mary Major”, as it is the largest of the 26 churches in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
It displays varied architectural styles, from early Christian to Baroque. The entire building was restored and renovated during the18h century, so the facade and much of the interior date from that period. Despite this, the church keeps the bell tower (the highest in Rome at 75 metres), some mosaics and marble floors from the medieval period and some Ionic columns from other ancient Roman buildings, as well as splendid 5th-century mosaics. The golden, coffered ceiling, built with the first of the gold Columbus brought back from America, has been preserved from the Renaissance period, while the domes and chapels belong to the Baroque era.
It is said that there are pieces of wood from Jesus’ crib underneath the altar (Sacra Culla).
To the left of the main entrance is one of the four Holy Doors in Rome, the others being in Saint Peter, St. John Lateran, and Saint Paul Outside the Walls Basilicas. If people walk through all four holy doors of Rome in a single day during a jubilee, they believed they earn an indulgence and are absolved of their sins.
The basilica contains the funerary monuments of Pope Clement IX, Paul V and Nicholas IV. They bury here as well several other famous Catholics, including the saint Jerome and the artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Like the Basilica of St Lawrence outside the Walls, St Mary Major is part of the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome.
24. Magic Door
It’s in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II’s core section, inside the park, where the ruins of an old villa disclose a Magic or Alchemist Door, a portal into the true and mysterious realm of 1600s alchemy.
The Magic Door is the only remaining of the five doors to Roman marquis Massimiliano Palombara’s villa. According to folklore, the Marquis encountered an alchemist (reported to be Francesco Giuseppe Borri, who was persecuted and accused of heresy by the Inquisition) who claimed he could change metals into gold by using a specific herb. The next morning the alchemist was gone but had left behind some gold flakes, evidence of his successful transformations, and an indecipherable sheet, the secret of the philosopher’s stone, the legendary substance supposed to change metals into gold. As the Marquis couldn’t read it, he scribbled it on his doors, hoping that someone who could read it would notice it and come knocking.
The door is still shrouded in mystery and esoteric ideas, and a mysterious sign above the doorway fuels many other theories.
25. Basilica of St Peter in Chains
St Peter in Chains (San Pietro in Vincoli) is known for housing Saint Peter’s chains and Michelangelo’s famed Moses statue.
The Apostle Peter was arrested and imprisoned in Jerusalem, according to legend, for preaching about Jesus. They bound him with an iron chain and put him under watch. However, the night before his trial, an angel is claimed to have liberated St. Peter from his chains and carried him out of the prison directly under the guards’ noses. Empress Eudoxia (wife of Emperor Valentinian III) gave these chains to Pope Leo. Those chains and the ones from Peter’s initial imprisonment in Rome’s Mamertine Prison mysteriously merged when the Pope held them close together.
The Basilica, erected for this very purpose in 442, housed the two fused chains that bind Saint Peter in a reliquary beneath its main altar.
However, the major attraction here appears to be the “Moses” of Michelangelo, which was originally intended to be part of a 47-statue free-standing burial monument for Pope Julius II, but that eventually became the focus of the Pope’s tomb in this Della Rovere family church.
Moses is depicted with horns, which symbolized “the brilliance of the Lord”, for two main reasons: the similarity in the Hebrew terms for “beams of light” and “horns,” and because sculpting horns is easier than beams of light.
26. Golden House
After the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, Emperor Nero ordered the construction of the Golden House (Domus Aurea) on the Oppian Hill.
It soon became the showiest mansion ever built, which no Roman monarch, consul, or emperor would ever consider, and part of Nero’s plan to convert and transform Rome into a new metropolis called “Neropolis” after the Hellenistic model, similar to Alexandria.
This 80-hectare/ 198-acre complex with over 150 rooms had an impressive entrance with a colonnade and a 35-meter/115-foot-high statue of Nero himself and comprised a series of buildings separated by gardens, woods and vineyards and an artificial lake, which lay in the valley where the Colosseum stands today.
Nero committed suicide in A.D. 68, before the completion of the palace. Since people did not particularly love the emperor, later emperors Domus Aurea partly demolished again to erase the memories of Nero and built other buildings on top, such as the Baths of Trajan.
Admission fee: accompanied tour from Monday to Thursday 12€/ 13.5$ p.p.; from Friday to Sunday 18€/ 20.2$ p.p.
27. Basilica of St. Clement
The Basilica of St Clement, dedicated to Pope Clement I, is historically significant since it documents Rome’s history from the dawn of Christianity until the Middle Ages.
It comprises three “layers”: the current structure, which was built during the Medieval period, a Roman aristocrat’s home, used for Christian clandestine worship in the 2nd century AD, and a 4th-century church beneath the basilica.
The Basilica of St Clement appears to be just like any other church in Rome at first glance. Inside, however, there are various and inconceivable treasures, such as a brilliantly designed with mosaics from the 20th century.
The sacristy is the entryway to the 4th-century church, where visitors will see the many murals on the walls, as well as some remains of mosaics that once covered the temple floor, despite the cold, darkness, and moisture.
Admission fee: 10€/ 11.2$ p.p.
28. Basilica of St Stefano Rotondo al Celio
Built in the 5th century AD atop the ruins of a 2nd-century Mithraeum and the Roman barracks of the Castra Peregrina (intended for non-Italian soldiers), the Basilica of St Stefano Rotondo is one of the earliest instances of a centrally planned church.
The magnificent interior features a ring of 22 beautiful marble columns that divide a big centre area, creating two circular walks around the main altar in the church’s heart.
Pope Innocentius II erected the five-arch portico on the outside and three wide ribbed vaults over the altar, which are supported by two massive Corinthian columns.
Other notable elements of this church include Antonio Tempesta’s paintings depicting episodes from St. Stephen’s life adorn the eight-sided balustrade (1580); the Martyrdom Cycle by Pomarancio and Matteo da Siena that run along the church’s periphery wall (1582);. the mosaics in the chapel, dedicated to SS. Primus and Felicianus from the 7th century AD; the frescoes in the same chapel by Tempesta (1568).
The Pauline Fathers, a Catholic Order founded by Hungarians, took Santo Stefano Rotondo over in 1454. In Rome, the church would later become Hungary’s national church.
29. Basilica of St Francesca Romana al Palatino
The Basilica of St Francesca Romana al Palatino was built in the second part of the 10th century and includes an 8th-century oratory excavated in the wing of the Temple of Venus and Roma’s portico by Pope Paul I.
Pope Honorius III rebuilt it in the 13th century along with the construction of the bell tower and the decoration of the apse with mosaics of a Maestà, the Madonna enthroned accompanied by saints. Since then, they have changed the inside, though.
The Olivetan monastic order first and then the Frances of Rome took charge of the church.
Travertine porch and façade are the work of Carlo Lombardi (1615). The same architect who worked on the interior
The original church’s rectangular schola cantorum, which is covered in Cosmatesque mosaics, sits in the nave’s centre. Another remarkable element is the confessional, which was built in polychrome marbles with four jasper-veneered columns by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1638-49).
The church is also home to the priceless Madonna Glycophilousa (“Our Lady of Tenderness”), a Hodegetria image from the early fifth century taken from Santa Maria Antiqua. In 1950, the 12th-century Madonna and Child, which had been painted over it, was carefully removed from the panel and placed in the sacristy.
Pope Paul I chose the site of Simon Magus’ death for the ancient oratory on which they erected the current church. According to mythology, Simon Magus wanted to show that his powers were greater than the apostles’, so he began levitating in front of Sts. Peter and Paul. The two apostles were preaching on their knees when Simon collapsed and died. The apostles’ knees are etched on the basalt stones, which are embedded in the south transept wall.
In the south transept stands the tomb of Pope Gregory XI, who returned the papacy to Rome from Avignon.
30. Basilica of St. John Lateran
St John Lateran (Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano), the Cathedral of Rome, was built in the 4th century in honour of St. John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. It is the first Roman basilica ever built, and even though it has been renovated multiple times, it nevertheless retains its original form.
A monastery once stood near the Archbasilica, but it has since disappeared; the only part that remains is its exquisite 13th-century cloister. The Basilica also features a baptistery, which was Rome’s only baptistery for many years.
It was here that all popes were enthroned until 1870, hence it has played a key role throughout history.
The two-story portico on the Basilica’s main façade was built in the 18th century. Visitors will notice majestic statues of the Apostles and Jesus on the top section of the façade, which are also from the same century.
The inside of the Basilica is beautiful, with huge statues, mosaics, and frescoes from ceiling to floor, majestic columns as well as another of the Holy Doors of Rome.
In addition, in 326 St Helena transferred the Holy Stairs (Scala Santa), on which Jesus Christ allegedly during his Passion, beside the Basilica from Jerusalem. That’s the reason why this Basilica is a pilgrimage destination for Catholics from all over the world. Fun fact: the Holy Stairs can only be climbed on one’s knees.
The Basilica is open to the public for free. The cloister is open to the public for a price of 2€/ 2.25$ p.p.
31. The Mouth Of Truth in the Church of St Mary Cosmedian
The Mouth of Truth (Bocca della Verità) is a towering stone disc fashioned into a humanoid face with hollow holes for eyes and a gaping mouth that dates back to roughly the 1st century CE.
Until 1632, the sculpture was housed at the Piazza della Bocca della Veritá. Then, they moved it to the exterior of one of the adjoining St Mary Cosmedian’s walls, where it still stands today.
Its original purpose has been speculated to be anything from a ceremonial well cover to a piece of fountain adornment to a manhole cover. The face itself has been claimed to resemble a pagan god, however, researchers have speculated on everything from the woodland god Faunus to the sea god Oceanus to a local river god.
While the origin of the stone carving is unknown, one unifying tradition is that if one placed their hand inside the disc’s mouth and told a lie, the stony maw would bite the offending hand off. This idea appears to have started during the Middle Ages, when the disc was allegedly employed during trials, with the accused placing their hand in the slot and a hidden axeman severing the appendage if discovered to be untruthful. Even though this use appears to be fictitious, the superstition lives on.
Large crowds of people commonly form lines to be photographed with their hands within it.
Admission fee: 2€/ 2.25$ p.p.
32. Basilica of St Cecilia in Trastevere
The Basilica of St Cecilia in Trastevere was built on the site of the noble Cecilia’s family residence, beheaded around 230 AD for attempting to convert her husband Valeriano and her brother Tiburzio.
Legend has it that Pope Urban I, who witnessed the torture, buried the martyr’s body and sanctified the home, converting it into a church. Thanks to St Gregory the Great, it became a primitive basilica in the 6th century.
The cloister, atrium, and bell tower were constructed between the 12th and 13th centuries.
Cardinal Sfondrati had the tomb of Santa Cecilia uncovered in 1599 during renovation work, exposing the astonishingly undamaged body, clad in white and with wounds on her neck. Stefano Maderno was commissioned to construct a marble statue in the exact location where the Saint’s body was discovered.
The basilica has been regularly restored since the 16th century, with the addition of the 18th-century grand entry that preserves the ancient pink granite and African marble columns.
The interior, divided into three naves, features a fresco by Sebastiano Conca (1727) depicting the Apotheosis of Saint Cecilia on the vault, but the greatest masterpieces are centred in the presbytery. The ciborium in black and white marble is a Gothic work signed by Arnolfo di Cambio (1293); in the apse, a 9th-century mosaic depicting the blessing Redeemer with saints Paul, Cecilia, Peter, Valeriano, and Agatha, as well as Pope Paschal I, is depicted with the model of the church; under the altar, the famous statue of Santa Cecilia by Stefano Maderno.
Some rooms relating to a thermal plant and historic homes have been brought to light in the church’s basements, with the black and white mosaic floors remaining.
Pope Paschal I erected a monastery, which has seen several monastic presences over the ages. It has been committed to a convent of Benedictine nuns since 1527.
33. Villa Farnesina
Villa Farnesina, built for the wealthy Sienese banker Agostino Chigi in the early 16th century and currently owned by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, is one of the Italian Renaissance’s grandest and most harmonious constructions.
In 1579, the Farnese family bought it and renamed it Villa Farnesina. Finally, the Italian State acquired it in 1927 and used it to house the Italian Academy until 1944, when it was given to the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei.
Its simple volumetric and spatial structure is the ideal backdrop for the magnificent interior artwork, which includes frescoes by renowned masters like Raphael, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, known as Sodoma, and Peruzzi.
Particularly noteworthy are the “Romm of the Frieze”, where Peruzzi frescoed the twelve Labours of Hercules and other deeds performed by the hero, as well as various mythological episodes, the “Loggia of Galatea”, where Peruzzi, Sebastiano del Piombo, and Raphael joint their effort, the cycle of Cupid and Psyche on the ground-floor gallery by Raphael, the first-floor bedchamber, where Giovanni Antonio Bazzi created a fresco cycle depicting Alexander the Great’s wedding to Roxane, and the “Room of the Perspective Views”, which takes its name from Peruzzi’s perspective views of urban and rural landscapes between fictive columns.
Admission fees: 10€/ 11.3$ p.p. for the Villa + 5€/ 5.6$ p.p. for the Library.
With Villa Farnesina this first part of “66 hidden gems to see in Rome, Italy” comes to an end. Click here to go to the second and last part.
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