Rome’s big ticket attractions like the Colosseum, Pantheon, Vatican and Trevi Fountain, just to name a few, should definitely be on everyone’s ‘to do list’, but there are surprising sights that you may never have hear of, but will amaze you.
1. Capuchin Crypts
At first this can be quite a grotesque and confronting place. In about 1631, the Capuchin monks used the bones of over 4000 dead monks, plus a few others, to decorate the walls and ceilings of the crypts.
However, if you look past the fact you are surrounded by death, you can see the messages the monks have incorporated into these series of small chapels. Each chapel has a different point to make to visitors, but all share the common theme that life is short, while death is for eternity. This is not meant to be morbid. The bones are arranged to create symbols, such as clocks to remind us to embrace life, to live life well and with meaning.
The story of how the order of Capuchin monks was established and how these crypts were created are fascinating. Capuchin means hoods in Italian and they are a branch off from the Franciscan order. Occasionally there are performances of sacred music in the crypts, usually at night which would be both powerful and slightly petrifying, despite the uplifting messages.
A tour is probably the best way to get the most out of this place as the untrained eye will miss a lot of the details and hidden metaphors. City Wonders is the original tour of this kind, reasonably priced and the tour guides really know their stuff, often university graduate students in the field.
Where to find it.
2. Ostia Antica
This is Rome’s answer to Pompeii. It is close enough to Rome to visit in a day trip.
During ancient Roman times, this was a major seaport, a significant city to the Roman Empire (509BC – 27BC). However, other seaports sprang up and Ostia became neglected. When a malaria plague hit the city, people left in droves and it became forgotten for centuries. At its height 100,000 people called Ostia home and your can still walk down the main street and see the theatre, taverns, and public baths.
Ostia provides a window into ancient Roman life without having to go too far afield.
3. St Clements Basilica
Just up the road from the Colosseum, St Clements Basilica is an eye-opening experience. The current basilica, completed in the 12th century, was built on the ruins of Rome’s past. Rome is a city of layers as each era builds on top of the last. This is good for archaeology as it preserves the past, but not so good for building new metro lines. Construction has been held up for years because every time they dig, they find yet another historically significant site and have to down tools, but I digress. St Clements Basilica provides a first-hand experience of what lays beneath the surface of Rome. The Basilica itself holds and interesting story about St Clement, but narrow, damp stairs lead you down through history to a 4th century church. But it doesn’t end there. Further down is 1st century Rome including a store room for the Colosseum, a surprisingly intact pagan temple, alleyways, baths, homes and the river that connects to the Colosseum is still running down there. These all date back to Nero’s fire. Truly a journey through the hidden depths of Rome.
Note: A church (chiesa) is different from a basilica. A basilica in a church that contains a sacred relic and therefore hold more religious significance. This basilica allegedly holds the martyred remains of Saint Clement and Saint Ignatius, which leads me neatly to the next point.
4. St Ignatius Church
Like many churches in Rome, the exterior of St Ignatius looks quite bland and you’d be forgiven for walking past it without giving it a second thought. I did. Once I went inside and was amazed, I pledged never to judge an Italian church by it’s cover again.
The beauty and magnificence of the ceiling fresco is awesome. It depicts representations of the continents to symbolise the missionary work of the Jesuit order, a refreshing change from the usual sacred art subjects. For me it is better than the Sistine chapel. A big call I know, but the optical illusion created of people seemingly falling and infinite space in genius. Andrea Pozzo is the Jesuit painter and architect who you have probably never heard of who specialised in these illusions in the 17th century.
Pozzo also created a false dome win St Ignatius, another optical illusion of great magnitude.
St Ignatius Church is just around the corner from the Pantheon. Entry is free.
Where to find it.
While we’re on the subject of under rated artists: Bernini. So often he is overlooked, but without him Rome would be far less beautiful, or interesting. Rather than go one about it, here are some picture of his work. They speak for themselves.
Dawn is the best time to appreciate Bernini’s masterpieces and the eternal city itself. It’s also a great time to take memorable photos, without random tourists and hawkers getting in the way. At this time there’s a serenity to the eternal city that is lost when battling the hoards.
7. Appian Way
When you ask: What have the Romans ever done for us? One of the first answers is the roads. Goes without saying. The Appian way is one of the first and most important roads the ancient Romans built, and the original paved path is still intact.
But even if you’re not mad keen on soaking up the beauty of ancient roadways, the Appian Way is another site to enjoy some distance from the crowds. It also provides a host of interesting attractions as well as a deliciously sinister history. Since it was prohibited to bury people within the city walls, the early Christians and Jews buried their loved ones in catacombs beneath the Appian Way. More infamously, Spartacus and his legion of slave followers were crucified along the road sides following their unsuccessful uprising to serve as a warning to other would-be upstarts.
If you’ve got the time or inclination you may want to walk the entire 62KM length (originally it was more than 200 KM long), but you certainly don’t have to. Indeed, you don’t even have to walk. There are bike tours, and even Segway tours available.
8. Dark Heart Tour
I would rarely suggest a tour, but this one is different. It’s a 90-minute, small group night time walking tour that takes you to the sites of some dastardly happenings in the city. The cases selected for the tour tended to be more domestic nature, rather than political, so no Julius Caesar murder or incestuous Caligula. But there was one case involving a sinister pope. One doesn’t want to give too much away. The walk was easy, and the tour ends near a taxi rank. It’s also one of the cheapest tours on offer. Check out the tour and tickets here. Would recommend doing the tour before visiting the Castel St. Angelo.
9. Cat Sanctuary at Julius Caesar’s Murder Site
Julius Cesar was famously stabbed in the back by his senators, including his best mate. It all went down in Pompey’s Theatre – not to be confused with Pompeii of volcano infamy.
Pompey’s Theatre is in the city of Rome. It is currently the site of a cat sanctuary where the city’s stray cats are fed, de-sexed, given medical treatment and re-homed. The cats live among the ruins of the theatre. It’s a great place for cat lovers. Be quick though as there are plans to re-purpose the site as a tourist attraction with new toilets and gift shop.
Where to find it.
10. A Taste of Opera
If you’re not a big fan of opera, but would like to experience some high Italian culture, then check out I Virtuosi Dell Opéra di Roma.
A collection of well-loved opera arias are performed in the Church of St. Paolo Entrole Le Mura and is far less formal than a full-blown operatic experience and at 22 Euro, much cheaper. The company has been around for a good 20 years. Musicians and singers are first rate and the acoustics in the church are phenomenal. But the company also offers other options of varying degrees of formality here.
Of course, there are far more fascinating and unusual things Rome has to offer. A city doesn’t get to be eternal without an eternity of captivating interest points. Just wandering about getting lost in the lanes and discovering hidden gems is a wonderful way to spend a few hours.
There are many tours available in Rome, but I recommend City Wonders because they are reasonably priced, the guides are experts in their fields and the content of the tours take you to next level, not just same-old tourism info.
I’d love to hear about your favourite unusual things to do in Rome.