A few months ago, I went to Rome to visit an American friend who had moved there a few years ago. I had seen almost all the well-known tourist attractions such as the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and the Vatican, but was not familiar with more local and off-the-beaten-path sites. My friend was kind enough to play tour guide and took me to the places listed below, most of which I had never been to before.
1. Palazzo Doria Pamphilj
Located on a highly trafficked, commercial street near the Colosseum is a hidden palace, Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. Built in 1644 for Pope Innocent X, the palace is still privately owned by the Doria Pamphilj family, who also live in the upper floors. It’s the largest private home in Rome and also has the largest private art collection in the city. It contains over 400 paintings and sculptures from the 15–18th century by artists such as Velázquez, Bernini, Caravaggio, Raphael, and Tiziano.
Many of the rooms still have the original period furniture, rugs, and tapestries, and you can also visit the former private chapel. The palace is separated into two parts open to the public. The Gallery, which mostly displays art and sculptures, is divided into a series of rooms. The Jupiter Room includes works by artists J.B. Weenix, G.B. Giovannini, and G. Contarini of Jupiter and Venus. The Poussin Room has impressive landscape paintings dating as far back as 1654. There’s also the Ballroom; the Velvet Room, with walls covered in damask velvet; the Velasquez Cabinet, which displays a Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velasquez from 1650 plus other masterpieces; and the Hall of Mirrors, similar to the one in the Versailles Palace outside of Paris. The other section of the palace is the Private Princess Apartments, a series of seven rooms which are decorated in various styles or period furniture and objects.
2. Balloon Museum
I’ve visited many unusual museums around the world including a purse museum, a museum about counterfeiting, and an Edith Piaf Museum in a private apartment in Paris, but the Balloon Museum tops my list of quirky museums. It’s the first (and probably the only) museum in the world dedicated to the art of balloons and inflatables. The current exhibit Let’s Fly, on until March 5, 2022, is a fun, interactive, and for all ages.
Pro Tip: The Balloon Museum is highly recommended for children.
3. MAXXI – National Museum Of 21st Century Art
Although Rome has incredible historic art across the city in dozens of museums, it’s never had a contemporary art museum until recently. MAXXI – National Museum of 21st Century Art is the first museum in Rome that specifically focuses on contemporary art and sculptures. The striking building on the outskirts of Rome, inaugurated in 2016 and taking almost 10 years to build, was one of the last completed projects by Pritzker-winning architect Zaha Hadid before she died in 2016. The permanent collection has works from Italian and international artists including Kiki Smith, Carlos Scappa, Vanessa Beecroft, Ed Ruscha, Gerhard Richter, and Anish Kapoor. The current exhibits, as of March 2022, include Amazonia, an astounding collection of black and white photos of the Amazon by Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado, until April 22; Good News – Women in Architecture, until September 11; and Casa Balla, a Futurist house in Rome where Giacomo Balla lived and worked from 1929 until his death in 1958, until December 31.
4. Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore
Add Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore to your list of must-see churches in Rome. This gem is not known by many tourists, so it doesn’t get the crowds like Saint Peters at the Vatican or the Pantheon. The current building was constructed in 1743 in a combination of Romanesque and Baroque architecture, but the origins go back to 432, including a series of ancient mosaics from the antiquity period. Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore is one of four papal basilicas and one of the seven pilgrim churches of Rome. Several popes are buried in Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore including Pope Clement IX, Paul V, and Nicolas IV. Before entering the basilica, admire the 14th-century belltower, the tallest in Rome, measuring 246 feet high.
One of the highlights of the basilica is how the pope often visits and officiates the rites for the Assumption of Mary on August 15.
Pro Tips: Part of the basilica is a museum that tells its history and has historic artworks by significant Italian artists. Also, one of the main train stations, Roma Termini, is a 5-minute walk from the basilica.
5. Regoli Pasticceria
Just down the street from Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, locals patiently line up for some of the best pastries in Rome at Regoli Pasticceria. Established in 1916, the century-old bakery offers fresh-baked, traditional pastries such as cannolis, tiramisu, jelly-filled tarts, sfogliatella, amaretti, and biscotti. Their prized specialty is Maritozzi, a heavenly creation of a doughnut-like pastry stuffed with the lightest whipped cream. You can also have cappuccino or espresso on the tables outside or in the indoor café.
6. Galleria Sciarra
An interior courtyard in an office building close to the Trevi fountain has a series of inspired frescoes. Galleria Sciarra, built between 1885 and 1888, has Art Nouveau frescoes, which were painted by Giuseppe Cellini, a noted painter of the period. The overall theme is the virtues of women and female angels with scenes depicting things like tending the garden, lunch at home, musical entertainment, conversation, lunch at home, and exhortation to charity. Another series of female figures represents virtues including modesty, strength, patience, sobriety, humility, prudence and patience.
Pro Tip: Look up and marvel at the glass and iron skylight.
7. The Aventine Keyhole
If you are a curious person by nature and also a bit daring, you have the perfect opportunity in Rome to look through a keyhole to see a magnificent site. Santa Maria del Priorato Church owned by the Sovereign Order of Malta was designed in the 18th century by renowned architect Gian Battista Piranesi. A lacquered, bottle-green door has a keyhole and when you peer through it, you will see a splendid view of a garden and beyond it a perfect view of the Vatican and Saint Peter’s Church.
Pro Tip: If you want to visit the gardens, you must send an email to [email protected] and ask to arrange a visit to Magistral Villa of the Sovereign Order of Malta. They only accept groups of 10 or more people and require an English-speaking guide for 100 euros (about $110) in addition to the 5-euro (about $5.50) entrance fee per person.
8. Oppio Café
For one of the best views of the Colosseum, look no further than the Oppio Café. Best known for its daily cocktail hour from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., Oppio Café offers a comprehensive buffet of Italian specialties such as panini, antipasti, pizza, cheeses, deli meats, and biscotti for a mere price of only 12 euros (about $13), as long as you purchase at least one drink. The restaurant at Oppio Café specializes in grilled meats along with other popular Italian dishes and an extensive Italian and imported wine list.
9. Jewish Museum And Synagogue
I am of Jewish heritage and the Jewish Museum and synagogue were highlights of my trip to Rome. Inaugurated in 1960, the museum traces the early roots of the Jewish community in Rome during the Roman era. Starting as far back as 200 BC, it progresses to the Middle Ages, then to the Jewish ghetto built in the 16th century to its removal in the end of the 19th century and, finally, the rise of Fascism, Mussolini, and the Nazi occupation in the mid-20th century. Other exhibits include artifacts from the former five synagogues, which were torn down in 1908, and antique draperies, chandeliers, marble slabs, and photos. Another gallery has rich textiles of velvet and silk from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. There’s also a section of the museum with ancient marble engravings and carvings from the 16th century to the 19th century, which document Jewish families living in Rome.
In 1986, there was an unannounced visit to the synagogue by Pope John Paul II, who prayed alongside the head rabbi of the time, Elio Toaff. A terrorist attack in 1982 was carried out by five armed Palestinians at the end of Sabbath services, killing a 2-year-old boy.
My ticket also included admission to the Great Synagogue of Rome, a stunning edifice overlooking the Arno River, built between 1901 and 1904 after the Jewish ghetto was torn down. Built in a melange of classic architectural styles including Greco Roman and Egyptian, the striking building has a unique feature — a square aluminum dome — the only one in the city, which is clearly visible from many other points. The interior was done in the ornate Art Nouveau style.
For more amazing things to do in and around the capital of Italy: