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By Fabio Di Cocco who has lived in Rome his entire life and, with his job as a courier can really say he knows his way around the hidden pockets of the city.
Edited by Elodi Troskie
Known for its ancient ruins, historical architecture, lively street life and rich art scene, Rome offers a cultural experience that’ll awaken the romantic in you. But there’s much more to the charismatic capital of Italy than pasta and the Colosseum. If you want to explore Rome off the beaten path, this local’s guide to the most unique and unusual things to do in Rome is the perfect place to start planning your trip. Here are 10 hidden gems in Rome to check out.
The six talking statues
The talking statues date back to the 1500’s. Citizens used these statues to leave anonymous messages of criticism towards the Pope to avoid punishment for voicing their opinions. This political movement of ‘artistic vandalism’ took place at night and the city would wake up to a new stream of poems, jokes and comments posted against these statues. Locals would read the new posts and leave commentary on it. The talking statues were like the first version of Twitter! The statues soon became a well-known landmark in Rome and before long, they received individual names, which are still being used to differentiate between them today. On occasion, nameless citizens still leave messages on the statues, although it doesn’t happen as often as it did a few hundred years ago – nowadays most people just turn to Instagram to voice their social and political opinions.
Ostiense is Rome’s best hidden neighbourhood. Ostiense is a relatively undiscovered neighbourhood just south of the city centre. All the hype has been around Trastevere lately, but Ostiense offers just as much as the rest of the cool neighbourhoods in Rome, except that it’s not as packed with tourists. Over the past few years, a lot of improvements have been made in this area. Abandoned industrial buildings have been renovated and rebranded to coffee shops, art galleries and wine bars. Local street artists have discovered the empty canvas that is the streets of Ostiense and have been labouring to liven up this district with colourful murals and street art installations. Ostiense is well-connected to the rest of the city, making it a great place to base yourself during your time in Rome. It’s also the ideal neighbourhood for families since it’s so quiet and for the most part removed from the busy city life.
Night tram tour
One of the most unique things to do in Rome is the night-time tram tour of the city, where you’ll jump on board of the century-old trams to enjoy an evening of sightseeing and socializing. The two-hour long trip includes food, drinks and live entertainment by local artists who make for an unforgettable experience. The tour will take you to all the must-see attractions in Rome – the Vatican City, the Colosseum, the Basilica di San Giovanni, Circo Massimo, the Piramide and more. This is by far the most atmospheric way to sightsee Rome! Admission is 59€ per person and tickets can be booked online. A top pick if you’re looking for fun things to do in Rome at night.
The secrets of St Peter’s Basilica’s dome
As one of the largest churches in the world, St Peter’s Basilica is a must-visit destination in Rome. Constructions for the building as it is today started in the early 1500’s and were finished more than a century later. The temple features works from world-renowned artists like Michelangelo, Maderno and Bramante. Although it’s one of the most famous sites in Rome, there are parts of it that most visitors don’t even know about. When you climb all the way to the top of the dome, you’ll be rewarded with an amazing view of the city. Here is the secret: you can also manoeuvre yourself in between the roof and the ceiling to walk sideways along the roof of the dome. I did it as a kid and I still dream about it. This is probably the most glorious hidden spot in Rome!
The secrets of St Peter’s Basilica’s basement
Another part of St Peter’s Basilica that not many people know of is the basement, where tombs of past popes that date back to ancient Roman times are kept and preserved. Many people believe that St Peter himself is buried beneath the temple. It is said that Michelangelo mindfully designed the church so that the centre of the dome if placed over the spot where St Peter is believed to be buried. Whether this is true or not, the Vatican Grottoes, where many former popes are buried, still make for an interesting visit. St Peter’s tomb is in a different location, however. You can visit this archaeological site at the Vatican Necropolis, also known as City of the Dead. Perhaps the most unique and unusual place to visit in Rome, you need to book well in advance since only 250 people are allowed per day.
The city councillor’s rose garden
The municipal rose garden is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Rome. Located on Aventine Hill, the garden is a peaceful haven that is only open to the public between April and June every year. The garden was first established in 1931. Shortly after its opening, the Premio Roma competition was introduced – an event still taking place in Rome every May. The competition exhibits the most prestigious roses in Rome and is a sight to behold! This year will be the 77th competition. In 2019, the garden will be opening on 21 April, incidentally on the day of Rome’s birthday celebrations, and will remain open until 16 June. The garden can be visited for free from 08:30 until 19:30 daily.
The creepy Capuchin Crypt
The Capuchin Crypt is a series of small chapels containing the skeletal remains of almost 4 000 human bodies. Located beneath the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione, you can visit the several small rooms eerily decorated with these bones. When the monks arrived at the church in the 1600’s, they brought along with them the bodies of deceased friars by the masses. The bones were arranged in motifs with religious symbolism covering the walls of the crypt. The chapels served as a place of worship for the friars. Nowadays it’s Rome’s most unusual site. Although it is rather unsettling, it’s a fascinating thing to see. According to the Catholic order, this display is meant to serve as a reminder of humans’ mortality and the rapid movement of time; demonstrating that the body merely contains the soul. The museum can be visited daily from 09:00 until 19:00. Admission is €8.50 for adults and €5.00 for children under 18 and seniors over 65. Audio tours are available.
After St Peter’s dome, you won’t find a better view of Rome than from Monte Mario, the highest hill in the city. Located outside of the city centre, most people don’t know about this place. Monte Mario is the perfect spot for a breakfast picnic, afternoon stroll or sunset view. A large part of the hill is protected as a nature reserve, the Monte Mario Observatory. Also situated on the hill is the church and convent of Santa Maria Rosario, the 15th century Villa Mellini, the Museo Astronomico Copernicano and the John Felice Centre, one of Loyola University of Chicago’s campuses. Monte Mario might be a bit of a further commute from the centre of Rome where all the action takes place, but if you’re looking for a quiet, non-touristy hidden gem in Rome, this is it!
The Cannone del Gianicolo
The Cannone de Gianicolo has been a faithful feature of daily life in Rome since 1847. At the time, owning a watch was considered a luxury and not everyone had the means to keep track of time. As a solution, Pope Pius IX introduced the cannon. Fired at noon every day, the shooting of the cannon became something of a ritual for the citizens of Rome. The tradition was briefly interrupted during World War ll but was picked up again in 1959 and still fires blank shots every day at noon. By now, the locals are so used to it that they barely hear the shots anymore. But as a visitor, you can bet that you’ll hear it long before you see it!
Grattachecca is one of my favourite treats in Rome. Essentially grattachecca is hand-shaved ice flavoured with sweet fruit syrup. This cold dessert is unique to Rome and is commonly served as a street food. It has quite an interesting history: grattachecca is believed to have originated in ancient Roman times when the dictator, Quintus Fabius Maximus, allegedly imported snow from Mount Terminillo in the Apennines to be sweetened with syrups and sold by street food vendors. On a warm summer’s day in Rome, there’s nothing more refreshing than an ice cold cup of grattachecca! A must-try food when you visit Rome.
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