Unusual Things to do in Rome that aren’t in your Guidebook

By Andreea Arbune A language expert with a story for every church, monument and ruin in Rome

|Edited by Matthew Wears

Rome is a city of secrets – secret areas, secret history and secret stories. These ancient streets have influenced many artists, writers and poets, but so much of the alternative side of Rome gets missed by the majority of tourists. The Coliseum and the Vatican are spectacular and beautiful in their own right, and of course must-visit locations, but there’s so much more to the city than just landmarks like these. Choose to do some of the alternative things to do in Rome and you will find unusual experiences, quiet historical sights and local traditions that stretch back thousands of years. See the Vatican like never before or step down into the ancient catacombs that run underneath the city and come face to face with thousands of human skulls - there really are some unusual things to do in Rome. I’ve lived here for sixteen years now and in that time I’ve been able to find a collection of my own hidden places in Rome that I love to visit and would love more people to know about. Here are my sixteen years of knowledge, in one alternative Rome guide.

Night Vatican tour

Visiting the Vatican is not one of the unusual things to do in Rome, but visiting it at night certainly is. It’s spectacular to see such a beautiful building after dark - when it’s much cooler and without the crazy lines everywhere too. You’ll actually be able to walk around without a selfie stick in sight - I know, amazing!  See the Sistine Chapel and the beautiful gardens in a completely different light, in an experience that is unlike anything else in the city. You begin in the famous museum where you’ll learn everything you need to know about Catholicism's most important building. For even more information, you’ll be accompanied by a trained guide at all times who will be able to tell you captivating stories from the buildings detailed history. Your groups are never any bigger than twenty people either, so you always feel as though you’re getting your own private show.
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Infiorata di Genzano flower festival

This isn’t actually in Rome itself, but if you’re able to rent a car and drive to the nearby village of Genzano, and you happen to be in Rome in June, this is an unmissable experience. Infiorata di Genzano is a celebration where many people dress in old fashioned clothing and walk through streets filled with flowers to honour the lives of their ancestors. It’s really similar to the ‘Day of the Dead’ tradition in Mexico if you’re familiar with this, but with less skulls. Walking through the streets you will see a kind of carpet made from flower petals that seems to go on for miles and miles – this is the main attraction. The colours and designs are so intricate that you can’t help but marvel at the beauty of it all. Flower festivals are popular all over Italy, but it’s because of this unbelievable artistic endeavour that Genzano’s is the most famous. You can join this beautiful celebration when it takes place in on the corpus domini of every year.

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Villa Adriana

Just outside of Rome on the edge of the antique border is a place called Tivoli, which is famous for having thermal water. That’s not why I’ve included it here though, but maybe before or after you could go for a spa treatment if you want to relax a little. The main reason is Villa Adriana, an ancient bathing complex which is one of the most beautiful hidden gems in Rome that everyone should visit. The villa belonged to Emperor Hadrian long ago and acted as his retreat away from the city, but he ended up just living there all the time. When you see it, you probably won’t blame him either. Much of it still remains today and it’s one of the best-preserved Roman sites in Italy – so it’s a must-visit for history nuts like me. The villa contains a park area which is about twenty kilometres long, so spend as much time as you can looking at the sculptures and architectural ruins and just imagine how it must’ve felt to be here almost one thousand years ago.

Go on a wine tour

Wine is so important in Italy that we even possibly hold it at the same level as our love for food. There are now some really cool alternative things to do in Rome that focus on our love of wine, the obvious one being wine tasting. Maybe you don’t know much about wine and you would like to expand your knowledge, or maybe you just want try out as many different types as you can. Whatever your reasons, wine tours are a great way to experience Roman culture, and the best one I know of just has to be the Winefullness tour. This is a total sensory experience that will make you fall in love with your taste buds and teach you how to drink wine like a true Roman. You see, wine is good, but if you put food and wine together you will see how it changes the taste– it’s a very complex process. Winefullness has only just started, but I just know it’s going to be one of the best alternative Rome experiences soon enough. A quick note: if wine tasting isn’t your thing and you prefer wine by the bottle, you have to go to the Trastevere neighbourhood - it’s a wine lovers dream!

Experience a Sagra

We all know that Italians love to eat, but we actually love it so much that we have whole festivals dedicated to just one food. These are called sagra and they take place in different areas at many different times throughout the year. They always have a special theme which depends on what season it is, which could be things like fish, wine or cheese. These are some of the most unusual things to do in Rome for travellers because it’s like an entire party is happening for something as normal as parmesan. Walk around the festival and try all of the mouth-watering food and wine, all whilst chatting and dancing with the locals in true Italian style. There aren’t always many tourists at a sagra, so you’ll be getting the most authentic experience you could wish for. To find out the secret places in Rome where these sagras take place, you can always just ask the tourist office.

Photo Credit: cristianocani [CC BY 2.0 (]

Città della Pizza Festival

Have you ever wanted to try an Indian or a Chinese style pizza? I’m still not too sure what to make of it, but it’s certainly one of the more alternative things to do in Rome. The Rome Pizza Festival is the place to come for everything pizza related, and you can eat, make and learn about Italy’s famous must eat food. There’s usually around one-hundred and forty different types to try – from the really traditional to the totally obscure flavours as well. Personally, you can never beat a true Italian pizza – it’s obviously the best in the world. But there’s so much more going on than pizza and just like any other Roman celebration, it’s all about enjoying the moment by eating, drinking and socializing. If you love pizza and you’re in Rome next April, the Città della Pizza has to be a must try alternative Rome experience for you.

Rome Art Expo

The Rome Art Expo covers everything you could imagine about art – starting from the very beginning in antique Rome all the way to present day and all of the centuries in between. The event looks at sculptures, paintings, photographs and anything else that was a major part of the development of art throughout history - a collection that spanned twenty-four countries in the last instalment. It might not sound like one of the typical unusual things to do in Rome, but when you learn that it is held right in the centre of the ancient city not far from Chiostro del Bramante, I think it makes it very special. Explore the Art Gallery Rome venue and marvel at works from the US, Europe, Asia and Africa, all of which have been united by the universal language of art. It usually takes place for around two weeks in June and is completely free to enter, so it’s great if you’re also looking for free things to do in Rome.

The catacombs

The Roman catacombs are such an interesting historical part of the city that were originally used as churches and places to hide when Christianity was not legal. Now, you can go down and explore these hidden places in Rome, although they are very long. And scary. And dark. Which is sometimes a little bit off-putting for some people. Add to that the real bodies that are buried down here and you can see why they’re one of the creepiest places in the whole city. Walkthrough dimly lit corridors deep underground with skulls watching you at every moment. Some of the bone collections might take up a whole wall, whilst some of them are even artistically arranged to make nightmarish and gruesome looking shrines. The entrances to the catacombs are all located in the centre of the city and should be a part of any one-day itinerary. None of the unusual places to visit in Rome are quite like the catacombs – take a deep breath and step inside!

Photo Credit: Greger Ravik, Flickr -

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