Updated on 20 August 2017
Rome has many world famous attractions, but there are plenty of lesser known sights that are equally interesting. We’ve put together a list of 6 unmissable hidden gems in Rome, to help you get the most out of your time there.
1 – Hidden Gems in Rome – Villa Medici
Home of the French Academy in Rome, the villa has a fantastic location near the Spanish Steps, overlooking the whole city. Built in 1540, it was bought by Ferdinando dei Medici in 1576 and then by Napoleon in 1801. The best French artists, composers and sculptors came here to study, including Boucher, Fragonard, Berlioz, Debussy and the architect of the French opera house, Charles Garnier. These days there are up to 19 French-speaking artists and musicians in residence, and the villa hosts regular exhibitions and performances.
And now for that view, one of the best kept secrets in Rome! From this angle you can spot the huge white Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele I to the left but there’s a panoramic, unencumbered view from all sides.
Nearby, take lunch at Ginger, Via Borgognona 43, for healthy salads and people watching – walk down the Spanish Steps and check out the luxury hotels on via Condotti on your way. If you’re also visiting Villa Borghese, I can highly recommend the fine dining at Pauline Borghese, Parco dei Principi Grand Hotel & Spa’s beautiful restaurant.
Something of an oddity, Borromini’s Perspective is one of the most fascinating Rome secret places. The gallery has been designed to make you believe that it carries on far longer than it really does. Giving the illusion of a length of around 37 meters, it’s actually only 8 meters long. The effect is created by a rising floor, descending ceiling and lateral columns gradually becoming smaller, and the Roman warrior at the end is 60 centimeters high.
Housed in a shady courtyard filled with orange trees in the Palazzo Spada, this optical illusion was commissioned by Cardinal Spada. He asked Baroque architect Francesco Borromini to create it with the help of a mathematician. The Palazzo Spada itself is one of the most impressive places to see in Rome. The gallery is filled with paintings, sculptures and furniture from Cardinal Spada’s private collection. There are works by Rubens, Titian, Caravaggio and Brueghel the Elder to admire, hung in the 17th century style, frame to frame.
Grab a quick snack close by in very casual surroundings at Dar Filettaro, Largo dei Librari, for a Roman take on fish and chips! This fried, salted cod treat called filleti di baccala is a favourite with locals.
3 – San Luigi dei Francesi
The French have certainly been active in Rome, as this magnificent church is dedicated to St Louis IX, King of France. It has many outstanding artworks, but is particularly famous for the trio of Caravvagio paintings in the Contarelli Chapel. Created from 1599-1600 they depict the life of St Matthew with striking contrasts of light and shade. To the left is The Calling of St Matthew and to the right is The Inspiration of St Matthew. The other painting is The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew.
These were Caravaggio’s first important church commission, and greatly reinforced his reputation. Today, entrance to the church is free but you’ll be wise to spend a few coins in the slot machine to light up the paintings and see these baroque gems in all their splendour.
Dine at Etabli, Vicolo delle Vacche 9, a shabby chic Roman restaurant on a cobbled pedestrianized street, with really tasty food and some of the friendliest waiters in Rome.
4 – Rome Rose Garden and The Garden of the Oranges
Savello Park, or Garden of the Oranges, has a fantastic view across the Roman hills. On the walk up, you’ll come across the lovely Rome Rose Gardens, one of our favourite Rome secrets. Open from 21 April to 14 June, if you’re lucky to visit between those dates you can admire 1,100 varieties of rose and a view towards Circus Maximus and Palatine Hill.
Once at the top, you’ll see lots of oranges on the trees and also on the ground – I couldn’t resist trying my hand at juggling! There was originally a castle here in the tenth century and its medieval walls still surround the park.
It’s a very romantic place to watch the sunset over Rome’s monuments.
Eat at Corner Townhouse down the hill on Viale Aventino 121 , for a brilliant buffet in a shady courtyard and a Superman statue!
5 – The Mouth of Truth
The Bocca della Verità or Mouth of Truth is an image of a face, housed in the entrance to the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. No one knows what the sculpture originally was, some say it was part of an ancient Roman fountain or even a manhole cover. It may represent the god of the river Tiber. From the Middle Ages onwards, people believed that if you told a lie with your hand in the mouth of the sculpture, it would be bitten off. In the classic film, Roman Holiday, Gregory Peck improvised a scene there with Audrey Hepburn, pretending that his hand had indeed been bitten off! For lunch or dinner afterwards, Corner Townhouse is very close by.
6 – Trastevere
This picturesque area beyond the Tiber is hidden Rome at its best. Take time to explore the narrow lanes and cobbled streets, and to enjoy the restaurants and lively nightlife. Once a working class neighbourhood, today it’s a popular area for tourists and locals alike, many of whom congregate in the Piazza Santa Maria, the heart of the area.
We took a Trastevere food tour with The Roman Guy, they’re really knowledgeable about places to eat locally. We stopped at a small shop selling only fresh, locally sourced Roman produce. We also visited one of the best gelaterias in Rome – look for the sign “Artigianale” above the door which means that it’s all home made. There were lots of great eateries on our tour, but ssh! it’s a secret. If you want the inside scoop, do take their tour.
These are some of Rome’s lesser known attractions, but no doubt you’ll want to make time to visit the Colosseum as well as the Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s and the Vatican. And if you like getting off the beaten path, do check out our recommendations for hidden gems in London, Ibiza, Paris and Venice!
Are there any other hidden gems in Rome that you would recommend visiting? I’d love to hear your tips!