Rome’s most famous landmarks are grand examples of the city’s rich history. The towering Colosseum, for example, could once hold 70,000 spectators, and the sheer audacity of the Pantheon’s domed ceiling still puzzles modern engineers.
As lovely as the classic Roman stops are, like the beautiful but crowded Trevi Fountain, Rome’s unknown marvels embody the city’s otherworldly quality. These small corners and overlooked treasures are often lying just below the surface.
After unlocking the city’s secrets, you can put your Roman knowledge to the test in our interactive quiz.
Banner image credit: istockphoto.com/MasterLu
Uncovering Rome’s hidden churches
Rome’s layered history can immediately be found within a five minute walk from the Colosseum at the Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano. This church is understated from the outside, but the façade hides a fascinating three-level peek inside how Rome has reused and re-appropriated buildings throughout the ages. Entering at street level, you stand on elaborate Cosmati floors beneath a stunning golden mosaic, added in the middle ages. Climbing through the different levels, you discover that the current church was actually built on top of a 4th century basilica. At the foundation? Amazingly, an ancient Mithra cult temple.
Basilica di Santa Maria. Image credit: istockphoto.com/walencienne
More unexpected treasures can be found in some of Rome’s other 900 churches. To start off with, real romantics should bypass the Mouth of Truth, skipping the queue of people waiting to stick their hands into the sculpture, and head straight to the church that lies behind it – the Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin. While the crowds clamor outside, the flower-topped skull of St. Valentine sits in a quiet corner.
If one skull sounds creepy, imagine 4,000 heads decorating an altar. That’s exactly what you’ll find on the Capuchin Crypt by Via Veneto. Here, friars who cared for the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini used 300 carts full of bones to create the most chilling chapel in Rome.
Mysterious museums in ancient neighbourhoods
Rome’s churches are understandably world-famous, but so are their museums. The Vatican museums have such an extensive collection that you would have to walk nine miles to explore all 1,400 labyrinthine rooms. Instead, seek out Centrale Montemartini – an overlooked museum in the Ostiense neighbourhood, eerily set in a decommissioned electrical power plant. The enormous machinery has been left intact but you’ll find flawless ancient marble statues displayed between the gears. Art and engineering is strikingly juxtaposed throughout.
Next to Ostiense lies the Testaccio neighbourhood of Rome, full of its own unique splendour. Here, you’ll find the seemingly out of place 37 metre Pyramid of Cestius. This Egyptian influenced tomb lies just outside the ancient Aurelian walls, which once defined the city’s limits. Today, the area around the travertine pyramid serves as Rome’s non-Catholic cemetery. Wander the tranquil tombstones to find the final resting places of poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Pyramid of Cestius. Image credit: istockphoto.com/Olimmpiupop
As your exploration continues, keep walking under the ancient aqueduct towards the centre of Testaccio, arriving at a quiet terraced hill. While Rome is famed for its seven hills, Monte Testaccio is not included – despite its extraordinary beginnings. Casually known as Monte dei Cocci – the hill of shards – the green knoll is one peculiar dirt mound. The reason? Monte Testaccio is actually made up of more than 53 million broken pots.
The wonderful neighbourhood of Testaccio has a foodie history going back thousands of years, and is the perfect place to find comfort in a plate of pasta after a day spent unlocking Rome’s unknown architecture and artistic marvels.
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