James was raised in Rome and chooses to live there despite its many little frustrations.
7 Unusual Things to Do in Rome
Rome is a complex place with a distinct techno-cultural approach to life that I have a love-hate relationship with. But no matter how frustrating things get, there's always something that keeps me rooted here.
This article is a collection of suggestions that I personally marvel at almost every day. It isn't meant to replace your traditional list of hotspots—those are definitely still worth visiting—it's just a list of things that I love about my city that I'd love to share with you.
1. Stroll Down Vialetto Degli Innamorati
Literally called the "alley of the lovers," this aptly named trail overlooks the capital from one of Rome's seven hills (Monte Mario) and offers a plethora of magical and romantic views. (On a side note, this is usually where I choose to celebrate my new year.)
But as inspiring as the view is from here at the top, the real gem I want to talk about is a little further down the road.
On your way up to the Belvedere, off to the side of the road, you'll likely notice a gate. This unassuming and slightly rusty fence leads to an absolutely stunning trail that meanders all around Monte Mario and leads down to the heart of the city.
It's a 30-minute walk, top to bottom (timed it myself), and you'll get a view of the city that is simply unparalleled.
- Lo Zodiaco. This is the name of the restaurant that crowns the top of the hill. When mentioned, it's usually enough to spark a knowing smile from the locals and is the only name you'll honestly need to remember. However, if you're met with a blank stare...
- La Panoramica di Monte Mario. This should lead you to the base of the hill that you need to climb.
- L'Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma. This observatory is on the hill you're heading to and is an easy landmark for locals to guide you to.
What to Expect
A 30-minute walk on uneven steps and occasionally crumbling footing. Bring good shoes and plenty of water during the summer (it gets hot and the water fountains rarely work).
Why I Recommend Visiting
You get to view Rome and its landmarks from above without bumping into throngs of tourists. While "Lo Zodiaco" itself is a popular travel location, this small hike down towards the city is blessedly deserted. You'll likely only see a couple of other hikers on the way down. Don't forget to say ciao when you do!
2. Sightsee With the FL 3
This is a personal tip I guarantee you won't find printed, typed, or shouted anywhere else. And that's because the FL 3 isn't a place, it's a thing. A thing that leads to many interesting places.
The FL 3 is one of Rome's handy train lines. It also happens to be our secret weapon when it comes to having a great time.
Read More from WanderWisdom
Why Care About a Train Line?
Now, for those of you wondering why I'm getting excited about a train. Let's consider the following facts:
- Rome's buses are notoriously unreliable. And experiences may vary from divine intervention (rare) to tragic (more common). In short, you don't want to rely on the cramped, stifling, unpredictable buses any more than you have to.
- The price of the train is the same as the bus. At 1.5 euro per ticket, the comparatively spacious train ride is cheap as chips. Some of the stations further down the line require a more expensive ticket. More on this later in the article.
- The FL 3 goes to some amazing places. And here we come to the good part I want to expand on.
The main thing I want to impress at this stage is this: Any time you can take the train, do it!
Now that that's out of the way...
Places You Should See
Check the FL 3 map here. The sweet spot begins after the "La Storta" station. Yes, you're officially outside Rome, but not by much. And in any case, you're just a short, cheap, train ride away from the heart of the city.
A couple of suggestions in no particular order:
- Bracciano. Sedate, picturesque, and timeless. Bracciano makes for an unforgettable daily outing with its castle, lake, and nostalgic atmosphere.
- Anguillara. Lakes, beaches, gardens galore. All yours with a 2.60 euro ticket.
Trains leave the station every 15 to 30 minutes (depending on how far you need to go), which means that you can just turn up at the station without much planning.
Things You Need to Know
- The train is a spacious dream compared to the inner-city buses, but avoid rush hour! These trains are used extensively by commuters due to their low cost and direct route.
- You'll need to buy the tickets beforehand. You can find them in any "Tabacchi," which are thankfully everywhere (look for the glowing letter "T" outside the shop).
- It pains me to say it, but while there is little violent crime in Rome, petty theft is a common problem, especially on public transport. Do not lose sight of your baggage.
3. Savor a Nightcap at Ponte Milvio
Most people will quickly grow weary of the cramped, poorly-lit, and meandering alleyways of Trastevere.
While I don't want to dissuade you from visiting Trastevere, because you should, I want to suggest the unassuming Ponte Milvio as a night-life venue. You'll find that it is a more authentic nightlife experience, as evidenced by the fact that you will be surrounded by Italians, not tourists.
How to Get There
No train this time, I'm sorry to say. You're going to have to brave the buses.
Use Rome's official transit website to find your way to Ponte Milvio. It will show you what buses will get you from where you are to there, and how long you can expect the trip to last. Simply enter your current address and the destination address. The app will do the rest.
What to Expect
Ponte Milvio can get crowded, though less so than Trastevere. The crowd and venues are also mostly comprised of locals, so be prepared to wipe the dust from your Italian phrase flashcards and work on a winning smile.
Prices vary, as do tastes, but most of the venues are moderately upscale compared to Trastevere or Testaccio. Thankfully there are lots of venues to choose from if you're looking for a drink and some small talk.
Thirty to forty euros per capita should cover just about everything for a full night out.
4. Check Out the Churches at Night
There's nothing more gratifying than walking into a random, dark, gothic church and seeing a Caravaggio painting flickering in the candlelight.
Welcome to Rome. Where that sort of thing happens all the time.
Hit the Streets and Wander
Rome's center—from Piazza del Popolo all the way to the Coliseum—is one of the only places I've been to where I would feel comfortable telling people that a good way to spend your time is to literally not have an itinerary.
Avoid the crowds and float like the wind in whatever direction looks promising. There's something around every bend, nook, and cranny.
If you're terrified of missing something important, keep your favorite mapping tool open and marvel at all the attractions, art, museums, and exhibitions you're surrounded by.
Some Churches You Should Visit
I am no expert on medieval architecture or art history, but when it comes to these landmarks, you don't need to be. Here are three easy targets for you to feast on.
- San Luigi dei Francesi (Church of St. Louis of the French). Features an absolutely astonishing array of world-famous artwork, including three canvases by Caravaggio.
- Santa Prassede (Basilica of Saint Praxedes). Tucked away in the shadow of the Coliseum, this Basilica is one of the oldest churches in Rome and is sadly easy to miss.
- Santa Cecilia in Trastevere (Santa Cecilia in Trastevere). Transfixed by Trastevere's ebb and flow of people and sounds, it's easy to miss this 5th-century wonder.
All of these churches are within walking distance of one another. This is precisely why I am adamant that engaging your wanderlust is the best way to approach visiting Rome.
5. Experience the Roman Ghetto
Established in 1555, the Roman ghetto (more commonly called the Jewish ghetto or the Jewish quarter) is the oldest outside of the Middle East.
Nestled in the center of the city, the ghetto was isolated (more like barred) from the rest of Rome for over 300 years! It evolved its own traditions, food, language, and even architecture as a result.
This shift in tone and atmosphere is immediately evident as you walk about the ruins and streets that mark the contemporary ghetto.
Why You Should Visit
Given its central location along the Tiber where so many other attractions linger, many tourists visit the ghetto without realizing it.
The ghetto is worth your time for many reasons:
- It's home to unique Roman-Jewish cuisine and wine (depending on who you ask, the ghetto also houses the best bakery in Rome).
- It's a living, breathing testament to the Jewish struggle with the papacy and an open-air museum (as well as the actual Jewish Museum of Rome).
- It features unique architecture and ruins you can literally reach out and touch. As mentioned earlier, a lot of people walk right through the ancient structures without realizing what they are and who they represent.
6. See the Rome That Almost Was
If I were to ask you to picture Rome, chances are your thoughts would turn to those cramped, loud, sun-baked alleyways that are so typical of the city center.
The fascist regime, as it turns out, didn't like that image very much.
They built E.U.R. (Esposizione Universale Roma), intending for it to be the rebirth and new city-center of Rome—a modern re-imagining of the decadent stereotypes that plagued the Italian capital.
I'm not here to delve into politics. But I am here to point out that EUR's architecture, aesthetics, and overall vibe present unique techno-cultural phenomena that are absolutely worth taking the time to discover and are often ignored by most visitors.
Things to See in Rome's EUR
EUR is an entire district, so there's quite a lot to choose from. The problem is that, unlike Rome's cramped center where everything is a stone's throw away, EUR is, by design, dominated by a lot of empty space. In short, you're probably going to need a car or public transport to get around.
In any case, here are my five suggestions:
- Parco Centrale del Lago (Central park of the lake). A great place to cool off and take a walk on a hot summer's day, the laghetto is an atypical sight in Rome but fits well into EUR's architectural vision.
- Obelisco di Marconi (Marconi Obelisk). This striking tribute to Guglielmo Marconi is another example of the fascist ideals of resurrecting old successes.
- LunEur Park (Theme park). I haven't been to this theme park in over two decades, so my memories are likely a little rusty. Suffice it to say that my friends and I thought the fact that the roller coaster's wheel came off the track as it dipped up and down was hilarious. Looking back, it was a lot of fun, though definitely pretty unsafe.
- Basilica dei Santi Pietro e Paolo (Basilica of Saint Peter and Paul). This is the only place on this list I haven't visited (but still intend to). Consider this entry a note to self!
EUR deserves a dedicated article because there's a lot more to say. Consider this an aperitif.
7. Discover the Magic of Coppedè
Coppedè is technically not a district, but rather a grouping of architecturally unique buildings situated in Rome's Triste district, but who are we to stand in convention's way?
One way to describe this eery slice of Roman scenery is bizarre. There's something a little odd about the art and architecture, but charming rather than off-putting.
If you enjoy Art Nouveau and Art Deco, you're going to love immersing yourself in this unique district.
Things to See
You'll want to take your time and walk through the entire area. But be on the lookout for the following eye-catchers:
- The fountain of frogs.
- The spider palace.
- The fairy houses (one is pictured above).
- The elaborate entryway arch.
- The eccentric iron chandelier (pictured below).
Coppedè by Night
If you happen to be heading here at night, bear in mind that the famous Piper club is in the area. For more information, visit my article on what to do in Rome at night.
Getting Around Rome (Transportation)
I wanted to end this article with a quick note on how to get around Rome's notoriously frustrating public transportation system.
When in the City Center
Your best option is almost always walking. Most main attractions are, at most, a twenty-minute walk from one another.
If that seems like an eternity of downtime, that's because you haven't experienced the buses yet.
Other Transportation Options
- Scooters. You can rent a scooter with a valid driving license. The good news is that you can cram and dance your way through everything. The bad news is that traffic rules in Rome are just suggestions, and driving a scooter can feel like you're target practice for cars. I suggest it, given that a trip to the E.R is free in any case!
- Electric scooters. You can rent these too, and they are a fantastic way to get around bike lanes. But it's a pity that Rome has virtually no bike lanes at all, and the city center's uneven, slick paved roads will guarantee you a trip to the aforementioned E.R.
- Car-sharing. Car sharing with a smartphone app works well for commuters and those of you who are planning day trips. But driving around the center will take more time, and lead to more frustration, than taking the metro or just walking.
- Bike-sharing. A great idea, in theory. In practice, Rome's cramped layout makes cycling pretty dangerous.
- The subway / Metro. An excellent choice when you can actually use it. It's cheap, it's air-conditioned, it isn't too congested (beware of rush hour) but it's still pretty limited in scope. So there's a pretty good chance it isn't going to go where you want it to. But if you can take it, do so.
- The train. Much like the metro, the trains actually work, and work well, but are limited in scope.
- The buses. Dear God, the horror. I literally suffered from a vasovagal syncope on an August bus ride because of how dire the situation aboard was. I have been fearful ever since, so I'm likely exaggerating, but no... You won't catch me on a bus. The plus side is that they are everywhere, are cheap, and go everywhere.
The bottom line is to walk everywhere you can. If you can't walk (it's too far) check if you can take the metro or train. If you can't, take the bus.
With regards to skipping public transport completely and picking a car, bike or scooter instead, all I can say is good for you, I admire the adventurous kind.
- ATAC Roma
Rome's official public transportation website. Let's you plan your inner-city journey with their handy app. You will use this a lot so bookmark it!
- FS - Italian State Railway
Italy's official state Railway website. Use this to chart your day trips out of the city center itself.
© 2021 James Nelmondo