When I visit Rome, I’m all about finding the hidden gems and off-the-beaten-path places where real Romans go! Sure, you must see the Colosseum, the Vatican, and Trevi Fountain..but if you make room in your visit for the local secrets in Rome that you didn’t know about, you’re going to return home with more memorable experiences and a better (and more authentic) understanding of the city.
What I’ve learned in my many visits to Rome, is that each neighborhood has its own unique identity. Indeed, Rome has been divided into distinct neighborhoods, called rioni, since the 6th century BC! It was during the early 1900s that the city developed the 22 rioni it has today. You can really get lost learning about the extensive history of Rome’s rioni.
Whether it’s your first visit to Rome or your tenth, a visit to one of Rome’s off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods will enrich your experience and leave you with unique memories. If you aim to visit Rome like a local or just explore some hidden gems, lesser-known sites, and fun things to do in Rome, don’t miss these fantastic neighborhoods. Local secrets are waiting for you!
Off the Beaten Path in Testaccio
The first lesser-known neighborhood you’ll want to head to in Rome is Testaccio. Why? Because it’s full of hidden gems for foodies! Testaccio used to be the meatpacking zone of the city. Local innkeepers would gather the scraps from the slaughterhouse and make it a competition to create the tastiest dishes using those scraps. It’s where two of Rome’s most famous dishes today originate: trippa alla Romana and oxtail stew.
Testaccio has another fascinating tie to history. It was a haven for trade along the Tiber River in antiquity, and one of the top imports was olive oil. With at least a million people living in Rome, the demand for oil was high. Obviously, they didn’t have large metal containers to ship the oil in back then, so they instead arrived in clay vessels called amphorae. Once the amphorae were emptied, they were broken into pieces and discarded on a carefully engineered heap of the shards. Today in the Testaccio neighborhood, the mound measuring 4.9 acres at its base is made from about 53 million olive oil amphorae!
There’s nothing better than wandering a lesser-known neighborhood with a local to really connect with the culture and make some special memories. If that’s up your alley, check out our Italy Immersions, sets of 3 experiences you can add to your own, self-planned itinerary for a more authentic flavor.
Best Things to Do in Testaccio
Visit a Pyramid
Yes, there’s a pyramid in Rome! It’s called the Pyramid of Cestius and it’s a great hidden gem to check out in Testaccio. It’s actually a burial monument for a Roman elite who died in the 1st century AD.
Read Poetry in a Secret Garden
Ok, so it’s actually one of Rome’s only non-Catholic cemeteries, but it’s as peaceful and quaint as any secret garden I know! Don’t forget to bring your favorite Keats poetry to reflect upon, because you can visit his grave there, among several other literary greats.
Eat at Testaccio Market
Testaccio Market is a foodie’s paradise! You’ll find stands selling seasonal vegetables and fruits as well as local products. But my favorite are the stands selling things ready to grab and sink your teeth into—pizza, porchetta, handmade pasta, fried deliciousness, panini and more. I haven’t stopped dreaming about the fluffy focaccia I tried there, drizzled in olive oil, coated with creamy stracciatella cheese and topped with sundried tomatoes and fresh basil!
Off the Beaten Path in Aventino
If you want to explore a quiet and serene side of Rome, head to the lesser-known neighborhood called Aventino. Colle Aventino, or Aventine Hill, is an elegant residential neighborhood that lies on one of Rome’s seven hills. Those who scour Rome for the best hidden gems and secrets find themselves peering through a particular keyhole which offers an unexpected view (read more in the Things to Do section below)!
Though the Knights of Malta keyhole is what mainly draws a few tourists from the city center to Aventino Hill, there are so many more secrets to discover! For a couple hours of discovering a more local side of Rome, take a walk up to Aventino Hill where medieval monasteries, basilicas, sanctuary for Knights, and a stunning garden await to surprise you!
Just walking through the tree-lined streets of Aventino and looking at the beautiful houses is a nice break from the crowded tourist areas in Rome. You will immediately feel the change in atmosphere, from its gated villas, greenery, curving streets, and ancient architecture. In fact, Aventino Hill is where the plebians used to live, but later the aristocrats and nobles began to move in and change the area.
Best Things to Do in Aventino
Peek through the Keyhole
In the Piazza of the Knights of Malta (Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta), a large door hides a beautiful secret garden. Unfortunately, the garden is private, but if you peek through the keyhole of the door, you’ll see a perfect image of St. Peter’s Basilica perfectly framed by the garden’s hedges and flowers. By now, this hidden gem has become quite famous. But it’s still a lesser-known spot with fewer tourists than Rome’s main sights. Be sure to read the instructions for how to find the Aventino Keyhole.
Gaze at the Circus Maximus from a Rose Garden
If you love flowers, this secret spot on Aventino Hill should be high on your list. The Rose Garden, or Roseto Comunale, features over 1000 different species of roses, along with the best view of the ancient Circus Maximus and Palatine Hill.
Pro Tip: Go in the Spring when the garden is sure to be open with beautiful blooms to see in April, May, or June!
Visit the Garden of Oranges
The Garden of Oranges, or Giardino degli Aranci, is another romantic and off the beaten path place to visit in Rome. As you might guess from the name, it’s full of orange trees and offers a shady place to linger with beautiful views of the city. Thankfully, this garden is open to the public, but it’s a popular place to get away from the busy streets of Rome, so go at off-peak hours such as early morning or while others are at lunch.
Step Back in Time at Santa Sabina Church
Yes, yet another church in Rome..but this one is special. Why? It contains one of the earliest surviving examples of wooden sculpture, the carved doors dating to the 5th century AD. It’s also revered by historians for its original architecture, but it’s truly the story that makes Santa Sabina Church stand out. It’s built on top of what was once the house of Saint Sabina, a Roman woman who was beheaded because she had been converted to Christianity by her servant.
You can visit Aventino Hill on your own, but there are so many secrets you would walk right past. It’s highly recommended that you visit with a local to make it worth your while. Our Local Rome Immersion is a set of 3 unique experiences you can add to your own itinerary for those extra-special memory-making experiences with locals!
Off the Beaten Path in Gianicolo
The bonus to this off the beaten path neighborhood in Rome is that it offers some stunning panoramic views of the city. But it also played an important role in defending Rome, so both history lovers and view-seekers will love Gianicolo (or Janiculum)!
Gianicolo is the second-tallest hill in metropolitan Rome, and originally the headquarters for the cult of the god Janus. It made for the perfect place for augurs, or Rome’s official priests, to interpret the will of the gods by observing the flight of birds. Gianicolo Hill is even mentioned in the Aeneid by Virgil.
But the importance of this more local and off the beaten path neighborhood in Rome didn’t stop there. In more recent history, it was the site of an important battle in 1849 in which Garibaldi (who unified Italy into one country) defended the Roman Republic from French armies who wanted to take power over the Pope. As you stroll the shady lanes and parks, notice the beautiful monuments dedicated to Garibaldi and those deceased during the fight for Italian independence.
Here’s another fun, little tidbit of information about Gianicolo…If you hear a cannon fire, don’t freak out! This is actually a tradition that goes back to December 1847, when the cannon of the Castel Sant'Angelo signaled to the city’s bell towers that it was midday and time to ring their bells. They moved this ritual from Castel Sant’Angelo to Gianicolo 1904, but by 1939, the tradition ceased for twenty years. Thankfully, it was brought back in 1959 and continues today!
Imagine being a local sitting at home and asking yourself what time it must be..then hearing the cannon fire and thinking, “Ah, yes, it must be midday!”.
Best Things to Do in Gianicolo
Take a Photo in Front of Fontana dell'Acqua Paola
This huge marble fountain from the 17th century celebrates the reopening of an old aqueduct.
Visit Tempietto del Bramante
It’s said that this small but important temple was built on the site where St. Peter was crucified. But it is also considered one of the most exquisite examples of Renaissance architecture utilizing perfect proportions.
Pause to Thank Garibaldi for Uniting Italy
At the highest point of Gianicolo Hill you’ll find the equestrian statue of Garibaldi, honoring him for the successful fight he lead towards uniting Italy as well as the related battles and events that occurred on the site.
Wander Gianicolo Park
Gianicolo park is the perfect way to slow down for an afternoon and get away from the crowds. You can walk the many paths, visit a beautiful botanical garden, have lunch or coffee at the cafe, and enjoy the grand terrace offering sweeping views of Rome.
See a Puppet Show
Just north of Piazzale Garibaldi is the local gem, Teatrino di Pulcinella al Gianicolo, an open-air puppet theater that runs 30 minute shows on Saturdays and Sundays from 10:30am to 1:00pm and 4:00 to 7:00pm. Best part is it's free, but leaving a donation helps support this wonderful tradition.
Visit a Mausoleum
Ossario Garibaldino Mausoleum is a beautiful monument erected in honor of the fallen men and women during Garibaldi’s battle against the French in 1849.
Relax and Wander at Villa Doria Pamphili
Not to be confused with Galleria Doria Pamphili which is in the center of Rome, Villa Doria Pamphili is nearby Gianicolo Hill and was the countryside estate of the wealthy Pamphili family. Today you can visit villa and see local families out enjoying the expansive grounds as a park. This is a very non-touristy thing to do and easy to reach from Trastevere using the tram. Pack a picnic and enjoy a day under Rome’s beautiful Pinus Pinea pine trees.
Off the Beaten Path in Ostia
Ostia is wayyy off the beaten path..actually, it lies outside of Rome entirely, but is close to Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. If you’ve been to Rome a couple times already, you might be on the lookout for something more unique and hidden but still just as impressive as the famous sites. If that’s you, my friend, pack a day bag, grab your sunglasses and hop a train and ride 40 minutes to Ostia.
Why Ostia you ask? Well, my fellow hidden-gem-seeker, you’re in for a treat! Ostia offers wide open beaches to cool off in the summertime, but that’s not what you’re heading for just yet. First, you’ll be immersing yourself in an incredible archeological site that competes with Pompeii in terms of the well in-tact remains that clearly tell the story of everyday life in this ancient city.
Yes, it’s Ostia Antica (or Ancient Ostia) that calls to us! Ostia was an important port city for Rome but was left abandoned after the fall of Rome and eventually was covered in mud from the nearby Tiber River which coincidentally did an excellent job of conserving the ruins to be discovered in the late 19th century.
What’s so wonderful about Ostia Antica is that is that you won’t find crowds of tourists as you do in Rome and Pompeii, and there are so many well-preserved buildings that show us what life was like during the peak of the Empire. You can see a theater, a cafe, apartment buildings, bath houses with mosaic floors, offices of merchants and trade guilds, and more!
Once you finish taking in the splendors of this ancient, hidden gem, stroll a few minutes over to the borgo of Ostia where a small but charming piazza offers refreshment and a beautiful castle to gaze at.
Just a note, I always recommend you visit these impressive archeological sites with a local guide as there is SO much to see. They will be able to bring you straight to the most meaningful areas and bring it to life with their descriptions, stories, and facts, which– trust me, makes all the difference in your experience!
If you love getting off the beaten path and want to discover the best of Rome’s hidden gems, why not explore with a local guide? Our Rome History Immersion and Local Rome Immersion each consist of 3 unique experiences designed to give you an insider perspective on the city and get off the tourist track! The Aventino Hill tour is included, but you can switch it with any of the other off the beaten path neighborhoods in this article. Take a look at our Immersions in Rome and other destinations!