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Welcome to our Rome Series! Rome was our home for a collective six years so we wanted to share everything you need to have a perfect time in the Eternal City. Visit Rome and learn how to love la dolce vita!
Here is what you can expect from this series:
Top 5 Unique Sights in Rome – You’re Here!
*All photos courtesy of Chelsea Graham. Visit her Flickr account to see more.
Unique Sights of Rome
Rome is a city full of hidden secrets behind every corner. As cliche as that might sound it is true. Think about it though, this city was the center of the world from the founding of the Roman Republic in 509 B.C.E. to its fall in 476 C.E. That is almost 1000 years as THE world power and the center of the world! And that is just the Romans. You also can’t forget about the Catholic Church effectively ruling Western Europe, the Renaissance, etc….
Of course, there are hidden gems behind every corner because at one point that corner was probably pretty damn important. However, most of these sites are lacking a PR agent so I am here to shed light on some amazing gems in Rome and to help you see more of the fascinating if maddening city!
Some of you may have heard of the Keyhole but if you haven’t here is a quick recap…. The Keyhole is literally a keyhole. That may not sound very fancy but if you put your eye to this ornate yet nondescript keyhole you will be rewarded with a perfectly framed view of the Vatican in the distance. The Keyhole along with the topiaries of the gardens perfectly frame the dome of St. Peter’s to create one of the most charming unique sights of Rome.
It is pretty amazing that this keyhole which was built along with the rest of the piazza by Piranesi in 1765 still offers an unobstructed view of St. Peter’s dome all these years later! It is unknown if the keyhole was placed purposefully but we are thankful it does! It also helps that there is a moratorium on building any buildings taller than the dome of St. Peter’s in the historical heart of the city!
The keyhole is set in a door that opens onto the gardens of the Knights of Malta on the Aventine Hill. The Knights of Malta are actually one of the surviving orders of knights from the crusades! Unfortunately you are not allowed to enter these lush gardens but instead, you can only marvel at them through the keyhole much like Alice and her Wonderland, if the book stopped there.
How to Reach the Keyhole
Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, 3
The keyhole is fairly easy to reach once you know where it is. It is located at the top of the Aventine Hill which is located between the Circus Maximus and Testaccio. It is located in the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta which is accessible either by walking up Via di Valle Murica to Via di Santa Sabina from Via del Circo Massimo (Metro B – Circo Massimo) OR by walking up Via di Porta Lavernale from Via Marmorata (Metro B – Piramide). In all honesty, it can be a little confusing so google maps can really help you out here. Find it on Google Maps here.
After your visit to the Keyhole do not forget to take a lovely walk through the Orange Gardens which will reward you with another more broader view of Rome. It is the perfect place to spend a leisurely summer evening as the sun sets and the heat begins to abate every so slightly. So join with the locals on the balustrade and watch the sun dip behind Rome with the scent of bitter oranges in the air.
Piramide and the Protestant Cemetery
On a crowded and chaotic corner of Testaccio stands a giant pyramid tall against the city walls and behind it, offering a piece of serenity in this crazy city, is the Protestant Cemetery. The Pyramid of Gaius Cestius and the Protestant Cemetery are two places to just escape the chaos of Rome for a moment. Wandering amongst the graves of prominent and unknown Protestant expats who came to Rome and died in Rome from 1738 through today you will find a sense of peace.
The cemetery has been in use since 1738 and houses some of the most prominent expats of the 18th and 19th century including John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Spend some time hunting for the grave of Keats which is actually an unnamed grave and don’t miss out on the spectacular Angel of Grief crowning the grave of sculptor William Wetmore Story and his wife, Evelyn.
After wandering around the graves don’t forget to get a closer view of the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius. The pyramid was constructed in 18-12 B.C.E. for the magistrate, Gaius Cestius and is one of the best-preserved ancient buildings in Rome thanks to its inclusion in the building of Rome’s fortifications, the Aurelian Walls, in 275 C.E. The pyramid is now open to visitors every second and fourth Saturday a month but you must book your tickets ahead of time.
How to Reach the Protestant Cemetery
Via Caio Cestio, 6
Take the Metro Line B to Piramide; as you exit the metro you will see the pyramid in front of you. From there take a left down Via Marmorata. The cemetery entrance will be on your left-hand side off Via Caio Cestio. Find it on Google Maps Here.
Basilica di San Clemente
The Basilica di San Clemente is one of my favorite sights of Rome because you can really see the intersection of history and how Rome is truly built in layers of its own history. You start by heading down from modern day to the 12th century where you will find the entrance of the church. The church itself is a lovely church filled with medieval treasures including a Byzantine style mosaic of Christ on the cross. This isn’t your average depiction though, in fact, the cross is shown sprouting tendrils and being transformed into the tree of life. Peruse the church at your leisure and then walk towards the gift shop.
Here you will find what makes this church truly one of the most unique sights of Rome. Yes, there is a gift shop but there is also a set of stairs. Purchase a ticket and you are granted the ability to go back in time. As you descend the stairs you slowly enter the 4th century and enter the original Basilica di San Clemente. The church was first constructed in 392 C.E. and is dedicated to Pope Clement I, who was one of the earliest popes after St. Peter.
Because the church was filled in when the 12th-century church was built it has some of the best-preserved wall frescoes from its time. In fact, one of them, which focuses on the life of St. Clement, has the earliest example of written Italian. The fresco shows Sisinnius, a pagan Roman, attempting to arrest St. Clement for being a Catholic (which was still outlawed at this time in the early 90s C.E.).
Unfortunately for Sisinnius, he has been struck blind and instead of arresting St. Clement he has actually arrested a column. He then commands his soldiers to
“Fili de le pute, traite! Gosmari, Albertel, traite! Falite dereto colo palo, Carvoncelle!”
which translated means:
“Come on, you sons of bitches, pull! Come on, Gosmari, Albertello, pull! Carvoncello, give it to him from the back with the pole!”
So there you have it, the earliest written sentences of one of the world’s most beautiful languages. Although, it does make sense that it is swearing as Italian developed as a slang out Latin.
Once you have left the gall of Sisinnius behind, begin your descent to the 2nd century. Here you will discover the remains of an ancient Roman mystery cult. The cult belongs to Mithras, a god from Persia who was quite popular with the Roman soldiers during that time. While not too much is known about Mithras, thanks to him being the face of a mystery cult, we do know that his worshippers used to celebrate his mysteries with a meal inside a cave. This man made cave represents the cave where Mithras slew a mythic bull and created the world. Here underneath the Basilica di San Clemente, you will find one of a Mithraic cave and perhaps become initiated into the mysteries of the cult.
Once you have joined the illustrious ranks as a follower of Mithras, descend down to the lowest level and explore the 1st century after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 C.E. It is still undecided what these buildings may have been but it is thought that they may have been apartment buildings and the Roman mint. While exploring the lowest layer of history, follow the sound of water and cross an ancient Roman street. Eventually, you will come to the source of the water, an ancient Roman aqueduct. Don’t attempt to drink the water though because it flows through lead pipes!
How to Get to the Basilica di San Clemente
Via Labicana, 95
The Basilica is located quite close to the Coliseum so the easiest way to get here is to take the Metro Line B to Coloseo and then follow Via Labicana past the Coliseum. You will then see Piazza di San Clemente on your right-hand side. Take the right and the church will be on the right hand of the street. Find it on Google Maps here.
St. Paul’s Outside the Walls
St. Paul’s Outside the Walls is a stunning church dedicated to St. Paul in Ostiense which is just south of Testaccio. This church is one of the four papal basilicas along with San Giovanni in Laterano, St. Peter’s and Santa Maria Maggiore which makes it one of the most four important churches in the world. St. Paul’s is built on the Via Ostiense, the main road leading out of Rome to its port city, Ostia, and over the grave of St. Paul.
Up until 1823, this was the oldest church in Rome to still have its original structure, built by Emperor Constantine, which was 1435 years old. Unfortunately, on July 15, 1823, a workman accidentally lit fire to the roof which destroyed a majority of the church. The Basilica you see today was then reconstructed by Pope Leo XII in large part thanks to donations which came from all over the world.
As you walk into the church you will be awestruck by the beauty, light and opulence of this church. Take time to admire the giant alabaster columns donated by Egypt and marvel how each one is carved from a single block. And don’t miss the Tabernacle decorated with malachite and lapis lazuli donated by Russia. Then meander over to the actual burial of St. Paul. His tomb was confirmed by the Vatican in 2006 and two sides of the white marble sarcophagus are visible in the church.
In addition to holding the burial of St. Paul, the church is host to portraits of all the popes. They line the whole inside of the building in a frieze. These are copies and additions to the original paintings of the popes that were here prior to 1823. When they were redone the artist left several blank spots open for future popes. It is rumored that once these are all filled the apocalypse will occur. If you visit you can count for yourself how few open spots are left!
In addition to predicting the end of the world, this church also has the best gift shop we have ever seen. And while we are not usually souvenir people, we always stop here for one thing and one thing only, alcohol. Oh ya, the good brothers here at St. Paul’s are brewing up some absolutely delicious alcohol and we just can’t help ourselves. We are particularly attached to their wild strawberry liqueur!
How to Get to St. Paul’s Outside the Walls
Piazzale San Paolo, 1
The easiest way to get here is to take the Metro B line to Basilica San Paolo. Then all you have to do is to follow the Via Ostiense north to the Basilica, super easy! Find it on Google Maps here.
The Via Appia Antica and the Catacombs
The Via Appia Antica is Rome’s oldest and most well-known road. The saying is that all roads lead to Rome but in fact, they all leave from Rome with the Via Appia being first. The road was constructed in 312B.C.E. and was initiated by Appius Claudius Caecus hence the name Via Appia. Originally, this road was constructed to be able to transport troops seamlessly from Rome to the Southern Italian peninsula and in fact, this road, which stretched all the way to Brindisi on the southeastern coast, was integral into integrating southern Italy into the Roman Empire.
Today you can still visit large swaths of the road and it is a perfect place to escape the city and take a picnic. It is also a perfect place to visit the remains of the Roman catacombs. Catacombs or underground burials became popular in Rome in the 2nd century C.E. due to the lack of above ground space. There are over 40 systems of catacombs around the city of Rome but perhaps the most famous one are the Christian catacombs that line the Via Appia.
You can still go down and tour several of this catacombs and my favorite is the Catacombs of Saint Domitilla. These are very eerie and atmospheric catacombs and also the oldest and longest catacombs in Rome. You start in an underground church before you begin your tour and then you descend into the catacombs. In addition to being dark, poorly lit (in a good way), and very confusing this is one of the few catacombs where bones are still visible to the public.
The other popular catacombs to visit are the Catacombs of San Callisto. This system of catacombs is usually very busy and it doesn’t quite have the same atmosphere as Domitilla though.*
*You are required to take a tour of the catacombs, no matter which ones you visit because you can honestly get lost in there. Believe me, I was a guide there and had extensive training so I didn’t get lost!
To Get to the Via Appia Antica
The easiest way to get to the Via Appia Antica is to take the 118 bus. The bus comes fairly regularly, at least compared to some of the Roman buses, and it is easy to pick up in the center. There are several bus stations where you can catch this bus including Piazza Venezia, Bocca della Verità, Circo Massimo and the Baths of Caracalla. You can take it to just outside the entrance to the Catacombs of San Callisto and walk from there. Or if you like you can take it a little further depending on what you would like to do. Find the Catacombs of San Callisto on Google Maps here.
To Get to the Catacombs of Santa Domitilla
Via delle Sette Chiese, 282
The Catacombs of Santa Domitilla is just a little bit more out of the way than the Catacombs of San Callisto but it will be worth it to head here. The best way to get here is to take the bus 716 from Piazza Venezia or bus 714 from Termini Station. Both of these buses will drop you off within walking distance of the catacombs at Largo Bompiani (716) and Piazza dei Navigatori (714). Find it on Google Maps here.
There are so many absolutely stunning sights to see in Rome that it is overwhelming. We could easily list about 30+ more sights. These however, are some of our favorite unique sights of Rome that we just had to share with you! We hope that you take the time to really dig into Rome and its history and get out there and explore not just the famous sights but all the quirky unique sights of Rome too!
Want to really get to know Rome and all of its unique sights plus learn how to eat like a local? Then you have to check out our brand new ebook, “Eat Local in Rome“. This guidebook covers not just what typical Roman cuisine is but also has tips on how to find a restaurant and also has over 100 restaurants, cafes, bars and unique sights around Rome divided up by neighborhood! That way no matter where you are you can always eat like a local! Buy it here!
Read On to Read the Rest of the Series!
Top 5 Unique Sights in Rome– You’re Here!
Heading to Rome soon? Don’t forget to buy travel insurance! Sure you may not use it but its always good to have. We recommend World Nomads which we have been using for years and have always made us feel secure as we travel around the world!
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All photography is provided courtesy of Chelsea Graham. Follow her Flickr account here!