Rome in a day is not impossible, especially if you purchase queue jumps and tours that will get you in ahead of the crowds (definitely worth it). The formula is simple and we’ll give it to you now:
The Colosseum, Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, Pantheon, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican and Sistine Chapel. Throw in a local lunch from a pizzeria, an afternoon gelato from a gelatería and an evening wine-and-dine at a splendid yet over-priced ristorante and you have Rome in a day. Dubious? We can testify to the possibility because we’ve done it before ourselves.
But you and I both know there’s more to the Eternal City than this. The history, the culture, the ambiance…Rome is a rich travel experience, guaranteed. And why not enrich your experience even further by discovering the secrets of Rome? Grand gardens that don’t make the usual list, after-hours tours, organic restaurants and unbeatable views will give you the real Italian romance you’re looking for. Here are our 7 Secrets of the Lesser-Known Rome.
1. Borghese Gallery and Gardens
This museum and art gallery houses extravagant works of art and is in the grand home of the scandalous Borghese family, sitting on the edge of 17th century Rome. The Villa Borghese Pinciana and surrounding gardens cover a large area in the northern part of the city and offer breathtaking views.
Though popular for tourists, not all of them make it up to the Casina (house of the Borghese) because it doesn’t quite make the top hit list. Gorgeous fountains, streams, greenery and landscaping however make it a must see in our opinion.
According to Dark Rome Tours, entrance to the Gallería Borghese books out well in advance, but their tour is guaranteed to get you in ahead of the line. Otherwise, you can book ahead yourself from the Gallería Borghese website.
2. Colosseum by Night
The Emblem of Rome is no secret of course, but a tour by night is… The Colosseum at nighttime, with golden lighting on the exterior and a moonlit interior, is irresistible to explorers at heart.
Small groups can tour the Colosseum by night, led by a knowledgeable archaeologist. There won’t be even close to as many people as during the day, and as a bonus you get to visit the Underground (Hypogeum), which isn’t seen in detail by many tourists. These are the tunnels where the gladiators and animals were led before being raised to the arena floor through trap doors.
Dark Rome Tours offers a comprehensive night tour of Roman ruins, but others are available.
(Side Note: The Vatican is also open for night tours during very limited times of the year: Friday between May 3 – July 26 and September 6 – October 25, 7p.m. to 11 p.m.)
3. Ancient Underground
This ancient city of secrets would of course have an underground realm that reveals a darker history. The real Ancient Rome is underneath your very feet, buried over a 2,500-year period by a combination of natural silting and intentional burial, particularly that of Emperor Nero after the Great Fire of 64 AD.
Subterranean structures of the city are still very much intact due to natural protection of the earth, and include pagan temples, baths, imperial villas, apartments, theaters and all manner of buildings, as well as a giant sundial. You can enter the Ancient Underground alone or via guided tours.
4. Via Veneto
Known as one of the most famous and expensive streets in Rome, the Via Veneto is not so much a secret as it is simply overlooked. Most tourists come for the history and culture, as well as the nearby Trevi Fountain, so a luxury walk-and-shop isn’t always on the list. However, the grand hotels, cafés, shops and celebrities to be found on the street are worth a visit. Much of La Dolce Vita (1960) was filmed in the area.
5. Campo de’ Fiori
Just south of the better known Piazza Navona is the Campo de’ Fiori, or Field of Flowers, which used to be an empty meadow in the times of Ancient Rome and then simply became a rather un-used space. Now, you can enjoy the open-air farmers’ market that is held there on Monday through Saturday mornings, with vendors selling all manner of fish, meats, cheeses, bread, olive oils and spices.
6. Ristoranti Locali
Food in Rome is good. Italians are extremely particular about the quality of their ingredients, which makes the cuisine healthier than you’d think. Our advice is to let go of image for a few nights – those restaurants that you wouldn’t normally give a second look? Give them a second look, have a seat and tuck in. Simple surroundings can take on a very charming ambiance with a bit of candle light and Chianti.
We like Da Enzo because of their emphasis on purely organic Italian ingredients, and it’s a favorite of locals. However, if you’d like the classic red-checked table cloth and wine-bottle candle holder, try La Taverna Dei Fori Imperiali for a semi-touristy, semi-local mix. Even some celebrities are known to pop in, but prices are reasonable and the food is spectacularly Grade A classic Italian.
7. Stuart Harvey’s Private Day Tours
Stuart Harvey is an Englishman in Rome who knows more about the city than history books. If you want an extra-thorough tour of the Eternal City with a generous speckling of Roman secrets, book a private tour with this gentleman.
Want more secrets? We’ll drop some mysterious hints…Borromini’s courtyard illusion in Palazzo Spada, Pozzo’s dome illusion in St. Ignatius’s Church, Raguzzini’s theatre in the Piazza di San`Ignazio and the Giardino degli Aranci, which has not only incredible city views but also a Knights of Malta monastery down the street – take a peep through the keyhole to gaze through three countries at once.
We hope these secrets have re-ignited or re-enforced your passion and excitement for a visit to Rome, dispelling any fears that tourist traps and enormous crowds will get the better of your absolute enjoyment of this marvelous city. Enjoy the luxury of the lesser-known and make your Roman experience your own.