With over 3000 years of history, Rome is the perfect destination for a cultural getaway. The headline acts of the Colosseum and Vatican Sistine Chapel are perennial favorites. But if you fancy getting off the beaten track, away from the crowds, there are plenty of other absolutely interesting places to hold the attention of even the most committed “see it all” visitor. If you want to enjoy a true taste of Italy’s capital city without the crowds of tourists, here are a few of our favorite off the beaten path Rome tours to inspire you and to enjoy on your next visit to the Eternal City.
Discovering another (hidden) side of Rome
Rome is packed with wonderfully interesting districts, but many visitors pass through on their way to other destinations without stopping to explore along the way. The Jewish Ghetto is a case in point. As the second oldest ghetto in Europe after Venice, the district bordering the River Tiber was created in 1555 to control the community. At the height of the ghetto, it housed over 3500 citizens and protected their religious customs, although other freedoms were restricted. Fortunately, today, after 300 years of isolation the walls to Rome’s Jewish ghetto have long been demolished and the area is now a lively, vibrant spot hugely popular with Romans and perfect for Rome tours.
And there is so much to discover on this private Rome tour! From the delicious kosher delicatessens and restaurants of the ghetto’s main street, to the ancient Roman Porticus Octaviae, built by Emperor Augustus for his sister Octavia to the beautiful Great Synagogue on the banks of the river you’ll explore this area with an expert local tour guide who can unravel the centuries of history for you. It’s a wonderful way to discover one of the city’s most important but least known historic districts.
Near the Colosseum, the fascinating 5th-century of Church of St Peter in Chains offers a breathtaking display of art and history. As its name suggests, the church’s main attraction is the chains that bound St Peter when he was imprisoned in Rome’s Mamertine Prison. After a brief spell in the ancient city of Constantinople, the chains were returned to Rome in two pieces, yet were said to have miraculously joined together when they reached the church’s altar.
Equally intriguing is the church’s Tomb of Pope Julius II, a lavish marble vault designed and sculpted by Michelangelo. His imposing Moses statue takes center stage on the façade of the monumental tomb. This is one of Michelangelo's greatest masterpieces. Legend has it that the artist was so pleased with the realism achieved that hit it and ordered it to speak.
Indeed Rome has been home to religious communities since ancient Etruscan days, long before the Jews or Christians arrived. Catacombs, churches and chapels dot the city but to understand how the earliest citizens worshiped, you need to explore with one of our underground Rome tours. That’s because, unlike many civilizations, Romans used previous buildings as the foundations for new ones so the city is a historic layer cake; the deeper you dig, the earlier you go. In fact, there are probably as many monuments hidden underground as there are above containing only partially unearthed treasures.
Starting at the 4th century Basilica di San Clemente you can admire the stunning mosaics and frescos of the church before travelling back in time as you descend first to an early 4th century Christian chapel and then to a 1st century pagan temple. This one site has over 2000 years of history, religion and art but that’s not all. A visit to the ancient catacombs brings to life the funeral rituals of the earliest Christians whilst the final call to the Appian Way, one of Rome’s first roads, enables you to follow in the footsteps of Caesar and centurions alike. This is Rome, as you’ve probably never seen it before.
If Roman history is your bag, a visit to explore the Appian Way in more detail is definitely recommended. Known as the Queen of the Roads and built over 2300 years ago the route was one of the earliest and most strategically important in the Roman Republic. It linked the capital with the southern port of Brindisi and was a major thoroughfare for military supplies and traded goods. And in its day a fascinating mix of luxurious villas and monumental mausoleums for the elite of Rome lined it so today the Appian Way is a wonderfully unique archaeological window into Roman life for visitors to explore.
After seeing the linchpins of Rome’s history, check out a couple of the more intimate museums, among Italy’s best. The Borghese Gallery in the Villa Borghese is an absolute must-see, with one of the world's most beautiful statuary collections, including the Bernini masterpieces Apollo and Daphne and The Rape of Proserpina. It's hard to find better examples of a true genius creating a sense of movement in unwieldy marble. But buy a ticket ahead of time as visitors plan Rome tours of the Gallery months in advance.
Less well known and an insider favorite is the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, a museum housed in a 16th-century palazzo still owned by the same noble family who built it and filled the ornate rooms with their treasures. The painting collection includes seminal works by Velázquez and Titian, and the incredibly preserved palace calls to mind other private museums, like New York City’s Frick Collection and Pennsylvania’s Barnes Foundation, with their manageable surveys of art that still very much have the feel of the families that created them.
Recommended Day Trips from Rome
While one can easily find things to do and see in Rome, sometimes it's fun to get out of the city and see other places. A short drive offers a choice of fabulous Rome tours from the cool hilltop town of Tivoli, down to the coastal ruins of Ostia Antica or the Etruscan burial grounds of Tarquinia to the northwest.
Tivoli, just 22 miles from the center of Rome, is world famous for two villas; the ancient Roman pleasure palace of Hadrian’s villa and the 16th century Villa d’Este, renowned for its terraced gardens and profusion of fountains. Romans have flocked to Tivoli for centuries to enjoy the fresher temperatures and to admire the splendor of Roman and baroque architectural excesses.
Emperor Hadrian was an accomplished architect designing a sprawling complex of gardens, open-air dining rooms, temples, fountains and buildings inspired by his extensive travels. And nearby Villa d’Este was no less restrained, with breath-taking water gardens, cascades, fountains, pools and ponds. If you’re there when the plumbing is tested to full force and the jets are shooting high into the azure Italian skies you’ll catch a glimpse of Villa d’Este’s old glory; it must have been magnificent.
Alternatively head to the coast to stroll through the streets of an ancient Roman harbor. But this isn’t Pompeii, it’s Ostia Antica, a wonderfully preserved city of built in the 4th century BC. Many buildings are still clearly visible with mosaics advertising the delicious food and products on sale in the shops along Ostia’s main streets. Two-thousand year old ruts in the stone paved roads indicate where heavily laden carts ferried goods and travelers between Ostia and Rome.
Or you can explore the port’s other wonderful attractions imagining what life must have been like for the 100,000 ancient residents. From its communal toilets, to its taverns, theater, temples to Mithras and even the earliest European synagogue, a trip to Ostia Antica is a wonderfully evocative experience and a perfect addition to your Rome tours.
Or finally, if you want a slightly different trip, head northwest out of the city to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tarquinia and the Etruscan tombs to explore Italy’s earliest civilizations. The Etruscan people populated the peninsula centuries before the Roman Republic took hold, establishing many of the most important Italian cities including Florence. Today their legacy lives on through frescoes, ancient city walls and, as in Tarquinia, their ancient burial grounds offering a window back into the Roman Iron Age, some 2500 years ago.
Tarquinia’s National Archaeological Museum houses one of Italy’s largest and best collections of ancient Etruscan relics, artifacts and remains. You continue your Etruscan Rome tours with a visit to the Monterozzi Necropolis where extremely well preserved frescoes illustrate daily life, hunting, entertainment and even funereal customs. A visit to the sacred Temple of Ara della Regina, the largest Etruscan temple known and dating back to the 7th century BC is followed up by lunch at a typical local osteria.
And finally you stop at the Cerveteri Necropolis, the largest ancient necropolis in the Mediterranean, covering an area of 400 hectares or 990 acres with over 1000 tombs. The tombs date from the 9th century BC and take various forms from pits, to potholes to turf topped tumuli reconstructions of the house of the dead including a central hall, corridors and several rooms. Ultimately, there are few sites that offer a better understanding of old Etruscan beliefs, traditions and customs than Tarquinia and the Etruscan necropoli; don’t miss it!
So which Rome tours will you choose?
As you can see there so many Rome tours for the curious traveler wishing to go beyond the well-known Colosseum and Vatican. Sure, those sites should not be missed, especially when visiting Rome for the first time. However, do not rule out little-known places you may have never heard of: you will be in for some pleasant surprises!
Experience Rome as its locals do with our off-the-beaten track private tours. We'll show you where locals go and all those hidden gems that make Rome such a unique place to visit. You will experience the rich history and culture of this Eternal City with a knowledgeable and friendly local guide who knows more about it than any guidebook.
Nancy Aiello Tours is an award-winning luxury Italy tour operator, committed to providing the best experience possible. Whether you are traveling as a family or with friends, our local travel experts are on standby to help you choose the perfect Rome tours that take you off the beaten track.