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10 unusual places to visit in Rome: learn about some outstanding sites often overlooked

16th Jun 2016

Rome is full of surprises. Even exploring a neighbourhood you think you know well, you’re bound to stumble across an unusual church or museum, or a monument you’ve never seen before. Once you’ve visited the Colosseum and the Vatican, make sure you check out some of these places.

1. The Roman houses of Santi Giovanni e Paolo (Clivo di Scauro) Hidden beneath the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo on the Celian Hill is an underground labyrinth of ruins. Join our Underground Rome tour to visit the Roman houses, which are surprisingly well-preserved. It’s a fantastic opportunity to get a glimpse of domestic life in Ancient Rome, as you’ll see vivid mythological frescoes from the 3rd century and even a subterranean Roman street, which runs between the houses.

2. Museum of the Holy Souls in Purgatory (Lungotevere Prati 12) Tucked away in the gothic Chiesa del Sacro Cuore del Suffragio on the banks of the Tiber is one of the smallest and strangest museums in Rome. This tiny museum has a collection of bibles, prayer books, and other objects with purgatorial connections. Even the most hardened sceptic will be intrigued by the pages of a prayer book that was singed by the burning figures of a soul from purgatory.

3. The Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella (Via Appia Antica 161) The Appian Way is lined with evocative ancient tombs, statues and monuments, and you could easily spend an entire day exploring the Roman road and the surrounding fields. One of the most striking monuments is the enormous cylindrical tomb of Cecilia Metella, built in the 1st century BC to honour the wife of a Roman quaestor. The mausoleum inspired the poet, who dedicated several stanzas of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage to Cecilia Metella.

What was this tower of strength? within its cave

What treasure lay so locked, so hid?—A woman’s grave.

4. Santo Stefano (Via Santo Stefano Rotondo 7) Not one for the squeamish, this circular 5th century church has some very gory frescoes. Commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century, the frescoes graphically depict a variety of martyrdoms. The novelist Charles Dickens paid a visit to the church and was deeply disturbed by what he saw

: …such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper. Grey-bearded men being boiled, fried, grilled, crimped, singed, eaten by wild beasts, worried by dogs, buried alive, torn asunder by horses, chopped up small with hatchets: women having their breasts torn with iron pinchers, their tongues cut out, their ears screwed off, their jaws broken, their bodies stretched upon the rack, or skinned upon the stake, or crackled up and melted in the fire: these are among the mildest subjects.

If the frescoes are too much for you, have a look at the 7th century mosaics instead. Unfortunately the excavations beneath the church, including a mithraeum and the remains of Roman military barracks, are not currently open to the public, but they may be in the future.

5. Piazza Mattei Our Secrets Rome tour includes a walk through this charming little square in the Jewish Ghetto. The main attraction is one of Rome’s quirkiest fountains, the 16th century Fontana delle Tartarughe. Legend has it that the fountain was built overnight by a duke, who hoped to impress his future father-in-law. The turtles were a playful later addition, and may have been the work of Bernini.

6. Santi Quattro Coronati (Via dei Santi Quattro 20) This atmospheric 4th century basilica is on a quiet street close to the Colosseum. It’s one of the oldest churches in Rome, and is dedicated to four anonymous martyrs, who are buried in sarcophagi in the crypt. Despite its central location, the church has retained a tranquil atmosphere, and many visitors miss its secrets - a hidden cloister and chapel, which can be accessed by ringing a bell.

7. Protestant Cemetery (Via Caio Cestio 6) Beyond the Pyramid of Cestius and the Aurelian walls is the Protestant Cemetery, the resting place of many non-Catholics and foreigners who died in Rome. Seeing the graves of children and young people is incredibly moving, but a visit to the cemetery is less depressing than you might expect, in part because of its serene beauty. The poet Shelley wrote that “it might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place”. He was later buried here himself, along with fellow Romantic poet Keats, and other writers and artists. You’ll also see cats sunning themselves on the tombstones - the residents of the nearby cat sanctuary.

8. Centrale Montemartini (Via Ostiense 106) In 1997 a power plant on Via Ostiense was transformed into an extension of the Capitoline Museums. A visit to Centrale Montemartini is a surreal experience, as you’ll see the marble torsos of Roman statues juxtaposed with industrial machinery. Many of the 400 statues here were excavated in the gardens of luxurious Roman villas, such as the Gardens of Sallust, and new masterpieces were recently added to the collection. This underrated museum doesn’t attract the visitors it deserves, but it’s easy to get to and well worth a visit - just take the metro to Garbatella (line B).

9. San Nicola in Carcere (Via del Teatro di Marcello 46) Descend into the crypt of this church to discover another highlight of our Rome tours - the foundations of not one but three Roman temples, which have been cleverly incorporated into the structure of the 16th century church. Although you can see the columns of the pagan temples outside the church, it’s only when you explore the underground section that you get a sense of the area’s fascinating history. As well as seeing the remains of the temples, you’ll also get to walk along a subterranean Roman road.

10. Capuchin Crypt (Via Veneto 27) Most crypts are humbly decorated with a few frescoes at most, but this is no ordinary crypt. The bones of nearly 4,000 monks cover every inch of the crypt, which comprises six small small rooms. According to the Catholic Church, the crypt is not supposed to be macabre, but rather a poignant reminder of our own mortality. A placard in the crypt reminds visitors that “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…”

~by Alexandra Turney~