Want to know where to find really unusual things to see in Rome?
I mean really off the beaten track, amazing things hidden (almost) from plain view.
While you wander around Rome checking out the major attractions, see if you can find these.
In the photo to the left, you see this crazy monster doorway.
The owners, a pair of Renaissance painters and brothers, Taddeo and Frederico Zuccari, were inspired by the monster park in Bomarzo, not far from Rome.
They thought it would be cool to have monsters around the doorway (and windows, not shown.)
This doorway is on via Gregoriana, near the Spanish Steps, in what is now the the Biblioteca Hertziana Max Plank Institute for Art History library.
It's not part of my list below. I just thought you might find it interesting, and inspire you to look for more stuff on the rest of the page. Off you go...
On a typical first-time 2-3 day visit to Rome, you may not have a chance or even the desire to look for these unusual things to see in Rome.
But if you are looking for some of the most off the beaten track things in Rome, here are a few of the more fascinating ones I've collected over my years of walking and wandering in Rome.
Why not make a treasure hunt for yourself, and try to collect these unusual things to see in Rome (hint: there is a map at the bottom):
Of course there is such a wealth of ancient Roman ruins even inside the city itself, you could endlessly find ancient unusual things to see in Rome.
For example, the Servian walls, from the time of the kings (700-300 BC more or less) are still left standing in lots of spots around Rome and most people don't realize what they are or how old they are.
But I find it amazing to see them still standing, right in the middle of a traffic island in the city center, or even running through the Termini train station.
Here are just a couple of ancient really unusual things to see in Rome that I find fascinating, and hope you do too:
The Ponte Rotto (broken bridge) is the oldest Roman stone bridge in Rome. Dating from the 2nd century BC, and originally called Pons Aemilius, the bridge was destroyed by various floods over the centuries, and always rebuilt. Finally in the 16th century, half the bridge was washed away and they stopped fixing it.
What remains stands in the Tiber, next to the newer and sturdier Ponte Palatino (which I find pretty uninteresting even if it is useful.)
Many visitors in Rome flock to the Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth), made famous in the wonderful Audrey Hepburn/Gregory Peck 1953 movie Roman Holiday. In recent years they decided to make money off this and now, you have to pay to stand next to the Mouth of Truth and have your picture taken with it, presumably sticking your hand in its mouth as Audrey's character did in the movie. And this has caused huge queues that wrap around the entrance to the church where the Mouth of Truth is located.
However, there is no line whatsoever to get into the church itself (which is of course free.) And that is a shame indeed because it's a gorgeous Byzantine-era church, with cosmatesque floors, and high beamed ceilings that always seem to let in just the right amount of light to give the place a hushed and special feeling.
One of the curiosities in this church is the (alleged) skull of Saint Valentine, probably from around the 3rd century.
It's a bit of a grey area, since there was more than one saint Valentine and apparently there is more than one church in the world claiming to house his remains. In any case, it can be a special place to come and make a wish or just check out this relic, quietly sitting inside this un-crowded church behind all the crowds outside.
During the Medieval period, there was a lot of poverty and despair. People simply struggled to survive societal ills such as plagues, sacks of the city, unpleasant power-mongering between nobles, etc. So taking care of monuments, relics and artefacts was not high on anyone's list. That's one reason a lot of really ancient stuff (like the Egyptian obelisks) fell to ruins and abandon.
Rome was also pretty sparsely populated then (about 50,000 people give or take.) So there is a little less of medieval Rome to see today than there is from other periods.
However, we do have quite a few unusual things to see in Rome from that era. You just have to know where to look:
This medieval tower sits surrounded by more modern buildings in the little street near piazza Navona called via dei Portoghesi.
The tower, actually called La Torre dei Frangipani, came to be called the Monkey Tower. Here's the legend and why:
About a thousand years ago, a family lived in this tower, with their small baby and pet monkey.
One day, the monkey, left alone with the baby for a few moments, took the infant to the top of the tower, ostensibly to play with him there.
The parents, horrified and desperate, prayed to the Virgin Mary that she help them get their son back safely. They promised that if she helped them, they would build a shrine to her.
Soon, the monkey brought the child back, safe and sound.
And so, of course, the family placed this madonna on top of the tower in homage to the Virgin Mary as promised.
Alongside her is an electric lamp, always on.
Trastevere was where Jews originally settled and lived in ancient Roman times. There was a thriving Jewish community there through medieval times, until 1555 when the Jews were forced to move to the other side of the river, in the area known today as the Jewish Ghetto.
In the quietest part of Trastevere, there is a tiny alleyway, Vicolo dell'Atleta (named Street of the Athlete because of a Greek statue Apoxyomenos, found there in the mid 1800's, today in the Vatican Museums.)
The street was originally called Vicolo delle Palme, probably because of palm trees planted there as a symbol of Judea.
One of the oldest synagogues in Rome was here, and it's the only one of seven from that era that remains at all.
Founded by lexicographer Nathan ben Jechiel (1035-1106), and eventually destroyed in a fire in 1268, there are still remnants of this synagogue, which you see here.
If you look very closely at the middle column, you can even see faint writing in Hebrew.
By itself, the exquisite basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati is one of the more unusual things to see in Rome. Easily overlooked on its perch a few blocks away from, and above the Coliseum, it's one of the best examples of medieval architecture in Rome.
The basilica has many wonderful treats if you know where to look, like the 12th century frescoes inside a secret chapel, the foundling wheel and much more...
One of my favorite things to do with people who've never seen this church before is to take them into the secluded ancient cloister to the left of the main nave. You have to ring a bell so someone can let you in, and then pay a Euro "offering." The look on the faces of first-time visitors is worth every penny.
The basin in the middle of the fountain is from the 12th century. Many churches in Rome have hidden cloisters, but I think this one is by far the most beautiful.
The Medici dynasty were prominent bankers, patrons of the arts, and cardinals and popes, from the mid 1400's - late 1700's. They are usually associated with the Tuscany area, specifically Florence.
One does not come to Rome looking for signs of the Medici family...but of course they were here too.
First of all, four of the Medici were popes.
Second of all, the family's influence and wealth were widespread, and it's understandable they would be responsible for investing in art and architecture in Rome as well as their native Florence.
If you look around Rome (particularly in churches and on ceilings), you might see the Medici crest (coat of arms), which is a distinctive horse-shoe shape of five red balls.
Maybe, then, the Medici crests are not such unusual things to see in Rome. But I find most people have no idea they are here, or where to find them.
My favorite of these is the richly colored fresco on the outside of a building, plainly visible yet often overlooked, right in the center of Rome.
Many visitors to Rome skip the park of Piazza Vittorio (Emanuele.) It's kind of near the Termini train station, not in the prettiest part of town, and certainly not that near any major tourist attractions (although it was one of the most important areas in Ancient Rome.)
But I find the park beautiful and peaceful to walk through (at least during the day.)
There is a dedicated dog-park, ruins of an ancient Nymphaeum, an odd dried fountain, a cat sanctuary, and, the Magic Door.
In the 1600's, a lot of people were very into alchemy and mysticism. This did not go over well, however, during the Inquisition, and practicers were often singled out, persecuted and sometimes executed.
The Marquis of Pietraforte, Massimiliano Palombara, whose Villa Palombara used to run along the edge of today's piazza Vittorio, was a well-known practitioner of alchemy. Due to his wealth and status, he mingled with other such luminaries of the day like Christina (the queen of Sweden), Giuseppe Francesco Borri, and Athanasius Kircher. The Marquis was likely also a member of a secret society called the Rosicrucians, a forerunner to Freemasonry.
The Marquis had created a sort of laboratory outside his villa, where he and Borri conducted experiments, trying to find the Philosopher's Stone, which could turn metal into gold. Legend says that Borri found the solution, but had to escape into the night, leaving his formula behind. So he (or perhaps the Marquis) inscribed Borri's writings onto the frame of the door for posterity, in hopes that one day someone could figure them out and use them to make gold.
The villa and its other gates and doors are long gone. But this Magic Door (also called the Alchemist's Door) remains, along with its inscriptions. In my opinion, this really is one of the most unusual things to see in Rome.
Over the centuries, people found all kinds of ways to tell time. Traces of old timepieces are fascinating and sometimes very unusual things to see Rome.
This curious water clock in the middle of the Borghese Gardens actually tells the time correctly. Amazing isn't it?
This marvel of mechanical engineering is based on using the force of the water that flows beneath it to move the pendulum and wind the clock. At the same time, the water alternatively fills two basins, which gives the clock its ringtone. The clock has four quadrants, which allow you to tell the time from any direction.
In 1867, a friar of the Dominican Order, Giovanni Battista Embriaco, presented two of these types of clocks (hydrochronometers) at the Paris Expo.
In 1873, one of these water clocks was placed in Villa Borghese gardens, on a fountain designed by the architect Gioacchino Ersoch.
Ersoch wanted to place the clock in perfect surroundings, and he settled on a little islet in a pond in the Borghese Park, where it still stands today. The idea was to show a harmony between technology and nature. In fact, to keep the clock in continuity with its surroundings, the base looks like tree trunks, although it is made of cast iron.
The water clock worked quite accurately until 2004 when it abruptly stopped working. Nobody was able to fix it, so, in 2007, it was completely re-engineered. Today it works perfectly, thanks to constant care and upkeep of its delicate mechanisms.
So now we step back about 2000 years. Not hard to do in Rome. How did the Roman's tell time back then?
Some of the unusual things to see in Rome are the 13 obelisks from ancient Egypt. These obelisks were brought over from Egypt (mostly as trophies) by various Roman emperors, and placed around Rome in strategic spots. In the middle ages, most of them broke apart, fell to the ground and often got buried by mud and dirt.
In the late 1500's, popes started restoring the obelisks and having them installed around Rome in front of monuments, plazas and churches. These obelisks were then inevitably topped with the symbol of that pope.
One of the obelisks most badly destroyed was the one you see today in piazza Montecitorio, home of the Italian Chamber of Deputies (parliament.)
This particular obelisk was originally from Heliopolis in around 600 BC, and was later brought to Rome from Egypt by Rome's first emperor, Augustus, and used as a sundial.
August used this obelisk as a gnomon (the thing that causes a shadow on a sundial) of his Solarium Augusti, (giant sundial, or horologium) in Campo Marzio. There was a floor made of travertine, with a meridian line where the shadow would fall to show the time.
Unfortunately (according to Pliny), the obelisk did not work at all after about 30 years.
Another, later, example of a meridian line may be found on the floor of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Pope Clement XI commissioned the astronomer and mathematician, Francesco Bianchini to build a meridian line inside the basilica. It was completed in 1702.
Among other reasons, the pope wanted to check the accuracy of the Gregorian reformation of the calendar.
Bianchini's sundial was built along the meridian that crosses Rome, at longitude 12° 30' E. At solar noon, the sun shines through a small hole in the wall high above, and it lands on the meridian line at a spot that depends on the time of year.
At the summer solstice, the sun's ray hits the meridian line at the point nearest the wall. At the winter solstice, the sun beam hits the meridian line at the point farthest from the wall. At the spring and autumnal equinoxes, the sunbeam lands just between these two points.
It actually works pretty well, even today.
As you can imagine, many wars were fought in this city since its founding in 753 BCE. In much of Europe, and certainly in Rome, it's common to find reminders of previous important moments in history, particularly of World War II.
See if you can find these fairly hidden reminders of more recent wars and their affects on the Eternal City.
For much of history, Italy was not a unified country. Most of what you think of as Italy today was a peninsula comprised of various and sometimes very divisive kingdoms, duchies and states.
By the early 1800's, Rome was under French control as part of the Papal States.
At the same time, nationalism was on the rise around Europe, and this included the area that is Italy today.
This is actually a long, complicated, and really fascinating history, and I am only learning about it in depth now that I have been living in Rome for so long.
But to cut to the chase: In 1849, the Janiculum Hill in Rome (Gianicolo) was the site of a very bloody battle fought by the forces of Giuseppe Garibaldi in their risorgimento, the resurgent movement to return Rome to a republic, against the French who wanted to restore the power of the Pope.
There are several very evident memorials to this battle and to Garibaldi, on the Gianicolo Hill.
One of the more unusual things to see in Rome and a more subtle reminder of this tremendous and historically important battle, is a French cannonball high on the outside wall of the church of San Pietro in Montorio.
On March 23, 1944, a group of Partisans attacked a battalion of SS Policemen as it came down via Rasella. Just as the soldiers were coming down the street, the Partisans exploded a bomb they'd hidden in a rubbish cart.
Twenty-eight SS police died immediately (more of them would die over the next days.) In the panicked moments right after the bomb went off, the policemen who'd been knocked to the ground by the explosion grabbed their weapons and sprayed gunfire around themselves in self-defense.
The reasons this episode became so monumental is that, in reprisal for this attack, Hitler ordered 10 Italians killed for every Nazi who'd died. Every Jew, everyone in prison, and then eventually, even men and boys from the street were rounded up. Among them was also a priest.
At the time of the roundup, 33 SS had died, but instead of taking 330 men (and boys), the Nazi's took 335 by mistake.
On 24 March, led by SS officers Erich Priebke and Karl Hass, the Nazis took the their victims outside the city center to the via Ardeatine, and murdered them all in cold blood. By the time they'd realized they'd taken 5 people too many, it was too late, and so they killed these additional 5 as well, to prevent them from being witnesses.
The victims were buried in a cave there, called a fossa. They were discovered only after Rome was liberated in 1944. The event is today known as the Massacre of the Fosse Ardeatine.
On via Rasella, where the Partisan attack took place, most of the buildings have been renovated over the years. Today it's a pretty cobblestone street that leads from Piazza Barberini towards the Trevi fountain.
But this one building and its bullet holes remain, to remind us of the tragedies and horrors of war.
During WWII, more than 2000 Jews were deported from Rome and sent to Auschwitz (more than 7000 Jews from all over Italy were deported to deaths camps in the Reich.)
Only 102 of the Jews deported from Rome survived.
Today, Rome's Jewish community is thriving, still in the Ghetto neighborhood, which has today become one of central Rome's loveliest areas for strolling and eating.
In the mid 1990's, German artist Gunter Demnig had the idea to commemorate victims of the Holocaust by placing stolpersteine (stumbling blocks or stepping stones) in front of the last place the victims lived. The stone would be a way of symbolically returning that person to their home.
They are made of concrete, then covered in brass, and engraved - "Here lived..." and then "arrested" or "deported" and the date of death, and place of death if known.
There are now more than 40,000 of these blocks in cities all across Europe. They commemorate not only Jews but also many other victims of the Holocaust including gypsies, homosexuals, blacks, communists and others.
In Rome, these stepping stones are mostly concentrated along the streets of the Jewish Ghetto, where so many Jews lived during the occupation. But there are also stolpersteine all around other parts of Rome as well.
You just have to look down.
Return to the top of Unusual Things to See in Rome.Romewise › What to Do in Rome › Unusual Things to See in Rome