Updated: Oct 3
Rome - a mystical city full of history, wonder, and cacio e pepe - ROME. It's this bucket list destination for every would-be traveler - to see the Colliseum, to walk the steps of the Appian Way - to marvel at the art and ancient dwellings. ROME, man. It's Rome!! People get starry eyed over this city, but in my experience it's no different than an urban jungle like New York.
It's hot, it's loud, it's buzzing with angry Italians on mopeds, and it is absolutely littered with tourists. What makes Rome so special? Why does every single rom-com on Netflix revolve around this city?
Confounded by this massive metropolis and its wily way of getting into everyone's hearts (and bellies), I told myself I MUST be missing something. My memories getting mugged in Rome and wearing my entire body down to jello from all the walking needed to be rewritten. And so, during a brief three night layover on the way to Malta, my husband and I decided to give it another go.
Here I'll tell you, if you want to avoid the crowds in Rome, check out these 4 hidden gems that are probably not even on your itinerary.
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1) Ostia and Ostia Antica
Just outside the city to the west, Ostia and it's neighboring Ostia Antica is easily accessed by the metro system or short taxi ride from Rome's Fiumicino Airport. For a quieter night's stay, the industrious seaside town of Ostia offers a welcome starting point to your Roman Holiday.
We chose to stay at B&B Lido Liberty - "L'abbraccio di Klimt", a sprawling and artistic home to ourselves, just steps from some seriously good pizza shops like L'Oro Di Napoli Roma. With candlelit tables and doughy southern Italian pizzas, you can't beat this after a long day of travel. Check out the lights dancing off the sea and families out for a stroll before calling it a day.
Starting refreshed the next morning, hop on the subway a 10-15 minute walk from the B&B to reach Ostia Antica. If you forgot any necessities you will pass several "Chinese Bazaar" stores on the way! My husband desperately needed a hat and gloves in the dead of January, so that was a good thing to find!
Ostia Antica itself is literally the old city of Ostia, but I don't mean turn of the century old - this is a completely abandoned city of ruins of the town of Ostia dating back to 620 BC.
This archaeological site takes several hours to visit, so plan to spend the morning. Having been to Pompeii, I can say that Ostia Antica is probably one of the best preserved ancient cities I have ever had the pleasure to walk through.
You can see how they lived from bakeries to homes, the theater and much more. The architecture is still largely in tact making it profoundly easy to transfer yourself back in time while visiting. This is 110% worth a visit before going into the sleepless city of Roma.
If you go, you can take the train or consider a small group tour from Rome.
2) Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano
Simply, this church is an architect's dream. Stacked one on top of another and then another this layer cake of a Basilica is literally three churches using up one vertical space.
Enjoy wandering down the stairwell from lavish gold and mosaic rooms into darker stone corridors as you will see the incredible transformation of time the deeper you go.
Now my next comment is not based on any type of scientific evidence but I was browsing the carved stones in the courtyard and found this language to be extremely fascinating to look at. And then it jumped out at me - "GOOGLE".
Right there on this old stone tablet. GOOGLE, it reads. I swear! (Do you see it? Middle right?)
So my theory is of course that ancient aliens, who obviously had a hand in building all the old stuff around the world (just ask my Dad), they came and visited then-Rome and had already visited the future so they wanted to impart some wisdom.
Kind of like at the end of the movie "Frequency" where the main dude (in the future) tells his childhood friend (in the past) over the hamm radio "Remember one word - yahoo), and then the kid eventually grows up and gets rich off of it.
Listen, I'm just saying (even though yahoo is archaic now), the alien stone tablet writers probably knew something was up when they wrote this and buried it at this offbeat gem in Rome. Go check it out for yourself and let me know what you think! Tours are readily available on viator, and often include stops at #4 as well!
3) Experiencing an Opera at St. Paul's Within the Walls Church
If you are an opera fan (or maybe just watched "Pretty Woman" a few too many times), you will be familiar with La Traviata, a gut wrenching Italian love story by Giuseppe Verdi.
Richard Gere's character Edward Lewis in Pretty Woman sums up so eloquently just what opera can mean to someone:
"People's reactions to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic; they either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don't, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul."
Beautiful. I love that quote. And I love opera. By act three I admittedly get a little weary because generally you see where it's heading and it usually is pretty doomed for the lovers. Nonetheless, experiencing an opera like this shouldn't be missed.
At St. Paul's Within the Walls you don't just witness an opera performance, you become immersed in it. For 35 euros spend a night on the town wining and dining before your 8:30 program.
You are ushered into a cavernous and dimly lit church, which in itself rivals the many you have probably seen earlier that day in your touring. Bursts of color - red, gold and velvet adorn the seats the walls and ceilings. A breathtaking backdrop for the art you are about to experience.
The acoustics of hearing opera within hallowed walls is one not soon forgotten and the music is boundless in reaching your soul with every agonizing cry of sorrow from the singers. This Italian opera absolutely must be on your to do list if you are interested in the arts.
4) Catacombs in Rome
As it so happens, I have a thing for visiting catacombs. I recently wrote up an article on 7 Bone-chilling Places to see Tombs, Catacombs and Mummies Around the World.
Not among the 7, but equally as satisfying to visit are the catacombs at San Callisto or San Sebastiano. I visited San Callisto but do not have photos! Suffice it to say, it's full of elaborate designs made from human skulls, and has a definite spook factor if you're into this sort of thing.
Visit two catacombs and the basilica (#2 above) on this well packaged tour.
Final Opinion: Is Rome Worth Visiting?
Rome - in it's angsty, aged and angry glory it still continues to prevail as a top tourist destination for good reason. Look for off the beaten path, non touristy sites to avoid the crowds in Rome and I guarantee you'll be dreaming of cacio e pepe and hugging your loved one on a vespa while your scarf flies independently into the wind. It's ROME, man, and I can say with confidence that without the crowds, it IS totally worth it.