Escape the tourists on your visit to Rome with this handy guide to the city’s best under-the-radar spots, time-capsule piazzas and green retreats.
The history of Rome follows some dramatic twists and turns that shaped the ancient empire it became. Navigating the Italian capital’s historic neighborhoods can be confusing. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in the historic center all the time, but each and every district within Rome’s tourist hub is distinct.
There are the places many of us think of when we think of Rome – packed with hotels and throngs of tourists – and there are the under-the-radar spots, time-capsule piazzas, and green retreats. Let us help you get your bearings and start exploring the Eternal City like a local.
The centro storico, or historic center, makes up much of Rome. In ancient times, it was home to temples, barracks and sporting arenas that became the main hub of the Renaissance city. Today, it’s the part of town you’ll be keen to get caught up in. The glorious Trevi Fountain shines brightly in its streets while the Pantheon still stands perfectly – amazing, considering it was constructed 1,000 years ago. See why the winding Via Veneto is known as the center of ‘la dolce vita’ (the sweet life), walk up the Spanish Steps and snap to your heart’s content in Piazza Navona – a fountain-packed, palazzi-shrouded square filled with bright street artists and buzzing cafes.
Once ancient Rome’s red-light district, this working-class area was home to gladiators, prostitutes and even Julius Caesar (he moved there to show he was ‘one of the people’). Now, the neighborhood is a mish-mash of boutiques, restaurants, and lovely palazzi. When in the district, sample Monti fare from Trattoria Monti Rome – a family-run foodie hotspot that serves up a mean tagliatelle.
To the north is the stunning Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, while the Colosseum sits to the south. If you’re visiting the latter, a Rome Colosseum tour really brings the ancient monument to life. Your guide will feed you facts and anecdotes galore and if you want to go deeper beneath the skin of the mighty edifice, book a tour of the underground area to see where gladiators once waited. As you walk in their footsteps onto the arena floor, you can still sense the fear and tension.
Campo de’ Fiori and the Jewish Ghetto
South of Piazza Navona is Campo de’ Fiori, once a vibrant commercial hub packed with craftsmen. Then there’s the famous Jewish Ghetto. The Jewish presence in Rome dates back to 160BC, making its community one of the oldest in the city. Your holiday to the Eternal City wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the ghetto – take your pick from an abundance of Jewish Rome tours, which guide you round synagogues, museums, catacombs, and show you where to sample the finest Jewish-style artichokes.
Aventine and Palatine Hill
Just south of Circus Maximus is Aventine Rome. It’s pretty and petite, with plenty of green spaces and hotels that offer respite from the hustle and bustle of the center. Aventine is one of the famous Seven Hills of Rome, including Palatine Hill, where legend has it that Romulus first founded the original city in 753BC.
Palatine overlooks the grand Roman Forum, which was once the beating heart of ancient Rome. Wander through the shrines, temples, government offices and streets Julius Caesar once commanded. Other hills include Capitoline, Esquiline, and Caelian. The northernmost hill, Quirinal Hill, is the official residence of Italy’s President while neighboring Viminal Hill is the smallest of the seven.
This historic neighborhood is tucked away to the south-west of Circus Maximus, a fettuccine’s throw away from the Jewish Ghetto and Piazza Venezia. It may be small, but it packs in some magnificent churches – the Church of San Giorgio in Velabro and the Church of San Nicola in Carcere are must-sees.
The Vatican, Borgo and Prati Rome
Cross the river from Rome’s historic center and you’ll find yourself in the world’s smallest sovereign state. Vatican City is surrounded by Borgo, the 14th historic district of Rome and haven of pizza parlors and churches like no other, while nearby Prati boasts neat and luxurious streets outside the fast-paced frenzy of central Rome.
As well as housing the Pope and St. Peter’s Basilica, the holy walls of the Vatican also enclose the vast Vatican Museums, displaying some of the finest artwork in the world. Inside, the Sistine Chapel is an impossibly beautiful space filled with frescoes painted by Michelangelo. Impress your traveling companion with this fact: the master sculptor didn’t paint his frescoes lying down, as depicted in movies. Instead, he had a clever scaffolding system build for him. Sometimes, he would need to bend backward, limbo-style, and paint over his head.
Regola and the Piazza Farnese
If you enjoy strolling the streets you’ll feel right at home in this old-world neighborhood, packed with family-run trattorias draped in foliage and red-checkered tablecloths. From leather tanners to comb makers, this historic district was once famous for its craftsmen. Cobblestone streets bring you out at Piazza Farnese, where two fountains have been created from the ancient Baths of Caracalla. Renaissance palace Palazzo Farnese overlooks the famous meeting point, created by Michelangelo for the Farnese family.
Once a working-class district, you’re now more likely to find this Roman neighborhood filled with wealthy expats and American students. You’re bound to find a magic souvenir in one of its quaint shops, which line the charming streets’ crumbling facades and faded paintwork.
It’s Instagram gold – washing is strung up like bunting between homes, while plants and religious artifacts sit snugly in unassuming street corners. Don’t miss Villa Farnesina – a lavish Renaissance villa erected by Peruzzi. Inside, the walls are swathed in fabulous frescoes by iconic artists such as Raphael.
Step off the beaten track and into the least touristy quarter of Rome. The neighborhood takes its name from ‘Monte Testaccio’ – a man-made hill that was a dumping ground for amphorae (Roman jugs) in ancient times. It’s slightly grittier than the centro storico, but in its streets, you’ll find some of the best bakeries in Rome.
Did your favorite Roman neighborhood make the list? Tag us on Instagram in your favorite photo of the beautiful and historic districts of Rome.