May 2015
Rome’s Secret Side: 5 Hidden Gems

If any mention of Rome‘s major attractions makes you think “Too crowded!” or “Been there, done that” consider traveling to the Eternal City for a tour of its lesser-known sites. Whether you’re visiting for the first time or the tenth time, these five hidden gems promise to entertain, educate, and maybe even bowl you over.

1. Church of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola

Sure to impress even those who claim they’ve seen it all, the Church of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola features such an abundance of stunning gilded ornaments most visitors can only find one word to describe the interior: breathtaking. Constructed in the 17th century to honor the founder of the Jesuit order, the church boasts impressive marble reliefs and frescos by artist Andrea Pozzo, who painted grandiose images across the nave ceiling to celebrate the life and deeds of Saint Ignatius.

2. Santa Maria in Trastevere

Few churches in Rome pre-date Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest religious structures in the entire city. The basic floor plan dates all the way back to the 4th century, and much of the original wall structure to the 12th. Although located in the trendy Trastevere neighborhood, few foreign visitors include this church on their itinerary, missing a unique chance to see frescoes masterfully executed by artists Pietro Cavallini and Domenico Zampieri. Literally packed with history, the church also contains 22 granite columns, taken from ancient city ruins.

3. Castel Sant’Angelo

Like almost everything else in Rome, Castel Sant’Angelo is both historically and architecturally significant. Refreshingly free of camera-toting tourist hordes, this centuries-old castle originally served as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian and his family. Today, the structure houses a national museum, rewarding visitors with insightful tours of exquisitely adorned papal apartments. The castle sits on the right bank of the Tiber River, its roof terrace providing panoramic views of the city’s central districts. When you visit, you can ask your guide to show you the secret passageway linking the castle to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

4. Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano

If you want to see not one but three ancient churches built on top of one another, visit Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano on your next Roman holiday. Completed just before 1100, the present three-tiered church complex stands on top of a fourth-century structure that once included a mithraeum, a place of worship for followers of ancient religion known as Mithraism. Beneath that structure sits yet another edifice, built over an even older building destroyed in the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE. As you descend into the underground history of Rome, listen for the sounds of the river flowing deep below the city.

5. Palazzo Valentini

Palazzo Valentini offers a welcome relief from Rome’s somewhat overwhelming profusion of must-see historical churches and awe-inspiring cathedrals. You don’t have to venture far out of the central district to discover this 16th century structure, now housing provincial government offices. The palace sits on top of ancient ruins, believed to represent part of a residential complex from the second century CE. Even if underground relics aren’t usually your thing, include this site on your itinerary for a chance to see the palazzo’s art treasures, which include works by artists Sandro Chia and Ugo Attardi.

Hidden from the hordes

While the typical Rome itinerary includes only the most popular attractions, the city’s secret side remains a treasure trove of hidden gems. From tiny churches concealed in back alleys rarely thronged by visitors, to stunning palaces standing in plain view yet frequently overlooked by sightseers, some of the city’s most alluring attractions remain well-hidden from the tourist hordes.