September 9, 2018

Unexpected Rome: the best things no one knows about!

I’m on my third visit to Rome and this time I went off the beaten track and visited a few places that the first time visitor to Rome (or indeed the second-timer) doesn’t usually know about.

If you’re looking for unusual things to do in Rome outside of the hero sights like the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, this post has you covered.

And if you’re in Rome for a day or a week, there are great places to eat in Trastevere, the little foodie mecca that will have you twirling in circles trying to make a decision.


* By the way, I’m taking three back to back tours in Europe in 2020. See the itineraries here >>


See the Basilica of St Clement

The astonishing St Clement church is just down the road from the Colosseum and is an easy add on to your tour through there (and yes, you really do need to take a guided tour there as I have done it with and without a guide and the difference is like night and day with what I thought I was looking at).

But this inauspicious looking church is an historian’s dream. The door that you enter takes you into a 12th century church, which is old enough to make you twirl and whisper “wow” looking at the frescos and mosaics that are nearly 1000 years old – especially when you come from a country that is not even 200 years old.

underground 1st century church in rome
You can’t take photos inside so this is the best I got!

But in the 1860s the priest of the prior of the House of Irish dominicans, Joseph Mallooly, got curious about what might be underneath so without permission he began to excavate. Maybe he heard water running in the dead of night, we don’t know, but what he uncovered is just astonishing.

Under the floor he found a 4th century basilica with frescoes still on the walls and painted with a pigment that sets into the plaster thereby preserving it, as well as marble pillars and the works.

But he wasn’t done with that discovery so he kept digging and underneath that he found a 1st century home of possibly a Roman nobleman or even the Roman mint, upon which the basilica was built and a natural water spring running through it!

This house, they believe, was a clandestine Christian church back when Christianity was illegal, but when Pope Constantine legalised it and the practice of killing Christians in the public squares was banned, the church was allowed to come out of its shell.

Lunch in front of Colosseum Rome
Just walk past these cafes from the Colosseum to the hidden Basilica

Visit the Popemobile display at the Vatican

The impressive art that lines the walls and ceilings of the long halls of the Vatican Museums is another must-see in Rome and of course that leads you down into the Sistine Chapel with the exquisite Michaelangelo paintings.

Again I would advise you spend the extra money and get a guided tour (you can also skip the line by buying VIP guided tickets so it’s well worth it not having to wait on the street for hours) because you’ll learn so many fascinating facts.

When I was last there the pope was giving an audience in the square and that was great because it meant the hordes were over there and not shuffling through the corridors with us. But it also meant the gate connecting St Peter’s Basilica from the museums was closed for a few hours so the option was to walk a few kilometres around and get swept up with the masses or go and see the display of Popemobiles over the years that are underneath and have only been open sporadically until last year.

It houses everything from hand-held thrones to horse drawn chariots through to the 1980 white Fiat Campagnola that Pope John Paul II was shot in with accompanying video of that assassination attempt, as well as other cars they take around the world.

Papal carriage under Vatican Museums
The papal carriage…
papal horses and carriage at Vatican Museums in Rome
… drawn by the papal horses
Pope mobiles throughout the years
A collection of pope mobiles throughout the years
Popemobile that John Paul was shot in. Vatican Museums Rome
Video of Pope John Paul II as he was shot in this car in Rome

Fill up your bottles with free artesian water

I was so fascinated by this and wonder why we don’t do it in New Zealand since we have vast water reserves under our plains: in Rome there is free artesian water everywhere!

These iron or stone drinking fountains just pour water constantly and are dotted around Rome so anyone can come and fill up their water bottles or grab a gulp.

But the clever thing is on some of them (pic below) if you put your finger up the pipe to block it, it will squirt out a little hole in the top like a proper drinking fountain! All the excess water just drains back into the Tiber. It seems so simple yet so genius.

Free drinking water in Rome
Filling up water bottles at one of the many fresh water fountains in Rome
How to drink water from fountains in Rome
If you look carefully you can see the water squirting from the little top hole!

See the Vestal Virgins

Another easy place to miss is the former Temple of Vesta which is surrounded by ruins of ostentatious palaces for emperors and monuments and temples.

But in a garden that you’d walk past if you didn’t have a local to show you, is where the Vestal Virgins were charged with keeping an eternal flame burning for 1000 years for the goddess Vesta. If she strayed from her vows she would be put to death – by starvation as her sacred blood was not to be spilled.

Astonishingly the Vestal priestesshood survived for over 1000 years and only ten were punished for breaking their celibacy wow.

It was an honour to be chosen as a young girl to be in this order, only six recruited every ten years with a maximum of 18 at any time, and she had to remain chaste as long as she tended to the sacred flame – which was for 30 years. Once she had turned 40-ish and was now freed from her bond she was one of the most powerful women in Rome with a lifetime of privileges.

It was the Christians that put an end to this pagan practice.

You’ll find the Vestal Virgins behind the circular temple of Vesta, on the eastern edge of the Roman Forum.

vestal virgin statue in rome
In the former temple of Vesta grounds surrounded by statues of the virgins

Have dinner under the stars in Frascati

One of the best keep secrets of Rome is just outside the city.

We headed out of Rome for the evening to live like the locals with dinner on the hilltop town of Frascati, after detouring to the cute town of Nemi for a spot of shopping, taking copious photos of the cuteness and tasting fortified strawberry wine (yes I bought a bottle to bring home and drink like port!) we arrived in Frascati.

The tour I was leading was organised by Josh Loughnan, owner of Weka Travel, who divides his time between Auckland and Frascati.

Having lived in Italy for the better part of 20 years, he lives in this town with his wife and kids in summer and we headed up to one of his favourite restaurants where the staff laid on a five-course dinner for us outside looking at the twinkling lights of Rome in the distance. Pastas, slow cooked meats and dessert – sublime.

I’ll be back in 2020 with my next group, and this time we’ll stay here and take day trips to Rome!

Dinner in Frascati, Rome
Our sublime spot in Frascati for alfresco dining
The Italy group eating dinner in Frascait
Dinner in Frascati with my tour group!

About Megan Singleton

Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!

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