Whether you’re an expat, a frequent visitor, or a traveler with a taste for the curious and extraordinary, there are many lesser-known, “off the beaten path” sights to see in Rome. Some of my favorite unusual, offbeat, and unconventional locations include a crypt decorated with bones, a geometrically extraordinary temple, a surreal cemetery oasis in the heart of the city, and a beautiful garden and extraordinary keyhole with the best view in Rome.
The curious and macabre Capuchin Crypt is a gruesome display of artistry, with some 4,000 friars‘ bones decorating the space. Bones are nailed to the walls, posing in their habits, and composing lamps, arches, and other patterns. While grotesque, the crypt is fascinating study in religion, life, and death, calling into question our own taboos and bringing to light our greatest insecurity: mortality. The crypt is a classic example of the memento mori, a reminder of the inevitability of death frequently found in art and literature, reinforced by a plaque reading: “What you are now, we used to be. What we are now, you will be.”
The crypt has recently been renovated, with a museum now providing visitors with some insight on the Capuchin order before entering the crypt.
Location: Via Vittorio Veneto, 27, 00187 Roma
How to get there: Take the metro to the Barberini stop and take a very short stroll.
The Turtle Fountain, Elephant and Obelisk, and the House of Owls
Those less fascinated with the macabre and more interested in the adorable and eclectic will enjoy these three sites, which highlight the natural world in a way which is fairly unusual in Rome.
La Casina delle Civette, or the House of Owls, is located within the Park of Villa Torlonia at Via Nomentana 70. The house is a must-see for animal lovers and architecture aficionados alike. The House of Owls was renovated from a simple “swiss cabin” under the direction of Prince Giovanni Torlonia the younger, who supervised the addition of elaborate windows, turrets, and an abundance of owl statues and images, possibly due to his fascination with the occult. The Casina delle Civette was originally conceived as an escape from the main house, the formal villa, which became the residence of Mussolini many years after its construction.
The Fontana delle Tartarughe, or Turtle Fountain, is located in Piazza Mattei, within the historical Jewish Ghetto of Rome. Tiny turtles decorate the bronze fountain, lending it an unusual charm, and the surrounding neighborhood deserves a leisurely stroll. While you’re nearby, check out the Teatro di Marcello, an open-air theater, which is often referred to as the ‘false Coliseum’.
The Elephant and Obelisk is located in Piazza della Minerva, near the Pantheon. Erected in 1667, the statue was created by sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who was responsible for a great many of the extraordinary fountains found in Rome, including those in Saint Peter’s square, Piazza di Spagna, Piazza Navona, and Piazza Barberini. The sculpture depicts a miniature elephant atop a pedestal, with an obelisk extending from its back.
Keyhole and orange gardens
Perched on top of the Aventine Hill, the orange gardens are one of my favorite vantage points to relax and look down on a panoramic view of the city of Rome. Unlike many parks in Rome, (probably because it is managed by the church rather than the city of Rome) the Giardino degli Aranci is spotless and well kept. and when the trees are heavy with oranges the park is a perfect spot to escape the chaos of the city. Unlike the Gianicolo and Pincio hills, the orange gardens aren’t too crowded with tourists, and you won’t be mobbed by insistent men trying to sell you diseased red roses.
Nearby the gardens you can take a peek through the keyhole made famous by the classic romantic film Roman Holiday. I usually don’t hold with anything inspired by this film, which seems to be the driving force between many American study abroad students’ decision to jump on scooters with strange Italian men. However, this keyhole is really one of the most extraordinary sites in Rome. If you don’t know what the view is of, I won’t ruin the surprise for you, but even the most cynical at heart will be delighted by it.
Keyhole Location: Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, 00153 Roma
Around 1502, during the high Renaissance, the ruler of Spain, King Ferdinand, and his wife, Queen Isabella, commissioned Donato Bramante to construct the tempietto (meaning little temple) on the spot where Saint Peter was martyred. The temple is inside the courtyard of the San Pietro in Montorio church on top of the Gianicolo hill, and contains a piece of what is said to be the cross upon which Saint Peter was crucified.
The simple temple is visually stunning, and considered to be one of the best examples of the Renaissance ideals of harmony and order. In its creation, Bramante was highly influenced by Roman architecture, as well as his work with Leonardo da Vinci who inspired the use of concentric circles in the temple’s design.
After seeing the temple, you can take a stroll around the Gianicolo hill, for one of Rome’s best views. Take a seat at your own risk of harassment by the rose-men.
Location: Piazza di San Pietro in Montorio, 2, 00153 Roma
Getting there: This one can be a bit tricky to reach with public transportation. Your best bet will be to grab the 44 or 75 bus which will take you near the temple. The tiny (and a little terrifying) 115 bus will drop you off right outside San Pietro in Montorio.
What is now officially known as the Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners is located behind the imposing Pyramid of Caius Cestius. The cemetery is an oasis of calm hidden between the busy neighborhoods of Testaccio and Ostiense.
The jumbled graves are overgrown with greenery and prowled by felines, who emerge from the nearby cat sanctuary. The cemetery is a photographer’s dream, and is also an excellent place to wander or relax on a bench with a book. Don’t feel strange about doing this – I promise you won’t be the only one.
The cemetery contains the graves of poets Keats and Shelley, as well as influential Marxist sociologist Antonio Gramsci.
Location: Via Caio Cestio, 6, 00153 Roma, Italy
Getting there: Take the metro to Piramide and cross the street heading towards the Pyramid.