13 Unusual Things to Do In Rome: Hidden Roman Gems

August 30, 2023

When it comes to fully embracing a city by adapting its local customs and culture, the phrase ‘When in Rome!’ is usually declared. In fact, the phrase is so well known that it’s usually used even without its context-forming latter half: ‘…do as the Romans do!’ So, when in Rome… how does one do as the Romans do? And what are some unusual things to do in Rome? 

While it would be a shame to forgo a visit to the Vatican City on your first trip to the capital, or to avoid the Pantheon and the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, and while you should definitely be treating yourself to gelato in Giolitti every time to you find yourself in the city – what do you do once you’ve taken in the main highlights?

Statues at the Centrale Montemartini museum in Rome.

Statues at the Centrale Montemartini Museum, one of our choices for unusual things to do in Rome. Photo credit: Matteo Basile

Alternative Rome: Our picks for the city’s lesser-visited attractions 

If you find yourself with extra time in the city, or just in need of a break from the sheer scale of the sometimes overwhelming history of the area, it may be time to look for some of the hidden gems, local experiences and lesser-visited landmarks on offer. From tourist-friendly yoga to a pasta-making class, fried artichokes to special exhibitions, there are some amazing, unusual things to do in Rome for those looking for the more subtle side of the city.

Man sitting on a doorstep with laundry above his head in a quiet Roman neighborhood

Get off the beaten path with these unusual things to do in Rome!

Have dinner surrounded by art at Cafe Canova Tadolini

Canova Tadolini is an artist atelier, museum, cafe-bar, and restaurant located near the Spanish Steps on Via del Babuino. The multi-functional, historical setting has become an attraction in itself, with sculptures and casts from 19th Century artists spilling out onto the street from the studio within, enticing curious travelers inside.

Visitors rave about the cafe-cum-museum for the unique photo ops this quirky, bizarre setting allows for. It doesn’t hurt that there’s also delicious food, good coffee, and a casual, welcoming atmosphere.

Sculpture at Rome's unusual Museum Atelier Cafe Canova Tadolini How’d you like to have dinner next to a statue by sculptor Adamo Tadolini? You can do just that at the Museum/Atelier/Cafe Canova Tadolini! Photo credit: Sonse

Attend a summer concert under the stars at the Caracalla Baths

The spectacular Caracalla Baths – ruins of a vast Roman bath complex – play host to a variety of special live concerts, gigs, operas and plays throughout summer. While the line-up varies every year, you can typically expect to find cinema, dance, jazz, opera, pop, and symphonic performances during the summer’s Caracalla Festival.

The atmospheric baths make an incredible setting for this event series. When planning your trip to Rome, it’s well worth checking out a general Rome calendar of events to see if you can nab a ticket to any of the popular concerts and shows.

Rome's Caracalla Baths If you manage to catch the concert series set in Rome’s Caracalla Baths, you’re in for a real treat! Photo credit: Paul VanDerWerf


Take a midday stroll through Trastevere

Trastevere is one of Rome’s most colorful neighborhoods. While it may be less touristy when compared to the ancient town or Vatican City, it has to be said that it does remain firmly on the tourist trail – but that’s not to say it’s not worth a visit!

Known for its laid back, bohemian vibes, shady side streets, great restaurants and artisan shops, Trastevere offers tourists a welcome breather from the hustle and bustle of the city center. Budget-friendly trattorias and backpacker hostels are standard here, with mostly a younger crowd gravitating to the area.

Riverside movies take place over summer (see below!), while the delightful Sacher Cinema offers a permanent residence for arthouse movie enthusiasts. On Sundays fill your bags with bargain-basement clothes and trinkets from the Porta Portese market before visiting Da Enzo al 29 to fill up on fresh pasta and some of the best tiramisu in Rome.

A man walking through a quiet street in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood.

One of Rome’s oldest neighborhoods, there’s something magical about Trastevere.

Spend Saturday morning in the private Palazzo Colonna

Palazzo Colonna is one of the oldest and largest private palaces in Rome. Home to the Colonna family (whose impressive 31-generation history is well worth delving into itself), the 14th Century palace is a sprawling stately residence filled with grand marble staircases, colorful salons, impressive hallways and a beautiful open courtyard at its center.

While the palace remains a private home for the Colonnas, it opens its doors to the public on Saturday mornings. Tickets include a guided tour at specific times. Special guided tours of other restricted areas of the palace are also available for an additional cost and weekday tours are by appointment only.

Gilded and elaborate hallway lined with paintings at the Palazzo Colonna, or Colonna Palace, in Rome.

Rome’s Palazzo Colonna is one of the largest private palaces in the city. Pictured here is the building’s impressive Colonna Gallery. Photo credit: Sailko

Run the trails at the Villa Doria Pamphili 

While tourists and locals alike flock to the Borghese Park in search of open green space in the city, the lesser-visited Villa Pamphili on the east side of the River Tiber is the perfect alternative when the Borghese gardens gets too busy. On weekends, take a break from pizza and pasta and grab a healthy brunch at Vivi Bistrot in the heart of the park, then take a stroll to the nearby Belvedere Lake. At lunchtime, Romans like to picnic just outside the private Villino Algardi, also known as Casino del Bel Respiro.

Pamphili is well known to local joggers for its natural trails, while its perimeter adds up to just about 10km – the perfect distance for a Saturday morning stretch. There are bathrooms and water fountains at the entrance too, while a run to and from the park takes in some of the city’s impressive landmarks, should you wish to do some sightseeing pre and post-run!

Villa Doria Pamphili estate with gardens and tress in Rome

The Villa Doria Pamphili is a hidden Roman gem that many visitors overlook. Photo credit: Luca Pennacchioni

Bag a designer bargain at a local vintage market

While the Port a Portese Market in Trastevere bustles with bargain hunters digging through 1 euro souvenir trinket stands and haggling over a packet of plastic forks, the more subtle Mercato della Città Ecosolidarietà offers a relaxed take on Saturday browsing.

Located in the Piramide in Rome, via del Porto Fluviale, the eco-friendly market sells all sorts from furniture and toys to clothes and jewelry, often with some stunning vintage style dresses and accessories on offer for a bargain. The market isn’t open every day, so be sure to visit their Facebook page for details.

Catch a movie on the Tiber Island

From mid-June to September a charming outdoor cinema pops up on the Isola Taberina showing both international and Italian films. The L’Isola del Cinema attracts both locals and tourists alike, who make a movie showing the focal point of a night spent browsing the craft stands and food stalls of the nearby riverside summer market. As evenings go, you could do worse than a stroll through Rome and an outdoor movie on the river! 

Isola del Cinema on the River Tiber, Rome

Spending an evening at L’Isola del Cinema is a unique thing to do in Rome, especially if you’re a cinephile. Photo credit: Larry Koester

Learn how to make pasta like a pro at an Italian cooking class

Full disclosure, we may be tooting our own horns with this one, but here at Walks of Italy everyone agrees that learning how to make pasta with a local chef – plus enjoying a full homemade meal after – is an amazing way to spend an evening (or lunchtime!) in Rome.

Cooking classes may not sound like they’re for everyone, but more times than not, couples, solo travelers, families, and especially children find themselves sometimes unexpectedly calling it a highlight of their vacation!

Making fresh pasta is one of the best things to do in Rome!

Making fresh pasta is one of the best things to do in Rome!

Browse classical works of art in a unique setting at Centrale Montemartini

Centrale Montemartini gets our vote for one of the most peculiar musuems in Rome. Housed in a former power plant, the museum juxtaposes classical Roman sculptures with industrial machinery, creating an intriguing fusion of art and technology. The museum’s collection features statues, reliefs, and other artifacts from ancient Rome, offering visitors a chance to see these classical pieces in an unconventional setting.

This contrast of ancient art against a backdrop of massive turbines and generators highlights the intersection of the past and modernity. Visitors to Centrale Montemartini will get a fascinating look at Rome’s rich history and its transition into an industrialized city.

Statue at art museum in rome

The statues at Centrale Montemartini are juxtaposed with an incredibly industrial setting. Photo credit: Fred Romero

Drop by an exhibition at Palazzo delle Esposizioni

If you find yourself craving a more modern exhibition in Rome, you’ll likely find what you’re looking for in the innovative Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Via Nazionale 194.

The Palazzo has hosted all sorts of cultural icons, from Rothko to Pixar, and offers interactive learning opportunities for all the family with many of its immersive events.

The Palazzo delle Esposizioni bills itself as an ultra-modern “space for culture and ideas at an international level.” The peaceful, quiet, open air space makes the Palazzo a perfect break from the hot Italian sun, busy tourist spots. With a 136-seat cinema, cafe, bookshop, and restaurant, the Palazzo offers something for curious travelers of all stripes.

Facade of Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome

Looking for unusual things to do in Rome? Palazzo delle Esposizioni is a great option for offbeat and interesting exhibitions. Photo credit: Justin Ennis

Soak up sunset views at the Eitch Borromini Rooftop Bar

If you’re familiar with Italian culture, you’ll know how much the Romans enjoy their aperitivo, or aperitif. And one place that boasts some of the best views in the city for said evening drinks is the Eitch Borromini, located on Via di Santa Maria dell’Anima.

The sixth floor bar, nicknamed “La Grande Bellezza,” plays host to some of Rome’s more affluent residents. Visitors can also enjoy a relaxing evening of cocktails and chat on the terrace as the sun sets over the Piazza Navona, Pantheon, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Palace of Justice, and beyond.

The views don’t come cheap – ask for the wine list – so keep this one for a special treat night. This Roman rooftop bar is strictly reservations only, so we call ahead or book online.

Eat fried artichoke in the Jewish Quarter

One of life’s great pleasures is discovering a foodstuff you never knew you loved, and this is exactly what happens to most foodies on a trip to Rome’s Jewish Ghetto. Part crispy, part creamy fried artichoke is on the menu at almost every restaurant, and for good reason; carciofi alla giudìa (Italian for ‘Jewish style artichoke’) originated in the city’s Jewish Quarter, and it’s there that it has been perfected.

Try it out at the Nonna Betta, one of the charming kosher restaurants lining the cobbled stoned Via del Portico d’Ottavia, and a special stop on this fantastic Rome food tour.

Insider’s tip: If time permits, take a trip to Rome’s Jewish Quarter in the day time and discover the history of the area, its culture and people in the Jewish Museum, located beneath the impressive synagogue.

Crispy fried Roman artichokes on a plate

Crispy fried artichokes are a tasty Roman bite dating back to the 16th century.

Find your zen at an English-speaking yoga class

If you’re feeling toured out and in search of some serious breathing space, a drop-in yoga class may be just what you need. Happily, there are plenty of English-language-friendly yoga classes dotted around Rome – some even offering special tourist packages too!

Zem Yoga near Piazza Navona on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, specialises in heated and non-heated vinyasa and hatha yoga. Their flexible options are great for travelers, such as drop-in rates for individual classes and comprehensive, five-class tourist passes (with a yoga mat, towel, and shower towel).

Ifyoga, barre, or pilates is your thing, there are also several other English speaking classes around the city. You’ll have no problem following the excellent instructors at Yoga Rome (‘RYOGA’), which has studios in several neighborhoods in Rome. Just make sure to check the calendar to see when English classes are scheduled. 

Update notice: This article was updated on August 30, 2023. 

Want to explore another hidden aspect of this incredible city? Join our Alone in Rome’s Catacombs: Exclusive After Hours Tour with Bone Chapel to see these historic sites without the crowds. With transport between sites, we take the hassle out of your visit, exploring the Capuchin Crypt (aka the Bone Chapel) as well as the Rome catacombs on this after-hours tour with an expert Walks guide.

by Karen Birney

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