36 Hours in Rome: The City’s Curiosities
Rome is well known for its rich history, stunning architecture, and savory wine, but there is more to the city than what initially meets the eye. Between the winding cobblestone streets and over the ancient seven hills, one can find Rome’s more bizarre attractions. This is a guide to stepping off the beaten path and experiencing curiosities that even the locals may have missed. Be sure to visit the famous tourist sites like the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, but spend your last few days in the Eternal City embracing Rome’s more peculiar side.
1. There’s Fire in Purgatory | 10:30
What better way to spend your Friday morning than looking at objects that may or may not have been touched by holy souls trapped in Purgatory? The Church of the Sacred Heart of Suffrage (Chiesa del Sacro Cuore del Suffragio) holds a small collection of items with scorched hand prints and other markings allegedly left on them by souls burning in Purgatory. There are stories behind each piece in the collection that can be found in some pamphlets near the exhibit or here online. Once you walk in the small church, the Museo delle Anime del Purgatorio is tucked in the back and to the right with no clear signs leading the way. If the “museum” itself doesn’t interest you or you have a fear of burning souls, the trip here is still worth it just to see the stunning church. With a glistening stain glass window precisely in the center and intricate designs along the walls, the chapel’s interior is almost as gorgeous as its exterior. Even better, it’s likely to be nearly empty when you visit, unlike some of the more touristy cathedrals around Rome.
2. Cappuccini Monks Sure Know How to Decorate | 12:00
Grab a bite to eat and then take a taxi ride or a long stroll to the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini to learn about the Capuchin order of the Franciscans. Because the museum is in a church, be sure to cover your shoulders and knees. If you forget a cover up, you can purchase a disposable one for 1 Euro when you pay the 8 Euro entrance fee. As you meander through the rooms, you’ll see genuine artifacts from Capuchin monks who became saints upon their deaths, including some from Saint Pio of Pietrelcina. Traditional habits and flagellants are also on display. The exhibition ends with a dimly-lit hallway decorated with intricate wall and ceiling designs made from human bones. It sounds scary, but you won’t want to miss this unique architectural opportunity. The windowless passage leads through three rooms that contain different symbolic sculptures including skeletons sleeping in beds made of femurs and skulls. The complex patterns and striking symmetry make the crypt seem serene and beautiful in a creepy made-from-the-bones-of-3700-monks sort of way. No pictures are allowed so be sure to buy a postcard from the gift shop on the way out. Upon exiting the church, turn right and walk up the street to reach the beautiful Villa Borghese gardens. With a small lake, many fountains, endless trails, and the Borghese Museum, it’s sure to take your mind off death for a while.
3. Who Is Mr. Brown? | 20:00
Bob Marley was asking the wrong question. Mr. Brown is a ‘what’ not a ‘who.’ Located around the corner from Piazza Trilussa, this stoner bar has a fun, laid back atmosphere. The back room is lit with only red lights and candles on the coffee tables. With comfy couches and two giant eyes painted on the wall next to the bathroom door, this room gives off a weird hipster vibe that you won’t find anywhere else. The bar is usually filled with friendly people willing to engage in conversation and its relaxing aura makes it the perfect place to start a Friday night-out. The best, and maybe strangest, part about Mr. Brown is that it serves chocolaty-tasting “porno shots” for only 1 Euro. (1 EURO!) The worst part is definitely the bathroom. Don’t use it, just trust me. There are plenty of other cool bars where you can relieve yourself if you just continue down Vicolo del Cinque. 8millimetri, for example, is just a little further up the road and offers incredible cocktails that come with a free vegetarian buffet.
4. Ancient Roman Lie Detector | 11:00
At the foot of the Aventine hills sits the Paleochristian Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin which holds a carved statue called the Bocca della Varita, or the Mouth of Truth. It is rumored that if you tell a lie while your hand is inside the mouth of the river God, the stone statue will chomp down on it. This is the perfect opportunity to ask your loved ones about all of their deepest secrets. If you go early, there won’t be much of a line, but later in the day you’ll have to wait. Afterwards, wander into the church and head for the back. There you’ll find the skull of Saint Valentine, the patron saint of lovers. Maybe with love in the air you’ll be tempted to forgive your loved ones for any lies or secrets just revealed. (Be sure to dress appropriately for a church, covering your shoulders and knees.)
5. Knights and Sights | 11:30
About a five minute walk from the magical stone mouth you can find some of the loveliest sites in Rome. Follow the Clivo dei Publicli uphill and then turn right to enter into a charming garden with a fountain, benches, roses, and a gorgeous view of the city. This spot, which is usually fairly empty, is perfect for a mid-afternoon picnic or a romantic evening with some Fragolina wine. If you find that there are too many people, there is another garden right next door! Walk further down the street past the gardens to reach the famous Aventine Keyhole in the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta. The keyhole offers a perfect view of St. Peter’s Basilica through the Knights of Malta gardens. To avoid the 20 minute wait in line, visit it on a rainy day. Otherwise, grab a beer from the nearby food stand and soak up the sun while you wait. Next to the piazza sits a gate that looks like an entrance to a church yard but is actually an entrance to another country. That’s right, there is another country besides the Vatican within Rome’s walls. The Knights of Malta is one of the last surviving orders of knights from the Crusades and is formally recognized by Italy and France as a sovereign nation. If you’ve ever wanted to stand with your feet in two different countries, this is your chance!
6. Hiking up History | 14:00
After lunch, listen to the gentle clinking of terracotta shards beneath your feet as you hike to the top of this ancient hill. Monte Testaccio began as a place for Romans to stack the broken pots that they used to import olive oil. Over the years, the pile has mixed with dirt and debris to become a solid mountain, 3,300 ft in circumference and 150 ft tall. The shards at the bottom of the mound date back to the first century AD, and Romans continued to stack their broken containers there until the third century. To visit this historic site, you will need to schedule a guided tour, but it is worth it — if not for the interesting stories along the way then for the incredible view at the peak.
7. We’re Not in Egypt | 16:00
Right down the street from Monte Testaccio you can check out an often-missed historical site: the Pyramid of Cestius. You read that correctly: there is a pyramid in Rome. Built between 18–12 BC, it serves as a tomb for Gaius Cestius, a magistrate who wanted a grand burial like those he saw during his visits to Egypt. The 119 ft pyramid is one of the most preserved structures in Rome because the ancient city walls were built alongside it. For a view of the pyramid with less traffic, go inside the Aurelian walls to the Protestant Cemetery on the northwest side.
8. The Puurrrfect Place to Eat | 17:00
To try some of the most amazing food you’ll ever have and eat it in an unusual atmosphere, head down to the Romeow Cat Bistrot. You’ll hear cats scratching the tree that sits inside next to the entrance, feel them snuggle between your legs as you sip your charming tea, and watch them jump onto the wall platforms while you eat your delicious meal. You’re free to bring your own cat to the cafe, but don’t worry if Mr. Wiskers is back at home, there are six kitties there for you to play with and toys for you to entertain them. Although the whole menu is vegan and gluten free, the bistrot knows how to please everyone’s taste buds. You can’t go wrong with anything here, but make sure to try the chocolate mousse cake for dessert.
9. A Childish Tradition | 11:00
Start your final day with some humor and a classic Roman tradition. Most families here take their children to see the Gianicolo Puppet Show at least once. The fairly small theater is located North of Piazza Garibaldi in the trees, just past the snack stand. Every half hour each weekend, the shutters on the green box open and a short skit is played out for all who gather to watch. Although you may not understand much because the show is in Italian, the cute puppets are funny and charming all the same. After the show, feel free to walk around the park’s many paths. Gianicolo is known to have some of the best views of Rome.
10. Funky Flavors | 12:00
Tucked just around the corner from Ponte Sisto on a street named after prostitutes and shoes sits one of Rome’s many delicious gelato shops. Punto Gelato makes its own gelato fresh each day, unlike many of the more touristy shops scattered throughout nearby streets. The gelato has a traditional Italian viscosity, but this shop also offers something a little out of the ordinary. It serves strange flavor combinations such as Buffalo Milk with Tomato and Basil Sauce and Chocolate with Rosemary. If your taste buds aren’t up for that sort of adventure don’t worry, they serve normal flavors too.
- Museum of the Holy Souls in Purgatory
Hours: 9:00–11:00, 17:00–19:00
Via Ulpiano, 29, 00193 Roma, Italy
Free (Donation Box Available)
- Capuchin Crypts
Via Vittorio Veneto, 27, 00187 Roma, Italy
8 Euros (+1 Euro for cover-up)
- Mr. Brown
Vicolo del Cinque, 29, 00153 Roma, Italy
Entrance is Free
- Mouth of Truth
Piazza della Bocca della Verità, 18, 00186 Roma, Italy
Picture is 1 Euro
- Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta and the Aventine Keyhole
Hours: the keyhole is open 24/7 but the nation’s gates close in the evenings
Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, 00153 Roma, Italy
- Monte Testaccio
Hours: Depends on your guided tour time
Monte Testaccio, 00153 Roma, Italy
Around 10 Euro
- Pyramid of Cestius
Via Raffaele Persichetti, 00153 Roma, Italy
- Romeow Cat Bistrot
Hours: 11:00–23:00, not open Monday & Tuesday
Via Francesco Negri, 15, 00154 Roma, Italy
Entrance is Free, Food is somewhat pricey
- Gianicolo Puppet Show
Hours: Saturday and Sunday Only, 10:30–12:00
Piazza Garibaldi, 00165 Roma, Italy
Donation of 1 Euro
- Punto Gelato
Hours: 10:00–2:00, but closes at midnight on Sundays
Via dei Pettinari, 43, 00186 Roma, Italy
2.50 Euro for 3 scoops