Rome is an absolute treat for sightseers, with attractions including the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Pantheon, Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain reading like the world’s most essential bucket list. In a city as old as Rome though, you need only scratch the surface to discover a hidden universe that’s teeming with weird and wonderful things to see and do, from secret fairytale neighborhoods to ancient relics. Heck, there’s even a McDonald’s with a section of 2,500-year-old city wall inside.
We’ve put together a selection of offbeat ideas to help you dodge the tourist traps and experience the Eternal City at its most eccentric. Read on for our favorite quirky things to do in Rome…
Step Into a Fairytale
Tiny Quartiere Coppedè, with its peaceful gardens, huge ornate fountains and colorful gargoyle-and-fresco-festooned facades, is barely known to Rome locals, let alone the visiting tourist masses. Take a stroll through its hushed streets and piazzas to experience a fairytale mishmash of fantastical architectural styles, from Ancient Greek to Art Nouveau, and pretty much everything in between: gothic, medieval, mannerist and more. Expect Florentine towers, Baroque Roman palazzi and Moorish arches, as you wander, as if in a dream, through this fascinating enclave of the Trieste neighborhood. Look out for the Spider Palace, Fountain of Frogs, and the massive iron chandelier hanging beneath the archway at the entrance on Via Tagliamento.
An Audience with the Pope
You don’t have to be religious to attend the pontiff’s weekly benedictions and prayers at St Peter’s Square or the Vatican’s Nervi Auditorium. Just rock up with an open mind and let papa's calming tones wash over you. Tickets are free, or you can buy a combi pass that also gets you a tour of St Peter’s Basilica. Proceedings normally kick off around 9.30am on Wednesdays, assuming the pope is in town. We recommend arriving early to bag the best seats in the house.
If it’s crypts full of skulls and churches toting ancient relics you want, well, you’ve come to the right place. Treat yourself to a tour of the crypts at Santa Maria della Concezione, where the mortal remains of some 4,000 Capuchin friars decorate the walls, like some sort of ultra-macabre episode of Dream Home Makeover. Steel yourself for the bizarre crypt of pelvises and try not to be startled when you spot the skeleton on the ceiling clutching a scythe (made of bone, of course). If your hunger for dead things still isn't satisfied try San Silvestro in Capite, where a skull on display purports to be the decapitated head of John The Baptist. Meanwhile over at the Basilica di Santa Maria, young lovers can pay homage to the garlanded remains of their patron saint, Valentine.
Quirky Basilica Views
Of all the Instagrammable snaps of St Peter's Basilica available from various vantage points around Rome, the Aventine keyhole is perhaps the quirkiest. Here, curious tourists joining the queue to peer through this otherwise unremarkable keyhole are rewarded with a perfectly framed image of the Basilica flanked by the Villa dei Cavalieri’s garden hedges. Over on Via Niccolò Piccolomini, an optical illusion par excellence reveals itself as you stroll from the far end of the leafy avenue towards St Peter’s. Initially massive in appearance, the basilica’s distinctive dome seems to decrease in size the closer you get. Utterly baffling and even more dramatic when experienced at speed. From a Vespa sidecar, for example.
Fries With That?
Hungry for some history with your Big Mac? Make for the McDonald’s on the basement floor of Rome’s Termini train station, where you can view part of the Servian Wall that encircled the city as a defense against invading Gauls and Carthaginians in the 4th Century BC. It’s a pretty incongruous sight inside this otherwise identikit McDonald’s restaurant and fairly out there in terms of unusual things to do in Rome. There’s another, larger section of the wall to check out just outside the station.
Visit a Circular Church
With somewhere in the region of a thousand churches across Rome, you can be sure there are a quirky few among the more traditional styles. Take Santo Stefano Rotundo, Rome’s first circular church, which dates from the 5th Century. Cruciform from the outside, it's inside that things get really interesting, with a large circular central space replete with spiraling columns, and some amazing frescoes by 16th-century artists Niccolò Circignani and Antonio Tempesta depicting – in gruesome detail – the grisly demise of 34 martyrs.
The Mouth of Truth
Looking precisely like a character from the classic 80s movie Labyrinth, the Bocca della Verità – or Mouth of Truth – is a huge marble mask that lurks within the portico of Rome’s medieval Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin. Legend has it that pilgrims brave enough to place their hand inside the mask’s mouth will lose their fingers if they’ve been telling lies. You can test this for yourself, if you happen to be feeling particularly brave and/or virtuous.
A Cacophony of Cats
Amid the ancient ruins of the Theatre of Pompey and several Roman Republican temples, roam hundreds of homeless cats, protected here within the environs of the Largo di Torre Argentina square. You’ll spot them wandering among the ruins, peering out from behind columns and ancient stone walls. Some of the healthier and bolder cats have even been known to interact with the tourists here. A purr-fect afternoon out for cat lovers, in other words.
Dinner and all that Jazz
If you came here in search of quirky things to do in Rome, Tramjazz is unlikely to disappoint, for it is truly the jazz, dinner and sightseeing extravaganza you never knew you needed in your life. Until now. Your adventure begins when you board the Stanga 1947, a vintage tram that rolls gently through the streets of Rome while you enjoy a candlelit three-course dinner punctuated by bursts of live music from the in-house (or should that be in-tram) jazz band. This unique experience takes in various major attractions, with stops at the Colosseum and Villa Borghese for all your selfie-taking requirements. We defy even jazz haters not to love this one!