There’s no place like Rome. The rich tapestry of ancient history, monuments, emotional people, and iconic food formulates the ideal destination for anyone with a thirst for world culture.
There are relics of old worshipped gods scattered across the city, cafe bars through which both the young and old pass briefly for an espresso and the latest gossip, a rush of waiters laying out tables on the pavement before the lunchtime rush, and too much traffic on the road.
Rome is every stereotype you’ve ever heard and more – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Equally as predictable in Rome are the attractions that people want to see, and the cool things they want to do.
Everyone wants to see the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and St. Peters; and for good reason too as they’re all exceptional things to see. Each one will leave your jaw more open than the last – but surely there’s something less predictable to do?
I personally love to get off-the-path for a little while to uncover alternative, local, and unique things to do in every city I visit with Franca. With Rome there has never been any exception either. On each return we’ve made sure to try and visit new places that may not just entertain us but also be great or unusual enough to share with you all as well.
Whilst you’re preparing for your own trip to the Italian capital I hope my own personal Top 10 things to do will not only entertain you, but show you an unusual aspect of the city that you’ve (hopefully) not been suggested before.
1. Visit Rome’s Vegan Cat Cafe
The moment we read that there was a cat cafe in Rome our ears pricked up, just like a cat. We’ve longed to visit a cat cafe ever since reading about one opening in London in 2013 and seen all the videos and Instagram pictures from Japan where the trend first started to take form.
When we learned that it was vegan too, we purred in anticipation.
Once inside the Romeow Cat Cafe we both fell in love with the how hip and trendy the interior is, but fell in even deeper love with the cats who occupy every empty open space and shelf.
Spending a half hour eating raw vegan cake and making more feline friends is now one of my favourite fun alternative things to do in Rome and you can trust me when I say that you’ll never want to leave.
2. See a 2000 year old pyramid in Rome
The first time I saw the Pyramid of Cestius we were driving by in the back of our friend’s car. I had to double take, then check again once more just to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating.
Seeing a 2000 year old pyramid in the centre of Rome is incredibly baffling and entirely enjoyable at the same time. Cemented firmly in the 1800 year old former boundary wall built by Emperor Aurelian it leaves a deep impression and provokes the imagination into wondering why such an iconic construction of the Ancient Egypt is so far away from home.
Was it transported from Egypt? Is it yet further proof that the pyramids were built by aliens wherever they saw fit?
No. It’s neither of those two ideas. In reality it’s the result of a fashion in Rome during the heights of the Empire to incorporate Egyptian relics and imagery into people’s lives, much like we may include foreign inspiration into the design of our own homes today.
The pyramid was built as the final resting place of the religious leader Gaius Cestius who died in 12 BC and visitors can visit and explore the interior of the tomb during two open days per month. A perfect opportunity for those looking for historical places to visit.
3. St Paul’s Outside The Wall
The only St. Paul’s I knew of prior to our last visit to Rome was the cathedral that sits within the heart of London’s city centre. I’m sure there are hundreds of churches around the world are named after the saint, yet my closed mind could only think of the one closest to home.
Franca and I must have walked past the back of Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls a dozen times on the way to the metro station near our friends apartment back into town, but never had we given the unique building attraction more than a brief glance.
How foolish we were.
Heading in the direction of Romeow we walked past the entrance to the church and decided that we had nothing to lose from exploring inside, and we both agreed that it was too cool not to mention.
The interior you can explore is vast, golden, and incredibly quiet. During our visit there were a few people at prayer and another half dozen in a group walking around together, but for the most part it was entirely empty. It felt like our little secret.
The interior is highly photogenic and what I found most fun to do was to imagine just how many people would have filled the large empty space, the noise they would have made, and how spiritual and ethereal it must have been to take mass in.
If you’re looking for an alternative church to St.Peters that’s free to enter and has less than 1/8th the crowd, St. Paul’s is a great option.
4. Street Art in Ostiense
With faded marble and brick on almost every corner in Rome it might surprise you to learn that the city is awash with colour thanks to the local street art scene and alternative community.
There are several districts in which you’ll find great street art pieces and unique murals, with Pigneto and Quadraro being two of the most interesting and off-the-path districts worth visiting if you have the time.
One other great area for finding street art is Ostiense, the same neighbourhood of Rome in which you’ll find both all three of the above suggestions.
Amongst the many works you can find by exploring the mixed industrial and residential area around the Via Ostiense you may also see a building covered from top to bottom by our joint favourite artist, BLU.
5. See the unusually surreal House of the Owls
We’re happiest when we find somewhere that only the locals tend to visit. Not because we don’t enjoy the regular attractions that people suggest, it’s more that sometimes the best things to do or visit aren’t necessarily in a guide book or on a travel blog.
Sometimes you need to get off the path, and occasionally you’ll find something odd, unusual, and complete surreal.
Suggested as a place to visit with our friends one late afternoon, the ‘House of the Owls‘ (Casina delle Civette) is a surreal and unexpected sight within the small grounds of the neo-Classical villa it shares space with.
6. Walk along the Appian Way
I wrote once before about why you must visit the Via Appia and how it was a perfect quiet space for ridding myself of jet lag after a long flight, yet I’d encourage anyone to take a bus to walk along the ancient road that points a straight route out of the city.
Green spaces and ancient monuments line both sides of the pathway and make for a pleasing scene if walked or biked along, especially for those looking for things to do in Rome for families or larger groups.
7. Visit the cats at the scene of Julius Caesar’s murder
Okay, so Largo di Torre Argentina isn’t completely off the path or an unusual attraction to visit. In fact, it’s probably listed on more than twenty ‘Top Ten Things To Do…‘ lists because of how cool it looks and the small fact that Julius Caesar was murdered on this spot where the remains of Pompey’s Theatre can be seen.
What’s most interesting about the open space isn’t just the history of the space or the death of the Roman general, instead it’s the amount of cats that live within the sunken space. Not only that, down a few steps is a door to the Torre Argentina Roman Cat Sanctuary – wonderfully reviewed by our friends Justin and Lauren – which you can enter and help by jointly donating your time, your money, and as many cuddles as you can spare.
If you’re an animal lover and you’re looking for something fun to do, I think this is purrfect.
8. See the art of the 21st Century
Visiting the MAXXI (National Museum of the 21st Century Arts) is great for those who love art and don’t mind taking a tram out of the centre of the city.
Featuring pieces from both local and internationally recognized artists, the museum is a fun and entertaining place to spend an hour or two and, although not free, more than deserves its place in my top five art galleries in the world. Even the architecture on its own is cool.
9. Walk around the Coppedè district
Much like the House of the Owls, the buildings within the Coppedè neighbourhood are odd, unusual, and entirely unpredictable.
Decorated lavishly with un-matching imagery and designs, you’d be forgiven that these particular attractions were the work of a surrealist like the Spanish master Gaudi.
10. Find relaxation at the Parco degli Acquedotti
As Franca sat beneath the shade of some trees at the edge of the park I set off excitedly in the direction of the large stone aqueducts which kept the people of Ancient Roman refreshed for centuries.
The height of them is quite fascinating and looking along the length of them as they disappear off into the distance is purely mesmerising. As I took my photos I couldn’t help but understand why the park was filled only with locals in transit, jogging, or taking time to read a book as they ate their lunch.
It’s a small corner of silence away from traffic and the regular buzz of the city and for that reason alone I can understand why it’s common place to visit for couples too.