I love how Rome has been hosting tourists like me for over 2,000 years. I don't know about your neck of the woods, but the oldest thing in my neighborhood of Santa Monica is the local playhouse that just turned, wait for it, 55. In college, I spent a semester studying abroad in Rome by which I mean I indulged in cheap red wine and sausage pizza for four blissful months. I've had the chance to come back to Rome twice since then, including a recent adventure with my husband, Josh.
Because Rome is so popular, there are always crowds around the most iconic sites like the Colosseum, Pantheon and Vatican City. If you need a breather from lines and battles for selfie spots, here are a few of my favorite places in Rome that won't be too crowded.
1. Explore the Capitoline Museums and sip espresso on the terrace
Don't let the steep steps to the museum entrance sway you from making a trip here! Trust me, you'll feel great after getting a bit of exercise between gelato feedings. I was surprised that Musei Capitolini (the museum at the top of the steps) was so empty considering its proximity to some of Rome's most popular attractions, Colosseum and Trevi Fountain. My favorite pieces in the museum were a bronze horse sculpture from 5,000 B.C., Bernini's bust of Medusa, and a mysterious statue of the mythical city founders, Romulus and Remus. The absence of crowds allowed me to linger in front of pieces without worrying I was blocking someone's view (or, more likely at tourist-heavy spots these days, their selfie). Josh and I could also play our "Museum Meme"game with each other wherein we take photos of the art and upload to social media with funny captions.
When it came time for a little break and more caffeine, Josh and I grabbed a table at the museum's rooftop cafe, Terrazza Caffarelli. They serve complimentary snacks with cocktail orders (which is common in Italy) and I've since become obsessed with the popular, bite-sized olive oil crackers called tarulli. I personally reccommend re-charging with a double (doppio) espresso and biscotti. The panoramic city views alone are worth the trip to this cafe. You'd be hard pressed to find a place to dine with a view...especially a view without a crowd.
2. Check out the Mouth of Truth at Santa Maria in Cosmedin after 5:30 pm
I'm so glad I didn't wait in line to put my hand in this thing's mouth. Even though the mysterious 2,800 pound hunk of marble is featured in one of my favorite movies, Roman Holiday, I didn't want to wait in a long line out in the midday sun. Instead, we happened to pass by the church where it's located after it closes at 5:30 pm and got a perfect view of this oddly adorable disc through the iron gate.
By peeping through the iron gate after closing, we also avoided the €3 entrance fee. Make your way to the left side wall of the church's portico and you can see it on your way to my next recommendation, Santa Maria del Prioroto.
3. Walk to Santa Maria del Prioroto’s keyhole at sunset
To be honest, I wasn't that excited about seeing the Aventine Keyhole. Sure, it's a view of St. Peter's Basilica through a hole in a gate. But you can see St. Peter's Basilica from literally anywhere in Rome. Why would you want to look at it through a tiny keyhole? But Josh was really interested in seeing it and persuaded me to make the climb with him. And I'm so glad he did. Not for the keyhole, though. It was cool, sure, but actually pretty crowded.
Once we reached the park at the top, we saw five (yes, five!) bride-and-groom couples getting their photos taken after having their wedding at the church, so you know it’s gotta be good spot. While you're up there you might as well check out the Aventine Keyhole, too. It's located in what looks like a large parking lot at the Santa Maria del Prioroto. You'll see a set of large gates in the center of a wall. Walk up close and you'll find a tiny circular hole in one of the gates. Peer through it with one eye to find a view of St. Peter’s Basilica perfectly framed by not only the keyhole but also the rows of hedges in the garden on the other side of the gates.
Pro tip: When I visited, there was a snack truck at the top for sustenance to the fuel the walk back to Trastevere.
Second pro trip: Don't bother trying to take a photo through the keyhole unless you have a tripod and a camera with a telephoto lens. It won't show up on a camera phone.
4. Visit Santa Cecilia and Santa Maria in Trastevere, then grab a gelato
We stumbled upon Santa Cecilia on our first afternoon in Rome and considering the jet lag we both felt, it seemed like such a relief to find the church completely empty. Santa Cecilia is a 5th century church devoted to you guessed it, Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Some of the more famous churches in Rome get pretty crowded, but you'll likely find Santa Cecilia peaceful and nearly empty, allowing you to roam the side chapels without jostling other tourists for a better view. You can even pay a few Euro to see some of the archaeological excavations taking place beneath the church floors. If you're not interested in going underground, you can stare up at the enchanting ceilings.
After you exit Santa Cecilia, head just around the corner to the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. There you'll find an insanely spectacular gilded dome covered with 12th century mosaics. There's also a kindly statue of St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things who I've called on many times over the years. The original architecture here at Santa Maria dates back to 340 A.D. and is considered one of the first Christian churches in the world. Our bed and breakfast, Residenza delle Arte was located just a few blocks from the main square, so I heard the bell towers' sweet serenades throughout the day.
When you need a rest, grab a gelato from local creamery Antica Gelateria Del Viale and sit on the steps of the oldest fountain in The Eternal City. People have hung out around here since the 8th century and there's a fun party happening here every night. I highly recommend staying in Trastevere, because of its accessibility to public transportation and proximity to more local, less crowded Roman experiences. It's also so dang beautiful at every single turn!
5. Get a private tour with a monk of the Antica Farmacia of Santa Maria della Scala
Antica Farmacia of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere is by far, one of the coolest experiences I've had in Rome that you've probably never heard of. It completely took me by surprise, because the farmacia doesn't have an official website or posted hours and I've never seen it listed in a guidebook. I only found it, because I saw a clumsy handwritten sign at the modern pharmacy in our neighborhood that says to call a phone number for more information on private appointments upstairs with the The Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. Um, hello? Private pharmacy meeting with Carmelite monks? Count me in.
Josh and I weren't sure what to expect before the tour, so we prepared a list of potential ailments to discuss with the monks just in case. Ah hem, I'm lookin' at you, jet lag. While we didn't end up sharing all our maladies with our dear Carmelite friends, for just €3, Josh and I were treated to a semi-private tour of this 500-year-old pharmacy. We were led by Brother Deepak of the Rome order and spent an incredible hour exploring this ancient time capsule, which has remained in exactly the same condition since it closed in the 1950s. We saw centuries old casks of castor oil and medicinal salves, in addition to herbal remedies that served the 17th century papal court. There was even a timeout room for monks who made a mistake! Although they no longer manufacture products at this location, the brothers still make medicines for local Trastevere residents and sell them here after the tour. I purchased two salves to bring home with me for about €10 a jar.
Pro Tip: If you're not fluent in Italian, I highly recommend saying something like, "Ciao! sto chiamando per fare una prenotazione per un tour" in your phone and saying it to the person who answers the phone. Then, they'll tell you what day and time to meet at the entrance. Make a reservation 24 hours in advance and remember, no photos allowed, so definitely buy the €1 postcard.
6. Wander Castel Sant’Angelo and eat lunch with a view of St. Peter's Basilica
It's hard to believe that I didn't go inside Castel Sant'Angelo until this most recent (my fifth, actually!) visit to Rome. A visit here had never really been recommended to me, but since the line was so long at St. Peter's Basilica around the corner, Josh and I decided to check out this castle instead. I'm so glad we did, because inside the massive stone fortress, which is itself a landmark with hundreds of years of fascinating history, is a world-class museum displaying art, historical artifacts, armor and much more! After spending a few hours wandering around, we headed to the rooftop terrace for lunch with a stunning view overlooking St. Peter's Basilica and Vatican City.
7. See the gardens of Villa Doria Pamphili and eat my favorite pizza in Rome
I was excited to bring Josh to the neighborhood I lived in when I studied abroad, Monteverde. There's an amazing place I used to go to called Villa Doria Pampihli just a few blocks from the apartment, a park that feels like a secret garden. Like all places in Rome, there's so much history here. We passed the northern wall of the park, which follows the Via Aurelia Antica, a 222 mile road to Pisa the ancient Romans built in 241 B.C. Next time, I'm definitely packing a picnic. Villa Doria Pamphili also happens to be just a 15 minute walk to my favorite pizzeria in Rome, Desideri di Pizza. Yes, all of Rome. Maybe even Italy.