Monday, December 14, 2015

Rome's most famous sites are as spectacular as you've heard—those Popes and emperors knew how to put on a show—but some of the most memorable corners of...

Rome's most famous sites are as spectacular as you've heard—those Popes and emperors knew how to put on a show—but some of the most memorable corners of the Eternal City are its least known. If you've already visited the city's greatest hits, then head to these under-the-radar spots next.

1. San Giovanni in Laterano

The official seat of the Roman pontiff, San Giovanni is the cathedral of Rome. It's been a cathedral in name more than spirit since Pope Julius—he who commissioned all those Michelangelos—moved papal operations to Saint Peter's in the 16th century. (His motivation? It's where he planned to build his oversize tomb.) Originally the palace of the Roman Laterano family, it was given to the Pope by Emperor Constantine, and features spectacular interiors by Borromini, a sixteenth century coffered ceiling detailed with real gold, and an intricate mosaic floor. Pay close attention to the bronze front doors: they were taken from the Roman senate building in the Forum.

2. San Stefano Rotondo

A short walk from San Giovanni, San Stefano is tucked away on a side street next to a large hospital. Built in the style of a pagan temple (many of which were converted into early Christian churches) around 468, the central altar and circular nave call visitors back to an earlier time. What's most striking about San Stephano, however, are the 18th century frescoes of brutal martyrdoms, supposedly painted for departing missionaries to help them prepare for the worst. They give Saw a run for its money.

3. San Clemente

Rome is a layer cake of history, and nowhere is it easier to see that cross section of time than the complex of San Clemente, located in the shadow of the Colosseum. The top layer is a medieval church, built circa 1110. Down a set of stairs, the second layer dates from the 4th century: an early church that had been converted from a noble home. The basement of that home also served as a place of worship for followers of Mithras, a popular Persian god in Rome. A third layer, beneath the temple of Mithras, is the foundation of an imperial mint, which scholars suggest may have been destroyed in the Great Fire of 64. (That's the one Nero supposedly fiddled through.)

4. EUR

Rome—despite significant evidence to the contrary—is not made up entirely of churches. South of the city center lies the Fascist-era neighborhood of EUR, originally commissioned by dictator Benito Mussolini as a future sight for a world's fair, and a special spot not many tourists know to visit. Think ancient Rome with a dark modernist twist. The Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana is a particularly striking answer to the Colosseum. Visitors can tour the buildings and even take in shows with an astronomer at the planetarium.

5. Santa Prassede

Around the corner from the larger Santa Maria Maggiore, this 8th century church was designed to house the remains of the two martyred daughters of St. Peter's first Christian convert in Rome. A jewel box of a church, it's full of shimmering mosaics that give Ravenna's famous Byzantine tesserae a run for their money.

6. Bike Riding the Appian Way

South of the Aurelian Walls, the traditional boundaries of Rome, begins one of the oldest and most important roads in the world: the Appian Way. Begun in 312 BCE, parts of the road are still used today by cars, pedestrians, and—especially—bicyclists. The large and uneven basalt stones are the original paving. Rent bikes at the Parco Regionale dell'Appia Antica office and pedal past Christian catacombs, Roman tombs, and the distant arches of the Claudian Aqueduct for a memorable afternoon excursion.

7. Santa Maria in Aracoeli

Located on the Capitoline Hill (but inconveniently inaccessible from the Michelangelo-designed piazza outside its museum—you have to walk back down the hill and use a separate set of stairs up), Santa Maria in Aracoeli features a particularly lustrous devotional image: the Santo Bambino, a wooden statue of the Christ child swaddled in gold and crowned by a Pope in 1897.

8. An Evening Stroll Through Trastevere

Try an unusual cocktail at Caffé della Scala (the "Black Velvet" is half Guinness, half prosecco, and a total delight; Via Della Scala 4; 39-06-580-3610) and catch live jazz or DJ set at Lettere Caffè Gallery. Don't forget to linger in some of the neighborhood's many piazze: the fountain in front of Santa Maria in Trastevere is particularly lovely at night.

9. Dancing in Testaccio

Until recently a meat processing district, Testaccio is now one of the hubs of Roman nightlife. Try Akab or On the Rox for their crowded dance floors and Conte Staccio for live music.

Molly McArdle is a native Washingtonian and a writer based in Brooklyn. You can find her on both Twitter and Instagram at @mollitudo.

Rome's most famous sites are as spectacular as you've heard—those Popes and emperors knew how to put on a show—but some of the most memorable corners of...

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