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Five Incredible Monuments and Museums in Rome

Go beyond the Colosseum and the Vatican Museums for your next Roman holiday.

Rome didn’t get its name “The Eternal City” for nothing– the Italian capital functions as a virtually free open-air museum displaying thousands of years of Italian history, art, and culture. From the remains of Ancient Roman forums to austere Medieval churches and intricately frescoed Renaissance palazzos, the city stuns at every turn of its winding cobblestone streets. 

Of Italy’s 58 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the most of any country in the world, Rome is home to 13. The Colosseum, the massive Ancient Roman amphitheater that hosted scores of bloody gladiator games, and St. Peter’s Basilica, the crown jewel of the Vatican City State, the smallest sovereign State in the world, are two of the city’s most prominent landmarks, each a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must-see for first-time visitors. But, there are other, perhaps lesser known, monuments and museums  Rome has to offer for those seeking to go beyond the classic spots and deepen their understanding of the city’s rich cultural fabric. 

Below are five incredible monuments and museums and experiences to visit in Rome. A mix of Ancient Roman, Medieval, and Renaissance, there is something for everyone to see, regardless of their interests. 


BATHS OF DIOCLETIAN

The baths of Diocletian were the largest imperial baths in the Ancient Roman Empire. Photo by Asia London Palomba

Located next to the Termini train station, the Baths of Dicoletian are a massive archaeological complex that were once used as Ancient Roman public baths. Built between 298 and 306 AD, the thermal baths were commissioned by Emperor Maximian who dedicated them to his co-emperor Dicoletian. Spanning over 32 acres, they were the largest imperial baths in the empire. The complex could accommodate up to 3,000 people at a time and featured three chambers: the caldarium, a hot pool heated using a system of air ducts; the tepidarium, a room-temperature chamber; and the frigidarium, a vast pool of cold water. 

After a series of wars that eventually led to the downfall of the Roman Empire, the baths were abandoned for close to 1,000 years. In the mid-16th century, Pope Pius IV ordered a basilica to be built upon the complex’s remains, commissioning Michelangelo to design the church, which still stands today. The complex now houses a museum featuring exhibits on the written communication of Ancient Romans and the protohistory of Latin populations. Parts of the ancient thermal baths, including a section of the three-feet-deep frigidarium pool, can be seen and even walked around in. The museum and baths can be accessed for $10.

CAPITOLINE MUSEUMS

A room in the Capitoline Museums featuring intricately stuccoed ceilings and marble statues and busts. Photo by Asia London Palomba.

The Capitoline Museums are a group of archaeological and art museums located in the Piazza del Campidoglio on the Capitoline Hill, also home to the city’s town hall. The museums trace their origins back to 1471, when Pope Sixtus IV donated a group of valuable bronze statues to the People of Rome, and are therefore considered to be the world’s oldest museums. 

The museums are composed of two palazzos that face each other from across the square: the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuovo. The collections are symbolically linked to the city and the majority of the exhibits come from archaeological digs in Rome. The Palazzo dei Conservatori features a collection of paintings, sculptures, busts and artwork by artists such as Caravaggion and Rubens. It is notable for housing the original bronze sculpture of the Capitoline Wolf, the she-wolf who, according to Roman mythology, nursed the twin babes Romulus and Remus, the former being the eventual founder of the city of Rome. The Palazzo Nuovo primarily features statues, sculptures, mosaics and busts of Roman and Greek philosophers. The museums can be accessed for $17. 

TRAJAN’S MARKET

These ancient storefronts likely sold spices, wine, and produce. Photo by Asia London Palomba.

Located along the Via dei Fori Imperiali, a long stretch of road flanked on both sides by various Ancient Roman forums, is Trajan’s Market. Roughly built between the years 100 and 110 AD, the major archaeological complex spanning several floors is largely considered to be the world’s first covered shopping mall. The semicircular complex, made of red brick and concrete, overlooks the sparse remains of Trajan’s forum and was once home to more than 150 shops, apartments and offices.

The lower levels of the structure features rows of storefronts, in which remains of red frescoes and geometric black and white mosaics can still be seen, where horticultural products, spices, oil and wine from around the empire were traded. The upper levels were most likely apartments and offices dedicated to the emperor’s administrative and managerial duties. The market was commissioned by Emperor Trajan, a former soldier and commander who was widely considered to be a just and benevolent ruler. The first Roman Emperor to be born outside of Italy, he ruled for 19 years and expanded the Roman Empire to its farthest territorial limits to its date. From the top of the market, visitors are treated to a panoramic view of the Roman Forum, Piazza Venezia and some of the Colosseum. The site can be accessed for $13. 

PALAZZO ALTEMPS

A hallway of detailed frescoed walls and busts of ancient Roman emperors at Palazzo Altemps. Photo by Asia London Palomba.

Located a few steps away from Piazza Navona and the Pantheon is Palazzo Altemps, an aristocratic 16th-century palace. The palazzo’s drab exterior belies the ornate and ostentatious splendor inside. Housing a large collection of Greek and Roman sculptures that once belonged to several important Roman noble families during the 16th and 17th centuries, the palazzo is a true work of art. The walls and wooden ceilings in every room are covered in extremely detailed and often well preserved frescoes that hint at the glamor and proclivity of art collecting in the Roman upper class during the Renaissance. The Altemps family lived in the palazzo from the 15th century until the mid-19th century. After over a century of property transfers and purchases, the building was bought by the Italian government and officially opened to the public in 1997. Entry into the palazzo costs $15.

CASTEL SANT’ANGELO

Castel Sant' Angelo at sunset. Photo by Asia London Palomba.

Originally built as a mausoleum for the Ancient Roman Emperor Hadrian between 135 and 139 AD, it became the burial place of the Antonine Emperors until Caracalla. In the 5th century AD it was converted into a fortress and was used as a place of refuge during the Middle Ages, particularly for popes who accessed the structure through a protected passageway. At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gregory the Great had a vision of the archangel Michael sheathing his sword over the castle, signifying the end of the plague. This incident gave the structure its modern name, Castel Sant’ Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel), and was the impetus behind the marble statue of the archangel that tops the building. 

Generations of popes also used the castle as a prison and eventually, the building became a military barrack until the beginning of the 20th century. It is now a museum housing incredible works of Medieval and Renaissance art that simultaneously shed a light on Rome’s military history. The top of the castle offers stunning panoramic views of the Tiber River and Vatican City. The building can be accessed for $12. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Asia London Palomba is a trilingual freelance journalist from Rome, Italy. In the past, her work on culture, travel, and history has been published in The Boston Globe, Atlas Obscura,The Christian Science Monitor and Grub Street, New York Magazine's food section. In her free time, Asia enjoys traveling home to Italy to spend time with family and friends, drinking Hugo Spritzes, and making her nonna's homemade cavatelli.

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