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Six places to escape the crowds in Rome

From the Colosseum to the Vatican, Rome's best-known sites attract throngs of sightseers, particularly in the high season. Here are six of the Eternal City's best hidden attractions to escape the tourist crush.

Here's where to head if you need a break from the crowds in Rome.
Here's where to head if you need a break from the crowds in Rome. Photo by Giulio Gabrieli on Unsplash

The National Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia

Perhaps because of its location – just north of Piazza del Popolo and Villa Borghese park, a little outside the city centre – or its subject matter (the pre-Roman Etruscan civilisation), Villa Giulia is one of the Italian capital’s most overlooked attractions.

That’s a shame, because many who do pay the museum a visit consider it a highlight of their Rome trip, combining a stroll through a Renaissance villa and grounds with the opportunity to check out one of the world’s largest collections of Etruscan artifacts.

READ ALSO: TRAVEL: Nine tips for making the most of a Rome city break

On some days the museum gets so few visitors that some report feeling like the only people there, and numbers tend to be low even on free museum Sundays – perfect for getting a break from the crowds on a busy day.

The Non-Catholic Cemetery

Often referred to simply (and incorrectly) as the ‘Protestant Cemetery’, Rome’s non-Catholic Cemetery on the edge of the Testaccio neighbourhood is a verdant haven away from the city’s chaos.

Amongst its graves are those of the English poets Keats (‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’) and Shelley, as well as the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci and Inspector Montalbano author Andrea Camilleri.

READ ALSO: Eight things you can do in Rome for free

Entrance is free, though visitors are asked to make a small donation of a few euros for the graveyard’s upkeep.

Across the street from the non-Catholic cemetery is the Rome war cemetery, which commemorates the soldiers who died liberating Rome during World War II; another peaceful oasis for rest and contemplation.

Santa Cecilia in Trastevere

Its gated entrance and position at the other end of a large courtyard behind an imposing building are probably what keep tourists away from the Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere; from the outside, you wouldn’t necessarily know this was a space open to the public.

Those who do venture within will find a 9th century church containing a statue of the brutally martyred Saint Cecilia, a Roman aristocrat who in the 3rd century was locked up for three days in a steaming caldarium and then (unsuccessfully) beheaded for trying to convert members of her family to Christianity.

READ ALSO: Six essential apps that make life in Rome easier for foreign residents

For a small donation, visitors can descend underground to view the real attraction: the 2,000-year-old Roman ruins and mosaics beneath the church that made up part of the saint’s house, as well as a spectacular crypt built in 1899 to house her tomb and those of her husband and brother, as well as two popes.

The Baths of Caracalla

Not far from the Colosseum and Circo Massimo chariot racetrack, the Terme di Caracalla is one of ancient Rome’s largest public bath complexes, and one of the most intact today.

As well as being off the beaten track, its vast size means any visitors are naturally spread out throughout the grounds. The only time you’ll find a crowd here is on summer evenings, when ballets, music concerts and operas are staged amongst the ruins.

If you get the chance, make sure to rent the VR goggles from the ticket office that reveal how the baths would have looked in their original splendour.

The Gardens of Saint Alessio

Visitors to Rome flock to the ‘Parco Savallo’ orange gardens on the Aventine hill for their romantic terrace with impressive views over the city and St. Peter’s basilica and the opportunity for a sunset photoshoot.

But the Giardini di Sant’Alessio, less than a hundred metres up the road, is where locals go. This little park also has orange trees and a nice view, but is far more peaceful – plus you’re allowed on the grass.

READ ALSO: Five ways to have the perfect romantic weekend in Rome

If you’re in the area, stop by the Sant’Anselmo Benedictine Abbey complex, where on Sunday evenings you can attend an evensong service and hear Gregorian chants sung by the monks who live there.

Rome’s Botanical Gardens

Situated at the foot of the Gianicolo (‘Janiculum’) hill in the Trastevere neighbourhood, Rome’s botanical gardens offer an oasis of calm in one of the city’s most crowded districts.

The plants themselves may not be anything spectacular and the grounds may be a little run-down, but if you want a quiet stroll to clear your head or a pause on a bench surrounded by palm trees, it’ll only set you back a few euros.

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For members


Nine alternative places to visit in Italy in 2023

Italy has some of the world's top tourist destinations - but the vast majority of people visit the same few sites. Here are our suggestions for some different places to see.

Nine alternative places to visit in Italy in 2023

Italy’s visitor numbers are booming once again in summer 2023. While this is good news for the tourism industry, hotspots from Venice to the Amalfi Coast are more packed than ever and local residents are begging tourists to give them some breathing room.

READ ALSO: ‘Please don’t come’: Summer tourists overwhelm ‘endangered’ Venice

For visitors searching for a more sustainable, less claustrophobic Italian travel experience, there are countless options – but it’s not always easy to narrow them down.

For anyone wanting to head slightly off the beaten path, here are some of the spots The Local’s writers recommend.

Ronciglione, Lazio

Voted the borgo più bello d’Italia, or ‘most beautiful town in Italy’ for 2023, the hill town of Ronciglione north of Rome is well worth visiting – though not so much for what’s in it as what’s directly around it: verdant forests, glittering lakes, ancient ruins, and sumptuous stately homes.

Nestled in the historic Tuscia region, which today stretches over parts of Lazio, Tuscany and Umbria, Ronciglione is just a short distance from the rugged Lago di Vico, the pre-Roman Etruscan amphitheatre of Sutri, and the distinctive pentagonal-shaped Renaissance palace and gardens of Villa Farnese in Caprarola.

You’ll need a car, as Ronciglione is not well connected by public transport – though its now-disused train station is where some scenes from the Oscar-winning 1997 film La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful) were filmed.

The town makes a good base for exploration, with some atmospheric Airbnb apartments and other holiday lets available as well as places to sample the regional cuisine: check out the restaurant La Corte Dei Prefetti Di Vico for its handmade pasta, excellent wine and friendly staff.

Ercolano, Campania

Ercolano, better known to English speakers by its Latin name of Herculaneum, is a far less touristy alternative to nearby Pompeii.

The ancient Roman fishing town was buried by the same volcanic eruption that levelled its larger and more famous neighbour, but Herculaneum is arguably better preserved; its distance from Vesuvius lessened the impact of the lava flows, leaving several of its buildings with their upper storeys still intact.

Visitors who plan ahead for the summer can book Friday night tours of the site, featuring theatrical performances and light shows.

Sperlonga, Lazio

Popular with Italians, the seaside town of Sperlonga on the Lazio coast is less well-known among foreign visitors – for now.

Roughly equidistant between Naples and Rome, Sperlonga sits on a rocky promontory directly above the sea, its gleaming white habitations recalling those of a remote Greek island.

What Sperlonga lacks in the dramatic plunging cliffsides of the Amalfi coast, it makes up for with long stretches of unspoilt golden sand and turquoise ocean. You’re likely to find it bustling in August, when Italians flock to the seaside, but relatively quiet most other times of year.

Isole Tremiti, Puglia

Part of Puglia’s Gargano National Park, this Adriatic archipelago 22km from the Italian mainland was once a penal colony, where enemies of everyone from the ancient Roman Emperor Augustus to Mussolini were interned.

These days, the five small land masses that make up the island chain – only two of which are inhabited – form one of Italy’s most off-the-beaten track foreign tourist destinations, with no cars allowed except for those owned by residents.

Beloved by divers and snorkelers for their crystal clear waters, the islands are well visited by Italians in the summer months, but in the off season you can expect to find yourself in splendid near-isolation.

Ascoli Piceno, Le Marche

If you want a city rich in architectural beauty and ancient history but without the tourist crush of Rome, Florence or Venice, consider Ascoli Piceno, a jewel in the often overlooked eastern region of Le Marche.

The travertine stone with which most of its buildings and fountains are clad lends this town, whose origins date back to the pre-Roman Picentini people, its glimmering appearance.

Once you’ve wandered the historic centre and sampled some stuffed Ascolana olives, you can choose whether to head down to the beach – a 30 minute drive away – or up into the mountains, with the National Park of Monti Sibillini a half hour journey inland.

Siracusa, Sicily

Founded by the ancient Greeks in around 734 BC, Siracusa (Syracuse) is a city of two parts – the island of Ortigia, which contains the historic centre, and is reached from the mainland by various bridges – and an archaeological park, containing Greek and Roman ruins.

The Temple of Apollo, the Fountain of Arethusa, and the majestic Duomo (built on top of the Greek Temple of Athena, whose ancient columns are incorporated into its sides) are just some of the sights to take in on a leisurely stroll of the mostly pedestrianised old town.

The city has housed a number of important historical figures over the centuries: it’s where the Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes lived and died, and where the painter Caravaggio fled to in 1608 after being imprisoned in Malta.

Like Ercolano, Siracusa often puts on performances in its ancient Greek amphitheatre over the summer.

The cathedral of Siracusa, Sicily. Photo by Antonio Sessa on Unsplash

Le Langhe, Piedmont

Whether you’re a connoisseur oenophile or just starting out on your Italian wine-tasting journey, the Langhe area in southern Piedmont is a must-visit destination.

With its rolling hills and valleys quilted with vineyards, Le Langhe is reminiscent of Tuscany’s wine regions – but far less touristy.

Alba is generally considered the ‘capital’ of the area and an ideal base if you’re interested in gourmet dining or shopping, while Barolo (which lends its name to the wine that’s so famously made there), La Morra and Neive are smaller towns worth a visit.

Le Langhe is among the most popular areas to visit in Piedmont, and for good reason. Yet it doesn’t attract the numbers you’ll find in Italy’s other famous winemaking areas.

It’s worth noting you don’t need to be a wine drinker to enjoy a visit, either. Truffles and hazelnuts also grow here in abundance, and various fairs are put on throughout the year to celebrate them. If you’re a fan of country living, seek out accommodation in an agriturismo, a small farm which serves guests its own produce.

Roccascalegna, Abruzzo

If you want to explore the wilder – and lesser-visited – side of central Italy, try Abruzzo’s rugged countryside and its three national parks (which cover more than half of the region, making it one of the greenest areas in Europe.) The rural region is also dotted with pretty towns and fascinating, if lesser-known, sights.

One such place is Castello di Roccascalegna, a restored medieval castle steeped in legend, perched on a cliff, and surrounded by wild nature. Far out in the countryside in the province of Chieti, it gets few visitors and feels sleepy outside of summer – but it’s worth the trip.

Roccascalegna’s curious name has a curious history, which you can learn about on the short tour from enthusiastic local guides. The castle itself is most dramatic when viewed from a short distance, but once up there you’ll enjoy panoramic views and cooler temperatures.

The nearby town of Casoli, in the foothills of the Majella mountain, also makes an atmospheric base for exploring the area.

Caprese Michelangelo, Tuscany

There are countless pretty hilltop towns dotting the landscape of eastern Tuscany. But Caprese Michelangelo is particularly special, and it’s less than an hour’s drive from overcrowded Florence.

This town does get some tourism: after all, it’s the birthplace of Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti. His former family home still stands here, along with the Church of St. John, where he was baptised, and the Michelangelo Museum. But it’s far from the beaten path, and you’ll find it quiet outside of high season.

Caprese Michelangelo is also known around Tuscany as being the best place to eat dishes loaded with prized local black truffles at very reasonable prices. The tiny village has a disproportionate number of excellent restaurants – these can get busy on Sundays, when Italian families come for lunch.

It’s worth spending some time exploring the lush surrounding area, which is known as La piccola valle di Dio, or the ‘little valley of God’. Its many sites connected with the travels of St Francis of Assisi make it a spiritual place.

Sites to visit nearby include the national park of Casentino, the Monastery of Camaldoli, and the Castello di Romena, where you can immerse yourself in the more peaceful side of this popular region.

By Elaine Allaby and Clare Speak