Rome has been a major travel destination for centuries, and the city remains a must-see in our current era of mass tourism. Its popularity results in oppressive crowds at top sites like the Sistine Chapel, the Pantheon and the Colosseum. Because I remember standing in relatively peaceful astonishment in these places 25 years ago, now I find visiting them almost unbearable.
Fortunately, Rome has no shortage of attractions, many of which are crowd-free. They range from quiet museums housing ancient masterpieces to entire complexes of atmospheric ruins that most people miss. In addition to the sites listed below, I strongly recommend visiting the fascinating National Etruscan Museum, which we wrote about in Avoiding the Crowds in Rome two years ago.
The Roman Senate commissioned this jewel of a temple in honor of Emperor Augustus’ successful campaigns in what is now Spain and France. Completed in 9 B.C., the Altar of Augustan Peace stood just off the Via Flaminia in the Campus Martius, a section of the city that, until recently, was a flood plain. As Rome declined, sediment consumed the structure and buried it. It had to be extricated, with great effort, from beneath the palace that was later built on top of it. It now stands near the Mausoleum of Augustus, well-protected within a controversial Richard Meier-designed atrium and museum, completed in 2006.
The airy, light-filled space was nearly empty when we visited, allowing us to contemplate the elaborate reliefs on the cubic temple in peace. An electronic tablet provided both insightful commentary on the structure as well as vibrant visual re-creations of its original appearance. The Ara Pacis, like many classical structures, originally sported vibrant colors intended to enhance its intricate sculptural decoration. The processional friezes are impressive, with their careful renderings of senators and the imperial family, but I was especially struck by the delicacy with which flowers and vines were sculpted.
Lungotevere in Augusta (corner of Via Tomacelli). Tel. (39) 06-06-08
Completed in A.D. 306, these ancient baths covered 32 acres and required the demolition of an entire neighborhood to construct. The scale of the complex hit home as I consulted a floor plan of the baths while standing in one of the remaining halls. It was startling to see how small a fraction of the floor plan the vast hall occupied. The handful of visitors wandering among the semipreserved baths further added to the sense of scale. The walls are now bare brick; any original marble cladding was repurposed or burned to make lime for plaster. Various archaeological finds are arrayed in the massive halls, including ancient stone tubs, mosaic floors, sculptures, sarcophagi and even entire family tombs relocated to the museum. On the overcast day we visited, the expansive spaces, stripped of decoration and scattered with archaeological remnants, took on a lonely, melancholy air.
Those with interest in Italy’s pre-Roman history should also pay a visit to the wing containing the the protohistoric section of the museum’s offerings. And everyone should stop in the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs, designed by Michelangelo and built in the baths’ former frigidarium. Closed Monday.
Baths of Diocletian
Via Enrico de Nicola 79. Tel. (39) 06-3996-7701
One of Rome’s most notorious emperors, Nero built one of the world’s largest palace complexes. His Domus Aurea, or Golden House, extended over 100 to 300 acres (the site has not been fully excavated) and encompassed gardens, residences, halls for entertaining guests and a colossal statue of himself. The palace did not exist for long after Nero’s death. His successors declared a damnatio memoriae and did their best to erase his memory. The largest of the ornamental pools became the site for the Colosseum. Much of the palace itself ended up filled with dirt, serving as the foundation for the Baths of Trajan and other structures built atop it.
Before the palace’s burial, its removable ornamentation was repurposed, but many of the wall frescoes remained preserved over the centuries. Archaeologists are still at work on the palace’s remains, as are structural engineers. The depth of the soil of the park above had caused some chambers of the palace to collapse, resulting in its longtime closure to visitors. Finally, on this visit, I had a chance to take a guided tour (the only way to see the palace as of this writing).
Our energetic and knowledgeable guide, Donato, led about 20 of us through the foundations of the Baths of Trajan into the palace itself. It was an unforgettable experience to wander through its halls, still decorated with frescoes and mosaics that Nero himself strode past. In one room, we donned virtual reality headgear, which allowed us to experience part of the palace much as it looked when it was first completed. The whole visit was utterly fascinating, and since our group was relatively small, the visit felt refreshingly civilized as well.
Booking tickets well in advance is strongly recommended. Closed Monday through Friday.
Via della Domus Aurea 1. Tel. (39) 06-3996-7700
This extraordinary museum has yet to establish itself on Rome’s tourism circuit, judging by the dearth of visitors. The Mercati di Traiano is a semicircular complex that most people view from the Via dei Fori Imperiali. That avenue is separated from the ruins by a broad and seemingly inaccessible plaza, dotted with architectural remains. The museum provides entry to both the markets and the plaza.
The main galleries focus on the architecture of the Markets of Trajan, the arcades of which were originally believed to contain shops. The current consensus has shifted, and the many barrel-vaulted rooms are now thought to have housed offices and archives. Those with an interest in ancient architecture will find the exhibits diverting, but they are not the museum’s star attraction.
Poorly marked stairs lead down to a broad terrace halfway up the complex, which affords sensational views of the markets, the plaza below, the Vittoriano monument and parts of the Forum across the street. We had the terrace almost entirely to ourselves, but for a few guards and five or six other tourists. We headed another level down in order to reach the plaza, which we shared with no one, save a guard. It felt absolutely thrilling to stand there alone, surrounded by the grand sweep of the arcades. In perfect solitude, I inspected the plaza’s remaining columns and sections of decorative pavement.
What luxury, on that sunny afternoon, to have a major complex of ruins in the center of Rome almost entirely to myself. Head to this museum now, before everyone discovers it.
Trajan’s Market and the Imperial Forums Museum
Via IV Novembre 94. Tel. (39) 06-06-08
A short walk from the Piazza Navona, this former cardinal’s residence has an impressive collection of ancient sculpture, much of which is displayed in grand chambers with original 15th- or 16th-century decoration. When we visited, we rarely had to share a room with more than two or three other people.
Masterpieces include a sarcophagus illustrating some of the labors of Hercules, the serenely dignified Ludovisi Acrolith bust, the action-packed Great Ludovisi sarcophagus depicting a Roman-barbarian battle and an expressive Satyr and Nymph sculpture in which a beautiful woman rebuffs the advances of a young man.
My favorite piece is the monumental Ludovisi Gaul, a harrowing sculpture in which a man plunges a sword into his neck after having just stabbed his wife, who has fallen to her knees at his side. The masterful composition of torqued bodies ensures that from whatever angle the observer views the piece, it has strength, energy and drama. This work alone makes a visit to the Palazzo Altemps worthwhile. Closed Monday.
Piazza di Sant’Apollinare 46. Tel. (39) 06-3996-7701
The most popular of the attractions on this list, the extraordinary Palazzo Massimo alle Terme remains a civilized place in which to contemplate ancient artistic masterpieces. We could enjoy even the most iconic pieces — such as the astonishingly expressive bronze Boxer at Rest and the elegant and dynamic Discobolus (Discus Thrower) — in peace.
Seeing rare surviving ancient Greek masterworks is reason enough to make this museum a priority, but it contains numerous wonderful Roman pieces as well. I stood, entranced, surrounded by well-preserved blue-green garden frescoes that once adorned the country villa of Livia, wife of Emperor Augustus. Pieces of scepters, including opalescent glass orbs, that likely belonged to the fourth-century Emperor Maxentius were displayed in a case in the basement. Another room held imposing bronze fittings from Caligula’s immense Nemi ships, floating palaces discovered at the bottom of a lake. And the collection of splendid Roman sculpture and mosaics contains numerous treasures, such as the elaborately intricate Portonaccio sarcophagus, the sensuous Sleeping Hermaphrodite and a charming micro-mosaic of a cat and some ducks. Closed Monday.
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
Largo di Villa Peretti 2. Tel. (39) 06-3996-7701
I’m not sure why this viewpoint near the top of Capitoline Hill remains relatively uncrowded. We visited just before sunset on a mid-September evening and shared it with just five or six other people. Go to the right of the Palazzo Senatorio (the central building of the Campidoglio) and follow Via del Campidoglio a short stretch. Lean against the wall and take in a sensational view of the Roman Forum. The sun is behind you here, and shortly before it sinks below the horizon, it bathes the ruins in golden light. It’s one of the great sights of Rome.
At the intersection of Via del Campidoglio and Via Monte Tarpeo