Hundreds of yellowed skulls were stacked in neat rows rising up the back wall of the chapel and topped with arches also formed from skulls. Three Capuchin monks stood in front, their simple brown robes aged and dusty. From beneath the hoods, their eyeless sockets stared at us, teeth bared in a permanent deathly grin. The ceiling above was decorated with vertebrae and ribs beautifully arranged in a series of concentric rings. We unexpectedly came across the Capuchin crypt when we had a couple of hours to kill. We hadn't even heard of this crypt before but it ended up being one of the most memorable things we saw in Rome. Everybody is familiar with the ancient Roman ruins and the wonders of Vatican City but what else is there to do in Rome? The short answer is 'lots'.
If you have the energy, the best way to see Rome is on foot. This way you're more likely to come across some of the more minor excavated ruins, often just at the side of the road. In any other city, these would probably be a major attraction but in Rome, nobody thinks to mention them. Largo di Torre Argentina, a small square with several Roman temples in the middle, was one of our favourites.
Roman Temples at Largo di Torre Argentina
Most of Rome's smaller attractions can be seen in one action packed day. Here's our suggested walking route.
Rome Walking Tour Itinerary
Start at Barberini Metro Station
46m – 1 minute
Capuchin Crypt at Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini church
700m – 10 minutes
1.1km – 13 minutes
1.0km – 12 minutes
2.4km – 30 minutes
Isola Tiberina (gelato break)
1.0km – 13 minutes
750m – 9 minutes
End at Circo Massimo Metro Station
Total Distance: 7km
Total Walking Time: 88 minutes
(distances and times are based on Google Maps estimates)
Fountains are a big deal in Rome. The Fontana del Tritone, or Triton Fountain in Piazza Barberini is comparatively small but perfectly formed and doesn't have the crowds that plague the other more famous fountains. The Triton (sea god) in the centre is surrounded by dolphins with the bizarre addition of some bees that seem a little out of place. The bees are a symbol of Rome's influential Barberini family and you'll see random bees appearing on sculptures, stained glass and architecture all over the city.
The Capuchin Crypt
The bones of thousands of Capuchin monks have been used to decorate a series of chapels in the crypt below Santa Maria della Concezione de Cappuccini church. They have bone chandeliers, a bone clock and even the Capuchin coat of arms, made with real arms. As burial space was limited, the Capuchin monks were only buried for around 30 years before their remains were exhumed and added to the crypt. The museum above the crypt also has a few interesting exhibits including a metal belt, known as a cilice, with spikes on the inside. These cruel looking devices were used by the monks voluntarily practicing mortification of the flesh to subdue their sinful urges.
What About the Spanish Steps?
This would be a suitable time to take a detour to the Spanish Steps. It's an impressive staircase but also extremely crowded and in our opinion overrated.
The Capuchin Church
Fontana di Trevi, Trevi Fountain
The most famous fountain in Rome is undoubtedly the Trevi Fountain. Marking the end of a Roman aqueduct, this Baroque fountain symbolises the taming of the water. The centrepiece is Oceanus, riding a shell chariot pulled by winged horses that leap across the rocks towards the pool.
It's said that throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain will guarantee that you will return to Rome again one day. To do this correctly, stand with your back to the fountain and use your right hand to throw the coin over your left shoulder. But does it work? We were sceptical, however we had no plans to return to Rome and found ourselves back there again less than 2 years later.
Around €3000 is thrown into the fountain every day. This money is swept up by Caritas, a Roman Catholic charity who have used the funds to open a supermarket providing food for the poor. Many others have profited in the past by collecting money from the fountain but this is now illegal.
The Fountain of the Four Rivers, Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona is now a lively public square with busy pavement cafes and an abundance of street vendors. Many are peddling paintings of local landmarks but you'll also see some talented artists in action drawing caricatures or spray painting atmospheric scenes. There's always something going on and this is a prime spot for people watching.
Ponte Sant'Angelo, the Bridge of Angels
Ponte Sant'Angelo is a beautiful marble-faced bridge that crosses the Tiber to Castel Sant'Angelo, a circular castle built as a mausoleum for the Roman Emperor, Hadrian. According to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared on top on the castle announcing the end of a plague in the 6th century, which is where the name Sant'Angelo comes from.
Renowned sculptor Bernini came up with the idea of decorating the adjacent bridge with the 10 angels that make it so special today. Each angel holds an instrument of the Passion including whips, a crown of thorns and a sponge. The two angels actually sculpted by Bernini however were so prized that they were kept in the Pope's private collection and replicas have taken their place on the bridge.
Isola Tiberina, Tiber Island
This small boat shaped island sits in the middle of the Tiber, the only such island in Rome. Once used as a place to isolate criminals and the contagiously ill, for the last 500 years Tiber Island has been the site of a hospital. On a sunny day, sample the gelato from the gelateria near the bridge as you watch the river rushing by.
Bocca della Verità
Bocca della Verità, the Mouth of Truth
A bearded face, with an open mouth, adorns the huge marble disc known as Bocca della Verità or the Mouth of Truth. Thought to have been a drain cover at a temple, it may also have been used for draining blood when animals were sacrificed. Should a liar put their hand in the Bocca della Verità's mouth, legend has it that they would lose some fingers. Men used to force their wives' hands into the mouth if they suspected they had been unfaithful. It's not really clear whether any of them lost fingers or not.
These days the Bocca della Verità stands upright at Santa Maria in the Cosmedin church. Long queues of tourists wait to have their photo taken with their hand in the Mouth of Truth, though they now have to pay for the privilege.
Walking to the Circo Massimo metro station, you'll pass the remains of Circus Maximus, a Roman stadium used for chariot racing, athletics and gladiator fights.
Catacombs of Rome: If You Have Extra Time
We crept through the narrow, dimly lit passages, which were eerily silent. Rows of rectangular niches, known as loculi, were carved into the walls. These graves are now empty. Olive trees and doves were among the images carved into the rock, both symbols meaning Rest in Peace. More tunnels branched off, each lined with loculi, disappearing into the darkness. This gave us some idea of the extent of this subterranean labyrinth, which contained over 100,000 graves. We saw the tomb of Saint Sebastian. This area became the most desirable as everyone wanted to be interred near a saint. His remains have since been moved to the church above. On a higher level, above the early Christian catacombs, we saw Roman mausoleums, impressive richly decorated buildings, which would have been at street level in their day. They now also lie beneath the church.
Rome has over 40 catacombs, underground burial sites used mainly for early Christian and Roman (pagan) burials. Burials were forbidden within the city walls so the catacombs are located along the main roads leaving the city. The catacombs cannot be reached on foot so you'll have to take a bus. We visited the Catacombs of San Sebastiano.
Where to Eat in Rome
Before visiting Rome, we were warned that the food in touristy areas would be overpriced and uninspiring. In particular, it is wise to avoid anywhere offering Menu Turistico, a tourist menu.
Speaking to locals, we learned that Trastevere was the preferred choice when eating out. The maze of cobbled streets is interspersed with small secluded piazzas packed with restaurants and trattoria. We had several meals in Trastevere and they were the best meals we had in Rome.
Casetta di Trastevere Restaurant
White Hot Chocolate and Blueberries
What to Eat and Drink in Rome
Our favourite Italian dish was fiori di zucca fritti, or fried zucchini flowers. The flowers are stuffed with mozzarella and tiny pieces of anchovy before being deep fried in a soft succulent batter. The resulting fritters were delicious, despite our dislike of anchovies. Anchovy pizza however, which we ordered by mistake, is not recommended.
Italian hot chocolate is thick, rich and has an almost mousse like texture. It's extremely chocolatey and, dare we say it, far superior to the hot chocolate we drink in Britain. A few places offer a huge selection with 40+ flavours of hot chocolate. Whilst not cheap, there are some very interesting variations on the usual theme. White chocolate with blueberries was a firm favourite for us.
Rome Travel Tips
There are strict rules in place at the Trevi Fountain, which are enforced by the Police that patrol the area. Not sitting or climbing on the fountain may seem obvious but eating at the fountain is also taboo. To avoid a hefty fine, abide by the rules.
Both the Capuchin Crypt and the Catacombs are holy places so photography is not allowed inside.