The Trevi Fountain stinks. I mean this literally. A miasmatic stench hangs over the small piazza around its basin, rising from the thousands of people who crowd into it each day. The smell is more pungent than simple body odor. It is the acrid flop sweat of tourists realizing that everything they’ve dreamed of seeing in Rome in romantic isolation can only be seen standing shoulder to shoulder with all the others who’ve also dreamed of seeing the exact same things.
After pandemic restrictions lifted, Italy saw a record number of tourists. The upcoming Vatican’s Jubilee Year means things will only get worse, with Rome predicted to host 35 million visitors in 2025 — nearly eight times the population of the city. These visitors concentrate on a few top attractions, meaning there simply is no off-season for the Sistine Chapel or the Colosseum.
If, like me, you can’t contemplate in a crowd, the classic solutions to over-tourism still apply. The easiest is to visit the Trevi Fountain, the Piazza Navona, and other outdoor sights in the historical center early — before 9am. The light is beautiful, the baristas behind the counters at coffee shops are still unflustered, and you get to see a charming variety of dogs taking their morning wizzes on Renaissance palaces.
What about packed interiors? You can have world-class sites to yourself if you opt for a deeper cut or choose something for which the city isn’t famous. Try the counter-intuitive and surprisingly wonderful National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, scope out the decolonization efforts in a former Fascist stronghold at the Museo delle Civiltà, explore the ruins of a whole ancient city at Ostia Antica, or visit one of the smaller museums of ancient art, like the Centrale Montemartini, which places Roman sculpture in a decommissioned power plant. Agnes Crawford’s newsletter has more great suggestions, especially for churches and other sites farther afield.
But what if you really want some Michelangelo? Fortunately, Rome is so ridiculously rich in art and history that it’s got second- (and third-, and fourth-) best Buonarrotis. After spending this August in Rome, I’ve come up with a list of alternatives to the standard tourist favorites. Most are only slightly less sublime (the rest are actually better). All are far more pleasant to experience, if you enjoy elbow room and the slight feeling of superiority that comes from stepping off the beaten path.
So, if you’re planning to visit Rome, write down your list of can’t-miss sites. Then, go to these instead:
Instead of the Vatican Museums, the Palazzo Barberini
I don’t really mind standing in line to buy tickets to get into a museum. What I dread is standing in line to get through a museum, which is exactly what happens at the Vatican Museums. The complex was simply not designed for crowds, which means that after the sunbaked exterior lines for tickets and security, you’ll spend at least an hour shuffling along through hallway after room after courtyard on an amusement-park-style line to get to the Sistine Chapel.
Yes, the Vatican holds masterpieces like the Laocoön, Apollo Belvedere, and the rooms painted by Raphael. But trying to pause in front of them is like keeping your feet in a swiftly moving river — only it’s a stream of cruise daytrippers hustling after guides carrying teddy bears impaled on umbrella shafts. Then, when you reach the Sistine Chapel, you find that the ceiling is dimly lit and far away, while hundreds of fellow visitors also straining their necks are all too close.
If you want to experience historic architecture filled with masterpieces of painting without waiting in an endless line that feels like a whole-body experience of restless leg syndrome, head to the Palazzo Barberini. The palace itself was designed by the famed architects Carlo Maderno, Francesco Borromini, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and it holds paintings by Caravaggio, Holbein, Tintoretto, and many more. (My favorite is Caravaggio’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” where she is making the same heroic yuck expression I wear whenever I have to dispatch a bug.) There’s even Raphael’s “La Fornarina,” believed to be a portrait of Margherita Luti, the mistress the Pope let him keep in his rooms in the Vatican while he was working on his frescos.
You’ll eventually wander into a room holding Rome’s second-largest painted ceiling: Pietro da Cortona’s “Triumph of Divine Providence,” completed in 1632. Pull up one of the lounge chairs left there for your comfort and enjoy. (Hot tip if you’re going in the summer: The entire museum is air-conditioned!)
Instead of Michelangelo’s Pietà, the Risen Christ
It’s not always the crowds that spoil something for you. Sometimes, it’s just one dude. And while I know he was having a mental health crisis, I still curse the guy who took a hammer to Michelangelo’s “Pietà” in St. Peter’s Basilica in 1972. The sculpture was fully repaired, but the “Pietà” now sits behind bullet-proof (but not smudge-proof) glass many yards away from where visitors can stand. You wait in a line that often wraps around the piazza to get essentially the same view as if you were looking at a postcard.
Across town, you can walk right up to another marble Michelangelo Christ and peer behind his bronze loincloth, should you so choose (you should choose) in the lovely church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, whose courtyard holds Rome’s cutest obelisk. The 1521 sculpture, to the left of the main altarpiece, is pleasingly disconcerting with its Tom of Finland body and its wet-look curls.
If for some reason you’re looking for a more dignified Michelangelo experience, head to the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, where you can see the somber “Moses” and other bits of Michelangelo’s uncompleted tomb for Pope Julius II.
Instead of St. Peters, Go Church-Hopping
I can’t lie. There’s no aesthetic equivalent for St. Peter’s Basilica. If you want to appreciate the ingenuity of Michelangelo in designing around the constraints of the space and previous construction and Bernini in decorating the massive interior, you’ll just have to …
But wait — what’s that you’re saying? You don’t want to ride packed like a sardine in a bus full of pilgrims and pickpockets to the Vatican and then wait in a long, often blazingly hot entrance line just to appreciate artful engineering? You’re telling me you want to go to St. Peter’s to have a spiritual experience?
Oh, honey. That’s just not going to happen.
St. Peter’s is the Catholic Vegas: designed to get as many people as possible to feel happy about opening their pockets. It’s a slick, corporate, mass-market spirituality. And while I really do think it’s an artistic marvel, its design puzzles are solved so neatly that you don’t realize that they exist unless you do your reading (I recommend James Akerman’s The Architecture of Michelangelo and Howard Hibbard’s Bernini).
If you want to feel the strange individualities of devotion, I recommend spending a Sunday morning church-hopping. Groove along to the Congolese Rite at 11am, where a priest in jewel-green robes presides alongside a band with a sparkling pink drum-set, both putting the peeling paint of the 19th-century Natività di Gesù church to shame. Get a glimpse of the wall of black-robed backs bowing at one of the five or more Sunday services at the Gesù, the mother church of the Jesuit order. Check Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza off your life-list, since Francesco Borromini’s vertiginous masterpiece is only open from 9am to 11am on Sunday mornings.
Rome holds more than 900 churches, with the historic center packed so full that you can set out at random and find treasures without planning. In theory, tourists aren’t allowed to visit during services, and some churches post someone at the door to issue a gruff “è chiuso” (“it’s closed”) to anyone wearing a fanny pack. But as long as you’re wearing something that covers your shoulders and at least makes some pretense of reaching down to your knees, you can reply “per la messa” (“for the mass”) and go right in. Just stick to a back pew; wandering the aisles to look at art will get you nasty looks, if not escorted out.
Instead of the Pantheon, Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri
If you’re an American, you’ve probably noticed Europeans freaking out about squirrels. Whenever I cut through Central Park, I see a group of tourists snapping photos of some mangy specimen like they’re on safari. Once, I learned some new French curses after seeing a squirrel bite the tourist hand that was trying to feed him. Why make such a fuss? Because American grey squirrels are rare in Europe. (They’ve got much cuter red squirrels instead.) I’m telling you this because the Pantheon is the squirrel of Rome.
Before I first visited Rome, the Pantheon seemed so unusual. Where else would you find a well-preserved ancient Roman building still in use today? A few days in to my first visit, I realized the answer to that question was: nearly everywhere. Recently, for example, I hung out in the circular living room of an artist’s studio on Via Appia. Its stone walls were first built as a Roman tomb, and spent the Middle Ages as the oven of the neighborhood’s largest bakery.
Humans are lazy scavengers whenever we have the chance, so reuse isn’t surprising. What’s surprising is when that reuse is cleverly done, and there the Pantheon doesn’t shine. The exterior is spectacular, yes. But the interior has been coated with a thorough spray of Baroque stucco, gold, and colored marble. The effect is jarring, as if you walked into Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater to discover it had been redecorated by mid-’90s Martha Stewart.
Instead of waiting for the Pantheon, try walking right into Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri. Michelangelo laid out the plans for transforming the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian into a church dedicated to the Christian saints this emperor martyred. Although most of the work was carried out by later architects, the building remains delightfully strange. The entrance looks like a dead end, the normal orientation is twisted around to accommodate its placement inside the former frigidarium, and the massive reused columns give you a strong sense of both ancient and Baroque splendor.
Instead of the Colosseum, the Domus Aurea
Oh, how the times have changed. The Colosseum once held up to 80,000 spectators, all whisking in and up using numbered doorways and staircases. Now that entrance is no longer free and most of the staircases have disintegrated, the structure can barely accommodate the 17,000 tourists who now traipse through each day. Tiberius would have wept.
The real problem is getting a ticket. If you buy one online in advance, you can skip the slow, sunny on-site ticket line. But tour operators pounce on most advance tickets as soon as they’re released, leaving you little alternative but to pay a hefty markup for a guided tour.
When it was built, the structure was called the Flavian Amphitheater in honor of the emperors who paid for it. We now use its much later nickname, when it was known for the colossal statue of the emperor Nero that stood beside it.
Nero commissioned this statue to greet visitors to his palace complex, which sprawled out over enough land for a city. After Nero’s disgrace and death, subsequent emperors built the Colosseum on the site of the complex’s artificial lake and plopped new public baths over the remains of its main buildings. Ironically, these attempts at erasure preserved Nero’s Domus Aurea (“Golden House”) far better than other imperial palaces in Rome.
Today, you can visit the Domus Aurea on tours led by archaeologists. The tour has a virtual reality portion, where you put on a headset to see an underground cavern transform back to what it looked like before excavations, when Michelangelo, Raphael, and Casanova spelunked down from a hole in the ceiling to rediscover ancient paintings, and then back further to its glorious initial incarnation.
Brush up on your Suetonius for good gossip about Nero, pack a lil’ sweater because it’s a constant 50 degrees down there (making it a merciful stop in the summer), and go imagine yourself dining under an ivory ceiling in a revolving chamber.
For Goodness Sake, Instead of the Bocca della Verita, the Capitoline Museums
The so-called “Mouth of Truth” is a Roman carving of a sea god with an open mouth. Some people in the Middle Ages made up a story that it would bite off the hands of liars, then Audrey Hepburn looked adorable next to it in Roman Holiday, and now you have to wait in a long line in the sun to get a photo of yourself not having your hand bitten off.
I mean, maybe if it did occasionally bite someone’s hand off, I could see the appeal. But why not instead visit the Capitoline Museums? Two palaces on a piazza designed by Michelangelo filled with ancient masterworks, any of which you can make up some freaking story about to put in the caption of your post. The Capitoline Venus will show her tits for a true babe! Marcus Aurelius will high-five future presidents! The Lupa Romana will squirt milk at anyone who’s slept with their best friend’s ex!
Whatever. Just do me a favor and delete your post if it starts to go viral, because then tourists would come to what is currently Rome’s most unjustly deserted museum.
Instead of the Keyhole, the Palazzo Altemps
You want to climb a hill, wait in line, look through a keyhole into a garden whose shrubbery frames a perfect view of the dome of St. Peter’s, and then hold your phone up to the hole to take the exact same photo that everyone else in line will also post to Instagram? Interesting choice.
Look — I’m not here to debate the psychic toll of spending your vacation in search of social media opportunities. But I am totally here to argue that the psychic cost of spending long minutes thinking “hurry up, jerkwad” about everyone ahead of you, and then having everyone behind you think the same of you, just isn’t worth it.
Especially when you could, instead, post breathtaking pics from Palazzo Altemps. It holds a few exquisite works of ancient sculpture, set like pearls in front of jewel-colored frescos. You enter from the busy, dusty streets of the historic center as if you’re stepping into clear pond reflecting the green of a forest. I can’t believe I’m writing like this, but this is what the experience does to you.
Oh, and while you’re in the neighborhood, pop in to the Antica Libreria Cascianelli for your souvenirs. They sell stylish postcards from the ’60s for cheaper than the tatty new ones at souvenir stands.
Instead of the Trevi Fountain, the Nymphaeum of Egeria
Yes, I hurl a coin into the Trevi Fountain every time I’m in Rome, since I figure it’s worth spending the most unpleasant five minutes of a trip to do my superstitious best to insure a repeat visit to one of my favorite cities.
But every visit also includes a walk to the Nymphaeum of Egeria in the park adjoining the ancient Appian Way. A spring trickles down from a battered ancient sculpture into the ruins of a pleasure house, now overrun with greenery. Lean on the guardrail and think about the passing away of an empire while you watch birds and turtles make their solemn progress across a pool once again unbothered by human constructions. You will be alone with heartbreaking beauty.