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7 Secret Enchantments of Rome That Should Be on Your Bucket List

Every year millions flock to Rome to view fabled wonders such as the Coliseum. But there is so much more to the Eternal City that often goes unexplored, including these fabulous spots that are off the beaten path.

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Secret-Enchantments-of-RomeCOURTESY THE FIRST HOTEL

The Pope’s Studio del Mosaico

In Vatican City, all tour guides point out the Pope’s residence Casa Santa Marta, while just steps away sits an unassuming building circa 1578 called Studio del Mosaico. The few guides permitted inside introduce visitors to the handful of glass mosaic artisans who hold the job of a lifetime. These craftspeople chisel, polish, and burn—techniques developed by their 16th century predecessors—to maintain the breathtaking mosaics created for the Basilica’s 11 huge interior domes and 45 altarpieces. Pope Francis is a frequent visitor to the Studio, as he regularly gifts foreign dignitaries with a mosaic. (Former President Obama’s mosaic of St. Peter’s Square took nearly eight months to create.) Despite an inventory of 28,000 colored tiles stored in cabinets, sometimes the perfection-driven artist enters the adjacent glass-melting lab to heat two enamel pieces together with a blowtorch, fusing the shades together to create a new color. To tour the Studio, contact Access Europe, (pricey but super-exclusive); Aurea Roma, or Musement. Here’s a deeper look inside the Vatican, aka “The World’s Smallest Country”.

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Secret-Enchantments-of-RomeCourtesy Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary

Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary

Largo di Torre Argentina, a large square excavated in 1929, houses the spot where Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 B.C. Today, nuzzled amid the remains of four different temples and the Theater of Pompey (scene of Brutus’ betrayal) exists a cat sanctuary founded in 1993 by two gattares aka cat ladies to help the hundreds of feral felines who’d taken up residence among the ghosts of Romans past. Today, healthy kitties roam the architectural ruins, wandering inside the shelter for a scratch, some food, or to catch some zzz’s on a desktop or in a cat bed. In the larger room, which doubles as a gift shop (proceeds from t-shirts and cat toys go toward maintaining the shelter), visitors enjoy petting sessions with purring felines. Disabled cats are in the smaller room. The sanctuary offers sterilization, medical and adoption services, welcomes donations, and is open to the public daily from noon to six.

Brush up on your Caesar history with a quick lesson on the Ides of March.

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Secret-Enchantments-of-RomeCourtesy THE FIRST HOTEL

Hotels doubling as art galleries

Rome doesn’t lack for opportunities to see amazing art. Not only does it house museums such as the Borghese Gallery, the city itself is a living monument: turn a corner and stumble upon the Spanish Steps. But you needn’t walk outside your lodging to be immersed in art. Increasingly, hotels are becoming showcases for museum-quality works. The first hotel in Rome to capitalize on this trend is called, fittingly, The First. Throughout this five-star stylishly renovated 19th-century once-upon-a-time nobleman’s palace located steps from the bustling Piazza del Popolo are 150 paintings and sculptures curated by the nearby gallery Mucciaccia. Each of the hotel’s 29 suites features a collection put together by a different contemporary artist. A brilliant touch is having the art in the communal spaces be stark black and white, while much of the art in the suites is giddily colorful. Want a taste, as well as a visual feast? Dine at the First’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Acquolina. Other art hotels in Rome include Villa Spalletti Trivelli and Piazza di Spagna9. If you grow attached to “your” private collection, parting needn’t be sweet sorrow; much of the artwork is available to purchase.

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Jewish Ghetto

Rome is renowned for its glorious churches—of which there are approximately 900. But many visitors don’t know that the Eternal City is also home to the largest continuous Jewish community in Europe. The four-block cobblestone enclave referred to as the Jewish Ghetto is near oft-visited Trastevere. Today the ghetto is charming and tranquil, but in 1555 Pope Paul IV ordered Rome’s 4000 Jews into the then-flood zone, where they lived behind a wall deprived of basic rights. In October 1943 Nazis sent many of the ghetto’s inhabitants to concentration camps. Memorial plaques honoring the perished are dotted around the bustling neighborhood of alleyways and squares. The Art Deco Great Synagogue is a community hub and houses a fabulous museum. It would be sacrilegious not to sample the delicious food in the ghetto—fried artichokes are a specialty. Two fabulous restaurants are Sora Margherita and Piperno. Ready to go? Check out Jewish Roma Walking Tours.

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Secret-Enchantments-of-Romecourtesy The First Hotel

Cooking class with “Nonna”

In Italy, eating is a spiritual experience. Few people are more venerated than master chefs, except the Italian grandmothers (nonnas) who possess generations of cooking knowledge and countless unsurpassable recipes. While its fun and instructional to take a cooking class with a culinary pro, why not take advantage of the opportunity to learn from and mangia with the woman who taught the chef? You can enroll in a school such as the highly regarded Coquis, which offers a variety of amateur and pro courses in English and Italian. Or sign up for a class in a nonna’s cozy apartment. Warning: it’s unlikely your kneading of the pasta dough will pass muster with nonna, who will mutter in Italian while cheerfully turning your goo into perfect gnocchi shapes. Weekend in Italy will tailor-make a Cooking with Nonna class. Learn these Italian phrases before you go.

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Secret-Enchantments-of-Romecourtesy The First Hotel

Underground Rome

Rome is made up of layers—the one that meets the eye, and, tantalizingly, the ones that lie underneath. Practically every week another ancient subterranean crypt or temple is discovered, often by happenstance during routine street excavations. That is why to discover the heart of the ancient city, it is essential to venture below the surface. The Underground Tour will lead you to, among other treasures, the Vicus Capraius, the path underneath the famous Trevi Fountain which leads to an imposing labyrinth of ruins from the Imperial Age, including a one-time Roman housing complex.

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Secret-Enchantments-of-Romecourtesy @Withlocals

Where the locals hang

While tourists come prepared to descend on Trastevere, Testaccio, or Centro, for a taste of the real Rome, locals flock to San Lorenzo. Called the “student district,” partly for its location near Rome’s main university La Sapienza, this picturesque neighborhood is awash in street art and graffiti. Along Via dei Volsci, you’ll find young people enjoying live music, lectures, screenings, underground bars, and outdoor cafes. Micca Club is a great place to dance and, on certain nights, catch a burlesque show, or sample you-can’t-have-just-one slice pizza at Pizzeria il Grano at Via degli Equi, 39. To tour San Lorenzo contact Withlocals. 

Can’t make it to Rome? You can still learn how to live passionately, Italian style.