Rome: Back-Street Riches

In this third of three shows on the Eternal City, we'll explore this grand metropolis — so rich in art and culture — on a more intimate scale, delving into its back lanes and unheralded corners. Venturing through the crusty Trastevere district, visiting the historic Jewish Ghetto, and enjoying art treasures in a string of rarely visited churches, we uncover charms of hidden Rome that compete with its marquee sights.


Hi, I'm Rick Steves back with more of the best of Europe. This time, we're immersing ourselves in the street life and culture... of Rome. Thanks for joining us.

Visitors experience Rome in layers. It’s built on over 25 centuries of history and culture. Sure, you've got to see its famous ancient sights—those awe-inspiring remnants of a mighty empire like the Colosseum, the Forum, and the Pantheon. And you can't miss towering St. Peters Basilica at the Vatican along with the lavish Baroque wonders that decorate Rome’s churches, squares, and palaces. We do that in other episodes on the Eternal City.

In this episode, we explore this grand city—so rich in art and culture—in a more intimate way by delving into its back lanes and unheralded corners.

Rome was born about 3,000 years ago here—along the Tiber River. This was as far upstream as boats could sail and the first place the river could be crossed by bridge.

As a center of river trade, Rome connected the interior of the Italian peninsula with the Mediterranean. The riverbank would have been bustling in ancient times.... imagine: busy docks, ramshackle boats water mills, and platforms for fishing.

Until modern times, Rome’s river was part of its economy. Then, in the 1870s, in order to protect the city from flooding, the Romans walled off the Tiber. They built these tall, anonymous embankments that continue to isolate the river from the city to this day. While Rome was born on the Tiber, today the town seems to ignore its river.

But the city’s graceful bridges connect thriving neighborhoods. Just over the Tiber from here is one of Rome’s most colorful districts.

Trastevere is the place to immerse yourself in the crustier side of Rome. The name, Trastevere, actually means "across the Tiber River."

Wandering here offers a chance to train your eyes to see Rome more intimately. You’ll discover a world of artisans who've found their niche and love it. The people here—“Trasteverini”—are proud. Old-timers once bragged of never setting foot on the opposite bank of the Tiber. As we explore and observe, the big city seems worlds away.

For maximum Trastevere fun and insight, I'm joined by my friend and Roman tour guide, Francesca Caruso.

Rick: Especially here in Trastevere you get a sense of the many layers of Rome
Francesca: Certainly. That is really the key to understanding Rome. This city with almost 3,000 years of history was never abandoned.  So people have just built on top and around what was already there.
Rick: Like a layer cake, isn’t it?
Rick: Boy, there’s a beautiful roof garden.
Francesca: Yeah, most of us in Rome live in apartments so, no gardens, no backyard, so we all dream of the attico con terrazzo.
Rick: Attico con terrace, an attic with a terrace.
Francesca: Yes, so the skyline of Rome is full of these little jungles on the rooftops.
Rick: Everything’s so intimate, it’s like we’re walking through somebody’s laundry room.
Francesca: We’ve always lived so very close together here sharing space is really not a problem. We don’t even have the word for privacy in Italian. We use the English word instead, we simply roll the r so we say prrrivacy.
Rick: Prrrivacy. I know one more Italian word now.

Rick: So, why are some of the oldest churches in Rome on this side of the river?
Francesca: Because they say it was the neighborhood of foreigners, often Christian, who brought their faith with them. So the whole period of the persecutions they could not build churches. So, naturally they celebrated in the homes of wealthy converts who offered their homes for mass.
Rick: So, this is one of those kind of churches.
Francesca: Yes, it was the house of Cecilia and in later times they built a church dedicated to her.
Rick: And today the name of the church?
Francesca: Is Santa Cecilia.
Rick: Now, what happened to St. Cecilia?
Francesca: St. Cecilia and her husband were killed because of their faith. The Romans tried to steam her to death for three days in her own home and after that they beheaded her.
Rick: This is a beautiful statue. It’s just peaceful.
Francesca: Yes, it’s very quiet. There’s something very tender about a, and also very sad about a young woman who was killed so brutally for her faith.

The concept of a piazza serving as a community center goes back to ancient times. Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere is the heart of this neighborhood. With its broad and inviting steps, the fountain was actually designed to be a kind of neighborhood “sofa.”

Rick: A great part of exploring a neighborhood is just sitting on the main square.
Francesca: Yeah, I think it’s really in our DNA. We’ve been living in our piazzas of common living room since ancient Roman times. It’s always been this way and the piazza will always be this way in the future, too.

Piazzas go back to Roman times. We have always been very social and this is where we hang out... it's in our blood, the piazza culture.

And, as usual, the district's main church fronts the main square. The Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere is also one of Rome’s oldest and most beloved churches.

Like Cecilia's church, this was built on the site of a 3rd century home where early Christians worshipped illegally. And, like the city itself, it's been a work in progress, rebuilt continuously over the centuries.

The portico is decorated with ancient fragments filled with early Christian symbolism—the anchor, birds, people with hands up praying as evangelical Christians do today. Many of these stones were originally lids to burial niches from catacombs.

Stepping inside takes you back to the 12th century. The granite columns were scavenged from ancient Roman buildings. The church feels like an ancient hall of justice. That's because early churches adopted the pre-Christian basilica floor plan—a rectangular space divided by rows of columns.

These mosaics are early medieval—well over a thousand years old. They’re rich in symbolism: Mary is given a high stature. She’s at the throne with Jesus in heaven. He has his arm around his mother as if introducing her to us. Locals claim this is the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

I never leave without checking in with St. Anthony who hangs out in the back. He's a favorite of the poor and is inundated with prayer requests on scraps of paper.

For dinner, we’re venturing into another neighborhood. Grand as it is, the visitors’ Rome is compact. There’s no shortage of places to dine and one of my favorites is a short cab ride away… back on the other side of the river.

Ristorante il Gabriello provides a peaceful and local-feeling respite from intensity of the big city. Claudio serves with charisma, while his brother Gabriello cooks Roman cuisine with a creative twist—using fresh, organic products from the market and his wife’s farm. Sometimes Italians like to ignore the menu, just trust the restaurateur, and go with the meal he suggests. Whenever possible, so do I. And that’s the plan tonight.

First up? Fresh scampi, oysters, and shrimp, and it’s served the way Romans like it—crudo or raw.

Next Claudio switches us from a white to a red wine in anticipation of the pasta dishes.

First, a ravioli with a delicate cream sauce. That’s a nice lead in to our second pasta; spaghetti alla carbarnara. Carbanara is eggs, pancetta, some pecorino and a little bit of parmesano and pepper. Very simple and very Roman.

Claudio recommends a wine change; to a super Tuscan. This will be super with a dish of rare beef topped with thin strips of lard. As an extra treat,  he’s prepared a special local white fish.

Finally, the dolce. Sorry, but these deserts taste even better than they look. What a meal!

To best enjoy Rome, I look for a centrally located refuge. Places like Hotel Oceania are quiet, air‑conditioned, and affordable.

Stefano and his staff offer lots of extra touches like this breezy terrazzo where you can almost forget that you’re in a large chaotic city. They work hard to create a caring family atmosphere. And the breakfast room is homey,  providing a classic Roman breakfast of fresh rolls, pastries and coffee. A fine place to start your day.

We're heading back into the center on bus 64. It's popular with tourists because it starts at the train station and laces together many of the city’s top sights. Therefore, it's popular with thieves as well.

I’ll bet there's a pick-pocket on this bus right now—dressed like someone you'd never expect to be a thief—perhaps a businessman, a priest...even a tour guide. Don't be paranoid... just keep your valuables zipped up and buttoned down.

Rome is a collection of distinct neighborhoods, each with its own heritage and character. A good example is the Ghetto, or Jewish Quarter.

In ancient times, this bridge was called “Jews’ Bridge” because Jews and other foreigners—who weren’t allowed to live in central Rome—would commute from Trastevere over there, across this bridge, to get into town.

To understand the Jewish chapter of Rome's story, we're joining my friend and fellow tour guide, Michaela Pavoncello. Michaela's family goes all the way back to the Jewish community living here before Christ and the family line continues. Her baby is due in just a few months.

Rick: So, what’s unique about the Roman Jewish community?
Michaela: Well, first of all we’re not Ashkenazim and we’re not Sephardim. You know the Ashkenzai went to Germany and Poland and the Sephardi went to Spain. The Roman Jews came straight from Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple so we are here since before the Diaspora.
Rick: So, whether you think Ashkenazic or Sephardic, that’s after the Diaspora.
Michaela: Yes.
Rick:  So, you can say this is the oldest Jewish community in Europe.
Michaela: Yes, one of the oldest outside of Israel.
Rick: So, if the Roman Jews came before the Diaspora, why did they come here in the first place?
Michaela: Because they were diplomats and businessmen. And during the centuries we have to live with emperors and popes. And we were tolerated because we were good for the business and we were not pushing our religion to the others, we were keeping it for ourselves.
Rick: So, then what happened?
Michaela: Then we’re in 1500, the Reformation came and the church had to fight any alternative religion. And so the ghetto was established in Rome to—
Rick: Okay, so the church is fighting the Protestants and at the same time fighting the Jews.
Michaela: Yeah. And to avoid any contamination between Jews and Christians Jews were segregated in that walled area in Rome in 1555.
Rick: So what was life like in the ghetto?
Michaela: Well, you have to imagine 9,000 people squeezed in a 4 blocks area flooded every single winter because the Tiber would flood every winter. So it was squalid, muddy, disgusting. It was the worst real estate of Rome.

The synagogue was the community center. It looks like a church because, back when it was built there were no Jewish architects handy and that's what Christian builders knew how to make.

It's Art Nouveau with a dash of Tiffany. The dome was painted with the colors of the rainbow—symbolic of God’s promise to Noah that there would be no more floods. The stars symbolized that the Jewish people would be as many as the stars in the sky.

Back in previous centuries when the ghetto was a walled-in town, Christian Romans built churches at each gate. And each of these churches came complete with an attempt in Hebrew script—to convert the Jews.

While most of the squalid ghetto was demolished with Italian unification in 1870, the buildings facing the main drag survive. Shops sell fine, locally produced Judaica and kosher restaurants proudly serve traditional dishes, like those with artichokes.

While the Jewish community now lives all over town, many Roman Jews still enjoy gathering here, in the neighborhood where they have such deep roots.

Michaela: So, I’ll take you to the Jewish bakery. The same family has been running the same business for 200 years. They only offer 5 or 6 recipes, so don’t ask for weird things. They only have cheesecake with chocolate, cinnamon biscotti with almonds, macaroons, and the pizza. That’s called a Jewish pizza.
Rick: What is in the Jewish pizza?
Michaela: It’s like a, almost like a fruitcake with pine nuts, almonds, candies.
Rick: Tell me about the Challah bread.
Michaela: The Challah bread it’s what we serve when a baby boy is born, or when a couple gets married or when we have a bar mitzvah. Ah, you like it.
Rick: So, this is to celebrate a new baby.
Michaela: Yeah, it’s to celebrate new babies or—
Rick: That’s very appropriate today. Very nice.

Rome is a city of magnificent art. It’s everywhere you look and most of it was paid for by the Church. Public squares like Piazza Navona—with Bernini's much-loved Four Rivers fountain—are decorated with Church-sponsored art.

Until modern times, it was the Church that had the power, the money, and the need for great art. And going to church offered the masses—whose lives were so dreary otherwise—a promising glimpse of the glory that awaited them in the next life.

And, visiting today, our challenge is to appreciate the art from that perspective—as a medieval worshipper. Popping into churches—many of them non-descript on the outside—you'll find sumptuous art treasures inside. The wonderful thing about seeing art in churches is that it's in situ—not hanging on museum walls, but exactly where the art was designed to be enjoyed. Thoughtfully stringing together a series of lesser known churches can be an art lover’s delight.

For example, dropping by the relatively obscure Santa Maria Sopra Minerva we find a glorious Gothic interior laden with impressive art. The altar sits upon the tomb of St Catherine with the ornate tombs of two Medici popes looking down. For generations, pilgrims have marveled at this Michelangelo statue of Christ Carrying the Cross. And in the side chapel is a lovely series of frescos by Fillippo Lippi showing the good works of Saint Thomas Aquinas accompanied by a celestial serenade.

Another even less visited church, Santa Prassede, is decorated with the best Byzantine mosaics in Rome—which date from the 800s.

In this chapel, the gold ceiling represents heaven. An icon-like Christ emerges from the background, supported by winged angels in white. Saints walk among patches of flowers while Mary and Jesus overlook the altar. While this small chapel is impressive even to our modern eyes, in the darkness of medieval Rome, it was stunning—celebrated as the “Garden of Paradise.”

Another gem awaiting those exploring Rome’s back streets is the Church of St. Peter in Chains. Its fine altar was sculpted during the Renaissance, an age when realism, emotion, even psychology were injected into the art. Its centerpiece is a masterpiece by Michelangelo—Moses.

Michelangelo tells a story in marble: Moses has just returned from a meeting with God. He senses trouble back home. He turns to see his followers worshipping a golden calf. Gripping the Ten Commandments under his muscular arm, he’s about to rise up and punish the naughty Children of Israel.

Great art like this is in seemingly endless supply here in the Eternal City and by side-tripping out of town, you’ll find even more. Rome's main train station—called Termini—is a massive transportation hub. Public buses, tour buses, and city subways leave from here in all directions. The train station itself is a thriving mall with everything from 24 hour pharmacies to fast trains to the airport. We're meeting up with Francesca again, riding the subway out to Ostia Antica, to explore what’s left of ancient Rome's mighty port

The ruins of Ostia rival the more famous ruins of Pompeii. And, while Pompeii is over 3 hours away, Ostia is just a half hour train ride from Rome.

Two thousand years ago, this was a working port town. Wandering around, you can imagine the bustle and complexity of a once-thriving port of 60,000 people—warehouses, apartment flats, mansions, shopping arcades… all laid out in a classic Roman grid of streets.

Located where the Tiber River meets the sea, Ostia was founded in the fourth century before Christ. It served as a naval base, protecting Rome from any invasion by river. It was also an administrative and warehousing center, keeping more than a million Romans fed and in sandals.

But eventually things went downhill for Ostia. Rome fell. The river changed course. The port silted up and was abandoned, became a malaria-infested swamp. And Ostia was forgotten.

The mud that buried Ostia actually protected it from the ravages of time—including stone-scavenging medieval peasants. And, thanks to extensive—and on-going—excavations, there's lots to see.

This fine mosaic decorated the Baths of Neptune. At the bottom of the pool, Neptune rides four horses through the sea. Apart from the cupid riding the dolphin, the sea looks frightening—which, to those ancients, it was.

The adjacent theater seated 4,000. Plays were rowdy daytime events— with lots of audience participation... perhaps a bit like today's school field trip. Typical of Roman urban design, this complex mixed religion, business, and entertainment: a grand theater facing a temple surrounded by a commercial square.

The Square of the Guilds, lined with offices of ship owners and traders, was the bustling center of Rome’s import-export industry. Mosaics on the sidewalk advertise services offered by various shops—with symbols for sailors and merchants who were illiterate or couldn't read Latin.

Shippers showed off fine vessels. This lighthouse was the sign of the great city of Alexandria in Egypt. Grain containers are reminders that grain was the major import of Ostia.

Michaela: Rome imported most of what it consumed. These big jars contained oil, wine and grain that came from all over the Mediterranean was stored here and then shipped off to Rome. This is the mill. Ostia was famous for the quality of its bread. They would put sticks through these holes and then a donkey or human would push them around.
Rick: Okay, so you’d pour it, you’d pour the grain in here, grind it up, flour comes out the bottom.
Michaela: Yes.
Rick: That’s stone ground, I’d say.
Michaela: Yes.
Rick: I love to imagine how people must have lived here.
Michaela: Yes, in apartments it can be easily up to five stories high. They had no kitchens, no plumbing, and no heating, so they used the apartments like tents at a camping site just to sleep.
Rick: No kitchens?
Michaela: No kitchens. So even to eat they would have to go to a fast food or a cafeteria. Most of the time it was just across the street.
Rick: So, you’d just step across the street to the corner diner?
Michaela: Yeah.
Rick: 2000 years ago this was the neighborhood bar?
Michaela: Yes, like a cafeteria or a fast food place.
Rick: Amazing.
Michaela: You would come up to the counter and maybe order something to go. Maybe you might see some food or drinks on display here or if you had time you would come inside and you could have something sitting down. And here probably they had a display of the food or maybe the cups and the plates. And then there is a pictorial menu that shows us what was offered. So we have food, we have drinks and we have music.
Rick: So, music, like Tuesday night, we got live music. Oh, the courtyard.
Michaela: Yes, why not!  As you can see public restrooms are really public. And quite advanced. They had running water coming through.
Rick: So, there’s a stream going all the time, constantly flushing.
Michaela: Yes, constantly flushing so constantly clean. Imagine frescos on the walls and even revolving doors at the entrance.
Rick: It’s so easy to underestimate how advanced Rome was.
Michaela: That’s really true.

Ostia's delightful little museum helps bring life to these ruins. These fine statues—tangled wrestlers, kissing cupids, playful gods—adorned the courtyards of wealthy Ostia families. Many of the statues are second- and third-century Roman copies inspired by famous but now lost Greek originals. These portrait busts are of real people—like those you’d meet on the streets here 1800 years ago.

One thing Roman artists did well was carve realistic busts. It was their forte because Roman religion revered ancestors— the man of the house (and his father and grandfather). That’s why statues of dad and grandpa were often found in the corner of any proper house. Also, with the emperor considered a god, you’d find his bust in classrooms, at the post office, and all over town.

With Rome’s rich inheritance from those god-like emperors, today’s city comes with a grand personality. But as we’ve seen, it also has its intimate charms. And exploring the Eternal City, getting to know its many dimensions, with each visit, I find it becomes a better friend.

As I've discovered over a lifetime of visits, Rome rewards those who venture beyond its monumental sights. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Ciao