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8 Under-the-Radar Museums in Rome

Bypass Rome’s blockbuster museums to visit the lesser-known collections that dot the art and history landscape of the Italian capital.
Hi, I'm Rebecca!

Rebecca’s first visit to Italy was a coup de foudre and her affection for Il Bel Paese has only grown over almost 30 years of living here, during which time she has mastered the art of navigating the sampietrini cobblestones in heels but has yet to come away from a plate of bucatini all’amatriciana with an unsullied blouse. She covers Italy travel, culture, and cuisine for a number of print and online publications.

Rome’s major museums are some of the most visited in the world, which means they’re packed with crowds almost year-round. Take a breather from the crowds and discover astonishing collections of ancient artifacts, Renaissance art, and quirky oddities hidden away in the city’s palaces and villas.

Not only can you linger in refreshingly quiet, tourist-free galleries, but you’ll come away with a better understanding of the enormous cultural wealth the city holds beyond its headliner attractions.

1. Centrale Montemartini

Greek and Roman statuary in an industrial-looking hallway
Centrale Montmartini houses 400 pieces of Greek and Roman statuary.Photo Credit: Sibil Photos / Shutterstock

Visit this former power plant to admire unique items.

Imagine possessing a collection of ancient statuary so vast that you run out of storage space. That’s the origin story behind this incredible—and virtually unknown—museum that houses 400 pieces of Roman and Greek sculptures against the steampunk backdrop of a decommissioned power plant in the Ostiense neighborhood, just south of Rome’s city center.

Juxtaposing classical beauty and industrial grit, the Centrale Montmartini is one of Rome’s most unusual exhibition spaces, displaying the overflow from the Capitoline Museums alongside the building's original turbines, a steam boiler, and diesel engines.

Don’t miss: The Machine Room, which houses both the most impressive blocks of machinery and some of the collection’s highlights, including a colossal head of Hercules unearthed on Capitoline Hill.

2. Galleria Spada in Palazzo Spada

Columns line an outdoor walkway
The Secret Garden showcases forced perspective.Photo Credit: ValerioMei / Shutterstock

You may be the only one in this museum.

Quietly lining the better part of a city block just steps from the bustling Campo de’ Fiori market square, Palazzo Spada was a noble Renaissance residence that now holds one of the world’s premier collections of baroque paintings—though you’d never guess it from the nearly empty halls.

Marvel at works by artists like Guido Reni and Artemisia Gentileschi hidden away in the four ornately decorated quadrerie, or picture rooms, and enjoy having this Roman museum all to yourself.

Don’t miss: The Secret Garden, where you can admire Borromini’s Colonnata, a forced perspective architectural masterpiece that still impresses almost 400 years after it was built.

3. Museum of the Souls of Purgatory (Museo delle Anime del Purgatorio)

Framed piece of cloth with singe marks
The Little Milan Cathedral displays the museum collection.Photo Credit: chettarin / Shutterstock

Explore a fiery ode to history.

In 1897, a fire tore through the Church of the Sacred Heart of Suffrage (Chiesa del Sacro Cuore del Suffragio), leaving charred marks on a wall that resembled a human face—at least to the priest at the time, Father Vittore Jouet.

He believed the image was a soul in purgatory attempting to communicate with the living and thus began his lifelong quest to assemble articles of clothing, books, and photographs that he believed were “singed" by the souls of the dead. Today, this pretty church along the Tiber River is home to his unique collection, displayed in a glass case in the sacristy.

Don’t miss: The neogothic facade of this tiny church, known as the Little Milan Cathedral because of its resemblance to the Milan Duomo.

4. The National Gallery of Ancient Art in Palazzo Barberini

Carved and painted walls leading upward to a glass ceiling
The Renaissance building was designed by top architects.Photo Credit: Em Campos / Shutterstock

Discover Renaissance greats.

Designed by some of the greatest architects of the Renaissance, the stunning Palazzo Barberini today houses the National Gallery of Ancient Art (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica). Though not entirely off the map (the collection is one of Italy’s most prestigious), you’ll find a fraction of the Vatican Museums’ crowds here.

Take your time admiring works like La Fornarina by Raphael and Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes just around the corner from bustling Piazza Barberini in the heart of Rome.

Don’t miss: Borromini’s elegant helicoidal oval staircase, located on the opposite end of the front entrance as the ticket office for the museum. Spot the bees on each column’s capital, symbols of the Barberini family.

5. Villa Torlonia

Building with steep rooflines and many architectural details
Architectural styles give a whimsical look to the estate's buildings.Photo Credit: Vinicio Tullio / Shutterstock

For stained glass and charming gardens.

Despite its dark past as Mussolini’s private residence, Villa Torlonia in the Nomentana district is one of the most whimsical museums in Rome. The estate encompasses three buildings: the Casina delle Civette, the Casino dei Principi, and the Casino Nobile.

You can’t leave without strolling the manicured grounds and admiring the collection of neoclassical and art nouveau stained glass, furnishings, sculpture, and Italian art. Kids especially enjoy exploring the fairytale-like Casina delle Civette with its many nooks and crannies to discover.

Don’t miss: The surrounding park is full of leafy trees and quaint flower beds. You can visit the park for free but must purchase tickets to enter the buildings.

6. Galleria Doria Pamphilij in Palazzo Doria Pamphilij

Ornately carved door panels and building interior
The private art collection was amassed over five centuries.Photo Credit: Krikkiat / Shutterstock

Skip the Trevi Fountain and head here instead.

Lording over Via del Corso, Palazzo Doria Pamphilij is one of the few palaces in Rome that’s still privately owned by its original family. Most tourists rush past on their way to the nearby Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon, not realizing that they’ve just overlooked one of the most rarified art collections in the world.

This gilded wonderland is home to the Galleria Doria Pamphilij, an immense collection of paintings, furniture, and statues that’s been amassed over five centuries by the Doria Pamphilij dynasty. Today, it’s displayed in four Renaissance wings around the palazzo’s inner courtyard.

Don’t miss: A portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez, easily overlooked among countless works by Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael, and Flemish old masters.

7. Museum of Cooking (Museo della Cucina)

Brick building with windows
The museum offers a look into Italy's culinary history.Photo Credit: NEKOMURA / Shutterstock

For a tasty look at Italy’s gastronomic history.

For a fascinating look at Italy’s culinary history, visit the Museum of Cooking. It opened in 2022, and word still hasn’t gotten out about this small gem.

Set on Palatine Hill at the exact spot where Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, were said to be suckled by a she-wolf, the collection contains culinary tools, cookbooks, and other gadgets relating to cooking and cuisine dating from the Renaissance through the 19th century. This charming museum is a must for enthusiasts of la cucina italiana.

Don’t miss: The collection of rare antique cookbooks dating as far back as the 1400s, where you’ll find recipes for delicacies from roasted peacock to eel pie. Afterward, get hands-on cooking experience with a cooking class from a local.

8. MAXXI (National Museum of 21st-Century Art)

Black, white, and gray interior hallway and staircase
Famed architect Zaha Hadid designed the MAXXI.Photo Credit: Maxim Apryatin / Shutterstock

For new-age art, followed by gelato.

Set a comfortable distance from the more tourist-trodden hubs, Rome’s MAXXI is located in the northern Flaminio neighborhood, offering plenty for lovers of contemporary art. But most visitors come to admire the building itself, a space-age, cement-and-glass creation by the late architect Zaha Hadid. Follow the massive internal ramps and walkways to visit the spaces dedicated to art and to architecture and take in the view from the signature jutting window.

Don’t miss: Neve di Latte, the excellent gelato shop (gelateria) set just behind the museum, which routinely ranks among Rome’s best gelato spots but rarely—if ever—has a line.

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