Because there’s so much more to do in Rome than the Sistine Chapel.
For most first-time visitors to Rome, the top two bucket list sights are typically the Colosseum and the Vatican. Home to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Museums receives up to 30,000 visitors per day, which doesn’t exactly make for the most pleasant museum-going experience. Of course, you should see them once in your lifetime, but once you’ve checked those spots off your bucket list, there are plenty of other places to see art in Rome, from aristocratic palaces with Renaissance frescoes to contemporary art museums designed by starchitects. Here are ten lesser-known museums worth visiting on your next trip to the Eternal City.
Related: The Best Things to Do in Rome
Top Picks for You
Tucked away behind Piazza Navona, this small museum is housed in a 15th-century palace once home to Cardinal Altemps. It’s filled with ancient sculptures and reliefs from the collections of some of the city’s most powerful aristocratic families and is one of the sites that makes up the Museo Nazionale Romano. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the museum is the gorgeous frescoes in the loggia, painted in the grotesque (as in inspired by grottoes) style that was popular during the Renaissance.
INSIDER TIPIn the loggia stand busts of the Caesars. See if you can identify the most famous ones, like Julius and Augustus.
Rome is an ancient city that’s constantly being updated for modern times, and nowhere else is that as poignantly on view as at the Centrale Montemartini in the hip neighborhood of Ostiense. Occupying the city’s first electrical power plant, it displays ancient sculptures of men and women in togas from the collections of the Capitoline Museums against a backdrop of early 20th-century industrial relics. There are also some incredible mosaics and the 19th-century train carriage of Pope IX on display.
INSIDER TIPBefore or after visiting the museum, stroll about 20 minutes north into Testaccio and grab a bite at the Mercato di Testaccio. Casa Manco is a local favorite for fantastic pizza al taglio.
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea
Located on the edge of the leafy Villa Borghese park in a Beaux-Arts building constructed in 1911 for the World Exposition in Rome, this museum boasts one of Italy’s best collections of modern art. You’ll find paintings by familiar names like Van Gogh, Monet, and Degas and an impressive collection of works from the Italian modernist movement.
INSIDER TIPThe museum is located on the park’s northern edge, near the little lake with the faux Temple of Aesculapius. If it’s a nice day, head over there and rent a rowboat for a relaxing ride.
Most people go to Trastevere for the lively restaurants and bars, but the neighborhood is also home to this hidden gem. Back when the area was considered the countryside, wealthy banker Agostino Chigi built this villa and commissioned a few painters, including a prominent young artist named Raphael, to paint frescoes on the interior walls. The scene he chose depicts the marriage of Cupid and Psyche in honor of Chigi’s wedding to courtesan Francesca Ordeaschi. Many lavish banquettes were held here during the Renaissance, but now you can admire the undisturbed frescoes.
INSIDER TIPDespite its proximity to the busy Piazza Trilussa, this museum is usually almost empty. Afterward, walk ten minutes to Otaleg—one of the best gelato spots in Rome—for a sweet treat.
Related: The Best Restaurants in Rome
Chiostro del Bramante
The aforementioned Agostino Chigi also hired Raphael to paint a chapel within the Church of Santa Maria della Pace, which is visible from a window on the upper floor of this museum that once housed a cloister attached to the church. Nowadays, it puts on some of the most provocative contemporary art exhibitions, from a Bansky exhibit to a retrospective of Michelangelo Pistoletto, a leader in the Arte Povera movement of the 1960s.
INSIDER TIPStop by the museum’s café for a coffee or a snack, which has an eye-catching design featuring floral wallpaper in technicolor hues.
Built for the powerful Barberini family, this museum inside a 17th-century palace just off Piazza Barberini was designed by Carlo Moderno and the baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Inside, you’ll find works of art like Raphael’s La Fornarina (a portrait of his lover, who was reputedly a baker’s daughter in Trastevere), Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, and a ceiling painted by Pietro da Cortona in the grand ballroom.
INSIDER TIPAnother Bernini masterpiece can be seen a ten-minute walk inside the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. The sculpture, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, depicts the saint being pierced by the arrow of divine love, although the expression on her face suggests a rather more earthly pleasure.
Palazzo Doria Pamphilj
Though it’s right on the bustling Via del Corso, this museum inside the palace of the aristocratic Doria Pamphilj family never seems to get crowded. Head upstairs to admire the hall of mirrors and the galleries lined with paintings by Caravaggio, Velázquez, Raphael, and more. For an additional €5, you can visit the “secret apartment” that’s supposedly still used by the princess. Filled with family photos, furniture, and personal possessions, it might make you feel like you’ve stepped into a scene from Paolo Sorrentino’s film La Grande Bellezza.
INSIDER TIPThe palace is across the street from the chic new Six Senses Rome, which has a lovely rooftop bar where you can sip cocktails with views of the rooftops of central Rome.
There are many aristocratic palaces in Rome, but this one might be the most splendid of them all. Still partly inhabited by the Colonna family, which lived there for more than 20 generations, it’s only open on Friday and Saturday mornings. It’s worth seeing the Great Hall, which stood in for Princess Ann’s palace in Roman Holiday. In the Colonna Gallery, you can gaze upon The Bean Eater by Annibale Caracci, which supposedly inspired Degas and Van Gogh. The gardens are also quite beautiful.
INSIDER TIPGuided tours are offered in English on Friday mornings at 10 a.m. and cost €30. On Saturday mornings, you can wander the Gallery, Pio Apartment, and gardens on your own for €15. For an extra €10, you can also visit the Princess Isabelle Apartment.
This museum’s name is an acronym for Museo delle Arti del XXIe Secolo (museum of 21st-century art), proving there’s much more than ancient sculptures and Renaissance paintings to be seen. The building itself—a futuristic feat by the late Zaha Hadid—is worth trekking out to the Flaminio neighborhood to see. The permanent collection includes works by Alighiero Boetti, Francesco Clemente, William Kentridge, and Gerhardt Richter, to name a few.
INSIDER TIPThe under-the-radar Flaminio neighborhood north of Piazza del Popolo is also home to modern architectural icons like Renzo Piano’s Auditorium Parco della Musica and the Ponte della Musica.
Another masterpiece of contemporary architecture (this one by French architect Odile Decq), the Museo dell’Arte Contemporaneo di Roma (Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome) is housed in the old Peroni brewery in an off-the-beaten-path area. It focuses on Italian and international art from the 1960s to today. Admission is free.
INSIDER TIPThe museum is a ten-minute walk from another under-the-radar attraction, the Quartiere Coppedè, where you can admire whimsical Art Nouveau architecture by Gino Coppedè, who drew inspiration from Antoni Gaudì.