The former Jewish Ghetto is today one of Rome’s most charming neighborhoods, offering its own particular mix of ancient monuments, delicious food, and Roman life.
Despite its dark past, you’ll find the area welcoming to visitors who come to learn about the history of Europe’s longest-surviving ghetto and to enjoy unique Roman-Jewish dishes and kosher variations of classic recipes.
Whatever you do, take your time exploring and plan to spend at least half a day getting to know this fascinating area.
Here are some of the things to do and see in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto.
1. Stand Under the Dome of the Great Synagogue
You’ll probably see Rome’s largest synagogue from across the city before you visit, thanks to its distinctive square dome. Quite modern by Roman standards, the synagogue was built at the end of the 19th century when Italian Unification granted Roman Jews citizenship, and the ghetto was destroyed.
Security is always high here, so you can’t visit on your own, but the entrance ticket to the museum includes a guided tour of the synagogue, where you can see the brightly painted dome for yourself.
The Dome of the Great Synagogue
2. Visit the Jewish Museum
In 1555, Pope Paul IV closed Rome’s Jews into a few narrow streets and ordered that there only be one building used as a synagogue. For the Jews who had migrated to Rome from many different places, bringing with them their own rites, this would have been a punishment. Instead, they built five synagogues into a single building.
The building was destroyed when the ghetto was pulled down, but many objects were saved and preserved in the museum. You’ll also learn about what life was like inside the ghetto, first under the papal states and then during World War II.
Sign for the Jewish Museum
3. Learn About the History of the Ghetto
As a place of poverty for over 300 years, the ghetto doesn’t have much in the way of grand buildings and works of art. To learn about its terrible history and unique culture that developed here, take a tour with a Roman Jewish guide – the museum organizes private tours in various languages.
You’ll see where the wall and gates were built by the Vatican to keep the Jews isolated from the Catholic population, the few fountains that supplied them with water, and where they were forced to attend compulsory sermons designed to convert them to Christianity.
These tours can be very moving, as guides who have grown up here talk about what their families experienced under the Nazi occupation of Rome, the deportations, and the massacre at Fosse Ardeatine.
One of the churches where Jews were forced to hear sermons on Shabbat
4. See Rome’s Cutest Fountain
Legend says that the turtle fountain in Piazza Mattei was built in a single night by Duke Mattei to convince the father of the girl he loved that he was worthy of her, despite being a gambler who had recently lost his fortune. In reality, it was a local drinking fountain that became famous after Bernini added the turtles.
Fountain of the Turtles
5. Admire an Ancient Portico With a Church Inside
Slap bang in the middle of the ghetto is the remains of the Portico of Octavia, built by the emperor Augustus and named for his sister (the wife Mark Antony abandoned for Cleopatra).
In Medieval times, it took a step down when it became the city’s fish market. A reminder of this remains in the Latin inscription on the front stating that the head of any fish longer than this slab of marble must be given to the city magistrates.
In the 8th century, the church of Sant’Angelo in was built behind it, using the ancient structure as an impressive entrance.
Portico of Octavia
6. Cross the Tiber Island
When Rome was hit by plague in the 3rd century BC, a delegation was sent to the Sanctuary of Asclepios, the god of healing, at Epidaurus to consult the Sibyl. They returned to Rome with a snake, the symbol of the god, but as they sailed into Rome, the snake escaped and was found on the island. A temple was built here to Asclepios, and travertine blocks were used to give the island the shape of a boat.
Today the island is a charming place to visit. With just a hospital, church, pharmacy, restaurant, and bar, most people cross straight over to Trastevere. In the summer, there’s an open-air cinema in the evenings behind the church and bars by the river as part of the Estate Romana festival.
The bridge connecting the ghetto to the Tiber Island
7. Visit Rome’s Only Kosher Bakery
Pasticceria Boccione has a prominent location at the center of the ghetto, but there’s no sign on the anonymous store front. There is, however, likely to be a line out of the door and a delicious smell wafting across the square, telling you that this is a place you’ll want to visit.
Rome’s only kosher bakery is known for its crostata di ricotta e visciole, a sweet tart filled with cherries and ricotta worth the wait (and the famously grumpy service).
8. Largo Argentina
At the center of Largo Argentina are some of the oldest temples in the city. The four Republican temples have recently become accessible to the public, and you can now go down to the original street level and under the road where the 4th temple is still hidden. The small exhibition includes many photos from the 1920s when the area was excavated, both of archaeologists working in suits and Mussolini visiting the site.
The temples of Largo Argentina
9. See the Cats of Largo Argentina
In one corner of the temple complex is Rome’s renowned cat sanctuary. Hugely popular with visitors and at constant threat of eviction from this prime location, the sanctuary has been taking care of Rome’s feral cat population for over 30 years. You can visit the sanctuary daily between 12 pm and 4.30 pm, but the cats can always be viewed from street level, chilling in the shade of the ancient ruins.
10. Peek Into the Courtyard of the Centro Italiano di Studi Americani (They Don’t Mind)
Wander through the doorway of no.32 Via Caetani, and you’ll find yourself in a most unusual courtyard. The walls of the Baroque palace are decorated with various bits of ancient statues, busts, and friezes that were once the private collection of Duke Mattei. Although there are no masterpieces here, the general effect and secret location are delightful.
Some hidden Baroque drama
11. Walk Around a Greek Theater
Although, at first glance, many visitors think they are looking at the Colosseum, the Theatre of Marcellus is far smaller and had a completely different purpose. Unlike the Colosseum, which is an amphitheater, the Theater of Marcellus was a Greek theater where Romans went to watch plays rather than games and gladiator fights.
During the day, the nicest way to enter the Ghetto is by taking the path around the outside of the theater. This leads to the Portico of Octavia and up to the modern street level.
Theater of Marcellus
12. Go Under the Church of San Nicola in Carcere
When Christianity wanted to stamp out the old pagan religions, they often built over old temples or converted them so they couldn’t be used for worship. This church incorporates three Republican-era temples that used to stand in the city’s vegetable market. Look on the two outside walls, and you’ll see different types of columns, then go into the crypt to discover the third temple that you can’t see outside.
Columns built into the wall of San Nicola in Carcere
13. Try Roman Jewish Cooking
Roman Jewish Cuisine is a mix of traditional Roman recipes and the traditions Jews brought with them when they were expelled from their homelands. Many came from Spain and Portugal, which can be seen in the popularity of baccalà (dried cod fish) or the fruit and nuts used in pizza dolce Ebraica.
Local housewives had to get creative with the ingredients they could find after the Pope banned Jews from most jobs, leading to seasonal dishes based on local ingredients. Like the artichokes that grow in abundance around Rome.
When artichokes are in season and piled up outside every restaurant in the ghetto, make sure to order the carciofi alla giudia – fried artichokes which taste even better than they look. Restaurants in Jewish Ghetto are small, so it’s best to book in advance.
14. Via della Reginella
The narrow Via della Reginella connects the main street with Piazza Mattei and is the only one from the old ghetto to survive. You’ll get the idea of how dark and crowded it must have been when 6000 people were confined here.
Via della Reginella