When you’re strolling through the streets of Rome, it can sometimes feel like the whole city is one big museum. But the best museums in Rome aren’t all on the well-trod tourist paths. With astonishing collections of art housed in remarkable masterpieces of architecture, from 16th century palaces to unapologetically modern designs, these five museums are all worth a visit.
Maxxi, the National Museum of Art from the 21st Century
Rome is known for its ancient art, but Maxxi is a museum that’s decidedly modern. The first national museum in Italy devoted to contemporary art, it is also a renowned work of architecture designed by Zaha Hadid. Come for the building and stay for the art. There’s a rich program here featuring exhibitions as well as workshops and performances, so check the website to see what’s on before you go.
Maxxi is one of the best museums in Rome because it gives visitors a new point of view on the artistic creativity of Italy. It’s certainly something different from the more traditional sites in the city.
Villa Medici – Accademia di Francia a Roma
Villa Medici is an opulent renaissance palace built in 1540 and owned by the Medicis until the 19th century. You’ll find meticulously crafted gardens with ancient Roman sculptures as well as a sumptuous inner decor. The views over Rome are picture-perfect and are worth the price of admission on their own. The villa has a rich history, with Galileo being imprisoned here for three years and the likes of Keith Richards staying here more recently.
While the views and the building itself are fantastic, there’s also an impressive schedule of live music performances as well as art exhibitions, courtesy of the resident artists and musicians. Don’t miss the cafe, where you can enjoy light bites while you take a break from basking in the luxury.
Palazzo Doria Pamphilj
This gallery is a fantastic example of how art and architecture blend in Rome. The 15th century palazzo is a gem of a building housing an incredible collection of art, featuring paintings by Velázquez, Titian, Raphael, Tintoretto and many others. There seems to be a masterpiece in every room, and every wall is covered, floor to ceiling, with magnificent art.
We highly recommend getting hold of the free audio guide, which will give you a complete picture of the history of the building as well as the most impressive works in the collection.
Santa Maria in Trastevere
While it’s not precisely a museum, Santa Maria, known as the oldest Roman church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, contains structural elements from several centuries, meaning it’s a masterclass in Roman art and design. You’ll find it in a corner of the main square of Trastevere. Legend has it that the church was built on the spot of a miraculous spring of oil. While it was originally constructed in the 3rd century, the most notable architecture here was developed in the 12th century.
The main attractions are six mosaics created by Pietro Cavallini in the 12th century showing different moments from the life of Mary. The Romanesque bell tower and portico are also pretty impressive, as are the 21 ancient Roman columns.
Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo
“Unique” might be the best way to describe the collection at this fascinating museum, which includes medieval firearms and military memorabilia as well as paintings and sculpture. The weapons are truly authentic, as many of them were actually used to protect this castle, which once provided safety to popes in times of crisis. There’s a secret passageway that connects the castle to the Vatican.
Besides the interesting permanent collection there are also temporary exhibitions that are always unique. The upstairs terrace has remarkable views of Rome and was actually featured in the famous opera Tosca.
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Stephan Delbos is an internationally published writer and editor. Born in the US, he has lived, worked and traveled in Europe for a decade. He’s fond of oysters and arid martinis.