Are you heading to Rome and really want to learn more about the Jewish Ghetto? You may be Jewish or someone who is interested in other cultures, regardless of the Jewish Ghetto is one of the most prized areas of Rome Today. Now, that wasn’t always the case. In this article, we’ll go over the main things you should see in the Jewish Ghetto and link to other articles explaining the history of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto.
Pro Tip: This “cluster” of articles is what we refer to as a mega-resource for Rome. It contains 100s of cool things to do in Rome near each attraction. Definitely, something you should consider bookmarking in your browser. Also, check out our small group Rome tours – we’re rated one of the best if not the best Rome tour provider in the Eternal City.
9 Things to Do in the Jewish Ghetto
After you finish with the 9 things to see in the Jewish Ghetto, use the toggle menu below to check out another of Rome’s most famous attractions.
9. Palazzo Mattei
A hidden gem to most who visit the Ghetto, this was the historic palace of the noble Mattei family. When you are by the fountain of the turtle fountain ( see above), you will see an archway. Walk through that archway and you will enter a huge palace. While you cannot go inside the palace on the upper floors, you are allowed into the two courtyards. From these two courtyards alone, you will have an idea of how much splendor one family could have.
Historically the Mattei family lived in the area which today makes up the Jewish ghetto. When the walls were built around the ghetto, the Matteo family became the guardian of the gate. This allowed them to control who came in and went out of the Jewish Ghetto. . Therefore they charged a fee and made a fortune controlling this gate. This was especially true for Jews who needed to leave to bury their dead.
8. Isola Tiberina
Isola Tiberina is the island in the middle of the Tiber river. There are bridges on both sides that connect essentially the jewish ghetto with Trastevere. Many people are not aware that the first jewish settlements in Rome during Ancient times were in Trastevere. Therefore in a short walk you can pretty much encompass the entire settlements of the Jewish civilization in Rome in a 5 minute walk!
When you visit the Isola Tiberina today, you will find there a hospital, a church, and a few restaurants. If you happen to be there in the summertime, the city converts the island into ad hoc bars and restaurants and also an alfresco movie theater.
You will also find many people just walking on the island close to the water, contemplating life or grabbing some rays of sunshine during a break from work. It is truly an oasis of peace, away from the hectic craziness that is Rome.
Historically, the island was used as an area of medicine and quarantine back during the times of Ancient Rome. According to legend, when the ancient Romans were transporting the sacred snake from Epidauros in Greece, the snake jumped off the boat and laid to rest on the island, which prompted the Romans to immediately build a temple to Asclepius.
7. Teatro Marcello
Many people mistake this structure for the Colosseum when they first visit Rome. It does look similar! But actually, they built this theater BEFORE the Colosseum. However, unlike the Colosseum, you can only visit the outside of this cool ancient theater.
Once being able to hold up to 20,000 spectators, the main entertainment was theater and dramatics. To this day, if you happen to be here in the summertime, you could attend a classical music concert outside. What better way to listen to music than by dreamily staring up at a 2,000-year-old monument as you listen to Beethoven?
The Orsini’s, a noble Italian Family, currently own the theater. One of the oldest bloodlines in Rome, this family actually has rights to and lives INSIDE a property older than the Colosseum!
6. Largo Argentina
This may not technically be in the vicinity of the Rome Jewish Ghetto, but it’s right next door! As you are walking around the city, you will all of sudden see a huge excavation area with 4 temples that date back to a time in Rome before Roman Emperors ( 1st-3rd century BC)
Now a famous cat sanctuary in Rome, these ruins witnessed the death of Julius Caesar. Many think they murdered him in the Senate House, but the Ides of March took place among these temples.
Today, locals and visitors alike play “spot the cat.” Hundreds of feline friends inhabit this top real estate in Rome’s historical center.
You can’t walk around among the ruins, but once a year, local Romans invade the cat’s home to reenact the Ides of March. This is definitely worth seeing if you’re in town over March 15th!
5. Turtle Fountain – “Fontana Delle Tartarughe“
The turtle fountain sits just one street back from the main drag, in a little piazza called Piazza Mattei.
It was built in the 16th century by Giacomo della Porta and sculptor Taddeo Landini. Rumour has it that the turtles sitting around the edge of the fountain were the works of Bernini.
I will share with you one of my favorite stories about this fountain. As the story goes, a young nobleman of the Mattei family was meeting playing poker against his future father in law. His father in law wiped him clean of all his money and told him the marriage was off, since he wasn’ t going to let his daughter marry someone without money.
Well the nobleman told his future father law that he will make another bet with him. That within a few hours he could have a fountain built below in the square. The older man thought that was impossible and agreed to give him back his money and marry his daughter if he could. Unbeknownst to the father, the fountain had already been assembled, just not put in place. Therefore they went to go eat dinner and when they came back the fountain was up!
Today this piazza in general is a great place to people watch and grab a frozen yogurt from the Yogurteria.
4. Via Del Portico D’Ottavia
Named after the ancient structure sitting at the end of the road, “Portico d’Ottavia”, Via del Portico d’Ottavia is considered the main drag in the Jewish Ghetto. There are many things to see on and off this street.
The Portico d’Ottavia was built by Augustus for his sister sometime around 27BC. Once home to a library and school, the Portico turned into the site of one of Rome’s biggest fish markets in Medieval times.
In more modern times, the church attached to the Portico was where Jewish Romans were forced to visit on Saturdays to listen to sermons held with the aim of converting their religious beliefs. Rumor has it that they would put beeswax in their ears so as not to have to listen to it.
Now, you can wander down to the ancient street level of the structure, walk through the back alley and visit the church attached when it is open.
3. Try Pizza in the Ghetto
On Via del Portico d’Ottavia, there is a little bakery that is run by ladies who make the famous local Jewish dessert – “pizze”.
It may sound familiar to pizza, but it’s nothing like it. It’s a dried fruit pastry dessert that you’ll see people lining up outside for during the day. Once you catch a whiff, you’ll need some yourself.
Remember not to be shy if you don’t speak Italian or if you see a bunch of Italian congregating around the entrance area. Grab some courage, walk inside and say, ” Vorrei un po’ di pizza”. It doesn’t matter if you butcher the expression or not, since they will understand you. At that point, they will pull out this tasty dessert and ask you how much of it you want since you pay by the ounce. Hand gestures work great here by the way.
2. Pons Fabricius
From the Jewish Ghetto, the Pons Fabricius is only one way to access the Isola Tiberina. The bridge was built in 62 BC and still stands to this day!
According to the Latin author Dio Cassius, this bridge was built in stone to replace a previous wooden one. The previous had been destroyed by a fire. The bridge is made up of 2 huge arches that span this side of the river. You can still see today the inscription carved into the stone commemorating Lucius Fabricius as the builder. So how cool is it to walk over a bridge that people have been walking on for over two millennia?
1. The Synagogue
Where better to start than with the cornerstone of the Jewish faith in the Ghetto itself? After the walls were breached in 1870 and Italy was reunited, and the temporal power of the popes was over. At that point, the Jews in the city received full and equal rights as everyone else in the city. It was at this point, that they decided to build a proper place of worship.
Osvaldo Armanni and Vincenzo Costa were the two architects who won the competition to build this new synagogue which was to bring new hope to the Jewish population. They inaugurated the Synagogue in 1904. While the Jewish population could live wherever they wanted at this point, they decided to build the synagogue within the confines of the Medieval Jewish Ghetto and built it right next to the river.
If you are in any vantage point of the city, you will always be able to easily recognize the Synagogue right away due to its squared dome. They built it in this way on purpose to reflect its Eastern roots and differentiate it from all the rounded church domes that you see in the city.
Today you can visit the Synagogue when you buy a ticket to the Jewish Museum of Rome. In the museum, you can first get an idea of how rich and storied the Jewish culture is in Rome. There have been Jewish settlements in Rome dating back 2,200 years ago! After walking through the collections, you can visit the great synagogue itself. I highly recommend visiting, since it will give you a completely different perspective of the city.