Heading to Rome and want to learn more about the Jewish Ghetto? Whether you’re Jewish or interested in other cultures, this is one of the most prized areas of Rome today. In this article, we’ll cover the top things to see in the Jewish Ghetto.
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What To See in the Jewish Ghetto
The Eternal City’s Jewish Ghetto is unlike any ghetto you might be imagining. One of Rome’s most sought-after areas, there is plenty of history, interesting attractions, and hidden gems to discover here. In this article, we share the top things to see in the Jewish Ghetto. See our ultimate Jewish Ghetto guide for more tips, history, and restaurant picks.
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9. Palazzo Mattei
A hidden gem to most who visit the Ghetto, this was the historic palace of the noble Mattei family. When you’re by the turtle fountain (see below), you will see an archway. Walk through that archway and you will enter a huge palace. While you cannot visit the palace’s upper floors, you are allowed into the two courtyards. From these two courtyards alone, you will have an idea of just how much splendor one family could have enjoyed.
Historically, the Mattei family lived in the area that today makes up the Jewish ghetto. When the walls were built around the ghetto, the Mattei family became the guardians of the gate. This allowed them to control who came in and out of the Jewish Ghetto. They charged a fee and made a fortune controlling this gate, especially from Jews who needed to leave to bury their dead.
Address: Via Michelangelo Caetani, 32
8. Isola Tiberina
Isola Tiberina is the island in the middle of the Tiber river. There are bridges on both sides that essentially connect the Jewish Ghetto with Trastevere. Many people are not aware that the first Jewish settlements in Rome during ancient times were in fact in Trastevere. So, you can pretty much cover the entire settlements of the Jewish civilization in Rome in a short 5-minute walk.
When you visit the Isola Tiberina today, you’ll find 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 with an open-air movie theater.
You will also find many people just walking on the island close to the water, contemplating life or getting some sun during a break from work. It is truly an oasis of peace, set away from the hectic craziness that is Rome.
Historically, the island was used as an area of medicine and quarantine 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.
Address: Tiber Island
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7. Teatro Marcello
Many people mistake this structure for the Colosseum when they first visit Rome. It does look similar. However, they built this theater before the Colosseum. Unlike the Colosseum though, you can only visit the outside of this cool ancient theater.
Once capable of holding 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 may be able to 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.
Address: Via del Teatro di Marcello
6. Largo Argentina
This may not technically be in the vicinity of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto, but it’s right next door. As you’re walking around the city, you will come across a huge excavation area with four temples that date back to a time in Rome before Roman Emperors, from the first to third centuries B.C.
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 cats’ home to reenact the Ides of March. This is definitely worth seeing if you’re in town on March 15th.
Address: Largo di Torre Argentina
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 around the edge of the fountain were the works of Bernini.
As one story tells it, a young nobleman of the Mattei family was playing poker against his future father-in-law who wiped him clean of all his money. The father-in-law then told him the marriage was off because he wouldn’t allow his daughter to marry anyone without money.
The nobleman told his future father-in-law that he would 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 allow him to marry his daughter if he could. Unbeknownst to the father, the fountain had already been assembled. It had just not yet been put in place. They went to eat dinner and by the time they came back the fountain was up.
Today this piazza in general is a great place to people-watch and grab a frozen yoghurt from the Yogurteria.
Address: Piazza Mattei
4. Via Del Portico D’Ottavia
Named after the ancient structure 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 27 B.C. 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 listen to sermons on Saturdays held with the aim of converting them from their religious beliefs. Rumor has it that they would put beeswax in their ears to avoid listening to the sermons.
Now, you can wander down to the ancient street level of the structure, walk through the back alley, and visit the attached church when it is open.
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3. Try Pizza in the Ghetto
On Via del Portico d’Ottavia, there is a little bakery run by ladies who make the famous local Jewish dessert pizze. It may sound familiar to pizza, but it’s nothing like it. This is 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 to try it for yourself.
Don’t be shy if you don’t speak Italian or if you see a bunch of Italians congregating around the entrance area. Pluck up some courage, walk inside, and say, “Vorrei un po’ di pizze”. It doesn’t matter if you butcher the expression or not, they will understand you. At that point, they’ll pull out this tasty dessert and ask you how much of it you want—you pay by the ounce. Hand gestures work great here too.
Address: Via del Portico d’Ottavia, 1
2. Pons Fabricius
From the Jewish Ghetto, the Pons Fabricius or Ponte Fabricio is only one way to access the Isola Tiberina. The bridge was built in 62 B.C. 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, which had been destroyed by a fire. The bridge is made up of two huge arches that span this side of the river.
You can still see the inscription carved into the stone commemorating Lucius Fabricius as the builder. How cool is it to walk over a bridge that people have been walking on for over two millennia?
Address: Ponte Fabricio
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, 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 like everyone else in the city. They then decided to build a proper place of worship.
Osvaldo Armanni and Vincenzo Costa were the two architects who won the commission to build this new synagogue. 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 easily recognize the synagogue by its square dome. They built it 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 the city. There have been Jewish settlements in Rome dating back 2,200 years. Then, 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.
Address: Lungotevere de Cenci