Rome: A magical walking tour of optical illusions

Posted in: Rome Sights


Things in Italy’s capital city are not always what they seem…

Here’s a fun sightseeing walk around Rome‘s center that will illustrate the city’s penchant for illusions!  This guided walk takes you around the center, from Mount Testaccio, over the Aventine Hill, past the “Mouth of Truth,” and then along the banks of the Tiber to Palazzo Spada.

To start, take the Metro B Line or the 716 or 30 bus to Piramide and allow yourself an unhurried couple of hours.

monte_testaccio2Mount Testaccio – Rural Idyll or a Load of Old Rubbish?

Get to Mount Testaccio by walking behind Rome’s Pyramid and following Via Caio Cestio along the Protestant Cemetery walls. (It’s worth a peek inside as it contains the graves of Shelley and Keats amongst its illustrious residents.)

At the end of the street you arrive at the tree-covered hillside of Mount Testacccio. Look closely and you will see that instead of being filled with earth, it is actually made of around 50 million broken pottery jugs used to bring olive oil from Spain and Africa in 140-250 A.D. and subsequently discarded into a heap. Calculations suggest that this was equivalent to an annual consumption at that time of 22 litres of olive oil per person.

Through the Keyhole

through-the-keyhole1From Mount Testaccio, follow Via Galvani until it crosses busy Via Marmorata, after which you can start the gentle climb up the Aventine Hill by taking Via Pollione and then keep bearing left.

This quiet residential area enjoys panoramic views of Rome with many viewpoints including the Orange Tree Garden. On arrival at Piazza di San Alessio head towards the dark wooden door set into the white stone wall on your left (see photo), place your eye to the keyhole and you will see…. No, sorry, you need to go and look for yourself.

Truth or Dare? Try your hand at the Mouth of Truth

Continue along Via Sabina descending down to Circo Massimo. Head left towards Piazza della Veritá and the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin with its distinctive bell tower.

This is home of Rome’s most famous manhole cover, the Mouth of Truth, immortalised by Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday.” But beware: If you a person of a less-than-honest character and you place your hand inside the mouth, you are at risk of having it bitten off.

palazzo-spada1Palazzo Spada: A Question of Size…

Exit the church, cross the road past the round Temple of Hércules and climb the steps to the river. Turn right and follow the pleasant path along the Tiber turning at Via Giulia to reach Palazzo Spada Art Gallery in Piazza Capo di Ferro.

The Palazzo Spada is home to the private art collection of the Spada Brothers, as well as a clever illusionary corridor that appears to be three times longer than it is, due to some perspective trickery and a shrunken statue. Tip: You can see the corridor without paying the €5 fee to enter the gallery.

And finally… the Dome that does not exist

There is just one more treasure left to see on your illusions shopping list during your stay in Rome. Pop into the elegant St. Iganzio di Loyola Church, between Via del Corso and the Pantheon in the heart of Rome’s historic center, and then look up.

Then look again. The wonderfully ornate dome that you see above you is actually a clever optical illusion painted on a completely flat ceiling. The things these Romans did when the budget was a little tight!

About the author

About the author: Samantha Collins is a freelance travel writer and editor, who has lived in Rome for the past two years.  She is originally from Manchester in the UK.  Read all about her adventures by visiting her blog,

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