Like off the beaten track places in big cities? Free museums? Roman ruins that aren't ruined? You can find all these in a tiny corner of Rome between the Aventine Hill and Testaccio.
We'll start at the Museo Della Via Ostiense inside the Porta San Paolo. It was the southern gate in the 3rd century Aurelian walls aound Rome. Inside you can walk around the gatehouse and see maps and artifacts based around the historically significant Via Ostiense, which started at the gate and continued on a straight line through greater Rome, past the Basilica of St. Paul outside the walls to end up in Ostia Lido (the Roman Via ended in what is now the archaeology site of Ostia Antica, a port city which has silted up since antiquity).
Looking at the picture above, you might think the entrance is through the gates, as many people do. The door, with a staircase leading up to the entrance, is found on the left side of the left tower in this picture taken facing north.
The museum features maps and scale reconstructions of interesting towns and structures along the Ostiense. There are some significant marble plaques and signs, including a reproduction of the original cover for the shrine of St. Paul you can see later if you visit the basilica, and bits of fresco. When you reach the top you can walk out upon the catwalk, which gives you great views of the Pyramid of Cestius which sits just alongside the gatehouse and was once within the defensive walls--which is why it's still intact today.
On your way out pay attention to the big map on the wall to your right. It shows the importance of the Via Ostense and the monuments and churches along it. One of the most important is one you can walk to in about half an hour, the Papal Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls. It's one of Rome's four ancient major basilicas, which includes St. Peter's. Constantine founded a small church on the spot over the burial place of St. Paul in 324.
The interior of the basilica is very impressive despite the fire started by a workman repairing the lead of the roof in July of 1823. Most of the ancient structure was destroyed but laboriously rebuilt with contributions of the rarer materials from countries all over the world. Today they tell us that the interior looks much the same as it did in th 4th century.
Along the walls are portraits of all the Popes, and the prison chains of St. Paul are displayed in the shrine of St. Paul.
For a small fee you can visit the 13th century cloisters and archaeological areas, otherwise the interior of the Basilica itself is free. There is a gift shop and cafe.
Find out more about Saint Paul Basilica in Rome.
On your way to the Basilica, you may wish to stop off at Musei Capitolini Centrale Montemartini on via Ostiense, 196. Betsy Malloy of About's California Travel Guide recommends it: "They're displaying works from the Capitoline Museum which would otherwise be in storage, inside a decommissioned early-1900s power plant. It sounds odd, but it's really quite wonderful and the contrasts between Roman marble and modern machines are brilliant. And on their own, some of the pieces are outstanding."
How to Get to the Porta S. Paolo
The area around the Porta S. Paolo is a transportation hub, featuring the Roma Porta San Paolo station (route map) that takes you to Ostia (you can also take it to the Basilica San Paolo if you prefer not to walk), the metro line B Piramide stop, and the Rome Ostiense railway station.
Places to Stay
While writing this article, we stayed at Vacation Rental Rome Holidays - Testaccio, and liked that small apartment very much. Everything just worked, including high speed internet. It's in the best part of Testaccio for restaurants and cafes. Other options for lodging in the area are listed below.
Rome for Free
For other attractions you don't have to pay for, see Rome for Free.
More Pictures of this Itinerary
Continue on to the next pages to see more pictures of the fort-like Porta San Paolo, the Pyramid and the Basilica.