Between lively Campo de’Fiori and chaotic Piazza Venezia lies the Jewish Ghetto, one of the most atmospheric and ancient neighbourhoods in Rome. Although no longer a ghetto, it’s still commonly known as “the Jewish Ghetto” due to its past, and the fact that it is still unmistakably a Jewish neighbourhood. With its enormous synagogue, kosher bakeries, and shop windows filled with menorahs, the Ghetto is the centre of the Jewish community in Rome. The combination of ancient history and modern community makes the Ghetto one of the most interesting areas to explore in the historic centre of Rome, with the continuity between past and present clearly visible. If you want to experience local life along with centuries of history, the Jewish Ghetto is a good place to start.
Begin your Jewish Ghetto tour with a stroll along the main street, Via del Portico d’Ottavia, which is lined with lively bars and restaurants. The benches are usually all taken up by elderly locals, so if you want to sit and soak up the atmosphere, you’ll probably have to get one of the outdoor tables at a café, such as the historic Bar Toto.
The street takes its name from the Porticus Octaviae, which once enclosed two Roman temples. The portico was built by the emperor Augustus in 27 BC, and named after his sister Octavia. For many centuries it was used as a fish market; look out for the marble plaque with a Latin inscription stating that any fish head larger than the plaque had to be handed over to the city council. While what remains of the Porticus Octaviae is little compared to its original splendour, the arch and its columns are some of the most evocative Roman ruins, especially when viewed with the Theatre of Marcellus in the background.
Marcellus’ Theatre in Rome
On the edge of the Jewish Ghetto is the Roman theatre known as the Theatre of Marcellus – often mistaken for the Colosseum by first-time visitors to Rome. The two structures share some similarities, but the Theatre of Marcellus was a regular open-air theatre, not an amphitheatre. Built in 13 BC, it was the grandest and most important theatre in Ancient Rome. Although you can’t enter, you can walk around this magnificent ruin from the outside, and enjoy open-air classical concerts here in the summer.
There are a few small piazzas in the Jewish Ghetto, the most famous of which is the charming Piazza Mattei. This square is home to the Baroque turtle fountain, which has been acclaimed as “the most beautiful and perfect fountain in Rome“. The turtles being caught (or thrown) by the four naked boys are a later addition, thought by some to be the work of Bernini. Near the piazza is Palazzo Mattei, a palace with a magnificent courtyard often overlooked by visitors. Entry to the courtyard is free, so make sure you pop in to take a look if you’re in the area.
Anyone with an interest in the Jewish culture and history should pay a visit to the Great Synagogue and the Jewish Museum of Rome. The museum is located inside the Synagogue, and tells the fascinating – and often tragic – story of the Jewish community in Rome.
You certainly won’t go hungry in the Ghetto, where delicious traditional dishes are available on seemingly every corner. Here are some of our top recommendations: Nonna Betta (Via del Portico d’Ottavia 16) – excellent pasta and traditional Jewish dishes. This is the place to try the famous Jewish fried artichoke. Il Giardino Romano (Via del Portico d’Ottavia 18) – similar to Nonna Betta, with a great choice of Jewish specialities, and classic Roman pasta dishes. Try the fettucine with artichoke and clams for something a bit different. Sora Margherita (Piazza delle Cinque Scole 30) – chaotic but full of character, this no-frills restaurant specializes in classic Roman and Jewish dishes. Expect to end up chatting with the people at the next table. Pasticceria Boccione (Via del Portico d’Ottavia 1) – legendary Roman pasticceria renowned for its almond macaroons and biscuits. The crostate (tarts) made with ricotta and chocolate are also delicious.
To discover the Jewish Ghetto and other historical neighbourhoods in the Eternal City, check out our customized Rome private tours.