The Esquiline Hill – simply called Esquilino by locals – is the largest of the seven hills of Rome, covering an area that includes the main transportation hub in the city (Termini Station) and goes all the way to the Colosseum, and where you will find beautiful churches (some definitely more famous than others), markets and other important landmarks.
Thanks to the presence of immigrants from a variety of countries, this is also the most multi-cultural area of Rome, which is reflected in its market too.
While most tourists will explore the bits that are closer to the Colosseum, not many actually venture to see the rest that this area of Rome has to offer. Since I actually used to live there (close to Vittorio Emanuele square), I actually know the area quite well and thought I’d share my knowledge of the area and the places you should visit.
Continue reading to discover the history of the Esquiline Hill and the best places to visit.
You should also read my post Which Are The Seven Hills Of Rome?
The History Of Esquilino
Cosmopolitan Esquilino has long been part of the center of Rome. People have been living in this urban neighborhood since ancient times. Originally the district made up one of the four regiones outlined by legendary sixth king of Rome, Servius Tullius, who reigned from 578 to 535 BC.
Along with Palatina, Collina and Suburana, Esquilino was an early form of rione which remained the same until Emperor Augustus changed the way the city was divided. Today, Esquilino is part of the rione Monti.
The area was situated on the edge of the city with part of the ancient Servian walls running through it. As a frontier of the city, it’s believed its name comes from the Latin word esquiliae, or suburb. Its territory was included inside the Aurelian Walls, but the land beyond it was used for activities that were not wanted in the city.
The area behind the agger, which is a raised part of the wall, was used as a massive landfill and there was even a cemetery that was used only for slaves and low-class members of society. In modern times, around seventy of these pits have been discovered around the Termini station area by Italian archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani.
During the urban reforms carried out under Augustus, these dirty and polluted parts of the city were redeveloped. The city had expanded so much that it was believed that the walls were no longer needed. Spaces were cleaned up, polluted lands were buried and footpaths were created along the embankments of the old walls.
Parkland was even created in the area called the Gardens of Maecenas, a green space that was laid out on the agger of the Servian Wall atop the Esquiline Hill. The estate of imperial advisor Gaius Maecenas, the property was among the first to draw inspiration from ancient Persian-style landscaped gardens.
According to early Imperial historian Suetonius, it was from a tower located in the ornate gardens that Nero famously watched Rome burn. The area became a popular place for Romans to build residential villas called horti.
The district passed through the hands of numerous different religious orders that were connected to Santa Maria Maggiore during the Middle Ages. By the 17th century, it was once again a place where wealthy Romans built residential villas. Among the aristocratic villas in the area was Villa Palombara, which was where the famous Porta Alchemica or The Alchemical Door was built in 1680. It has since been moved and is now located in the garden of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II.
Sadly, much of the district’s historic structures and street plans were completely destroyed during residential development which began in 1870. Construction of modern buildings that were intended to house middle-class white-collar workers called for the dismantling of old buildings. Much of the urban streetscapes that make up the district today date back to the late 19th century.
These palazzi – in an architectural style that later on became known as Umbertine (from the then King of Italy, Umberto di Savoia) . are mostly visible around Piazza Dante and Piazza Vittorio.
What To See And Do In Esquilino
Despite the urban development of the 19th century, a list of historic sites still remain in the Esquiline Hill neighborhood. There are some interesting city walks and fascinating modern sights to see, too, which all make up a part of Rome that hides more than first meets the eye. Here’s what you should not miss in Esquilino.
Pay a visit to Santa Maria Maggiore Church
With a history drenched in myth and legend, Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica has long been an important part of the city. Dating back to the 5th century, the church is an important Papal basilica. From the outside, the ornate carving of the facade and soaring bell tower are impressive enough, but step inside and you’ll be awed by the intricate mosaics, its ornate ceiling and impressive altars.
For more complete information, read my post A Guide To Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.
Pop inside Santa Prassede Church
Alo located on the Esquiline Hill is the Santa Prassede church, dedicated to Prassede, the daughter of a notable Roman. Throughout its existence, the church has seen a lot of addition and renovation works that make it look very different from what it once was. The most remarkable thing to see here is the Chapel of St. Zeno, built upon request of Pope Paschal I and housing impressive mosaics.
You should also head over to my post The Most Beautiful Mosaics In Rome.
Visit San Pietro in Vincoli Church
The name of this church refers to the chains (vincoli) that St. Peter worn in the Mamertine Prison of Jerusalem and that are an important relic on display here. One of Rome’s oldest churches (construction started in 431) and also known as Basilica Eudoxiana, the church attracts visitors who wish to admire Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, part of the tomb of Pope Julius II, and his the statue of Rachel and Leah, the two wives of Jacob.
For more information, read my post A Guide To Visiting San Pietro In Vincoli Church.
Check out Palazzo Massimo
Fans of Roman history and art will love a visit to Palazzo Massimo. This isn’t just a gorgeous building but as it is part of the Museo Nazionale Romano, it has a fantastic exhibit of ancient Roman art. Here you can see frescoes from the House of Livia (the wife of Emperor Augustus), as well as lots of others.
For information on opening hours and tickets, visit the museum’s website here.
Pass through Termini Station
Most visitors to Rome will come across Termini Station at some point during their trip. This is Rome’s central transport hub and it’s from here that you can catch most long-distance trains and buses to the rest of the region and the country.
Trains leaving here regularly connect up with all of Italy’s major cities, as well as international destinations including Vienna and Munich. With 33 platforms, it is Europe’s second-largest train station after Paris’ Gare du Nord and receives over 180 million passengers a year.
The original station was opened on the site in 1863 by Pope Pius IX. The temporary Termini Station was the terminus of the three railway lines: Rome to Frascati, Rome to Civitavecchia and Rome to Ceprano.
The dilapidated 16th-century Villa Montalto-Peretti was selected as the location for the station, with construction on the permanent station beginning in 1868. By 1937 there were plans to replace the now run-down old station, but this was delayed by the advent of World War II. Further hiccups for the new station occurred with the collapse of the Fascist government in 1943.
Today’s Termini station was the result of a competition with the winning design inaugurated in 1950. The large station uses a large hall with full glass windows and a Modernist roof, which is inspired by an ancient Roman bath. It’s a bold design that makes you feel like you have arrived in Rome, surrounded by crowds of people and centuries of history.
Shop in Mercato Esquilino
When I lived close to Vittorio Emanuele I regularly shopped at the Nuovo Mercato Esquilino. I loved the fact that it reflected how multicultural the area is, with a large community of Chinese, Bengali and Senegales people that is inevitably reflected on what’s on offer at the market.
This is the place to come if you want to shop for cheap clothing and for unique ingredients you won’t easily find in other markets in Rome.
You should also read my post Which Markets In Rome Should You Visit?
Admire Porta Maggiore
One of the ancient gates of Rome through the Aurelian Walls, the Porta Maggiore was a very important route into the city. Built in 52 AD by Emperor Claudius, the double archway built out of white travertine was originally only a decorative element of numerous converging aqueducts.
In 271 it was incorporated into the Aurelian Wall by Emperor Aurelian himself, and was made into a gateway to the city at the meeting point of two important routes. The incredible structure still remains to this day and is a truly impressive monument and an example of Roman design.
Hang out in the Parco del Colle Oppio
This relaxing slice of greenery in the city is the perfect place to come and take a break in Rome. Located in the south of the district, the park is named after a well-known Italian statesman and is popular with locals who stop by here for a picnic or to catch up with friends.
Spanning around eleven hectares, the land was developed along with the urbanization of the district in 1871. The modern park was designed in 1928 by architect Raffaele De Vico. Work was carried out in 1936 and today attractive fountains and marble sculptures line the pathways.
One of the best things about the park is the history surrounding it. Here is where you can find the Domus Aurea, or Nero’s Golden House, the ruins of the Baths of Trajan and the Baths of Titus. From here, the park’s hill offers views of the Colosseum; a central avenue leads down to the monument itself.
Head over to my post The Nicest Gardens And Parks In Rome.
Visit the stunning Domus Aurea
Although much of Nero’s Golden House now lies underground, it can still be visited by those who wish to see a glimpse of Rome’s lavish past. The once palatial complex was built by the Emperor following the great fire in 64 AD which ripped through Rome destroying much of the city in its wake. Remembered as a symbol of decadence, the house was said to have been resplendent with marbles, ivory and expensive jewels.
The over-the-top extravagance was seen as an embarrassment to Nero’s successors. The rich interiors were ripped out and the palace was built over. Because of this, it meant that much of the house’s original paintings have remained intact, surviving the years buried under the earth.
The house was actually only rediscovered by chance when a young Roman fell down a hole in the 15th century and found himself surrounded by paintings in a strange room. Amazingly, it was actually these paintings that directly helped to drive the aesthetics of the Renaissance – even Raphael and Michelangelo went to study the artworks.
Although much of the palace is lost to time, visiting is well worth your time. Explore inside and find yourself surrounded by the once luxury villas and try to imagine what life was like here during the time of Nero.
Check out my post A Guide To Visiting The Domus Aurea, Rome.
Wander around the streets of Monti
One of the most charming neighborhood of Rome, and where I often stay whenever I visit, is Monti and this is actually located on the Esquiline Hill, right between the Colosseum (which is very easy to access from here) and Via Nazionale.
This part of the city is a maze of narrow, cobbled alleys, beautiful historic buildings and nice churches, and lots of restaurants – many of which are family run, as well as elegant wine bars.
Practical Information To Plan Your Visit Of The Esquiline Hill
How to get to Esquilino
The best and easiest way to get to Esquilno is by taking the metro, train or a bus to Termini station. The station is the main transportation hub in Rome, so you won’t have troubles finding transportation to get there. From there, it’s easy to explore the district on food.
Where to stay in Esquilino
Esquilino has a range of different accommodation types to choose from. It’s a popular place for people who only have a few days in the city, due to its proximity to the train station and connections to the airport.
There’s a wide choice of budget friendly stays in the area. One option is New Generation Hostel Rome Center. The hostel has a selection of dorms and en-suite private rooms to choose from, all set inside a historic building.
Mid-range hotels are also easy to come by. One of the best mid-range hotels in Esquilino is Hotel Les Artes, offering up polished rooms and a rooftop terrace just 10 minutes from Termini station.
And for those looking for a little more luxury, there’s the very chic Fifteen Keys Hotel, a design-oriented, 4-star hotel one stop on the metro from Termini station.
You should also read my post 18 Great Cheap Hotels In Rome.
Where to eat in Esquilino
It can be hard to work out where the best places to eat are when you’re discovering a new place. Since I have lived right in the Esquiline Hill, I had plenty of time to discover the best eateries in the area. Here are my favorite ones, where you can sample some of the most delicious food that this thriving neighborhood has to offer.
Trattoria Vecchia Roma – Rustic and traditional, this trattoria is where you should eat if you are looking for a hearty dinner that doesn’t disappoint. It’s a great place to start your Rome food odyssey, but be warned: you will have to wait for a table. Plan ahead and book a table and you’ll be in for an evening of fresh pasta dishes, bruschetta and coda alla vaccinara. The prices are pretty affordable, too.
Gelateria Fassi – This old-school gelato shop has been in business since 1880. Serving up a selection of genuine gelato, it’s the perfect place to stop off for refreshments whilst exploring Esquilino. There’s a huge selection however so it might take some time for you to choose the flavor you want.
The Market / Food Hall in Termini Station – For foodies, hungry people and curious travelers, the Mercato Centrale Roma is the place to go and explore. A self-styled food emporium, the market is located inside Termini station. It’s the ideal place to come any time of day to grab a bite to eat and sample Rome’s best-known dishes and newer delicacies.
Don’t expect to find fast food, but do expect freshly made dishes at reasonable prices. It’s also a good place to come for those with different dietary requirements as you can easily find vegetarian and other dishes here. Open daily from 8:00 am until midnight.
You should also read my post 21 Best Restaurants In Rome.
Is Esquilino Safe?
Concerns about safety in Esquilino often cause worries for visitors to the area. Like many other transit hubs located in cities around the world, Esquilino can have a bit of an edgy atmosphere to it. The transient nature of the area around Termini station especially, with its crowds of tourists and commuters, can make it a target for pickpockets to work. But that doesn’t mean the neighborhood isn’t safe.
The main thing you should watch out for is flashing any expensive belongings, and making sure to secure your bags properly when you’re in the station area – just like you would at a big station in Paris or London. Nighttime can feel a little sketchy around the station. I suggest sticking to well-lit areas and not wandering off down dimly lit back streets alone.
That being said, for the most part, Esquilino is perfectly safe. I lived there for months and never had an issue. There are plenty of fascinating things to see and do, and even coming for dinner or drinks at night is completely safe. Just pay attention to your surroundings and trust your gut.
Don’t forget to read my posts Is Rome Safe? and The Worst Scams And Pickpockets In Rome.
Here are some more posts about the other hills of Rome:
- A Guide To The Quirinal Hill, Rome
- A Guide To The Aventine Hill, Rome
- A Guide To The Capitoline Hill, Rome
- A Short Guide To The Palatine Hill, Rome
- A Guide To The Caelian Hill, Rome: 11 Best Places To Visit
- Rome’s Viminal Hill: 7 Best Places To Visit On The Viminale