The Jewish Ghetto of Rome is one of the Eternal City’s most interesting areas, and easily one of my favorite. The Italian name – Quartiere Ebraico (Hebrew District) – is probably a better way to refer to it, since the area is by no means (and thankfully so!) a ghetto anymore.
While it definitely isn’t the only area of the capital where the Jewish population settled and still lives (many indeed lived and continue to live in nearby Trastevere, right on the other side of the river, for example), Rome’s Jewish Ghetto still has the most significant landmarks that testify to the presence of a large Jewish community that – despite hardship – thrived in the city.
Nowadays, the Jewish Ghetto of Rome is a pleasant place to explore, and home to an incredible array of restaurants and eateries where you can savor the many delicious dishes of Roman Kosher cuisine. It’s very easy to reach from the historic center of Rome – in fact, you’ll find it between Piazza Venezia, where the Altar of the Fatherland is located, and the beautiful Teatro Marcello.
In other words, you really should not miss the chance to visit when you are in Rome! Curious to find out more about it? Continue reading to discover the history of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto, and its many interesting attractions.
For more unusual places to visit in Rome, read my post The Best Hidden Gems In Rome.
Where Is The Jewish Ghetto Of Rome?
The Jewish Ghetto in Rome is located on the banks of the River Tiber. The wall ran from Ponte Fabricio to the Portico d’Ottavia, then followed the route of the present-day Via del Portico d’Ottavia. The wall then cut through Piazza Giudea and then ran along today’s Via del Progresso back down to the river. Across the river from the previous location of the south wall of Rome’s Ghetto is the Isola Tiberina (Tiber Island).
Make sure to read my post A Short Guide To Tiber Island.
The History Of The Jewish Ghetto, Rome
It may be surprising for you to learn that Rome’s Jewish community is thought to be one of the oldest in the world outside of the Middle East. There’s been a Jewish presence in Rome since antiquity; the first record of the existence of this community is in 161 BC.
The Roman Ghetto, however, wasn’t established until many years later. It was the result of a Papal decree issued by Pope Paul IV on 14th July 1555.
In short, this decree meant that the Jewish community in Rome would have all of their rights revoked. They were to be restricted economically, religiously and personally. This anti-Jewish legislation established the Roman Ghetto. It required that the Jews of Rome, who had lived in the city for longer than Christianity had even existed, be restricted to live in a particular area of the city: the Ghetto.
The Ghetto was walled, and originally had three gates – all of which were locked at night. The Ghetto was built by Italian architect Giovanni Sallustio Peruzzi, but the cost of its construction was left to the Jewish community to pay. This amounted to 300 Roman scudi (the currency at the time).
Due to the setting of the Ghetto along the banks of the Tiber, it was constantly flooding. In total, the land covered just three hectares. By the late 1580s, during the time of Pope Sixtus V, it was reported that around 3,500 people were living in the district. Conditions were extremely cramped.
At this time, under the Papal decree, the Jewish community was subject to various rules, including how they should dress. Men had to wear a pointed yellow hat; women had to wear a yellow handkerchief. They also had to attend special Catholic sermons on the Shabbat, the Jewish holy day. Jewish people were also banned from owning property and could not work skilled jobs.
Daily life in the Ghetto was marked by poverty. To further add insult to injury, Jewish people had to pay a yearly tax to live in it, and furthermore had to ask each year for permission to live there.
Over the years the Ghetto started to change. For one thing, more gates were added and were enlarged. And with more additions to the community (people had children, after all), it grew. But because they couldn’t build outside of the walls, they built upwards. This meant that it was difficult for sunlight to reach the dim, narrow lanes of the area. Unhygienic conditions and the concentration of people led to disease; cholera and malaria were endemic to the Ghetto. In the plague of 1656, 800 of the Ghetto’s inhabitants died – almost a quarter of the population.
During the Napoleonic rule of Rome, there was a big upheaval of the Catholic order. It determined that all citizens were equal under the law. When Napoleon’s troops arrived in Rome, they were appointed to specifically demolish the old Ghetto walls in a show of power against the Catholic Church. In 1798, the Papal States were replaced with the Roman Republic, and the Papal decree of 1555 was annulled.
Sadly, however, the Papal States were restored only the next year, and the Ghetto was reestablished. The restrictions on the lives of Jewish people in Rome returned. In the 19th century, things started to change. Amongst other things, Jewish people were permitted to live outside of the Ghetto by Pope Pius IX in 1848, and the tax on Jewish people was abolished in 1850.
It was until the Papal States were replaced by the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 that restrictions on Jewish people’s lives ended. The Ghetto walls were torn down in 1888, and the Ghetto itself was almost completely destroyed. In 1904 the Great Synagogue of Rome was built, and apartment buildings were also constructed.
The Roman Ghetto was actually the last of Europe’s remaining ghettos – that is, until Nazi Germany reinstated them in the 1930s. As for Rome’s Ghetto, it returned in 1943. The Nazi German authorities sealed off the historic area of the Ghetto and detained a huge swathe of Rome’s Jewish community inside it.
At least 1,000 of the prisoners here were sent off at Tiburtina Station on a Holocaust train to Auschwitz; only 16 survived. Over the next year, Jewish people in Rome essentially lived in hiding until the city was liberated by Allied forces on 4th June 1944.
What To Do In The Jewish Ghetto, Rome
Join a guided walking tour
The Jewish Ghetto is a relatively small area in Rome terms, and while you can certainly explore it independently (I have done that many times myself!) having a guide will certainly help you putting what you see in perspective and giving it significance.
One of the best tours of the Jewish Ghetto is the walking tour with a local guide – it’s the one my sister and I took last time we were in the area, and we were positively impressed. You can book it here. For more tour options, click here.
Marvel at the Great Synagogue
The Great Synagogue – called Tempio Maggiore di Roma in Italian – is the largest of its kind in the city of Rome. Situated on the site of a smaller synagogue that once lay inside the Ghetto walls, construction began on this sizeable structure in 1901 and it was completed in 1904.
It’s an impressive building with a square dome, culminating in an eclectic mix of architectural styles: Assyrian-Babylonian, Egyptian and Greco-Roman. These different styles mean that it stands out from other historic buildings in the area.
The synagogue displays commemorative plaques to honor the Jewish victims of Nazi Germany, as well as a Palestinian attack in 1982.
Visit the Jewish Museum of Rome
Opened in 1960, the Jewish Museum of Rome offers an insight into Rome’s Jewish community, all the way from their ancient roots to the modern day. This is the perfect place to begin your journey around this historic neighborhood, as it offers up some important context to the district – not least its creation.
On display are a number of different interesting items, including parchments, silverware, textiles and carvings.
The Jewish Museum of Rome is open from Sunday to Thursday from 9:00 or 10:00 am (depending on the season) to 4:00, 4:30 or 7:00 pm. It’s also open on Fridays from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm. Admission is €11.
Make sure to read my post The Best Museums In Rome.
Learn the history of Largo 16 Ottobre 1943
This square is named after the raid by the Gestapo (Nazi secret police) on the Jewish Ghetto in Rome, which took place on the 16th October 1943. One sad story goes that the Jewish community would be spared if they gave the Nazis 50 kilograms of gold within 24 hours.
Though they were able to come up with the correct amount, members of the Jewish community were nevertheless rounded up and sent to concentration camps. There’s a plaque commemorating the raid on the street.
Marvel at the Portico di Ottavia
Overlooking the history of the Jewish Ghetto is the Portico di Ottavia, the ruins of an ancient Roman gate built in 27 BC by the orders of Emperor Augustus. It is named after his sister, Octavia the Younger. Beyond the gates were once temples dedicated to Juno and Jupiter, along with a library.
Later, this area was used as a fish market – from the middle ages up to the 19th century. It is located between the Theatre of Marcellus and the Great Synagogue.
Check out Via del Portico d’Ottavia
This is the main road in the Jewish Ghetto, and is actually the location where one of the old walls ran. It tells the history of this district. On one side, you’ll see newer buildings, while on the other you’ll see some of the only buildings of the former Ghetto that are still standing. Here there are kosher shops and an abundance of restaurants. If you want to go and find somewhere to eat, this is the place to head.
Admire the Teatro di Marcello
The Theater of Marcellus was very similar to the Colosseum. Though it was started by Julius Caesar, the theater was completed by Augustus in 13 BC and was named after his nephew. Due to how similar it is to the Colosseum, sometimes it is referred to as the “Jewish Colosseum”.
It was an open-air theatre that could hold up to 20,000 people for all manner of different performances and events. Today it still stands in the area of Sant’Angelo, just a stone’s throw from the Jewish Ghetto, and still plays host to a range of different shows in the summer months.
Take a look at the Turtle Fountain
Called the Fontana delle Tartarughe in Italian, the Turtle Fountain is situated in Piazza Mattei, just a stone’s throw from the Ghetto. This bronze masterpiece should not be missed. It was built between 1580-88 and is the work of Bernini – or at least, the turtles are. One of the original turtles was stolen in the 1970s and is, sadly, a replica of the centuries-old turtle that was once here.
Spot the Pietre d’Inciampo
The Pietre d’Inciampo may be better known as the Tripping Stones. These small brass plaques almost blend in among the Ghetto’s cobblestone streets, but take a closer look. These are the work of German artist Gunther Demnig, who created these plaques to commemorate the Jewish victims of persecution during World War II. They’re part of a larger Europe-wide network of 20,000 stones.
Go to Kiryat Sefer Libreria Ebraica
This bookstore is important for the Jewish community not only in Rome, but the entire country, as is the only Jewish bookstore in Italy. Translating to “World of Books”, it’s at Kiryat Sefer that you can find a number of different publications on history, faith, philosophy and even novels.
Have a drink at Bar Toto
This historic watering hole serves up aperitivos and espressos on terrace tables. You can also grab a good snack here (the sandwiches are good), while they also serve up gelato and freshly squeezed orange juice.
Situated across the street from a Jewish school, the old bar itself is famed for its crumbling old facade. Make sure to take note of the small donation box that’s built into the wall outside; it’s a Ghetto-era charity collection box for orphans that is still in use to this day.
Taste Kosher delicacies at Ba Ghetto
Situated along the Via del Portico d’Ottavia, this is the oldest Jewish restaurant in Rome. It serves up a delectable array of Kosher delights, combining traditions of both Middle Eastern and Judeo-Roman cuisine. There are actually five iterations of this restaurant situated in Rome’s historic center, but I recommend heading to this one. Don’t miss out on the couscous and falafel.
Have lunch at Giardino Romano
Giardino Romano, situated inside an elegantly restored 16th-century palace, is an idyllic spot to while away an hour or two during a trip around the Jewish Ghetto. The menu features a line-up of Judeo-Roman specialities, including tripe, fried artichokes (the famous carciofi alla giudia), lamb and ox-tail. You can opt to sit either in the ambience of the rear garden, or soak up the atmosphere of Via Portico d’Ottavia at its terrace seating.
How To Get To The Jewish Ghetto, Rome
The Jewish Ghetto is situated in Rome’s historic center, specifically in Rione Sant’Angelo. This makes it quite easy to get to on foot. The district is also small enough to explore on foot, due to it being a network of small cobbled lanes.
Bus lines 30, 46 and 64 (among others) can be used to reach the Ghetto. For example, to get there from Rome Termini station, you can take bus line 70 and get off at Largo Torre Argentina. The nearest tram stop is Arenula/Min. Giustizia.