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In Rome, try to squeeze in a visit to Tiber Island

Tiber Island pokes out of Rome's Tiber River.
Tiber Island pokes out of Rome's Tiber River.
Tiber Island

There's so many must-see places in Rome that it's really tough deciding which ones to see first. The Vatican? The Colosseum? The Forum? The Pantheon? The Circus Maximus? The Trevi Fountain? Capitoline Hill? The Spanish Steps? Tiber Island?

Tiber Island? Well, if you've got time to see some off-beat spots, put this one high up on your list. You won't be disappointed, says a spokeswoman for Rome's upscale Bettoja Hotels. For one thing, she notes, the island is packed with historical treasures (and unlike the city's most famous places, it usually isn't very crowded).

The smaller of two islands in the Tiber River running through Rome, Tiber is about as long as three football fields and around 220 feet wide – so it wasn't too hard for the ancient Romans to make it look like a ship. Why a ship?

Different answers abound. One popular legend goes back to 293 B.C., when Rome was hit by a terrible plague, and the Senate decided it would be a good idea for the sick to have a handy shrine dedicated to Aesculapius, the god of medicine and healing.

To distance the shrine from the plague, it was built on an island connected to the sides of the Tiber River by two bridges. It was a grand shrine, but it needed a grand statue of Aesculapius – like the one at his mega-shrine at the Greek city of Epidouros (the Lourdes of ancient Greece). So the Romans “borrowed” the Greek statue, put it on a boat and brought it to Tiber Island.

To commemorate that heroic acquisition, the Romans sheathed the island in marble to make it look like a boat. They even built a towering obelisk symbolizing the ship's mast in the middle of the island.

Fast-forward to today, and the island's main historic eye-popper is the Basilica of San Bartolomeo, built in the 10th century A.D. on the site of the Shrine of Aesculapius. Inside, tourists can see the relics of Catholic martyrs going all the way back to the ones chewed up by lions in the Colosseum. Also on the island – said to be a holdover from its early health-and-medicine connection – is the four-story hospital of Fate Bene Fratelli (roughly meaning "Do Good, Brothers”) staffed by the old-time Hospitaller Order of St. John of God.

While moseying around the downstream end of the island you'll see it looks like a ship's prow. Yes, part of the original ship-like structure is still there, as is ancient Rome's oldest surviving bridge.

Getting hungry? The island also has a pleasant, two-story restaurant called Sora Letta, known for its classic Roman menu.

Getting there: You can either drive from the Trastevere district of Rome across the Ponte Cestio road bridge, or walk to the island on the old Ponte Fabricio pedestrian bridge. The Bettoja spokeswoman suggests walking because there are only 30 or so parking spots on the island side of the Ponte Cestio.

Tiber Island and the Trastevere area are among places featured in the Bettoja's Roma a Piedi (“Walks Through Rome”) guidebook.

The Bettoja Hotels group has four properties in Rome: the Hotel Mediterraneo, the Massimo D'Azeglio, the Atlantico and the Nord Nuova Rome. Bettoja is the oldest and among the largest of the family-owned hotel groups in Italy.