Fantastic archaeological sites to visit in Rome
It’s no secret to anyone that Rome is a top destination for archaeology buffs. From the Colosseum to the ruins of the ancient aqueducts scattered around the city, there is no city like Rome that better fits the moniker of an open-air museum. Even admitting that there is hardly a site better than another, one can’t really deny that with a limited time, making a choice becomes necessary. Here are our suggestions of some pretty amazing archaeological sites in Rome you should include in your bucket list. Let’s dig in!
Impossible not to start with the Colosseum. Arguably the most popular site in all of the city and the first landmark everyone rushes to, a visit to the Colosseum is a must for every first-timer. A mighty amphitheater erected in the 1st century, this is where gory shows and fights between gladiators and gladiators against wild animals took place to please emperors and ordinary citizens. There are many types of Colosseum tours, depending on how much you want to see, how much you are willing to spend and whether you are interested in accessing spaces usually closed to the public or stay within the general areas.
Right next to the Colosseum and often included in the same tours is the Roman Forum. The cluster of buildings that includes temples, villas and funerary altars was once the pulsing heart of ancient Rome. Now we can visit the forum and even see where Julius Caesar was cremated and where Romans still bring fresh flowers to his altar.
Baths of Caracalla
A mighty witness to Romans’ love for taking care of themselves enjoying some spa time, the Baths of Caracalla are great to visit and a fantastic hint to how gorgeous they must have been back in the day. Mosaics, ornamental statues, arches and vaults were part of the decorations of the different areas from the gym to the calidarium to the tepidarium. The baths included also a library where the spa-goers could relax and part of the complex is Rome’s largest Mithra temple located underground.
Mausoleum of Augustus
Reopened in March 2021 after 14 years of renovation, the Mausoleum of Augustus is the monumental tomb of one of the most important figures of imperial Rome. A first circular corridor runs all around the central body where the funerary urns were kept, likely including also Augustus’ urn. The largest circular tomb of the ancient world, this grand mausoleum reminds us of the Etruscan funerary monuments and was built by the same emperor as a celebration for defeating Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in the battle of Actium.
This great and little-known archaeological site is in the very city center, a stone’s throw from the Trevi Fountain. I, myself, discovered it recently and was very pleasantly surprised. Among the names they gave to this site is “city of water” (la città dell’acqua) and once inside, it’s easy to understand why. Set up on the cistern of Aqua Virgo, the ancient aqueduct that through its branches and new parts supplies water to the Trevi Fountain and other important fountains in Rome.
Even though water is really an important feature of this archaeological site in central Rome, it’s not the only thing you will see as also other parts of the neighbourhood have been dug in the area.
Aqua Virgo Ancient Ruins
More than a single archaeological site, the remains of Aqua Virgo ancient aqueduct are scattered around the city. Apart from the site mentioned above where is the aqueduct’s cistern, two of the best places to see this ancient piping system are next to the Trevi Fountain in Via del Nazareno 9 or in the underground floor of La Rinascente shopping mall in Via del Tritone. In both places, you can see the arches of the waterway. To access the ruins in Via del Nazareno you need to call Rome municipality at 060608 and the visit is paid (4€ per person), while to see the ruins inside the department store is free.
The experience inside La Rinascente is very interesting because along with the ruins, a multimedia installation runs repeatedly and tells visitors the story of the area and of the other ancient Roman remains that were found here including a domus, an insula and parts of other aqueducts. These were all re-buried but archaeologists managed to study them and gather the information we can learn via the multimedia show.
San Clemente Basilica
Just behind the Colosseum, San Clemente’s is a medieval basilica steeped in history gifting us with a fascinating experience. Before making your way underground, take a tour around the street-level church for some austere ecclesiastic architecture. Time to dive into some ancient history, now, visiting the early-Christian 4th-century basilica under the medieval one and taking a walk around the tiny alleys of the ancient Roman neighbourhood to see a magnificent example of Mithra temple and school.
Santa Cecilia in Trastevere Basilica
Hands-down one of my favourite experiences in Trastevere, visiting the undergrounds of Santa Cecilia Basilica will reveal an ancient domus complete with baths, an insula, and the entrance to a taberna (shop). On your way, you will also see pieces of a mosaic floor and remains of ancient tools and jars.
Between the modern church and the ancient Roman findings, visitors will marvel at the arches, vaults and pillars of the beautiful crypt where the tomb of the saint is kept. Before leaving the area, check if there is a long queue standing in front of Da Enzo al 29, one of Trastevere’s best restaurants, and if there isn’t, enjoy a fantastic traditional Roman meal.
If you decide to visit the Vatican, you will soon realize that there are so many places to see that you can hardly do it in one day. However, if you can afford some extra time or if you are an archaeology buff, the ancient Roman necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica won’t leave you unimpressed.
Sprawling besides the circus emperor Caligula built on the gardens he had inherited from his mother Agrippina that later became Nero’s Circus where Christians were persecuted and where Peter was allegedly killed, a tour around the necropolis will show a great deal of Roman and early-Christian history. I’ve been once but wouldn’t mind visiting again since there is so much to learn and understand.
Parco degli Acquedotti
If you have ever thought about studying or reading about the fantastic feats of public engineering represented by the ancient Roman aqueducts, a visit to southern Rome’s Parco degli Acquedotti along the Appian Way will be utterly fascinating. With the juxtaposition of six of the main 11 waterways such as Aquae Marcia, Tepula, Iulia, Claudia, Anio Novus and Anio Vetus (the latter only underground), you can enjoy your visit to one of the largest ancient sites in Rome with a walk or by renting a bike. This is a lovely park to relax also for families with kids and you can either visit independently or by joining a private guided tour.
Very close, and somehow connected to the experience is also Parco di Tor Fiscale where Aqua Claudia and Marcia intersect in two places and Aquae Tepula and Iulia that cross them forming a polygonal shape. This area is called Barbaric Camp because it’s where the Ostrogoths settled when they besieged Rome in 537.
Stadium of Domitian
Have you noticed that Piazza Navona has an oval shape? Wondering why? Because it was built on top of a vast stadium wanted by emperor Domitian in an effort to shift his fellow citizens’ interest from the gory shows of the Colosseum to more well-behaved Greek sport disciplines. The imperial effort went unsuccessful for the most part, but the remains we can see today from Via di Tor Sanguigna of Domitian’s Stadium show a finely decorated theater with carvings and ornamental statues. Visitors can also watch an interesting representation of how both the stadium and the city of Rome were at the time of Domitian.
Pyramid of Caestius
Located in Testaccio neighbourhood near Ostiense, Rome’s Pyramid is pretty difficult not to notice since it’s huge and stands out from all the other buildings of the area. It was built by Caius Cestius between 18 and 12 BC at a time when the Egyptian style was very popular in Rome. Unfortunately, it’s not always open so if you want to enter, you should call Rome municipality at 060608 for inquiries. Otherwise, you can go see it from outside and maybe enter the adjacent Protestant Cemetery where you will also stumble upon the sweet cats of the Pyramid’s colony that often jump in the graveyard to relax.
On this site, you will be visiting an archaeological area and a museum, the permanent exhibition of Imperial Fora, the huge archaeological park along Via dei Fori Imperiali connecting Piazza Venezia with the Colosseum. The area housed shops and administration offices and what we call the Trajan’s Markets was where they managed all the activities related to the Trajan’s Forum. The tour includes traditional and interactive panels as well as multimedia presentations.
Known as Castel Sant’Angelo, the scenic mausoleum on the banks of the river is also known for having been the papal residence and public prison. But it was built as the funerary monument to emperor Hadrian and a visit shows the centuries of history and kingdoms Rome has endured. Plus, a beautiful view of Saint Peter’s dome.
Relive the splendor of Nero’s Domus Aurea he built for himself after the devastating fire that in 64 AD destroyed much of Rome’s city center. Even though after Nero’s death his successors tried to erase everything linked to him also by looting its residence from all its decorations, today it’s possible to visit what’s left of it and see how it was back in the day thanks to the immersive multimedia Domus Aurea Experience. Here for more info.
Not far from the Colosseum, the Circus Maximus was a huge oval-shaped racecourse for chariots. Today is mainly used as a park, for relaxing, for running and also for public events such as concerts, New Year’s celebrations and for festivals and activities the council organizes on the occasion of Rome’s birthday on April 21st.
Since in the actual site there is no illustrative panel, a nice way to enjoy your visit and see how it looked like back in its heyday is to join the recent Circo Massimo Experience sponsored by Rome Council, a tour of the place with the aid of Zeiss VR devices for multimedia reconstruction. Click here for more info on timing, prices and how to book.
Nearby, you can visit the Baths of Caracalla and, if you happen on the weekend, you can visit one of the best food markets in Rome, Mercato Campagna Amica al Circo Massimo (Via di S. Teodoro 74).
Domus Romane of Palazzo Valentini
Not far from Piazza Venezia is Palazzo Valentini (Via Foro Traiano 85), a 16th-century palace now the seat of Provincia di Roma. In its undergrounds, it’s possible to visit the ruins of an ancient Roman domus, a patrician house belonging to a powerful family from imperial times, probably of a senator, that still preserves mosaics, colourful flooring and finely decorated walls, and shows even the remains of a private thermal bath.
Crypta Balbi and Diocletian Baths at Museo Nazionale Romano
Museo Nazionale Romano is a museum in Rome spread into several locations. The main one is next to Stazione Termini and is staged all around the huge Diocletian Baths, the ruins of which you can visit during your tour. The museum itself, even though not an archaeological site, displays arguably the world’s largest collection of ancient Roman findings, tools, mosaics, decorations and more.
On the other hand, Crypta Balbi is located in Via delle Botteghe Oscure between Largo Argentina and Piazza Venezia. Standing right next to the theater Lucius Cornelius Balbo built in the 13th century BC, the crypt was a covered porch to serve as a protection for the citizens waiting to enter the nearby theater in case of rain or as a refreshing point for the breaks during the plays.