With so many ancient sites in Rome, picking which one to visit can be a real challenge. Some are incredibly famous, and if it is your first time in the Italian capital you really should not miss them. Others are actually lesser known internationally, but equally worth visiting – and if you are a frequent visitor, you really should consider going to these Rome hidden gems.
In this post, I highlight some of the most famous ancient sites in Rome as well as a few lesser known ones. Pick whichever you want to visit – if not all!
The Best Ancient Sites In Rome
The Colosseum is arguably the most iconic landmark in Rome. It’s here in this amphitheater that famous displays of gladiator battles and gruesome executions took place for centuries. Construction started on the Colosseum under the Emperor Vespasian in 72 AD, and was completed by his heir, Titus.
The Colosseum is thought to have held somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators, and was free for all walks of Roman society to come and watch – with seating divided according to class and job description, of course!
Throughout its history, the arena has been an important structure in the city. Much of its marble was reused to build churches and other monuments – basically it was a quarry. It’s also been used as a space for workshops, as living quarters, a Christian shrine, the headquarters of a religious order, among other things.
Wear and tear over the years resulted in a clean-up and restoration project taking place between 2014 and 2016. This is thought to have been the first time ever that the Colosseum was tidied up in this way!
You can get your Colosseum tickets on the official website here. Keep in mind that tickets bought on the official site are not refundable and modifications are not allowed.
For more flexibility, get your tickets on a third-party booking site – they are a bit more expensive, but can be cancelled up to 24 hours in advance. For more information, click here.
For the best guided tour, click here.
Head over to my post The Most Interesting Facts About The Colosseum.
Arch of Constantine
The Arch of Constantine is a triumphal arch dedicated to the Emperor Constantine, who reigned from 306 to 337. It still stands today, spanning the Via Triumphalis between the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill, and was originally commissioned to commemorate Constantine’s victory over Maxentius at the pivotal Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD.
After all those years, it remains the largest triumphal arch in Rome, and measures in at 21 meters (39 feet) tall. It features three large arches, with the central arch being the widest, and is constructed from bricks covered in marble.
Even though the arch is dedicated to Constantine, much of its decoration was itself plundered from other triumphal monuments in centuries past (such as to Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, and Hadrian). These carvings depict scenes of hunting and sacrifice, including to Apollo and Hercules, and the hunting of a lion. Battles and deities are illustrated in the reliefs elsewhere; even Constantine himself is depicted, speaking to Roman citizens in the Forum and giving money to people.
In later years the Arch of Constantine was incorporated into a stronghold for an ancient Roman family.
Formerly the heart of the ancient city of Rome, the Forum Romanum is one of the most visited ancient sites in Rome. It was central to not only the city’s identity but to the empire itself. It was a place for worship, for social gatherings, for markets, and public speeches, to name just a few things.
Known by the citizens of the city as the Forum Magnum (or just plain Forum), the space was originally a marketplace but gradually morphed into a political hub. From here it grew, and today it is best known for being home to many important civic and religious buildings – some of the oldest in the city. It’s here that Rome’s earliest shrines and temples can be found.
Unlike the Colosseum, which was built specifically for one thing, the Forum developed organically over time, and reflects the development of the ancient city as a whole. It began life when some swampy grassland was drained for public use in the 7th century BC, and eventually fell into disrepair once the Roman Empire fell (around the 5th century AD).
But like the Colosseum, the Forum was quarried for its marble, and was basically grasslands by the middle ages, at which point it was known as Campo Vaccino (literally “cow field”). Excavations started in the 18th and 19th centuries and continue to this day.
For the best guided tour, click here.
The Palatine Hill is one of Rome’s famed seven hills of antiquity. However it is unique from the others as, according to legend, this is where the mythical founder of Rome, Romulus, first founded the city in 753 AD. It is also the place where Romulus and his twin brother, Remus, were nursed by a wolf – specifically in a cave on the hill.
Therefore, the Palatine Hill was the nucleus of Rome’s imperial power. Many imperial palaces were built on top of the hill, beginning with Augustus (the first emperor). Even before the imperial period, many wealthy Romans lived in this part of the city. And today the hill is pretty much like an open-air museum, with a long list of fascinating archaeological sites to see.
One of these is the Lupercal – the cave where Romulus and Remus were cared for by a wolf. Elsewhere, landmarks include religious buildings such as the Temple of Apollo (built by Augustus in 36 BC), but the complexes at the Domus and the Palace of Domitian host a wealth of crumbling walls, arches, and gardens.
The Palatine Museum is where you can discover archaeological finds, sculptures, and frescoes from antiquity. For something more recent (though still centuries old!) the Farnese Gardens provide a window into Renaissance opulence.
For the best guided tour, click here.
Check out my post A Guide To Rome’s Palatine Hill.
Located on the Via dei Fori Imperiali, Trajan’s Market is a treasure trove of history and easily one of the most beautiful ancient sites in Rome. This complex of shops and apartment buildings is widely thought to be the oldest shopping mall in the world.
The complex is set across multiple levels, which would have featured shops on the ground floor, and apartments on the top, with other facilities including administrative offices and a library also located within the building. There were even large halls that were used for entertainment, speeches and public gatherings.
The market is thought to have been built between 100-110 AD by a Syrian architect called Apollodorus of Damascus on the orders of Emperor Trajan. Today, it forms the site of the Museum of the Imperial Fora, which is dedicated to the history of Rome’s ancient forums.
Best of all, you can still walk around the shopping area today.
Another structure attributed to Trajan: his famous column. This is another example of structures in Rome that commemorate victories in war. Trajan’s Column was completed in 113 AD, and celebrates Emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars (101-106 AD). Like Trajan’s Market, the column is believed to have been the work of Apollodorus of Damascus.
The freestanding column stretches to an impressive height of 35 meters (115 feet), but that is not what is most impressive about this ancient piece of architecture. Hidden inside is a spiral staircase, consisting of 185 steps, that provides access to a viewing platform at the top of the column.
But there’s yet more amazingness to this column. The continuous frieze that winds its way around the column 25 times to the top is awash with ornate scenes of battle, and includes 2,262 figures; Trajan appears 58 times. This type of continuous decoration was an innovation, and adopted by later emperors.
It’s believed that during its heyday the column would have originally been topped with the statue of an eagle, something indicated by ancient coins, but after construction a statue of Trajan himself was put there instead. This disappeared during the middle ages. Today, it’s topped with a bronze statue of St. Peter as commissioned by Pope Sixtus V in 1587.
You can easily see Trajan’s Column from the nearby Altar of the Fatherland.
Translating from Latin to “Golden House”, the Domus Aurea was an enormous palatial complex built by the Emperor Nero in 64 AD following the Great Fire of Rome that destroyed swathes of the city. Situated in the former center of ancient Rome on the Oppian Hill, another of Rome’s seven hills, it once covered an entire square mile and consisted of pavilions (including the famous Coenatio Rotunda), banquet halls, gardens and even an artificial lake.
The Domus Aurea didn’t survive for very long. Considered overly luxurious even by Nero’s aristocratic successors, it was practically destroyed within a decade of his death, and was stripped of its marble, ivory, and precious metals.
It was only rediscovered in the 15th century – and by mistake, too. A Roman fell through a gap in the hillside and found himself in a painted grotto. Soon, Renaissance artists flocked to the scene, and these frescoes had an instant and lasting impact on art for centuries.
Over the years, further decay meant that much of the Domus Aurea fell into ruin, and altogether buried by the Baths of Trajan, built in 104 AD. However, the pavilions can still be visited today and make for a fascinating window into the past.
For skip the line tickets to the Domus Aurea, click here.
The Circus Maximus is yet another of the famous ancient sites in Rome. Situated in a valley between the Aventine and Palatine Hills, this was once an enormous chariot racing stadium (the name literally means “largest circus” in Latin) and entertainment venue.
Amazingly, the (perhaps) legendary origins of Circus Maximus dates back to the 6th century BC. By the time the Colosseum was built, the site may have already been 500 years old. But the shape as it is now dates to the reign of Julius Caesar.
The Circus Maximus was the first of its kind in Rome, and remained the largest of its kind in the whole Roman Empire; it could hold up to an incredible 150,000 spectators. People would attend ludi or public games here. The ludi were held over several days and included events such as horse racing, chariot racing, gladiator fights, athletics, theatrical performances, and beast hunts.
Around a third of the year (135 days) were dedicated to ludi by the 1st century AD. Even after the construction of the Colosseum, the Circus Maximus was still the most suitable space in the city for grand-scale entertainment events.
Ludi fell out of favor with the rise of Christianity. The last race to be held there was in 549 AD, under the rule of Ostrogoth king, Tortila.
Like other ancient sites in Rome, it was used as a quarry; much later a gasworks were built there. In the mid-19th century, excavations took place to expose the seating and other parts of the building. Today it’s a large public park that plays host to large events like concerts.
Baths of Caracalla
The Baths of Caracalla are easily one of the most interesting ancient sites in Rome. They are what remains of what was the second-largest public bathhouse in Rome. Even though it was only second-largest, it is thought to have been able to accommodate up to 1,600 people at any one time!
The Baths are believed to have been built between 212 and 217 AD, during the reign of Emperors Septimus Severus and Caracalla. They were in use all the way to 530. The complex consisted of cold pools, hot pools, a gymnasium, gardens and even a library – all of which were richly decorated with lavish frescoes, mosaics, and sculptures.
The structure of the Baths have influenced architectural design throughout the ages, inspiring grand structures all the way into the 20th century. Today the baths still play host to visitors, but not for bathing. Visitors can instead explore a large portion of the old precinct and wander about its former splendor.
As a bonus, come summer, the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla serve as the backdrop for operas, ballets, and classical concerts put on by the Teatro dell’Opera, Rome’s premier opera house.
To book your time-slot and get your tickets to the Baths of Caracalla, click here.
Head over to my post A Guide To The Baths Of Caracalla.
While Emperor Nero may be more famous for his opulent Domus Aurea, the Domus Transitoria was his first palace. It was this imperial abode – one of the lesser known ancient sites in Rome – that was damaged in the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, causing Nero to embark on the construction of his new Golden Palace.
Located on Palatine Hill, the Domus Transitoria was intended to connect a collection of different imperial properties into one large complex. Today the palace may not be its former self, but there are various structures that allow a portal into the past.
Most prominent is the water garden and Nymphaeum, with its arc of columns and niches where water once would have gushed; it’s a very theatrical space. Also here is the Triclinium, where the Emperor would recline, surrounded by marble pillars and cooled by water on hot summer days.
While you can visit this palace itself, it is also worth swinging by the Palatine Museum to see marbles, sculptures, and other artifacts excavated from the site.
Baths of Diocletian
Taking their name from the Emperor Diocletian, this famous bathing complex was built between 298 and 306 AD. This was the largest of Rome’s imperial baths, boasting the capacity to accommodate 3,000 people at one time. This makes it twice as large as the Baths of Caracalla.
A truly colossal structure, the baths were in operation until 537 AD when the invading Ostrogoths cut off the water supply to Rome. The baths are located atop the Viminal Hill, the smallest of Rome’s seven hills, close to today’s Piazza della Repubblica and Termini railway station.
Pope Pius IV ordered the building of a basilica in 1560 in order to commemorate the Christian martyrs that were believed to have died building the baths. Michelangelo was drafted in to design the church, which was built using both the frigidarium (cold room) and the tepidarium (warm room) of the baths in the design. Other parts of the Baths of Diocletian were used for storing oil and grain.
The baths are now open for visitors to explore, though only a small portion still exists as it was with stucco, high ceilings, and even tombs. You can see two churches here, too: the Church of San Bernardo alle Terme, and the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri.
Like the Colosseum, the Pantheon is arguably one of the most iconic ancient sites in Rome. This structure dedicated to all Roman gods (the name means “all gods”) was founded on the site of a former temple commissioned by Augustus. This was rebuilt on the orders of Emperor Hadrian around 126 AD.
It is believed to be one of ancient Rome’s best preserved old buildings. It has largely been in continuous use throughout its history. The Pantheon’s architecture has also been monumentally influential. Its portico, built with large columns, was a key inspiration behind neoclassicism, but its enormous concrete dome directly influenced the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. Almost a thousand years later, and the dome of the Pantheon – open to the elements with a central oculus – is still the largest of its kind in the world.
Uses changed and, though stripped of its exterior marble, the Pantheon became a Catholic church. It’s still officially a church to this day and is the site of numerous important burials, hosting tombs for the likes of Renaissance artists and Italian kings.
If you want to visit the Pantheon at the weekend or during national holidays, you must book your visit in advance via an easy to use app. You can reserve your spot here. For a guided tour of the Pantheon, click here or here. You can book your audioguide for the Pantheon here.
Make sure to read my post A Guide To Visiting The Pantheon.
Theater of Marcellus
One of the lesser known yet most impressive ancient sites in Rome, construction first began on a theater at this site by Julius Caesar, but it was to be completed by 13 BC by Emperor Augustus. However, according to Roman historian Livy, it’s built on the site of an even earlier theater.
Augustus named it after his nephew, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, who died in 23 BC.
The theater was the largest of its kind in ancient Rome. At 111 meters (364 feet) in diameter, it is thought to have held up to 20,000 spectators at one time. It was constructed out of tuff (a stone made from volcanic ash) and completely coated in gleaming white travertine. It’s still an impressive structure, with arches, corridors, and weaving tunnels to give spectators access to the theater.
The Theater of Marcellus fell out of use in the 4th century AD and was largely quarried for its materials. It was used as housing, even a fortress (among other things), and later in the 16th century, the noble Orsini family built a residence atop the theater. Towards the modern era, the street level had risen so much that almost half of the lower level was below ground. The upper levels were divided into apartments. Today the theater is once again in use as a venue, hosting small summer concerts, and is also open to visitors.
Built by Emperor Augustus around 27 BC, this structure was dedicated to his sister Octavia the Younger. It features colonnaded walls that once led to the temples of Jupiter and Juno. Sadly, the building was destroyed by fire in 80 AD and was restored by Emperor Domitian; this happened again in 203 AD, and was again restored, this time by Emperors Septimus Severus and Caracalla.
Not only did the building host temples, but it was also the location of a library that was erected by Octavia herself – in memory of her son, Marcus Claudius Marcellus (the namesake of the Theater of Marcellus). Also located here was a lecture hall and an assembly room.
In later years, the Portico fell into disrepair. It was long used as a fish market, from the middle ages to the 19th century. Today, you can see it simply by wandering around – no tickets are necessary. It’s at the entrance of the Jewish Ghetto.
Check out my post A Guide To Visiting Rome’s Jewish Ghetto.
Basilica di San Clemente
The Basilica of San Clemente is a testament to Rome’s layered history, and sits on a site that has been used for millennia. A lesser visited church, it’s actually one of my favorite and one of the most beautiful ancient sites in Rome.
The oldest findings at the site suggest a building from the Republic era of Rome was once on the site. After the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, a possibly industrial building was constructed (thought to have been a mint), with an insula (apartment block) next door. Later, around 200 AD, a Mithraeum – a temple dedicated to the god Mithras – was built.
In the 4th century, the industrial building was remodeled, the Mithraeum was abandoned, and the first basilica was built here. It was dedicated to Pope Clement I, who was the bishop of Rome from 88 to 99 AD.
The second basilica, which still stands, was built towards the end of the 11th century. It’s still richly adorned today, gilded and decorated with granite, marble columns, and rich mosaics.
Make sure to read my post The Most Beautiful Churches In Rome.
Situated in what was once the public field of Campus Martius, this impressive tomb was constructed on the orders of Emperor Augustus in 28 BC and is one of the most interesting ancient sites in Rome. Amazingly, this is still the largest circular tomb in the world, measuring in at 87 meters (285 feet) in diameter and covering the equivalent of several city blocks.
Augustus started construction on this giant tomb following his victory over Mark Antony at the crucial Battle of Actium in 31 BC.
It was designed in a circular layout using concentric rings that were coated in travertine. The structure was then topped off with a conical roof; on top of that stood an enormous bronze statue of Augustus himself.
Inside the center of the Mausoleum, the main chamber hosted golden urns in which the ashes of the imperial family were kept. There were also plaques which described all of Augustus’ crowning accomplishments.
Due to its location in Campus Martius, ancient Romans would often use their leisure time to picnic and recline on the grass surrounding the tomb.
It has undergone various uses over time – after being largely buried. It was used as a castle in the 12th century; part of a garden by several rich Roman families; it was even turned into a concert hall until Mussolini turned it back into an archaeological site. Its restoration began in 2019 and is an ongoing project.
For tickets to the Mausoleum of Augustus, click here.
Though it is better known as the Castel Sant’Angelo, this fortress – one of the most ancient sites in Rome – actually started life as the Mausoleum of Hadrian. The Roman Emperor commissioned this large, cylindrical building on the right bank of the Tiber between 134 and 139 AD. Hadrian’s ashes were entombed here alongside those of his wife and son. Later, the remains of successive emperors were also enshrined here, deep inside the building.
As part of the construction, Hadrian also commissioned the building of the Pons Aelius, which still provides an attractive approach to the building from the center of Rome. This is better known as the Ponte Sant’Angelo today, which is decorated with a number of religious statues.
The tomb building was then converted into a military fortress in 401 AD, and was included as part of the Aurelian walls. In the 410 Sack of Rome by the Visigoths, the tomb-fortress complex was completely ransacked and the ashes were lost.
One legend in particular connects the Archangel Michael, who apparently appeared in 590 AD atop the fortress, sheathing his sword to signify the end of a plague. At the beginning of the 14th century, Pope Nicolas III ordered the building to be converted into a castle, complete with chapels, and connected it to St. Peter’s Basilica via an underground passageway called the Passetto del Borgo. The fortress could then be used as a refuge for the Papacy.
It was also used as a prison; executions were even carried out in a small courtyard. Finally, the building was decommissioned as a military structure in 1901 and is now a museum open to the public.
To book your tickets to Castel Sant’Angelo, click here.
Catacombs of Rome
Paris isn’t the only place to feature historic catacombs. Beneath Rome’s city streets are its very own system of underground tunnels and burial chambers. There are actually numerous places where catacombs exist around the city, the most well known and extensive being the Catacombs of San Callisto.
Located along the Appian Way, formerly outside the ancient walls, these particular catacombs were created in 150 AD and soon became the burial place for the early Roman church. More than 50 martyrs and 16 pontiffs were interred here. They were important for Jewish and early Christian culture, who buried their dead instead of cremating them according to Roman tradition. Roman law dictated that no burials could take place inside the city, and so the catacombs were created.
During the invasions of the Ostrogoths and later the Lombards, the catacombs were heavily looted and many relics were removed by the Papacy and placed in churches for their protection. In the 10th century the catacombs were abandoned and largely forgotten. They were accidentally rediscovered in 1578.
Only a few catacombs are open to the public today (and many require pre-booking), those of San Callisto being one example. The Catacombs of San Sebastiano are another. Here you can see a 15th-century church and the burial sites of various saints; underground there are altars and mausoleums alongside the dead. The Christian catacombs of Rome are still overseen and maintained by the Catholic church.
For a tour of Rome that goes to the Catacombs, click here.
Known in Italian as Parco degli Acquedotti, this sizable public park in the southeast of the city spans 240 hectares. It takes its name from the two aqueducts that run through it. Here you’ll be able to see the Acqua Felice – the first aqueduct to be built in early modern Rome. It was commissioned by Pope Sixtus V in 1586 and runs for 15 miles (24 kilometers).
The other aqueduct that visitors can see is the ancient Aqua Claudia – one of the four great aqueducts of Rome. It was built between 38 and 52 AD.
The park therefore offers up an insight into the impressive architecture of these aqueducts, and how they brought fresh water to the citizens of Rome from the far reaches of the countryside right into the heart of the city.
Unlike other historical sites in Rome, the park is (usually) without crowds and is a popular local hangout. Come at the weekend and you’ll see Romans jogging, walking, and having picnics.
For a tour of Rome that also goes to the Parco degli Acquedotti, click here.
Not far from central Rome is the ancient port that once served it: Ostia. Referred to as Ostia Antica to differentiate it from the modern town of the same name (just nearby), this was once a thriving center of commerce at the mouth of the River Tiber. To date, it remains one of the best preserved ancient sites in Rome.
Founded around 620 BC, the port was later used as a naval base around 400 BC and later served as a bustling commercial port by 150 BC. The town fell into abandonment with the fall of Rome in the 6th century. The harbor became silted and many of the coastal structures were left coated in mud, allowing them to be preserved until their excavation centuries later.
The site of Ostia Antica is now open to the public, and features a number of historic structures. The museum is a good place to start: it displays a number of interesting statues and busts of the Romans who lived and worked in its ancient streets. You can stroll around the ruins of Ostia, tracing the streets of town and spotting things like its theater, housing complex, bathhouse, marble steps, the Grand Square of the Guilds, shops, mosaics – even a lighthouse. It’s a fun way to transport yourself back to ancient Rome’s heyday.
Read my post A Guide To Visiting Ostia Antica.