Known in Italian as the Terme di Caracalla, the Roman Baths of Caracalla are one of the most interesting archeological sites in Rome. Lesser visited compared to many other sites in the Eternal City, they are incredibly pleasant to explore – not to mention, a place to escape the crowds too.
The Baths of Caracalla are actually a short walk from the more famous Colosseum and the Palatine Hill, so it would be a pity to miss it during your wanderings around the Italian capital.
In this post, I will tell you everything you should know about the Baths of Caracalla, Rome – including their history and best sights – and share tips that will help you plan your visit.
For other lesser known places to visit in Rome, read my post The Best Hidden Gems In Rome.
The History Of The Roman Baths Caracalla
The Baths of Caracalla were a magnificent structure in ancient Rome (and still are today). In their heyday, these were Rome’s second largest public baths, and were thought to have been built between 211 and 217 AD.
Baths were called thermae in Latin, and these ones were named after the Emperor Severus’ son, who also went on to become emperor. They were in operation until the 530s.
Work on the ornate structure was done by a team of sculptors and architects who set out to build this enormous complex. Later renovations were conducted throughout the history of the baths’ operations.
The Baths of Caracalla were Rome’s most luxurious thermae. They were designed to fit up to 1,600 bathers at any one time. However, the daily capacity is thought to have been anywhere up to 8,000 bathers, which shows you not only how big these baths were, but how integral they were to Roman society.
During Rome’s decline, a string of wars encroached on the city until it was eventually captured by the Ostrogoths in 537 AD. Their leader Vitiges ordered the city to be cut off, and with no water, the Baths of Caracalla were abandoned.
But even though the baths were abandoned, they remained part of the city of Rome and still very much in use by some people. In particular, the Baths of Caracalla were used for the burials of Christian pilgrims, with several tombs having been found in the bath area.
In 847, an earthquake destroyed much of the structure of the Baths of Caracalla. From that point on, and particularly from the 12th century onwards, the baths were basically used as a quarry for marble and other stone, with decorative pieces taken and re-used in prominent places of worship throughout Italy. For example, pieces from the Baths of Caracalla can be found in St Peter’s Basilica and Pisa Cathedral.
Interest in the baths as a historic structure, however, wouldn’t occur until many centuries later. In the 18th century the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla became the subject of art and illustration. From the 19th century onwards, the baths began to be excavated and studied, with restoration taking place throughout the 20th century. As late as the 1980s, the Baths of Caracalla was overgrown and hosted a collection of illegally built houses.
Best Sights At The Baths Of Caracalla, Rome
The Baths of Caracalla once spanned 25 hectares (62 acres), and the ruins today still take up a sizeable part of the city. The leisure complex was home to a series of baths, with 18 cisterns that were fed by water brought to Rome by the Aqua Nova Antoniniana aqueduct.
But it wasn’t just about bathing. The Baths of Caracalla was a place for Roman citizens to come and enjoy some downtime. They would stroll around the grounds, exercise, and read books from the library.
Though much of the baths are in ruins, you can still see remnants of just how impressive this civic structure once was. Here are the main sights.
Ancient Rome is famous for its mosaics, and the Baths of Caracalla are no different. This place was lavishly decorated with frescoes, sculptures, and mosaics, the remains of which can still be seen. The most famous mosaics – a series depicting famous gladiators – from the Baths of Caracalla are actually in the Vatican Museums.
In ancient Rome, black and white mosaic geometric patterns were often used in locations associated with water, and so there are examples of this style that can be on the floors here. You can imagine what it would have been like to walk across this place in the height of its popularity.
Make sure to read my post The Most Beautiful Mosaics In Rome.
The central part of the Baths of Caracalla is called the Caldarium (literally “hot room”). This circular space, facing southwest, was the hottest room in the bath. It was heated from below, and was topped with a concrete dome similar in size to that of the Pantheon. It was also thought to have large windows, allowing light to pour in. There were seven pools here, six of which remain.
In here, temperatures would have been above 100°F (37.7°C), and they were used for health reasons, to open the pores and sweat it all out. To keep the temperatures hot enough, slaves would have stoked the fires below the room continuously.
The Tepidarium was a place of medium heat. This room was located next to the Frigidarium and featured two pools of warm water, which can still be seen today (minus the water of course). As with the rest of the baths, the Tepidarium would have been lavishly decorated with marble and mosaics. Unlike the scorching Caldarium, the Tepidarium was supposed to be a more relaxing experience.
Literally “cold room”, this large room featured four baths under a vaulted ceiling over 100 feet high – supported by eight Egyptian granite columns. Almost everything in this room, including the floor and the walls, was made of marble, and also featured a fountain as part of its decoration.
This central room wasn’t just a place to chill out in, but also served as a meeting place where visitors would transition to different pools, which were all connected to the Frigidarium.
Connected to the Frigidarium via a series of waterfalls, the Natatio was an Olympic-sized (50 by 22 meters) swimming pool situated at the northeast end of the building. In its heyday, this swimming area was surrounded by 20-meter-high walls and three large columns featuring ornamental statues. The Natatio was roofless, and sunlight not only poured in naturally, but was also directed into the pool itself via a system of bronze mirrors overhead.
To top it all off, the whole pool was situated on a raised platform under which furnaces kept it a pleasant temperature year round.
There were actually not just one but two symmetrical libraries in the original bath complex. It was the second bath in Rome to feature a library. One library was for Greek language texts, the other for Latin, but only one of its two libraries survives today.
The marble-floored libraries featured three walls covered with a total of 32 niches where the books were stored. There was even a ledge in front of the walls that is thought to have served as a bench.
Until recently, visitors to the Baths of Caracalla could only see that which was above ground, but now the subterranean elements of the baths have been opened up for exploration (though only on special occasions!). And they’re very interesting.
These underground parts of the baths were actually only discovered in 1912. Here you can find the Mithraeum: a room dedicated to the worship of Mithras, and the largest documented space of its kind. Mithras was originally a Persian god, but was popular among the military and some working-class Romans.
Like other places in the bath, the Mithraeum was decorated with black and white mosaic tiles, and had walls adorned with iconography and images of Mithras. It also featured benches.
Elsewhere in the underground complex, tunnels that were used by slaves who heated the baths can be explored. Thousands of tons of wood would also have been stored here to stoke the fires, with an estimated 10 tons of wood burned per day. The tunnels were lit by openings, which also helped to circulate air.
There is currently an exhibition that has been set up in the underground area that showcases architectural pieces found among the baths. Also here is where you can see the heating system, with 24 of the original furnaces in situ.
Events at the Baths of Caracalla
Although simply visiting the Baths of Caracalla to see the ruins is rewarding and intriguing in itself, there are other ways to enjoy this ancient hotspot.
In the summer months, the baths team up with the Teatro dell’Opera who use the space as an impressive backdrop for a special series of performances. World class musicians and singers can be witnessed as they perform in the ancient setting. It’s even more impressive when they’re lit up in the evening.
Aside from this, the baths are also a concert venue in their own right. They play host to world-famous singers and artists – Elton John, for example, has played at the Baths of Caracalla!
Practical Information For Visiting The Baths Of Caracalla, Rome
If you’re thinking about visiting the Baths of Caracalla, there are a few things you should know to make your visit run as smoothly as possible.
Do you need a guide to visit the Roman Baths of Caracalla?
You can visit the Baths of Caracalla without a guided tour. While exploring by yourself is interesting enough, your visit to the baths would be made much more interesting with a guide. Thankfully, guided tours of are available, and offer up a deeper insight into the history and significance of the ancient structure.
The best tours of the Roman Baths of Caracalla are run by Touriks, a local operator you can safely book via GetYourGuide. They over in-depth tours with incredibly knowledgeable guides. To book your guided tour of the Roman Baths of Caracalla, click here. For a tour that also goes to Circus Maximus, click here.
At the time of writing, audioguides are not available, and the undergrounds are currently closed to the public until further notice.
How much are Baths of Caracalla tickets?
Baths of Caracalla tickets are €10 for adults.
For EU citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 it is €4. EU citizens under the age of 17 and over the age of 65 have free entry.
There’s also a family ticket: two adults, three children for €36.
All visitors to the Baths of Caracalla have to book their tickets in advance online. When you book, you’ll choose an allotted time slot for your visit. You must also have a vaccination certificate to be admitted.
To book your time-slot and get your tickets, click here.
Baths of Caracalla opening hours
The baths open Tuesday to Sunday at 9 a.m. Closing hours vary throughout the year – it’s 4:30 pm in the winter, and usually 6:30 or 7:00 pm in the summer.
Last entry to the site is one hour before closing time. Do note, however, that you can feel a bit rushed at that time as the staff begin to usher visitors out of the site.
Where are the Baths of Caracalla?
You will find the Baths of Caracalla in central Rome, just south of the Colosseum and close to the Circus Maximus. To be more specific, the address is Via delle Terme di Caracalla, 52.
How to get to the Baths of Caracalla
The Baths of Caracalla are quite easy to get to. The nearest metro station is Circo Massimo, which is around a 10-minute walk from the ticket office.
The closest bus stop is Terme Caracalla/Porta Capena, which is reached via the 118, 160 and 628 bus routes.
The Baths of Caracalla can also be reached on Tram Line 3, which stops at nearby Circo Massimo.
When to visit the Baths of Caracalla
While you can visit the Baths of Caracalla all year round, of course, they are perhaps best visited in summer when the Teatro dell’Opera schedule is in full swing (July-August).
However, as this is one of the busiest times of year – and it’s very hot, too – you may want to visit very early in the morning or later in the afternoon, closer to sunset, or simply plan a trip to Rome for the fall or early spring. These are the shoulder seasons for visiting Rome, so there will be fewer tourists to share the site with – it is also when the weather is more pleasant and bearable for sightseeing.
If you are planning on visiting Rome, these other posts will come in handy:
- The Most Important Landmarks In Rome
- The Best Events And Festivals In Rome
- A Guide To Visiting Rome In August
- The Best Time To Visit Rome