Having been inhabited for almost 3,000 years, and perhaps longer, it should come as no surprise that there are a lot of ruins in Rome. Many of them are underground, with centuries of the city’s architectural history still covering them. In fact, some ruins have yet to be properly excavated.
However, there are many ruins in Rome underground that have been excavated, and which can be seen in their maybe-not-full glory (yet oh so interesting) today. I have been to many of them (and counting) so here’s my personal collection of what to see in Rome underground.
What To See In Rome Underground
Beneath the beautiful Renaissance and Baroque buildings of the Piazza Navona lies an altogether more ancient wonder: the Domitian Stadium, perhaps the most famous place to visit in Rome underground.
Located 4.5 meters beneath the present-day ground level, the stadium – also known as the Circus Agonalis – was created on the orders of Emperor Titus Flavius Domitianus (aka Emperor Domitian) in 80 AD. Intended as a gift to the people of Rome, the great stadium was a ground for hosting athletic contests, and is estimated to have had seating for an audience of around 30,000 people.
Today you can descend into this underground world and find out more about the history of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, and learn more about the ancient Roman Empire.
Address: Via di Tor Sanguigna, 3, 00186
Domitian Stadium is open every day from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm (8:00 pm on Saturdays). I wholeheartedly recommend booking a guided tour (at least with an audioguide) to make sense of what you see. You can book your guided tour of Piazza Navona, which is about one hour long, here. For an audioguide tour of Piazza Navona underground, click here.
Head over to my post A Useful Guide To Piazza Navona.
The Trevi Fountain is busy day and night with visitors to Rome. But, as they throw their coins into the fountain, many visitors don’t know that there is actually a whole world of ancient history right beneath their feet.
Called Vicus Caprarius – and known as “The City of Water” – this collection of ruins comprises an ancient cistern, parts of an aqueduct, and the remains of a Roman villa. Though it was only discovered in the 1990s, this Rome underground wonderland actually dates back to the first century AD.
Address: Vicolo del Puttarello, 25, 00187
The Vicus Caprarius is open Tuesday to Sunday from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm. Advanced reservations are recommended at the weekend and you may also join a guided tour (or an audio-guided tour) to make the most of the experience.
For a guided tour of Trevi underground, click here.
For a combined tour of Trevi, Navona and the Pantheon, click here.
There’s not just one catacomb in Rome, but multiple – more than 60, to be exact, and taking up hundreds of kilometers of tomb-lined walkways. The only ones open to the public are the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, Callixtus, Priscilla, Domitilla and Sant’Agnese.
These ancient subterranean burial sites are where mostly Jewish, Christian and ancient Roman (i.e. Pagan) burials took place, starting in the 2nd century AD and ending around the 5th century.
Located near Caffarella Park, the Catacombs of Callixtus are one of the most famous in the city, possibly because they are the final resting place for many Popes. This set of underground tunnels runs for about 20 kilometers and was used between the second and fourth centuries.
Address (Catacombs of Callixtus): Via Appia Antica, 110/126, 00179
St. Callixtus Catacombs are open every day but Wednesday, from 9:00 am to 12:00 pm and from 2:00 to 5:00 pm.
For a guided tour of St. Callixtus Catacombs, click here.
For a guided tour of Rome Catacombs at night, click here.
For a guided tour that goes to the Catacombs, the Capuchin Crytps and to Appia Antica and the Parco degli Acquedotti, click here.
The Cult of Mithras seems to have been one of the most popular religious orders in ancient Rome, with its heyday from the 1st to the 4th century. This god was worshipped in a Mithraeum, a specially designed temple with specific attributes, examples of which can be found across Europe (even as far as London). However, it is also one of the least understood of Rome’s ancient mystery cults.
The fact that there were over 700 Mithraea in Rome says a lot about just how popular the cult was among the city’s populace. Though these hundreds of Mithraea either don’t exist anymore or have yet to be uncovered, there are still multiple Mithraea that have been discovered in recent years (from around the 1930s onwards).
The named and excavated Mithraea in Rome include those at San Clemente, Circus Maximus, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (one of the best preserved in Europe), Baths of Caracalla, Castra Peregrinorum and Santa Prisca Basilica, while the Domus of Apuleius houses the Mithraeum of the Seven Spheres.
Address: there are various around town.
The Mithraeum of Palazzo Barberini is open on the second and fourth Saturday of the month. Make sure to book your visit well in advance here.
The Mithraeum of San Clemente is open Monday to Saturday from 10:00 am to 12:30 pm and from 3:00 to 5.30 pm and on Sundays from 12:00 to 5:30 pm. You can book your visit here. For a guided tour, click here.
You can read more about Rome’s Mithraea in this post.
The macabre Capuchin Crypt is a world of skulls and bones of previous Capuchin friars that can be found beneath the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. The crypt – one of the most popular attractions of Rome underground – feels particularly gruesome, as the crypt is believed to have the skeletal remains of around 3,000 people on display around its several chapels.
The chapels have descriptive names such as Crypt of the Skulls, Crypt of the Pelvises and Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones. One of the most famous is Crypt of the Three Skeletons, with its foreboding plaque that reads (in five languages):
What you are now, we used to be; what we are now, you will be.
In order to make room for new bodies in the crypt, the bones of the longest-buried friar would be exhumed and used to decorate the space in patterns and geometric designs. The friars first arrived at the church in 1631, while the slightly spooky crypt itself – more of a memento mori (“reminder of death” and intended as an affirmation of life) than something to scare people – was opened to the public in 1851.
Address: Via Vittorio Veneto, 27, 00187
For a guided tour that also goes to the Catacombs and to Appia Antica and the Parco degli Acquedotti, click here.
Don’t forget to read my post A Guide To The Capuchin Crypt.
Tucked away beneath the floors of the Vatican City lies some very interesting archaeological excavations. Between the depths of 5 to 12 meters, below St Peter’s Basilica, there is a necropolis, or collection of tombs, that dates to Imperial Rome.
This was originally a burial ground built on the slopes of the Vatican Hill. It was against the law to bury people within the walls of Rome, and so this area – then outside the official boundaries of the city – was one of the places where burials occurred.
It’s suspected that within this complex of subterranean tombs is the grave of St Peter the Apostle. There are signs that show that this was a place of early Christian veneration of St Peter. Therefore, it’s one of the most important sites in Rome underground.
Address: Piazza San Pietro, 00120 Città del Vaticano
The site can be visited from Monday to Friday, from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, and on Saturdays from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm. This part of St. Peter’s Basilica can only be visited on guided tours that must be booked beforehand by sending a request to the Ufficio Scavi. To do so, visit this page (also check out this page for info on what’s requested to do the booking): it’s in Italian, but easy to understand. Tours last around 90 minutes. Kids under the age of 15 aren’t allowed.
The Domus Aurea (literally the Golden House) was the lavish palace complex that Emperor Nero built for himself following the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. It was situated on the slopes of Oppian Hill, which is itself part of Esquiline Hill.
Not much remains above ground; much of the Domus Aurea was stripped of its opulence by Nero’s successors, and left for ruins.
The complex was only rediscovered in the 14th century when a young Roman citizen fell through a hole in the ground, only to find himself in a chamber, surrounded by elaborate frescoes. Its discovery is thought to have directly inspired the likes of Raphael and Michelangelo, and actually considered to have played a large part in kick-starting the Renaissance.
The Domus Aurea is now a subterranean labyrinth of ancient wonders, which can only be visited on a guided tour arranged in advance.
Address: Via della Domus Aurea, 00184
Guided tours of the Domus Aurea last about one hour and 15 minutes; they are available in Italian and English on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and must be booked in advance here. Tours depart regularly from 9:15 am to 4:15 pm.
Part of the National Museum of Rome, the Crypta Balbi offers visitors the chance to experience much of the city’s ancient history through this underground excavation. Situated between Piazza Venezia and Largo di Torre Argentina, this subterranean discovery is actually part of the ancient Theatre of Balbus.
The theatre had a courtyard (or crypta) where audience members would go during intermission for refreshments, snacks and to socialize – this is what remains of the Theatre Balbi, which was built in 13 BC by Lucius Cornelius Balbus, who held the position of proconsul at the time. Yes, what you can see at Crypta Balbi is over two thousand years old!
Address: Via delle Botteghe Oscure, 31, 00186
Crypta Balbi is open Tuesday to Sunday from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm. You can get your tickets here.
Houses of Palazzo Valentini
Something of a hidden gem in the line-up of Rome’s ancient monuments, the Houses of Palazzo Valentini are located below the palace of the same name, which was built in 1585 on the site of a pre-existing palace. But for many centuries, the underground world of the palazzo was unknown.
Recent excavation work 7 meters below street level has revealed a complex of residential buildings and bath houses. The tour of this very urban set of ruins takes visitors along walkways raised above mosaics, the ruins of houses and ornately decorated walls. Multimedia projections and soundscapes are used to give visitors an idea of what the place may have looked like.
Address: Foro Traiano, 85, 00186
The Houses of Palazzo Valentini can be visited every day but Tuesday, from 10:00 am to 7.00 pm. Advanced bookings are recommended: you can get your tickets here. Guided tours are available in Italian, English, French and German.
Houses of the Caelian Hill
For more in the way of domestic Roman remains, make sure you head to the Roman Houses of the Caelian Hill. This residential complex was found beneath the 4th-century Basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in the Celio district; specifically, they were discovered by the rector of the basilica in the 19th century.
In total, twenty rooms across five different buildings were uncovered – dating from between the 1st and 4th centuries – many of which were beautifully frescoed. As well as apartments, other buildings such as a Mithraeum reveal the varied history of the area. The houses are so well intact that they are considered to be the best preserved ancient Roman residences in existence.
Address: Piazza Dei SS. Giovanni e Paolo, 00184
The Houses of the Caelian Hill can be visited on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Tickets must be booked in advance here.
For a guided tour of the Houses of the Caelian Hill, click here.
Check out my post The 7 Hills Of Rome.