Did you know there’s a pyramid in Rome? Neither do most people. And not only is there a pyramid, but it’s a pretty legit — and ancient — pyramid: dating back to 12BC, it was the over-the-top burial tomb of Caius Cestius, a Roman praetor with a thing for Egyptian style.
At 120ft (36m) tall, with a base of 97ft (29.5m) on each side, the Pyramid of Cestius is pretty hard to miss. It’s been largely overlooked for years, though, for a few reasons. For one, it’s located in Testaccio — a neighborhood that, while very much in the center of Rome, is just off the beaten tourist track. That’s changing, thanks to recent trends like the gamut of food tours that now run through the area. But the quarter remains less trodden than, say, the streets around Piazza Navona.
Not to mention that Rome’s pyramid was in bad shape. Once gleaming, white marble, it had become so dirty that, by the time I first laid eyes on it in 2009, it was a sooty, dark brown-gray. It was so bad that, having just scoured five years of photographs to see if I could find proof for you, it turns out I don’t have a single one — probably because, in all the dozens of times I walked past, it was so grimy I hadn’t felt moved to take a picture.
And finally, except for the occasional “extraordinary opening”, the pyramid was closed to visitors.
That’s all changed.
You’ve probably heard that a spate of restorations have been polishing up Rome’s grubbier monuments lately. Most famously, Colosseum is now gleaming clean. The pyramid, too, got the good old private-funding treatment, thanks to one Yuzo Yagi — a Japanese fashion tycoon who apparently fell in love with the pyramid in Rome and handed the city €2 million to clean. That. Thing. Up.
The cleaning, which started in spring 2013, finished in February. Let’s just say I didn’t know it was even supposed to be that color.
Also excitingly, it’s now open for tours. I went a couple of weeks ago, and while it’s hard to nab a spot — the group sizes are limited, and the visits run only on weekends — it’s really worth it. Why? For one, because it’s the only way you can actually go inside the pyramid.
To set expectations: there isn’t a lot in there. It’s a small chamber that was long since emptied of any valuables, burial urns or treasure. King Tut’s tomb this is not.
But. The ancient Roman frescoes on the walls — showing the pagan predecessor to angels and other decorations — are a treasure in their own right.
Not only that, but the tour gives a great insight into not only the pyramid, but the entire area. I thought I knew ancient Rome. But I’d had no idea that, for example, this whole area was an ancient Roman cemetery — the pyramid would have been just one of a number of tombs, most long since lost.
The big caveat? At the moment, the tours, which are an hour long and must be reserved in advance, are in Italian only — something that might change as more English speakers sign up. However, if you can get a group together (or you just are so excited to see the pyramid in Rome that you want to splash out!), you can book a visit with a guide that speaks English (or French, German or Spanish) for up to 20 people for €130.
Now that I’ve gotten my enthusiasm out of the way, a little bit of straight talk: unless you’re super interested in why a politician would build himself a pyramid in Rome, if it’s your first time in the city and you only have two or three days, this isn’t something I’d put at the very top of the list. There are just too many other extraordinary sites and museums: the Forum, Colosseum, Palatine Hill and Pantheon (duh), but also Palazzo Valentini, Palazzo Massimo, Domus Aurea and Appian Way, to name a few.
But if you’re looking for something “new” to do — not to mention explore inside something most people don’t even know exists — put the pyramid on your list.
To book a tour of the pyramid in Rome, you have to call +39 06 399 67700 (don’t worry, someone will speak English). You can find out the hours that the booking system is open, and when tours are given, on Coopculture’s Pyramid of Cestius booking page. The pyramid is located in Testaccio, right at the Piramide metro station, just two stops on Line B from the Colosseum (yep, that’s where the stop gets its name).
If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.