Rome with Kids: 8 Ways to Make Sightseeing Fun (Or At Least Less Painful)

Traveling in Rome with children

Want your kid in Rome to look as happy as this one? Then you’ll need to do some planning…

Sightseeing with kids in Rome? The bad news: Because of their skew towards art, history, and archaeology, some of Rome’s sights can seem less than immediately child-friendly. The good news: There’s enough here to keep kids entertained and happy. If you do it right. Truly.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re sightseeing in Rome with children.

1) Make sure you don’t stand in any lines

Kids hate standing in line as much as adults do. They’re just (usually) worse at hiding it. So make sure you avoid the lines at the top sights. At the Colosseum, use a RomaPass or get your ticket at the Palatine or Forum entrance; at the Vatican, cough up the extra €4 (yes, per person) and book your Vatican museums tickets in advance.

2) Know the limits of thy stroller

Rome by stroller

Okay, these stairs to Santa Maria in Aracoeli might be a little tough with a stroller…

I’ve said it before: Rome is a city best explored by walking. That might be fine if you have a super-energetic 10-year-old. But traveling with a toddler? You’ll definitely want a stroller.

Just bear in mind that Rome is a city of cobblestones and ruins. Translation: Any stroller you bring should have nice, sturdy wheels. It should also be light, because you’ll sometimes wind up having to fold it up and carry it—at the Colosseo metro stop, for example (there’s no elevator, just stairs), or at your B&B or hotel (many have tiny elevators, or sometimes no elevator at all).

Also keep in mind that you won’t always be able to use your stroller. They’re forbidden in St. Peter’s Basilica, for example (you can check them before you enter). So it might be a good idea to also bring a backpack child-carrier.

One thing not to worry about? Getting strollers on and off buses and public transportation. Yes, it can be daunting—but you’d be surprised at just how many strangers will help you with the task.

How to travel with kids in Rome in a stroller

Make sure you have a sturdy stroller for all the cobblestones!

3) Hit up sights children will love

I promise that they exist. Some favorites:

Palazzo Valentini makes ancient Rome come alive in a way I haven’t seen in Rome before; because it’s very dark, which can scare little ones, it’s best for ages six and up.

I haven’t done this yet myself, but at Gladiator School, kids (and adults) can try their hand at being gladiators, donning their tunics and duking it out with foam swords. Talk about making history hands-on. Apparently, even toddlers can participate.

Exploring the “hidden” ancient ruins beneath Rome’s churches, like at San Nicola in Carcere or the Basilica of San Clemente, turns a church visit into an Indiana Jones-style adventure for older kids.

Underground in Rome with kids

The underground of San Nicola in Carcere

For children who like the creepier side of things, the catacombs are as spooky as they get. You’re lucky if you see a bone, though (most were cleaned out by relics-seekers and grave-robbers years ago), so for that, head to the Capuchin Crypts, where the walls and ceilings are decorated with bones and the actual bodies of the deceased on display.

The “Mouth of Truth” is pretty goofy—it’s a possibly-ancient marble image of a face that gained worldwide fame after Audrey Hepburn stuck her hand in in Roman Holiday. And there’s always a line in high season. But I know I dragged my dad there when I was 13.

These days, Piazza Navona is essentially a breathtaking tourist trap. But the square does buzz with street performers and caricaturists, making it a draw for families. And during Christmas season, it’s home to Rome’s most famous Christmas market.

5) Find the kid-friendly parts of more “adult” sights

Like at the Vatican museums. Which—let’s be honest—can be tough with kids: There aren’t many places to sit, eat, or go to the bathroom, and unless you sprint through the long halls, it’s tough to get in and out in less than two hours, minimum.

Given that, one part you don’t want to miss? The Egyptian section, which even displays a 3,000-year-old mummy with her hair and toenails still preserved. (Ew!).

6) But remember that (almost) anything can be made interesting to kids

Seeing art in Rome with kids

Raphael’s frescoes in the Chiostro del Bramante

I mean, yes, the finer points of Renaissance art are lost on most 6-year-olds. But there is always some way to bring it down to your child’s age level. (This is coming from someone who spent a childhood of being endlessly entertained in art galleries and historical museums. No, I’m not being sarcastic. And it’s due to my family, who seriously tried to always make sure I connected, somehow, with what I was looking at. Thanks, Mom!).

Case in point: Old Master paintings. Of saints. In a museum. Not something you’d assume was child-friendly. Right?

But maybe it can be. Maybe you can, say, find an art guide to the museum—a book in the bookstore, or even just the museum brochure—and your 7-year-old can try to find the “matches” of the images in the brochure with the paintings she sees on the wall.

Or maybe you and your 10-year-old can play a game of “name that saint,” since artists generally characterized different martyrs and saints in consistent ways (St. Jerome is usually old with a red hat and a lion nearby, St. Peter has the keys, St. Sebastian holds some arrows). Or maybe your 13-year-old will be intrigued by the gory stories of why the martyrs are depicted that way (St. Sebastian has arrows because… he was shot full of arrows during his martyrdrom!). Or maybe, if neither of you know, you can try to figure it out and retell what you think is going on in the painting.

Make anything child friendly in Rome

Make this Pinturicchio painting (in the Borghese Gallery) into a game of “Name That Saint”!

Or maybe you just give your kid a sketchbook and your whole family spends 20 minutes sitting and drawing in front of a painting that catches your eye.

Seriously. You can make almost anything fun. And when all else fails, well, there’s always that coloring book/iPhone game you brought along.

7) Think about taking a family-friendly tour

Telling stories about saints and martyrs is a lot easier when you know the stories. Oh, you don’t?

That’s when a tour guide comes in handy.

A great, enthusiastic tour guide can bring art and sights to life, for both adults and kids. In Rome, one sights where I think that’s an especially valuable option is the “ancient city,” i.e. the Colosseum Palatine and Forum. After all, there’s so much storytelling potential here: The history of these sights is full of blood and gore, treachery and romance, pagan rituals and horrible punishments. And (did I mention?) it’s all true!  

How to make the Roman forum child friendly

The forum: a little daunting for parents (and boring for kids) unless you plan it right

But if you don’t know the stories yourself, or if you have a dry audioguide, or guidebook, or tour guide, then all of that gets lost. And that’s a shame. So no matter what tour company you go with, just make sure their guides get top points for being exciting and enthusiastic.

I promise that after you’ve had a guide bring the ruins to life, your child will be psyched for the “ancient Rome” unit in school.

Another tour I’ve come across that’s perfect for kids is Walks of Italy’s Rome food tour with pizza-making class and gelato. Yes, these are the guys I used to blog for; they’re also the only tour company that offers a Rome food tour that includes not only tons of tastings and a market visit, but a hands-on pizza-making class. Pretty fun, especially for children.

8) Don’t discount Rome’s parks

In Rome with kids? Head to a park

The kid-friendly Villa Borghese

Rome’s parks offer, obviously, green space for kids to run around (or rest) in. And (bonus!) they often sneak in “cultural sites,” like ancient ruins or Renaissance villas, too.

If you’re near the Colosseum, for example, considering taking a rest or a picnic in the Villa Celimontana, a 16th-century estate turned public park that’s strewn with the remnants of ancient temples and palaces, including columns, statues and a temple altar. There’s even an ancient Egyptian obelisk inscribed to Ramses II from the 13th century B.C.

Near the Spanish Steps and Piazza del Popolo? Head to the Villa Borghese, Rome’s answer to Central Park. It has fantastic museums, but also fountains, a (small) pond where you can rent boats, lots of shade, and the opportunity to rent those funny pedi-cabs you can pedal around the park. In Trastevere, the Villa Pamphili has plenty of space for little ones to run around.

Farther out, the Appian Way is a park where you can rent bicycles and bike along the 2,300-year-old Roman road, checking out spooky catacombs along the way. And the Park of the Aqueducts is a cool glimpse of how ancient Romans brought water into the city.

 

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See the Colosseum—and Its Underground—Under the Stars

Colosseum now open at night
Looking for another unique way to visit the Colosseum—and its underground? How about at night?

Not for the first time, but now nightly until October 5, Rome is opening up the Colosseum to nighttime visitors. Talk about a more tranquil, and spookier, way to visit Rome's bloodiest and most depressing  most famous archaeological site. 

The catch: because the visit includes the underground, it has to be on a tour led by a Colosseum official, which has its pluses and minuses.* Available times are at 8:20pm, 8:30pm, 8:40pm, 8:50pm, 9:20pm, 9:30pm, 9:45pm, 10pm, 10:15pm, 1o:30pm, and 10:45pm. Booking is required; reserve your spot by calling +39 0639967700. The cost is €20, including your Colosseum ticket.

*Pluses: You'll almost certainly get more information on a tour with an official guide than, say, from a guidebook. Minuses: The official guides do this tour over and over and over, meaning the million-and-first time they give the tour—in other words, when you happen to be on it—they often have very little enthusiasm for the subject left. Also, their English can be middling to poor.

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The Colosseum Underground Reopens (Again)

Colosseum underground reopen for Easter
The hypogeum of the Colosseum reopens this Saturday, April 7th. After being closed for nearly six months due to flooding, it's practically an Easter miracle!

(And yes, officials announced today that it will be open in two days. Welcome to Rome).

If you didn't even know that the Colosseum underground was closed, I don't blame you. Lots of tour operators were still selling the underground as if it was. But rest assured: It was.

For more on the Colosseum underground, check out my previous posts. This post looks at the three major ways you can visit the Colosseum underground (all are tours). I also have a guide to how to book the Colosseum underground and a post highlighting what the Colosseum underground is really like.

Happy underground-ing, and Buona Pasqua!

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Can You Guess Where, and What, These Little Bits of Roman Antiquity Are?

Ancient ruins in Rome
It's no secret that Rome is a city chock-full of the ancient past. Reminders of a city, and empire, of 2,000 years ago aren't just rife in the Forum, Palatine and Colosseum, but beneath churches like the Basilica of San Clemente and San Nicola in Carcere, acting as the main event in open spaces like the Park of the Aqueducts, and even serving as forums for everything from ballet and opera to light shows and displays. In short, ruins are everywhere.

Maybe that's why some of my favorite ancient ruins in Rome aren't the big, famous monuments. They're the little bits of antiquity that you simply stumble across: an ancient column sunk into the wall of an otherwise-unassuming apartment building, a still-running fountain with a wornaway face that you just know must be 2,000 years old. These can be tough to find. That's part of the fun.

Here, I'll share with you my favorite "secret" bits of antiquity, tucked into street corners and buildings all across the city.

Can you guess where—and what—they are?

I've now published all of the guesses in the "Comments." To see how close you were, scroll to the bottom of this page for the answers!

Ready? Set? …Go!

1)Ancient column in Rome

2)Ancient decorations in Rome

3)Ancient ruin in Rome

4)Ancient ruin in Rome

5)  

Ancient ruins in Rome

6)Ancient wall in Rome

7)

Ancient columns in Rome

8)
Ancient ruins in Rome

Answers:

1) I started off with a stumper: This elaborate ancient column is at the Via della Maschera d'Oro and Vicolo di San Simeone, located in ancient Rome's Campus Martius. No one quite knew what this one was!

2) A couple of you got this. This is a detail of the lovely Arco degli Argentari, or "Arch of the Money-changers," commissioned by the local money-changers and merchants who were active in the area's Forum Boarium. The arch, which was finished in 204 A.D., was built in honor of Emperor Septimius Severus, as the inscription—just to the right of the bas-relief of Hercules holding a lion skin—says. In the 7th century, the arch was incorporated into the Church of San Giorgio in Velabro.

3) This one was tricky, but it's one of the coolest ruins around. This is—wait for it—one of ancient Rome's fire stations. Truly. In particular, it's the barracks for Brigade VII, and dates back to the 2nd century A.D. The brigade was in charge of not only preventing and extinguishing fires, but public safety, too, particularly at night. It's located at Via della Settima Coorte, 9, in the heart of Trastevere. (When you go, bring a flashlight to look through the grille underneath: You can still see one of the big rooms of the barracks).

4) This is a piece of the Virgin Aqueduct, the famous aqueduct built by Agrippa in the 1st century B.C. and that supplies water to the Trevi Fountain. Believe it or not, this original piece is just off Via del Tritone; turn on Via del Nazareno, at the Burger King, and look down and to the left.

5) Yep, this was a "duh"… but it was so pretty I had to put it in. This lovely ancient column is located on Via Margana, just a few steps from Piazza Venezia.

6) Lots of you got this. This is a big chunk of the 4th century B.C. Servian Wall, located at the Termini train station (if you go inside Termini, you'll see more of it in on the lower level, including a big piece by the McDonald's).

7) These ancient columns and frieze are sunk into the building at Via di Capo di Ferro, 31, just off the Piazza della Trinità dei Pellegrini.

8) An ancient portal on Via Margana, in Rome's Rione XI of Sant'Angelo, just a few steps from Piazza Venezia.

 

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Yes, You Can Buy Colosseum Underground Tours Online. But It Remains Closed

Colosseum underground, currently CLOSED

In mid-October, the Colosseum announced it would keep the hypogeum and third level open through the end of December. And then, just a few days later, it announced that, actually, the underground was closing—thanks to the flooding of the delicate underground area.

Let’s make one thing clear: Since late October, the Colosseum underground has remained closed. There has not been any announcement about when, or if, it will reopen this winter. [Update, April 5 2012: Colosseum officials just announced that the underground will reopen this Saturday, April 7].

But if, having done some research online, you’re confused about if that’s actually the case, I don’t blame you. Here’s why: You can still “buy” the underground tour online.

Different tour companies offer tours of the Colosseum underground. The first, Walks of Italy—which I freelance for—immediately stopped selling its VIP Colosseum tour, which included the underground as well as the third tier, Forum and Palatine, as soon as the Colosseum’s underground closed. In other words, you can no longer book the Colosseum underground tour on their site.

Confusingly, however, Dark Rome is still selling the Colosseum underground tourand in their tour description, there isn’t any mention of the fact that the underground is currently closed (and has been for weeks). (Like Walks of Italy, their tour also includes the Palatine, Forum and the rest of the Colosseum). Even when I clicked all the way through to the checkout to buy the tour, there was no mention that the underground is closed.

To be fair, the underground could reopen, even in the next few days… maybe. But continuing to sell the tour as if it’s exactly the same, for €89, without a single mention that the underground is currently closed and no plans have been announced for its opening? Hmm.

To make sure I understood correctly, I emailed Dark Rome to ask if it was possible to book the tour to see the Colosseum underground for this coming week. The reservations agent replied quickly, telling me that yes, the tour was still running, although due to flooding, the underground would be closed.

I asked if the price of the tour was the same.”If you book this tour, we will refund 12% of the price of the tour after you have taken the tour. This is because we are unsure when the Underground will open,” she responded. But in a following email, she added, “This refund is only due if you take the tour and the Underground is closed. If the Underground is open you will not be entitled to a refund.”

So. Book now, and if—big surprise!—the underground is closed, something you’d have no idea of from their description, you get just 12% of your €89 back. Or about €10. After you take the tour.

Right.

You also can “buy” the underground Colosseum tour with Viator (which—can we finally clarify this?—is NOT a tour company, but a tour consolidator, one that sells lots of other companies’ offerings. In fact, I am 99% sure that this tour is the same one as Dark Rome’s). This description, too, makes it sound as if the underground tour is just fine and dandy. Even worse, the most recent comments that show up don’t mention that the underground is closed (at least they do on Dark Rome’s site). It’s sold as an “upgrade,” costing you, once again, €89.

Then there’s Tickitaly, which, from what I understand, sells the tour with an official Colosseum guide, charging more simply for the convenience of booking online. They’re still selling the underground tour, too.

At least, however, they have this paragraph: “Please be aware that it’s possible the dungeons may not be able to be visited. Recent flash flooding in Rome meant that the underground areas of the Colosseum were closed and as yet there is no firm news on when they’ll reopen—we expected it to be days, not weeks, and the authorities will give us no hard information. It’s usually the case that when something changes we’ll be given just a few hours notice and with this in mind we are still taking bookings for these tours, given that the upper levels are open and the dungeons may be open. We do not offer refunds if the underground areas are closed (for security reasons or due to flooding after heavy rain). Your guide will, nonetheless, give a full explanation and history of the subterranean zones.”

So… be aware. Even if you can “buy” this tour online, that doesn’t mean that Dark Rome, Tickitaly or anyone else has a secret access pass to get you into the flooded areas.

Underground-seekers, take heed. It’s tough to trust marketing these days.

Addendum: I thought long and hard about writing this, especially with the choice to include the names of the agencies in question. However, for purposes of transparency and delivering the most useful information to my readers possible, I’ve made it a policy on my blog to always include names of the places I’m writing about, including both places I love… and those that I think treat tourists unfairly. I don’t think vagueness serves anyone, least of all travelers trying to get a handle on a foreign city.

Finally, I’ve been following the Colosseum underground from the moment it opened. I have, for better or worse, helped create the buzz around it that there is. So I feel a little responsible for the marketing hoo-ha that’s ensued—and also feel that it’s my responsibility to expose when that marketing isn’t 100% honest. If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to contact me.

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The Colosseum Underground, Now Open Through December

Colosseum underground open thru December

The Colosseum has just announced—already!—that it's keeping the underground and third tier open through December.

That's particularly surprising news (in a good way), since some of us, myself included, thought they'd close the underground over the winter, as they did last year. Or close the areas temporarily while they started restoration work. But no… which is good news for all of those excited to see the hypogeum and third level!

[Latest update, April 5 2012: After being closed due to floods, Colosseum officials just announced that the underground will reopen this Saturday, April 7. Update, Nov. 2011: I spoke too soon. Please see this Nov. 27 post about the closure of the Colosseum underground from Nov. 27 2011 for a full update.]

The new details:

From Oct. 30-Dec. 31, English tours will run at 9:40am, 12:40pm, 1pm, and 2:20pm. If you go with a tour with an official Colosseum guide (a 2-hour tour that includes only the Colosseum, with the underground and third level), the price is €21.50, including the €1.50 booking fee. The maximum group size for each tour is 25 people. Call +39 06 39967700 to book; here's a Q&A on how to book with the Colosseum and what the underground tour includes.

Since the Colosseum guides can be quite dry, remember that you also have other options, including underground Colosseum tours with livelier guides from Walks of Italy or a tour with Dark Rome.

Any questions? Ask away in the comments!    

You might also like:

Where to Eat in Rome's Most Touristy Areas (Colosseum Included)

Twelve of My Favorite Churches in Rome

On Fridays Through Fall, See the Vatican Under the Stars

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Churches in Rome: 12 Favorites Beyond the Obvious (Updated for 2018)

Churches in Rome aren’t just holy sites. They’re treasure troves of painting and sculpture, mosaic and relics, even ancient ruins. Oh, and they’re free.

Which means you must visit at least some of them during your time in Rome. 

The problem, of course, is that there are also hundreds of Rome churches…. literally. Which can make it a little tough to figure out which churches in Rome to visit.

Here is my list of 12 Rome churches that, whether because of their ancient ruins or 12th-century mosaics, happen to fascinate me the most. I’ve chosen ones that are beyond the obvious — so no, you won’t find the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica here. 

If you make it, just make sure to double-check the opening times. There’s nothing more disappointing than arriving at a Rome church midday, only to find it (or a key part of it) closed — and many of these smaller churches tend to shut from about noon to about four. Also, keep some change with you, as some of them have frescoes and mosaics that you can light up if you pop a coin in the machine.

The church in Rome I love because… it takes you back in time

Best churches in Rome: Santa Sabina
The Basilica of Santa Sabina: my favorite church in Rome when I want to feel transported to another era.

There aren’t many churches in Rome that still look like they originally did — especially if they were first built in the 4th or 5th centuries. Most were significantly rebuilt later, especially in the Baroque period. (If you think every Rome church looks over-the-top, that’s why. In that period they really went for… baroque. <sorrynotsorry>).

But not the Basilica of Santa Sabina, on Aventine hill. This 5th-century church has been left largely untouched — meaning you can experience an ancient church largely as it would have looked like at the very start of organized Christianity. It still has its original, elaborately-carved wooden door and mosaic dedication, a cell belonging to St. Dominic later turned into a chapel by Bernini, and even underground 4th- to 2nd-century B.C. ruins (accessible by tour only).

One of my favorite churches in Rome, Santa Sabina
This might just look like a wooden door, if one with elaborate carvings. But what if I told you it was 1,500 years old?!

You don’t have to be an organized-religion lover to love this church. You just have to enjoy time travel.

Pro tip: After visiting the church, head next door to the Garden of Oranges for beautiful views of Rome — and then to the keyhole at the Order of the Knights of Malta for a very special photo op.

The church in Rome I love because… it’s different from the rest

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, one of my favorite churches in Rome
This church looks nothing like any of the others in this list — or around Rome. And that’s why I love it.

This stunning church is one of Rome’s very few Gothic churches, meaning it has a completely different style (one much more at home in, say, Paris) than the rest. I also absolutely adore its night-sky ceiling — that blue is such a vivid splash of color.

frescoes by Filippino Lippi in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
The frescoes by Filippino Lippi in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva are vibrant and stunning.

But that isn’t all that Santa Maria Sopra Minerva has to offer. It’s also got a sculpture by Michelangelo (…okay, more likely by his students), the body of St. Catherine of Siena (her head is in Siena…), and my favorite: lovely 15th-century frescoes by Filippino Lippi. They’re as beautiful as any Botticelli, and much more overlooked.

If that weren’t enough, I guarantee you’ll be passing right near this church anyway — it’s next to the Pantheon.

Pro tip: Don’t miss the bizarre sculpture of an elephant holding up an obelisk outside. The elephant is by famed Baroque sculptor Bernini — and the Egyptian obelisk dates back 2,500 years.

The church in Rome I love because… it has the most gruesome artwork you’ve ever seen

Basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo, one of my favorite churches in Rome
Look closely… if you dare.

For strong stomachs only, the Basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo, on the Celian hill, is decorated with 34 16th-century graphic frescoes depicting martyrs in all stages of torture. Even for the martyrdom-loving Catholic Church, it’s a pretty unusual sight.

Basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo, one of my favorite churches in Rome
As much as the paintings are gruesome, the church itself is pretty.

For those less gruesomely inclined, there’s another great reason to go: one of of few round churches in Italy, it was modeled after the Holy Sepulchre. Dating back to the 5th century, it still has a 6th-century mosaic too.

Pro tip: It’s easy to take an off-the-beaten-path stroll that hits up Santo Stefano Rotondo, San Clemente and Santi Quattro Coronati (see below).

The church in Rome I love because… it’s more like a castle (complete with medieval frescoes)

Santi Quattro Coronati, one of my favorite churches in Rome
The entrance to a castle… or a church?

Looming over the neighborhood of the Celio, in the shadow of the Colosseum, the Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati looks like nothing so much as a medieval castle. There’s reason for that: After it was sacked by the Normans (along with the rest of Rome) in the 11th century, it was rebuilt with fortifications. 

Frescoes in the Chapel of St Sylvester in one of my favorite Rome churches
It’s rare to see medieval frescoes in Rome — especially ones in this good of shape.

Still a cloistered convent today, it has a lovely Romanesque courtyard. But the real seller is the Chapel of St. Sylvester, which has a gorgeous 13th-century cycle of frescoes that are in a remarkably vivid and well-preserved state.

The church in Rome I love because… it’s a layer cake of historical eras

Just up the street from the Colosseum, the Basilica of San Clemente is a 12th-century basilica… built on top of a 4th-century basilica… built on top of first-century Roman buildings, including a Mithraic temple. Admire the gorgeous mosaic on the top floor, then descend below. It’s one of the coolest underground sites in Rome.

The Basilica of San Clemente, a favorite church in Rome
The Basilica of San Clemente looks like a sunken old church from the outside — but inside it’s an extraordinary layer cake of eras.

The downside? The cost. A couple of years ago, they upped the entrance to a hefty €10. That shouldn’t keep you from going in — even in a city as rich with history as Rome, this church really is unique. It does, though, mean I’d strongly recommend that you either take a guided tour or pick up a guide in the gift shop before you go down. It can be confusing to figure out what’s what otherwise.

The church in Rome I love because… you can walk on ancient Roman street — underground

Church of San Nicola in Carcere
Church of San Nicola in Carcere, one of my favorite churches in Rome

What makes the Basilica of San Nicola in Carcere unusual is that it was built incorporating three ancient, Republican-era temples — and you can still see their columns in the exterior.

Underground of San Nicola in Carcere
The underground of San Nicola in Carcere: It’ll take you all of three minutes to see, but you’ll probably be the only one down there.

Plus, for just a couple of euros, you can descend into the underground to see the temples’ podiums and even ancient money-changers’ stalls. (Compare that to San Clemente’s new, steep €10 price…).

Pro tip: You’re around the corner from the Jewish Ghetto here, a lovely place for a stroll — and a strong choice for food. Give the tourist traps on Via Portico d’Ottavia a skip and head to Al Pompiere instead.

The church in Rome I love because… it’s completely off the tourist path

To be fair, most of my favorite churches in Rome are. But because it’s just out of the center — in an area frequented by students, not tourists — this is one that feels even more like a local secret.

San Lorenzo fuori le Mura
San Lorenzo fuori le Mura is one of my favorite spots for peace and tranquility.

San Lorenzo fuori le Mura is a 5th-century church with vibrant Byzantine mosaics. And the remains of St. Lawrence, St. Stephen and St. Justin. And 13th-century frescoes on the exterior (below). And the slab on which Lawrence was ostensibly grilled to death in the 3rd century.

If that weren’t chilling enough, there’s always the cemetery next door to take a stroll in, too.

One of my favorite churches in Rome, San Lorenzo
Those frescoes are looking pretty good for being outside. And 700 years old.

The church in Rome I love because… it’s as pretty inside as its courtyard is outside

The Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, a favorite church in Rome
The Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere is beautiful outside — and even more beautiful inside.

Built in the 9th century, on the spot where St. Cecilia was martyred in the 3rd century, the Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere has a laundry list of extraordinary objects. That includes a beautiful 9th-century mosaic, 13th-century frescoes by Pietro Cavallini, and excavations of two ancient Roman houses below that you can visit. It also has a famous sculpture by Maderno of Cecilia’s body as it was found — incorrupt — when exhumed in 1599. Not to mention one of the prettiest courtyards I’ve ever seen (above).

If you only make a couple of stops in Trastevere, this should be one of them. Truly. 

The church in Rome I love because… those mosaics though

It’s true that several churches in Rome have extraordinary Byzantine mosaics (see: Basilica of San Clemente, Basilica of Santa Prassede, Basilica of Santa Costanza…). But. It’s hard to beat the number, or quality, of glittering mosaics here at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. The outside is decorated with 12th-century mosaics; the inside, 13th-century mosaics by the famed artist Cavallini.

The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of my favorite churches in Rome
How beautiful are these mosaics?

If that weren’t enough, this 4th-century church could be the first church in Rome in which Mass was openly celebrated. And it overlooks one of the loveliest, liveliest piazzas in not just Trastevere, but all of Rome, with the streets surrounding filled with restaurants and bars — meaning it’s the perfect place to duck in for a look-see before aperitivo or dinner.

The best churches in Rome
It’s the perfect pre-dinner hangout spot.

The church in Rome I love because… it’s survived the Mafia

The Church of St George in Velabro, a favorite church in Rome
The Church of St George in Velabro has survived 1,500 years… and a car bomb.

Don’t let its seeming simplicity fool you: San Giorgio in Velabro is a gem. Built in the 5th-century, today it’s a thoroughly Romanesque church, albeit one that boasts the bones of St. George and lovely frescoes from 1300. And, having survived a Mafia car bomb in 1993, it gets major points for endurance.

San Giorgio in Velabro, a favorite church in Rome
Don’t just walk past this ancient arch — stop and take a close look for a hidden family drama…

Pro tip: Take a close look at the ancient arch seemingly built into the left side of the church’s exterior. In particular, look for the spots where it seems like people were carved in, then scratched out. That’s because they were. After he became emperor, Caracalla had all memory of his brother — who he had killed — erased from monuments like this one.

The church in Rome I love because… it’s like a little jewel box

Often overshadowed by its larger, more famous neighbor, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, the Basilica of Santa Prassede on the Esquiline (at the edge of Monti) is absolutely worth adding to your list. (Think of it as the Sainte-Chapelle to Notre Dame: Yes, you have to visit both, but who doesn’t love the Sainte-Chapelle even more?)

It’s pretty nondescript from the outside, but don’t let that fool you.

Basilica of Santa Prassede in Rome
It’s easy to walk right by…

A 9th-century church that still retains its original frescoes and mosaics, this Rome church is a gem that, literally, sparkles. (This is one where you definitely want to bring some change to light up the mosaics).

Built on the spot where tradition holds Prassede hosted St. Peter in her house, it also has the tombs of the saints Prassede and Pudenziana. But, really, it’s all that glittering gold that gets me every time.

The Basilica of Santa Prassede in Rome
…but don’t.

The church in Rome I love because… it’s an homage to an ancient ‘princess’

While it’s a little off the beaten path — albeit near the catacombs of Sant’Agnese, for anyone making a catacombs stop — it’s well worth the visit.

Rome’s only other round church, the Basilica of Santa Costanza was originally built as a mausoleum for Emperor Constantine’s daughter in the 4th century. Today, it’s one of Rome’s oldest churches. It’s also the only other round church in Rome, along with Santo Stefano in Rotondo (see above).

One of the best churches in Rome
A round church with 4th-century mosaics? Pretty special.

Better yet, it still has its original mosaics from the period, meaning it’s a fascinating stop for anyone interested in how Rome turned from paganism to Christianity.

Liked this post? You’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Updated, Expanded and New for 2017/2018, which includes many more tips and tricks like these in more than 200 information-packed — but never overwhelming! — pages. It’s 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.
 
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At—and Under—San Nicola in Carcere, Three Republican-Era Temples

San Nicola in Carcere a church in Rome

The Basilica of San Nicola in Carcere is way more than just another cool underground site in Rome.

That's because while the church's subterranean ruins are neat—and more on them in a moment—one of the most interesting things about San Nicola is that you don't have to go underground, or even inside, to see the church's ancient origins.

Just look closely at the exterior (pictured above*). See those columns on the left (pictured again below)? Those are from the Temple of Spes, or Hope, built all the way back in 250 B.C. The two middle columns, which blend into the current facade of the basilica? They're from the middle temple, built in honor of Juno in the 2nd century B.C. and rebuilt in 90 B.C. And the columns all the way on the right? They're the remnants of the Temple of Janus, the god of gates and beginnings, dating to a restoration by Tiberius in 17 A.D.

San Nicola in Carcere, with ancient ruins, in Rome

Unlike in other churches around Rome, these columns aren't ancient because they were brought here as part of the basilica construction. Instead, they were here first. And the church was simply built right into them.

To make that all clearer, here's an overlay of the basilica with the original temples.San Nicola in Carcere with ancient temples

The church itself probably dates back to the 6th century, but it was redone a number of times, most drastically in 1599. So even though the interior is lovely (below), the really cool part of the whole thing—at least for geeks like me—is the basement.  San Nicola in Carcere

For a measly 2 euros (or, if you want a brief guided tour in English or Italian, 3 euros), you can descend beneath the altar, into the crypt… and then into rooms beyond. I visited for the second time today, and there was nothing like being alone with these ruins.

What's down there? The bases of the temples, of course! Remember that the ground level has risen in Rome—particularly here, next to the flood-loving Tiber River—so what was ground level in the first centuries A.D. is now below-ground. (That's the basis, of course, for all of the "underground ruins" here in Rome. Except for the catacombs, which were obviously dug to be underground to begin with). So it's here, not above, that you can see the actual podiums of the various temples.

Granted, that translates into big tufa blocks and brick walls, and not much else. So for artistic merit alone, sites like Palazzo Valentini and the Columbarium of Pomponio Hylas still win. But here's what the San Nicola in Carcere ruins have going for them: They're old. Really old. Older than any of that stuff (in fact, they're some 500 years older than the villas at Valentini). That's because they're Republican-era temples, not Imperial—and that's pretty special to see.

San Nicola in Carcere ruins underground

My favorite part is the last room, where you can see the base of the Temple of Janus on the left and that of the Temple of Juno on the right. In between, there's an ancient Roman path that would have run between the two, complete with a series of small cells, once built into the temple's axis, that likely were ancient currency exchange offices. In ancient times, after all, this was a bustling market area: During the Republic, the three temples formed the centerpiece of the Forum Horitorium, where fruits and vegetables were sold.

Ancient temples in San Nicola in Carcere
Ah, I do love a church with ruins. Don't you?

San Nicola in Carcere is located at Via del Teatro Marcello 46, near the Jewish Ghetto, Trastevere, and Piazza Venezia. Here's a map of the location of San Nicola in Carcere. Both the church and the ruins are open daily from 10am-5pm. Visiting the underground alone costs 2 euros; they give you a basic information sheet (there's one in English, too) and there are various English and Italian informational signs underneath, so while it's much easier to have it explained to you, you could scrape by on your own if you wanted. If you want the brief tour, in (not necessarily great) English or Italian, it's 3 euros. What a bahhh-gain!

You might also like:

The Renaissance's Bloody, and Papal, Borgia Clan

Can't Find Your Favorite Italian Food in Rome? Here's Why

Rome's Coolest, Most Cutting-Edge Ancient, Underground Site

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Confirmed: The Colosseum Underground and Third Tier Are Open Through October

Update, October 2011: The Colosseum has just announced that the underground and third level will remain open through… Dec. 31!

After weeks of wondering whether the Colosseum underground and third level would be open in October, good news: They are. Colosseum management Pierreci just confirmed the hypogeum and third tier opening through the month.

As before, these areas are open only to those on specified tours, and must be booked in advance. (The official, Colosseum-run tour, which is one of several options that I explain in the next link, is about an hour long. It includes only these new areas, although the guide will of course be talking about the Colosseum in general, and you'll be left in the Colosseum itself afterwards to explore the rest on your own). Here is more information on the different tours available of the Colosseum underground; here are some photos of what to expect of the Colosseum's underground and top tier.

I'll be updating this post with more information as it comes in—such as whether the areas will be open in November—so keep checking back here.

 

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