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

Domus romane of Palazzo Valentini underground ruins

The (many) archaeological sites in Rome are fantastic. For most, though, you need to use your imagination to picture what those crumbling ruins once looked like. And for those who aren’t ancient-history experts — or who aren’t particularly passionate about the whole ruins thing to begin with — that can be a little tough. Even for sites as amazing as the Colosseum and its underground.

Enter Palazzo Valentini.

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The Five Best Ways to Beat the Heat in Rome

Pool at the Colosseum, a way to beat the heat in Rome

In case you haven’t heard, it is really, very, ridiculously warm in Rome right now; this week, temperatures are hitting 95°F. And even if you’re coming in the “fall,” don’t kid yourself: The heat traditionally continues into September.

Visiting the Eternal City during the hottest months? Here, five top tips for beating the heat in Rome. 

Head underground. It’s always much cooler in the subterranean world—sometimes so much cooler, you’ll wish you brought another layer. The best part? Since 60 percent of the ancient city of Rome remains buried underground, some of the best sites in the city are down there! Consider the catacombs, ancient underground cemeteries where thousands of Christians were buried; booking a (super-cheap) visit to the Columbarium of Pomponio Hylas; or the underground of the Basilica of San Clemente (bonus: the church itself is naturally cool, too), among many other sites.

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome Start going to church. Rome’s churches aren’t just religious sites: They’re treasure troves of art, history, and architecture. Thanks to their thick stone walls and shaded spaces, they’re also naturally air-conditioned (yay!). Find cooler temperatures and get away from the crowd by heading to the ancient Basilica of Santa Sabina (complete with 5th-century door); the Gothic gem of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, right near the Pantheon (above); or the Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati, with its 13th-century frescoes. And that’s just for starters.

Sightsee at night. The hottest hours in Rome tend to be from about noon to 5pm — prime time for sightseeing. So instead of trudging around in the heat, check for any “extraordinary openings” of sites at night:

Park of Monte Mario, RomeHead to the hills. The famed “seven hils of Rome” are just a start. Rome has even more hills than that, and many boast leafy parks and lovely views of the city, making them the perfect escape spots for summer. Some of my favorites: the Janiculum hill, famed for its views; the Villa Borghese, Rome’s answer to Central Park; the Villa Celimontana, next to the Colosseum; and the nature reserve of Monte Mario (above).

Take a dip. The heat really getting to you? Take a break and go to the pool. Although outdoor pools are few and far between in Rome’s center, one of the most convenient is the swimming pool in the Celimontana, just a stone’s throw from the Colosseum. It’s not cheap, costing €16 on weekdays (€10 for kids under 10) and more on weekends. 

My advice? Since Rome gets hottest in the early afternoon, do your sightseeing (maybe even of the forum, Palatine and Colosseum) in the morning, break for lunch, and then reward your family by heading to the pool at 2pm, when prices drop to €10 per adult and €6 per child. The pool stays open till 7:30pm, so you still have plenty of time to relax… and cool down. Here’s more info on the OS Pool at the Colosseum.

[Update, 7/3/2012: It’s now €20 on weekdays,€25 on weekends, without mention of a child’s discount. It’s also €15 for a half-day on weekdays and €20 for a half-day on weekends].

Want more tips about what to do in the Eternal City? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!

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The Colosseum Opens at Night

Colosseum at night
We'll add it to the list of cool ways to see the Colosseum: The Colosseum is now open at night.

Every Saturday until September 17, the Colosseum will be open from 8:20pm to midnight. (Last entrance is at 10:45pm). It costs €18 to visit the Colosseum and the Colosseum's "Nero" exhibition, or €23 to also visit the Colosseum underground, with a guide. To book, call +39 0639967700. For more information (in Italian), click here.

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Opera in Rome, Outdoors, at the Ancient Baths of Caracalla (Updated for 2013)

Baths of Caracalla at nightThere's nothing like seeing opera in Rome… especially when it's outdoors, backdropped by the ancient Baths of Caracalla.

Once again this summer, Rome's 3rd-century baths are hosting one of Italy's most famous summer opera series (there are ballet performances, too). And it's definitely worth doing.

The enormous Baths of Caracalla, which deserve a visit in their own right, are especially atmospheric at night. And so they're a breathtaking (if not always entirely plot-appropriate) backdrop for some of Italy's best-loved operas and ballets. The indoor performance space of Rome's Teatro dell'Opera is wonderful, too. But in summer, there's nothing quite like catching the performances out in the fresh air, with the colored light playing on the ancient ruins.

The Teatro dell'Opera summer 2013 lineup includes not only opera, but ballet and concerts. Top picks include an American Ballet Theatre production by Robert Bollet and friends on July 21 and 22, the one-off concert directed by Ennio Morricone on July 25, and, of course, the classic, Puccini's opera Tosca, from Aug. 1 to 6. 

Tickets start at €25, but I'd advise springing for the more-expensive seats. (The "cheap seats" are all the way on the sides, where it's be hard to see much at all). When I went, I sprang for a middle-of-the-road €60 seat, which had a great view… even if the plastic chair still had me squirming with discomfort by the show's end.

Book your tickets for the Baths of Caracalla performances online, by calling 800 907080
(from abroad, 0039 (0)6 48078400), or buy them ticket points around the city. If you're a student, under 25, or older than 65, with your ID, you can get 25 percent off. 

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Confirmed: The Colosseum’s Underground Is Open Through September

Colosseum underground and third level now open thru September

Hot off the press: The Colosseum's underground and third levels will be open… through September!

After that, though, there's not only no confirmation that those newly-restored areas will be open — but it seems likely they might close, at least temporarily. That's because September is when Rome plans to start a $35 million restoration (paid for by the Tod's shoe company!), and with work going on, who knows what will be open.

Then again, it's Italy, so who knows if the restoration will really begin in September, either.

For more information, check out my post on the three best ways to see and to book the Colosseum's underground; what the new areas of the Colosseum look like; and a step-by-step guide to booking the Colosseum through the Pierreci phone number.

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On Rome’s Aventine, the Ancient Basilica of Santa Sabina

Ancient Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome

As well as the perfect place for a stroll, the Aventine hill is chock-full of some of Rome's best, ancient gems — including the Basilica of Santa Sabina.

After all, Santa Sabina doesn't just have ancient origins. It's also, in many ways, still ancient.

What do I mean? Well, the Basilica of Santa Sabina was founded in the 5th century. (It was built on the house of Sabina, a Roman who later was named a saint). Incredibly rarely for any "ancient" church, though, it also retains its ancient character… and architectural details.

The church's exterior looks like it did in the 5th century. That elaborate wooden door, covered in panels depicting Biblical scenes, was carved in 430-432. The 24 marble columns in the nave were "reappropriated" from the neighboring Temple of Juno.

And, while the vast majority of the gorgeous, sumptuous mosaic that once would have covered the interior has disappeared, the original 5th-century dedication of the church remains, in Latin, above the doorway.

Original inscription in the ancient Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome

Even the "newer" parts of the church are, um, old. The chancel's marble furniture was added by Eugenius II in the 820s; the windows also date to the 9th century. The campanile was built in the 10th century. That's not to say that the church hasn't been through changes. Pope Sixtus V remodeled the interior along Renaissance lines in the late 16th century; that was all reversed, though, from 1914-1919, a process that involved taking marble fragments from the pavement and piecing them back together into their original form — the 9th-century marble furniture. That kind of painstaking attention to detail is why, walking into Santa Sabina in the 21st century, you can feel transported back more than 1,500 years.

And if you're lucky enough to be in Rome at the time a tour by Roma Sotterranea or Roma Sotto Sopra is running, you can be transported back even further. Because, beneath Santa Sabina, lie (but of course!) ancient ruins. In 19th and 20th-century excavations, not only were huge chunks of the Servian wall, built in the 4th century B.C., found — but, built into the walls, private homes from the 2nd century B.C. and even a small, 3rd-century-B.C. shrine. This is why I'm a fan of these underground sites: There's nothing like descending beneath the modern world, standing in a room with nearly-pristine stone walls, or next to the tufa stones laid by Romans 2,350 years ago, to make you feel like a time traveler.

Whether you're on a tour or not, also see if you can get a peek at the Dominican convent of Santa Sabina, too. The convent still has the cell where St. Dominic stayed. It's since been turned into a chapel… by none other than Gianlorenzo Bernini.

Cell of St. Dominic, now a chapel by Bernini, in the convent of the Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome

Santa Sabina is located at the Piazza Pietro d'Illiria, on Aventine hill; here's the location of the Basilica of Santa Sabina. It's open from 7:30am-12:30pm and 3:30-5:30pm.

You might also like:

The Mausoleum of Santa Costanza: Ancient Mosaics and a Round Church

Galleria Borghese, One for True Art-Lovers

Why, Why, Why Does Rome Have So Much Graffiti?

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The Colosseum’s Underground: More Good News

Underground of the Colosseum, now open through July

Everyone’s still excited about the opening (and then re-opening) of the Colosseum’s hypogeum and third levels. Now, there’s more news. And it’s especially exciting for travelers hoping to get into the underground this summer.

First, Colosseum has confirmed that it’ll be running tours of those newly-opened areas through July, rather than ending in June, as previously announced.* And, although it’s not confirmed, rumor has it that the hypogeum and third levels will proooobably also be open through October.

*Addendum, April 5: After being closed due to floods, Colosseum officials just announced that the underground will reopen this Saturday, April 7.

*Addendum, Oct. 20: The Colosseum hypogeum and third tier will be open through December.

*Addendum, Sep. 25: The Colosseum underground will be open through the end of October.

Second, before, the Colosseum only was allowing access to the hypogeum and third level via its own tours, given by official Colosseum guides. (Even tour agencies selling the Colosseum underground hand their clients over to official Colosseum guides for the underground part of the tour). But that’s changed. Now, one agency, Walks of Italy, is using its own guides for the hypogeum and third level on the VIP Colosseum underground tour. And, although I’m obviously a bit biased (full disclosure: I used to work for these guys), I think this is an alternative to consider.

Why? Well, even though the official Colosseum guides know their stuff, they can also be a bit, erm, dry. (Your spiel would start to sound dull, too, if you’d been repeating it five times a day for the past 10 years). And not all of them speak that great of English.

So, from what I can see, there are now three main ways to get into the Colosseum’s underground.

Here they are:

Colosseum tour only, with a Colosseum guide. I outlined how to book this tour in an earlier post about booking the Colosseum’s underground. The cheapest way is to book by phone, at least if you have Skype’s Skype-to-phone set up or a great long-distance plan. Otherwise, you can book by using a website like Omniticket, but these sites charge a premium for the convenience. (And all they’re selling you is the official Colosseum tour that you’d get by calling Pierreci).

The facts: Costs €21.50 (if you book directly over the phone). Takes about 1 hour. Only covers the Colosseum and its underground. You use an official Colosseum guide (not always a good thing). Maximum group size is 25.

The complete ancient city tour, but where you’re handed over to a Colosseum guide. This option would be Dark Rome’s Colosseum underground, forum and Palatine tour. They’re one of the only agencies I can see that offers access to the underground as part of a bigger ancient city tour (i.e., not just the Colosseum), but they don’t do the Colosseum underground part with their own guides.

The facts: Costs €92. Takes 3.5 hours. Includes the Colosseum and its underground, along with forum and Palatine. For the Colosseum part of the tour, you’re handed over to an official Colosseum guide; for the rest of it, you use a Dark Rome guide. Maximum group size is 10; for the Colosseum part, it’s 25 (since you’re put onto the bigger group).

The complete ancient city tour, with your own guide throughout. So far, only offered by Walks of Italy on its VIP Colosseum Underground Tour with Roman Forum & Palatine Hill tour.

The facts: Costs €79. Takes 3 hours 15 minutes. Includes the Colosseum and its underground, along with the forum and Palatine. For the Colosseum part of the tour, you get to keep your own Walks of Italy guide. Maximum group size is 12, throughout the whole tour (since you get to keep your guide).

Options galore!

You might also like:

The New Areas of the Colosseum: What They’re Really Like

(Fun!) Books for Readin’ Up on Rome

Rome’s Best Archaeological Museum: Have You Been?


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Crypta Balbi, a Rome Museum with an Underground Secret

Part of the underground of Rome's Crypta Balbi, a national museum of Rome

It’s probably the most-overlooked museo nazionale Romano — but for a history buff, or someone simply trying to wrap their head around Rome’s many, many years of evolution, the Crypta Balbi deserves a stop.

The museum’s big claim to fame is that it stands on remains of the Theater of Balbus (13 B.C.), and you can still go down and see the ruins, today hidden beneath the modern museum (above). While that’s cool — and, after such neat underground experiences as the columbarium of Pomponio Hylas or the Mithraic temple beneath the Circus Maximus, I’m aware I might be a bit jaded biased — it wasn’t, for me, the best part of the Crypta Balbi. Particularly as the signs for the underground section were rudimentary and confusing, making it near-impossible for anyone but an archaeologist to be able to figure out what was what.

So why go to the Crypta Balbi?

In all honesty, because it’s the first museum I’ve found that lays out what the historical center of Rome looked like in ancient times, in the Middle Ages, and through to today. With accompanying artifacts.

No, it’s not with cutting-edge technology. But those maps and pictures? They’re pretty darn helpful. Now, when I walk past the Largo Argentina or by the Theater of Marcellus, I have a much, much clearer image in my mind of what not just particular buildings, but whole neighborhoods, would have looked like. (Below, the Crypta Balbi area in the late-antique and medieval periods). Map of Crypta Balbi and ancient Rome in Museo Nazionale Romano

Map of Crypta Balbi and ancient Rome in Museo Nazionale Romano
The artifacts in the museum, meanwhile, are actually much more extensive than I’d expected, with artifacts like the Forma Urbis Romae, a 60-by-45-foot marble map of the city that Emperor Septimius Severus mounted in the Forum to help 3rd-century visitors to the city. (Today, obviously, only fragments remain. But it’s still cool to see).Forma Urbis Romae, marble map of ancient Rome, in Crypta Balbi, Rome

Despite its treasures, the Crypta Balbi isn’t a particularly large museum. And that’s kind of nice. It means you can easily see the underground, look at all the artifacts, and wrap your mind around ancient Rome in about an hour and a half. And, after a day at the Vatican or an afternoon at the Palazzo Massimo, don’t discount the merit of not being exhausted after a museum trip.

The Crypta Balbi is open daily from 9am to 7:45pm, except Mondays. The ticket (€7 full, €3.50 reduced) is valid for three days at not only the Crypta Balbi, but also the Palazzo Massimo, Palazzo Altemps, and Baths of Diocletian. It’s located at Via delle Botteghe Oscure 31. Here’s a map of Crypta Balbi’s location.


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Happy Open-Museums Holiday!

Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome - one museum open for Easter

Even crazier than the idea of a ginormous, gift-giving bunny is the fact that, on Easter, Rome actually keeps its museums and monuments open. Instead of closing them, which is usually par for the course on national holidays.

Like last year, therefore, you can look forward to lots of sites being open this Easter Sunday and Monday (including even those museums that would normally be closed Mondays). Sites open include the Colosseum, Borghese Gallery, Ara Pacis, Palazzo Massimo, Capitoline Museums, Palazzo Barberini, Galleria Corsini, and Castel Sant'Angelo (above). The exceptions: MACRO Testaccio and La Pelanda, which will remain closed. 

So you can sightsee as much as you want to! And that leaves just one big question: which restaurants will be open for Easter.


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The Week of Free Museums Across Italy… Is Here!

Raphael's Entombment at the Borghese Gallery, Rome

Hurrah — the "week of culture" is here!

From now until April 17, Italy's state-run museums and sites are free. (Yay!) In Rome, that includes the Colosseum, Forum, Palazzo Massimo, Galleria Borghese (where you can find Raphael's beautiful "Entombment," above) and Baths of Caracalla… to name a few. Take advantage!

Here's a complete list of sites with free entrances this week, from Pierreci (click on the drop-down beneath the map on the right to choose your region — Rome, of course, is Lazio).

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