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!
The woman at Pierreci said that they aren't accepting reservations for today or tomorrow, so if you're looking to check the newly-restored areas — closed again since Nov. 30 — out over the weekend, go directly there.
But from Monday, you can make reservations for the tour that takes you into the hypogeum — the underground, "backstage" area where gladiators and animals would have waited for their turns to fight — and up to the third level, as well as onto the arena.
As in the fall, you can't see these areas without a guided tour. Unlike in the fall, Pierreci says that when you book, you also have to pay by credit card in advance. Pierreci told me that the cost is €9 for the guided tour, plus the €12 entrance ticket, and they said there is no reservation fee.
English tours are offered daily at 9:40am, 12:20pm, 1pm, 3pm, and 4:20pm. To book, call +39 0639967700. (They should speak English).
As anyone who's been to Italy knows, things are always changing here — or one department might say one thing, but another might say something else. So if anyone has a different experience with this, please let us know in the comments.
From now until May 30, some of Naples' top museums will be free. The fantastic Archaeological Museum, unfortunately, doesn't seem to be included, but the museum at Capodimonte (remember, the one with all of those famous pieces by artists from Botticelli to Caravaggio) is. That's €7.50 saved. You can buy two whole pizzas with that kind of change.
The Capodimonte, as well as the museum at Castel Sant'Elmo and the Certosa and Museum of San Martino, are free from 8:30am-10am and 4pm-7:30 through May. The museum Duca di Martina is free all day (8:30am-2pm). Click here for information on Naples' free museums from Pierreci.
Update, July 2011: It's been confirmed that the Colosseum's underground is now open through September… but possibly no later! Click the link for info on the three major (and only) ways to get to the Colosseum underground. (The post below gives you info on how to book by taking a tour with the Colosseum directly — but that's not necessarily, or always, the best way).
Update, March 2011: The Colosseum's underground has reopened! Some things, including the exact price and the ability to pay in cash on the day of, have changed. Click the link for more info.
Why is this special? It's the first time since antiquity that the hypogeum and third levels have been officially, safely open to the public. (Actually, even better than that, since even in antiquity the hypogeum would not have been open to the public). And it's the first time the arena has been open to the public during the daytime.
Do I have to book in advance to see the hypogeum and third levels? Yes, you must book in advance.
But why? Because the areas are archaeologically sensitive, they don't want the Colosseum's 19,000 or so daily visitors clambering around on their own. Instead, the Colosseum's official guides are taking groups to those areas, with a maximum of 25 people per group.
How do I book? The best (and, I think, so far only) way to book is to call Rome's cultural association, Pierreci, directly. Their phone number is +39 06 39967700. Websites might start cropping up soon, if they haven't already, offering to sell you these tickets online; they'll charge you a surcharge for this, so just call Pierreci instead.
Do they speak English? Yes, they should. If you can't follow the rapid-fire Italian for your options through the automated system, press 0 the first time you're asked a question, 3 the second time. (Assuming, of course, you're an individual booking for a group tour). That should bring you to an operator. Once you speak to someone, if you just ask, "Parla inglese?", you should be able to communicate with them in English fine. They are, after all, offering English guided tours!
But I don't want to make an international call. That's expensive. Download Skype (www.skype.com). It's a free voice-over-internet program and takes thirty seconds to download. It's intuitive, it's easy, and you can call phones internationally for much less than what most phone cards would cost you. Plus, calling Skype to Skype is free.
How much is it? It costs €12 (the normal entrance price, which includes your entrance to the Forum and Palatine), plus €8 for the guided tour, plus a €1.50 reservation fee. You do not pay in advance.
What times are the tours? I don't know, and I'm not sure there's a regular schedule. But it seems like lots of tours in both Italian and English (perhaps other languages, too) are being given. The operator will give you a list of times that you can choose.
Should I book now, or wait till I get to Rome and have more of an idea of my schedule? Book now. Seriously, everyone and their mother will want to do this. You need to get a slot as soon as possible.
How long are they doing this for? So far, till November 30. But I can't imagine they won't continue it after that.
So I have my reservation number, and I'm in Rome. Now what? When you go to the Colosseum, you'll see a long line on your right. Don't stand in it–that's for people without reservations. You also might see a long line on your left. Don't stand in that one, either, which is for big group tours. Instead, go down the middle. When a guard asks you for your ticket, say you have a reservation. He'll let you through to the ticket windows at the end. Get in the line for reservations ("prenotazioni"), which should be very, very short. At the window, present your reservation code. You're then given your ticket, plus a little sticker saying you're one of the chosen few for the tour. The meeting point is currently in front of the elevator, but that may change (like everything does!), so make sure to ask.
What if I have a RomaPass? If you tell the person at the reservation window that you already have a ticket to the Colosseum, you can pay just the reservation and tour fee and use your pass.
Can I use my ticket for something else? Yes. It's a normal, combined Colosseum ticket, so you can use it for entrance to the Forum and Palatine for the rest of the day and the following day (the deadline will be printed on your ticket).
What does the tour cover? The tour includes the hypogeum (subterranean area), arena, Porta Libitina, and third level.
How long is the tour? This morning, it took us an hour and a half to get through it all. I don't know if that's how long they'll all be.
Can I sightsee more around the Colosseum after the tour? The tour ends inside, so yes.
Is it worth it? Yes. It's incredible. And this is absolutely how the Colosseum is meant to be seen. Once you see the Colosseum from its almost-top, and peer up at the seating from where gladiators and animals would have waited for their turn, and walk through the gate where gladiators' dead bodies were taken out, you'll feel badly for those who "only" got to see the Colosseum's first and second levels.
Whew! I hope that covers everything, but let me know if I left anything out!
A guard allowing us up to the third level of the Colosseum.