Top 7 Underground Landmarks in Rome
Like other European cities such as Paris or Naples, Rome features an astounding number of underground remains among its attractions: this is because the modern city has been built above one colossal archaeological site, which actual size we will probably never get to know.
While some parts of it are lost forever to subway tunnels, pipelines or other infrastructures, some of the most fascinating sites can still be visited to this day: they include catacombs, temples and shops. I selected the top landmarks that you can explore while visiting.
1. Basilica di San Clemente (Saint Clement’s Basilica)
A stone’s throw from the Colosseum and Forum, this church is gradually becoming more popular, but it is still very possible to be the only visitors there on some days.
Travelers eager to learn about the mysterious history of Rome will have a blast here: the medieval church from which you enter is built on top of a 4th-century basilica was erected using the remains of the mansion of a Roman aristocrat.
And it doesn’t end there! That’s because the basement of the mansion itself used to be a mithraeum (a temple for the cult of ancient god Mithras) and had been built over the remains of another Roman villa adjacent to the Imperial Mint, both destroyed during the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD.
Confused? You’re not alone! This is exactly why this site is a must-see: the visit sheds light on just how many layers are there in underground Rome, and walking through the narrow passages and staircases is enlightening.
Open daily from 9AM to noon, from 3PM to 530PM; on Sundays from noon to 530PM.
2. Domus Aurea (The Golden House)
Speaking of the Great Fire of Rome, a couple of blocks away from Basilica di San Clemente, the Colle Oppio (Oppian Hill) Park houses the unassuming entrance to one of the city’s greatest underground buildings — the Golden House of Emperor Nero.
While the jury’s still on whether he’s to blame for the fire that destroyed the city, we definitely know that he took advantage of its outcome, and leapt at the chance to use the suddenly cleared grounds at the base of this hill to commission a new Imperial residence. We also know that this ended up being at least 1 kilometer wide. However, most of the facts about the Domus Aurea, as it was known when Nero was alive, are still unclear, mostly because the Colosseum and the Baths of Trajan were among the landmarks built on top of it.
Exactly because of this the Golden House can never be fully excavated. However, your visit will go on funding more archaeological surveys and, as a matter of fact, you will be shown around by the very archaeologists working on site. For this reason, booking an appointment is mandatory.
Open in the weekends from 915AM to 415PM.
3. Cripta dei Cappuccini (Capuchin Crypt)
Way before Napoleon (yes, that Napoleon!) made a specific law on the establishment of municipal graveyards, people used to be buried in, well, creative ways in many cities across Europe. Monks, for instance, didn’t let their confreres go even after death, which is why a place like this one exists.
The underground chambers of the church of Santa Maria della Concezione host tiny chapels where Capuchin friars have used the bones of 3,700 of their brethren as decorations. Creepy? For sure. But it’s also a one of a kind landmark (more places like this one existed in Rome, but have gone lost to the urban development of the capital).
Open daily from 9AM to 630PM.
4. Necropoli Vaticana (Vatican Necropolis)
This is the destination of the well-known “Scavi” (“Excavations”, literally) tour in Vatican City, which needs a bit of planning — because this is right below St. Peter’s Basilica, it is deemed to be one of the most exclusive underground visits in all of the Boot, with just 250 people allowed in each day.
Booking is mandatory, and you have to hope that Vatican officials won’t cancel (that is known to have happened) as the area is used to this day for religious ceremonies. Tourists will get to see what is below the world’s most famous basilica — an astounding Roman and early Christian cemetery where St. Peter himself is said to be buried.
Open Mondays to Fridays from 9AM to 6PM; on Saturdays from 9AM to 5PM (last visit starts at 330PM in the fall and winter, at 415 in the spring and summer).
5. Crypta Balbi (Balbus’ Crypt)
Leaving the ruins at Largo di Torre Argentina behind as you’re headed to Piazza Venezia, you would never guess that busy Via delle Botteghe Oscure hides an undeground treasure. Lined as it is with offices and shops, it’s hard to even guess where the Crypta Balbi is, unless you happen to glance down one of the glass doors midway down the road.
The perfect example of just how many landmarks hide in plain sight in Rome, the Crypta Balbi hosts ongoing archaeological excavations happening behind the walls of what was once a church-cum-nunnery. Not that you can tell by peering at this small museum from the outside — the external perimeter looks like any apartment building in the area. Instead, its basement hides the entrance to the Theatre of Lucius Cornelius Balbus, a general who served under Julius Caesar.
The museum is the actual arcaded courtyard to the theatre, located behind the now gone stage: audience went here and relaxed in between shows. You can follow a trail to what has been discovered following that — including remains that are not just from the Roman era.
What’s extra intriguing about this site is that it is a part of Museo Nazionale Romano, the National Roman Museum, with several branches all over the city center: buying a ticket here means you can visit all the other wings for free (which I highly recommend you do!).
Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 9AM to 745PM.
6. Catacombe di San Callisto (Catacombs of Callixtus)
Rome is the home to roughly 60 different catacombs, so how does one go about choosing just which one to visit? I picked the Catacombs of Callixtus because they’re the largest (they extend for over 20 kilometers, even though you won’t be able to visit all of them) and most important. This underground site hosts a record number of 16 tombs of as many early Christian popes, in addition to a few dozen martyrs.
The location is also extremely convenient, because being on the Appian Way, not only you will get to visit this top Roman landmark (a must- see)! You will also be able to visit other nearby catacombs, if you feel like there is still an underground itch that you need to scratch: the main one being the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian, also a highly recommended visit, but you could be looking out for the nearby Catacombs of Praetextatus.
Open Thursdays to Tuesdays from 9AM to noon and from 2PM to 5PM.
7. Bunker di Mussolini (Mussolini’s Bomb Shelter)
Not everything that’s below ground in the city dates back to the ancient Romans, which can be refreshing if you’re tired of seeing tombs and cemeteries.
This underground landmark, for instance, only dates back to the 1940s, and consists of three different bomb shelters built for Benito Mussolini and his family as air raids became more frequent over Italy. The third one was never completed, as the Duce fled Rome after the appointment of Marshal Pietro Badoglio as head of the government in 1943.
A private association of local historians and speleologists called Roma Sotterranea sets up guided tours of this particular site every weekend. Booking is mandatory, and at the end of the visit you will exit in beautiful Villa Torlonia, one of the recommended parks for a picnic in Rome!
Open on Saturdays and Sundays at 10AM, noon, 3PM and 5PM.