Everyone loves Rome; I guess that’s why all roads lead there and bring zillions of tourists each year. However, what many of them don’t realize is that there is so much more to this ancient city than the street-level archaeological sites they visit, such as the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.
The Eternal City is actually an underground labyrinth of antiquities, some revealed and many yet to be uncovered. Intrepid travelers should know that many of them are also accessible and oh, so much fun to visit. In a city that is over 3,000 years old, it would be impossible to list all of the underground treasures, so here are the top 3 of Underground Rome, at least in this wanderlust woman’s opinion:
- Crypta Balbi – is a small museum with a wealth of offerings into the dark ages of Rome’s history. It is actually a working archaeological site. You enter at street level, leaving modern life behind, and descend into centuries of ancient life, complete with insula (Roman apartment buildings); a lime kiln, ancient bathrooms and more. It is right near the Trevi Fountain. Many artifacts are housed in the street-level museum but you will need a guide to take you through the subterranean archaeological site, so inquire at the ticket window. It is well worth the visit. (By the way, it is a recent discovery by Roman standards, having only been unearthed in 1981 and open to the public twenty years later. It is called the Crypta Balbi because at one time it served as the Theater of Balbus, one of Caesar Augustus’ most important military advisors.)
- Church of San Nicola in Carcere – this is an unassuming church on Via del Teatro Marcello. From the outside you see some old columns and crumbling walls and it may appear to be any old church. Ah, there is your first mistake. This church was built on and in the site of the Forum Holitorium, the ancient food and oil market of Rome. The outer columns actually date from the 3rd century B.C. and the ruins in the back church yard are equally as ancient. The columns are the remains of the Temple of Juno and now built into the walls of the modern day church, which is about 400 years old. Below ground are bits of the Temples of June and Spes. There have been reports of a church on this site since the third century although the commemorative plaque on the current church dates from 1128 A.D. You are allowed to enter and go below the altar. This was spooky and quite mysterious for a Catholic school girl who didn’t think anyone but priests could enter below the altar or sacristy. Once down there, peak through the windows which lie between the ancient columns. It is a strange view of how layers of history lie just below the surface of everyday life in Rome.
- Vatican Necropolis (a/k/a – Scavi) – this is the ancient necropolis under the Vatican and admission is reserved to a select few each day (unless you’re on one of the lucky When in Rome tours). You descend under the most notable church in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica, through 16 centuries of history, viewing ancient paths and tombs, seeing preserved frescoes, until you come upon what is believed to be the grave of St. Peter. If you want a sneak preview before your Roman adventure, the Vatican offers a great virtual and interactive tour on its website.
Solo Traveler Tip – all of these sites except the Vatican Necropolis are open during the evening hours and will give the single tourist something to do in this city with so much to offer.