The miles of underground cemetery that comprise the Roman Catacombs are some of the oldest burial tunnels in the world. Located just outside the city and hidden deep underground, the catacombs were created in the second century in response to a shortage of land for deceased’s remains. Today the narrow tunnels are eerily quiet and full of Roman history, including some of the best-preserved early Christian frescoes and sculptures—and, in the bone-adorned Capuchin Crypt, a Caravaggio. Look out for ancient wall paintings and mosaics lining the walls, as well as the catacombs of St. Agnes, Domitilla, and Priscilla, home to the oldest known depiction of the Virgin Mary.
As burial inside the Roman walls was forbidden by law, you’ll find the catacombs of Rome—of which there are at least 40—on the roads just outside of the city itself. Five are open to visitors, including St. Sebastian and St. Callixtus, both of which are located on Via Appia Antica. A trip to the catacombs is often combined with a visit to the Roman countryside and the ancient Appian Way, either on foot or by bike. Choose a tour tailored for kids and families, one focused on ghosts and mystery, or a walking tour with skip-the-line access to beat the crowds. For an exclusive after-hours experience, tour the crypt at night when it’s closed to the public. English-speaking guides explain past burial rituals and give historical context to the sights.
Things to Know Before You Go
Due to the delicate nature of the surroundings, travelers cannot visit the catacombs independently; all visits must be part of a guided group or private tour. Admission includes a guided tour.
Tours and group visits can be arranged upon arrival at the most popular catacombs, but visits must be booked in advance at the less-visited areas.
Catacomb tours are not recommended for travelers who may get claustrophobic due to the small spaces.
Catacombs are holy places, so guests should dress appropriately—all should cover their shoulders and thighs. It’s best to also have a light jacket, as it can get cold underground.
How to Get to There
You’ll find the Roman Catacombs on Via Appia Antica, Via Ostiense, Via Labicana, Via Salaria, and other roads. They can be reached by public transport on various metro and bus lines. Many tours depart from Rome’s Piazza Barberini.
When to Get to There
Most of Rome’s crypts and catacombs are open year-round from 9am to noon and from 2 to 5pm, though typically they are closed on Sundays. Compared with world-famous attractions in Italy such as the Colosseum, they are less visited. Still, limited access to the catacombs makes booking in advance a good idea, especially around Easter and between May and September, when Rome swarms with travelers. The cool catacombs make for a great break from Italy’s summer heat, but the quieter months are recommended for thinner crowds.
Rome’s Strangest Sight?
Perhaps the most interesting sight in the catacombs is the Capuchin Crypt, or Bone Chapel, an area containing—and decorated with—the bones of 4,000 Capuchin friars. Crypt rooms are themed by different types of bones, from skulls to pelvis and leg bones.