Rome is one of our favorite cities on the planet. It may well be our very favorite city. We have concluded each of our Italy trips with a stop in Rome. However, there is one place we had never experienced in Rome until quite recently: visiting the Appian Way and the Catacombs of San Callisto.
When it comes to Rome, certainly the most famous and most visited site is the massive and historic Colosseum. Throughout the city, there are literally dozens of incredible historic sites to experience. Even outside of the city, travelers often head for Ostia Antica or the joint sites of Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este in Tivoli. In truth, about a dozen of Italy’s famous landmarks are all located in or around Rome. But overlooked is another important site, the famous road known as the Via Appia Antica in Italian and named after Emperor Appius Claudius Caecus.
This engineering marvel was constructed between 312–264 B.C. and connected Rome to the coastal city of Brindisi. This was essentially a military road during the Samnite Wars. It also had the handy benefit of essentially providing an overland route to the Adriatic Sea and the further reaches of the empire.
In fact, this was the most important road in the entire Roman Empire. This section of roadway was also the start to a whole network of roads that were eventually built within the Roman Empire.
A few thousand years later and yes, it still exists. The most accessible part of the Appian Way from Rome is the area near the Torre di Capo di Bove (an archaeological ruin of ancient baths). This begins the really scenic section of the road with massive cobblestones Cypress trees. Today, Fiats rumble along the cobblestones, but back during the Roman Empire, carts would be pulled along by horses or slaves.
From the Capo di Bove, we walked slowly back towards central Rome along cobblestone roadway. We stopped to admire an old “Via Appia Antica” sign, which harkens back to the ancient history of this road.
The first major site we came across is the Circus of Maxentius, a beautiful sprawling field that had several ruins. It is the second largest circus in the Roman Empire, yet only held games one time. Despite being ruins, the Circus of Maxentius is actually the best preserved Roman circus in the world.
Unfortunately, you can’t get into the site and we were only able to take pictures through an iron fence by the side of road.
Our next destination was across the Via Appia Antica, but is a site that is also extremely historic: the Catacombs of San Callisto. We’ve visited catacombs in Paris, Lima, and Alexandria in Egypt, so we thought we knew what to expect from the catacombs. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Catacombs of San Callisto are still run by an order of the Catholic Church. The site has chambers that are an impressive four levels of underground, with only a few open to visitors. The mandatory guided tours are offered in many languages, and the English one we took with an Australian priest was informative (and actually kind of humorous).
When compared to catacombs in other places, the San Callisto Catacombs are remarkable for two significant facts. First, it was the early burial ground for most of early Christendom, including at least 16 Popes (including Pontian, Anterus, Fabian, Lucius I, Eutychian, and Sixtus II).
Second, there are absolutely no bones visible. What is a catacomb without bones? The grounds of the San Callisto are gorgeous and a nice area to walk around (we even saw a few local residents jogging through the grounds).
The Appian Way in Rome is not among the top tourist sites in city, but it is full of history and a very different experience from the rest of the city. This was the perfect way to end a trip to Italy!
Visiting the Appian Way Rome
Getting to the Via Appia Antica
The easiest way to explore the ancient Via Appia Antica is to take a taxi out to the sites, which can be a bit expensive. Tell the taxi driver “Via Appia Antica” and you want to be dropped off at the Torre di Capo di Bove.
Getting Back to Rome
After leaving San Callisto, jump on the Bus #118 and take it back into Rome. It will follow the historic roadway and you can experience just what a “road massage” is as those cobblestones do their job. The bus will drop you off at the Piramide metro stop, where you can take the metro elsewhere in the city.
The Catacombs of San Callisto
The Catacombs can only be visited on a mandatory guided tour, which is offered frequently in many different languages by priests. Please note that photography is prohibited inside, although photos are available in the rather expensive book in the gift shop. Full details on visiting can be found here.
Use Caution While Walking
The ancient roadway is now a modern thoroughfare. The road can be packed with cars and there is very little space to walk. There are also no sidewalks and the road can be quite narrow in places. Watch your head and arm as the mirrors on passing trucks and cars can be quite painful when they hit you. Above all, be extremely careful as you walk along the roadway.
Where to Stay in Rome
There are tons of hotels in Rome, many are smaller, independent businesses. Check the latest prices on Rome hotels here.