The Best Underground Tours of Rome – Discover Rome Catacombs, Crypts and Ancient Churches

There is something intriguing and mysterious underneath the Eternal City. Every time I take an underground Rome tour, I discover another piece of history that was saved from oblivion.

It’s fascinating to realise that under all the beautiful buildings you see and photograph when you visit Rome hides a whole world. Taking one of the many underground tours of Rome, be it a Colosseum underground tour or a Rome catacombs tour or descending to a Domus, will capture your imagination and make for an unforgettable trip.

Top private underground tours of Rome and my experience

Which catacombs to visit in Rome? Where are Rome crypts and catacombs? Which private tours of Rome show you the underground world?

We did our best to give you an exhaustive outline of the best underground Rome tours to explore what lies beneath our gorgeous surface.

Sure you will love the food, it’s Italy after all, you will be amazed at the beauty of Bernini‘s and Borromini‘s masterpieces in Piazza Navona and Michelangelo’s La Pietà in Saint Peter’s Basilica, before gaping at his biblical frescoes gracing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

However, the real deal if you want to get spooky is right underneath these gems, where the local administration keeps finding Roman ruins, guilty for the repeated halts of the never-ending digging for the third line of the subway.

One of the best Rome underground tours and my experience

Dominating modern street view, don't miss the Colosseum underground
Dominating modern street view, don’t miss the Colosseum underground

As I was planning something alternative, not the usual man-made wonders you can see under the sun, I took a  fantastic underground Rome tour to see some hidden historical wonders. I loved visiting the crypt under the Capuchin Friary at Chiesa dell’Immacolata to Rome catacombs.

Capuchin crypt tour in Rome

Despite the first unwelcome surprise of not being allowed to take photos, the crypt delivered what its reputation promised: an eerie cemetery where only a handful of its alleged 3,700 corpses are buried according to the proper Christian ritual, while the rest couple of thousands are pieced together and displayed for posterity. The sacred place has been hosting the remains of the Capuchin friars from the above monastery until 1870. Periodically, corpses had to be exhumed to make space for other bodies and their bones were kept in a charnel house, until they decided to expose them in a creative way.

As soon as I entered, I sneaked across a narrow corridor flanking a series of crypts and chapels. I soon found the Resurrection Crypt, where human bones are set as a very artistic frame to the painting representing the Christ resurrecting Lazarus.

Still in slight disbelief from seeing so many bones all at once, I resumed my unusual journey and arrived at the crypt of the skulls, with a winged hourglass symbolizing the time flying on display. I carried on at the crypt of the pelvises, the one of the tibias and femurs and the one of the three skeletons. Here was a small skeleton, belonging to a princess of the Barberini family, hanging from the ceiling, with a scythe, symbol of Death, on her right hand, and balance scales, symbol of divine justice, on her left hand.

And if this wasn’t creepy enough, on the floor of one of the first chapels/crypts there is a stone slab with a gentle reminder: “What we were, you are now. What we are, you will be”.

Entering Rome Catacombs of St. Callixtus
Small chapel at the entrance of Rome Catacombs of St. Callixtus

A day around Rome catacombs to round off my offbeat weekend

Since I was bent on devoting the whole time to the afterlife, if Saturday was crypt day, Sunday saw me descending to the dark universe of Rome catacombs, the very first, primordial churches where Christians used to hide from those Roman emperors who felt threatened by the other, newly discovered, divine entity. Despite the very funny priest-guide, visiting the Catacombs of Callixtus felt like motioning towards a dripping humid underworld. Lying beneath the storied Ancient Appian Way, the oldest, longest and strategically most important roads that connected the heart of the bygone Roman Empire to its southern provinces of Apulia (today’s Puglia), Callixtus’ Rome Catacombs are a damp, dark, underground cemetery where martyrs, new Christians and sixteen popes were buried.

Fifteen hectares of walled niches dug to house dead bodies is what unfolds before visitors’ eyes. Seldom, rudimentary chapels decorated with primeval frescoes interrupt the clean-cut graveyard. At the beginning of the tour, a quick introduction doesn’t quite prepare to the dew beneath, that in many translucent pearls clothes the gloomy interior. The bones were removed to stop tourists’ grotesque souvenir-taking, except from the last chamber of our visit, where three corpses are laid on their coffins, bones and hair still visible. One of the chapels is devoted to Saint Cecilia, patroness of musicians. The girl, belonging to a noble Roman family, was made a martyr in the third century and buried where now is her statue. Here she has been worshiped for at least five centuries, until 821 AD, when her relics were moved to the basilica devoted to her in Trastevere.

There are sixty catacombs in Rome, but only five are open to the public, and Callixtus’ are the biggest ones. Apart from being the cemetery of early Christianity, they were also the place were worshipers used to hide to celebrate their functions, at least until 313, when Emperor Constantine issued the famous Edict of Milan, proclaiming freedom and tolerance for all religions. Even after the Edict, however, many people kept burying their loved ones there, as they wanted to stay connected to where members of their families had been resting in times of persecution.

Famed “sampietrini” pave the way of most of Rome’s city center. Enemies of motorbikes and stilettos and expensive to maintain, the sampietrini are what makes the old town look so charming.

Apart from the modern tarmac, the Ancient Appian Way retains much of its old charm, and today is still one of the best-preserved examples of imperial infrastructure, of paramount importance for connections with southern trade ports and Greece, to the extent that Romans used to call it Regina Viarum, the queen of all roads. D.H. Lawrence might not have appreciated “the all-conquering” Romans’ personality, as he liked to define them in his Etruscan Places, but sometimes, when I wait for delayed buses and trains, or I get stuck in traffic, or I argue with seemingly deaf office clerks, I find myself thinking that Rome might have been better organized back then than it is now.

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33 Comments
  1. Beautiful photos Angela! :)

    Yup, it was a lovely day out, coupled with some very tasty Italian food! :D

  2. Ha ragione Vladimiro,a Roma non finisci mai di stupirti e scoprie cose nuove, anche se ci vivi da anni!

  3. Dommage que tu n’aies pas pu prendre des photos dans les catacombes,mais ton article aiguise la curiosité. Encore un site à ne pas manquer!

  4. Not sure if I’d make it to the catacombs! Your photos are so amazingly beautiful.

  5. Fascinating post and great photos Angela! i’ve yet to make it to Rome, so it’s really interesting to know the other attractions the city has to offer. Loved the pavings on the road. I have to agree with you that those samprietini makes Rome look even more classic.

  6. I’d love to visit this dark side of Rome. Of course, I haven’t seen Rome at all yet! Your photos are enticing me to get there soon.

  7. There is see Colosseum standing tall and Majestic ..wow Rome is a great city ,with narrow streets ,without awesome architecture ..I wanna be there

  8. What a shame the photos weren’t allowed. It really annoys me when I see those signs of cameras with a big red line through them.
    Hmm, we knew 24 hours was nowhere near long enough to appreciate Rome – but it’s all we’re gonna get – and the more I see in blogs, the more aware I become that our 24 hours is just going to be a tiny taster! Better than nothing though! :)
    Julia

  9. What a great idea to get to know the city better. But there’s always something creepy about going underground. I find you associate it with all the dirty little secrets of a place…

    • Interesting point, maybe it’s a bit true, dirty little secrets reveal much of a place, although sometimes they are just plain incidents. There are more quirky aspects of Rome I’m going to unearth while I’m here :)

  10. photos are splendid and i learnt much from your article dear.. i wish i cud make it to fly to italy !

  11. Great article. And I love the way you found a way around not being able to photograph the catacombs.

    • Thanks Vera, I would have loved to take some photos though, especially in the Capuchins’ crypte, while in the catacombs there was not much to capture, just a series of empty niches..

  12. Great description of what it was like. I felt like I was there. Can’t wait to go to Rome next month, it will be our first visit there.

  13. Now this is something I’m actually looking more forward to than the monuments. There is something about Rome (maybe since its so close to the Vatican) that gives it a creepy feeling – full of mystery. Or, maybe I just watch too many movies. I just love its history and I’ll definitely do this when I get there this summer.

    • Well, maybe at night it does get creepy.. I read somewhere that at the Colosseum at night you can hear the noise of fights and games, it’s considered a haunted place by some, never heard anything though ;)

  14. Wow! So creepy! I would LOVE to go there

  15. You always write such thought provoking posts. I would have never thought to look under Rome. Can’t wait to go back now.

  16. It’s fascinating to think about what lies under Rome’s streets. I finally made it to one of the catacombs on my 4th visit to Rome. I didn’t know that there were 60!

    • It’s amazing what you can find underneath Rome, really. We can’t visit all catacombs yet, but probably they’ll keep digging and even making new discoveries. Rome is a bottomless treasure trove!

  17. A unique side of Rome most people don’t think of. Great way to showcase it!

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