The Christian catacombs of the Appian Way ★★

The Catacombs of St. Calixtus in Rome, Italy
Burial niches line the tunnel walls of Rome's Catacombs of San Callisto. (Photo by Jim Forest)

Rome's Via Appia Antica is lined by vast systems of underground tunnels where ancient Christians would bury their dead

A map of the St. Calixtus catacombs tunnels
A map of the St. Calixtus catacombs tunnels, which strech nine miles over four levels and 90 acres. (Photo courtesy of Notre Dame Architecture Library)

Burials were forbidden within the city walls of ancient Rome as early as the 5th century BC. The Romans—pagan and, later, Christian, began a habit of burying their dead along and around the Via Appia Antica, the Ancient Appian Way, one of the major consular roads connecting Rome with the Adriatic seaports of the south.

Though most patrician Romans built their tombs aboveground, the early Christians hewed miles of tunnels—or catacombs—out of the soft tufa stone beneath the surface to bury their dead and, during the worst times of persecution, hold church services discreetly out of the public eye.

A few of the catacombs are now open to the general public (see below), so you can wander through mile after mile of musty-smelling tunnels whose soft walls are gouged out with tens of thousands of burial niches—long shelves made for two or three each.

The requisite guided tours, hosted mainly by priests or monks, feature a smidgen of extremely biased history and a large helping of sermonizing.

Picking the right catacomb to visit

You could just pick one, though visiting two would give you some perspective (and variety). If I had to pick two to pair up, it would be San Domitilla and San Callisto.

Tips & links

Indivdual Catacomb info

View information for each Catacomb at their designated site:
St. Calixtus:
San Domitilla:
St. Sebastian:

How long do the Catacombs take?

Planning your day: Even if you're just riding a bus out here to explore one set of catacombs, figure on it taking half the day (2.5 hours at the very least, including transport).

If you want to see all of the catacombs (plus the other Appian Way sights), give it a full day—and have lunch at Hostaria L'Archeologia.

» Rome itineraries

Christian Catacomb tours

Take a guided tour of the Catacombs with one of our partners:

Pick your day wisely

Although each of the three major catacombs keeps the same open hours (9am–noon and 2–5pm) and charges the same admission (€8 each), they all close on a different day of the week:

So if you are gung-ho about it and want to hit all three, make sure you visit on a day when all three are open. (This, actually, is quite wise of them; that way, no matter which day you visit, at last two will be open.)

How to get to the Catacombs

  • Best strategy: If you're aiming to hit the highlights (the catacombs and Tomb of Cecilia Metella), either use the Archeobus (below) or do this: Take Bus 218 to hit San Callisto and San Domitilla; walk to San Sebastiano and then on to Cecilia Metella; then catch Bus 660 back to the Metro.

  • Bus 218: Leaves from the San Giovanni Metro stop (line B) and makes its way to the southern gates of Rome. It follows the Via Appia Antica for a bit, then veers right onto Via Ardeatina at Domine Quo Vadis? church. After another long block, the 218 stops at the square Largo M.F. Ardeatine, near the gate on the west side of San Callisto catacombs. From here, you can walk right on Via d. Sette Chiese to the San Domitilla catacombs; or walk left down Via d. Sette Chiese to San Sebastiano catacombs.

  • Bus 118: Leaves from in front of the Piramide Metro stop (line B). It swings by the Baths of Caracalla before turning south to follow the Via Appia Antica all the way past Domine Quo Vadis? and the east side of the San Callisto catacombs to the San Sebastiano catacombs. The bus then doglegs left to continue down Via Appia Pignatelli (an eastern parallel to the Via Appia Antica).

  • Bus 660: Leaves from Colli Albani Metro stop. it heads toward the Via Appia Antica, where it turns around just south of the Tomb of Cecilia Metella.

  • Bus 716: Really handy if you intend to start or end at the San Domitilla catacombs. It's the only bus that starts in the heart of Rome, at from Piazza Venezia, then runs down the river, cutting south between the Aventine and Testaccio, past the Piramide/Ostiense transport terminus, and on toward the catacbpoms area. Get off at a stop by the traffic circle where Via Odaleschi, Bompiani, and Delle Sette Chiese meet. From here, it's jsut a short walk easdt down Via delle Sette Chiaese to San Domitilla.

  • Archeobus: This open-top tourist bus ( runs late spring to early fall. It leaves from Piazza del Cinquecento (in front of Termini train station), drives past many ancient sights in the historic center, and eventually makes it way out to the Via Appia Antica. It's a hop-on/hop-off deal, passing every 30 minutes from 9am to 4:30pm. Tickets cost a steep €20 and are good for 24 hours; you can buy them on board. (They do, at least, entitle you to discounted admission at Rome's civic museums. including the Capitoline, Montemartini, Markets of Trajan, and Ara Pacis, among many lesser sights.)

  • On Sundays the road is closed to all traffic.
  • Nearby...

    These sights aren't terribly close to the rest of Rome. If you want to make a day dedicated to the outskirts of the wall, these are the places to see:


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