Best catacombs to visit in Rome
Sure, we all know that visiting Rome means you’ll likely hit the must-see attractions like the Colosseum, Pantheon, and Trevi Fountain. But if you’re looking for a truly unusual experience in Rome, why not check out the Roman catacombs?
Dating back to the first century, these man-made subterranean passageways were used as underground tombs in Ancient Rome. Unlike the Roman pagans who cremated their dead, the Jewish and Christian populations believed in religious burials. However, under the rule of the Roman Empire, bodies were not allowed to be buried within the city walls due to hygiene concerns.
Hence, Jewish and Christian catacombs were constructed to allow the dead to be secretly buried underground. Fearing persecution, many Christians also began praying belowground, and the catacombs became sacred sites of worship. When Christianity eventually became legalized, catacombs gradually fell out of popularity and were only rediscovered in the 1600s.
Today, there are about 40 Christian and six Jewish catacombs scattered around Rome, although not all of them are open to the public. Most of them require entry tickets, and wheelchair access is fairly limited. Women are advised to cover their shoulders, and pictures are also forbidden out of respect, so leave these sacred sites only in your memories.
Whether you’re a history buff or a traveler with a taste for the macabre, get ready to explore the secrets contained within the best catacombs in Rome.
1. Catacombs of Saint Callixtus
Located along the historic Appian Way, the catacombs of Saint Callixtus are the largest and most well-known of the Roman catacombs. These catacombs were featured in Ben-Hur, and were named after Pope Callixtus I, who served as a deacon and administrator of the catacombs.
Once the official underground cemetery of the Church of Rome, the catacombs of Saint Callixtus were the final resting place of close to half a million Christians. These catacombs stretch over more than 12 miles and five levels and are divided into multiple sections, including the Crypt of the Popes, the Crypt of Saint Cecilia, and the Crypt of the Sacraments.
If you get squeamish easily, there’s no need to worry about encountering any human remains here—all bodies within the tour route have since been respectfully relocated.
It’s easy to get lost and confused in this maze-like complex, so we recommend joining a guided tour to learn more about the famous popes and martyrs laid here to rest. As the catacombs are a distance away from the city center, you can also consider joining this tour that includes transportation from Piazza Venezia.
2. Catacombs of Saint Domitilla
The catacombs of Saint Domitilla still hold human remains, but that’s not what they’re known for. Instead, most people flock to the catacombs of Domitilla to admire the intricate frescoes depicting biblical figures and Ancient Roman history. These thousand-year-old frescoes are still undergoing restoration, but you can spot iconic images like Jesus with the apostles.
This is also where you’ll find the fourth-century Basilica of Nereus and Achilleus. The catacombs of Saint Domitilla’s underground basilica are 1 out of only 2 Roman churches dedicated to the two saints, who were martyred for refusing to carry out military orders to kill Christians.
Don’t be intimidated by the size of these catacombs—large portions haven’t been completely excavated, so you won’t need to dedicate too much time here. In fact, this small-group express tour promises to take you to the catacombs and back to downtown Rome in less than two hours. Or if you’d like to check out other historic sights nearby like the Basilica of San Martino ai Monti, this multi-stop walking tour will take you along the treasures of the Appian Way.
While photographs aren’t allowed, the catacombs of Saint Domitilla have a gift shop, so you can pick up souvenirs to commemorate the experience.
3. Catacombs of San Sebastiano
The catacombs of San Sebastiano have had numerous identities, including a former pozzolan mine, a pagan cemetery, and finally, a catacomb used by Christians. The underground graveyard was said to have contained the remains of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and also housed the remains of Saint Sebastian, which are now kept in the basilica above the catacombs.
Unfortunately, these small and accessible catacombs are one of the least preserved. Out of the compound’s original four floors, one has been almost completely destroyed. However, you can still find some stunning relics like the paintings of Jonah’s cubicle and Bernini’s bust of Saint Sebastian. As you embark on your tour of the catacombs, look out for ancient graffiti by devotees scrawled along the plastered walls.
4. Catacombs of Priscilla
Also known as the Queen of the Catacombs, the catacombs of Priscilla are one of the oldest underground graveyards in Rome, used for Christian burials. Pope Marcellinus and Pope Marcellus I were buried here, and the remains of Saint Philomena have also been found within these catacombs.
Explore the tunnels after dark with this evening tour, where you’ll get to appreciate some of the oldest known biblical paintings without the crowds. Most notably, the catacombs of Priscilla contain what’s believed to be the first rendering of Mary, created in the third century. You can also find elaborate frescoes covering the Greek Chapel, which depict scenes from the Old and New Testament.
5. Vatican Necropolis
While the Vatican Necropolis lies outside Rome, it’s still worth a visit, especially if you’re already in Vatican City. Located below St. Peter’s Basilica, the necropolis was once an open air cemetery for early Christians, including Saint Peter himself.
Eventually, Emperor Constantine built a basilica over Saint Peter’s grave, and the necropolis remained undiscovered until the 20th century. During the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, excavation work began in an attempt to locate the grave of Saint Peter. Various mausoleums were gradually discovered, and eventually “Field P” where the Apostle had been buried.
To protect and conserve the sanctity of the necropolis, only a limited number of visitors are allowed at a time, especially as archaeological excavations are still ongoing. You’ll need to join the official Scavi Tour to visit the ancient cemetery and pay your respects to Saint Peter. Bonus: The tour will also allow you to skip the line at St. Peter’s Basilica.
6. Crypt of Capuchins
Perhaps one of the most famously macabre sights in Rome, the Capuchin Crypt technically isn’t a catacomb, but an ossuary. Still, most catacomb tours like this small-group tour include a trip to the legendary “Bone Chapel.”
Venture underground beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini to explore these six chapels adorned with the skeletal remains of 3,700 Capuchin friars, who were buried here from the 1500s to the 1800s. Various crypts are dedicated to selected body parts like skulls, pelvises, and leg bones.
While the crypt is probably unsuitable for young children or the faint of heart, if you’re able to get over your squeamishness, we highly recommend paying this iconic site a visit. After all, it exists not for morbid reasons, but as a poetic reminder of the constant cycle of life and death: “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…”
If you need a pick-me-up after your tour, we suggest heading to the nearby Trecaffè Due Macelli for a cappuccino—the espresso-based drink was named after the hooded robes worn by the Capuchin monks.