Imagine having Pompeii to yourself – no crowds, no stampeding hordes of tourists, just you and the cobbled streets of an Ancient Roman town, waiting to be discovered.
Ostia Antica is an archaeological park very similar to Pompeii, only half an hour on the train from Rome. It’s a place that never fails to amaze, with a huge Roman theatre and acres of well-preserved buildings, from two-storey insulae (apartment blocks) to enormous baths and temples, filled with mosaics and fragmented statues.
If you’ve got more than a few days to spend in Rome, you should definitely consider joining an Ostia Antica tour. It’s an easy day trip from Rome, and despite the impressive size of the site and its excellent state of preservation, it’s surprisingly underrated.
Although Ostia Antica undoubtedly deserves more visitors, the lack of crowds makes it all the more atmospheric. Take a walk through the streets of the town, cobbles marked by the wheels of ancient carts, and enjoy a journey back in time…
ABOUT OSTIA ANTICA
WHAT IS OSTIA ANTICA
Ostia Antica is a vast archaeological site about 30 km from Rome. Once an Ancient Roman port town with up to 100,000 inhabitants, today Ostia Antica is one of Italy’s most amazing tourist attractions; its proximity to the city makes it a popular day trip from Rome.
With hundreds of well-preserved buildings and artworks, Ostia Antica could be considered the Roman equivalent of Pompeii. Unlike Pompeii, however, Ostia was not destroyed by a volcanic eruption – it simply fell into decay over the centuries.
Today, it’s possible to explore the ruins of ancient theatres, temples, apartment blocks, baths, brothels and much more. On a tour of Ostia Antica you’ll get a real sense of what it would have been like to live in a Roman town, strolling down cobbled streets and wandering through the remains of shops and taverns where the painted “menu” is still visible on the wall.
In addition to the extensive ruins, there’s also a small museum containing artworks and artefacts found on site, including statues of gods and emperors and various sarcophagi.
HISTORY OF OSTIA ANTICA
Ostia is believed to have been founded as far back as the 7th century BC, but the oldest archaeological findings only date back to the 4th century BC, while the oldest buildings (such as the Capitolium) are 3rd century BC. Ostia remained fairly insignificant until the 1st century AD, when changes by Julius Caesar and Tiberius led to the increasing importance of the town, as a growing urban area and port near Rome.
The remains of Ostia are a testament to its importance – a large theatre, many baths and temples, taverns and inns, and even a lighthouse. It reached its peak in the 2nd-3rd centuries AD, with a population of 100,000 and a busy harbour. However, rivalled by the ports of Civitavecchia and Portus, Ostia gradually fell into decline. As the port ceased to be active, the town became more residential; it was especially popular as a country retreat for wealthy Romans.
By the 9th century Ostia had been completely abandoned, finished off by the Battle of Ostia, in which the town was sacked by Arab pirates. Over the centuries it was more or less forgotten, visited only by those who wanted to help themselves to some ancient art, looted from the ruins.
Important excavations were carried out under the orders of Mussolini from 1939-1942, and there was increasing interest from archaeologists. Now known as “Ostia Antica” to distinguish the ruins from the modern town of Ostia, the archaeological site is open to the general public. Yet while it remains popular with history and archaeology students, as well as tourists in the know, Ostia Antica doesn’t attract the visitors it deserves. With better publicity it could become the next Pompeii; in the meantime, those who do make the trip from Rome can enjoy the ancient town in peace and tranquillity.
FACTS ABOUT OSTIA ANTICA
- Ostia Antica has an ancient equivalent of a fast food restaurant – a tavern where the sink, marble counters and painted menu are still in place. The fresco shows meat, wine and vegetables, presumably indicating what was on sale.
- As well as numerous temples there are 18 mithrae (pagan temples to the god Mithras) in Ostia Antica, indicating that this underground religion was widely followed in Roman times. Very little is known about this mysterious cult, and some of the only evidence we have comes from the marble altars and inscriptions found in the remains of the temples.
- The oldest synagogue in Europe is in Ostia Antica. It dates to the 1st century AD, during the reign of Claudius, and was in use until the 5th century. When it was rediscovered in the 1960s it was identified as a synagogue from the design of a torah on a column, as well as the positioning of the main door, which faces the direction of Jerusalem.
- Look out for the mosaic signposts. Near the theatre is a large, rectangular forum which was once home to the offices of various shipping companies. To find the right company, you would have to inspect the mosaics in front to see what services they offered – the trade of grain, leather, wild animals or…sea nymphs? Many of these mosaics are still in good condition, so you can take a stroll around the square and have fun guessing what the symbols represent.
- Some other buildings of note include bakeries, brothels and a laundrette. You may need the help of a guide on an Ostia Antica tour to find some of these buildings, as they’re not easily identifiable, but a couple of the bakeries still have large grain mills. In the fullo (laundrette) you can see the remains of a basin where they would have once washed clothes, using urine as detergent. As much as you might want to go back in time to see Ancient Rome, you probably wouldn’t want to smell it…
VISITING OSTIA ANTICA
HOW TO GET TO OSTIA ANTICA
Ostia Antica is located outside of Rome, but is easily accessible from the city centre. Next to Piramide metro station (B line) is Porta San Paolo station, where you can hop on the Roma-Lido train and be at Ostia Antica in just 30 minutes. The ticket for this train is the standard Rome public transport bus/metro ticket, costing only €1.50.
When you arrive at the train station it’s a 10 minute walk to the archaeological site – cross the bridge and follow the signs.
TICKETS AND ENTRY TO OSTIA ANTICA
Ostia Antica is open Tuesday-Sunday. Entrance is free on the first Sunday of every month.
Be careful not to get caught out by Ostia Antica’s changing opening hours. The site always opens at 8.30, but the last entrance is 15.30 in winter, and 18.15 in spring and summer. It’s always best to double-check the opening hours on the official website before setting off.
Tickets cost €8 (€4 for EU citizens aged 18-25, and free entrance for under 18s and the disabled). While it’s possible to buy tickets online on the official website, there’s no particular advantage to doing so; you might as well get your tickets from the ticket office at Ostia Antica when you arrive.
WHAT TO SEE AT OSTIA ANTICA
One of the pleasures of Ostia Antica is simply wandering around in no particular direction, never knowing what you might stumble across. There’s a real sense of exploration that’s hard to find elsewhere – you feel as though you could be one of the first people to re-discover Ostia Antica after centuries of abandonment.
However, there are some undisputed highlights – make sure you don’t miss these buildings:
- The theatre is one of the most impressive buildings you’ll see on a tour of Ostia Antica. Built in the late 2nd century AD, the theatre could hold up to 4,000 spectators and was used for gladiator fights as well as plays. The theatre was expanded and renovated during the reign of Commodus, who was famously fanatical about gladiator fights, and it has been speculated that Commodus may have even performed as a gladiator himself at Ostia Antica. After the theatre fell into disuse it was used as a fortress, and today it remains remarkably well-preserved. Concerts and theatrical events are still performed here every summer.
- There are numerous temples in Ostia Antica, the most notable of which is perhaps the Capitolium. Its enormous size is an indication of its importance, and it is believed to have been built during the reign of Hadrian, and dedicated to the Capitoline triad of gods (Jupiter, Juno and Minerva). Other important temples to look out for are the Round Temple, which resembles the Pantheon in Rome, and the Temple of Hercules, where you can see an evocative marble statue and some altars with inscriptions.
- Similar to the temples are the mithrae – secret pagan temples dedicated to the god Mithras. They can be hard to find without the help of a tour guide, but they’re well worth visiting. One is located in the House of Diana and contains an intriguing altar and statue of Dionysus, while the Mithraem of Lucretius Menander has an altar dedicated to the main priest of Mithras.
- The public baths of Ostia Antica would have once been some of the grandest buildings in town. Visit the Baths of the Forum to get some idea of their enormous size (and to see some ancient latrines) and the Baths of Neptune for the extraordinary mosaics. The mosaic of Neptune is an incredible work of art – something that would not look out of place among the masterpieces of the Vatican Museums – and should not be missed.
- Ostia Antica still feels like a real town – not just a bunch of ruins – in part because of the surviving insulae. Some of these Roman apartment blocks are surprisingly solid, with most of their walls intact, and a few even have two storeys. Make sure you explore at least a few of the insulae in-depth, climbing stairs and wandering through courtyards, where you’ll occasionally stumble across some ancient art.
- The museum is often overlooked by visitors to Ostia Antica, who run out of time and energy while exploring the furthest reaches of the archaeological site. However, the museum definitely deserves at least a short visit, as it contains some beautiful artworks and archaeological findings, including statues of gods and emperors, and portraits of important residents of Ostia.
- The archaeological site is huge, and you could easily spend a whole day exploring without seeing everything. Allow yourself plenty of time to visit – a minimum of 3-4 hours – and try to avoid the temptation to spend hours exploring the buildings near the entrance in-depth. Some of the most interesting buildings are a good 30 minute walk from the entrance, and while you won’t see them all, you should try to explore as much as possible.
- Wear comfortable shoes. You can’t do justice to Ostia Antica unless you walk a lot, and those cobbled roads are hard on the feet…
- Ostia Antica never gets crowded, but if you really want to have the place to yourself, try visiting on a weekday morning in the winter. It’s even more atmospheric when there’s literally no one else around.
- Bring a packed lunch. Although there’s a cafeteria at Ostia Antica, it can get very busy at lunchtime due to the fact that it’s the only place within the archaeological site that serves food. There are a couple of restaurants between the archaeological site and the train station, but your ticket for Ostia Antica is single-entry; you can’t pop out for lunch and then go back in again. Besides, bringing your own lunch allows you to enjoy a picnic among the ruins – much more scenic than a crowded cafeteria.
- Signage is limited and often badly translated. While it’s pleasant to walk around even if you have no idea what you’re looking at, you’ll get much more out your visit if you join a guided tour of Ostia Antica. The explanations of a knowledgeable guide make all the difference, helping you to understand exactly what the town would have been like in ancient times.
- The spectacular theatre is often used as a venue for cultural events such as plays, concerts and dance performances. Most events take place in the summer, and range from opera to mainstream musicals. Check listings here.
We recommend reading up on Ostia Antica before you visit. These useful websites help to make up for the lack of signage on site, and could also be used as background reading before your Ostia Antica tour:
Rick Steves: A peek into Ancient Rome at Ostia Antica
Ostia Antica tourist guide
Ostia Antica: an overlooked archaeological site
New York Times: The Quiet Port: Ostia Antica, Italy