The Christian catacombs of the Appian Way ★★

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

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.

★★☆
 (Photo by Dennis Jarvis)
Catacombe di San Domitilla
Rome: Outside the walls

The Catacombs of San Domitilla offer the best, and spookiest, catacomb tour on Rome's Appian Way

 
★☆☆
A tunnel in the Catacomb of San Callisto (Photo by Jim Forest)
Catacombe di San Callisto
Rome: Outside the walls

The Catacombs of St. Callixtus have the most popular (and crowded) tours, but also some of the most amazing sights of any catacombs on Rome's Appian Way

 
★☆☆
 (Photo by Voxel-Ux)
Catacombe di San Sebastiano
Rome: Outside the walls

The Catacombs of St. Sebastian are the largest, but least rewarding, of the catacombs—but are where Saints Peter and Paul were buried

 
The Catacombs tours
 
More tours
 

Tips

How long do the Catacombs take?

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.

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
Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
     
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
     
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
     
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
     
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
     
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
     
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
     
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah


* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).