Catacombe di San Domitilla ★★

Catacombe di San Domitilla, Rome, Italy (Photo by Dennis Jarvis)

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

San Domitilla is the oldest of the catacombs. 

It is also hands-down the winner for most enjoyable catacomb experience.

Though the tunnels are in fact among the most extensive in Rome, as at all catacombs much of that vast network is closed the public, so it feels like a much smaller, more intimate experience—and less toursity than at the more popular catacombs nearby.

Groups are small, most guides are genuinely entertaining and personable, and depending on the mood of the group and your guide, the visit may last 20 minutes or it may last more than an hour.

My favorite English-language guide—since childhood, actually—is a world-weary Filippino monk who shakes his head in wonder when admitting he came to Italy for a few months and ended up staying for more than 20 years. His refrain, "Wach-a you head an' you step"—a warning about the uneven floors and low ceilings inside the dimly lit catacomb tunnels—has been a running gag in my family since I was 11.

He was also the first catacomb guide I ever had who admitted the famous myth that early Christians had to worship in the catacombs in secret was untrue. Yes, Paleochristians did sometimes (though rarely) use the catacombs for worship during periods of persecution (Roman emperors tended to run hot and cold on religious tolerance, sometimes welcoming Christian advisors in their courts, other times throwing them, as it were, to the lions). However, this was done more to be discreet than to keep it secret.

"The soldiers knew they were down here," said my guide. "You know why they didn't come down to bother them? Too damned spooky! A bunch of tunnels filled with dead people?! No WAY the soldiers coming down here."

Also, with 17km (10.6 miles) of tunnels, there's no way they'd want to get lost down there, either.

Anyway, I hope you get that guy (wish I could remember his name). He's fun, relaxed, hilarious, and full of interesting facts (also: only monk I know who regularly curses—albeit mildly).

You enter the San Domitilla catacombs through the sunken 4th-century Basilica of St Nereus and St Achilleus, off of which branch corridors.

There are fewer "sights" than in the other catacombs—although the 2nd-century fresco of the Last Supper is impressive—but some of the guides actually hand you a few bones out of a tomb niche so you can rearticulate an ancient Christian hip.

(Incidentally, this is the only catacomb where you'll even get to see any bones; the rest have emptied all the open tombs on the levels open to the public in order to rebury the remains in ossuaries on the inaccessible lower levels.)

Photo gallery
  • , Catacombe di San Domitilla, Italy (Photo by Dennis Jarvis)
  • The subterranean 4C Basilica of St Nereus and St Achilleus, Catacombe di San Domitilla, Italy (Photo by Dennis Jarvis)
  • , Catacombe di San Domitilla, Italy (Photo by Dnalor 01)
  • Painting of a feast, Tomb of Vibia, Catacombe di San Domitilla, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • The Good Shepherd, Catacombe di San Domitilla, Italy (Photo by Dnalor 01)
  • A frescoed tomb, Catacombe di San Domitilla, Italy (Photo by Dennis Jarvis)
  • 4C frescoes, Catacombe di San Domitilla, Italy (Photo by anonimus)
  • A fresco showing Jesus and his disciples, Catacombe di San Domitilla, Italy (Photo by Dennis Jarvis)
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Tips

How long do the Catacombs of San Domitilla take?

The tour of the catacombs takes about 30–40 minutes, but get here at least 12–15 minutes early, so budget an hour (plus another 30 minutes each way for public transportation—remember, these things were built outside the walls of Rome on purpose.) 

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.).