You’ve come to Italy to indulge your love of ancient history and to your frustration, have found the sites full of slow-moving tour groups that are ruining the experience. Luckily, Italy is home to thousands of incredible sites, many of which are ignored by holiday-makers. So when the crowds are getting you down, head in the opposite direction and indulge yourself in the beauty of the ancient world.
1. Herculaneum & Oplontis
Pompeii may be on your bucket list, but it’s on everyone else’s too! Winding your way through streets filled with groups all heading for the same places isn’t all that much fun. You may not know that the UNESCO site that includes Pompeii, also recognizes 2 other incredible nearby sites.
The smaller town of Herculaneum is becoming more popular as people look for alternatives to Pompeii, and thanks to the great conservation work that has been going on here in recent years, but it’s still less crowded than its sister site. It’s also much more informative for history buffs as the houses are far more complete than in Pompeii, where falling volcanic rock destroyed the roofs and upper levels of most of the houses.
Close to Pompeii is the modern town of Torre Annunziata where tourists rarely make the time to stop and see the wonderful site of Oplontis. The ancient villa, which belonged to the imperial family, preserves brightly-colored frescoes in almost every room. Only the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii has anything close to them, but here you won’t be competing with anyone else to admire the paintings.
2. Ostia Antica
If you can’t make it to the Bay of Naples this trip, do take half a day to visit the remains of the ancient port town at Ostia. It’s a short train ride from the Porta San Paolo (Metro Piramide) train station in Rome, where trains leave about every 15 minutes.
Many of the structures you will see are connected with trade and commerce, the activities of the port and the town’s wealth during the heyday of the empire. As the town was never buried and lost, it experienced decline and plundering from Late Antiquity, so it is well worth getting a guide to accompany you and explain where each piece fits into the historic jigsaw and how buildings were re-purposed over time.
The mosaics of Ravenna should be a good enough reason alone to come to Italy, yet their fame is drowned out by wealth of other sites to visits.
This tiny town in Emilia Romagna, which was briefly the capital of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, then the Ostrogoth Kingdom in the 6th, is home to the most impressive examples of mosaics from this period. The town today is itself a gem, lovingly preserved and well-kept by the locals who are proud to show it to those who do make the effort to visit.
Visiting the sites has been made easy for visitors who can buy a combined ticket that allows one entrance into each church over a period of 7 days. If time is limited, it’s easy to see all of them in a single day as most of the sites are within easy walking of each other, around the town center which is flat and easy to navigate. Only the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe is harder to reach without a car. There are trains there, though the times are awkward, so if you haven’t arrived with a driver, taking a taxi is your best bet.
It takes some determination to get to the temples at Paestum, which is why this extraordinary site is often overlooked. The best-preserved Greek temples on the Italian mainland are about a 2 hour drive south of the Amalfi Coast and if time is limited, really should be done with a driver.
If you’ve never been to Greece, there is no substitute in Rome or Pompeii for standing close to these temples, as the size of Greek temples greatly eclipses the scale of any building remaining from the Roman world. Delight, as I once did on a school trip here, in wrapping your arms around the columns and seeing how many people it takes to be able to join hands!
As well as the temples, the Salerno province is also known as one of the few places in Italy allowed to produce mozzarella di bufola. While you’re here, why not visit a local mozzarella farm to see the water buffaloes lounging in their pools and watch authentic mozzarella being made by hand?
5. Tarquinia and Cerveteri
If you are interested in the more ancient periods of Rome’s history, then there’s plenty to discover about the Etruscans who inhabited central Italy before the rise of Rome. Although the peaceful Etruscan city-states were wiped out by the war-loving Romans, the development of Roman civilization owed a great deal to them.
In Rome the Villa Giulia museum is dedicated to the Etruscans, but the best places to discover them is in the north of Lazio. Many of the Etruscan towns still survive today and Tarquinia and Cerveteri, close to the Civitavecchia port, are the finest examples. Both are home to impress Etruscan burial sites which are UNESCO-protected sites.
The necropolis at Cerveteri is easily accessible and you can walk in and out of the hut-like tombs, most of which are now sadly empty. Thankfully the underground Tarquinia necropolis was discovered later and the site has been better preserved. The museum is filled with the treasures discovered in the tombs and a vast collection of sarcophagi. Clearly less vain than the Romans, the funerary sculptures are far more realistic depictions of the inhabitants, their wrinkles, receding hairlines and protruding bellies, than anything the Romans would later produce.
The museum also houses some early attempts to remove the wall paintings from the tombs. Thankfully, once it was understood that the paintings couldn’t be moved without causing them considerable damage, the rest have been left in-situ underground. There are dozens of tombs which can be visited, each with distinct and fascinating paintings, though the narrow staircases may be best avoided by anyone suffering from claustrophobia!
6. Villa Romana del Casale
At Piazza Armerina in the center of Sicily, an aristocratic villa was discovered filled with the largest single collection of Roman mosaics ever found, and wonderfully they have been left where they were discovered and not moved into a more accessible museum.
While the villa does make a good stopping point when moving from Palermo or Syracuse to see the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, it isn’t easy to get there without a car and on an island that has the highest number of UNESCO sites of any region in Italy, they easily get left till next time. What a mistake!! The 4th century mosaics are believed to have been made by African craftsmen, include wonderful scenes of hunting, mythology and every day life.
7. Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli
Despite being a UNESCO site, the summer residence of the Emperor Hadrian isn’t particularly well-kept these days. Other than a plastic model at the entrance, sadly little is being done to help visitors understand what they are seeing as they move through the different areas of the palace, so make sure you either have a really good guidebook, or come with an expert guide who can bring it alive for you. When you are able to understand the extent of the palace and what Hadrian built here, you will be delighted by the world he created to escape the heat and the pressures of Rome.
While in Tivoli, make sure to visit the town’s other UNESCO site of Villa d’Este and marvel at the incredible water gardens which operate entirely on the pressure of gravity.
8. The Appian Way
After fighting the crowds in the Coliseum, you may well be ready to escape for a few hours and the ancient road of Appia Antica offers the perfect retreat. The road once connected Rome with the port of Brindisi in the south, from where the Romans set sail for Africa. Today, it is a green park surprisingly close to the city center. Aim to come here on a Sunday when it is closed to traffic and makes for a wonderful walk or bike ride.
If you’re feeling energetic, walk from the Circus Maximus in a straight line, passed the Baths of Caracalla, until you come to the ancient city gate of Porta San Sebastiano. Or get a taxi there! Check out the museum inside the gate where you can walk along part of the ancient wall and go out onto the top of one of the turrets for great views of the park. Like the other sites on Via Appia which are run by the city, the museum is free, though donations are always welcome. Other sites include the Circus of Maxentius and the Tomb of Cecilia Metella.
You’ll also find the Catacombs of San Sebastiano (closed Sunday) and San Callisto (closed Wednesday) on the road, and the Catacombs of Domitilla (closed Tuesday) close by. Each site offers regular tours in English. There’s no need to book in advance, just turn up and buy a ticket for the next tour.
Not an unknown site you say, but far too many people think of it as a transfer point to the Amalfi Coast or the islands of Capri and Ischia, rather than a place to stay. Naples once had a bad reputation with visitors, but the city has really been cleaned up and while the driving is still terrifying and we wouldn’t recommend renting a car here, the city center is brimming over with incredible history. Don’t be surprised to see rundown and abandoned buildings in the city center, change comes slowly here, but aim to stay in the more elegant areas around Piazza del Plebiscito and you will feel perfectly safe.
Don’t miss the spectacular (if rundown) archaeological museum which houses an amazing collection of ancient statues and the best of the discoveries from Pompeii, the Naples Underground tour of the Greek aqueducts and the Catacombs of San Gennaro.
10. Baia & Pozzuoli
Just a short train ride from Naples brings you to the volcanic Phlegraean Fields, a supervolcano which is home to 24 craters (most underwater) and the phenomena of bradyseism – where underlying magma and thermal activity causes the Earth’s crust to rise and fall. In the case of Baia, this has caused parts of the ancient pleasure town to become submerged several meters under the sea. They can be visited by glass-bottomed boat, or for the more adventurous, by scuba diving or snorkelling. Above the ground, parts of the town still remain above ground and the site is worth visiting just for the so-called echo chamber, that was modelled after Rome’s Pantheon.
Not far away, make sure to visit the Piscina Mirabilis, a monumental ancient cistern which is reminiscent of a cathedral, then head back to Pozzuoli to see Italy’s third largest amphitheatre. Although not all that impressive on the outside, the tunnels that run beneath it, where animals and gladiators waited to perform, are particularly well-preserved.
For private tours of these and other ancient sites throughout Italy, contact our team of experts at firstname.lastname@example.org