Rome's preserved, ancient architecture is visible throughout The Eternal City - around every corner there's a pillar, a fresco, or...a Pantheon. In search of a Roman city frozen in time and outside of the city center, the treasures of Pompeii, south of Naples, are where most people head. Ostia Antica, the former Roman port city, is to Pompeii what Fontainebleau is to Versailles - all of the history, a small, small fraction of the crowds.
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Getting to Ostia Antica from Rome
Although it seems impossible, Ostia Antica is accessible from central Rome entirely on the city's subway system, with just one change. Yes, you read that right. Not even a bus! The trip takes about half an hour each way. Ostia's station is small and not in great shape, but don't let that deter you. The ruins are a very short walk from the station.
And, when you arrive, there are modern amenities - bathrooms and a small cafe. I would plan to eat lunch before or after, as the cafe's options are limited and it can get quite crowded.
Plan to spend half of a day out here - it's a much larger site than you might think, but depending on the heat of the day and your interest in ancient history, you'll easily be back in Rome in time to fit in some gelato in the afternoon.
History of Ostia Antica
The former mouth of the Tiber River, Ostia was a thriving seaport for the Roman Empire for hundreds of years.
So...Where's the water now? Siltation, which I just learned is the correct term for the build up of sand and dirt over time, has caused the mouth of the river to move about 2 miles away from the ruins of Ostia. This was, of course, part of the reason the city was abandoned, but not the whole story.
As far back as the 7th century, the Romans had built a castrum (military base) near the current site of Ostia. At its height, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, Ostia was home to over 100,000 people. A thriving port city, it was home to everything needed to support this number of inhabitants and their trading markets, much of which is still visible.
In the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire, Ostia's role as the Empire's port evaporated. Eventually, and unusually, the city was completely abandoned in the 800s after repeated sea-based attacks from pirates. The silting that has caused the river to move also slowly covered the ruins that remained of the port city. For hundreds of years, the ruins lay quietly untouched, miles outside of growing Rome. In the 20th century, the Papacy funded the first renovations at the site, which continue today.
What to do in Ostia Antica
With map in hand, stroll down the ancient streets and explore in the buildings. Unlike most sites, with the limited tourists visiting Ostia each year, the ruins are fairly open to be comfortably explored, allowing you to wonder at your own pace. It reminded me a bit of Craigmillar Castle outside Edinburgh - with steel reinforcements on crumbling buildings and a few blocked-off areas, but really no restrictions other than that!
I'd be sure to bring a hat and some sunscreen - there's much too much shade and the sun can get fairly brutal as the day wears on.
Important, can't-miss landmarks include the ancient amphitheater, pictured above, where Roman theatrical productions are still put on today. You can still see the places where Ostia's residents sold, lived, ate, drank, and hung out with friends. Remnants of frescoes remain on the walls and floors of the more salubrious homes. The classic Baths are still visible in an impressive structure.
In addition to the larger landmarks, hidden treasures are around every corner.
A favorite of mine was the Thermopolium (see sign, below). A Thermapolium was a "place serving hot food" aka takeaways! Here's the husband serving up dinner, and pulling Roman pints, behind the bar.
I found Ostia to be a very relaxing break from the churn of the endless crowds in Rome, without having to travel too far from all of its delights. Personally, I thought it was easier to connect with the past in this slightly less impressive space than in the overwhelming Colosseo.
Thanks for stopping by! Hope you enjoy Ostia - let me know all about your visit! And, of course, we owe our visit to Rick Steves, who recommended it in the book you'll definitely want on your trip to Rome.
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