It could be argued that Rome itself is one giant open-air museum. A world heritage site and interactive art installation rolled into one as soon as you step out of your hotel.
What could possibly beat that, you might ask?
Well, this is the thing with Rome. It’s the city that keeps on giving. You could be satisfied for a lifetime simply walking in and around the centro storico, but there’s more. There’s always so much more.
1. Museums in Rome: a Lowdown
By and large, museums are not free, barring very few exceptions. So if you’re planning to tick a few off your list, factor it into your budget.
As you might expect, the focus is on fine arts, history, and antiquities. Although being a capital city and Italians having a flair for all things artistic, sometimes galleries and museums in Rome can and do surprise you.
Generally speaking, you can group the sorts of museums you’ll want to visit into the following four categories.
Top of the list is Castel Sant’Angelo Museum, right on the river. Originally a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian, it is now a museum charting Roman history over the past two millennia. You’ll see military exhibits, papal apartments, a prison, renaissance works of art, and a spectacular roof terrace to cap it all off.
Another must-see for Roman history is the Jewish Museum attached to the synagogue in the ghetto. It provides an illuminating, if chilling, perspective on Italy’s role in the second world war and documents the history of Italian Jews in what is otherwise a very Catholic city.
You may be interested in a new kid on the block and ultra family-friendly. Welcome to Rome. Expect many Interactive and multimedia displays showcasing the city’s history from its birth to today.
If Italian Renaissance Masters float your boat, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Florence may rule, but Rome can more than hold its own in this category. You’ll want to plan ahead when booking tickets for the Galleria Borghese; they are like gold dust but worth every penny and every moment of your visit.
This one almost goes without saying, but the Vatican Museums is an absolute must. This museum actually straddles all four categories. In addition to its vast collection of Masters like Michelangelo and Rafael, you’ll also find an extensive collection of antiquities, historical objects, and a semi-decent modern art collection. If you visit one museum in Rome, make it the Vatican Museums.
If you’ve already hit the big guns above or want to add even more to the itinerary, consider visiting Palazzo Barberini, Palazzo Colonna, or Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. Grand locations and the finest art are guaranteed (all in central Rome).
For modern art enthusiasts, there’s the Zaha Hadid designed Maxxi museum (which, art aside, is a great architectural space to explore with a very charming cafe just opposite part of the same complex).
In addition to the Galleria Borghese, Villa Borghese is also home to the charming Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea. It’s primarily twentieth-century art, housed in a grand neoclassical white building (think lots of columns, steps, and grand proportions).
Just behind Piazza Navona, tucked away in a wee courtyard, is the Chiostro del Bramante – a series of cloisters hosting modern art installations. The contrast between baroque architecture and contemporary art on display is worth a visit alone.
Finally, the only art museum I know that is free to enter is the MACRO – the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Roma. Contemporary art with various installations, housed in a glass and steel structure in Salario (close to Porta Pia), boasts a charming rooftop area and cafe worth visiting.
The Capitoline Museums, split over three buildings, are a must for all things Ancient Roman. They are situated in and around the Campidoglio, the stairs leading up to which were designed by none other than Michelangelo himself.
Museo Massimo alle Terme is a superb space offering sarcophagi, ancient coin collections, frescoes, and statues galore.
For a real deep dive into life in ancient Roman times, complement your visit to the Roman Forums with a trip to the Trajan Markets at the Museo di Traiano, part of the Roman Forum complex. Immerse your senses and your imagination with archeological artifacts and multimedia displays taking you all the way back to 200 C.E.
2. Booking a Museum Tour – Is it Worth it?
Whether or not you choose to book a guided tour for these museums is entirely personal. However, if you are considering booking a guide, the following would be where to start:
I cannot emphasise enough how beneficial a guided tour at the Vatican Museums is. I would recommend booking an official Vatican Museums tour guide. They really know their stuff. It’s like a walking university lecture but more fun and interactive. Book directly through the Vatican Museums site or through a third party.
If guided tours aren’t your thing, and you prefer to go alone, I would urge forking out a tiny bit extra for the audio guide available in any language.
Getting your hands on tickets for the Gallerie Borghese is hard enough, so while you’re there, why not make the most of it and have someone fill you in on all the fascinating art history and juicy trivia? It may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
You can try booking directly through them or go for a trusted third-party site. Guides in Italy need to be licensed, so chances are, whichever tour you book, you will get someone with a Ph.D. in Art History. They really do take guided tours here very seriously.
The same goes for the Capitoline Museums – there’s so much to see and understand that a friendly local guide will help to bring it all home.
Group, private, and self-guided tours (with audio sets) are available for almost everything mentioned above. With some, a guided tour will be included in the price. The Jewish Museum is a case in point- you visit the museum independently, but a guide accompanies you to the synagogue for a very informative tour.
3. The Catacombs of Rome
Just to clarify, a catacomb is an underground passage or chamber used for religious purposes. Similar terms are crypts, tombs, or vaults (which may be used interchangeably when translated from the Italian catacombe).
Now, I’m not quite sure when catacombs started gaining traction in the tourism world, but traction they have certainly gained. Perhaps they appeal to the inner Indiana Jones in us all. We see ourselves heroically holding lanterns, ducking beneath ancient stone archways, and emerging into skull-filled caves covered in mystical mosaics.
Alas, the reality is a little more tame, although a few do promise the odd subterranean skeleton or two if that’s what really tickles your fancy.
Topping the list of creepy catacombs has to be the Museum and Crypt of the Capuchin Friars. It boasts the Crypt of the Skulls, the Crypt of the Pelvises, and the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones. (Not to be confused with the Capuchin Crypt in Palermo, Sicily).
For an underground tour with decidedly fewer bones, a true hidden gem is at the Basilica of San Clemente, five minutes from the Colosseum. The church is worth a visit alone, but what lies beneath is truly impressive. Centuries upon centuries and layer upon layer (four to be precise) of history. You literally travel through time, visiting spaces used by the Ancient Roman pagans, early Christians, and more.
For ancient frescoes and wall paintings of mythological figures, head out to the Appian Way (Via dell’Appia Antica), just outside the city centre, to visit the Crypts of Domitilla, said to be the largest and most ancient of Rome. These catacombs are buried 16 metres beneath the surface, and while they are pretty cool to visit in the summer, they are not for the claustrophobic.
Known as the Queen of the Catacombs, the Priscilla Catacombs are another must-see on this list. Sadly, its queenly status is due to the vast number of Christian martyrs said to be buried there. It was initially dug out between the second and fifth centuries and contained some of the most impressive frescoes you’ll likely see underground. You’ll find them on Via Salaria, next to the beautiful and often overlooked park Villa Ada (north Rome).
If all this sounds like your kind of thing, then catacombs are worth visiting. They provide a unique window into the history of Rome, which runs deep (underground).
How do I Book? And Should I go On a Tour?
A guided tour is available for almost everything in Rome, and catacombs are no exception.
You can arrive on the day of the Crypts of Domitilla, provided your party is at most ten. You can book with a tour operator who will normally organise your transfer to and from the crypts and your guide.
The Crypt of the Capuchin Friars has a decent website that will let you book your ticket online. All tickets include a free audio guide too. I’d say this was enough since the museum and crypts are not that large, but if you fancy the theatre of a guided tour, it would be best to consult one of the online platforms that offer guided group tours at various prices.
Basilica di San Clemente has a pretty smart online booking system now. They don’t organise guided tours, so if you’d like one (and this time, I would recommend it), look at the usual platforms for guided tours.
Priscilla Catacombs are only available to visit as part of a guided tour, which can be organized directly through them or with a third party online.
4. Top Tips for a Great Museum Tour
Only go If it Interests You
Is there anything worse than paying to walk around looking at art that means nothing to you, so you end up looking at your phone instead? Sure, you’ll appreciate the AC, but aren’t there better ways to spend your time?
Bear in mind; if you’re on a whistlestop tour of Italy, you will be taking in a lot of art. And that’s even before stepping foot inside a museum. The streets, people, and even the food are all works of art – are you sure you can handle more?
Go to Church
Look into a walking tour specializing in art- it’s a great way of getting to know the city and walking into churches you would have otherwise walked straight past.
Or, if you’re on a budget, just explore them on your own. It’s Rome; there are more churches than you can shake a stick at and more treasures (free ones) inside than you can imagine.
Allow Plenty of Time
Most museums mentioned above, except the Vatican Museums, can be seen in one to two hours. Allow a minimum of three for these. In any case, you don’t want to rush your experience.
Do You Really Need to Take That Picture, Though?
Generally speaking, museums are pretty relaxed about taking pictures, although some will have specific rules. The strictest place is the Sistine Chapel, where no pictures or videos are allowed.
There will be places to check coats and bags. Generally speaking, they don’t like backpacks, but everything else is permitted.
5. Top Tips for a Great Catacombs Tour
Tours of catacombs generally last between thirty minutes and an hour.
No Pictures, Please
Generally, pictures aren’t allowed down at the catacombs, but check the rules with each place.
It’s worth remembering you are essentially walking through ancient cemeteries housed under functional places of worship (i.e., churches), so a certain degree of reverence is expected. It might feel like Halloween night at a theme park, but while it’s creepy to think of it this way, those skulls and bones were actual people once…
As mentioned above, Roman history runs deep, and much is happening beneath the surface. If you’re not claustrophobic, check them out. Piazza Navona and Trevi Fountain Undergrounds can be visited by a tour guide for thirty to forty-five minutes.