Ostia Antica, you have probably never heard of it, but if you are in Rome, this ancient Roman city is one you don’t want to miss. Ostia Antica is similar to Pompeii, but without the long trip and the crowds! It’s certainly one of the most underappreciated sites in Italy. The once working port town is now ruins where you will see warehouses, homes, shopping areas, baths, a theater, and restaurants.
When we went to Rome I had my heart set on seeing Pompeii, but the distance was far too long for the days we had, and we were already tired from traveling. I remembered reading about Ostia Antica, so we settled in for the 30-minute train ride in hopes of a great day. We were shocked to find a sprinkle of tourists. What surprised us, even more, was how breathtakingly beautiful the site was.
Walking around it’s easy to let your imagination flow back 2,000 years to when this ancient Roman seaport was thriving. During its heyday, Ostia was a densely populated city of over 60,000 people. The beautifully preserved ruins, just 20 miles from Rome, give you an excellent idea of what life was like during the height of the Roman Empire.
History of Ostia Antica
Ostia Antica, or the city without the volcano, is at the mouth (ostium) of the Tiber River. Ostia was founded around 620 B.C., and it was a naval base, complete with a fort. In 150 A.D. Ostia served as a busy commercial port town crammed with people from all over the Roman empire.
Ostia Antica’s primary function was to receive grain and ship it to Rome’s one million inhabitants. The grain was stored in warehouses and sometimes made into bread before being transported into the capital fourteen miles away. The town was filled with sailors, ship-owners, rope-makers, merchants, slaves, soldiers and civil servants and plenty of unpleasant types. Syrians rubbed shoulders with Gauls; the port was a veritable melting pot.
When the fall of Rome occurred the port was abandoned, and over time the harbor silted up, and the town was covered with mud. Thanks to all the mud, it protected the city’s architecture and artworks from the effects of time. Thanks, mud!
You can wander around the buildings that were preserved up to the second floor. Visit the Roman Theater, where plays are held during the summer. As you walk the main street, you can observe the Baths of Neptune and Cesaii, the marketplace or public square, temples to ancient deities, the forum and even Ostia Synagogue, which is the oldest known synagogue site in Europe.
It’s amazing to see the differences between homes of a workman and sailor vs. the richer class. Still alive and well in today’s day in age, but incredible to see none the less. Homes that belonged to the wealthy class had ornate statues, mosaics, and columns, while the workman lived in an insule, which looks like a modern day flat.
Ostia boasts some amazing black-and-white mosaics that are very detailed. A fun item to take a look at is the ancient public lavatory! With the main street running more than a mile and no modern homes or buildings, roads or telephone wires it’s easy to let your imagination run. Walking on the main street, you can imagine the four-wheel carts coming through the town, the hustle and bustle of merchants selling items and the restaurants filling the air with the smell of food.
Ostia Antica may be a short day trip from Rome, but do plan on spending the entire day losing yourself in the maze of streets and homes. Children will adore this site and adults will love the peace and quiet. It’s a perfect spot for a hands-on feel of a Roman city that won’t require a painfully early morning start.
Now doesn’t Ostia Antica sound nicer than a day negotiating train timetables?
Why Ostia Antica is Splendid
- You will find a museum and modern restaurant near the back of the site, but apart from this, the site is entirely uncommercial. Which is awesome!
- After being in Rome for a few days, the hustle and bustle, as well as the noise, can get to you. This location is a peaceful retreat from the big city.
- Ostia Antica might not be Pompeii, but it’s very similar. There are no wealthy houses here, but you can see what a working town would have been like.
- Pompeii will take a decent about of time to get to (at least 2 1/2 hours from Rome) and will involve switching trains in Naples. Ostia takes 30 minutes to get to and will cost you far less.
- Pompeii is mostly roped off, and you will see it, but you can’t explore and touch the area. Ostia is much more of a do-it-yourself site. You can wander off the main path for a great length and see homes, and other buildings that are not on the main map.
- Ostia’s small museum is delightful. Some of the artifacts that were unearthed are stored at the Ostia Antica Museum for safekeeping.
Tips for Visiting
- Being the layman’s we are when it comes to ruins my advice is to take a good guide book with you. We love Rick Steves Rome book. We could use the guide to understand where we were and what exactly we were looking at. You can also find an excellent Tourist Guide for free here. If you are not a book person, it would be useful to pay for an audio guide. You are just going to see lumps of stone and not understand what you are looking at if you don’t.
- The site is vast, and can easily take up a whole day. Wear comfortable shoes.
- Ostia Antica is of course outside, and while there are shaded areas, you will be out in the sun quite a bit. Bring along some water as well as sunblock. There is only one restaurant on the property, and that is in the very back of the city.
- The restrooms are at the entrance, the offices and cafeteria/shop. As with other locations, when we visited Rome, I was pretty turned off by the state of the restrooms. Bring hand wipes and Kleenex with you. Just in case there is no TP in the stall.
- If you want to do a little homework before you go, watch this six-part film by the American Institute for Roman Culture about the history of Ostia Here.
How to Get There
Getting to Ostia Antica is pretty simple. You will take the local train, which leaves from Rome’s Piramide station, and takes about 30 minutes. After getting off at Ostia Antica’s station, use the blue footbridge to cross the road. Walk down Via Della Stazione di Ostia Antica until you see an entrance on your left.
For More Information
Official website dedicated to Ostia Antica Excavations