Europe's capital cities are absolutely filled with famous sights, but more often than not there will still be one in particular that stands out among the rest – the one that the moment you catch sight of it for the first time, it fully hits exactly where you are and how lucky you are to be there. For myself, and I'm guessing most other travelers, these are usually historically significant landmarks like Big Ben in London, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, and in the case of today's post – the Colosseum in Rome.
The Colosseum has been standing in Rome since 80 AD. (That's just 62 years shy of two millennia ago!) Several earthquakes and a period of time where the Colosseum's crumbling stone was removed and used to construct other buildings in Rome have, of course, changed its appearance from that of the Roman Empire's heyday, but what remains is still an incredibly well-preserved piece of Rome's fascinating history. No first-time holiday in Rome is complete without a visit to the Colosseum, and there is no better way to explore it than via a Colosseum Underground Tour!
WHY IS A COLOSSEUM UNDERGROUND TOUR THE BEST WAY TO SEE THE COLOSSEUM?
Visitors to the Colosseum with a standard entrance ticket are allowed access to two different areas in the Colosseum – the first tier and the second tier. That's it. If you're not interested in the history or are rushing to fit multiple sights into a single day, then a standard ticket is the way to go. For everyone else, the best way to visit the Colosseum will be via one of the sight's several tour options, the most extensive of which is the underground tour.
The Colosseum Underground Tour allows visitors access to quite a few places not open to standard ticket holders. It's sort of like a backstage pass into the Colosseum's history. (Keep reading to see all the areas included on the tour!)
Besides access to restricted areas, you'll also have the benefit of a knowledgeable guide to supply the history and stories necessary to truly bring a visit to the Colosseum to life. If you're visiting on your own, hardly any information will be provided about what you're seeing. The Colosseum is still very cool to see regardless of whether you're on a tour or not, but it'll be a significantly more meaningful experience with a little context.
HOW TO BOOK A COLOSSEUM UNDERGROUND TOUR
The cheapest way is to book directly with the Colosseum. To secure your spot on a Colosseum Underground Tour, you'll need to purchase two different tickets – a standard ticket (€12) and a tour ticket (€9). You can do this online here. (Note: There is a €2 online booking fee per ticket, but it's worth it to get the tour time you prefer and avoid the long ticket lines at the Colosseum.) Since each tour only allows up to 25 people and there are limited tours throughout the day, I recommend booking your tickets as soon as you know what days you'll be in Rome. Tours fill up quickly during peak season, so don't wait especially if you're traveling to Rome over the summer.
Alternatively, you can book an underground tour with a private tour company in Rome. These tours are more expensive, but usually have the benefit of also providing you with a tour guide for the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, the two other sights included with a standard ticket into the Colosseum. I don't have any personal recommendations to offer as we booked directly with the Colosseum, but a quick Google search should bring up the most popular companies for these tours.
AREAS YOU'LL VISIT ON A COLOSSEUM UNDERGROUND TOUR
THE ARENA FLOOR
Our tour began on the arena floor, also known as the stage. Pictured first above, the stage is obviously a newer addition to the Colosseum as the original arena floor was dismantled centuries ago, but it still offers a unique vantage point of the Colosseum that you don't get when you're restricted to the outer rings of the amphitheater.
Entering the arena through the Gate of Death (yep, it's just like it sounds – this was the door the bodies of gladiators were carried through after their deaths), nothing will make you feel quite so small and insignificant like standing on the edge of the arena floor and looking up at the massive ruins of what was once the largest and most impressive amphitheater in the world. (Fun fact: Up to 80,000 people could fit in the Colosseum at one time!)
While you could never truly capture it without all the people and the noise and the fear and excitement, having access to this unique location and being able to hear a few of the most interesting tales that once occurred on the same spot where we currently stood made it a little easier to imagine what the Colosseum must have looked and felt like for the gladiators who once fought and lost their lives within its oval walls.
THE BASEMENT OF THE COLOSSEUM
Next we headed to the area which gives the tour its name – the Colosseum's basement. It was here, in an elaborate underground network of tunnels, cages, and holding rooms beneath the arena floor, that gladiators and animals were kept in anticipation of their “performances”. Exploring this area today allows a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation that went into the gladiator fights, animal hunts, and other public spectacles that everyone from the rich to the poor came to see during the Roman Empire's reign.
With the arena floor now gone, most of the basement is completely exposed and grass grows where tunnels and cages once were. However, much of the underground structure around the outer rim of the arena remains in fairly decent condition (including the original floor in some of the rooms reserved for gladiators) since it's been relatively well-protected from the elements all these years. It's in these areas that the tour takes place.
Some parts of the Colosseum's underground have been reconstructed, like the lifts that once took the animals and gladiators up to the arena level, to make it easier to understand how things once worked down here. And it's dark, but not nearly as dark (nor presumably as scary) as it once was when the arena floor blocked out nearly all the light. Even with these differences, there's still enough left behind to be able to see what it might have been like down here 2,000 years ago.
THE THIRD RING
Our final stop on the Colosseum Underground Tour was about as opposite as underground as you can get. After passing through a gated area on the second level of the Colosseum, we headed up to the Third Ring located at the top of the amphitheater. (If you take a look at the third picture in this post, you'll see a couple of people standing on a terrace above the tiers where the rest of the Colosseum's visitors can go – that's the Third Ring.)
This upper level provides a wide view of the Colosseum, as well as the ruins located nearby at the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. (Pictured: Arch of Constantine, and the Arch of Titus beside the Temple of Venus and Rome.) This is also one of the few spots where you can still see pieces of the original outer walls of the Colosseum. The rest were taken and sold after the fall of Rome.
Our tour ended here (in total, it was about an hour and a half) and we were left to exit on our own or explore the other areas of the Colosseum open to all visitors. We chose the latter, which I definitely recommend you do if you have the time. I mean, you bought a ticket, might as well make it worth it, right?
Related Post: Highlights At The Roman Forum & Palatine Hill
THE FIRST AND SECOND RINGS
If you were lucky (or smart) enough to book the earliest Colosseum Underground Tour of the day, the First and Second Rings might not be all that busy yet when you visit them after your tour is over. At least that was the case for us visiting in mid-February anyway.
While we didn't get to see anything on these levels that we hadn't already seen from the arena floor on our tour, it was still interesting just to be able to see how the view of the Colosseum changes depending on what level you're on. From a photography standpoint, I definitely enjoyed the second level the most, but for those visiting on a standard ticket only, the first level will allow a closer look at the network of tunnels beneath the arena.
Btw, that is my husband pretending to decide the fate of a fallen gladiator, not expressing his opinion on the Colosseum itself. (Just in case that wasn't clear, ha!)
PERIMETER WALK OUTSIDE THE COLOSSEUM
After you exit the Colosseum (there is no getting back in after you leave without buying a whole new ticket, so make sure you're ready), be sure to walk around the full perimeter of the Colosseum before you go. This especially applies if you're into photography. Everyone likes to get the same head-on view of the Colosseum (which was, unfortunately, completely covered in scaffolding when I visited), but there are a lot of unique shots you can capture if you're willing to walk around a little bit looking for unexpected angles. (There are also opportunities for interesting Colosseum shots from the other sights included on your ticket, so don't skip them!)
THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT THE COLOSSEUM UNDERGROUND TOUR
Tours meet at a specific meeting point inside the Colosseum. After you make it through security, if you haven't already been told where you are meeting, just ask someone at the security check point. They'll point you in the right direction.
You'll be given a headset so you can always hear your guide. Even though tours are small, it can get both windy and noisy at the Colosseum, making it hard to hear your guide. The headsets totally solve that problem.
Children under 18 are allowed into the Colosseum for free, and are free on the tour up to age 12. But they'll still need a ticket. You can book them online at the same time as your adult tickets, but they'll need to be picked up at the special events desk outside the Colosseum. (You'll have to show proof of age, so bring a passport or ID.)
If you have limited mobility, the underground tour may be difficult for you. Particularly on the steps up to the third ring. They were really narrow and steep, so if you're unsteady, it could be easy to take a fall.
Should you tip your guide? It's not necessary, and on our tour we noticed almost no one did, but I personally think if you really enjoyed the tour, an extra euro or two is a nice way of complimenting your guide.
First time in Rome? Be sure to check out our full Rome city guide here!
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