The Via Appia Antica (www.parcoappiaantica.org), ancient Rome's "Queen of Roads," is the reason we say all roads lead to Rome. Engineered in the 5th century B.C., it was the widest and largest road of its time. In its heyday this avenue spanned some 330 miles, running from Rome to the port of Brindisi, on the Adriatic coast, where boats left for Egypt, Greece, and North Africa. According to Christian legend, it was on the Via Appia Antica that Jesus Christ appeared to St. Peter.
The road today is remarkably well preserved, flanked on both sides by fields punctuated with ruins and other vestiges of Roman history, its large flat paving stones polished by millennia of use and weathering.
Start your walk at the (1) San Sebastian Gate (Via di Porta San Sebastiano 18, about two miles south of the Colosseum), where you'll find the Museum of the Walls, with exhibits on Rome's ancient walls and defenses (fee). From the museum, begin making your way down Via Appia Antica. As you proceed, you will spot ruins from Roman times, including sepulchers and columbaria (vaults for funerary urns).
The first major landmark will be the (2) Church of Santa Maria in Palmis (Via Appia Antica 51) also known as the Domine Quo Vadis church, on your left. According to legend, it was here that St. Peter, fleeing Rome to escape Emperor Nero's persecution, had a vision of Jesus and asked him, "Domine, quo vadis?"—"Lord, where are you going?" Jesus's answer, "To Rome, to be crucified anew," persuaded Peter that he had to return to the city and accept his own martyrdom.
A few minutes' walk farther along the road, on the right, you'll come upon the (3) Catacombs of St. Callixtus (Via Appia Antica 110; 39 06 446 5610; fee). Part of a major burial complex that encompassed almost a hundred acres, with a web of underground galleries, these catacombs were considered the official cemetery for the Christians of Rome. Featured are the Crypt of the Popes, final resting place of nine early popes, and a crypt with the remains of St. Cecilia. The remains of other early saints—St. Gaius, St. Eusebius, St. Cornelius—are also said to rest in these catacombs.
More sepulchres and columbaria, including the Hebrew and Pretestatus Catacombs, line the next stretch of road.
A little farther along, again on the right side of the road, are the (4) Catacombs of St. Sebastian (Via Appia Antica 136; 39 06 785 0350; fee), created as burial sites for fourth-century Christians. The catacombs descend four dark, musty levels and are not for the faint of heart. Named after the martyred Roman saint originally buried here—St. Sebastian's remains are now in the basilica above the catacombs—the St. Sebastian Catacombs were the first to be called "catacumbas" or "hollows." The bodies of the apostles Peter and Paul were said to have been buried here for some time. As an increasing number of Christians wanted to be buried near them, the underground cemetery grew into miles of burial sites that astonish even today.
Continuing on Via Appia Antica you will see, on your left, the (5) Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella (Via Appia Antica 161; 39 06 7802 1465), a well-preserved tomb and museum dedicated to a Roman noblewoman who was a contemporary of Julius Caesar and laid to rest here. Just past the mausoleum lies (6) the Circus of Maxentius, one of the best-preserved imperial circuses—oval-shaped chariot-racing courses—in Rome. Also here are the remains of a villa once lived in by the eponymous Roman emperor Maxentius, until he was overthrown by Constantine Augustus in the fourth century.
Nat Geo Traveler All Access
Available in print and for iPad®! See destinations come alive with 360-degree photos, videos, and more!