Rome: Catacombs For Kids

Everyone has heard of the catacombs, but these early Christian tombs are only the beginning of Rome’s subterranean world.

Crypts, catacombs and excavated relics beneath buildings may sound dank, dark and creepy to you, but they fascinate kids. These spooky places appeal to their love of things hidden and mysterious, and the more bizarre these sites may seem to modern sensibilities, the greater their kid-appeal.

My daughter began collecting information on these underground places before we ever reached Rome, so by the time we arrived in the Eternal City she already had a list of places we had to visit. She spent her first evening locating them on the map we’d picked up at the train station when we arrived, so wherever we went she always knew when there was a crypt or a catacomb nearby, and could steer our routes in their direction.

Exploring the catacombs

Most famous of course are the catacombs, although we had never realized that there were so many of them. The two best known are not far apart on the Appian Way. The Catacomb of St. Callisto (Catacombe di San Callisto) dates from the 2nd century A.D. The largest of Rome’s catacombs, it was the burial place of several early popes, and has colorful graffiti of symbols of Christianity, fun for kids to look for and identify.

Via Appia Antica 110, Tel. +011 06 51301580. Open April-October Thursday-Tuesday 8:30-noon and 2:30-5:30 p.m. (closed at 5 p.m. November-March, closed February. Bus 118 stops nearby.

The Catacombs of St. Sebastian (Catacombe di San Sebastiano) are just down the road in a basilica built by Constantine. This is where the bodies of Sts. Peter and Paul were hidden until St. Peter was relocated to the Vatican and St. Paul to San Paolo Fuori le Mura. My daughter found this wandering of saintly relics quite fascinating and began a list of the various temporary homes of saints’ remains she visited.

Inside the catacomb, opposite a statue of San Sebastiano, is a marble slab imprinted with the feet of Christ. Like St. Sebastian’s, the walls are covered in images of doves and fish put there by early Christians.

Via Appia Antica 136, Tel. +011 06 785 0350. Open Mon.-Sat. 8:30-noon and 2:30-5:30 p.m.; closed mid-November to mid-December.

Less crowded than either of these are the Catacombs of Priscilla, which connect to the remains of a once-grand Roman villa. The wider and higher passageways here are more suitable for younger children who might be too spooked by the narrow confines of the others.

Via Salaria 430, Tel. +011 06 862 06272. Open Tue.-Sun. 8:30-noon and 2:30-5 p.m.; closed January.

The three layers of San Clemente

Under the Basilica of San Clemente (close to the Colosseum) are the remains of entire streets of Nero’s Rome, including a still-active fountain, and this underground city is less scary than the catacombs and has more variety. Excavations began under the basilica in 1857, discovering not only the original 4th-century basilica underneath, but also 1st-century buildings beneath that.

One find is a brick building with a 2nd-century Mithraic temple in its courtyard and the other is a grander building around a courtyard. Without the group tour that’s required for catacomb visits, you’re free to wander around and discover things, like the underground spring.

How did these get underneath the church? In the 4th century, the lower-story rooms and courtyard were filled in to form the foundation for a basilica that lasted until 1100 AD, when it was abandoned because of structural problems. This basilica was filled in with rubble to form a foundation for a replica of it —the church you see today.

Via di San Giovanni in Latero 108, open Mon.-Sat. 9-12:30 p.m. and 3-6, p.m., Sunday and holidays noon-6 p.m.

High creep factor (aka teen appeal)

The crypt under Santa Maria della Concezione on Via Veneto, near Piazza Barberini, is possibly the most eerie and bizarre of Rome’s many crypts. Its walls are almost completely lined with the skulls of more than 4,000 Capuchin monks who died between 1528 and 1870. Entire skeletons—more like mummies —in their hooded robes languish in niches. Bones form intricate baroque swirls inside vaulted ceiling. It’s bizarre enough to delight any kid.

Underneath St. Peter’s in the Vatican is a cemetery where the remains of St. Peter were found, long after he was removed from the catacombs and reburied there. In these grottos are the tombs of early and modern popes; St. Peter’s is behind a glass wall. While you’re there, be sure to climb (or ride the elevator) up to Michelangelo’s dome, 375 feet above.

As my daughter said when we left and walked across the vast piazza, “We’ve done the Vatican from top to bottom.”

Piazza San Pietro, tel. +06-698-81662,

Destinations: Vatican, Italy, Rome

Themes: Family Travel, Historical Vacations