One of the best ways to enjoy the sunny Roman weather and feel like you’re stepping back in time is to take a walk along the Appian Way. The Appian Way (or in Italian, via Appia Antica) was Europe’s first super highway and remains one of the best attractions in Rome. Possibly the oldest road still in existence, it was ancient Rome’s most important military and economic artery and it’s largely intact today!
What is it?
The Appian Way was a crucial road for the Roman Empire. It connected Rome to some of its most distant settlements. Originally built by Appius Claudius Caecus, the then-censor of Rome, the road connected Rome to Capua near Naples. Eventually, it extended more than 300 miles to Brindisi, Puglia on the Adriatic Coast, making it the widest and longest road in existence at the time. Called the “Queen of Roads,” it’s construction was truly momentous, especially considering it was built in 312 BC!
Even compared to many of the other best attractions in Rome, The Appian Way is incredibly well-preserved. It’s made of large, flat stones, which have been firmly set in place by thousands of years of rain, wheels, and feet passing over them. When you touch them, you are walking in the footsteps of Roman emperors, merchants, saints and maybe even St. Peter. The road was originally built predominately for military purposes, meaning Julius Caesar walked it along with thousands of other soldiers, leaders and consuls. Christians converts were buried along the route and the famous slave leader Spartacus was crucified on the via Appia in 71 BC.
For its history and beauty, the first 10 miles of the Appian Way are now a part of a regional park, Parco dell’Appia Antica, where the road and the monuments that surround it are protected.
Where is the Appian Way and what is there to see?
Although it’s one of the best attractions in Rome, much of the Appian way sits outside the city. But don’t worry, it’s not difficult to get to. Take the metro to the Piramide or Circo Massimo stops, then catch the #118. You can also go by taxi, but be careful about coming back – many of the cars waiting around aren’t official taxis, so it’s best to set a price before getting inside. The best day to visit is by far on Sundays, when the entire park is closed to traffic. Romans come for picnics and bike rides and tourists can tour the monuments, catacombs and even cafés in peace. This is definitely the best way to bike or walk the ancient Appian Way, as other days of the week the road is clogged with cars.
Or, if you’d like an expert to guide you through Rome’s most awe-inspiring ancient sites, including the Appian Way, check out our Rome as a Local tour.
Today’s via Appia starts at the Porta San Sebastiano, just two miles south of the Coliseum. For those on bikes, it might be best to ride in the well-worn dirt tracks alongside the road to avoid the bumps and bruises the large stones might give you and the bike.
From Porta San Sebastiano, head down the road to the 9th century Domine Quo Vadis Church. Legend has it that this is the spot where Peter saw a vision of Christ when he was fleeing Nero’s persecution in 64 AD. He asked Christ, “”Domine, quo vadis?” or “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus responded that he was going to Rome to be crucified anew, prompting Peter to accept his fate and return to Rome to become a martyr. Inside the church is the stone that supposedly has the footprints of Jesus. There’s also a fresco of Peter on the left wall and one of Jesus on the right.
Two major Christian catacombs are located directly after the church, the Catacombs of San Sebastiano and the slightly larger Catacombs of San Callisto. They are the burial sites for many of the early popes and some of the best attractions in Rome in their own right. Nearby there’s also the enormous tomb of Cecilia Metella, the daughter-in-law of Rome’s richest man. Although this tomb doesn’t show up on many normal tours, it’s definitely one of the best attraction in Rome (or just outside of it). We even stop at it on our Rome As A Local tour because it has to be seen to be believed.
A little ways past Cecilia’s mausoleum is the Circus Maxentius, one of the best-preserved Roman imperial circuses. It’s a large arena where chariot races were once held, right next to the remains of Emperor Maxentius’ large villa.
From here you can walk or bike for miles along the ancient Roman highway, passing gorgeous fields strewn with historic tombs and ancient Roman ruins, all nearly unchanged since the 4th century.
Though eventually about 30 other roads fanned out from Rome (truly giving meaning to the saying “all roads lead to Rome”) the Ancient Appian Way was the first and greatest, another surviving testament to the mighty Roman Empire.