Visiting the Colosseum: Highlights, Tips & Tours
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The Flavian Amphitheater, better known to the world as the Colosseum, is the most universally recognized icon in Rome. You can explore this popular tourist attraction on your own or take a guided tour for more information and the opportunity to ask questions as you go along.
Despite damage by fire, earthquake, and neglect, as well as its conversion into a fortress of the Frangipani family, the pillaging of its stone for construction of palaces, and the constant pollution of modern traffic around it, the Colosseum still creates a powerful impression of its original form.
The largest structure surviving from ancient Rome, the Colosseum was begun by Vespasian in AD 72, and eight years later enlarged by his son, Titus, adding the fourth story. The name of the Colosseum derived from the immense statue of Nero-called the colossus after the Colossus of Rhodes- that stood nearby; the entire area was originally within Nero's Domus Aurea, his palace complex in the center of ancient Rome.
See also: Where to Stay near the Colosseum
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Colosseum Outer Wall
The Colosseum was 186 meters long by 156 meters wide, an oval shape, although it appears to be almost circular. The outer wall, 57 meters in height and built of travertine marble held together by iron clamps instead of mortar, was damaged by several earthquakes, and its entire south side collapsed in the quake of 1349.
The fallen stone was used to construct buildings throughout Rome, but you can see the original layers of pilasters and arches in the remaining north side. Those on the ground floor are Doric; the middle, Ionic; and the top, Corinthian. What appears to be the outer wall of the rest of the Colosseum is its original inner wall. Of the four main entrances, only fragments of their original reliefs of painted stucco remain.
The purpose of the Colosseum and the reason the Flavian emperors constructed it was to satisfy the public enthusiasm for games and spectacles. But the emperors and nobility also attended, each watching from a level determined by rank. The emperor and the Vestal Virgins had the best views from boxes at the north and south ends of the arena, and you can still see the names of senators carved in the stone of the area between these, which was reserved for them.
Noble families sat on the second course, and the general public sat in the third and fourth levels. Rows of seating and internal passages and staircases were carefully arranged, so the 50,000 spectators could get to their places or leave within a few minutes.
On the top level, there were originally 240 masts set around the walls that supported an awning over the audience. The entire interior was lavishly decorated, but only a few fragments survive to hint at what it must have looked like in the first centuries.
A bronze cross at one end of the arena commemorates the Christian martyrs who were believed to have died here during the Roman Imperial period. In fact, there is little evidence that the arena was used for this, and the first mention of it as a place of Christian martyrdom was not until the 16th century.
The arena floor was 83 by 48 meters, built of wood, and covered with sand. It has long since been destroyed, so you can now see the walls of the hypogeum, a vast two-story underground labyrinth of tunnels connecting training rooms for gladiators, cages for exotic wild animals, and store-rooms that were hidden underneath the floor.
Elaborate machines lifted scenery and caged animals to the arena, and according to accounts of the period, the arena was sometimes filled with water for mock sea battles.
Arch of Constantine
Standing beside the Colosseum, the Arch of Constantine is a triumphal arch honoring the Emperor Constantine as "liberator of the city and bringer of peace" after his victory in the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312.
At 21 meters in height, it is the largest and best preserved Roman triumphal arch, despite being incorporated (along with the Colosseum) into the castle of the Frangipani family for centuries. The arch is decorated with reliefs taken from earlier structures, so some of the scenes have little to do with Constantine and victory, and include a boar hunt and a sacrifice to Apollo.
Tips & Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to the Colosseum
Visiting the Colosseum is one of the most popular things to do in Rome, so unless you arrive with a pre-booked tour, expect to wait in line. Guided tours can also get you into areas not open to the general public. The best times to arrive are early morning and around noon, when tour bus groups go to lunch.
- Guided Tour of the Colosseum: The best way to avoid a wait is to take a Skip the Line: Ancient Rome and Colosseum Half-Day Walking Tour, which has the added advantage of an expert guide to point out details you might otherwise miss. Skipping the long line means more time to appreciate the wonders of this remarkable structure and hear stories of its tumultuous past.
- Tour of the Hypogeum and Upper Tiers: For an even more in-depth experience and access to areas of the Colosseum most visitors don't see, join the Ancient Rome and Colosseum Tour: Underground Chambers, Arena and Upper Tier. You'll actually stand where gladiators fought, walk through the underground tunnels, see the enclosures where lions were kept, and enjoy the panoramic view from the top tier. After fully experiencing the Colosseum, these tours also visit the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill for a more complete Ancient Rome experience.
- Visiting the Colosseum on Your Own: The Colosseum is grouped with the Forum and Palatine Hill under one inclusive two-day ticket. You can avoid the inevitable lines at the Colosseum by getting your ticket at the entrance to Palatine Hill, where lines are rare.
- Comfort: Wear good walking shoes, so you can walk easily on the uneven stones and climb for better views of the vast interior. Large bags, backpacks, or suitcases are not allowed inside, and there is no place to check them.
Getting to the Colosseum
- Take Linea B, the Blue Line, of the Rome Metro to the Colosseum station, two stops from Termini train station.
The Colosseum is surrounded by some of the most important sites of ancient Rome: the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and Nero's recently excavated Domus Aurea (Golden House). The churches of San Pietro in Vincoli and the Basilica of San Clemente are each a short walk away.
Restaurants and Cafés Nearby
Directly opposite the entrance to the Colosseum, right at the Metro stop is the appropriately named Colosseo Metro Caffe serves coffee, pizza, and antipasto plates in bright, cheerful surroundings. On a terrace above, on Via Nicola Salvi, La Biga Ristorante Caffe has shaded sidewalk tables. Facing the Colosseum on the other side, the Royal Art Café is a sleek restaurant with a roof terrace. Around the corner on Via Capo d'Africa, Osteria Angelino has been serving traditional Roman dishes since 1899.
The best gelato is at Gelateria Da Costanza on the opposite side of the same neighborhood at Via di San Giovanni in Laterano 40.
Where to Stay Nearby
Facing the south side of the Colosseum, on the opposite side from the Forum, is the Celio neighborhood, a tiny quadrangle of streets between the Colosseum and the Basilica of San Clemente. For streets so enclosed by top tourist attractions, Celio has a surprisingly local neighborhood feel, and you'll find several good lodging options here. Two luxury hotels, the smart and stylish Hotel Capo d'Africa and Palazzo Manfredi - Relais & Chateaux, facing Oppio Park, have rooftop terraces where you can enjoy breakfast with views of the Colosseum.
Also in Celio, the new deluxe B&B Bellezza al Colosseo has custom-made Italian furniture and in-room espresso machines. In the same mid-range category, Hotel Fori Imperiali Cavalieri is north of the Colosseum, at the edge of the Monti neighborhood.
For souvenirs, I Love Roma faces the Piazza del Colosseo near the Royal Art Café, and Souvenir Colosseo is just around the corner at Via di S. Giovanni in Laterano 14. You'll find jewelry shops, boutiques, and art galleries in these streets, as well as a pharmacy and a Carrefours mini supermarket. For more concentrated shopping, head north into the Monti neighborhood, where you'll find everything from vintage clothing to fine chocolate.
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What to See in Rome: When you're visiting the tourist attractions in Rome be sure to see our handy guides to the best museums and palaces and the top churches. These will help you navigate through myriad of possible options. Our page on Where to Stay in Rome can help you find hotels, and for family travel, be sure to see Rome with Kids: Top Things to Do.
Where to Go from Rome: A popular day trip from Rome is to nearby Tivoli, home to one of Italy's most beautiful gardens. To learn the best ways to get there, either on your own or with a tour, see our handy From Rome to Tivoli guide. You can also travel easily from Rome to the island of Capri, one of the best places to visit in Italy.