Of course the cultural roots of Italy lie in Roman civilization. The entire country is studded with roads, bridges, aqueducts, arches, and the remains of baths, forums, amphitheatres and temples. Most major cities are still laid out along the original Roman lines, whether as urban centers or military fortifications. There simply is not a city or fair-sized town anywhere in Italy that does not offer at least one Roman relic, so keep your eye out for them wherever you go. Here are some of the most interesting, both famous and obscure:
Aquileia, Friuli-Venezia Giulia
Founded in 181 BC, this strategic ancient outpost had as many as 100,000 inhabitants. Considered northern Italy's most important archaeological site, it features a circus, forum, cemetery and excellent museum (Via Roma 1, open Tues-Sat 9-2 and Sun 9-1). To reach the ancient river port, walk along the cypress-lined Via degli Scavi del Porto Fluviale, past altars, architectural fragments and plaques from local excavations. The basilica, while more recent, has an astonishing 700-square-yard mosaic floor. Casa Corazza is a historic residence offering lodgings very near the archeological site.
Although still only 2/3-excavated, this remains one of the world's most spellbinding archaeological sites. Because the thriving seaport was virtually "embalmed" by the eruption of Vesuvius (which still emits smoke on the horizon), you can learn as much as you want to about ancient Roman life. To truly understand what you are looking at, experience the ruins with one of our private guides from Rome or Naples or the Amalfi Coast.
Piazza Armerina, Sicily
Villa Romana del Casale. Some people think this extravagant 3rd-4th-century hunting villa was owned by a wealthy importer of African animals used in the Roman games. This is because the villa's famed mosaic floors were probably made by African master craftsmen.
What we are sure of is that they are some of the largest and most impressive mosaics surviving from antiquity. And there are more than just floors here. You can visit the entire complex of elaborate buildings, including baths, a basilica and an elliptical peristyle. Open 9-sunset. Click here for historic lodgings right down the road.
Piazza Armerina: Floor Mosaics
Desenzano del Garda, Lombardy
Villa Romana. This pleasure palace overlooks the lovely lakeside town and has splendid mosaic floors. Open Tues-Sun year-round (March-October 15 8:30-7; October 16-February 8:30-4:30). Here are some places to stay on the lake.
Ostia Antica, Latium
In our opinion, this is one of the great overlooked spots in Italy, probably because there's so much to do in Rome it's just not possible to squeeze it in. That's a shame, because its setting in the quiet Roman countryside just a few hundred yards from the sea makes it magical, and its wonderful state of preservation allows it to present a phenomenally clear picture of what life was like in ancient days. In this sense it is far more interesting than the Roman Forum.
Mosaics and Pine
Trees in Ostia Antica
Although the relatively few tourists who go to Ravenna are mainly interested in Byzantine treasures, they should start by visiting the tomb of Galla Placidia, Emperor Honorius's sister. Built in the mid-5th century, it represents the Roman style just as it teetered on the brink of extinction. The mosaics are exquisite, and since the room is quite small, you can view them more closely than in the monumental basilicas. Via San Vitale 17, open daily 8:30-8 in summer, 8:30-5 in winter.
The area formed by the crook in the River Adige is considered "Roman Verona," and it offers three outstanding monuments: the theatre (open Tues-Sun 8-1:30), set on a hill overlooking the river, the museum directly behind it (same hours as the theatre), and the arena, site of unforgettable summer concerts and opera performances. Click here for a selection of lodgings in the center of Verona.
This whole city is a treasure trove of Roman remains, having been built in 25 BC as a strategic outpost defending the northeastern alpine border. The well-preserved walls, Porta Pretoria, Arch of Augustus and ancient theatre (open 9:30-12 and 2:30-6:30 [2:30-4:30 in winter]) are made even more picturesque by the mountainous surroundings, and there's a good provincial museum full of artifacts. The city of Aosta does not offer much in the way of lodgings, so we suggest you stay 7km away in the charming village of Quart, where the Hotel Village offers classic alpine chalets surrounded by a large park.
Velleia, near Castell'Arquato in Emilia-Romagna
Unlike its more illustrious contemporary Pompeii, this site is small enough to offer a comprehensive view of what a Roman town was like. Located in the beautiful rolling hills near Piacenza, Velleia was slowly infiltrated by underground water, which caused it to be abandoned in the early 4th century BC. Lost until 1747, it has slowly been excavated until today you can visit most of the town, including a forum, basilica and necropolis. Open 9am-dusk. Click here to view several lovely historical residences offering lodgings in the area.
This small market town is the most important historical site on the western Riviera. Conquered by Rome in 181 BC, it still preserves most of its original fortified walls, and is laid out on the ancient grid. If you like boats or naval history, visit the Museo Navale Romano in Piazza San Michele (open Tues-Sun 9-12 [10-12 in winter] and 3-6). It hosts the oldest Roman ship ever found in the western Mediterranean. Click here for lodgings in Albenga.
When this small hill town was the seat of Etruscan princes and then a Roman city, Florence was just a tiny settlement on the river below. The theatre, built in 80 BC and overlooking one of the prettiest Tuscan views we know, could hold 3000 people. Near it are the ruins of the baths, a temple and a stretch of Etruscan walls.