- Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
- Diocletian baths
- Crypta Balbi
- Palazzo Altemps
- How to visit
- Map of the four sites of the National Roman Museum
- Save this article for later
When in Rome planning your itinerary of museums to see can be tricky, especially if you’re looking at visiting something beyond the must-sees, such as the Colosseum and the Vatican.
With the crazy amount of things to see in Rome it could be helpful to focus on what inspires us the most to narrow down our options.
For example, if you feel much more into Ancient Rome, there’s plenty of Rome museums that will fill in your hunger for discovery!
In particular, there is one Rome museum that will literally take you on a journey through Ancient Rome, an experience that you will never forget.
You’ll walk through the private ornate rooms of the imperial family, then into the biggest ancient thermal baths of the city, to continue into “lasagnas of history” (where layers and layers of different eras pile up), to finish off in front of a collection of ancient marble statues that will drop your jaw.
Doesn’t it sound exciting? I am talking about the National Roman Museum (Museo Nazionale Romano). An incredible Rome museum that includes four different sites, all included in ONE single ticket!
All of these four sites have a focus on all-things Ancient Rome and they are located in different areas of the city, all easily reachable by public transportation.
So, what are these incredible sites? Keep reading to find out!
Want to discover the secrets of Ancient Rome with us? We take you on a Walk through the Ancient Rome ruins (small groups only!) with our in person experiences
The four sites of the National Roman Museum (Museo Nazionale Romano)
1) Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
Palazzo Massimo is an incredible concentrate of Ancient Roman wonders, which is also very handy to reach as we are close to the Termini train and metro station. So you have no excuse not to come and visit!
This Rome museum is a true hidden gem where you can:
- see super rare bronze statues from Ancient Rome
- see how the ancient romans REALLY looked like on their faces
- enter into an imperial villa. In this villa it’s where the laurel bushes of the emperor’s laurel crown used to grow!
In this museum you will find four floors of statues, frescoes, mosaics, and sarcophagus from ancient Rome. Everything was found during the excavations that took place from the 1870s, when Rome became capital of Italy and lots of new buildings were built.
But let’s go in order. As I mentioned, here you can see exactly what the Romans looked like from really close! In fact, as you enter, the first thing you see is the area dedicated to portraits.
And portraits in ancient Rome were so realistic! When you look at these, notice the flaws, the wrinkles.. they almost look like photographs!
We can’t say the same thing for the bodies of their statues, where everyone seemed to be very fit.
The truth is, the Romans combined their real portraits with ideal athletic bodies. Can we say this was like the equivalent of an Instagram filter? 😜
Ancient Roman bronze statues are very rare to find, as bronze was widely reutilized after the end of the Roman Empire.
And in this Rome museum we have some of them:
- Hellenistic prince (Principe ellenistico)
- Boxer at rest: this is a boxer at rest after the end of a fight. On his face we can see the signs of the fight: the wounds on his skin are represented by red copper, as well as the blood drop.
Paintings and mosaics: the Villa of Livia
After you explore the ground floor, it’s time to move on to the upper floors and enter some real ancient Roman luxury houses!
Colors all over, perspective illusions and fantastic landscapes: these were the ancient Roman frescoes decorating the walls of some of the fabulous villas around the city. Belonging to emperors and the aristocracy.
These villas were not originally here, but the frescoes were transferred to this Rome museum in rooms of exactly the same size, so that you can really have an idea of how it felt to walk through these lush properties.
This is the most beautiful room, the triclinium, dining room of the Villa of Livia, the wife of the emperor Augustus. Here you can see a lush garden with hundreds of different species of birds and trees. This villa was located in the area of Prima Porta, on the Flaminian way.
In the garden of this villa there used to be a laurel bush. This bush was where the leaves of the laurel crowns of the emperors used to come from!
The Villa of the Farnesina
On the same floor as the Villa of Livia, you can also find the incredible frescoes of the Villa of the Farnesina.
The Villa of the Farnesina was found beneath the “modern” Villa Farnesina in Trastevere, which was built in the 1500s and decorated by none other than Raphael for Agostino Chigi. In this case I am not sure which of these Villas is more beautiful!
When you look at these frescoes, keep reminding yourself that they are original, because it will be very hard to believe! 😉
On the other floors you will find also ancient Roman sculptures which will blow you away, like this one:
This is a museum that you must visit when in Rome!
📍Largo di Villa Peretti, 2
Are you getting ready for your Rome trip and are looking for advice? Ask the community in the Piazza! 😊
2) Diocletian Baths
Have you ever walked inside an Ancient Roman bath? Here you’re going to do that!
Diocletian baths are right across the street from Termini station, whose name “Termini” comes from the “thermal” baths that were here!
The cool thing about places like the Diocletian baths is that you actually walk inside rooms and spaces that have been walked by the Romans thousands of years ago! It’s like you interact with the place.
The Diocletian baths were the biggest thermal baths ever built in Rome! These baths were built at the beginning of the 4th century AD by the emperor Diocletian.
To give you an idea of the size, these baths were 13 hectares wide and they could host up to 3000 people at the same time!
And how long did it take to build all of this? Only 8 years! 😮
How was it for an ancient Roman person going to the baths?
Thermal baths in Ancient Rome were not considered to be a treat, as we do today in western countries. Going to the bath was something that was part of the ordinary life of an ancient Roman. Also because you need to imagine that most people did not have a bath at home.
The Roman baths were not only a place for hygiene and relaxation, but also a gathering place where to socialize and have conversations.
What was the route inside the Diocletian baths?
The imperial thermal baths of Rome had a precise pattern. They were a sequence of rooms at different temperatures, something like our modern SPAs and thermal baths.
As you explore Diocletian baths look for the numbers on the wall, to understand what each room was for.
This was one of the monumental entrances to the Diocletian baths. It was a huge hall, and you must imagine this room entirely covered with colorful marbles.
This room was used as a water tank for the swimming pool that we will see later. Here you can see a giant mosaic floor which used to decorate these Roman baths.
Typically this would have been the first room you entered. This was the apodyterium, which was the changing room. Here you would leave your belongings before starting the thermal circuit.
Belongings were not supervised, so if you were a rich person you would have had a slave waiting for you here, looking after your things while you were in the baths. If you were not rich, you could just cross your fingers and hope to find your belongings where you left them. 😅
After the changing room, you would head down to the palestra, the gym, where you would have done some work outs, played games, etc.. The palestra today is almost entirely destroyed.
After the gym, you would start the route of the baths. Which means, you would go through a series of rooms, starting from the lukewarm room to the hottest one.
Then you would go through the Frigidarium, the cold room. Do you want to know where the Frigidarium is today? As you exit the Diocletian baths after your visit, pop into the nearby church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. That church was built in the 1500s by Michelangelo inside the frigidarium of Diocletian baths! Later this church was renovated and decorations were added by Luigi Vanvitelli, the same architect that made the Reggia di Caserta!
And eventually you would enter the natatio, the swimming pool! This was the natatio of the Diocletian baths, a swimming pool of 4000 square meters, which means: the size of two olympic swimming pools!!
The facade of this pool was over 90 meters long (almost double of the one of Caracalla baths) and it was richly decorated with colorful marbles and mosaics.
Imagine now those marbles covering the entire wall, and the shine of the water reflecting on those marbles. Imagine the light effects you would have seen in here!
The pool was 1.3 meters deep and it was all covered/coated with white marble slabs. A dream to swim into!
Even though today this pool and walls look raw, we can still appreciate the grandiosity of back then.
The Baths of Diocletian beyond ancient Rome
Where are all the marbles that once were here? They were all reutilized for the convent and cloister nearby.
The Diocletian baths museum of Rome complex is HUGE to explore. In fact, here you can also see the spectacular Michelangelo’s cloister, which is one of the biggest cloisters of Italy!
And also a very extensive exhibition of ancient Roman artifacts, tombs and tools.
An absolute must-see museum when in Rome!
📍Viale Enrico de Nicola, 78
Make your Rome trip special with an experience led by a local expert. Small groups, no academic frills and non traditional tours here
3) Crypta Balbi
This time you’ll go underground Rome and explore an ancient Roman hidden gem in the heart of the city: Crypta Balbi. This is a proper “lasagna of history”, where you will find layers of history from ancient Rome to modern days, one on top of each other.
Crypta Balbi is in the city center, in via delle Botteghe Oscure, just few steps away from Largo Argentina and the Pantheon.
What was the Crypta Balbi?
Despite the name, Crypta Balbi was not a crypt. It was actually a portico running around an outdoor square. This square was located right next to the Theatre of Balbo. The Crypta Balbi was the place where the spectators used to take shelter in case of rain. Or where they were spending their time in the breaks during the plays.
Today the Crypta Balbi is underground Rome. But this is only because of the ground level that has raised through the centuries. Originally it was in fact on the street level.
What did the Crypta Balbi look like?
You must imagine that behind the theatre of Balbo there used to be a big square. Around this square there used to be a portico with columns. This portico had an exedra (a semicircular room) on the opposite side of the theatre. This exedra is today visible in the Crypta Balbi archaeological site, underground Rome.
Crypta Balbi from Ancient Rome to modern days
Through the centuries this beautiful building went through so many transformations. It went through abandonment, then it became a kiln, then a monastery.
Here’s a short and easy summary of what happened to the Crypta Balbi through the centuries: https://www.livevirtualguide.com/post/crypta-balbi-a-secret-underground-rome/
📍Via delle Botteghe Oscure, 31
One of our in person experiences ends right next to the Crypta Balbi! Why don’t you pair it with the Hidden Gems of Trastevere, Tiber Island & Jewish district experience?
4) Palazzo Altemps
Palazzo Altemps used to be a noble residential palace, near Piazza Navona in Rome. It is a beautifully decorated palace that since the 1500s housed a wide collection of ancient sculptures.
Today Palazzo Altemps is a museum, a real hidden gem a few steps away from Piazza Navona.
What’s the story (in brief) of Palazzo Altemps?
The palace was built in the 1400s by the nephew of pope Sixtus IV (the pope that made the Sistine chapel!).
A hundred years later the palace was bought by an Austrian cardinal, called Marco Sittico Altemps, nephew of the pope Pius IV.
Cardinal Altemps established his residency in this palace, and that’s where the name of this place comes from: Palazzo Altemps.
He also decorated this palace with beautiful frescoes and chose this as the location for his collection of antiquities and books.
To make the long story short, the palace changed property over the years, until in 1982 it became property of the Italian State, and it was eventually turned into a beautiful Rome museum.
Palazzo Altemps houses some of the most incredible collections of ancient sculptures, not only from the Altemps collection but also coming from other noble families, such as the Boncompagni Ludovisi and Mattei. It’s a collection of collections!
Visiting Palazzo Altemps means walking through a series of colorful and beautiful rooms, corridors that take you to incredible marbles. It’s like a continuous discovery room after room.
Some of the highlights of Palazzo Altemps
On the first floor you will find this super ornate balcony with frescoes all over, representing vegetation, birds, angels. Here you will find statues of ancient Roman emperors and if you look down you’ll see the main courtyard of the palace from where you entered.
The Suicide Gaul
This is an incredible ancient Roman statue, the Suicide Gaul.
What does this represent? We have a soldier, which is the one standing, who’s been defeated by his enemies. He has no choice but killing himself not to fall into his enemies hands. This statue freezes the very moment where he is about to kill himself, after he already killed his wife, so that one of them would be captured by their enemies.
The giant Ludovisi Sarcophagus
Next to the Suicide Gaul we have the giant Ludovisi sarcophagus (Ludovisi is the name of the noble family who owned it).
What does this represent? This is a battle between the ancient Romans and the barbarians. Look at the endless amount of details! How many characters are filling the scene, everything sculpted in marble.
When you visit Palazzo Altemps it is incredible how room after room, is wonder after wonder! And many of these wonders are ancient Greek and Roman divinities, so it is a great way to learn about them and their features.
The Giant head of Era
In another room you’ll find the giant head of the goddess Era (Juno in the Roman version), the goddess of marriage and family. This head must have been part of a whole body statue, so imagine as a whole how giant it must have been!
The statue of Mars
Here we have this beautiful statue of the god Mars, Ares in the greek version, which is the god of war. Look at the details, how realistic they are, we can see his muscles, his posture..
The statue of Asclepius
Here instead we have the god Asclepius, the god of medicine. Asclepius is always represented with a wooden stick with a rolling snake around it, which is.. the symbol of medicine!
If you think about it for sure you’ve seen something similar symbol in our modern hospitals or pharmacies.
Fragments of frescoes belonging to Ancient Roman domus
Not only ancient statues, this Rome museum also collects fragments of ancient Roman interior walls! We can only see parts of it, and still we can get an idea of how precious these houses must have been! You need to imagine that the ancient Roman domus (ancient Roman house) had way less furniture than we have today in our houses, but it had a lot of decorations painted on the walls.
Underground Palazzo Altemps
And as always, Rome never stops being a lasagna of history! In fact, during the renovation works below Palazzo Altemps, these ruins were found.
These ruins used to be the walls of an ancient Roman domus, an ancient Roman house. And in here you can also find some fragments of the frescoes decorating these walls.
Look at how vibrant the colors are!!
📍Piazza di Sant’Apollinare, 46
How to visit the four sites of the National Roman Museum
To visit the National Roman Museum you need to purchase a ticket either online or on-site. You can buy a ticket to the single venues, or add a few euros more and get a ticket for all four of them (highly recommended!).
For the most up-to-date information please always refer to their website: https://museonazionaleromano.beniculturali.it
Wonderful article….your passion really bursts through the words! Thanks you so much, Liz
Thank you so much Liz! 😊