Postcards from Italy

The New Old: Roman Sites to See in Rome This Year

The long-awaited restoration of Rome’s Mausoleum of Augustus, the largest ever built by the ancient Romans in 28 BC to hold Augustus and his successors, Nero and Tiberius, was announced at the beginning of this year. This monumental circular tomb near the Tiber River has been neglected since World War II, and the $6 million restoration project funded by the telecommunications company Telecom Italia would include cleaning the site and opening it to visitors, who will be able to watch a multimedia show about Augustus and ancient Rome projected onto the towering mausoleum walls.

2006-12-17 12-22 Rom 456 Mausoleo di Augusto

(Photo by Allie Caulfield via Flickr)

Before you add this to your Rome bucket list, however, you may want to wait awhile. Experience has taught us that an announced restoration and a completed restoration in Rome are two different things, often separated by years – if not decades – of delays and false starts. Indeed, the mausoleum was slated for a massive restoration to be completed by 2014 to mark the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’ death, but work was never started.

While you wait to see when and if the mausoleum will ever get the dusting off it deserves, there are a number of other Roman ruins and sites that have been recently restored or are offering new interactive tours that are worth a visit. So put aside Augustus’ final resting place for the time being, and consider visiting these gems instead:

Pyramid of Cestius

You may be surprised to know that Rome has an Egyptian-style pyramid in the heart of its historic center, and it was easy for even locals to overlook this excellently preserved tomb built in 12 BC for the magistrate Gaius Cestius. Stained a dingy grey from years of traffic along the busy Via Ostiensis and Via della Marmorata, the ancient building blended into the historic Aurelian city walls that flank it on both sides and didn’t draw a second glance from passersby for years.

Pyramid of Cestius

(Photo by Larry Koester via Flickr)

That changed when Japanese fashion tycoon Yuzo Yagi donated €2 million to Rome to clean and restore the pyramid’s marble exterior to its original gleaming white and open the internal chamber to tours. Unfortunately, tours are only offered on Saturday and Sunday in Italian, but the pyramid is in the trendy foodie Testaccio neighborhood near the Pyramide subway station, so if you are exploring the area’s excellent boutiques, restaurants, and food markets, make sure you pause to appreciate this small slice of Ancient Egypt in modern Rome.

Domus Aurea

The ruins of Nero’s sprawling “Golden Palace” located on the hill opposite the Colosseum have been undergoing restoration work for years, and reopened to the public for guided tours at the end of 2014 after a six-year closure. Once a massive estate covering anywhere from 100 to 300 acres with 300 rooms dedicated to leisure and entertainment, much of the site has yet to be excavated, and what can be visited is largely underground as the palace was stripped of its signature gold leaf and precious stones and filled with earth by successive emperors, who built baths, temples, and amphitheaters above it.

Peintures murales de la Domus Transitoria (Rome)

(Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr)

The Domus is famous for its intricate grottesque frescoes that inspired Renaissance painters including Michelangelo, Raffaello, and Pinturicchio, but most of the sumptuous interiors that featured mosaics, inlaid precious stone, and rich marble and painted walls have been lost over the millennia. From February through December of 2017, however, visitors who book the guided tours on Saturday and Sunday can see the interiors of the Domus Aurea as they were at the height of the palace’s glory through high definition projections and Oculus Rift augmented reality headsets.

Ara Pacis

The Domus Aurea isn’t the only site in Rome using state-of-the-art VR technology to help visitors appreciate how the monument once looked. The Ara Pacis, an altar dedicated to the Roman goddess of peace to celebrate the return of Augustus to the capital city after a three year campaign in Hispania and Gaul, was built in 9 BC in the northern outskirts of Rome, but reassembled in its present location on the banks of the Tiber River in 1938. A contemporary – and somewhat controversial – building designed by Richard Meier has covered the altar since 2006, and visitors can take in the breathtaking monument from both inside or outside Meier’s structure.

The Ara Pacis (II)

(Photo by Institute for the Study of the Ancient World via Flickr)

Today, the altar is covered in white marble reliefs and friezes, but by donning a VR headset during the L’Ara Com’Era exhibit running through October, visitors can see the Ara Pacis with its vibrant original colors, “float” over the altar to view it from above, see it surrounded by the landscape of its original Campo Marzio location, and watch a reenacted sacrifice. L’Ara Com’Era is open each Friday and Saturday from 7:30 p.m. to midnight and lasts 45 minutes.

Circolo Massimo

The biggest news in Rome at the end of 2016 was the reopening of the Circus Maximus, one of the largest sport and entertainment venues in the Ancient world that could fit up to 250,000 spectators for chariot racing, sporting competitions, theatrical events, and parades. Now a public park, portions of the Circolo Massimo were closed for seven years of restoration, excavation, and landscaping work; now visitors can climb the worn marble steps leading into giant stadium and explore the ground-level remains of shops, taverns, and brothels tucked underneath the tiers of seating.


(Photo by Larry Koester via Flickr)

The stadium is said to date back 2,800 years, when Romulus, the founder of Rome, held horse races here, but burnt to the ground during the famous fire under the Emperor Nero in 64 AD and was rebuilt by Trajan. Over the centuries, the site has been home to working-class housing, urban gardens, markets, sporting events, and – most recently – venues for The Rolling Stones and other international musical celebrities. For a bird’s-eye view of the site, climb to the terrace of the medieval Torre della Moletta located inside the park and see just how huge this sprawling complex once was.

Travel Specialists

Maria Landers

Brian Dore