Rome Colosseum With Palm Trees As Seen From Celio Park

Celio: Rome’s Best Neighborhood Hidden in Plain Sight

Virtually every visitor to Rome goes to Celio at some point. Most never realize it, because they don’t venture beyond the Colosseum. Those who do may find themselves wandering a network of only-in-Rome surprises, from an 1,800 year-old marble map as large as a house to an Egyptian obelisk looming over a Fascist-era garden. Celio’s proximity to the major monuments of ancient Rome provides unexpected experiences: watching the Forum’s resident cats at dawn or catching a sunset basketball game on the hill opposite the Colosseum. 

Rome Celio Park Arch Of Constantine And Colosseum With Umbrella Trees Bikes People Strolling At Sunset

Celio’s blend of world-famous and under-the-radar destinations suits those visiting Rome for the first time or the umpteenth. We’ve stayed in the area on multiple occasions and keep discovering more densely-layered sights. With parks instead of piazzas, Celio is quieter than much of the city. Its residential enclave is too small to support much nightlife, although we’ve had some of our favorite Roman meals here. 

Given its location, Celio remains miraculously untouristed. We hope it stays that way even as the city of Rome phases in a master plan for the district and its wealth of historical sites. Along with the newly-opened Archaeological Park and Forma Urbis museum, Celio’s northeastern border will become a designated archaeological walk. In the meantime some smaller sites may close temporarily, as noted below.

All sites are marked on our Google map.


Colosseum & Around: Ludus Magnus, Arch of Constantine 

Archaeological Park of Celio & Forma Urbis Museum 

Clivus Scauri: Case Romano del Celio, S.S. Giovanni e Paolo, Arch of Dolabella & Fontana della Navicella, S. Stefano Rotondo,Villa Celimontana

Upper Celio: S. Clemente, S.S. Quattro Coronati

Lower Celio: Aurelian walls, S. Giovanni a Porta Latina & S. Giovanni in Oleo, Columbarium of Pomponius Hylas

Further Reading


Left: a view of the Caelian Hill from the Circus Maximus. Right: inside the Colosseum.

Celio takes its name from Caelian, one of the legendary seven hills of Rome.  Parks filled with ancient monuments occupy the majority of the district, forming a long stretch from the Colosseum down past the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, Circus Maximus, Baths of Caracalla, all the way to the start of the Appian Way. Above the Colosseum, a hillside park called the Colle Oppio holds the Domus Aurea and other ancient remains. To the west, the Circus Maximus leads past the Aventine Hill to the river. 

Santi Quattro Coronati, one of Rome’s oldest monasteries

The district’s small urban core lies east of the Parco Celio. A triangle of gridded streets lies between the Colosseum, St. John in Lateran, and the Santo Stefano complex on the Caelian Hill summit. Very little of Rome’s post-Renaissance redevelopment made it this far south, so Celio preserves rare sections of the medieval city. Early Christian landmarks cluster among residential buildings and a few hotels.

Colosseum and Around

Staying in Celio allows one to savor the Colosseum from multiple angles and distances, at different times of day. It pops into view all over the place, reminding us of humanity’s brilliance and bloodthirstiness. Waiting at a stoplight becomes an opportunity to ponder endless questions.

Rome Colosseum Sunrise Empty Streets Celio Neighborhood Buildings

Ludus Magnus (Gladiator School)

In the shadow of the Colosseum, the premier training ground for gladiators took its name from ludi (gladiator games) and magnus (great). Fighters from all over the world came to learn from specialist coaches called doctores. Public practice encouraged showmanship, and the school included its own arena with a capacity of 3,000. While some of the barracks are exposed to street level, the majority of the complex lies below ground. Normally the full site is accessible with a guided tour, but it closed in January 2024 for a public works project. Check the website for further changes.

Arch of Constantine

Ancient Romans celebrated major victories with triumphal parades of soldiers and their war prizes. Structures were often added along the route to commemorate the returning leader. The Arch of Constantine was situated at a prime spot, right where the Via Triumphalis turns toward the old Forum and sacred temples of the Capitoline. The last and largest of the triumphal arches, it’s a mash-up of its predecessors. Erected just after Constantine’s victory at the Milvian Bridge battle in 312 CE, the structure uses not just the form but actual pieces from earlier monuments. The emperor had the heads of his “good” predecessors chiseled off and replaced with his own likeness.

Rome Celio Arch Of Constantine And Colosseum Sunrise

Archaeological Park of Celio & Forma Urbis Museum

2024 is a big year for Celio: January saw the opening of the Parco Archeologico del Celio and the adjacent Museo della Forma Urbis. The archaeological park holds fragments from all over the city, some recently excavated, others unseen for centuries. The site itself once held an enormous temple to Emperor Claudius, built after his death by his widow Agrippina. It also happened to lie directly in front of the Domus Aurea, the extravagant residence of Claudius’s successor Nero – who naturally converted the spot into gardens instead. (The Colosseum, which now sits between the two sites, hadn’t been built yet.) 

The Forma Urbis is a map of Rome, carved in white marble between 203 and 211 CE, measuring a colossal  18 by 13 meters (59 by 43 feet). Unfortunately only about a tenth of it survives, so a glass floor printed with a 1748 map has been laid over the pieces. See the website for visiting information.

Clivus Scauri (Clivo di Scauro)

Rome Case Romane Ancient Roman Arches Above Ancient Roman Houses Giovanni E Paolo Church Early Christian

This diminutive street may have begun as a track during the Stone Age, making it already thousands of years old when Rome began in the eighth century BCE. Today the Clivo di Scauro, runs from the base of the Palatine Hill up to the top of the Caelian Hill. Ancient Romans called it the Clivus Scauri: clivus means “slope” in Latin, while Scauri likely referred to a prominent family. A striking set of ancient brick arches guides visitors to a pair of early Christian sites….  

Case Romane del Celio 

The Case Romane del Celio began as a single domus (home), but was converted during the Imperial period to an insula with apartments over ground-floor shops. Today the structure contains three residences, one of which includes evidence of Christian worship. Most notably, it has a fourth-century fresco cycle which appears to depict the arrest of three Christian martyrs – if so, it’s the earliest extant depiction of any martyrdom. Supposedly one of the homes belonged to Giovanni and Paolo, a pair of martyred brothers/soliders/officers/eunuchs (depending on the account). The website has visiting information.

Basilica Santi Giovanni e Paolo 

Rome Basilica Santi Giovanni E Paolo Early Christian Church Exterior Brick And Roman Columns

Around the late fourth or early fifth century, a church was founded on the site, possibly by the senator and prominent Christian St. Pammachius. However, the structure suffered during sacks of the city after the empire’s dissolution, and one historian writes of late seventh century monks “squatting” in the ruins. Rebuilt in the 12th and 13th centuries, the church’s exterior is mostly Romanesque in style – including the characteristic tiered bell tower. Heavy remodeling left a Baroque interior, frequently used for weddings. See the website for opening hours. 

Arch of Dolabella and Fontana della Navicella

Continuing up the hill, the Clivo di Scauro turns into the Via di San Paolo della Croce before terminating at the Arch of Dolabella. Emperor Nero used the structure as a support for his extension of the Claudian aqueduct; some scholars think it was originally a gate in Rome’s first set of walls, erected in the sixth century BCE. Nearby a mysterious marble fountain shaped like a boat (the Fontana della Navicella) marks the hill’s summit. Soldiers housed in the barracks which once occupied the spot worshiped Mithras in a temple, which would be later replaced with a church dedicated to Santo Stefano.

Basilica di Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio

Santo Stefano Rotondo Rome Celio Ancient Round Church Alter Surrounded By Columns

One of Rome’s more mysterious structures lies hidden behind brick walls, sandwiched between the Parco Celio and a huge hospital complex. While its sensationally gruesome cycle of frescoes tends to draw the most attention, the building itself is a standout even in a city filled with remarkable architecture.

Rome’s first round church, Santo Stefano was thought to have originated as a pagan temple. With no written documentation of the basilica’s founding, it’s unclear how the fifth century structure initially functioned. An unprecedented floor plan combined four nesting circles topped by a Greek Cross. A chapel dedicated to the saints Primo and Feliciano was added in the sixth century, and its Byzantine-style mosaics are still intact. 

Decorations were lavish but construction was shoddy. Santo Stefano underwent drastic remodeling to prevent a complete collapse in both the 12th and the 15th centuries. Only the two central rings of columns remain today, with the outer set embedded in a wall.  

Visiting information is on the website.

Gardens of the Villa Celimontana

Villa Celimontana Gardens Rome Caelian Hill Palms And Pine Trees With Stone Wall

In 1553 a Roman aristocrat purchased a vineyard on the Caelian hill and set about building a villa and gardens to show off his growing collection of antiquities. The original design by one of Michelangelo’s students would later be adapted almost beyond recognition and most of the treasures had to be sold off over the ensuing centuries, but it’s a pretty heady history for a city park. The obelisk, with hieroglyphics from the 13th century BCE, was brought to Rome to grace the Temple of Isis in the Campidoglio. Legend says the globe on its tip held the ashes of Augustus.

Upper Celio

Basilica di San Clemente 

Even by Roman standards, San Clemente compresses an impressive amount of history into a single site. The 12th century church covers a fourth century basilica which in turn rests on an ancient temple. Amongst the layers, San Clemente managed to preserve the original church’s layout with an atrium-style courtyard in front. (Note that the modern entrance to the church is through the side.) In Roman times, the open space of an atrium served as the focus of communal life in a home. Early Christians transferred the idea to churches, creating an area for meetings, selling food and devotional objects, and socializing. Later, courtyards surrounded by covered walkways would evolve into monastic cloisters. San Clemente’s atrium incorporates a dozen granite columns looted from an ancient Roman structure.

Sometime between 395 and 417, the site’s original Mithraic temple was filled with rubble and used as a foundation for a basilica. The buried church contains numerous recylings of ancient Roman materials, from the marble columns to a pagan sarcophagus. Frescoes were added between the 7th and 11th centuries.

The present church was erected shortly after the Norman sack of Rome in 1094. Like the layer beneath it, the new structure borrowed the ancient Roman technique of fitting colored stones together to make a patterned floor.

Entrance on Piazza San Clemente. Visiting information and tickets are available on the website.

Basilica dei Santi Quattro Coronati

Traditional histories date the Quattro Coronati to the reign of Pope St. Miltiades from 311-314, making it older than Constantine’s churches. Coronati means “crowned”, a reference to martyrdom. In spite of some confusion over the years, consensus now identifies the four saints as sculptors drowned by Diocletian for refusing to carve a pagan statue.

The church contains pieces from the fourth century, although the structure was rebuilt as an abbey by Pope St. Leo IV (847-855). All but the apse was burned in the 1084 Norman sack of Rome. The complex also includes a medieval cloister and garden, as well as beautiful 13th century frescoes in the Chapel of St. Sylvester. 

See the website for visiting hours. 

Lower Celio 

Most visitors don’t make it down to Celio’s southern stretch. This means that sites like the Baths of Caracalla see surprisingly few crowds.

Ancient Brick Walls Entrance to Baths Of Caracalla Border Of Celio Neighborhood Rome

On the eastern side, it’s possible to walk along the Aurelian walls from the Porta Metronia to the Porta San Sebastiano. Along the way, the Porta Latina features several under-the-radar sites. The Basilica of St. John at the Latin Gate dates to the fifth century, and the adjacent chapel, San Giovanni in Oleo, is a Renaissance structure remodeled by Francesco Borromini. Nearby lies the Columbarium of Pomponius Hylas, a rare “dovecote”-style funerary chamber with strikingly vivid frescoes. Visiting hours for the basilica are posted on the diocese website. Unfortunately, ongoing development of Celio’s antiquities has closed the Columbarium for the time being. See the website for information. 

Further Reading

View Of Roman Forum And Colosseum At Sunset

For more on Rome, see our other posts:

Temple of Hercules Victor: the Oldest Building in Rome

A Guide to Rome’s Ancient Churches and Basilicas

A Guide to Rome’s Ancient and Historic Bridges

Borromini’s Baroque: Rome Beyond the Gilt

Historical Fiction Series: Europe From Ancient Rome to the Renaissance