Walking over the elevated grate footbridge was like crossing over a space-time continuum as I hurried to eat my gelato before it melted in the hot sun. Stepping down to earth, I followed signs to the entrance of Ostia Antica, Rome’s original seaport and the best-preserved ancient municipality in Italy alongside Pompeii.
Two reasons to choose Ostia over the Vesuvian tragedy are journey and position. Located just twenty minutes outside of Rome’s center, Ostia Antica can be reached using your 1€ metro card by an easy transfer at the Piramide Metro B stop to the Lido di Ostia line, where trains depart every half hour from the source. After you tour the old coast, you can hop right back on the train to catch some rays on the new, as Rome’s public beaches are only a few stops further out on the line.
It’s also like time travel.
Due to its rapid abandonment in the 9th century CE, Ostia – which means “mouth” in Latin – is a place where Roman daily life has been preserved in a snapshot and the visitor is invited to explore every nook and cranny of this early colony, situated at the mouth of the Tiber, where nothing is out-of-bounds.
One of the best things you can do to ensure a transporting visit to Ostia Antica is to let your inner child be your guide. Some of the most amazing views to discover can only be found by entering through boarded portals and climbing up shabby stairs that the adult in you might assume prohibited.
During my visit last week, I found a spectacular view of the ancient port city by following my ears to a group of German students whose trail led to a doorway that I had passed over earlier, assuming it led to a dead-end. Note that nothing is off-limits in Ostia unless barred off by metal. If you can climb it, you have all-access to ancient terrace tops overlooking intricate mosaic floors and an aerial view into city planning at its best.
Founded in the 4th century BCE, Ostia enjoyed a dramatic history filled with pirate raids – the most famous of which occurred in Julius Caesar’s time in 68 BCE – foreign imports of goods and gods and rapid urban development. Notable sites are the city’s plethora of Mithraea, caves of cult-worship for the Indo-Iranian god Mithras favored by the Roman military, and multiple bath complexes where well-preserved mosaics show you how the modern spa evolved. There’s even an ancient Roman theater where guests are invited to picnic or watch as their children recite fanciful orations to an imagined crowd.
If you are lucky enough to catch it on a quiet day – avoid weekday afternoons in the spring as hoards of school groups flood the site – the theater is a perfect place to unwind and rest your feet on the warm slabs of stacked tufa stone. Roman theaters differ from their Greek predecessors in that they are built upon their own foundations, whereas the more-patient Greeks sought out natural hillsides to support their auditoriums. Bring a panino or a picnic lunch and enjoy the view across the Piazza of the Guilds and the Roman countryside from your perch.
After making the rounds through the Imperial Forum, the early Christian basilica and the Republican Sacred Area, our driver picked us up at the exit to bring us to Fiumicino, not to catch an international flight, but to eat a mountain of seafood at Ristorante Amelindo. A pilgrimage site for many of Rome’s city dwellers, Amelindo has a line around the corner for people with reservations, so be sure to book in advance. This authentic seafood haven serves only what’s fresh, so there are no menus and no English translations, i.e. you’ll want to have an Italian-speaking friend with you or memorize the phrase scegli tu! to let the waiter decide.
A full day and a relaxing drive back to Rome in time to watch the sunset stain the city pink made my visit to the coast both enriching and effortless. Just enough time to grab a quick gelato before heading out for the evening to continue living la dolce vita in the Eternal City.