We love Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome just 25 kilometers outside the city. Partly this is because it offers a sustainable alternative to Pompeii for people visiting Rome who may only have a few days to see the sights. Pompeii represents a loooong full-day investment (12 hrs) from Rome and involves lots of time on trains and/or cars. It’s much better visited from Naples. (And, we urge you to seriously consider a visit to Naples itself, staying in the city center. Check out our scholarship student’s take on this amazing city this year.)
Another reason we love Ostia is because it represents an outstanding example of a small, working-class Roman town, well preserved by millennia of river mud. (Pompeii was a little more artistocratic.)
I recently visited Ostia Antica on one of our tours there with my daughter Cleo and a friend and had a magical experience. With few crowds and plenty of warm, Roman sunshine, Cleo was transported back 2000 years. Here are several things that work well for kids at Ostia and make it the perfect place for the under 12 crowd to learn about ancient Rome:
Ruts in the Decumanus Maximus. The main road, or Decumanus Maximus, of Ostia is very well preserved. As we walked along it Livia, an archaeologist who was our guide, pointed out the ruts carved by wagon wheels over 500 years of use. This became a great game—Find the Rut—as we went along and got the kids thinking about traffic, commerce, and the kinds of things that would be coming in and out of this bustling port city.
Well in the Middle? At the end of the Decumanus Maximus there’s a well plopped down in the middle of the street. This was a curious site and led to all sorts of questions. Why would a well be dug in the middle of a street? How would wagons get around it. Turns out it was built in the medieval period when Ostia was in decline, as evidenced by the different stone work. This provided an excellent “play archaeologist” game for the girls.
Underground. The bath complexes at Ostia (there are several) offer a great opportunity to talk about hygiene and social interactions in ancient Roman cities. Since you can get into the under-floor hypocausts and walk in some of the furnace rooms, it’s also a great place to learn about Roman engineering and bath design. But, the best part was slipping underground into the subterranean drainage system. When Livia whipped out her flashlight to show us around a shiver went through the girls. Awesome!
Shop Mosaics. Personally, my favorite spot at Ostia is the Piazzale of the Corporations where shipping magnates set up their offices and traded everything from grain to marbles coming into Rome from the far reaches of the empire. Why? Because, instead of hanging neon signs outside of their shops the shipping companies created fantastic black and white mosaics showing their wares. The best? Hands down, the exotic animal importer who commissioned a large elephant mosaic for the threshold to his office.
Context runs our Ostia tour regularly as a group or private tour. Although, not a technically set up as a “family tour” in our Family Program, we had one of the docents from that program develop a customized walk just for kids that worked exceptionally well. If your kids like ancient Rome and are curious about how people lived 2000 years ago, I heartily recommend heading to Ostia and taking this route.