There are two Ostias: one a rather over-visited seaside resort, Lido di Ostia; the other, one of the finest ancient Roman sites – the excavations of OSTIA ANTICA – which are on a par with anything you’ll see in Rome itself (or indeed elsewhere in Italy) and easily merit the half-day journey out from the city.
The site of Ostia Antica marked the coastline in classical times, and the town that grew up here was the port of ancient Rome, a thriving place whose commercial activities were vital to the city further upstream. The excavations are relatively free of tourists, and it’s much easier to reconstruct a Roman town from these than from any amount of pottering around the Roman Forum. The site is also very spread out, so be prepared for a fair amount of walking.
The main street, the Decumanus Maximus, leads west from the entrance, past the Baths of Neptune on the right (where there’s an interesting mosaic) to the town’s commercial centre, otherwise known as the Piazzale delle Corporazioni, for the remains of shops and trading offices that still fringe the central square. These represented commercial enterprises from all over the ancient world, and each was once fronted by a mosaic of boats, fish and suchlike to denote their trade as well as their origin. Flanking the southern side of the square, the theatre has been much restored but is nonetheless impressive, enlarged by Septimius Severus in the second century AD to hold up to four thousand people: it hosts theatre performances in the summer. Further, the Decumanus Maximus runs past the substantial remains of one of Ostia’s largest horrea (warehouses), buildings that once stood all over the city. Turn right up Via dei Molini, then left, to reach the House of Diana, probably the best-preserved private house in Ostia, with a dark, mysterious set of rooms around a central courtyard, with a mithraeum (a shrine devoted to the cult of Mithras) at the back. Just along the street is the delightful Thermopolium – an ancient Roman café, complete with seats outside, a high counter, display shelves and even wall paintings of parts of the menu. Just beyond the Thermopolium are the high brick walls of the Capitolium, Ostia’s most important temple, dating from the second century AD, overlooking the shattered columns of the Forum and the Temples of Rome and Augustus. Further on down the main street, more horrea, superbly preserved and complete with pediment and names inscribed on the marble, merit a detour off to the right; although you can’t enter, you can peer into the courtyard. Beyond, the House of Cupid and Psyche has a courtyard you can walk into, its rooms clearly discernible on one side, a colourful marbled floor at the top and a columned nymphaeum, with marble niches, on the right.
Next door to the site’s café-restaurant, the Museu Ostiense holds a variety of articles from the site, including a statue of Mithras killing a bull and some fine sarcophagi and statuary from the imperial period.