Porta San Paolo, Rome

See An Eclectic free museum inside the walls of Rome, the Museo della Via Ostiense

Like off the beaten track places in big cities? Free museums? Roman ruins that aren't ruined? Signs of Saint Paul in Rome? You can find all these in a tiny corner of Rome between the Aventine Hill and the Testaccio neighborhood.

porta san paolo, rome italy

We'll start at the Museo Della Via Ostiense inside the Porta San Paolo. It was the southern gate in the 3rd century Aurelian walls aound Rome. Inside you can walk around the gatehouse and see maps and artifacts based around the historically significant Via Ostiense, which started at the gate and continued on a straight line through greater Rome, past the Basilica of St. Paul outside the walls to end up in Ostia Lido (the Roman Via ended in what is now the archaeology site of Ostia Antica, a port city which has silted up since antiquity).

Looking at the picture above, you might think the entrance is through the gates, as many people do. The door, with a staircase leading up to the entrance, is found on the left side of the left tower in this picture taken facing north.

The museum features maps and scale reconstructions of interesting towns and structures along the Ostiense. There are some significant marble plaques and signs, including a reproduction of the original cover for the shrine of St. Paul you can see later if you visit the basilica, and bits of fresco. When you reach the top you can walk out upon the catwalk, which gives you great views of the Pyramid of Cestius which sits just alongside the gatehouse and was once within the defensive walls--which is why it's still intact today.

This is a replica of Paul's tombstone (the original is found at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls) with the holes patched. It reads "Paul, ApostleMart(yr)" and is made of marble.

saint paul tombstone

In the picture below  you're looking at the Cestia pyramid from the top of the Porto di San Paolo gatehouse. It took 330 days to build this complex tomb for Gaius Cestius, a "praetor", tribune of the plebs and a member of the College of Septemviri Epulones, whose job it was to create religious feasts. It's 36 meters high and 29.6 meters wide and was built between 18 and 12 BC.

rome pyramid of Gaius Cestius

Pyramids (and oblisks) became fashionable after Rome conquered Egypt. This tome was built between 18 and 12 BC. It was raided in antiquity. You can't visit inside but there's some interesting observations about the construction you can see on the outside. 

The pyramid was made of a type of cement called calcestruzzo, which was faced with marble. This construction made it one of the best preserved ancient buildings in Rome. It also allowed the sides of the 30 meter high monument to be steeper than Egyptians could manage with their block construction. This created some interesting conflicts, especially for illustrators.

Compared to the real, Egyptian pyramids, the Pyramid of Cestius is too steep and too pointed. This explains why in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, pictures of ancient Egypt also contained too pointed monuments: the only place where European artists could see a pyramid was at Rome, and Cestius' mausoleum did not have the right proportions. A famous mosaic in the San Marco in Venice, with a scene from the Biblical story of Joseph in Egypt, shows the pyramids - the artist has really done his best tried to make it look Egyptian - but they are clearly based on the Pyramid of Cestius. - Rome, Pyramid of Cestius

On your way out of Porta Paolo, pay attention to the big map on the wall to your right. It shows the importance of the Via Ostense and the monuments and churches along it. One of the most important is one you can walk to in about half an hour is the Papal Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls. It's one of Rome's four ancient major basilicas, which includes St. Peter's. Constantine founded a small church on the spot over the burial place of St. Paul in 324 and it took off from there.

The interior of the basilica is very impressive despite the fire started by a workman repairing the lead of the roof in July of 1823. Most of the ancient structure was destroyed but laboriously rebuilt with contributions of the rarer materials from countries all over the world. Today they tell us that the interior looks much the same as it did in th 4th century. You will be amazed as you gawk it its elegance.

Along the walls are portraits of all the Popes, and the prison chains of St. Paul are displayed in the shrine of St. Paul.

For a small fee you can visit the 13th century cloisters and archaeological areas, otherwise the interior of the Basilica itself is free. There is a gift shop and cafe.

Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls Map and Guide

On your way to the Basilica, you may wish to stop off at Musei Capitolini Centrale Montemartini on via Ostiense, 196. Betsy Malloy of TripSavvy recommends it: "They're displaying works from the Capitoline Museum which would otherwise be in storage, inside a decommissioned early-1900s power plant. It sounds odd, but it's really quite wonderful and the contrasts between Roman marble and modern machines are brilliant. And on their own, some of the pieces are outstanding."

How to Get to the Porta S. Paolo

The area around the Porta S. Paolo is a transportation hub, featuring the Roma Porta San Paolo station that takes you to Ostia with a stop at the Roman city of Ostia Antica (you can also take it to the Basilica San Paolo if you prefer not to walk), the metro line B Piramide stop, and the Rome Ostiense railway station, the tracks you see at the bottom of the map. 

Places to Stay

While writing this article, we stayed in Testaccio, a bit to the northwest. The neighborhood offers real Roman food based to some extent on offal (don't worry, there are also other things to eat in Testaccio). With few tourists, the neighborhood tends to have inexpensive lodging as well.

Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls Map and Guide