Legend has it that Ostia Antica was founded at the mouth of the Tiber in the 7th century BC by king Ancus Marciusto to protect Rome from attacks coming via the sea. Once established, the port took on commercial functions associated with supplying Rome with food. Like many ports in ancient times, the silt from the river eventually silted up the port and now Ostia Antica sits 3 km from the sea.
Ancient cities more famous for tourists to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum in Campania were mainly tourist resorts for the rich that got flattened by a volcanic eruption. A visit to Ostia, however, gives the visitor a better idea of how Romans built cities. You can visit a bakery that served bread to thousands, or a set of public toilets that served dozens of bread-bloated Romans at a time.
Preservation of Ostia Antica is very good. You'll be able to climb to the top of apartment buildings called insule to peer down into street-level bars and snack shops. Ostia is rather like a ghost town abandoned in recent times, as you can see from the picture above; you can almost imagine the people in the picture coming home from work. In reality, the site was abandoned by the 5th century, a victim of the silting up of the harbor and more functional ports built nearby.
At the time of writing, a single 1.50 euro metro ticket will get you from central Rome to the excavations at Ostia, where a ten euro ticket will get you into the site. We'll tell you exactly how to go about getting there on the last page of this guide. And be very aware: the site is closed on Monday, although much of what you see on the web will not inform you of this important fact.
Communal Toilets at Ostia Antica
Ok, so we figured you're most interested in seeing the picture of Ostia's famous communal Toilets. Well, there you go.
The toilets at Ostia are of marble and line three sides of the enclosed space. A trough in front of the line of toilets was for the communal sponge, which would be "cleaned" by a stream of water running through (or, as Roman Baths and Hygiene in Ancient Rome suggests, perhaps it is a holding place for the sponge, which was washed by slaves in vinegar). Slaves also could be employed as seat warmers.
An intimate look at ancient Rome provides an interesting peek at ancient toilets and latrines, and points out that there is an early version of a flushing toilet we missed in Ostia, inside the House of Fortuna Annonaria.
The Bakery at Ostia Antica
Here we find ourselves in one of Ostia's bakeries, where wheat was brought in and milled in the device you see here, driven by a horse or donkey and turned into flour. The room is designed with high windows in an attempt to diminish some of the flour dust which would have contributed to miserable working conditions. There are also quite clever kneading machines in Ostia.
If you are interested, a fine description of the bakeries of Ostia and free bread distributions is found at The mills-bakeries of Ostia and the distributions of free grain. If you prefer, there is an excellent video by the same author, Jan Theo Bakker: Ostia explored 2. A Roman bakery explained, which shows the kneading machines and how they worked.
The Roman Theater
Ostia's theatre was built along the Decumanus Maximus, Ostia's main street, between 19 and 12 B.C. It could seat 3 to 4 thousand people.
More information on the theater is found here: Regio II - Insula VII - Teatro (II,VII,2).
A Street in Ostia Antica
There are many, many streets and alleys to walk on a visit to Ostia Antica. Tours hit only the highlights; there are surprises hidden everywhere. A two-hour visit scratches the barest of surfaces—allow at least four hours to see the highlights.
There's a cafe and bookshop on the northern boundary of the site where the Tiber is visible. You might also want to bring your own food and eat at the small picnic area (or buy a drink and sit at the cafe tables).
You can get a free map with your ticket. It shows how extensive the excavations of Ostia have been.
Getting to Ostia Antica
A metro ticket can be purchased in bars or newsstands. You can also purchase them on the trams, but you'll need change rather than bills.
To get to Ostia Antica, take the tram, bus, or Metro line B to the Piramide stop. Exit the metro, turn left and look for the Porto San Paolo station, where you’ll see a different set of tracks. These are trains heading to the beach, Roma-Lido. The stop for Ostia Antica is before the last Lido stops, as Ostia Antica is now inland, as you know.
Once you've departed your train at the Ostia Antica stop, take the stairs down that get you across the tracks, head straight out the station and over the blue pedestrian bridge, where signs will lead you to the excavations.
If it's lunchtime you might consider heading over to the castle and borgo, where there are several restaurants. On Sunday at 11 and noon, you can visit inside the castle free, which is worth doing. It's an accompanied tour, not a guided one, so your questions might not be answered, but you can let your mind loose on what you see--especially upon encountering the Pope's Bath on the lower level.
A very good and inexpensive restaurant is Ristorante Cipriani, which serves a typical Italian two-course meal with water and coffee for a mere 10 euros. Not those gargantuan portions like you get these days, but Roman food com'era, like it was before tourists demanded a pasta course that filled them up. Our meal featured a small portion of pasta followed by a fish dish of reasonable size to just fill you up satisfactorily. Congrats to Ristorante Cipriani for pulling off what certainly was a bargain delight, which included on our visit a house-made tonnarelli (pasta) with shrimp. Add 3 euros and you can have a very decent half-liter of wine.
Finally, The Via Ostiense links Rome to Ostia. It starts at the Porta Paolo, one of the ancient gates that is an entrance to Rome from Ostia. The gate actually a museum these days which explains the whole route along the via Osiense. You can explore the Roman end of Via Ostiense with our guide: Itinerary: Museo Della Via Ostiense to the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls.