Where to Go Underground in Italy: Crypts, Tombs and More

Going down to the catacombs is always a bit scary. It is a cemetery after all. Even Sicily’s stunning setting – with all the stone buildings of Syracuse lining the sea – can’t detract from the weirdness of going underground. But in Italy, you just have to admire all the ruins, the palpable history and the dead that made it all possible. This is how I found myself in the Catacombs of San Giovannia 6th century cemetery that houses more than 10,000 graves.

As the bilingual guide gave me a helmet to wear, I felt the cool air from miles and miles of underground passageways swirl around my ankles. It’s always 70°F inside the Byzantine resting place, a welcome retreat from the typical Sicilian heat or occasional rain.

Kairos Turismo Cultura Eventi Syracuse

A low-ceilinged, slightly damp corridor leads to chapels, murals and cavernous tombs. Compared to other catacombs in Italy, these seem perfectly ordered; our guide explains that they were built after the roman empire converted to christianity, and were therefore created in a quiet way, instead of being cobbled together under persecution and coercion, like those under the church of santa Lucia, across town.

interior of the crypt
Kairos Turismo Cultura Eventi Syracuse

It’s not Syracuse’s only underground attraction. the oldest Mikveh Jewish Baths in Europe are also here, dating from the 6th century, almost perfectly preserved until the day they were sealed and hidden in 1493, when the Jewish community of 3,500 people was exiled from the city by the Spanish Inquisition.

inner crypt
Hotel Residence Alla Giudecca

The serene pools are 55 feet below the street, so deep to access a spring. The water in the Mikvah baths must not have been touched by human hands, as they are used for purification rituals. There’s something about these historic underground locations that have a palpable vibe.

Syracuse is just one of countless cities in Italy with underground cultural sites to visit. Whether it’s the sun, rain or even snow you avoid or unearthly companionship you seek, here are other subterranean haunts across Italy where you can witness the degrading effects of time.

skeleton with cross
Museo e Cripta dei Cappuccini

See skeletons in the Capuchin Crypt in Rome

If you like your holiday seasoned with a hint of the macabre, head to Cripta dei Cappuccini in Rome. Below the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (which is pretty unremarkable on its own) is a crypt outfitted from head to toe (sorry) with skeletons and bones.

It is not the only Capuchin crypt in Europe to be adorned with such decoration, but it was certainly the first. Cardinal Antonio Barberini ordered the remains of thousands of Capuchin friars to be dug up from across Rome and brought here. Their remains were used to create the scenes you can see today: skulls, femurs, tibia and fibula, all arranged in an ornate display.

Naples underground archaeological excavations
Giannis Papanikos/Shutterstock

Explore the underground city of ancient Neapolis in Naples

There is a whole city under the city of Naples. Ancient Neapolis (meaning new city) was founded by the Greeks in 600 BC, and today you can visit those foundations, 118 feet underground. Head to the entrance of the ticket office to meet their guide who leads you around the arches, domes, cisterns and viaducts, while telling stories of resilience and rebellion.

Tunnels built by Greek slaves 2,400 years ago wind around the underworld features, which have been repurposed into wine cellars, bomb shelters and heating systems over the centuries. There are a number of these sites in the old town of Naples, but head to the gate on the corner of Piazza San Gaetano for some excellent tours in English.

flooded crypt of the Church of San Zaccaria
Davide Bianco Photo/Shutterstock

Walk through the flooded crypt of San Zaccaria in Venice

Whether Venice sinks or not, the crypt of the San Zaccaria church is definitely flooded. There’s been a chapel just around the corner from Piazza San Marco (and yet significantly less crowded) since the 9th century. However, the current Renaissance building, which looks as delicious as a wedding cake, was built in 1458.

Tour the lavish interiors (and don’t miss Bellini’s painting) before locating the stairs to the crypt. There you can stroll along an elevated walkway through the waterlogged basement full of memorials and altars. It’s a show well worth the 3 euro entry fee.

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Lucie Grace is a contributor for Thrillist.

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