Travel Icons… by the Back Door

The Colosseum – Rome, Italy

Visitors per year: Around 5 million

Ancient Rome’s imposing arena has a bloody history. A marathon 100-day games greeted its completion some 2,000 years ago, during which animals and gladiators in their thousands fell within its limestone walls. But its scale is nonetheless astonishing –matched only by the queues to get inside.

Front door: Along with Vatican City, the Colosseum is Rome’s hottest ticket (€12/£9.50), with peak season stretching from March to October. Visits are usually combined with a trip to the crumbling Forum (the Roman Empire’s former political arena) and up Palatine Hill, where the city was originally founded. The views from the latter are worth the slog, sweeping down to the Colosseum and the old Circus Maximus charioteer circuit.

Back door: The Colosseum is very busy, and its ticket queues notorious. To avoid them: sign up for a skip-the-line tour, book online (the surcharge is only €2/£1.50; coopculture.it/en), or visit the Palatine or Forum ticket offices – its combi-tickets include Colosseum access and its queues are far shorter.

Only 3,000 people are allowed in the Colosseum at any one time, though, so try to visit as soon as it opens or late in the day to avoid waiting.

“The Colosseum is markedly less busy in January and February. For a visit that feels a little bit more private, try the underground tours (book in advance, €12/£9.50; coopculture.it/en).

These include a visit to the otherwise inaccessible tunnels beneath the ancient arena, where the gladiators once waited to fight, and up to its third tier. There are also sometimes night visits with tour companies that have arranged special access, such as Walks of Italy (walksofitaly.com) and Italy with Us (italywithus.com).

“Combine a visit to the Colosseum with a trip to one of my favourite sights, the nearby 16th-century Palazzo Valentini. Under the square lie the ruins of two excavated Roman villas – tours need to be booked in advance (palazzovalentini.it).

If you want to stay nearby, Torre Colonna (torrecolonna.it) is a family-owned medieval tower-turned-boutique hotel that has good rooftop views. From the Inn at the Roman Forum, you can sip wine overlooking the Forum and Colosseum. For food nearby, walk into the next-door neighbourhood of Monti for upmarket Roman cuisine at Urbana 47 and top-notch gelato at Fatamorgana.”

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