I have visited Italy’s capital city many times over the past decade. But, I had never taken the time to specifically seek out all the WWII sites in Rome until now. Rome is anything but lacking in amazing historical sites to visit and I knew I would get to them eventually. On my most recent trip though, I made them a priority.
The WWII sites in Rome are just as interesting as any other museum or set of ruins you’ll find in Italy’s capital. I’m so happy I finally got to visit them and now I can help you do the same!
World War II in Rome
Italy is the country where Fascism was born and Rome is its capital. From here, Prime Minister Benito Mussolini and his Fascist party served as the inspiration for Nazism and Hitler’s manipulation of it.
In his own quest for a renewed Roman Empire, Mussolini announced in June 1940 that Italy would be joining the war alongside Germany. What followed was basically one military disaster after another as Mussolini tried to capture territory in Europe and North Africa despite being wildly inept.
By 1943, the fallout from these disasters plus the Allied invasion of Sicily began to turn the Italian people and his own government against him. That July, Mussolini was sacked, then arrested. The King took over and immediately worked out an armistice deal with the Allies.
However, in hopes that Rome and its priceless treasures and landmarks would be spared from destruction, the King declared Rome an “Open City” one month later, effectively saying they were no longer going to defend it. True to form, the Germans moved in and Rome was now under a brutal Nazi occupation. During this time, the Italian Partisans (the local resistance) played a critical role in the fight against Nazi Germany.
After a long, hard fight up the Italian peninsula (beginning with Operation Avalanche in Salerno, then climaxing in Cassino), the Allies liberated Rome on June 4, 1944—two days before the Normandy landings.
Exploring World War II sites in Rome today
The World War II sites in Rome that you can visit today touch on all of these major points, and then some. You’ll get to visit important sites in the resistance fight, some unforgettable memorials, one of Mussolini’s most favored spots, and an incredible museum dedicated to the city’s oppression and liberation.
So, don’t let 10 years of visiting Rome go by without adding these to your bucket list. Here are 7 WWII sites in Rome for your next trip.
1. Ardeatine Caves
One of the most moving and unforgettable WWII sites in Rome are the Ardeatine Caves and mausoleum.
On March 23, 1944, the Italian resistance movement rolled a garbage cart filled with 40 pounds of explosives into a group of Nazi Order Police as they marched through the streets of Rome. The explosion killed 33 of them (28 immediately, 5 more died by the end of the day).
By that night, the head of German police in Rome Herbert Kappler (with permission from Hitler and support from the other Nazi leaders in Rome) ordered a reprisal that called for the execution of 10 Italians for every one German who died in the attack. (This was an unfortunately common practice. A similar reprisal occurred after the Czech resistance attack in Prague.)
The Ardeatine Caves Massacre
The next day, the Order Police gathered up 335 Italian citizens ranging in age from 15-70+. (Yes, that’s five more than there should have been.) Most of them were members of the resistance and others were just grabbed off the street, but none of them had anything to do with the bombing.
The Nazi officers took all 335 of them to the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome’s center and killed them all one-by-one. Afterwards, they set off explosives so as to seal off the caves so no one would ever discover the bodies or learn about what the Nazis did to them. (In their efforts to cover up the entire ordeal, they decided to go ahead and kill the five extra too, rather than let them go and risk the story getting out.)
Visiting Fosse Ardeatine today
But as we know, it did. Today, the bodies of the victims of the Ardeatine Caves Massacre have been exhumed, identified, and laid to rest in a unique series of shrines within the caves. The site, which is free to visit, also contains a small but powerful museum, a mausoleum, and a number of memorials.
They have a free audio guide available in English that you can listen to from your own phone. It takes you around to the major areas of the site and tells the history of the site and the events of March 23 and 24, 1944.
The Ardeatine Caves site is just a short drive from the center to the outskirts of Rome. (It took me about 15 minutes to get there in an Uber from the Victor Emmanuel II Monument area during weekday morning traffic.) To get there, enter “Mausoleo delle Fosse Ardeatine” or just “Fosse Ardeatine” into your GPS or rideshare app, or say it/show it to your taxi driver (as that’s how it’s known in Italy). You can also take a combination of public buses which will take you around 30 minutes.
The Ardeatine Caves is an absolute must when it comes to visiting the WWII sites in Rome. It’s a tragic story but a stunning tribute to the victims and the resistance that remains a vivid memory in Rome. I visited the Ardeatine Caves just before the anniversary on March 23rd (2022) and left just as the President of Italy was arriving!
More about the Ardeatine Caves
2. Via Rasella
Back in Rome’s center, head over to Via Rasella (the intersection of Via Rasella and Via del Boccaccio specifically). This intersection is the location of the resistance bombing that resulted in the Ardeatine Caves Massacre.
As one of the lesser known WWII sites in Rome, visiting this corner helps gives context to the story you’ll learn about at the Ardeatine Caves. The buildings as you see them today are mostly as they were in 1944.
Not knowing exactly where the attack came from (and possibly assuming it was a bomb that had been dropped rather than rolled in), Nazi soldiers began firing all around, shooting up at the windows of the surrounding buildings. Today, you can still see the many bullet holes that mark the sides of the buildings, most notably on the building at Via del Boccaccio 2.
Getting to this location is easy as it’s just a 5-minute walk from the Trevi Fountain.
3. Historical Museum of Liberation, Via Tasso
Rome’s Historical Museum of Liberation is another of the free WWII sites in Rome, this one dedicated to the Nazi occupation of and Allied liberation of Rome.
This museum is housed in a building that was used during the war as the headquarters of the Command of the SS Security Service. (Essentially, a Nazi prison for members of the Italian resistance.) In this museum you can explore a large number of exhibits on multiple floors of the building (much of it appearing the same as it looked during the war).
Today you can tour all the cells and still see writings on the walls left by prisoners. You’ll see tons of video footage, photographs, and artifacts from the days of Rome’s Nazi occupation. You can also get an idea of the horrible conditions of the prison from the still-bricked up windows. There’s also a good amount of information on the Via Rasella attack and the Ardeatine Caves Massacre here.
There really is so much here that any short description of it wouldn’t do it justice. I had modest expectations of this museum because I had read it was small, but that’s not the case at all. It was much larger and contained a lot more than I anticipated. I was extremely impressed by my visit here!
One of the best parts of this museum however is the free audio guide. I’m not always a fan of audio guides but this one is fantastic. It’s extremely engaging and to-the-point so you don’t feel like you have to listen to a whole lot to understand what’s going on. It moves quickly so you can enjoy a quick visit.
Visiting the Historical Museum of Liberation
The Historical Museum of Liberation is free to visit and open 7 days a week from 9:00am to 7:00pm. It’s just a 10-minute drive or 15-minute walk from the Colosseum. (Put Museo Storico della Liberazione di Roma into your Uber.) Check out the museum’s website here for more information.
4. Mussolini’s Balcony, Palazzo Venezia
Palazzo Venezia in central Rome was the location of Mussolini’s office during his rule in the 1930s. And it was from the room’s balcony that he gave many of his (I’m sure largely incoherent) speeches to enormous crowds of supportive Italians, in much the same way Hitler did from behind the podium at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg.
Mussolini, like Hitler, was known for being a powerful and influential speaker, and some of his most famous speeches were shouted from the balcony at Palazzo Venezia (including the one where he declared war on Britain and France in 1940—seen here).
Today, this building houses the National Museum of the Palazzo Venezia where “works of art produced between the early years of Christianity and the Renaissance are exhibited.” [website here] Mainly, the collections of Pope Paul II, the first inhabitant of the building back in the 15th century. But you can still visit Mussolini’s office as part of your visit.
Palazzo Venezia sits directly across the street from the Victor Emmanuel II Monument (also known as the Altar of the Fatherland). Being located in central Rome, very near the Colosseum and Roman Forum, chances are you can easily walk here from where you already are.
5. Liberation Memorial
Essentially across the street from Mussolini’s Balcony at Palazzo Venezia you’ll find Rome’s Liberation Memorial. Located around the left side of the Victor Emmanuel II Monument are two small memorials dedicated to the Allied forces and others who fought for the liberation of Rome in 1944.
One is a flat tablet honoring the 50th anniversary of Rome’s liberation on 1994. The other is a small bronze relief sculpture that features an Italian woman embracing an Allied soldier while others cheer in the background. On it is written:
June 4, 1944
Liberation of Rome from Nazification
Made possible by the sacrifice and heroism of the Allied forces, Italian Partisans, and people of Rome
You can find these liberation memorials in the grassy area right next to the Fori Imperiali bus stop next to the Victor Emmanuel II Monument, on Via dei Fori Imperiali.
6. Pietre d’incampio (stumbling stones)
Pietre d’incampio (also known as ‘stumbling stones’ in English and ‘stolpersteine’ in German) are brass cobblestones placed all around Europe. These small and easy-to-miss squares serve as memorials to individual victims of the Nazi Holocaust.
They include the person’s name and birthday as well as the date they were arrested, which camp they were deported to (if applicable), and the date they died and where. You can find them inlaid into the street outside the door of their last known residence.
These subtle but powerful memorials are the work of German artist Gunter Demnig. He started the project in 1996 and is still placing stolpersteine today. As of December 2019, there are 75,000 stumbling stones in 2,000 areas across Europe. Rome itself has 384 of them.
In Rome, you can find them in a few of the city’s neighborhoods, most notably the Jewish ghetto and Trastevere. Keep your eyes open and towards the ground when walking through these neighborhoods and you’ll probably spot some.
7. Museo Storico Dell’Arma Dei Carabinieri – the Carabinieri Museum
The Carabinieri, the highly-revered paramilitary police branch in Italy, have their own historical museum in Rome. Here, you’ll learn all about the history of the Carabinieri and its role in Roman history from its founding in 1814.
There are many rooms in this museum dedicated to different points in Carabinieri history. For our purposes, head to “The Carabinieri in the War of Resistance and Liberation” room. You’ll get to see lots of photographs, documents, artifacts, paintings, and more that all tell the story of the Carabinieri during World War II.
The Carabinieri played a major role in the Italian resistance during the Nazi occupation of Rome and this room is a tribute to that. (Twelve of the Ardeatine Caves victims were members of the Carabinieri.)
The Carabinieri Museum is just a 6-minute walk north of Vatican City and is free to visit. [Note: the Carabinieri Museum is temporarily closed for renovation. Check the official website here for updates.]
8. French War Cemetery
About fives miles north of Vatican City is the Monte Mario Nature Reserve where you can find the French War Cemetery in Rome. This cemetery was built to act as the final resting place for French soldiers who fought against the Nazis between 1943 and 1944.
This cemetery contains the graves of 1,888 French soldiers. However, most of them aren’t “French” at all, but actually Moroccan—a fact that is crucial to understanding the star and crescent you’ll see on the headstones.
You can find the entrance to the French War Cemetery on Via Casali di Santo Spirito, 70. Because it would be about a 1.5-hour walk, it’s best to take a car or taxi (just a 20-minute drive).
Other WWII sites in Rome
Because Italy was right in the thick of World War II, there are countless other WWII sites in Rome as the war touched every inch of the city. While there may not be any more museums or memorials, there’s certainly more World War II history here than the seven listed above.
To learn more about Rome during World War II and how the war touched the many landmarks you see today, I highly recommend reading this guide to WWII in Rome.
Optional WWII tours in Rome
Though there aren’t many tours specifically of the WWII sites in Rome, there are a number of World War II tours you can take from Rome. Check out these day tours if you’re looking to explore more of the surrounding area’s World War II history:
- Fascist Rome Guided Tour: The Rise and Fall of Mussolini – As one of the only WWII tours in Rome, this 3-hour tour takes you to Piazza Venezia and beyond where you can learn all about, well, the rise and fall of Mussolini and his Fascist party.
- WWII Battlefields: Anzio and Nettuno Landings – Full day tour of the beach landing zones where Allied troops landed to liberate Italy. You’ll get to explore at your own pace and visit the beaches, the cemeteries, and museums. It includes hotel pick-up and drop-off in Rome.
- WWII Battlefields: Montecassino and Rapido River – Full day tour from Rome that takes you to the quintessential WWII site in Italy, the abbey at Montecassino. (I just visited recently and it’s definitely worth the visit!)
Great books on WWII sites in Rome and Italy
Beyond that fabulous guide, there are a few popular books dedicated to World War II in Rome and Italy that you might enjoy reading. For your next trip to Italy, check out:
A Travel Guide to World War II Sites in Italy by Anne Leslie Saunders – Contains detailed lists of sites all over Italy with excellent historical background on each of them.
War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943 – 1944 by Iris Origo (nonfiction) – The wartime diary of author Iris Origo who lived in Italy during the war and helped escaped Allied POWs and Italian partisans. Great reviews!
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan (fiction, sort of) – One of the best books I personally have ever read. It reads like historical fiction but the people and events are true. It’s stunning. I couldn’t put it down! Seriously, read this one. It takes place mostly in Milan and northern Italy, but will help you understand Italy during the war as a whole.
When Rome Falls: A Novel of World War II by A R Homer (fiction) – If you’re a lover of historical fiction, give this novel a read.
Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis by Robert M. Edsel (nonfiction) – From the author of Monuments Men (such a great book!) comes this one, specifically on saving Italy’s masterpieces of art from Nazis thieves.
Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism by Alexander Stille (nonfiction) – A well-reviewed history of Italy’s Jews during the Holocaust. It focuses on five Jewish Italian families from Rome, Turin (2), Genoa, and Ferrara facing a range of adversities.
Anzio: Italy and the Battle for Rome – 1944 by Lloyd Clark (nonfiction) – A narrative of the allied landing at Anzio (one of the bloodiest battles in World War II) and the liberation of Rome.
Great movies on WWII sites in Rome
In addition to the books above, also check out these movies that cover some of the WWII sites in Rome and other topics:
Rome, Open City (1945) directed by Roberto Rossellini – Without a doubt the most well-known and unforgettable film on World War II in Rome. Set in 1944 (just a year before the movie came out!), it follows the characters living under Rome’s Nazi occupation and focuses on a resistance fighter. I studied this movie in my WWII in Film class.
Massacre in Rome (1973) starring Richard Burton – Italian war drama about the Ardeatine Caves Massacre.
The Pigeon That Took Rome (1962) starring Charlton Heston – American war comedy about a couple of Allied officers sent to Rome as spies. I do appreciate a good WWII comedy every now and then.
Miracle at St. Anna (2008) directed by Spike Lee – This is one of my favorite World War II films, but it is an acquired taste. (It doesn’t take place in Rome, but does take place in Italy.) It follows members of the U.S. Army’s all-black division as they make their way through the Italian campaign. It’s a fictional account, but based on real events, mostly the very real massacre at Sant’Anna di Stazzema. This is another I studied in my WWII in Film course.
More info for visiting the WWII sites in Rome, Italy
- Where to stay in Rome? I recommend reading TripAdvisor reviews here, then booking your room here.
- My personal recommendation? The Trevi Palace Hotel is a great hotel in a perfect location!
- Don’t forget to pick up an Italy guidebook for your trip.
- And this customs and culture guide to Italy is a must-pack item!
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