It’s a lot like walking into a football / soccer stadium — thousands of seats filled and thousands of spectators stomping their feet as they enjoy the action happening below. Today, those feet stomping around are tourist feet — and to be honest, there are way too many of them stomping around Rome’s iconic coliseum.
Visiting Rome without seeing it is unheard of, of course, but there are other options. As a place to start, we’ve explored two other Roman coliseums in our travels, one in El Jem / El Djem, Tunisia and one in Pula, Croatia.
The Amphitheater in the Desert – El Jem, Tunisia
To be sure, Tunisia doesn’t rate very high on many people’s list — and that’s a shame. The liberal Muslim country has a strong French legacy (meaning English is a distant third, and a train system helps you meander throughout the country. A couple of terrorist attacks in recent years has weakened the local tourist industry, meaning there some deals to be had in the northern Africa country.
Enough about Tunisia for now. El Jem’s coliseum / amphitheatre is within walking distance of the train station, and a 10 Tunisian dinar admission fee (about $4.14 US at 2.4 dinars to the dollar). Once you’re in, there’s a very good chance you’ll be some of the only people inside the coliseum – during our weekday visit, we saw no more than 10 people inside the entire visit. Not bad for a place that once held up to 30,000 people.
Dating from the 3rd century AD, This UNESCO World Heritage doesn’t get nearly the sort of coverage it deserves. While you won’t see it mentioned on the site, this was the site of filming for both the Life of Brian and Gladiator — re-watch those classics to appreciate the views you can also appreciate.
One of the only modern touches to be seen is the metal grate in the floor.
But wait, there’s more! Included in the coliseum’s price of admission is the opportunity to enter the El Jem Archeological Museum about 800 meters away (near the post office). Inside are dozens of huge examples of mosaics, dating back to the 2nd and 3rd century AD.
A Roman coliseum in the heart of downtown
Depicted on the back of the 10 Croatian kuna bill, the Arena of Pula is the only extent Roman amphitheatre to have four side towers preserved to this day. Built from 27 BC – 68 AD, the city was once a regional headquarters for the Roman Empire — and surprisingly, it’s still used for concerts. With seating for 7,000 people, there’s plenty of room as well. Used until the 5th century (and plundered in the following centuries), restoration began in the early 19th century and was adapted for performances in 1932.
When not holding concerts, it’s a 50 kuna admission fee (about $7.30 USD, at 6.9 kuna to the dollar) to meander about the grounds and take in the sizable structure.
There isn’t much to see above-ground, though the surviving architecture is quite nice. Head underground (basically the only place to go downstairs except for the exit) to take in some of the old-school pots and wine-making equipment. The only English signage is down here, and it’s a worthy place to take in more of the area’s history.
A look from the outside — not a lot of security preventing people from getting in, but enough in a country where people are generally pretty honest.
If you’re into Roman coliseums or amphitheaters, this Wikipedia page lists hundreds of amphitheaters across dozens of European countries. It’s quite a list
Details and directions
The El Jem Coliseum is along Rue De La Libye, El Jem, Tunisia (GPS: 35.296431, 10.706908). The museum is along Route de Sfax, El-Jem 345 (GPS: 35.288948, 10.705685), about an 800 meter walk from the Coliseum and near the post office. A 10 Tunisian dinar admission (plus a 1 dinar ‘photography fee’) pays your way in.
The Arena of Pula (AKA the Pula Coliseum) is at Scalierova ul. 30, 52100, Pula, Croatia (GPS: 44.873224, 13.850230). It’s about a 550 meter walk from the Pula bus station. Admission is 50 kuna.