What to see in Aquileia

Visita alla scoperta della antica Aquileia- Basilica Patriarcale di Aquileia- Basilica Patriarcale di Santa Maria Assunta- Campanile- Sito Unesco-Battistero-Aula Cromaziana

Exploring the Ancient Friulian City Known as the “Second Rome”

Are you contemplating which places to visit in Friuli or planning a cultural excursion? Read on and discover what to see in Aquileia, integrating it into your itinerary!

Located just a few kilometers from Palmanova and Udine, Aquileia is a haven for antiquity enthusiasts. Every corner exudes history, recalling the period when this city was among the most significant on the peninsula and even within the Roman Empire!

Founded in 181 B.C. as a defensive outpost against Celtic populations, Aquileia quickly grew in importance due to its role as a commercial hub. Under Emperor Diocletian, it became one of the largest cities in the Roman world, boasting its own mint and fleet. Additionally, it held prominence as one of the most important episcopal centers in the early Christian centuries, earning the epithet “Second Rome.”

However, its ascent was abruptly halted in 452 when it was besieged and razed by the army of Attila the Hun (a curious legend is linked to this event). Despite this setback, ancient Aquileia recovered and remained a crucial patriarchal center for many centuries, though never returning to the glory of the Roman Empire. After Venetian conquest in 1420 and subsequent annexation by Austria, it experienced a slow but inevitable economic, social, and demographic decline.

Nowadays, it is more than just a village, preserving an invaluable archaeological heritage rightfully recognized with the UNESCO World Heritage title.

Following this historical introduction, let’s commence our itinerary of what to see in Aquileia!

What to see in Aquileia: National Archaeological Museum

Our exploration of what to see in Aquileia begins with a clarification. This itinerary is not designed for a linear visit to the country’s beauties but is structured around the two periods that marked the history of ancient Aquileia: the Roman period and the subsequent paleochristian and patriarchal era.

The Roman period, leaving abundant traces on Aquileia’s territory, is evident in its ruins. Before delving into the must-see sites, we recommend a visit to the National Archaeological Museum at Villa Cassis Faraone, established in 1882. It showcases the finest artifacts unearthed in Aquileia’s excavations. Recently, a new arrangement has enhanced the visitor’s experience, placing artifacts in their functional context for a better understanding of their value.

Ground Floor

The ground floor features a room providing orientation within the city and the geographical context. Subsequent rooms display iconic works, explicitly narrating the progressive growth in importance and wealth of ancient Aquileia and the splendor of its public buildings. Notable pieces include the Statue of the Navarch, the Venus Pudica, and the regal appearance of Emperor Augustus veiled. Of particular astonishment is a small yet exceptionally crafted bronze appliqué depicting a wind head, possibly representing Boreas, the strong northeast wind that swept these plains even then.

 Applique - Bronze - Head of Wind - National Archaeological Museum of Aquileia
Appliqué with Wind head (credit to Matteo Marongiu)

First Floor and Lapidary Galleries

The first floor is dedicated to the domus and craft activities that made the city the most important port in the Northeast. Exceptional finds range from colored glass vessels and precious metal objects to common-use utensils. The real marvels, however, are the splendid mosaics adorning the wealthy homes of Ancient Aquileia. The Mosaic with a Bow, featuring a central white bow with various shades of pink, yellow, and gray, intertwined with two branches of ivy and white vine, is a masterpiece that captivates.

 Mosaic with bow - Vine shoot - ivy leaves - colored tiles
Mosaic with bow and vine branch(Credit to Matteo Marongiu)

Outside the museum, a stroll along the arcade bordering the courtyard reveals an impressive display of votive steles, reaffirming the city’s wealth and importance

What to see in Aquileia: Key Archaeological Areas

As expected, Ancient Aquileia left many of its remains scattered throughout the Aquileian territory. Walking along the main streets, numerous archaeological areas, all genuinely interesting, can be found. Here are our absolute must-see recommendations:

  • Domus of Tito Macro. Located just a few meters from the National Archaeological Museum, the Domus of Tito Macro is an excellent example of Aquileia’s private buildings’ wealth in Roman times, showcasing splendid mosaics.

  • Remains of the Roman Forum. Towards the north on the same street are the remains of the Roman Forum, one of the city’s symbols. Though only a few columns and the foundations of surrounding buildings remain, it is worth observing.

What to see in Aquileia - Archaeological area - Roman Forum - Columns
Archaeological area of the Roman Forum (credit to Matteo Marongiu)
  • Fluvial Port. A few meters from the Forum lies the Fluvial Port, the true fortune of Aquileia. Strolling in the shade of tall trees amidst the remains of warehouses and docks, one can imagine the bustling daily movement of people and goods—it must have been incredible!

River port - Archaeological Area - remains - stones
Glimpse of the archaeological area of the Roman River Port

Having explored Ancient Roman Aquileia, let’s continue and discover the equally fascinating sites of the paleochristian and patriarchal era.

What to see in Aquileia: Paleochristian Museum

As with the Roman period, the subsequent era left numerous traces. Aquileia, due to its significance and wealth, was chosen by early Christians as a center for evangelizing the Northeast and Istria.

To gain insights into this period of Ancient Aquileia, a visit to the Paleochristian Museum is compelling. Housed in a majestic agricultural building constructed on the remains of a paleochristian basilica from the 4th century, the ground floor showcases a mosaic with a geometric design from the original basilica and other mosaic remains from late-antique buildings. The first floor preserves parts of the floor of the Tullius Fund Basilica in Beligna, discovered in the southern part of Aquileia. The second floor, meanwhile, features numerous paleochristian inscriptions, some adorned, providing a glimpse into the diverse society of Aquileia at the time. On the same floor, fascinating statues dating up to the high medieval period can be found.

What to see in Aquileia: Patriarchal Basilica Complex of Santa Maria Assunta

Upon concluding the museum visit, the final stop on our tour is the Patriarchal Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta. This majestic and ancient church presents austere Romanesque-Gothic exteriors and immediately captivates with a polychrome mosaic-covered floor, the largest in the Western Christian world.

 Central Nave - Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia - Patriarchal Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta - Floor with Mosaic - Polychrome Mosaics
Central nave of the Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia with polychrome mosaics (Credit to Matteo Marongiu)

Raising one’s gaze, the distinctive wooden ceiling resembling a ship’s hull is perfectly preserved. Exploring the two crypts is recommended, as they hold surprises. The Crypt of Excavations is an underground archaeological area beneath the adjacent lawn, displaying splendid polychrome mosaics depicting extraordinary animals and symbolic objects related to faith. The Crypt of Frescoes, situated behind the altar, houses an intriguing pictorial cycle from the second half of the 12th century.

Crypt of Frescoes - Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia - Patriarchal Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta - cycle of frescoes
Crypt of Frescoes (Credit to Matteo Marongiu)

Baptistry and Bell Tower

Opposite the basilica stands the octagonal Baptistry, of which only the 5th-century original base remains. Inside, a large hexagonal baptismal font with three steps allowed for immersion, emphasizing the ritual of the time. From the Baptistry, access to the Cromazian Hall or Südhalle reveals a mosaic with lamb representations inside octagons. On the wall, a splendid and precious fragment of a mosaic featuring a peacock and decorations with vines and grape clusters is displayed. Despite its incompleteness, the elegance of the colors from small stones, terracotta, blue glass, and turquoise is a true spectacle!

As a conclusion to our exploration of what to see in Aquileia, we invite you to ascend the tall Bell Tower overlooking the basilica. Once you reach the bell chamber by climbing the narrow stone staircase, you’ll admire the splendid panorama stretching all the way to the sea.

Now that you know what to see in Aquileia, all that’s left is to consult your calendar and decide when to visit! If you choose to stay, click here to discover the best accommodations at the best prices!


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Article Name
What to see in Aquileia
Planning a cultural excursion in Friuli? Discover what to see in Aquileia and add it to your itinerary! Explore historical wonders.
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La Scimmia Viaggiatrice

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