Among all of the top most visited cities in Italy is Rome, which of course simply cannot be missed especially for a first time visitor to Italy. At Travels with Audrey we certainly understand the need to visit the places you have heard so much about and for good reason. Its rich history can be seen all over the city. Remains from when it was the heart of the Ancient Roman empire can be seen – with the Forum, Colosseum, and Circus Maximus all still popular visitor attractions today. Incredibly, the ancient Pantheon Temple still holds the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world – sure to take your breath away when you visit.
However, it’s not just the ancient architecture that will leave you stunned. There’s the Trevi Fountain which is adorned with lavish Baroque sculptures, the wide-open Piazza Navona, and there’s also the fact that the smallest country in the world resides within Rome – Vatican City. While all of these attractions may make Rome sound like some sort of theme park, that’s not the case. Head to Trastevere for an awesome food and nightlife scene without breaking the bank, or spend an evening with your drink of choice in the bars of Campo dei Fiori. It’s very rare that a tourist leaves Rome feeling disappointed.
If you are looking to take a breather from the norm, read on. We will show you why Lazio is so much more than the Roman highlights that take up all the guidebook pages, so next time you visit you’ll have the opportunity to escape the traditional tourist paths and discover sensational, hidden, lesser-known gems of the region of Lazio.
When you think of Italian hill towns your thoughts most likely first turn to Tuscany, with iconic destinations like Siena, San Gimignano and Volterra. But whilst Lazio’s hill towns are much less known to international tourism, they are no less spectacular – and make ideal day trips from Rome!
Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hadrian’s Villa, or “Villa d’Adriano”, is widely acclaimed to be the most extravagant yet remarkable villa in all of Lazio. Built at the request of one of the city’s finest Emperors, this villa served as the home of Hadrian, who allegedly was not pleased with the palace provided for him in Rome. Set among the rolling hills in the countryside of Campagna, Hadrian’s Villa graces an area larger than Pompeii with its many pools, baths, fountains and majestic classical architecture. The Villa’s chief architect, the Emperor himself, reinvented the idea of classical Greek architecture in Roman society. Aside from offering acres of picturesque gardens, sculptures, and ancient ruins to explore, it also serves as a lovely location for a picnic with family or friends.
Villa d’Este & it’s Renaissance Gardens
A 16th-century villa located in the town of Tivoli near Rome, this is another beautiful masterpiece that shows just how much nature can frame an intriguing manmade destination. The town was a retreat for Rome’s great and powerful throughout history. Villa d’Este, now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is known for its unique collection of fountains and sculptures, which boldly exhibit the architectural prowess of Romans from the ancient to the Renaissance. The garden is much like a compilation, made up with parts of Italian history, including stunning waterfalls and terraces that offer a remarkable glimpse into the wonders of the ancient world. On a clear day you can even see the dome of St. Peter’s from the belvedere, we recommend at sunset.
The Etruscan tombs of Sutri
Here’s an archaeological site few visitors have heard of: the Etruscan necropoli of Sutri! One of the key towns of the ancient civilization of Etruria, Sutri today has 64 Etruscan tombs dating all the way back to the 6th to 4th centuries B.C. (that’s 600 years before the current Pantheon was built in Rome!) Sutri is located just 45 minutes by car from Rome. Nestled in the jagged tufa cliffs Sutri is known also for its ancient Roman monuments, which includes a second-century BC amphitheater excavated entirely from the local tufa rock – a kind of inverse construction. The amphitheater could house over 9000 spectators in its heyday, and is surrounded by mysterious Etruscan tombs running deep into the cliffs all around. Abandoned and forgotten for over a thousand years, the amphitheater was completely filled in with earth and covered by a thick copse of trees when it was finally rediscovered in the 1930’s. Nearby, the fascinating church of the Madonna del Parto is cut into a cave deep in the rock over the site of an ancient mithraeum. The town itself is perched on a hill overlooking the archaeological remains, and is a little gem in its own right with a sweeping central square, beautifully decorated cathedral and magnificent art gallery in the historic Palazzo Doebbing.
Marvel at the clifftop settlement of Civita di Bagnoregio
Right in the north of Lazio, almost on the border with Umbria, you’ll find one of the most stunning borghi in all of Italy. Another one of Lazio’s best-kept secrets, this hilltop village makes up one of the world’s most exquisitely preserved representations of the medieval times. This gem of a town is one of the most striking sights in Italy! A true city on a hill, Civita di Bagnoregio carves an incredible landmark into the Lazio countryside. Perched impossibly precariously atop a plateau with sheer drops into a gorge below on all sides, this little town seems like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. There’s only one way in and one way out: you must traverse the long and winding bridge to the citadel above. It’s worth the climb, however. Once you reach the town you’ll find marvelously preserved medieval architecture of brick walls, rustic churches and peaceful piazzas. Not to worry, the journey pays off when you reach the end and look out over Lazio’s gorgeous expanse below. Civita di Bagnoregio became known as the Dying City, and has been threatened by earthquakes and landslides since the 17th century (Even the home of Saint Bonaventure, who was born here, fell off the edge of the cliff). As recently as 2015, medieval properties have fallen into the ravine below. The town has reversed its fortunes in recent years and now attracts more than 800,000 tourists annually. The town’s isolation means it has only a handful of residents today, but it’s well worth seeing for its beauty. The town is an easy drive north from Rome, so make sure to visit before it is lost to history forever. While the village is undoubtedly most spectacular from far away, it’s still a good idea to support the village and its tourism. Civita di Bagnoregio is quite possibly one of the most unique places you’ll ever visit.
Bomarzo Monster Park
Stroll around a garden packed with monsters. The Bomarzo Moster Park is one of Italy’s most unique attractions, and precursor to the modern amusement park. The park, also known as the “Park of Monsters”, is located right in the heart of Tuscia in Lazio hidden away in the town of Bomarzo, around 20km northeast of Viterbo. It was built in the 16th century by Prince Pier Francesco Orsini as a memory to his wife who he found had died on his return from war. In this park, a hidden hideaway you’ll not want to miss, you’ll be transported into an imaginary world filled with colossal monsters and mythical animals made of stone centuries ago. Interestingly, unlike your typical Halloween groove, the Bomarzo Monster Park is likely to instill wander, rather than fear. For over 500 years, the monuments have stood, a testament to the solid architectural prowess of their creator, Pirro Ligorio. When Prince Pier Francesco Orsini commissioned this mystical park, many questioned his sanity and reasoning. Nevertheless, it was clear that the place was built with love and deep affection in mind, evident in the Tempietto, or “the little temple”, dedicated to his wife, which remains situated over a small hill with an amazing view. Bormazo is not particularly easy to reach by public transport so we highly recommend renting a car for a day in the countryside.
Villa Lante Garden
Explore one of the best-preserved Renaissance gardens in Europe. Parco dei Mostri is not the only Renaissance garden in Lazio. In the town of Bagnaia, you’ll find the Villa Lante Garden. It’s known as a water garden and there are numerous fountains around which put the visitor in mind of a rushing river. The gardens were built around the same time as Bomarzo’s monster park, and the most impressive feature is the stone dining table. The Cardinal Alessando Montalto (who completed the gardens) would host dinner parties here and wine would be chilled in the water trough in the center of the table. While you can’t dine at the table now, it’s an impressive sight. And the surrounding gardens are a lovely place for a picnic with a loved one or a group of friends.
The Beautiful Garden of Ninfa
Looking for a place to enjoy a magical green escape? The Garden of Ninfa should be at the top of your list. The 260-acre park is home to a variety of fauna and flora, including massive oak and cypress trees surrounded by streams, grassy meadows, and more. It is one of the most beautiful gardens in the country and certainly an underestimated day trip from the Eternal City. You’ll feel lost in the mists of magic and time in the Giardino di Ninfa, fittingly named for nymphs. The garden belongs to the Caetani family, who have held it since the late 14th century. Sometime in 1382, the site was abandoned but was discovered by Leila Caetani in 1922. Leila, the last descendant of the Caetani family, recreated the garden with her husband to its present state.
60 miles north of Rome, picture-perfect Viterbo is one of Italy’s most beautiful medieval towns. Known as the city of the popes because it was here that the pontiffs decamped when Rome had become a bandit-ridden backwater in the 13th century, the town’s glittering past lives on today in its beautiful medieval architecture. Viterbo’s breathtaking centro storico is one of the best preserved medieval quarters in all of Europe, a tangled warren of vine-strewn alleys and brick-hewn palaces, tinkling fountains and rustic churches drawn straight from the pages of a medieval fable. The town is centered around the marvelous crenellated Palazzo dei Papi, or Papal Palace, whose elegant arched loggia is an architectural delight. This was also where one of the strangest events in the history of the papacy took place. When the college of cardinals descended on the palace to elect a new holy father in 1268, they found themselves unable to make a decision. After almost 3 years of equivocations, the locals were sick and tired of hosting the unwanted guests, and tried everything to get them to make up their minds. When starving them didn’t work, they resorted to the desperate measure of removing the palace’s roof, apparently in the hope that the holy spirit would be able to more easily descend to inspire the cardinals. Finally Tedaldo Visconti got the nod to take up the chair of St Peter as Gregory X, and nearly 800 years later the spectacular Gothic palace remains one of the city’s most impressive landmarks.
Viterbo is famous for being the city of the Popes, for its intact city walls, for the impressive number of fountains in the center, for the Renaissance palaces. But perhaps what makes Viterbo famous everywhere are the hot springs, known since ancient times: the city is surrounded by numerous hot springs, and its thermal mineral basin is one of the most abundant of Italy. So, next to luxurious facilities, you can find several free hot springs, natural pools where you can spend some relaxing hours. They were mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy and have long been reputed to have healing powers. Waters can be anything from 40/58 degrees and you’ll often find the locals chilling out here after a day at work or between classes at university. For tourists with a little more cash, there are exclusive spa resorts but to get to know the city and its locals, it’s best to head to the free spas at Bullicame and Il Bagnaccio. Another plus from visiting Viterbo’s hot springs is that the crowds are nothing like those at Saturnina, so you’ll be able to find your own spot to just sit back and soak up those therapeutic waters.
Viterbo is also chock-full of great restaurants serving up traditional local fare – think hearty soups and porchetta, roasted suckling pig and wild boar ragù. Perhaps nowhere in Italy gives a more evocative window into the spectacular world of medieval Europe than Viterbo, so be sure to visit it on a day trip from Rome on your next trip to Italy!
Perched amongst the isolated peaks of the Lazio mountains to the east of Rome lies one of Italy’s most spectacular hidden architectural wonders. The monastery of San Benedetto is breathtakingly sited in the countryside outside the mountain town of Subiaco, and occupies a unique position in the history of the Western world – it was here that Western monasticism was founded, when a young saint Benedict retreated to an isolated cave to meditate far from human habitation in the 6th century. The cave, known as the Sacro Speco, became a site of pilgrimage for others looking to follow in his footsteps, and a monastery was built around the cave, carved into the rocky face of the mountain itself. Inside the monastery is a marvelous example of Romanesque architecture, and beautiful medieval and Renaissance frescoes adorn every surface. The medieval town of Subiaco itself is no slouch either, set on a forbidding rock-face topped by an impregnable fortress. Don’t miss unique Piazza di Pietra Sprecata: a rustic stone column supports a little niche that contains a holy shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary, whilst the remains of a Gothic arch suggestively frames the street as it ascends ever upwards to the top of the town, where incredible views await. Just an hour’s drive east from Rome will get you to this world of isolated peaks, hill towns, forests and monasteries lost to time. And if you don’t have a car, fear not: busses depart regularly from Rome’s Ponte Mammolo station.
When you think of Cistercian abbeys you probably think of spectacular yet stark churches in the wilds of rural France wreathed in fields of lavender (Senanque). But did you know that one of the finest Cistercian monasteries in Europe is actually located just 100 kilometers south of Rome? The spectacular Fossanova abbey is situated on the outskirts of the beautiful medieval borgo of Priverno in a rolling countryside of fields and forests. Centering around a magnificent cloister featuring an array of masterful sculptures, the church itself is a soaring gothic affair complete with rib vaults and a beautiful mullioned rose window. Fossanova also occupies an important place in history – it was here where theologian Thomas Aquinas breathed his last when on his way to the serving council of Lyon in 1274. After you’ve finished visiting the monastery and its extensive grounds, you can even dine in a great restaurant within the medieval abbey’s fortified walls that makes use of materials grown, foraged and hunted in the abbey’s verdant gardens and nearby fields and forests – perfect for a lazy Sunday visit! Fossanova is about an hour and a half’s drive from Rome.
Deep in the heart of the Ciociaria region in the rolling countryside to the southwest of Rome lies stunning Anagni. The medieval hill-town of steep and winding alleys boasts a rich history – birthplace of a series of popes in the Middle Ages, Anagni became a favorite and semi-permanent Papal residence during the 13th century. And the town has the artistic and architectural treasures to prove it. Most impressive of all are the amazing frescoes in the crypt of the town’s cathedral: one of Italy’s greatest (and least-known) artistic treasures, the spectacular fresco cycle is a fabulously complex concoction of biblical narratives, apocalyptic scenes and ruminations on natural philosophy that provide a vivid insight into Byzantine culture. For good reason the Anagni crypt has been dubbed the ‘Medieval Sistine Chapel’! It wasn’t all plain sailing for the Anagni popes, however. In a famous and humiliating moment for the papacy, a henchman of the French king Philip IV slapped Pope Boniface VIII with his gauntlet as he cowered in the Palazzo Caetani in 1303, symbolically signaling the shift of European power towards France and the removal of the Papacy to Avignon soon thereafter. If you’re of a more gastronomic than historical bent, Anagni has you covered too: the Ciociaria is famed for its hearty zero-kilometer cuisine and abundant wine production, and is home to the delicious indigenous Cesanese. So if you’re looking for a change of pace from Rome’s bustle, do as the Romans do and hop on the train to Anagni!
Just 40 minutes from Rome, the spectacular town of Palestrina boasts incredible ancient ruins far from the usual tourist itineraries. It was here in ancient Preneste – as the town was known in antiquity – that the enormous temple of Fortuna rose from the cliffs of the Lazio countryside. The sanctuary was home to one of the classical world’s most popular oracles, and the sacred wooden tablets that helped interpret her prophecies continued to be consulted until the 4th century AD. The powerful ruling Colonna family built their palace atop the magnificent terraces and hemicycle of the sanctuary in the middle ages. Today the palace houses a museum boasting a fabulous mosaic of the ancient Nile River as well as jaw dropping vistas of the countryside below. The town itself is a cheery and un-touristy mix of beautiful churches and charming houses that clamber their way up the hillside. Oh, and music buffs amongst you will recognize the town for its most famous son – the composer Palestrina, who changed the face of music in the 16th century. If you fancy a day trip from Rome away from the crowds, Palestrina is a great choice! The town is about 30 minutes drive from Rome.
Castel San Pietro Romano
If you’re feeling energetic on your outing to Palestrina, then make sure to make the climb up to the spectacular village of Castel San Pietro Romano high above on your day trip. Follow the winding hiking trail that snakes up the mountainside from the town, and you’ll find yourself emerging into a picture-perfect warren of medieval alleys, churches and walls that so captivated the legendary filmmaker Luifi Comencini that he set a series of award-winning films in the tiny village. When in town don’t forget to sample the local sweet treat ‘giglietti’ biscuits from the Biscottificio Fiasco. It’s quite the climb up from Palestrina, but you won’t regret it! (you can also drive up if you’re not feeling up to the hike…)
Bolsena isn’t the only picturesque volcanic lake near Rome. On the train line between Rome and Viterbo, look out at the right moment to see a sparkling expanse of blue being watched over by an ancient castle. And that’s Bracciano. You might be surprised to learn that it’s actually the 8th largest lake in Italy. Charmingly clinging to the cliffs above the crystalline waters of the eponymous lake, Bracciano has it all. A beautiful medieval centro storico of winding cobbled alleys and squares, picturesque little corners await wherever you turn. Although occupied since Etruscan times, the town as we know it dates to the 10th century when it sprang up as an outpost looking out for Saracen raiders. Bracciano is dominated by the forbidding presence of the imposing Orsino-Odescalchi castle, one of the finest surviving fortified residences in all of Italy. The allegorical frescoes by Taddeo Zuccaro within are a must-see. The Orsini-Odescalchi Castle dates back to the 15th century and it began life as a residence for two papal families. Despite that, it has a surprisingly bloody history (although that’s less surprising when you find out one of the families was the Borgias). You can learn about the castle’s past by taking a tour of the recently restored monument. In the castle’s more recent history, it hosted the wedding of Hollywood superstars Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes in 2006.
After you’ve had your fill of castle life, hike up to the scenic viewing point La Sentinella at the top of the town for spectacular views of the lake and surrounding countryside (or, if you visit in summer, head down lakeside for a dip!). The lakeside where there are several paid beaches. You can sunbathe here or even take a pedalo out onto the lake. Other water sport activities are available too, such as stand up paddle boarding, kayaking, and even scuba diving.
Monterozzi necropolis in Tarquinia
Once one of the 12 major cities in ancient Etruruia (before the Romans), Tarquinia has a huge necropolis with more than 6000 family tombs, about 200 of them decorated with frescoes painted in the 7th through 2nd centuries BC. The town also has an excellent archaeological museum with a top collection of Etruscan artifacts and a good medieval center. Many of the painted tombs are open to visitors, however not all of them are always open at the same time. Each day there are usually 15 to 30 tombs open in the Necropolis. Frescoes on the tombs depict scenes from everyday life such as hunting and fishing or leisure activities including athletes and entertainers. Signs in front of the tombs tell visitors the name of the tomb and what to see inside. Most are accessed by gong down a few steep stairs from where you can press a button to turn on the light inside to see the tomb through the window.
The Necropolis of Monterozzi is located outside the town center on Strada provinciale Monterozzi Marina. It’s open from 8:30 until one hour before sunset every day except Mondays, Christmas and New Year’s Day (with free admission the first Sunday of the month). It’s not necessary to reserve in advance, just buy a ticket at the ticket office. If you also want to visit the museum, buy a combination ticket for both. Plan to spend at least an hour wandering through the vast area and visiting tombs. On the site there’s also a snack bar and bookstore. Described by UNESCO as the first chapter in the history of great Italian painting, the Necropolis with its painted tombs (along with the Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri) has been a World Heritage Site since 2004.
Cerveteri: In the Footsteps of the Ancient Etruscans in Lazio
Beyond Rome, the landscape of Lazio unfurls in a panorama of fertile fields dotted with cypresses and umbrella pines. Venturing north toward Tuscany, we move into the heart of ancient Etruscan lands. One of the most evocative testimonies of this ancient culture lies at Cerveteri, a quiet town an hour’s drive north of Rome. It’s an easy day trip from the city, or a destination in itself for those fascinated with Italy before the Roman era. The Banditaccia necropolis, on the outskirts of Cerveteri, is a stunning Etruscan “city of the dead” that, along with the necropolis at Tarquinia, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This off-the-beaten-track archeological park immerses you in the world of the ancient Etruscans. The tombs at Cerveteri are organized along paved roads with gutters, drains, sidewalks cut out of rock, all representative of Etruscan urban planning. To walk the streets of Banditaccia, you get a feel for what it might have felt like to explore an Etruscan town. Thenecropolis at Banditaccia developed over the course of some five hundred years, between the eighth and third centuries BCE. As time passed, in addition to the large, circular, grass-covered round tombs known as tumuli, there were also squarish tombs constructed of hewn blocks and organized into regular units. Many of these tombs were not just reserved for the elite but were like middle-class neighborhoods. The tomb chambers were either partially or entirely excavated below the ground, some even hewn out of solid bedrock.
Ostia Antica-Visit the Ancient Ruins of Rome’s Ancient Sea Port
Imagine having Pompeii to yourself – no crowds, no stampeding hordes of tourists, just you and the cobbled streets of an Ancient Roman town, waiting to be discovered. Although Ostia Antica undoubtedly deserves more visitors, the lack of crowds makes it all the more atmospheric and which I consider the most underappreciated sight in all of Italy. Very few visitors make the simple commuter rain trip from downtown Rome, which only takes 30 minutes. Ostia Antica is an archaeological park very similar to Pompeii, only half an hour on the train from Rome. It’s a place that never fails to amaze, with a huge Roman theatre and acres of well-preserved buildings, from two-story insulae (apartment blocks) to enormous baths and temples, filled with mosaics and fragmented statues. It’s an easy day trip from Rome, and despite the impressive size of the site and its excellent state of preservation, it’s surprisingly underrated. Sitting on the top row of the ancient arena, scan the ruins of Ostia, letting your imagination take you back 2,000 years to the days when this was ancient Rome’s seaport, a thriving commercial center of 60,00 people. Wandering around the ruins today, you can see the remains of the docks, warehouses, apartment flats, mansions, shopping arcades, and baths — all giving a peek at Roman lifestyles. Ostia, at the mouth (ostium) of the Tiber River, was founded around 620 BC; its central attraction was the salt gleaned from nearby salt flats, which served as a precious meat preserver. Later, around 400 BC, Rome conquered Ostia and made it a naval base, complete with a fort. By AD 150, when Rome controlled all the Mediterranean, Ostia served as its busy commercial port.
Head to one of the region’s blue flag beaches
Lazio is not as revered as some other parts of Italy when it comes to beaches (specifically thinking of Sardinia and Sicily), but it can still hold its own. In fact, there are several beaches that are an easy day trip from Rome. Ostia is the most popular, and technically it’s within Rome’s city limits. However, it can be expensive and the sea isn’t the cleanest for swimming. If you have the luxury of a car (or even just a little more time), here are some other options for a memorable beach trip. Sperlonga is said to be the best beach near Rome, boasting both clean waters and gorgeous sandy bays where you can easily bathe and top up your tan. There are lots of services nearby such as restaurants and bars too. The sleepy town of Santa Marinella is another option – especially if you want a quiet day at the beach. This town attracts a lot of Roman retirees and it’s easy to get here from Roma Ostiense station. If none of the beaches above pique your interest, other beautiful Lazio beaches include Anzio, Santa Severa, Fregene, and Gaeta.
Sample ‘i piatti tipici’
Whenever writing about Italy, it is only a matter of time before one can mention the food. The regional cuisine of Lazio might be simple, but it’s delicious. We’re not looking at pizzas here, it’s more hearty meat-based dishes.
For starters, the traditional choice is usually between bruschette or carciofi alla romana (Roman-style artichokes), which is then followed with a pasta course of spaghetti cacio e pepe, or mouthwatering carbonara. Main courses included baked lamb with herbs, or saltimbocca (veal wrapped with ham). If you still have any room after this hearty fare, then, of course, there are beautiful desserts too.
No meal in Lazio is complete without wine, and those best known in the region include Frascati and Montefiascone. Whether in the center of Rome’s hustle and bustle or at the only restaurant in a small countryside village, you’re sure to have your food cravings satisfied and more.
Final Thoughts on things to see & do in the region of Lazio
Whether you want to explore the significant historic attractions of the capital city Rome, enjoy authentic local food, or bathe in volcanic hot springs, Lazio can offer all of that and so much more. It’s really worth looking just beyond the capital city when you travel to Italy, as you’re likely to fall in love with this incredible region.
Planning a vacation to Italy or Spain? Audrey helps you make your vacation truly memorable by offering cultural immersion retreats and private tours that promise a personal experience you will not find anywhere else.
Contact Audrey to book your very own private tour with an exclusive itinerary designed around your wishes.
Learn more about the Travels with Audrey Difference.