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Cities on a Hill: 10 of the Best Lazio Towns to Visit on a Day Trip From Rome

Wed 21 Oct 2020

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Cities on a Hill: 10 of the Best Lazio Towns to Visit on a Day Trip From Rome

Autumn has arrived in the Eternal City, and the mild October weather makes it the perfect time of year to explore the beautiful historic towns that dot the nearby countryside in all directions. 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! So read on for our list of 10 of the best hill towns in Lazio to visit on day trips from Rome, and get ready to start planning your next adventure! PS - we haven't included Tivoli in our top 10, but that's just because we've dedicated an entire blog to the incredible town with its 3 villas. Find our online Tivoli guide here!

1. Viterbo

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 centred around the marvellous 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.

 
 
 
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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!

2. Subiaco

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 marvellous 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.

3. Fossanova

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 (we’re looking at you, Senanque). But did you know that one of the finest Cistercian monasteries in Europe is actually located just 100 kilometres 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. Centring 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 - alternatively, the nearby station of Priverno Fossanova is on the Rome-Naples railway line.

4. Anagni

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 favourite 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 signalling 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-kilometre 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!

5. Civita di Bagnoregio

Few cities can have a more dramatic moniker - La città che muore, or the ‘Dying Town,’ - but Civita di Bagnoregio more than lives up to its billing. 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 marvellously preserved mediaeval architecture of brick walls, rustic churches and peaceful piazzas. Sadly this unique place might not be long for this world. The inevitable march of erosion continues to nip at its heels, rendering the town ever more precarious and its population ever dwindling. Edifices periodically tumble into the void below, the facades of abandoned houses opening out onto thin air. The town is an easy drive north from Rome, so make sure to visit before it is lost to history forever.

6. Palestrina

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 recognise 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, or a quick bus ride from Ponte Mammolo.

7. 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! (full disclosure: you can also drive up if you're not feeling up to the hike…)

8. Bracciano

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, and the swashbuckling rivalry between the Orsini and the notorious Borgias in the late 15th century is a ripping good yarn. 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!).

9. Sutri

One of the lesser known towns on our list, Sutri makes for an ideal alternative day trip from Rome. Nestled in the jagged tufa cliffs of northern Lazio about 50km from the Eternal City, pride of place go to the town's magnificent Etruscan and ancient Roman monuments, including a second-century BC amphitheatre excavated entirely from the local tufa rock - a kind of inverse construction. The amphitheatre 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 amphitheatre was completely filled in with earth and covered by a thick copse of trees when it was finally rediscovered in the 1930s. 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.

10. Frascati

Just about any of the Castelli Romani - as the small towns nestled in the hills to the south of Rome are known - are more than worth a visit, but our favourite is bustling Frascati. Dominated by the extraordinary Baroque summer palace of Pope Clement VII Aldobrandini, the town has been a go-to destination for Romans seeking to escape the summer heat for millennia. Narrow lanes and hidden piazzas open out onto breathtaking views of the Roman campagna on all sides, but the real draw of Frascati is its brilliant restaurant scene. The Castelli Romani are known for the unrivalled quality of its raw materials, and an array of restaurants, from cheap and rustic fraschette to well-heeled eateries see hungry Romans descend every weekend in search of a cracking Sunday lunch (porchetta is, of course, obligatory). When in Rome, do as the Romans do!

 

 
 
 
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Clouds gather above the spectacular Villa Aldobrandini in Frascati, one of the so-called Castelli Romani towns nestled in the Alban hills a short distance south of Rome. The imposing villa was built in the opening decades of the 17th-century to designs of Giacomo della Porta, and dominates the town today from its hilltop perch at the end of a long avenue of trees. At the time of the villa's construction the Aldobrandini were one of Italy's most powerful families, and the Pope Clement VIII was a member of the clan. Amazingly the Aldobrandini still live in the villa to this day! Frascati is definitely worth a day trip from Rome for its beautiful architecture, fantastic views and above all its fantastic food culture, centred around locally produced delicacies like porchetta and white wine. What are you waiting for? . . . . . #througheternitytours #througheternityrome #discover_europe #visititaly #travelphotography #TravelAwesome #worldcaptures #goplaces #travelbros #travelwithme #italiainunoscatto #topeuropephoto #italy_vacations #wonderlust #frascati #guardiantravelsnaps #wanderlust #architecturelovers #traveldeeper #theglobewanderer #wonderful_places #ilikeitaly #offthebeatentrack #doyoutravel #travellingthroughtheworld #theculturelist #traveldrops #visitroma #rome #igersroma

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We hope you enjoyed our list of 10 of our favourite Lazio towns to visit on a day trip from Rome! What other towns would you have included? Drop us a line on our Facebook or Instagram pages to let us know some of your favourite underappreciated towns in Lazio!

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