If you need to get out of Rome for the day then head to the spectacular medieval town of Bracciano, a warren of winding alleys clinging precariously to a hillside above the glassy waters of Italy’s 8th-largest lake. A perfect combination of nature and culture, Bracciano is the largest of the three towns located on the shores of the volcanic lake that shares its name – Anguillara Sabazia and Trevignano Romano hug the nearby shoreline, whilst Bracciano glitters cheerily from a panoramic perch high above the water. Located just 35 kilometres north of the Eternal City about halfway to Viterbo, it’s an easy day trip from the capital. The picture-perfect borgo is a photographer’s dream: wandering through its sleepy maze of cobbled streets and vine-strewn squares is like stepping into another world, the perfect antidote when the chaos of Rome gets too much.
The site of the present town has been occupied since Etruscan times, as testified to by numerous ancient tombs that dot the area. But the Bracciano we see today dates back to the 10th century, when a small settlement grew up around a fortified tower erected by Rome’s powerful ruling families to protect against the attacks by Saracen raiders that regularly devastated the region. Bracciano fell into the hands of the Orsini clan in the 15th century by papal decree of Pope Martin V, and under their rule the town rapidly developed into one of northern Lazio’s most important settlements – dominated by its imposing castle, one of the finest surviving fortified residences in all of Italy.
How to get there
Hop on a train heading towards Viterbo from Ostiense train station (connected to Rome’s metro at the Piramide stop), and you’ll be stepping into the sunlight at Bracciano in just over an hour (€3.60). Trains leave every half hour (except on Sundays and holidays, when they’re less frequent). The station is in the middle of the town, just 5 minutes walk from the historic centre.
If you’ve got your own wheels, take the Via Cassia heading north from Rome and you’ll reach the town after around a 55-minute drive.
What to do
Explore the Warren of Streets in Bracciano’s Centro Storico
Perhaps the greatest pleasure of visiting Bracciano is getting lost in its maze of narrow streets, stairways and piazzas that tumble across the hillside above the lake. You’ll encounter incredibly picturesque little corners wherever you turn – don’t miss charming piazza Sanminiati. Take a peek into the cathedral dedicated to St. Stephen (once the Orsini’s private chapel), and the Baroque church of Santa Maria Novella with its impressive belltower. For truly spectacular views over the lake below and the Lazio countryside stretching into the distance, hike up to the scenic viewing point La Sentinella at the top of the town – it’s well worth it!
Visit a Majestic Renaissance Castle
If you’re a regular dabbler in the gossip columns, then you’ll probably recognise Bracciano’s Orsini-Odescalchi Castle as the spectacular site where Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes tied the knot way back in 2006. For a feverish few days, Cruisemania gripped the streets of the sleepy town, and celeb-spotters from as far away as California and China thronged the cobbles in a bid to catch sight of the star-crossed pair.
But gawping at where it all began for Hollywood’s most famous (and most doomed) Scientology romance isn’t the only slice of history to be found within these imposing crenelated walls. The massive 15th century castle was given its current form by Napoleone Orsini in the 1470s to underline his family’s iron-grip on the town, and from the outset was equal parts defensive bastion and luxurious residence. During a particularly nasty bout of plague that ravaged Rome in the 1480s, the well-heeled castle even provided refuge for a fleeing Pope Sixtus IV.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for the Orsini in their lakeside idyll, though. Sworn enemies of the Orsini, the notorious Borgia family spent much of Alexander VI’s papacy a decade later trying to capture the Bracciano stronghold in revenge for the family’s decision to host the king of France on his way south to Naples.
After a series of bitter sieges, the Pope won out and confiscated the castle, which was only returned to the Orsini after Rodrigo Borgia’s death. Despite the seemingly never-ending sequence of war and intrigue, the Orsini were unstinting in their dedication to beautifying their castle with tapestries, friezes and frescoes from the hands of Rome’s most renowned artists during this period. A series of wonderfully preserved frescoes depicting the daily lives of the household’s female members provides a fascinating insight into gender politics during the Renaissance, whilst Antoniazzo Romano’s 1490’s fresco The Triumph of Gentile Virginio Orsini depicts the family’s pater familias meeting with the Medici on a visit to Bracciano – keep an eye out for the slew of courtiers gaudily decked out in spectacular Renaissance costume.
Half a century later the big-spending Bracciano duke Paolo Giordano I Orsini commissioned Taddeo Zuccaro to provide allegorical frescoes commemorating his marriage to Isabella de’Medici, as well as decorations for the apartments once occupied by Sixtus IV (known as the Sala Papalina). Paolo’s love of the high life made this Bracciano’s golden age, and the lux castle quickly became a party destination par excellence for Rome’s high society. Sadly the good time’s weren’t to last – the duke’s lavish lifestyle soon bankrupted the town, and after decades of decline the castle fell into the hands of the more circumspect Odescalchi in 1696, who still own it to this day.
The Castello Orsini-Odescalchi can be visited every day between 10 a.m. and 6 pm in the summer ( until 7 p.m. on the weekends) and between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. in the winter (until 6 p.m. on weekends). At time of writing, tickets cost €8.50 for adults, with €6 reductions. For up-to-date information, check out the castle’s official website.
Take a Dip in the Crystalline Waters of Lake Bracciano
After you’ve had your fill of political intrigue and Renaissance art in Bracciano’s historic centre, head to the lakeside for a well-earned rest. The route down from the town is a pretty steep 15 minute hike, so make sure to bring some decent walking shoes. As you make your way down snaking Via del Lago from the centre of town, be sure to stop off at the charming little 16th-century chapel church of Santa Maria del Riposo. The view of Lake Bracciano from up here, framed by dense Mediterranean vegetation covering the hillside, is sensational. Poke your nose inside and you’ll encounter some lovely Mannerist frescoes in this tranquil chapel lost to time.
The vividly blue water of the lake below, 160 metres deep at its centre, is renowned for its clarity – strict regulations on pollutants, including a motor-boat ban, means that Bracciano is one of the best freshwater swimming spots in Italy, so if you come during the summer months pack your bathing gear.If you do decide to take a dip, you’ll more than likely have a paddling of curious ducks and swans for company!
Bring a picnic to have on the pebble beach, or make a beeline for one of the numerous restaurants dotted along the shore serving pizzas and lake-caught fish. Our favourite spots are Il Luccio d’Oro and rustic beach-bar/ restaurant La Rosa dei Venti – don’t be fooled by appearances, their fresh fish grills are amongst the best to be had in the region.
It’s worth noting that in the summer months a small boat ferries between Lake Bracciano’s three towns each day - as well as getting in some quality time on the water, this is a great way to see picturesque Anguillara and Trevignano on your day in Bracciano. For an up-to-date timetable, click here.
Where to eat in Bracciano
For such a small town, Bracciano’s food scene enjoys an embarrassment of riches. You can’t really go wrong wherever you choose to have lunch, but below are some of our favourites.
Levante Caffetteria Aperitiveria: Local wines by the glass and a generous zero kilometre aperitivo makes this an attractive pit-stop right in the historic centre.
La Cirioletta Ignorante: A great on-the-go lunch option where you’ll find massive bread rolls known as pagnottelle stuffed with savoury delights like Roman tripe, sausage and ribs, chicken alla cacciatora and more.
Trattoria Pizzeria al Castello: If you’re in need of something more substantial, Al Castello serves up delicious local cuisine in the shadow of the castle’s ramparts. Try the cacio e pepe with prawn, or exquisite paddlefish involtini.
Ristorantino del Castello: Just across the piazza, classy Ristorantino del Castello also offers up first class fish dishes such as pasta with pike ragu in addition to regional classics like carbonara and amatriciana, all made with freshly sourced local products.
Ristorante Alfredo da Persichella: Down on the shoreline of Lake Bracciano, this historic hotel and restaurant is the place to come if you want to lunch with a view. The panorama from the waterside terrace is breathtaking, and food is decent if a little pricy. Try the fried latterini, small fish that come directly from the lake. The restaurant is very popular and often booked out for celebrations, so make sure to reserve a table before you go.
THROUGH ETERNITY TOURS offers guided tours to Bracciano and the wonderful but often overlooked surrounding areas in northern Lazio. Get in touch with our team today to learn more!