The best things to do in the Castelli Romani
Just south of Rome lie the beautiful Castelli Romani, a series of hill towns that surround two incredible volcanic crater lakes, Lago di Nemi and Lago di Albano. Romans have been escaping to the charming towns for millennia for some respite from the heat by the two lakes and to enjoy the gastronomic treasures of the area. Populated by the Latins and then the Romans, this area has always held an important place in the hearts and minds of the Roman people. A number of emperors hail from the ancient town of Lanuvio and the pope keeps his summer residence in the town of Castel Gandolfo which overlooks the Lago Albano. Throughout its history, noble families have had villas in the area and a few, such as Principe Pallavicini, still dedicate themselves to the production of wine and maintain their historical cellars.
On weekends, Romans flock to the towns for clean air, delicious homemade food and cheap wine. The area is famous for authentic osterie where patrons can enjoy local pecorino romano and a number of other typically rich Lazio dishes. Many of the towns have their own particular local specialties: Frascati and Marino for wine, Nemi for its strawberries and Genzano di Roma for its bread. The Castelli Romani towns are a perfect getaway from Rome – nothing is more relaxing than visiting bucolic hilltop towns surrounded by acres and acres of vineyards, olive groves and sheep while sipping on the local Frascati DOCG wine and enjoying an ubiquitous part of Roman culture: lazy warm days with friends in the country. Here’s our guide to the best things to do in the Castelli Romani, from what to see to where to eat. (Introduction by Sarah May Grunwald).
The origins of the town of Albano Laziale are mysterious and lost in the mists of time. According to legend, the name “Albano” derives from that of “Albalonga” – the mythical city founded by Ascanio, son of Aeneas, and narrated in Virgil’s Aeneid. But legends aside, this beautiful hilltop town located on the south bank of Lake Albano is a must-visit for its archeological treasures.
What to do in Albano Laziale:
From the amphitheater to the cistern, from the church of St. Peter built by Pope Hormisdas to the baths, Albano is packed with stunning archeological findings. The surrounding landscape is beautiful and after your visits you’ll find delicious osterie to taste some local food and wine.
Where to eat in Albano Laziale:
From the typical trattoria to the gourmet experiences, we recommend dining at one of these three restaurants in Albano: Al Grottino Vino e Cucina for a casual restaurant / osteria experience on a budget; Da Charlie Osteria for a warm ambiance and delicious food with a medium price tag; La Galleria di Sopra for something gourmet with higher price tag.
Located between Albano and Genzano, Ariccia is one of the most famous towns in the Castelli Romani, especially for foodies. It’s known all over for its outstanding porchetta IGP and famed Romanella red wine. The porchetta here is so delicious that it has its own sagra every September.
What to do in Ariccia:
While its culinary specialties are delicious, stopping by for lunch or dinner wouldn’t do the town of Ariccia justice. The town boasts an extensive cultural and artistic heritage, linked to one of the artistic geniuses of all time: Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The Baroque artist not only left an architectural heritage in Ariccia, he redesigned the entire town in the 17th century, from the roads to the churches, from the palazzos to the piazzas. Definitely visit Palazzo Chigi, Parco Chigi and Piazza di Corte (and don’t forget to take a picture of the scenographic Ponte di Ariccia).
Where to eat in Ariccia:
After visiting the beautiful town of Ariccia, you’ve probably worked up an appetite. As said before, porchetta is the queen in Ariccia, paired with the famous romanella wine. We recommend Dar Vignarolo, La Selvotta for a casual outdoor space; and Ariccianbocca.
Castel Gandolfo overlooks Lake Albano and is known for being the pope’s summer residence. Its elegant historic center and position immersed in nature make it one of the most beautiful towns of the Castelli Romani area. In 2014 Pope Francis opened the Papal Palace and Gardens to the public. Unlike his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict, Francis rarely visited the site, reportedly finding it too luxurious and grandiose.
What to do in Castel Gandolfo:
No trip to Castel Gandolfo is complete unless you visit the Papal Palace and Gardens. This is where the popes spent their summers from 1596 to 2016. Today, the Apostolic Palace is a museum that offers an interesting exhibition itinerary, rich in history and insights, created and managed by the Vatican Museums. Don’t forget to purchase the ticket for the Papal Gardens too, with Italian style gardens with hedge mazes, sculptures, fountains and ancient ruins.
Where to eat in Castel Gandolfo:
It would be a pity not to dine in a charming restaurant with a view while in Castel Gandolfo. For a beautiful view of the lake in the historic center of Castel Gandolfo we recommend Ristorante Bucci. While for a more sophisticated experience and menu Ristorante Pagnanelli.
Frascati is probably the most famous of the Castelli Romani, known for its lavishing Ville Tuscolane–which were late Renaissance and Baroque residences owned by aristocratic Roman families. But Frascati is also a great destination for wine aficionados. In fact, this area is known for the production of the Frascati Superiore, Cannellino and Frascati DOP wines, which you can taste in the bustling restaurants and fraschette.
What to do in Frascati:
A visit of the beautiful Ville Tuscolane is a must during your stay in Frascati. Among the Villas which you can visit you’ll find the Villa Falconieri, Villa Mondragone, Villa Aldobrandini and Villa Torlonia, of which only the garden remains. If you’re short on time we recommend visiting Villa Aldobrandini, which is the most scenographic of the villas. Another must-visit in Frascati is the Cathedral of Saint Peter, right in the historic center. But these are just some of the few things you can do in this bustling town.
Where to eat in Frascati:
There are numerous delicious restaurants in Frascati, so we’ll give you a few recommendations of different types of ambiances. Osteria Fraschetta Trinca for a typical “fraschetta”; Ristorante Pasquino and Cacciani for a sophisticated menu and setting (with panoramic terrace).
Genzano di Roma
Overlooking Lake Nemi, Genzano is a charming town in the Castelli Romani, rich in beautiful churches: Santa Maria della Cima, Santissima Trinità, San Francesco, Santissima Annunziata. The noble Sforza-Cesarini family were the protagonists of Genzano and the ones who transformed the town into an urban center in the 17th century by building Palazzo Sforza Cesarini. Today, the town is renowned for its Infiorata and sagra del pane.
What to do in Genzano:
Genzano is the city of the Infiorata, a historic event that mixes religious elements with those of popular life. The Infiorata has been held here since the end of the 18th century and sees the main road that goes up the Duomo filled with flower petals that create beautiful drawings. It’s held every year on Corpus Domini Sunday attracts thousands of tourists. But Genzano is also popular for its IGP homemade bread with a crunchy outer crust and a spongy interior. Each year the town hosts the Sagra del pane in September.
Where to eat in Genzano:
For a lunch break or dinner, we recommend the following restaurants in Genzano: Da Pietrino e Renata for traditional local food; Tigellino which is a local favourite; and Capodiferro for a sophisticated experience with great views of Lake Nemi.
Small and elegant, the town of Grottaferrata revolves around its main street, Corso del Popolo, and is known for its stunning Abbazia di San Nilo–an abbey founded by monks in 1004 on the ruins of a Roman Villa. The town is also famous for its Medieval fair which takes place every year in March.
What to do in Grottaferrata:
Check out the beautiful abbey that hosts Basilian Catholic monks who follow the Byzantine rite, typical of the church of Constantinople. The abbey conserves more than a thousand ancient manuscripts and over 50,000 books of great value, in addition to the famed Ancient Book Restoration Laboratory, which counts among its most important works the restoration of the famous “Atlantic Code” by Leonardo da Vinci. The Church of Santa Maria is also a must-see with its Romanesque bell tower and chapel with frescoes by Domenichino.
Where to eat in Grottaferrata:
Grottaferrata has some great restaurants. We recommend the Taverna dello Spuntino for a more casual dining experience in a suggestive setting and L’Oste della Bon’Ora for a more gourmet experience.
Marino is one of the most beautiful towns of the Castelli Romani, famous for its sagra dell’uva, or Grape Festival, held every year in October, which just so happens to be one of the oldest in Italy! Their ciambelline al mosto are a sort of cookie made during the time of harvest with grape must, sugar, oil, flour and raisins, which you must try while in Marino. Apart form being an important Roman settlement, Marino then became an important town for the noble Colonna family, who had Palazzo Colonna and the Basilica di San Barnaba built. Today, people flock here to enjoy its charming historic center.
What to do in Marino:
Don’t miss out on the beautiful Church of the Santissimo Rosario, the Museo Civico and the Sanctuary of the Madonna dell’Acquasanta which has been carved into the rock. The Basilica Collegiata di San Barnaba at the heart of the historic center is also a spectacle, with beautiful frescoes. And if you want to have an unforgettable experience, stop by Marino in October for the Sagra dell’Uva.
What to eat in Marino:
One of our favorite places is Osteria della Stazione where you can dine on candlelit tables and taste traditional food from Marino.
The Castelli Romani area holds many wonders but none more charming than the town of Nemi. Perched on a steep hill overlooking the gorgeous lake of the same name, Nemi is one of the most well-preserved and pristine medieval towns in the province of Rome. Despite being so close to Rome, the area has maintained its wild aura and modern-day pagans still use the temple for full moon rituals.
What to do in Nemi:
Those more interested in history and archeology would do well to visit the Museo delle Navi di Nemi which holds the artifacts of the temple and the relics from the mysterious Roman ships that were built by the Emperor Caligula. Of course, no trip to Nemi is complete without tasting the incredible strawberry cakes while overlooking the lake. Nemi is famous for its tasty fragoline di bosco (wild strawberries), forest-foraged foods and lovely flowers that are grown in the fertile volcanic soils near the lake. Each year the town hosts a Sagra della Fragola (Strawberry Festival) between May and June.
Where to eat in Nemi:
We recommend dining at the Locanda Lo Specchio di Diana which has a bar downstairs and a restaurant upstairs offering gorgeous views of the lake.
Rocca di Papa
Rocca di Papa is known for being the only town of the Castelli Romani to have kept its medieval structure intact. A medieval fortress dominates this picturesque borgo, from which you can get a beautiful view of the valley stretching down to the sea.
What to do in Rocca di Papa:
As you’re exploring Rocca di Papa, don’t forget to head to the Occhialone–a panoramic viewpoint that offers a stunning view of the two lakes side by side. The town also has some interesting churches: Santa Maria Assunta, the Church of the Crucifix, the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Tufo and the Convent of Palazzolo. A visit to the medieval fortress is also a must.
Where to eat in Rocca di Papa:
After walking through the winding streets of Rocca di Papa it’s time for a relaxing dining experience. For a family-run trattoria with homemade pastas and Italian and international meat cuts head to Cantina Romoletto.
How to get to the Castelli Romani
The Castelli Romani is best explored by car as many of the towns do not have train service. Otherwise there are a number of regional buses going to the towns from the metro stop Anagnina.