Castel Gandolfo is just about the perfect place to visit on a day trip from Rome. Easily reached from the center of town by train or by car (it’s an easy 45 minutes ride from Termini train station), this small town on the Castelli Romani (a group of small towns on the Colli Albani) is located on the shores of the beautiful volcanic Albano Lake.
Once a favorite of Roman aristocracy, Castel Gandolfo is home to the Pope’s summer residence and one of its main landmarks is indeed the Papal Palace. But if you think this is the only place to visit there, you are mistaken.
In this post, I will share everything you need to know to visit the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo, and tell you about the other things to see and do during your day trip. Before doing that, however, let me share some background information on Castel Gandolfo.
You should also read my post A Guide To The Castelli Romani.
Some Background Information On Castel Gandolfo
The lovely small town of Castel Gandolfo was erected over the ruins of Alba Longa and located at an altitude of 436 meters (1430 feet) above sea level. The village takes its name from the Gandolfo family, who owned most of the local land in the 12th century and built the castle overlooking the lake. Already from 510 BC, the area saw the construction of many residencies, including the magnificent Villa di Domiziano which was used between 81 and 96.
It was in July 1596 that Castel Gandolfo and Rocca Priora became property of the Vatican, once Pope Clemens VIII seized it from the Savelli family, who would not honor its debts. That’s when the Pope established his summer residence here, to escape the heat and hustle and bustle of the Vatican.
The Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo – also known as Papal Palace or Pope’s Summer Residence – are by far the most beautiful sight in the village.
In 2014 Pope Francis open the gardens to visitors, and in 2016 also the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo was finally open to the public. Soon enough this has become one of the most popular places to visit on day trips from Rome.
The best way to enjoy the Pontifical Villas and the gorgeous gardens is on a guided tour, which you can book here.
5 Things To Do On A Day Trip To Castel Gandolfo
Visit the Papal Palace and the Gardens
Overlooking Lake Albano and dominating Castel Gandolfo, the Papal Palace was built over the ancient villa (Albanum Domitiani) of Emperor Domitian upon orders of Pope Urban VIII, who wished to have a place to escape from the summer heat of Rome, in the 17th century. The only period during which it was not used as a summer residence was between 1870 and 1929.
Surrounding the palace, there are stunning Barberini gardens which you can explore on foot or on an electric bus.
The Pontifical Villas have a surface of 55 hectares, including the gardens and the Pope’s Farm.
Among the highlights of the visit, there are the Papal Apartments, where you can admire the beautiful furnishing, the papal portrait gallery and a papal throne, as well as various objects belonging to the different popes. The apartments include seven rooms and the Pope’s summer offices.
The Papal Gardens include the Bernini Gardens, with evergreen plants, terraces, and beautiful fountains; as well as the Belvedere Gardens, which offer beautiful views throughout and along whose right-hand side there’s the ancient cryptoporticus built by Emperor Domitian to provide shade during his walks – and which during WWII was used to provide shelter to families escaping Nazi persecution: as this was Vatican territory, the German Army could not enter.
Finally, the Pope’s Farm, located inside the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo, are used to produce fresh milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt used by the Vatican, as well as an array of vegetables. It’s a proper family-run farm where you can spot sheep, cows, donkeys and chickens too.
The Papal Palace is open Monday to Friday from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm and on Saturdays from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. Admission is €11 and tickets can be bought on the official website of the Vatican, here. The electric bus ride across the gardens cost €20, whereas a combined ticket (bus ride + Papal Palace) costs €27. A walking tour of the gardens costs €12, and a combined ticket (walking tour of the gardens + Papal Palace) costs €19.
Tickets bought on the official website of the Vatican aren’t refundable. For a fully refundable tour you will have to go via a third party site such as GetYourGuide. You can book your visit here.
Another option to visit is this guided tour which has a flexible cancellation policy up to 24 hours before your booked date and includes a guide, transportation for Rome, tickets to the Papal Palace and the gardens. You can book it here.
There is a set of rules for visiting the Papal Palace. Here are the ones you need to keep on mind:
- Modest clothing is required – no matter the season. Avoid wearing shorts and tank tops.
- Bring your own headphones so you can plug them into the audio-guide device and have your hands free to take photos.
- You can take photos but flash is not permitted. Selfie sticks and tripods are not allowed inside the Papal Palace.
- Large bags and suitcases are not allowed.
- Large umbrellas are not allowed.
- Smoking is prohibited anywhere in the Papal Palace and Gardens.
- You can’t take food inside.
The Papal Palace is not an accessible attraction.
Explore the town center
Castel Gandolfo is small but pretty and you should not miss on the opportunity to wander the streets of the town center. From small squares to expansive views over the lake, this is a fantastic place to get away from the chaos of Rome.
Among the main sights there is Piazza della Libertà, where you will find a great array of small cafés and souvenir shops, and restaurants where you can eat alfresco overlooking the lake. In Piazza della Libertà you will also find the beautiful Bernini Fountain and the world’s first (or so they say) postbox.
Another place you should visit, which is also located on the main square right outside the Papal Palace, is the parish church of San Tommaso da Villanova. Built between 1658 and 1661 and designed by Bernini upon orders of Pope Alexander VII, inside you will find beautiful stuccos and paintings by Pietro da Crotona.
Hang out at the lake
Castel Gandolfo is gorgeous enough, but the setting is just as beautiful. Make sure to walk downhill towards Lake Albano – the road that takes you there is lined with restaurants and cafés, so you will recognize it easily. If you visit in the summer, you may even spent a couple of hours sunbathing or enjoying some water sports – you will find plenty of places renting out boats, pedal-boats, kayaks and even bikes to explore the area. If you walk beside the restaurants, you will also find some nice hiking trails.
Along the shores of the lake there are the Doric Nymphaeum and the Bargantino Nymphaeum, two nicely preserved Roman nymphaea (man-made caves that were used for religious ceremonies).
The water of Lake Albano is freezing cold. Don’t even think about swimming there! If you plan on renting a boat, bring your ID card.
Check out my post The Nicest Lakes Near Rome.
Gorge on good food
Italy is a perfect destination for food lovers, and Castel Gandolfo won’t disappoint in this sense. Here, you can savor dishes of the Roman tradition in nice restaurants with views of the lake.
Ristorante Pagnanelli is by far the best known restaurant in town – a place beloved by locals. The restaurant has been run by the Pagnanelli family since 1882. You will be able to taste delicious dishes of fresh fish; classics meat and vegetable dishes, all accompanied by an incredible selection of wines and with the best views you can hope for.
If you actually care to learn a bit more about local food, you can even enroll in a cooking class at the Papal Farm. The main focus of the class is on pasta, which will be obviously prepared using ingredients sourced directly from the farm – including the olive oil!
Speaking of wine, the area of Castelli Romani where Castel Gandolfo is located is famous for its celebrated wines, and while there you should definitely take the chance of doing a little wine tasting. Skip a vineyard tour and go straight for the wine at Art e Vino, a lovely small wine bar where you can also sample some local dishes.
Other Useful Information To Plan Your Trip To Castel Gandolfo
How to get to Castel Gandolfo
Castel Gandolfo is easily reached from Rome, thus being the perfect place for a day trip. Here are the main ways of getting there. Of all the options available, my favorite is the guided tour. It is completely hassle free; it includes a tour guide (meaning you can get lots of insightful information about Castel Gandolfo and the Papal Palace) and it won’t have you fiddling with having to get a million separate tickets.
Join a guided tour
The easiest way to visit Castel Gandolfo is on a guided tour departing from Rome. This Castel Gandolfo day trip from Rome includes transportation by train from Rome; a guide that will be with you all day; tickets to the Papal Palace; an audio-guide and even lunch – in other words, it is great value for money. The tour has a very flexible cancellation policy, and you can cancel within 24 hours from the day of the tour. You can book it here.
Independently by train
A one way train ticket from Roma Termini station to Castel Gandolfo costs €2.10 (a total of €4.20 euro for the roundtrip). The journey lasts about 40 minutes. Try to get one of the early trains so that you can spend as much time as possible in Castel Gandolfo.
The train will leave you at the station, from where you will have to cross to the main street and then walk the trail uphill to get to the village – you will just end up in Piazza della Libertà – and the Pontifical Villas. It will take you around 10 minutes.
Get your return ticket in Rome Termini station as there is no vending machine in Castel Gandolfo. Remember to validate your ticket before getting on the train.
I actually don’t recommend driving in Rome, but if you are renting a car to explore other places in the region (ie the lovely Tuscia) you may as well take advantage of it. To get to Castel Gandolfo, follow the A90/E80 or Appia Nuova/SS7. It will take you about 40 minutes. There’s a good parking lot near the Apostolic Palace.
Final tips for visiting Castel Gandolfo
I wholeheartedly recommend getting tickets to the Pontifical Villas well in advance – this attraction regularly gets sold out, so if you are set on visiting make sure to plan well ahead. I suggest booking on a third party booking site such as GetYourGuide to take advantage of the flexible cancellation policies. You can get your tour here.
As I have already mentioned, modest clothing is required to visit the Papal Palace. You should also wear comfortable shoes, as there is quite a bit of walking to do on a cobbled street – flips flops or heels aren’t the best to walk on such terrain.
Make sure to check out my other posts about Rome:
- 37 Unmissable, Fun And Cheap Things To Do In Rome
- 18 Useful Things To Know Before Visiting Rome
- The Perfect Itinerary To See Rome In 2 Days
- A Fantastic Itinerary For 4 Days In Rome
- A Wonderful Itinerary For 5 Days In Rome
- A Great Itinerary For A Fabulous Week In Rome
- 31 Incredible Places To Explore Rome Off The Beaten Path
- 20 Great Day Trips From Rome
- All The Food In Rome You Should Eat: 25 Delicious Dishes
- Seven Smart Ways To Get Tickets To The Colosseum And Skip The Lines
- How To Get Tickets To The Sistine Chapel And The Vatican Museums
- 7 Ways To Get A St. Peter’s Basilica Ticket And Skip The Line
- A Complete Guide To Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica Dome
- Seven Smart Ways To Get Galleria Borghese Tickets And Skip The Lines
- A Guide To Visiting The Pantheon Rome + What You Should Know About Pantheon Tickets