The Castelli Romani is one of the most charming places to visit near Rome. A series of lovely small towns are scattered on rolling hills and by the shores of volcanic lakes, and they are still so quintessentially Italian. Being so scenic and unique, I am always surprised that they don’t get way more foreign tourists than they do. They may indeed still be Lazio’s best kept secret!
If you are planning on taking one or more day trips from Rome, you should definitely consider visiting. Curious to find out more? Read this post for the best concise information about the Castelli Romani.
You should also read my post 28 Best Day Trips From Rome.
Where Are The Castelli Romani
The Castelli Romani is a group of small towns situated in the tranquil Alban Hills, which lie around 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) to the southeast of Rome. Officially comprising part of the Province of Rome itself, the villages that can be found in this heritage area make up the Castelli Romani Regional Park.
Founded in 1984, this 9,500-hectare park is intended to protect not only the nature of this countryside region, which includes forests and volcanic lakes, but also the culture and history of the villages and towns within its boundaries — a collection of 13 altogether.
Previously, this picturesque portion of the Roman countryside was where wealthy citizens of the ancient urban hub would have their summer homes; with its hilly location, it was the ideal place to escape the heat of the city in the summer months.
But they weren’t just a refuge from the climate, centuries later the Alban Hills also served as something of a refuge for Roman citizens fleeing the city during the Avignon Papacy of the 14th century — a time of economic and political upheaval that impacted the everyday lives of the city’s inhabitants.
What Are The Castelli Romani Famous For?
There are a number of different reasons why the Castelli Romani still continue to attract Romans, Italians, and visitors from further afield. It’s not just the history of its towns, but also the stunning nature of the regional park, as well as its delicious gastronomic credentials, that keeps people coming back for more.
Landscapes and wildlife
The Alban Hills — Colli Albani in Italian — is a volcanic landscape. It was created as a result of the collapse of the Latium Volcano, hundreds of thousands of years ago. From the collapse of this one massive volcano (now extinct) came a verdant wonderland of nature, typified by jagged hills covered with greenery and glassy caldera lakes.
These hills helped to shape the different boundaries of the Castelli Romani as they appear today, as well as ancient Rome itself, but are also home to an abundance of flora and fauna. Animal species in this protected regional park include wolves, badgers, peregrine falcons, porcupines, and martens.
Many different tree species can be found in the area too, including oaks, maples, and lindens. Particularly notable examples of the diversity of these woodland species can be found in the Ferentano woodland and the Barco Colonna in Marino.
Head over to my post 7 Scenic Lakes Near Rome.
Being situated so close to Rome, and boasting many towns within the boundaries of the regional park itself, the area is of course rich in archaeological discoveries. One of the prime archaeological sites in the Castelli Romani Regional Park can be found in Monte Porzio Catone, namely the ruins of the Tusculum.
Though the settlement dates back pre-Roman times, this is a wonderful example of a Roman city; it’s dotted with the remnants of opulent villas, Roman streets, and even its own amphitheater.
Another important archaeological area that can be found in the Castelli Romani region is the Castra Albana. Once located along the majorly important Via Appia, the route which connected Rome with Brundisium (Brindisi today) in southeastern Italy, Castra Albana today is a surprisingly hidden gem for history enthusiasts.
It’s here that you’ll find the largest amount of Roman-era finds and ruins in the Latium region outside of Rome itself. Important structures here include a fortress — built by Emperor Septimius Severus in 197 AD — thermae (baths), and an amphitheater.
There’s also the Mithraeum of Marino. Unearthed only in 1962, this beautiful example of the mystical Roman religion celebrating the god Mithras sits inside a cave close to the base of the old town (near the train station). This mithraeum is one of the best-preserved mithraeums anywhere in the world — it’s also a particularly colorful example, being one of only two such in the whole of Italy.
You should also read my post A Guide To Rome Mithraeum Temples.
Being a volcanic hillside area lends itself to wine production — in fact, wine has been made in the Alban Hills for thousands of years. The production of wine in the Castelli Romani region is closely connected to the present-day success and past riches of the towns in this area.
There are numerous wineries dotted throughout the Castelli Romani, with many of the wines produced celebrated throughout the world. Two of the most famous wines produced here are Frascati, a dry yet light white wine thought to date to the Roman era, and Marino, a DOC white wine – incidentally, they take the name of the towns where they are produced.
Wine brings many visitors to the Castelli Romani. They come to see the vineyards, learn about the winemaking process and the history, and — of course — sample some of the local wines themselves.
There are many wine tasting tours that go to the Castelli Romani. For example, there’s this private vineyard and wine-tasting tour that goes Frascati and Grottaferrata.
Another option is this actually more budget friendly tour that includes lots of wine tasting and lunch. It goes just to Frascati.
The fertile volcanic soil in the Alban Hills isn’t just good for producing fantastic wine — it’s also ideal for growing all sorts of food. But it does not just produce that this region is famous for. There are some delicious dishes that originate in the hills of the Castelli Romani, too.
One of the most famous of these is porchetta. This tasty pork dish sees fatty cuts of pork stuffed (sometimes with liver), seasoned with salt and wild herbs like fennel and garlic, and then cooked for hours, with the fat and skin still on. It’s served in a variety of ways, often in mouth-watering sandwich form.
Then there’s the enticing maritozzi. This sweet, cream-filled bun — often flavored with orange — is so famous that it’s even found its way to bakeries as far afield as Japan. However, these creamy concoctions actually have their origins right here in the Castelli Romani area. It’s eaten as a breakfast food, which is a wonderful way to start the day if you ask me!
Ciambelle al mosto is another delicious baked good you can find when browsing the pasticcerie of Castelli Romani. This moreish morsel is made from wine must, a cocktail of just-pressed grapes — seeds, stems, skins, and all — which is a byproduct of the wine-making process. It’s seasoned with aniseed and formed into a donut shape, they are then baked to perfection.
Castelli Romani Towns And Villages
Now that you know where to find Castelli Romani, and what this collection of settlements is famous for, it’s time to take a more in-depth look at some of its more well-renowned towns.
Famous home to the wine of the same name, Frascati is a well-heeled corner of the Alban Hills. Centered around a historic core, the town has a number of noble villas within its boundaries and a fair few historical sites, too.
The main piazza is the location of Villa Aldobrandini. This 16th-century property was the work of Giacomo della Porta, and was constructed by Carlo Maderno. Unfortunately, this elegant structure isn’t actually open for visitors, but its impressive gardens — with their rocky layout and iconic water theater — are.
The former stables for the Villa Aldobrandini have been restored and now house the Museo Tuscolano, where you can learn all about the ancient Roman history of Tusculum (a few kilometers from Frascati itself) and the villas that were built here later in the 16th and 17th centuries.
One of the most recommended tours is this private vineyard and wine-tasting tour which takes you to the best vineyards in Frascati.
You can also opt for this actually more budget friendly tour that includes lots of wine tasting and lunch in Frascati.
Situated close to Lake Albano, the town of Marino is closely linked to the fortunes of the noble Orsini family, who essentially owned the town for generations from 1370. It then passed into the hands of the aristocratic Colonna family at the start of the 15th century. This connection to Rome’s elite has certainly left its mark in terms of the monuments that remain scattered around the town.
Palazzo Colonna is one example. Built in the 16th century, it sadly underwent serious damage during World War II, but it was rebuilt and today welcomes the public in to have a look around. There’s a museum here showcasing the fortunes of the wealthy family.
Also in Marino is the incredible Mithraeum. One of only two mithraeums in Italy that remain colorfully painted as they were when first created, it’s a must for anybody who is interested in ancient history. The frescoes are amazingly well preserved, and display classic iconography related to the cult of Mithras.
Another landmark to discover in Marino is San Barnaba Church. Dedicated to San Barnaba, who is the patron saint of Marino itself, this 17th-century religious building — complete with an elegant Baroque facade — was damaged by an earthquake but restored in 1908.
Castel Gandolfo has papal connections. At first, it was the residence of the wealthy Savelli family, after which it was taken over by Pope Urban VII, who decided to create his papal palace here in 1623. It’s not hard to see why the town attracted such attention: it’s dramatically located on the rim of the extinct volcanic crater overlooking the shores of Lake Albano.
Remnants of the town’s history are still very much a part of its allure today. The Palazzo Apostolico — the one created by Pope Urban VII — was for centuries the pope’s summer residence, but since 2016 the public has been allowed to enter inside to see the opulence for themselves.
Here you can explore the papal apartments, marvel at lavish marble-decked hallways, and even see many historic papal robes on display, as well as other interesting artifacts and works of art, too. The Vatican Observatory (still in use) is located here too but is off limits to the public.
It’s not just the interesting buildings in the town itself to admire — there are also a number of interesting monuments scattered around the surrounding countryside. These include renowned architect Bernini’s Church of Saint Thomas of Villanova, the Baths of Diana, which date back to the rule of Emperor Domitian (1st century AD), and Domitian’s villa itself, situated on the even older Republican-era Villa Clodius.
This tour that goes to Castel Gandolfo includes a visit to the summer residence of the Pope, as well as lunch but not pick up from your accommodation in Rome.
You should also read my post A Fantastic Day Trip To Castel Gandolfo.
Situated along the ancient Via Appia, Ariccia boasts many important examples of Baroque architecture. Here you’ll find a number of important works by influential architects of the era, including Bernini and Fontana, hidden in plain sight around the charming streets of the town.
Ariccia may be small, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in these lavish buildings. Palazzo Chigi, for example, was built in the 17th century for the Chigi family by Bernini himself; there’s a museum inside where you can learn more about Baroque design and architecture. It’s also surrounded by an enormous parkland. Both the villa and its gardens were popular stops on the Grand Tour, but to see the gardens today you’ll also have to join a guided tour.
There’s also the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta, which is well worth a look. Dating back to 1148, its design was inspired by the ancient Pantheon in Rome, and boasts Byzantine-style interiors.
The main claim to fame of Grottaferrata is being home to the landmark Abbazia Greca di San Nilo. This Byzantine abbey, founded in 1004, is the last remaining of the surprisingly many of its kind that were once located in the countryside regions of the Italian peninsula.
The abbey’s fortified walls were a later addition, being built in the early 15th century in order to protect its treasure-filled church, Santa Maria di Grottaferrata. The church is home to gilded icons and artworks, as well as 17th-century frescoes by the Bologna-born Baroque painter, Domenichino. There’s also a museum where you can learn about the storied history of this abbey.
Set overlooking its namesake volcanic lake, the small town of Nemi is a picturesque location with a long history. It’s named after a nemus — the ancient Roman term for a holy woodland — which was once the center of a cult surrounding the goddess Diana.
It’s here that one of the most important religious buildings in the Roman pagan faith stood, the Temple of Diana Nemorensis, which was built in the early 3rd century BC, eventually falling into ruin from the 4th century AD onwards.
Relating to this temple, or perhaps the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis, the Roman Emperor Caligula ordered a number of large ships built to be used during religious rites on the lake. The area itself was a favorite countryside getaway of the infamous emperor, too. These ships were salvaged on the orders of Benito Mussolini in the 1920s, but destroyed by fire during World War II.
But it’s not just ancient history that Nemi is famous for. Nemi is also famous for its produce, mainly its wild strawberries. The small, sweet variety from Nemi grows well on the volcanic slopes here, thanks not only to the fertile soil but the microclimate (the slopes both protect them from the wind and radiate extra warmth and light from the sun).
Also located along the Via Appia, Genzano is situated on the slopes of the crater that leads into Lake Nemi. This hillside town is densely populated — in fact, it’s the most populous of all the towns in the Castelli Romani area.
The historic core of Genzano boasts an abundance of architecture and art, most notably the 18th-century Palazzo Sforza Cesarini. The sprawling palace is surrounded by equally sprawling parkland, which was redesigned in the 19th century by Duke Lorenzo Sforza Cesarini for his wife.
There’s also the 17th-century Church of San Francesco — complete with an attached monastery for Capuchin monks — and the Church of Santa Maria della Cima, which was built in 1636 (the most important church in Genzano for centuries).
Set in the hills overlooking Lake Albano, the town of Albano Laziale hides a number of different sights for visitors to uncover. The town is surrounded by volcanic hills, with several ancient Roman ruins dotted in the vicinity, too.
These include the Porta Praetoria; situated in what is the center of Albano Laziale today, it was once the entrance to the ancient town (which is situated on the Via Appia).
Visitors can also see the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, built in the 3rd century AD, and some ancient catacombs of the same century, plus there are also the Tombs of Horatii and Curiatii to discover. Just off of the Via Appia, these tombs tell the story of wars that were going on between Rome and the semi-legendary city of Alba Longa.
How To Visit The Castelli Romani From Rome
If you want to explore the Castelli Romani today, just as the ancient Romans would have done centuries ago, it’s very much doable. There are several different ways to do so, but generally speaking, it’s either independently done — or you can join a tour.
I never recommend driving in Rome, but having your own set of wheels is probably the best way to explore the area. The Castelli Romani Regional Park is about an hour’s drive outside of Rome, along the Via Appia Nuova, covering a distance of 33 kilometers (just over 20 miles).
For the best car rental deals in Italy, click here.
You should also read my post A Useful Guide To Renting A Car In Italy.
On a guided tour
The other main option to explore the Castelli Romani is to simply join a guided tour. While you may not get the full, adventurous feeling of exploring the region by yourself (and perhaps over multiple days), booking yourself onto a guided tour does offer up a hassle-free way to see this interesting region.
Of course, tours come with guides who’ll be able to give you a much better insight into the local area and its history than you’d get from simply wandering around by yourself.
There are a variety of different tours to opt for. Let me share the best options.
One tour you may want to consider is this private vineyard and wine-tasting tour which whisks you from your accommodation in Rome to the idyllic Castelli Romani region. You’ll get to see two of the villages – Frascati and Grottaferrata and, of course, enjoy some good food and even better wine.
Another example is this hop-on, hop-off tour, which travels around the Castelli Romani Regional Park on two separate bus lines; this means you can spend the whole weekend seeing all the main sights of the area, if you want (a good idea if you don’t want to hire a car and drive).
If you are interested in seeing the papal summer residence, you may want to consider this tour that goes to Castel Gandolfo. It includes lunch but not pick up from your accommodation in Rome.
Public transport makes it easy to get out and see the Castelli Romani if you don’t want to drive, but it’s not exactly comprehensive to get absolutely everywhere. There are some options, however, with train stations located in Albano Laziale, Castel Gandolfo, and Frascati.
Trains from Rome Termini to Albano take approximately one hour. The train to Frascati is quicker and takes around half an hour; while it takes around 45 minutes to one hour to get to Castel Gandolfo.
The main issue is that it’ll be time consuming to get from one of the small towns to the other by public transport (there are just local buses) so you won’t really be able to explore more than a village or at best two in a day if you are traveling by public transport.