If you ever feel like Rome is too much, or if you just feel like a change of scenery, then getting out of the city to explore the regions nearby is (usually) super straightforward. Whenever I feel Rome is too crowded, I go to my beloved Tuscia Viterbese. There are plenty of smaller towns to explore, archeological sites galore, natural sites and the food is delicious throughout.
One of my favorite places there is Tuscania. You can visit on a day trip from Rome, and getting there from Viterbo is even easier still. Visiting this ancient town, surrounded by beautiful views of Lazio’s northern hills, and dotted with pretty churches, is well worth your time.
Curious to find out more? Then continue reading, and discover Tuscania’s history and many attractions.
The History Of Tuscania
The founding of Tuscania is steeped in legend. One of these has it that the town was founded by Ascanius, the son of Aeneas – the Trojan refugee and hero of the Aeneid. Ascanius is also noted as the legendary king of Alba Longa. He is said to have found 12 puppy dogs on the hill where Tuscania was later founded, which gives the town its name (the Etruscan name, Tuscania, is theorized to be related to Latin, canus or dog).
Another legend goes that Tuscania was founded by Tusco, the son of Hercules and Araxes, thereby giving his name to the town. Either way, it’s believed that the city was founded in the 7th century BC by Etruscan people, with the building of an acropolis on what is now known as St Peter’s Hill.
The town’s strategic hilltop position meant that it was important in terms of defense for the wider Etruscan world. It later became the region’s maritime trade center in the 4th century BC, and it is believed that Tuscania was later brought into the Roman sphere of influence.
Eventually it became a municipium (town or city). Later – much later, in the 5th century AD – Tuscania remained important. In fact, it was around this time that it became the seat of one of the first bishops to preside in Italy outside of Rome.
After this, over the next few centuries, Tuscania passed through many different hands: during the fall of the Western Roman Empire, it was conquered by the invading Lombards. Then, in 781, it became part of the Papal States. In 967, it became the territory of the powerful Anguillara family, before being drawn under the control of the Marquis of Tuscany (part of the Holy Roman Empire). Finally, in 1081, it was besieged by Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor.
After this tumultuous half a millenium (almost) of struggle between different powers and factions, the town of Tuscania became a free commune and commanded control over a wide surrounding territory. But interior struggles in the region, and throughout the wider Holy Roman Empire, began to change the politics and allegiances across the land. Defensive walls were built in 1240 to protect against any violence towards the town leading from these struggles.
However, Tuscania would submit to Rome in the 14th century after a botched invasion attempt (which they were a part of) against Pope Boniface VIII. The same century brought a much bigger tragedy to the town when, in 1348-49, the bubonic plague hit the region. In this weakened state, Tuscania was definitively brought to heel under the Papal States.
In 1495, the town underwent further struggles when it was sacked by French troops under the command of King Charles VIII on their march towards the Kingdom of Naples. Over the years following this, Tuscania headed into a long downward spiral into decline. It was finally annexed to the newly unified Kingdom of Italy in 1870.
What To See In Tuscania, Italy
There are many places to visit in Tuscania and the following is just a selection. You can check all the main sites in half a day or so, but you will want to soak in the atmosphere and wander around aimlessly – so I suggest spending a full day there. There are plenty of nice cafés and restaurants where you can have a bite too!
The Basilica di San Pietro
The main landmark of Tuscania, and the former center of the town in its Etruscan days, the Basilica di San Pietro sits high on a hill overlooking the surrounding hills. It is here that the Etruscan acropolis once sat.
The impressive church that stands today was built in a Lombard Romanesque style all the way back in 739. It later underwent renovations between the 11th and the 12th centuries. Its brick facade feels much more modern than its 1,000-year-plus history lets on, and its large, rose window adds elegance to the straight lines of the structure.
Inside, the floors are inlaid with decorative mosaics, while elaborate carvings of flora and fauna also dot the interior, along with depictions of saints from the Old Testament.
Church of San Marco
The Church of San Marco is one of the oldest buildings in Tuscania. It may be modest – a square, brick-built and seemingly undecorated building – but the simplicity is effective in conveying both its long history and the architectural engineering behind it. This is a church to take a closer look at, with many intricate details hiding in plain sight.
Ex Chiesa di Santa Croce
Close by is the deconsecrated Church of Santa Croce. Today, new life has been brought to the historic Romanesque structure, as it is now the seat of Tuscania’s records office. With its handsome brick facade and gorgeous rose window, not to mention its pretty gardens, this venerable building is certainly worth a stop as you stroll around the town.
Santa Maria Maggiore Church
A church has stood on this spot since at least 852, but records of this current structure date back to 1206, although it has undergone many changes over the centuries. The Romanesque building features a distinctive facade, complete with rose window and three doorways flanked by spiraling marble columns.
Take a closer look at those columns: they may look Corinthian from afar, but on closer inspection you’ll see human figures carved into them, as well as lions at the base.
Inside, the church is replete with layers of history. The columns of the interior are carved with animals and plantlife, while the wood beamed ceiling attests to its rustic origins.
On the aisle to the right, you can see the octagonal baptismal immersion pool, which dates all the way back to the 13th century. Also from this time is the pulpit, as is the richly colorful fresco of the Twelve Apostles in the apse of the church. Even older still, one of the church’s bell towers dates to the 12th century.
Church of St Maria del Riposo and Museo Archeologico Tuscanese
Also worthy of note, particularly for its frescoes, is the Church of Santa Maria del Riposo. Situated just outside the walls of Tuscania, this building was once a convent, but reconstructed in 1495 in Renaissance style and remodeled further over the centuries.
One of the frescoes here is the 16th-century depiction of Mary in the Temple, the work of Renaissance artist Girolamo Siciolante. Another masterpiece to look out for is the splendid altarpiece attributed to Perin del Vaga.
But it’s not all about the church building itself. Also on the premises, situated in the attached convent building, is the Etruscan National Museum (Museo Archeologico Tuscanese). This interesting educational space tells the story of Tuscania from its earliest days. Here visitors can see archaeological finds from graves and sarcophagi from some of the most prominent Etruscan families in the region.
Of particular note are the artifacts found at the tombs of the Curunas and Vipinana and families, who lived in the Tuscania area between the 5th and 1st centuries BC. You can also spot artifacts of the Medieval age, as well as decorations from the Necropolis of Madonna dell’Olivo and Caracello.
The Tower of Lavello
The Tower of Lavello sits as the grand entranceway to the Torre di Lavello Park, a central attraction and public space of Tuscania. The brick-built tower itself – dating from the Medieval period and once a lookout – actually plays host to a restaurant these days. The tower was named after Angelo da Lavello, a governor of Tuscania and notable mercenary captain.
As well as the restaurant, the belvedere, or viewpoint, that lies awaiting visitors at the top of the tower (namely, the restaurant’s terrace) is the main draw here. The wide sweeping views over the surrounding countryside, with its rolling hills that will remind you of Tuscany (though mind you, this is not Tuscany!), are simply marvelous. A perfect place to take a stroll or sit down for a long lunch in the shade with that amazing vista as a backdrop.
Fontana delle Sette Cannelle
Not to be confused with the fountain that has the same name but is located in Pitigliano, Tuscany, this fountain has been situated on this spot for centuries. Translating to the “Fountain of Seven Spouts”, the landmark as it appears today is a Medieval construction, created using materials pilfered from Etruscan and Roman ruins.
It is situated close to the historic Lavatoi, a central part of the local neighborhood where women of the town would gather to socialize and do the laundry in a public setting. Today it is a soothing spot to sit and soak up the atmosphere, and people-watch while listening to the sounds of the trickling fountain.
Because of the long history of Tuscania there are naturally many tombs and necropolises located in the area. It wasn’t the custom to bury people in the city, rather outside of the walls, and so in the surrounding countryside is where visitors will find these ancient monuments.
The most famous is the Madonna dell’Olivo, though the Grotta di Regina is perhaps the most intriguing. Here you can step inside an ancient subterranean world, with numerous tunnels (around 30 in total) weaving past burial chambers. Another popular necropolis area is Tomba.
Colle San Pietro Archaeological Park
If you want to see more of the archaeological wonders that Tuscania is home to, then you should pay a visit to the Colle San Pietro Archaeological Park. Featuring Roman, Etruscan, and Medieval remnants of the town, and situated adjacent to Basilica di San Pietro, this is a great place to get an insight into the past of Tuscania. However, keep in mind that visiting is available only via a guided tour.
Viewpoints over the Marta River valley
Due to its location high up on a hill, Tuscania boasts numerous fine viewpoints from where you can soak up some wide, sweeping views out over the Marta River Valley and the hills beyond. Along with the belvedere at the Tower of Lavello, there’s also a beautiful view you can get from a terrace at the Piazza Basile. The terrace itself is worth a visit and is decorated with headless statues that were uncovered at Etruscan graves.
How to get to Tuscania from Rome or Viterbo
From Rome to Tuscania by road, the journey is a straightforward 90 kilometers (about 56 miles). It takes around an hour and a half. From Viterbo it’s even easier: you simply drive along a 23-kilometer (14.2 miles) direct road to the town, and it takes around 20 minutes.
By bus / train
There are no direct trains or buses that run between Rome and Tuscania. Instead, it’s a matter of taking the train from Roma Ostiense in Rome to Viterbo and then taking a bus from there onwards to Tuscania. Alternatively, you can get a train from Rome to Tarquinia, and from there hop on a Cotral bus to Tuscania (this service continues to Viterbo). The journey, however, is rather long and I don’t recommend it – it’s better to rent a car for the day.
From Viterbo, it’s simple: a direct bus from Viterbo to Tuscania, taking around half an hour and costing just a couple of Euros at its cheapest.
There are certainly guided tours you can embark on that take you around the sights of Tuscania, but many of these don’t originate in central Rome, but in the port town of Civitavecchia, such as this day tour of Tuscania and Tarquinia.
I was able to find a guided tour of Tuscania and Tarquinia that departs from Rome. For more information about it, click here.
For more places to visit in Tuscia, make sure to read this post:
- The Best Hidden Gems In Tuscia
- A Curated Guide To Viterbo
- How To Make The Most Of Tarquinia
- What To See And Do In Civita Di Bagnoregio
- A Quick Guide To Soriano Nel Cimino
- A Useful Guide To Vitorchiano
- A Guide To The Lovely Celleno Borgo Fantasma
- A Complete Guide To Villa Lante, Bagnaia
- How To Visit Villa Farnese In Caprarola
- A Short Guide To Bomarzo’s Parco Dei Mostri
- The Ultimate Guide To Calcata Vecchia