25 km south of Rome (45 minutes)
How to Get There
Castel Gandolfo is a small, scenic town in the hills just outside of Rome, overlooking Lake Albano.
It is an easy and cheap train ride from Roma Termini to Castel Gandolfo station. Trains leave hourly, for exact times check the Trenitalia website. A return ticket for one person will only set you back €4.20. Be sure to buy a return ticket from Termini, as there is no place to purchase tickets at the Castel Gandolfo station.
In reality, there is no station to speak of, just a platform with a sign and a machine to validate your tickets. Be prepared for about a 1km climb up to the town, as the ‘station’ is located only halfway up the hill that Castel Gandolfo sits on.
However, once you make it to the top, you’ll be rewarded with a delightfully picturesque town littered with colourful flowers and incredible views of the Lake.
If you choose to come by car, you can eliminate the hike. Visitor parking is limited but fairly easy to find as not many people come by car. Bear in mind it is metered and charged by the hour, so bring some coins for the machine.
The modern village’s name comes from the Gandolfi family, who owned a large estate there in the 12th century. However, it is the town’s ancient history that is most intriguing!
Legend says that Castel Gandolfo lies on the ancient site of Alba Longa. Alba Longa was the leading city of the Latin League, which was a group of about 30 cities who joined together for defensive purposes.
According to myth, Alba Longa was founded by Ascanius, the son of the legendary Aeneas, in 1152 BC. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas led the surviving Trojans through the Meditteranean and settled in Italy. Upon arrival, he was welcomed by Latinus, the king of the Latins. Aeneas married the king’s daughter, Lavinia, and eventually became the king himself. Their son, Ascanius succeeded the throne after his father’s death, built Alba Longa and resettled the Latin colonies there. This makes it the oldest Latin city in Italy, even predating Rome! Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, are said to be descendants of Ascanius.
What to See
The village is small, but not lacking in importance; the main piazza is home to both a church designed by Bernini and the Papal Palace (the Pope’s summer residence).
The Papal Palace and Barberini Gardens
This 17th century, 135-acre property served for centuries as a summer palace and vacation retreat for the Pope. Sitting high in the hills, it offered a welcome break from the summer heat and humidity in Rome.
The Vatican has owned the palace and grounds since 1596 when they seized it from the Savelli family who were unable to pay their debts to the church. The whole estate is larger than Vatican City and along with the palace, it boasts several villas, Renaissance-style gardens, a forest and even a working dairy farm!
Pope Francis, judging the estate too extravagant, decided to buck the tradition of his predecessors and turned the palace into a museum which has been open to the public since 2016. You can visit the papal apartments, complete with marble floors, as well peruse the papal portrait gallery and view various pontifical artefacts.
If this doesn’t take your fancy, the lavish beauty and decadence of the Barberini gardens won’t disappoint. Built on the site of an ancient Roman villa built by Emperor Domitian the combination of natural beauty, landscape design and archaeological ruins are truly a sight to behold.
Tickets must be booked online via the Vatican Museum website for both the Apostolic Palace and the gardens. Though part of the same estate, they are not included on the same ticket. Please note both the palace and the gardens are closed on Sundays. For more information about tickets prices, tours, and opening hours click here.
San Tommaso da Villanova Church
In 1658, Pope Alexander VII commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini to build and design this church in the main square of Castel Gandolfo to serve as the Pope’s chapel. The church is named for the Spanish friar; Saint Thomas of Villanova who was canonized by the Pope the same year the church was built.
Looking at the facade of this seemingly unassuming church, you’d never guess it was built by Bernini himself. Head inside to appreciate Bernini’s stunningly designed golden dome, and the intricate aerial stucco statutes by one of Bernini’s students, Antonio Raggi.
As well as these important buildings Castel Gandolfo offers sweeping views of Lake Albano and elegant cobblestoned streets.
Where to Eat
Like all Italian lakes, Lake Albano is scattered with restaurants serving delicious food with lake views.
The town of Castel Gandolfo offers both the lake view, as well as a small town charm. You’ll be overwhelmed with choice, so here are our recommendations:
Ristorante La Gardenia
(Viale Bruno Buozzi 4) €€€
If it’s fish you’re after, look no further than Ristorante La Gardenia. This stunning, sleek restaurant offers quality, artfully presented food in an equally gorgeous setting. There’s an outdoor terrace that overlooks the lake, but if you choose to sit inside you won’t miss out on the views as the dining room boasts huge luminous windows. It’s about a 10 minute walk from the centre of the village, but well worth it!
Art e Vino
(Corso della Repubblica, 49) €€
As the name suggests, Art e Vino combines the concepts of art and wine, and let’s not forget; food! This family-owned business is a boutique antique store, a restaurant, and a wine bar. The restaurant offers creative dishes using carefully selected fresh, seasonal ingredients in a unique setting.
Antica Taverna Pia Da Bobbo
(Piazza Sabatini, 16, Albano) €
Bobbo is in the nearby town of Albano, so, it’s only an option if you come by car. However, if you want to eat well without spending much, Bobbo is the place for you. The atmosphere is simple; it’s the pasta that’s the real hero, piled generously on large plates you’ll be hard-pressed to finish it!
Castel Gandolfo is the perfect day trip from Rome; an easy to reach, delightful village complete with stunning lake views.
For more information contact us and we’ll plan a customized itinerary for you!
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Author: Rebecca Allison
Rebecca is an Australian writer and history lover who has been living in Rome since 2015. She enjoys travelling around Italy (and beyond), as well as marvelling at the many architectural and historical feats that Rome has to offer in the streets and museums.