Whether it's for an afternoon trip or a long weekend, Lazio and its neighbouring regions offer an abundance of places that are rich in beauty, character and delicious specialties.
Take your pick from the list below.
Why? Sitting at the bottom of a wide valley, Norcia is pretty but relatively small; its biggest draw is the wealth of culinary delights. Local specialties include all things truffle, sausages (both pork and wild boar), and famous tiny lentils from nearby Castelluccio.
Where? Umbria, 110 km north/northeast of Rome and 35 km northeast of Spoleto
How to get there: By public transport - you need to take a train to Spoleto (an hour and a half), then a local bus from the railway station to just outside the town gate (see http://www.umbriamobilita.it/it/orari/servizio-extraurbano. It takes about 40-45 min; the upside is getting picturesque views of the valley along the way).
There are direct buses to Norcia from Tiburtina station, but these only pass Norcia once a day each way.
When? The food is good all year round but Norcia gets rather chilly in the winter, so dress accordingly.
How much time will I need? Norcia is too small for an overnight stay, but a trip there is easily combined with a long day trip, or an overnight trip, to nearby Spoleto. Make sure you are in Norcia for lunch (tiny Cenacolo on the main street, Corso Sertorio, has the best food), and stop by at the Benedictine monks’ shop off the main square selling the delicious beer they brew. The Fratelli Ansuini shop on the corner of via Roma behind the main San Benedetto square, with its elaborate outside display, is “the” place to go to for sausages.
Why? Set on a steep hillside with dramatic viewsacross a deep gorge on its other side, Spoleto has a lovely Duomo square and a stunning medieval viaduct bridging the gorge – and a Roman theatre.
Where? Umbria, 100km north of Rome
How to get there Spoleto is relatively easily reached by train, about an hour and a half from Rome. A shuttle bus runs between the train station and Piazza Garibaldi, the square at the bottom of the old town. The old town itself is largely vertical, but there is help in the shape of an escalator going from the vicinity of Piazza Garibaldi to the fortress (Rocca) at the top; you can then see the town with considerably less effort as you descend.
When to go Spring through mid-autumn is the best time, as the surrounding hills can look somewhat drab in the winter months.
How much time will I need? Spoleto can be seen in half a day, making it a reasonable day trip from Rome. Combining it with Norcia makes for either a long day or a leisurely weekend.
What to see The escalator will leave you off the side of the wide circular trail going around the Rocca fortress (called via Gattaponi; its other side is called via del Ponte). Going clockwise along the trail lets you look at the town and nearby hills and take in the star attraction, the 81-metre-tall Ponte delle Torri viaduct, halfway along the way. There is a hotel with a scenic overlook (Hotel Gattapone) right next to it that makes for a good drinks stop or a striking spot for an overnight stay. Hungry? Then head to Trattoria del Matto, which serves mouthwatering Umbrian delicacies.
Photo: Angus Kirk
Why? Set against a mountainside backdrop near the border between Umbria and Le Marche, Gubbio looks like a grand stage setting for a medieval spectacle, and has enough left of a Roman amphitheatre to provide an interesting photo angle.
Where? Umbria, 165 km north of Rome
How to get there? The nearest train stop is Fossato di Vico-Gubbio, about two and a half hours away from Rome (there are direct trains). There are regular buses between the station and the town (see the Umbria Mobilità link), including a few on Sundays.
When? All-year-round, but I suspect it gets pretty cold in the winter.
How much time will I need? Gubbio can be easily seen on a day trip, i.e. with half a day’s sightseeing. Logistics-wise, it can be combined with Perugia for a full weekend: regular buses between Perugia’s Via XIV Settembre MiniMetrò stop and Gubbio take an hour.
What to see The Duomo decoration is nothing short of breathtaking. Sightseeing mostly involves exploring the inside and outside of various medieval buildings and churches; there is also an interesting funivia taking visitors up the Colle Eletto mountainside in a species of personal mini-cages, and it runs all year (http://www.funiviagubbio.it/home.asp). December 7 marks the annual lighting ceremony for a huge Christmas tree painted in coloured lights on the hillside above the town.
Why? A garden lover’s paradise in the spring and early summer, Ninfa is an unusual park set out on the site of an abandoned medieval village.
Where? Lazio, 50 km southeast of Rome (close to Latina)
How to get there A real challenge to get to by public transport, Ninfa is best reached by driving or on an organized trip. You have to take a group tour of the gardens, but the views and the guide’s insights make up for the relatively restricted format – check out the web site photo gallery (at http://www.fondazionecaetani.org/) to see why such a tricky place earned a place on this list.
When to go Ninfa is only open to the public on selected weekends. To take advantage of the springtime flowering season, it is open every other weekend (first and third) in April, May and June, and once a month (first weekend) in July through November. It is a good idea to double-check the web site in advance.
How much time will I need? The tour is about an hour long, adding up to about four hours considering the travel time to and from Ninfa.
What to see Ninfa has endless romantic photo ops. To make your trip into an enjoyable full-day outing, drive up to Norma in the hills right above Ninfa for panoramic views and to the old town Sermoneta, a few kilometres to the south for a visit to its pretty centre and old castle (Castello Caetani).
Photo: Stefan Jurca
Why? Set within medieval fortress walls, Lucca feels like a welcome escape to a more mellow era, but still has enough highlights to make for a busy day or an enjoyable weekend of sightseeing.
where Toscana, 270 km northwest of Rome and 60 km west of Florence
How to get there The easiest way to reach Lucca is via Florence, in Tuscany, which means taking the one-and-a-half hour Frecce train from Rome (advance booking is crucial to get better fares) followed by the one-hour local train to Lucca – between three and three-and-a-half hours total travel time, depending on how fast the local train is. The old town is five minutes’ walk away from the station.
when Lucca is a great year-round destination.
How long will I need? The old town can be seen in a day, but it is best enjoyed on an overnight stay that lets you take in its sights at a more relaxed pace. An added advantage is the chance to take a quick side trip to see the Campo dei Miracoli in nearby Pisa – only half an hour away by local train (15km) – the best times to escape the tourist throngs and hawkers there are early morning and evening around/after sunset.
What to see Lucca’s most famous features are the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, the oval square framed by houses built on the foundations of the local Colosseum; the promenade on top of the city walls, a good four-km circular stroll or an easy bike ride; and the Torre Guinigi, a tree-topped tower in the centre of the town offering good views of Lucca and the hills beyond. Beautiful churches include the local Duomo (San Martino), San Michele al Foro and San Frediano, all flanked by pleasant squares. For a break from the city streets, head to the charming rose-filled garden of Palazzo Pfanner around the corner from San Frediano, or to the less fancy but relaxing Orto Botanico in the southeast corner near Via del Fosso. For museum lovers, Lucca has two pinacoteche housed in historical buildings, Palazzo Mansi and Villa Guinigi (see http://www.luccamuseinazionali.it/content.php?p=info); Palazzo Mansi also has rooms with period furnishings. See also http://www.dovealucca.it/cose-da-vedere-a-lucca-225.php
Castelli Romani (Nemi – Genzano – Ariccia – Albano – Castelgandolfo)
Castelgandfolfo. Photo: Polybert44/Flickr
Why? A sprinkling of lively, laid-back towns within an easy day trip’s distance from Rome, their hilltop position giving them great views of the surrounding countryside up to the coast, two volcanic lakes, and towards Rome. There are more than 10 towns in the area; perhaps subjectively, the most picturesque ones are Nemi set on a terrace above the eponymous lake, Catelgandolfo above Lake Albano, and the trio of Genzano, Ariccia and Albano stretching along the road from Nemi to Castelgandolfo.
Where? Lazio, 20-25 km southeast of Rome
How to get there The public-transport options are either the local train stopping at Albano, Castelgandolfo, and Frascati (the latter one is on a different line from the first two) – but the trains are relatively infrequent and taking them means long climbs up from the stations – or COTRAL buses from the terminal at Anagnina at the southern end of the Metro A line (about 40 minutes to Albano, or an hour to Genzano). There is a Sunday bus service, though it is relatively less frequent. Bear in mind that Nemi only has bus service on weekdays and Saturdays, with a bus change in Genzano involving a walk to a different stop (but is well worth visiting, if only for its specialty wild strawberries!) – going back, you need to either catch the last bus from Nemi on Saturday evening or be prepared to hike down the ancient crater to the lake and back up the other side to Genzano on a Sunday, only 3 km distance but an approximately 1.5-hour hike. Ariccia has no bus stop, but if you like walking, the approximately 5-km route along the pedestrian sidewalk from Genzano to Albano, going gently downhill, passes through Ariccia and has a couple of good views along the way.
When to go The Castelli are a good year-round destination. Popular with the Romans in the summer as an escape from the city’s heat thanks to the fresh hillside air, they host a series of food festivals (sagre) in the autumn (but beware of the crowds), pretty themselves up for the Christmas season, and look glorious in the bloom of spring.
How long will I need? Depending on how many towns you want to visit, the Castelli can be visited one-by-one in a series of half-day trips, or together in a full day (max three to four towns) or over a more relaxed weekend. Considering the proximity to Rome, hotel options are relatively limited, but looking for B&Bs may bring you better luck.
What to see Castelgandolfo has the biggest claim to fame with its papal residence. Nemi and Castelgandolfo have overlooks with striking views over the two lakes. Nemi is famous for its wild strawberries (fragoline), Ariccia is famous for its porchetta, Frascati for its wine. All towns offer a relaxing atmosphere, a palpable change of pace from Rome’s bustle (unless you are there at the height of a sagra...)
By Anna Zabelina