A Roman holiday is a magical affair but sometimes, pushing your way through the throngs to get to the Colosseum or the Vatican Museums can be a mood dampener. But there’s more to Rome and Vatican than the crowded monuments in the city center. Your saving grace here is a quaint little village by the name of Castel Gandolfo, 12 miles from Rome.
Seated on a rocky perch above the sparkling, turquoise waters of the volcanic Lake Albano, this historic village is home to the Pope’s summer palace or Papal Villas and the famous Barberini Gardens. As soon as your train leaves from Rome’s Termini Station and heads past the city’s outskirts, a panoramic view of the lake and the lush green countryside will fill you with the peace you deserve. This 9000-person village is a haven with very few tourists strolling its quiet, cobbled streets.
Castel Gandolfo is situated on the ancient site of Alba Longa. It was in 1200 that this picturesque village was put on the map by the Genoese family of the Gandolfo when they built their castle on top of the Alban Hills overlooking the Albano lake. Following the construction of the Apostolic or Papal Palace, the summer residence of the Pope, in 1608, this village became the domain of the Holy See. Pius XI later added the adjoining Villa Barberini. Since 1936, Villa Barberini has housed the famous Vatican Observatory, founded by Pope Gregory XIII. However, from 1870 to 1929, the Papal Palace had no pontiffs, attributed to the signing of the Lateran Treaty.
This papal summer retreat designed by Carlo Maderno for Pope Urban VIII in the 17th century is a welcome break from the crowded Rome. The Apostolic Palace opened its doors to the public in 2016 when the humble Pope Francis decided to forego it as his residence. Instead, he chose a Vatican City guesthouse. The Papal Palace has now been turned into a museum which has Vatican-related artifacts, such as the costumes and cars of former popes. Tourists have access to the papal apartments with marble flooring, the papal portrait gallery, the summer office and even the private bedroom. The Palace is closed on Sundays and the ticket must be booked in advance via the Vatican Museum website.
Built on the grounds of the splendid Roman villa of Emperor Albanum Domitian, Barberini Gardens is an amalgamation of archeological ruins and luxurious as well as natural beauty. It’s a true reflection of the traditional Italian garden style with its carefully tended hedge mazes, fountains, dazzling geometric plant beds, sculptures, and ancient ruins. Barberini Gardens have been open to the public since 2014. Similar to the Papal Palace, it’s closed on Sundays and prior booking through the Vatican website is necessary.
Belvedere means ‘beautiful view’ and Belvedere Gardens stays true to its name. This garden was also built on Emperor Domitian’s grounds. You will find the famous cryptoporticus or covered passageway of the emperor here. Dozens of plants and vines creep up against it, but the architectural feat of its design is clearly visible as you step inside. In fact, this 300-metre long covered walkway has its fair share of history. Not only did it serve as a shade for Domitian whenever he wanted to go for a walk but was also responsible for providing shelter to dozens of families who had fled to Castel Gandolfo during the Second World War to escape the Nazis.
The Pope’s Farm or Castel Gandolfo’s farm is a 50-acre, family-run farm that produces everything that Pope Francis eats. Fresh produce, including handmade cheeses such as pecorino, mozzarella, and ricotta, yogurts, eggs, milk, cauliflower, and broccoli, is shipped on a daily basis to the Vatican. This organic farm is beautifully maintained with over 1,000 olive trees. These trees are tangible history as half of them have been standing since 1200. You can also walk through several orchards and vineyards on the grounds.
Renaissance master Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s fountains earned Rome the title of ‘open air museum’ and all his works, ranging from the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona to the Fontana del Tritone and Fontana delle Api in Piazza Barberini are truly masterpieces. Fontana delle Api, whose construction was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII, was mainly created to regulate the water flow of the Fontana del Tritone. What’s striking is how this fountain, although built out of necessity, maintains a harmonic and consistent layout of the square and the main fountain, thereby showcasing the brilliance of Bernini.
Piazza della Liberta, Castel Gandolfo’s main square is a 15-minute walk from the station. It’s going to be a steep walk as the square is situated on a hill, but once you reach, the vibe of the village will invigorate your senses. Piazza della Liberta’s main attraction is the facade of the Papal Palace which overlooks the square. It is also home to the world’s first postbox (yes, how iconic is that!), so uphold the tradition that most tourists follow and post a letter. You can also visit the Church of San Tommaso, the central church of the village.
Head down to the shores of Lake Albano after your coffee at Piazza della Liberta. The road that runs along the lake is lined with restaurants and bars on one side and beach clubs on the other. You can either rent a bike to scout the surrounding area or rent a boat or a kayak and enjoy the fresh air and lake view. A word of caution: Do not dive into the lake as the volcanic waters are extremely chilly and the depth (Lake Albano is the deepest lake in the region of Lazio, reaching 560 ft) could be fatal for swimmers.
The Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo is open throughout the year from Monday through Friday from 9:00am until 1:00pm and on Saturdays, it’s 9:00am until 4:30pm. On Sundays, it’s 9am until 6:30pm.
Opening hours of shops and restaurants in Castel Gandolfo vary throughout the year. But generally, shops remain open from 9am until 1pm and 3:30pm until 7:30pm (or 4pm to 8pm) Monday through Saturday. Some shops are open on Sunday mornings. Restaurants are open on all days from noon until 3pm and then from 7:30pm until 11pm.
Springtime, that is March through May is the best time to visit Castel Gandolfo, as the weather is warm and pleasant. It does get colder at night, but since you will mostly be taking a day trip from Rome to Castel Gandolfo.
Tourism also peaks in January and February. As expected, hotel and flight prices will be quite expensive, so make sure you make your reservations in advance.
However, December experiences lesser tourists and hence, is a good time to visit if you are on a budget. You will get ample rain and snow, so pack your essentially accordingly.
There are multiple guided tours from Rome that visit the Papal Villas every day.
It will take you 45 minutes from Rome’s Termini Station to reach Castel Gandolfo Station.
Trenitalia runs every day, hourly and usually leaves at 21 minutes past the hour. Their complete service schedule is available on the Trenitalia website. The journey costs €2.10 one-way.
Tickets can be booked online or at one of the many ticket machines at Termini Station. However, there are no ticket machines at Castel Gandolfo, so we suggest you buy your return ticket at Termini Station. From Castel Gandolfo Station, it’s a 15-minute walk up to Piazza della Liberta.
Cotral runs a daily service from the terminus at Roma Anagnina to Castel Gandolfo. The journey takes the same time and costs the same as the train. Since Rome’s rural bus services comprise only Italian speakers, you might face difficulty communicating your concerns to the driver. Hence, it is better you board the train.
While driving is the most independent and fastest way (it will take you half an hour) of traveling from Rome to Castel Gandolfo. If you are an adventurous driver, you can take the driver’s seat but finding parking is fiendishly difficult around the Papal Palace and even in Piazza della Liberta. To avoid this hassle, it’s best to hire a taxi which will cost you 35€ to 45€.
• Wear clothes that cover your knees and don’t leave your shoulders bare. Also, carry small bags because big bags and suitcases are not allowed inside the Palace.
• Photography is permitted only without flash and tripods are strictly prohibited. Your selfie clicking options will face some restrictions as selfie sticks are not allowed inside the Palace.
• No food, no smoking and no large umbrellas permitted within the premises.
• Touring the entire Palace will require climbing a long line of steps, so be prepared. Unfortunately, the Palace still doesn’t have any ramp options for wheelchair users.
• Wear comfortable shoes to avoid being a victim of shoe bites.
• Tickets are available on-site, but they are likely to sell out months in advance. Thus, buy your tickets online in advance. Entry is free for children aged 5 and below. Reduced price tickets are available for children between the ages of 6 - 18 and for students up to the age of 25. Families with a minimum of two children can get a family ticket.
• Carry a set of earphones for your audio-guided tour in a shuttle bus. The earphones will leave your hands free to click photos.
• Stay hydrated!