Rome is undoubtedly a fascinating destination, but sometimes the hustle and bustle of the streets and the chaos of traffic mean that many tourists seek a quieter and more relaxing afternoon or day out in nearby towns. It is in this very scenario that Castel Gandolfo, a small town located just 18 kilometres southeast of Rome on the shores of Lake Albano, comes into the picture.
The town is known worldwide for being the Vatican's chosen holiday residence- if the Pope chose it as his summer home, then Castel Gandolfo must be pretty nice, right? In fact, the main excursion to do in the town is a visit to the papal residence and its extensive gardens with all kinds of flowers and trees.
Here are the best things to do in Castel Gandolfo from Rome. Also, I invite you to read the following post about what to do and see in Rome for a complete experience on your trip.
Visit the Pontifical Palace and the Residence Gardens.
Castel Gandolfo has been a papal summer retreat since Pope Urban VIII built a beautiful residence in the 17th century. Today, no matter what religion tourists profess, the site has become a place of worship and pure history.
Pope Francis has opened the Papal Palace and the striking gardens to visitors from all over the world. On the other hand, I recommend the following article if you are interested in finding out more about guided tours of the Vatican.
You can get tickets on the official website of the Vatican Museums, even several months in advance.
What you can do inside the Papal Residence
- Admire Bernini's fountain. It was designed by the Renaissance master Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
- Visit the museum located on the lower floor of the residence with all the information about the popes of the last 5 centuries.
- On the top floor you will find the exclusive accommodation of the Popes and you will be able to walk through it to feel how the pontiffs live their holiday retreats.
- Walk through the beautiful Barberini gardens and stop to breathe in the pure air that emanates from nature, free from smog and noise.
- Have lunch with local produce from the Pope's farm.
The Papal Residence has specific and changing opening hours from day to day, with closures at 14:00, 17:30 or 18:30. Opening is generally at 8:30, although on some dates it opens at 10:00.
Kayak on the waters of Lake Albano
The small town of Castel Gandolfo is located on the shores of a beautiful lake with calm waters, ideal for water activities.
You can go kayaking while discovering the history of the place, the remains of an ancient prehistoric civilisation and the old Roman port of Villa of Domitian.
This excursion is ideal to contemplate the beauty of nature on the crystal clear waters of Lake Albano, but in the summer and spring months you can swim in the waters that have served as a respite for many Popes in antiquity.
Don't forget to bring your best swimming costume!
Cycle through the fields to Castel Gandolfo
Cyclingalong the Appian Way, one of the most attractive streets of ancient Rome on an electric or normal bicycle, while learning about the history of Roman ruins and mausoleums is a rewarding and interesting experience that combines physical activity and culture.
This route is 12.8 km long and takes about an hour to complete. I suggest you check the best route on Google Maps at the time of the walk, as for example the initial section, from Via Appia Antica to Via del Casale della Sergetta, may have some sections closed on certain days or times.
You will reach the village of Castel Gandolfo where you can stroll through the streets of the old town, enter the small shops and taste the local gastronomy accompanied by an exceptional red wine.
If you are passionate about this means of transport, I recommend you to read this article about the best bike tours in Rome.
Visit the Church of San Tommaso da Villanova
The famous building is located in the main square of Castel Gandolfo, just outside the Papal Palace. This charming church was designed by Bernini and built between 1658 and 1661.
You can see intricate stucco work, and delight in the paintings by Pietro da Cortonainside. Admission is free, and tourists usually stay for a few minutes to an hour.
Without a doubt, Italy breathes history wherever you go, and Castel Gandolfo won't leave you wanting for interesting facts, culture and ancient buildings!
Lunch overlooking Lake Albano
The Romans came to Castel Gandolfo, escaping the routine of Rome, in search of some fresh air and lake views.
Along the lakeshore line you can find restaurants serving authentic Italian pastas with amazing panoramic views.
Dare to eat good food
Italy is a perfect destination for food lovers, and Castel Gandolfo will not disappoint in this regard. Here you can savour traditional Roman dishes in pleasant restaurants overlooking the lake.
Ristorante Pagnanelli is undoubtedly the town's best-known restaurant, a place loved by the locals and with stunning views.
The restaurant has been run by the Pagnanelli family since 1882 and offers delicious fresh fish dishes, classic meat and vegetable dishes, all accompanied by an incredible selection of wines.
After enjoying a delicious lunch and recharge your batteries, you can choose to go on one of the hiking trails in the town.
Explore the city centre
Castel Gandolfo is small but beautiful, and you should not miss the opportunity to stroll through the streets of the town centre.
From small squares to sweeping views over the lake, this is a great place to get away from the chaos of Rome, but also to get to know the essence of the local people, their customs and culture.
Among the main attractions is Piazza della Libertà, where you'll find a variety of small cafés and souvenir shops, as well as restaurants where you can dine al fresco overlooking the lake.
Piazza della Libertà is also home to the beautiful Bernini Fountain and the world's first post box, or so the locals say.
Enjoy an exquisite wine tasting session
The Castelli Romani area, where Castel Gandolfo is located, is famous for its famous wines and while you are there you should definitely take the opportunity to do a little wine tasting.
There are numerous wineries and shops offering the service, such as Casale Marchese, with a family history dating back to the 14th century.
It is also possible to book an excursion to take a tour of the vineyards in the area and learn about the harvesting of the vines, the length of the vineyard and all the secrets of Italian winemaking.
If you have little time in the village you can go directly to "Art e Vino", a small and charming wine bar where you can also taste some local dishes.
Walk along the entire length of Lake Albano
The village of Castel Gandolfo is set amidst zigzagging hills, and to reach Lake Albano it is necessary to walk up a steep path from the top of the village where the main square is located on the shores of the lake.
The path along the lake is lined with restaurants and bars on one side and beach clubs on the other.
The whole walk will take you no more than 2 hours, but you can stop along the way for a coffee, a refreshing ice-cream or a souvenir.
In the warmer months, on the black volcanic sand you can find sun loungers and umbrellas to enjoy a sunny day and dive into the invigorating waters of the lake - the Italian dolce vita!
If you're a restless spirit and love adventure you can hire boats, pedal boats and kayaks to travel the length and breadth of the lake. There are also bicycles to explore the woods and surroundings in complete freedom and fun.
Enjoy an amazing self-guided walk through the Barberini Gardens and the summer villas of Castel Gandolfo.
If you enjoyed visiting the Vatican and taking in its history and impressive works of art, you'll want to enhance your experience with this tour that will take you to the origins of the first Roman settlements and you'll be able to see the vineyards, orchards and olive groves that every pontiff will enjoy during the hot summer afternoons.
Visit and discover Ariccia and Nemi two Roman castles very close to Castel Gandolfo.
Situated in the ancient region of Lazio Vetus, this area bordering Rome is full of beautiful little villages bordered by green hills and majestic lakes where you can walk, take great pictures and soak up the history of the area.
Castel Gandolfo is the centre of attention as the summer residence of the popes but don't miss the villages of Ariccia and Nemi whose castles date back to the time of feudal Rome in the 14th century.
As if the postcard-perfect nature of the lakes and mountains and the rich Roman history weren't enough reason to visit the area, you'll also be able to taste exquisite wines.
A little history of Castel Gandolfo and the surrounding area
The small and charming village of Castel Gandolfo is part of the so-called Castelli Romana region and was built on the ruins of Alba Longa. It lies at an altitude of 436 metres above sea level.
The village takes its name from the Gandolfo family, who owned most of the local land in the 12th century and built the castle with the best view of the lake.
As early as 510 BC, the area saw the construction of many residences, including the magnificent Villa di Domiziano, which was used between 81 and 96.
It was in July 1596 that Castel Gandolfo and Rocca Priora became the property of the Vatican, after Pope Clemens VIII took it from the Savelli family, who refused to pay their debts.
What is the region of Castelli Romana?
The ancient district where Castel Gandolfo is located is called Castelli Romani, which means in its original language "Castles of Rome". This area is characterised by a group of villages situated on the Albanian hills.
The whole territory of Castelli Romana is very close to the south-east of the Eternal City and is a beautiful route to admire the natural beauty, tinged with the history of the ancient holiday villas of the popes, the Roman emperors and the wealthiest families of the time.
What will you see in the Castelli Romana area?
Here is a summary of the best activities in the area:
- Breathtaking views of the volcanic lakes and hills.
- Archaeological sites with great history.
- Excellent food and wine of the Italian countryside.
Whether you go on a guided tour from Rome or decide to make your own way to Castel Gandolfo, you will cross part of the Castelli Romana region and have a perfect opportunity to stop for a few minutes to complete the passage, and take the best pictures of the nature of the place.
How to get to Castel Gandolfo from Rome
There are several options to reach the town from the eternal city.
You can go by train, which is the most popular alternative, by rented or shared car, or by guided tour.
Getting to Castel Gandolfo from Rome by train
A one-way train ticket from Roma Termini station to Castel Gandolfo is relatively inexpensive and the journey takes about 40 minutes.
You can check the train timetable for the day on the Trenitalia website. The train will drop you off at the station, from where you will have to cross to the main street and then walk up the path uphill to reach the village.
How to get to Castel Gandolfo from Rome by car
If you have a rental car, you can reach Castel Gandolfo by following the A90/E80 or Appia Nuova/SS7 motorway.
The journey should take about 40 minutes, depending on traffic and weather. Once there you can park your car near the Apostolic Palace and stroll around the old town or go straight to the shores of Lake Albano.
How to get to Castel Gandolfo from Rome by organized tour
If you are in Rome and staying in your hotel and want to take a day trip to Castel Gandolfo, you can book a tour online with a travel agent to suit your tastes.
I recommend this tour, which is very complete and dynamic. Besides, as you will have local guides, you will be able to ask them for recommendations on where to eat or what to do in the city in your free time.
As the distance to be covered is short, you can spend the whole day getting to know the town, the papal residence and Lake Albano and then return to your hotel in Rome in the afternoon.
Weather in Castel Gandolfo
The climate in Italy is generally warm and temperate with cooler temperatures in January and February (the average is between 5 and 15 degrees Celsius).
Winter in southern Italy is not as harsh as in the north but it's always advisable to pack a good coat and a sweatshirt that you can take off and put in your rucksack when you warm up.
Summers are hot, especially during July and August -the forecast can be up to 37 degrees Celsius!
If you're touring Castel Gandolfo in the height of summer, there's nothing better than heading down to the lakeshore in your swimming costume to soak up the sun and cool off in the calm waters.
As the waters are lake waters, you can swim and dive as many times as you like without the risk of the waves washing you away from the shore.
Spring and autumn are usually the perfect time for walking in the fresh air, sports and walking around the town from the hilltop Piazza Libertà to Lake Albano.
With all that said I imagine you are eager to discover the charms and scenery of this lesser known but equally beautiful part of the Roman countryside!