Italy is a wealth of history and culture, the most authentic of which often lie outside of the big tourist cities. Here is a list of cities that are under a two-hour drive (and train ride, if available) from Rome that you shouldn’t pass up.
1. Civita Di Bagnoregio
Translated to English, ‘The Dying City” is a small city with massive character – the city was founded by Etruscans more than 2,500 years ago and it is slowly eroding away, thus, ‘dying.’ The approach is worth the visit alone. Ample paid parking leads you to a lovely little coffee shop and a cliff overlook that beholds the city itself, a thinly populated, ancient ruin that seems to float above the canyon below, and a footbridge as the sole path leading into the city.
Inside depends on the season you visit. There are always restaurants to welcome you, and incredible vistas around the city, but the population dips to around ten in the winter, whereas about 100 people live there in the summer. You can typically catch a film being made on the weekends as it’s a popular spot for artists.
The Dying City still has an enormous amount of life left, ironically. Be sure to catch this gem before it’s history.
2. Rocca Calascio
Rocca Calascio is a mountaintop fortress accompanied by Santa Maria della Pieta, a church built in 1596. The fortress was built somewhere around 1140 above the town of Calascio, built around 816, currently half-abandoned due to a terrible earthquake in 2016. There is a restaurant or two still open, and the city below has many places to stop for a coffee, so it isn’t too remote of a location.
When you visit, don’t be fooled by the signs pointing to a steep climb to the fortress – you can keep driving up the thin road until you find a parking lot in the shape of a half-circle on a cliff. That will save you a huge incline and twenty minutes on your hike. After you park, walk towards the city (there’s one entrance) and look for signs that point to the fortress – the residents were especially helpful when they thought I was lost!
You’ll see the side of the fortress first, but arrive at the church first. Beyond the church are rolling hills and one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen. Look behind you for the ruin.
It’s a small hike, and the biggest incline is inside the city and through the rocks on the way to Rocca Calascio. Mostly flat, but certainly bring shoes that are comfortable to scale rocks if you want to see the fortress up close.
Medium effort for maximum views – if you find yourself with an extra afternoon or evening, I couldn’t recommend this visit more.
Orvieto is absolutely epic. It’s a mountain-top city built dramatically behind cliffside walls, built entirely of stone. It is beyond ancient – originally founded around the Etruscan era, nearly impossible to access, let alone attack. It was finally annexed by Julius Caesar and has served many strategic purposes since.
The cathedral. Is. Insane. I can barely begin to describe it to you. You’ve heard of it’s size, and you’ve probably seen photos, but it ever does the massive structure justice: it is a feat of humanity, and a joy to rediscover upon every revisiting. The Orvieto Cathedral has a typical striped exterior, white travertine and green-black basalt, which, to an American seeing a church for the first time, may remind you of Christmas. It’s anything but. If you are lucky enough to first see it after turning an alley corner, beware of losing your breath. The Gothic façade of the Orvieto Cathedral is one of the great masterpieces of the Late Middle Ages, decorated with saints, golden biblical depictions, and an enormous stained glass rose window.
Orvieto is worth visiting for the cathedral alone, but the city is also home to beautiful alleys, fantastic gelato, ancient water wells, and an overlook of the valley below.
Sermoneta is a large hilltop town south of Rome, with the imposing Castello Caetani rising above the city. It’s like travelling back in time: Sermoneta is one of the best preserved medieval towns that Lazio has to offer. It’s easy to get pleasantly lost. Picturesque streets lead to welcoming alleys packed with character, blooming flowers from Spring into Summer, and a slight buzz of the locals bustling through their day in this beautiful city.
There are numerous locations to visit, including the castle, multiple churches and cathedrals, and a lovely garden overlook, which is also perfect for families as it has a playground, the perfect place to spend the afternoon or watch the sunset from.
Castello Caetani looks over the famous Garden of Ninfa, and features an Italian-language tour if you’re so inclined. It’s history is full of drama, and worth leafing through the English pamphlet. It’s a blast from the past: preserved furniture, ironwork, and many transitional architecture interests, perfect for your history buff!
The cathedrals are another wonder. The Abbazia di Valvisciolo welcomes you with unspoiled cloisters, an absolute joy in the Spring, with vast amounts of flowers twisting around the architecture. Alternatively, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta is a charming beauty compared to the often overwhelming cathedrals of Rome. It’s an unassuming church ignoring the large, slightly leaning tower, seen from almost anywhere in the city.
Spoleto surprised me. It’s an ancient city with a multitude of Roman ruins, but the city itself seems completely modern with busting restaurants, busy streets, and lovely art galleries. It has been occupied since 241 BC and since recognized as an important strategic location due to the mountains surrounding the city, inside of a broad valley. For a time, Spoleto was the capital of Napoleon’s French department of Trasimène.
The city features a myriad of Roman ruins, most prominently the Roman Theater, the “Bloody Bridge,” and the Cathedral of San. Maria Assunta, which you can see from most overlooks of the city. The cathedral is a huge landmark for modern Italians as it is where a manuscript letter from Saint Francis of Assisi rests.
Home of the seemingly largest church in all of country-side Italy, Tuscania is old. Very old. Evidence of humanity dates the city back to the Neolithic age, but founding of the city we see remains of today dates back to 7th century BC.
The primary destination is the Church of San Pietro, an 8th century monument with a large rose window on the façade and many intricate reliefs and iconography of saints and parts of the Old Testament. The towers alone are absolutely enormous on the approach to the city – you can see them well before you realize there’s a city behind them.
The Etruscan necropolises are also worth a visit – they were only (comparatively) recently excavated with the help of London, and much of the artifacts remain in the accompanying museum in the city.
Aside from the artifacts, the city itself is a peaceful walk away from tourists, with friendly bartenders and families playing in Parco Torre di Lavello, which also has an overlook to the church and ruins. The drive is also quite nice and will take you through various countryside cities not to be missed, like Bracciano, mentioned above.
Tivoli is an interesting city, seemingly small depending on which entrance you arrive at: it hides a wealth of wonderful landmarks, including villas, many traditional restaurants, castles, temples, churches, art installations, overlooks… it’s really a bit overwhelming, but it has something for everyone at all hours of the day, any season.
Tivoli overlooks the Aniene River in the Monti Tiburtini hillside, a popular destination for Rome’s wealthy class, who built retreats in the city, including the infamous Villa d’Esta. The Villa was built in the 1550’s over a Benedictine convent, a palace with the intention of entertaining the elite class. The garden is the main attraction: a descent into paradise in the spring season. The garden is called “Garden of 1,000 Fountains;” the water features are a sight to behold, gigantic sculptures, cascades into quiet pools, a sculpted walkway that disappears from sight.
Near Villa d’Este is a city full of shopping and local eats. If you continue walking into the city, you’ll always wind up somewhere accommodating and beautiful. You can find the Temple of Vesta on a hillside overlooking an enormous waterfall, both of which are lit up at night. Ponte Gregoriano is a bridge with history: it was built after a massive flood in the 1800’s and destroyed by the Germans in 1944, rebuilt afterwards. It provides a wonderful view of the gorge and Temple.
Close to Tivoli is Hadrian’s Villa, which you need to take transportation to – it is not inside the city contrary to most travel companies.
Bracciano is an epic lakeside city with one of the most obvious castles in all of Italy, towering over the bustling city that nearly surrounds it. Bracciano Lake is a volcanic lake, the eighth largest lake in Italy, and surrounded by other cities, waterfalls, and an incredible micro-Tuscany – that is, rolling Roman farm hills packed with farm-to-table restaurants and lovely landscape opportunities.
Bracciano’s origins are uncertain, but it is suspected that one of the towers of Castello Odescalchi existed before the castle was built to accompany the lonely tower.
Santo Stefano Protomartire is a large cathedral near the castle, worth a look after grabbing a cappuccino in one of the many bars along the main street.
The appeal of Bracciano is that it isn’t spoiled by tourists – it’s an authentic Italian town with plenty of Italian shops, a lovely population, and spending your time driving through the surrounding area can’t be beaten. It’s a dream if you’re looking for authentic Italy without the tourists.