About the Vatican
22 May 2019
Home to the pope’s summer residence in the hills surrounding the shimmering waters of Lake Albano, Castel Gandolfo promises those who visit the perfect day trip from Rome. Its lush, landscaped gardens, richly furnished papal palace, and 25 hectares of farmland ripe with fresh produce provide all the divine inspiration imaginable away from the hustle and bustle of the capital. What’s more, since in March 2014, Pope Francis opened the Apostolic Palace to the public, all of it is waiting for you to come and explore.
We at Walks Inside Rome have written this guide to take you through everything you need to know about what to do and see in Castel Gandolfo. After looking at how to get to Castel Gandolfo from Rome, we’ll explore the lush Barberini Gardens, encountering ancient remains appearing artfully across their grounds, and embark on a virtual adventure through the papal palace and neighbouring town, touring its treasures and finding out how you can discover them for yourself.
Table of contents
The Holy Father flies from the Vatican City to Castel Gandolfo in a military grade helicopter, reducing his travel time down to a handy 15 minutes. Lacking the papal purse’s purchasing power, however, our most realistic means of travelling the 16 miles from Rome to Castel Gandolfo are by train, bus, or car.
Trenitalia runs a daily, hourly service from Roma Termini to Castel Gandolfo. The train usually leaves at 21-minutes past the hour, though a complete service schedule is available on the Trenitalia website. The journey costs €2.10 one-way and without changes takes just 45 minutes.
You can purchase tickets either online or at one of the many ticket machines at Termini Station. Just make sure to buy a return. There are no ticket machines at Castel Gandolfo, only places to validate your tickets, and not buying one beforehand will mean paying a surcharge onboard.
From Castel Gandolfo station, it’s just a 15-minute walk up to Piazza della Liberta, the town’s main square. Be aware that the square is situated on a hill, so the walk can be quite steep. But you can get a bus from the station if you want to save some time (and energy!).
Cotral runs a daily service from the terminus at Roma Anagnina to Castel Gandolfo. To get to Roma Anagnina, take the red Metro Line A. It’s the southernmost stop at the end of the line. A single metro fare costs €1.50, but if you have the Roma Pass you travel free. The journey takes about 45 minutes and costs the same as the train.
Bear in mind that Rome’s rural bus services are not particularly accommodating towards non-Italian speakers. There will most likely be someone who can point you in the right direction, but don’t expect it to be the driver. So unless you’re staying near Anagnina, for the sake of simplicity you’re better off taking the train.
Driving is the most independent way of traveling from Rome to Castel Gandolfo. But finding parking is fiendishly difficult around the papal palace (not to mention in Rome’s center) and you pay by the hour. As driving in Rome is a notoriously edge-of-your-seat experience, especially if you’re not familiar with the city, we’d suggest leaving it to us.
Our Full Day Castel Gandolfo experience lays on all your transport, picking you up from just outside Saint Peter’s Square at the Domus Artis Mosaici and dropping you off after your cooking class and homemade lunch on the papal estate at the Piazza della Repubblica around 6:00 pm.
Alternatively, our Full Day Sistine Chapel and Castel Gandolfo experience gives you a fuller immersion into the Vatican. Starting slightly earlier, it allows you to be alone in the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s masterpiece before making your way to the papal estate for a full day of exploration and culinary indulgence.
The Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo cover an extensive 55 hectares (11 more than the entire Vatican City). The Barberini Gardens stretch across 30 hectares while the Papal Farm takes up the other 25. Let’s start by exploring the Barberini Gardens.
Boasting breathtaking views of the Mediterranean stretching seemingly forever into the distance, the masterfully maintained Papal Gardens are a beauty to behold. Fountains spring up around every corner, a rich array of plants are in bloom all year around, and pine tree avenues offer shade as you process down its main paths.
Encounter another soul among its parterres and terraces and you might overhear them remark on just how peaceful it is. Whatever time of year you visit, whether at high season or in the dead of winter, you’ll be hard pushed to disagree.
Named after the small statue of the Madonna standing in the shade of its antique portico, the Giardino della Madonnina is Castel Gandolfo’s most tranquil garden. It was designed in 1933 at the behest of Pope Pius XI who wanted an outdoor sanctuary and place of reflection.
Enjoyed by every pope since, especially Benedict Benedict XVI who found great relaxation feeding the fish that dwell in its lillypond, the Giardino della Madonnina definitely deserves a visit: offering distinctive space for peaceful contemplation.
For most visitors, the Belvedere Gardens rank high among the highlights of Castel Gandolfo. Belvedere means ‘beautiful view’, and most panoramic points are home to one, including Rome’s Colosseum and Florence’s Fortezza Belvedere (where a certain Kanye West and Kim Kardashian once tied the knot). But the celebrities here are the Belvedere Gardens themselves, as they offer something both historically and horticulturally special.
Running along the right-hand side is the ancient cryptoporticus of the emperor Domitian. Dozens of plants and vines creep up it, slightly masking its almost 2,000-year-old antiquity. But from within you can easily appreciate the architectural feat of its design.
Domitian built this 300-metre long covered walkway to shade him from the elements whenever he wanted to go for walks. So durable was its design that even 1,900 years later, during the Second World War, it was able to shelter dozens of families who had fled to Castel Gandolfo escaping persecution from the Nazis.
Not many people know this, but Castel Gandolfo is home to its very own Colosseum (albeit a slightly smaller one). Judging by the scale of this 2,000-year-old amphitheater, it was used only for small, private events. Nevertheless, you can imagine the kinds of scenes that took place here. Especially if Domitian was as bloodthirsty as the ancient sources say.
If you’re looking for some sensory indulgence while exploring the Barberini Gardens, you can’t do much better than the Viale delle Erbe Aromatiche. This pathway, as the name suggests, is lined with climbing roses and aromatic herbs while flanking its walkway is a stunning citrus garden: pregnant with lemon and orange trees, painting a picture of paradise.
Castel Gandolfo’s farm produces everything you’d expect from the Holy Father’s personal estate. Every day, a basket of fresh produce is shipped from here to the Vatican bursting with handmade cheeses, yogurts, eggs and milk, not to mention cauliflower and broccoli which are said to be among Pope Francis’ favourite.
Roaming the 25 hectares of this family-run farm are cows, sheep, donkeys, and chickens, providing the fresh pecorino, mozzarella, milk, and ricotta that are lovingly incorporated into the papal estate’s recipes. Dispersed across this beautifully maintained organic farms are several orchards and vineyards are more than 1,000 olive-trees, over half of which date back to the year 1200.
Occupying 135 acres of Vatican-owned territory, the17th-century Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo is truly a sight to behold. Richly ornate in its furnishings and decor, the palace contains a trove of curiosities, including a papal throne, liturgical antiques and vestments and - of course - the world-famous popemobile. Since Pope Francis opened the palace as a museum in 2014, the palace has been open for visitors to explore.
Among the areas of the Apostolic Palace open to the public are seven rooms containing works of art and portraits of the popes. The most famous pontiffs to populate their walls are Leo X (the Medici pope) Julius II (the so-called warrior pope), and Paul III, the Farnese pope who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgement.
Taking a tour of the papal palace brings you intimately close to the popes’ private lives. Get an insight into the modesty of the pope’s daily life by visiting his somewhat spartan bedroom, where several Jewish women gave birth during the Nazi Occupation of World War II. Discover that even the Holy Father can’t escape work correspondence while on holiday, as housed within the Apostolic Palace is the pope’s office, last used by Pope Benedict XVI.
The first sight that greets you as you arrive in Castel Gandolfo is the sapphire blue waters of Lake Albano stretching out into the distance. So why not start here when exploring this stunning town.
For €10 per hour, you can rent a small paddle boat and take to the waters for yourself. We’d suggest you think twice before taking a dip - these volcanic waters are surprisingly chilly and the depth makes it potentially dangerous for swimmers. In fact, Lake Albano is the deepest lake in the region of Lazio, reaching 170m (560 ft).
The Apostolic Palace runs its own pumping system which draws water directly from the lake for the irrigation of the farm and plumbing of the estate. What’s more, an ancient aqueduct still feeds the estate with drinking water, drawing from the nearby spring of ‘Il Palazzolo’.
The main attraction on this quintessential Italian square is the 17th-century facade of the Apostolic Palace. Yet like all central Italian squares, Piazza della Libertà exudes a unique, relaxing atmosphere making it the perfect place to grab a coffee or gelato and watch the world go by.
In terms of unique curiosities, and while this particular attraction might not be right up everyone’s street, this square is home to the world’s first postbox. Rather more popular, though, as always in Italian towns, is the central church: the Church of San Tommaso.
Designed by Bernini during the papacy of Alexander VII. Bernini is best known for the artworks he left in Rome, such as the Fountain of the Four Rivers at Piazza Navona, the Baldacchino inside Saint Peter’s Basilica, and the Church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale.
The shores of Lake Albano are home to two well-preserved ancient Roman nymphaea (man-made caves that served religious purposes). The first is the Doric Nymphaeum, mentioned by Cicero and perhaps built on the site of ancient Alba Longa. The second is the better-preserved Bergantino Nymphaeum, a structure once completely covered in floor mosaics (some fragments survive today) apart from the pool in its center.
A number of celebrations are held in Castel Gandolfo. One such is the feast of the patron saint, St. Sebastian, on the first week of September. The Roman village is as lively as ever, filled with people, food, and fun activities. The feast ends with bright fireworks over the cerulean lake. Another similar celebration is the Festival of Peaches. It’s held on the last Sunday of July, filling the streets with entertainment and sports.
Blessed with hillside views overlooking Lazio’s Lake Albano, and emanating a relaxed, slow-paced vibe you’d never find in Rome’s frenetic city center, Castel Gandolfo offers a wonderful place wind down and indulge yourself, whether on culture, horticulture, or the area’s delectable cuisine.
Castel Gandolfo serves up dishes typical of the region, with no shortage of mouthwatering pastas like rigatoni alla carbonara, bucatini all’amatriciana, and, of course, tonnarelli ricotta cacio e pepe. Yet being perched above Lake Albano furnishes the town with its fair share of frutti di mare, fresh, juicy and cooked to perfection.
One of the best things in Castel Gandolfo is enrolled on a cooking class at the papal farm. These classes help you perfect the art of Italian cooking, drawing on recipes refined over generations and unique to the estate. And because the beauty of Italian cooking depends on the freshness of the ingredients, all the organic produce is freshly sourced from the papal estate itself.
Cappellacci del prete are one example. Meaning ‘priest hats’ in Italian (you’ll see why from their shape!), this packed pasta consists of hand-rolled ravioli stuffed with several kinds of local meats and cooked in butter and freshly sourced sage.
Of course no Italian meal would be complete without indulgent dolci, so another classics cooked up here are cannoli. Similar to the Sicilian sweet treat of the same name, these heavenly rolls of joy ooze with ricotta taken straight from the farm.
Art, wine, and so much more are the staples on offer at Art e Vino. This quirky locale might have the vibe of a licensed antiques market, but the food it serves up makes it well worth a visit.
Generous platters of antipasti consisting mainly of cuts of cured meats, local cheeses and garnishes followed by hearty Roman staples like fettuccine with truffle sauce and spaghetti ragu bianco are sure to satisfy everyone. Their wine (‘maledetto,’ which in Italian means cursed) leaves a surprisingly pleasant taste in the mouth.
A couple of minutes outside the town, La Gardenia combines a carefully crafted menu with unparalleled views over Lake Albano Locals consider Ristorante La Gardenia something of an institution for fine dining in the area.
Their seafood starters will leave you speechless with their creativity, though the one to go for is the Antipasti Mare e Monti - sea and mountain - combining the best of the region’s surf and turf. Go wherever the mood takes you for the mains (though we’d seriously suggest you focus on the fish).
Castel Gandolfo and its papal estate offer a close, culturally enriching getaway from the hustle and bustle of Rome’s busy streets. From the pope’s personal farm and blooming Barberini Gardens to extraordinary museum now open within the papal apartments, Castel Gandolfo offers something for every visitor.
When you’re finished exploring the pope’s summer residence, there’s always the picturesque Lake Albano and town of Castel Gandolfo to wander at your leisure. With the exception of Tivoli and Villa d’Este, few places around Rome are as rewarding when it comes to spending a relaxing day exploring all their nooks and crannies.
Walks Inside Rome runs unique and exclusive excursions to Castel Gandolfo, including the option of visiting the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica in the morning, before the Vatican officially opens. We’re always around whenever you want to talk, and are happy to tailor your tour of Castel Gandolfo, the Vatican (or both!) just for you. Until next time from Walks Inside Rome, it’s ciao for now!