Tuscia, the ancient name for the province of Viterbo in north Rome, is a charming region distinguished by rolling green hills, wonderful food, and a string of beautiful towns. These little-known places to visit near Rome make for great day trips from Rome or longer stays, as part of an exploration of the Lazio region.
Tuscia Viterbo: best places to visit near Rome
Tuscia, including the towns of Viterbo, Civita di Bagnoregio, Tuscania, Montefiascone, Bolsena, Bomarzo, Soriano al Cimino and Celleno, encompasses some of the best places to visit near Rome. So if you’re planning to visit Tuscia, Viterbo province – read on!
Tuscia, Viterbo province or Etruria?
Tuscia is the historic name for the northernmost part of Lazio which was settled by the Etruscan people. Today it finds its equivalence in the modern province of Viterbo, the north Lazio province that borders with the Tuscany region. The ancient region of Tuscia is also known as Etruria. In ancient times, Tuscia also covered the entire region of Tuscany, to which it gives its name. However this guide covers Tuscia Viterbese, in the Lazio region.
Tuscia Viterbo: An Etruscan past
The Etruscans, an ancient indigenous race predating the Romans, were vitally important for the history and development of Tuscia and Viterbo. This civilisation flourished in central Italy between the 8th and the 3rd century BC, and were a culture of builders and international traders who had an enormous impact on the rise of the Roman Empire.
Initally a cave dwelling population, they scooped out homes in the porous volcanic rock formations that lie across this territory, a material known as tufa. Later they would go on to construct considerable homes, temples and city walls in stone, wood and other media, eventually graduating to more sophisticated materials like travertine and marble.
They also excavated important stone tombs, hewn directly from the tufa rock, that reflected their beliefs in life after death and the importance of burial rituals. Rich Etruscans filled these with ceramic bowls and statuettes, which have contributed enormously to modern studies of the Etruscans.
The Etruscans had an uneasy coexistence alongside the Romans in the lands of Tuscia, although Etruscan colonies and villages were initally tolerated by the first Roman Emperors. Later, Roman powers sought to annex their towns and defeated most of their forces in long-running skirmishes.
Ultimately, Etruscan culture was assimilated into Roman life, enabling the Romans to become one of the Mediterranean superpowers alongside the Greeks and the Carthaginians, thanks also to the first Etruscan trading routes.
But the Etruscan people will never be forgotten in this part of the world. Many of the cities that they built in and on top of the tufa rocks in Tuscia still stand to this day, adding enormous character to this part of north Lazio, which is more correctly called Tuscia. Of course, the Etruscans eventually gave their name to the Tuscia region. The words Etruscan and Tuscia are also the root for the modern word Tuscany or Toscana.
Tuscia, Viterbo province: best places to visit near Rome
The ancient region and culture of Tuscia is still tantalisingly tangible today in its survivng towns, which have lots to offer the curious traveller. Including Viterbo, Civita di Bagnoregio, Tarquinia, Calcata, Tuscania, Montefiascone, Bolsena, Bomarzo, Celleno, Soriano nel Cimino and Canino, these wonderful places to visit near Rome all have a remarkably different personality and charm.
While the history of these places often strikes the curious traveller, an extra reason to visit today is the continuation of Tuscia’s incredible food culture. Wine and olive oil are probably its most famed ingredients, with Tuscia home to a high-quality olive oil making tradition that dates back to ancient times.
Today this green-gold treasure can be sampled all over the Viterbo and Tuscia countryside, with most producers happy for travellers to pop in (with a peremptory call ahead) and taste the local oil, with a view to buying a precious souvenir. Other famed local producers include iconic craft beer house, Free Lions Beer, as well as honey specialists and farm shop Gusto di Tuscia. If you want to try or buy some local cheese, we can highly recommend Caseificio ‘Maremma in Tuscia’.
Tuscia’s principal city, Viterbo, best known as the ‘City of the Popes’, was nominated in 1257 as the papal residence on the orders of Pope Alexander IV. Housing the first conclave in history inside the Palazzo dei Papi, this auspicious event brought pomp and wealth to the town, much of which is still evident today in its stately buildings. Noble palaces, fountains and monuments still stand today, with the city’s emblem, the lion, in proud evidence across Viterbo’s medieval heart.
While its must-see treasures include the central Piazza del Plebiscito, the Palazzo dei Priori and the Palazzo Municipale, its also worth exploring the medieval district of San Pellegrino, and tracing the remains of the Via Francigena in Viterbo, its ancient pilgrim route which still attracts walkers today. The Palazzo dei Papi (pictured below) stands in one of its most iconic squares.
While Viterbo has plenty to charm the curious traveller year round, its most intense religious spectacle and festival takes place on September 3, on the eve of the day dedicated to its patron saint, Rosa da Viterbo. Marked by a parade carrying the ‘Macchina di Santa Rosa’, this extraordinary and elaborate statue is covered in candles and borne on the shoulders of local fellows. Travellers can visit Santa Rosa’s sanctuary, which still preserves her 800 year-old body, as well as her birthplace.
Where to eat in Viterbo: We dined at Trattoria L’Archetto, a picture perfect restaurant in a medieval corner, specialising in local, traditional food, such as this wonderful pasta with mutton ragu. Dinner was accompanied by excellent wines from local producer, Terre di Marfisa. Highly recommended.
CIVITA DI BAGNOREGIO
Civita di Bagnoregio, Viterbo, another Etruscan-era settlement which grew on top of an imposing rock, has been re-christened ‘the dying city’ in recent times, due to the serious erosion of its foundations. The immense slab of tufa on which it was proudly built, as well as the vertiginous road that reaches the ancient town, have been worn down by time and weather, leaving Civita di Bagnoregio in a delicate state. Also famous for being the birthplace of San Bonaventura, philosopher and writer, minister of the Franciscan Order, Civita di Bagnoregio in Viterbo has become one of Tuscia’s most famous destinations in recent times because of its unknown future.
Appropriately, private cars can no longer be driven right into the heart of the town, with visitors invited to catch a shuttle or walk to reach Bagnoregio’s slender bridge crossing. An entry ticket has also been imposed, costing €5 and available online, or just as easily, at the ticket office at the beginning of its bridge.
Civita di Bagnoregio attracts more than 700,000 people from all over the world every year and is perhaps Tuscia’s most famous destination. If you want to beat the crowds and just see it from afar, we recommend the view across the Valle dei Calanchi, from a vantage point in the town of Lubriano, accessible by car.
Tuscania is one of Tuscia’s best kept secrets. This extraordinarily beautiful medieval and Etruscan town was struck by an earthquake a few years ago, which drove away some of its permanent residents for good. It’s a great shame as this is personally my favourite Tuscia town, combining pretty streets with striking architecture and great food.
Tuscania is only 20 km from the coast, so its ancient remains includes the ruins of Roman thermal baths, as well as Etruscan tombs, whose relics are housed in the National Museum of S. Maria del Riposo.
No visit to Tuscania is complete without stepping inside its wonderful medieval church of San Paolo. This is so beautifully preserved that it has been used time and time again to film historical dramas. Its peaceful outlook across the valley also makes it a must-see.
Where to eat in Tuscania: Views of the church of San Paolo are even more striking from the other side of the valley, at a magnificent viewpoint at the edge of parkland known as Parco Torre di Lavello. Here, in a wonderful old square, unmissable ivy-clad restaurant Terziere di Poggio is a great spot to try out some local dishes – including plenty of robust offal and game specialities.
If you want to explore the food culture of Tuscia even further, I can highly recommend a detour on your way back to the hamlet of Canino. By calling ahead, you can book an olive oil tasting at prizewinning local frantoio, I&P, and learn something about how olive oil is made today. Forget romantic ideas about granite millstones and a gentle pace of work. Producing great olive oil involves a race in time against oxidation – so it’s skilfully pressed in stainless steel and rushed into bottles to retain its near-medicinal grade antioxidant qualities.
Bolsena was an important Etruscan town and later a Roman stronghold. It gives its name to the area’s imposing- and deep – volcanic lake, lago di Bolsena, which provides a dramatic backdrop to proceedings. The dominating structure here is Bolsena’s medieval castle – worth a visit when in town.
Bolsena’s sleepy charms demand a slow stroll through its pretty streets, passing from dramatic lake vistas to ivy-covered piazzas. Don’t miss exemplary local craftswoman, Mara Santoni, who excels in ceramics, leather and glaze works in her shop-come-workshop, Terre di Rasenna.
Here we booked ahead to try out a pottery workshop and throw some clay in this charming ivy-clad piazza. Her pottery is an extraordinary labour of love and makes for excellent Bolsena souvenirs.
Celleno is a short drive from Bolsena, and one of the most striking destinations in all of Tuscia. Nicknamed the ‘borgo fantasma’ or ghost-village, the town has a crumbling, abandoned quarter up on a hill which reeks of spooky atmosphere. Earthquakes, grisly murders and ruined families have left this part of town largely abandoned.
Today, visit the spooky side of Celleno for its informal social history museum spaces, or even to try a mosaic workshop with the Decor 2 Emme crew, as we did.
Where to eat in Celleno: Before leaving Celleno, walk back down the road from the ‘ghost-village’ to have lunch at San Rocco Celleno. This extraordinary trattoria enjoys breathtaking views over the valley from its unique terrace, and the food is a fantastic introduction to the area. Starting with local cheeses and salamis, plus fresh bruschette, don’t miss hearty pasta dishes from the local tradition.
Montefiascone, one of the most elegant towns in all of Tuscia, overlooks Lake Bolsena, characterised by natural spurs of rock and misty views. Up on the hillside, the charming church of San Flaviano enjoys clear views across the valley.
The curious traveller has three main sights to tick off in Montefiascone. The first, is the beautiful local cathedral, the Basilica of Santa Margherita. Its pretty baptistery cellar is an important part of the visit, thanks to its delicate statues and frescos.
Secondly, don’t miss the monumental rock of Montefiascone, celebrating the local wine of Est! Est!! Est!!! According to legend, the unusual name of the wine dates back to a 12th-century tale of a German bishop traveling to the Vatican for a meeting with the pope. The bishop sent a prelate ahead of him to survey the villages along the route for the best wines.
The ‘wine scout’ had instructions to write ‘Est’ (Latin for ‘There is’) on the door or on the wall of the inns he visited when he was particularly impressed with the quality of the wine, so the bishop following close behind would have known in advance where to make a stop. At an inn in Montefiascone, the prelate was reportedly so overwhelmed with the local wine that he wrote Est! Est!! Est!!! on the door.
Although apocryphal, the wine label known as Est! Est!! Est!!! is still produced today, and makes for a popular local table wine.
Another great thing to do in Montefiascone is visit the antique print house – Tipografia Silvio Pellico – one of the oldest working typographers in the world!
Where to eat in Montefiascone: It’s worth heading out of town after your visit to Montefiascone, to dine in a medieval-era country pile. Just a ten minute drive from Lake Bolsena, Antico Borgo La Commenda is a wonderful restaurant, hotel and working farm full of charm, which offers a swimming pool and outdoor dining in the summer months. Famed for raising a cross between the celebrated Cinta Senese pig and wild boar – dubbed PorcoCignale – this wonderful ingredient features heavily in the traditional but gourmet menu. I particularly enjoyed this white ragu made from PorcoCignale.
It was followed with a stunning pork fillet and fried pork with nduja, a clue to our host’s Calabrian origins.
Dinner closed with a luscious poached pear stuffed with lemon and senape, with ricotta and chocolate crunch.
Where to stay in Montefiascone: As an alternative to staying at Antico Borgo La Commenda, Il Molino is a wonderful working olive oil estate with two handsome farmhouses, sleeping eight in one house and fourteen in another. With swimming pools and tennis courts, it’s a wonderful countryside escape, just a few minutes drive from the centre of Montefiascone. The estate in fact makes a great base for exploring the entire Tuscia Viterbo region.
Bomarzo, a pretty village in Tuscia, would be worth a visit for a quick coffee or glass of wine in its pleasant high street, raised along a mountain path. But these days, Bomarzo is one of Tuscia’s most famous destinations thanks to the Bomarzo Parco dei Mostri, or medieval monster park.
Hulking under the village of Bomarzo, to tremendous effect, the Bomarzo monster park was created in a valley sprinkled with boulders of volcanic rock. Its creator, Pier Francesco Orsini (1545-1585) indulged his taste for the monstrous and the esoteric by carving some 20 gigantic statues in the rocks, ranging from huge pagan gods and fake ruins to elephants, a turtle, a unicorn, and famous toothed giant (watch out for the queue of Instagrammers).
Designed according to the Mannerist culture and tastes of the late Renaissance, the Parco dei Mostri Viterbo imitates both an enchanted forest and a fairytale wood, overseen by a stately temple, which Pier Francesco built in honour of his wife.
Today, the Bomarzo Parco dei Mostri is a popular destination (best avoided at weekends), offering picnic tables for you to eat your own lunch, as well as a simple cafe on site to serve guests. Tickets cost €11 for adults and teens, and €8 for children aged 4-13.
SORIANO NEL CIMINO
Lofty Soriano nel Cimino enjoys some of the best views across the rolling Tuscia countryside, benefiting from its position next to the highest peak in Tuscia, Monte Cimino, an ancient volcano.
Rich in medieval tradition, the first half of October sees Soriano play host to a food festival celebrating the local chestnut harvest (and an all round excuse to dine on the treasures of autumn).
We stopped for lunch at the lofty Il Carolino Tratto, with its fabulous central position in town and views over the valley (these roast porcini mushrooms were fabulous!)
My trip to Tuscia was supported by Italian Stories – a wonderful collective which promotes Italian artisan excellence all over the country by organising guided tours, press events and workshop experiences. Peruse their site for more details!
Thanks also go to local tourism office, Tuscia Welcome, for guiding me through the region and inspiring my next Tuscia trip!
How to get to Tuscia: The gateway to Tuscia is the town of Viterbo, easily reachable from Rome by a train which takes 1′ 50″. Other destinations in Tuscia mostly require private transport solutions.
Testaccina was a guest of Tuscia Welcome & Italian Stories