Best things to do around Rome

written by

updated 06.06.2024

Rome, with its timeless treasures and captivating history, is a city that beckons travellers from across the globe. But venture beyond the city's ancient walls, and you'll discover a wealth of enchanting destinations and experiences in its surrounding regions. From ancient ruins to picturesque countryside escapes, here's a guide to what to do around Rome.

Head out to Northern Lazio

Northern Lazio is quite a different entity from the region south of the capital. Green and wooded in the centre, with few large towns, its steadily more undulating hills are similar to the landscapes of Tuscany and Umbria further north.

With determination, you can see much of it on day trips from Rome, made easier if you have a car. Foremost among the area’s attractions is the legacy of the Etruscans.

To the west, some of their most important sites, Cerveteri and Tarquinia, are readily accessible by road or rail.

Alternatively, there’s the town and lake at Bracciano, and pleasant beaches from Tarquinia to Civitavecchia. Viterbo can serve as a base if you’re thinking of a two- or three-day visit, particularly if you’re touring without a car.

It’s close to some fine examples of the region’s Mannerist villas and gardens at Caprarola and Bagnaia and the amazing monster park at Bomarzo.

Etruria and the coast

D.H. Lawrence had pretty much the last word on the plain, low hills stretching north from Rome towards the Tuscan border, describing the landscape as “lifeless looking … as if it had given up its last gasp and was now forever inert.”

His Etruscan Places, published in 1932, is one of the best introductions to this pre-Roman civilization and its cities, which, one or two beaches excepted, are the main reasons for venturing out here. This is easily one of the best things to do around Rome.

Cerveteri

Cerveteri provides the most accessible Etruscan taster from Rome. The settlement here dates back to the tenth century BC. Once known as Caere, it ranked among the top three cities in the twelve-strong Etruscan federation, its wealth derived largely from the mineral-rich Tolfa hills to the northeast – a gentle range that gives the plain a much-needed touch of scenic colour.

In its heyday, the town spread over 150 hectares (something like thirty times its present size), controlling territory 50km up the coast. By the third century BC, Caere was under Roman control, leading to the decline of Etruscan culture in the region. The present town is a thirteenth-century creation, dismissed by D.H. Lawrence – and you really can't blame him – as "forlorn beyond words".

Rough Guides tip: Explore our detailed guide on how to get around Rome to feel more confident during your Rome holidays.

Medieval fortifications of Cerveteri, Italy © Shutterstock

Medieval fortifications of Cerveteri, Italy © Shutterstock

Tarquinia

The necropolis at Tarquinia is second only to Cerveteri among northern Lazio’s Etruscan sites. Founded in the tenth century BC, the city’s population peaked at around one hundred thousand but the Roman juggernaut triggered its decline six hundred years later and only a warren of graves remains. The town itself is pleasant, its partial walls and crop of medieval towers making it a good place to pass an afternoon after seeing the ruins. Its museum is also the region’s finest outside Rome.

Lago di Bracciano

The Lago di Bracciano fills an enormous volcanic crater, a smooth, roughly circular expanse of water that’s popular – but not too popular – with Romans keen to escape the city’s summer heat; its shores are fairly peaceful even on summer Sundays. The best place to swim is from the beach at Lungolago Argenti, a ten-minute walk along Via del Lago from Bracciano Town. You can rent a boat and picnic on the beach – or eat in one of the nearby restaurants.

Sunset Panoramic view of the old town of Bracciano © Shutterstock

Sunset Panoramic view of the old town of Bracciano © Shutterstock

Lago di Vico

The smallest of northern Lazio’s lakes is the only one deemed worthy of nature-reserve status. Lago di Vico is a former volcanic crater ringed by mountains, the highest of which, Monte Fogliano, rises to 963m on the western shore. The Via Cimina traverses the summit ridges and is a popular scenic drive, dotted with restaurants, but there’s a quieter road (closed to cars) near the shoreline, and lovely spots to swim from, with small beaches.

Viterbo

The capital of its province, and indeed of northern Lazio as a whole, Viterbo is easily the region’s most historic centre, a medieval town which, during the thirteenth century, was once something of a rival to Rome. It was, for a time, the residence of popes, a succession of whom relocated here after friction in the capital.

Today there are some vestiges of its vanquished prestige – a handful of grand palaces and medieval churches, enclosed by an intact set of walls. The town is a well-kept place and refreshingly untouched by much tourist traffic. Buses and trains run frequently to Rome and you can comfortably see the town in a day, but it makes the best base for seeing the rest of northern Lazio.

Lago di Bolsena

North along the Via Cassia from Viterbo, Lago Di Bolsena is a popular destination, though rarely overcrowded; its western shore is more picturesque and better for camping rough. On the northern shore of the lake, Bolsena is the main focus, a relaxed and likeable place that’s worth a brief stop.

The town itself is set back from the water, around the main square, Piazza Matteotti, off which run medieval nooks and alleyways to the deconsecrated thirteenth-century church of San Francesco, which occasionally hosts concerts and exhibitions. The adjacent sixteenth-century portal is the entrance to the medieval borgo, with the well-preserved thirteenth-century Rocca Monaldeschi perched over its western end. Inside the castle is the local museum, with modest displays on underwater archaeology and Villanovan and Etruscan finds, plus stunning views from the ramparts.

East of Piazza Matteotti, the twelfth-century basilica of Santa Cristina conceals a good Romanesque interior behind a wide Renaissance facade added in 1494.

Scenic lake Bolsena (lago di Bolsena) © Shutterstock

Scenic Lake Bolsena (Lago di Bolsena) © Shutterstock

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Explore Southern Lazio

The saying goes that the Italian South begins with the first petrol station below Rome, and certainly, there’s a radically different feel here. Green wooded hills give way to flat marshy land and harsh unyielding mountains that possess a poor, almost desperate, look in places.

The resorts here, especially Terracina and Sperlonga, are fine places to take it easy after the rigours of the capital. Ponza, a couple of hours offshore, is truly one of Italy’s undiscovered treasures. Inland, the day-trip towns of the Castelli Romani, the peaceful retreat of Subiaco, and Cassino with its nearby abbey of Montecassino, are all rewarding points to head for.

Terracina

A further 15km down the coast from San Felice, Terracina is an immediately likeable little town, divided between a tumbledown old quarter high on the hill and a lively newer area by the sea. During classical times, it was an important staging post on the Appian Way, which meets the ocean here.

Nowadays it’s primarily a seaside resort with good beaches and frequent connections with the other points of interest, including daily ferries and hydrofoils to Ponza. Apart from the scrubby oval of sand fringing the centre, Terracina’s beaches stretch west pretty much indefinitely from the main harbour and are large enough to be uncrowded.

Terracina, Italy © Shutterstock

Terracina, Italy © Shutterstock

The southern Lazio coast

The Lazio coast to the south of Rome is a more attractive proposition than the northern stretches. Its towns have a bit more charm, the water is cleaner, and in the further reaches, beyond the flats of the Pontine Marshes and Monte Circeo, the shoreline begins to pucker into cliffs and coves that hint gently at the glories of Campania – all good either for day-trips and overnight outings from the city or for a pleasingly wayward route to Naples.

The Pontine islands

Scattered across the sea between Rome and Naples, the Pontine islands are relatively unknown to foreign travellers. Volcanic in origin, only two are inhabited – the small island of Ventotene and its larger neighbour Ponza. The latter bustles with Italian tourists, especially Romans, between mid-June and the end of August, but at any other time, it’s yours for the asking.

The group’s main island, Ponza, is only 8km long and 2km across at its widest point. Ponza Town is a sight to behold: a jumble of pastel-coloured, flat-roofed houses heaped above a pink semicircle of promenade that curls around the harbour. It makes a marvellous place to rest up for a few days, having so far escaped the clutches of designer boutiques and souvenir shops.

Although the island lacks specific sights, Ponza is great for aimless wandering; in the early evening, locals parade along the yellow-painted Municipio arcade of shops and cafés. For lazing and swimming, there’s a small, clean cove in the town.

Aerial view of Ponza, island of the Italian Pontine Islands archipelago in the Tyrrhenian Sea, Italy © Shutterstock

Aerial view of Ponza Island © Shutterstock

Sperlonga and around

The coast south of Terracina is probably Lazio’s prettiest stretch, the cliff punctured by tiny beaches signposted enticingly from the road. Sperlonga, built high on a rocky promontory, is a fashionable spot for Roman and Neapolitan families, its whitewashed houses, arched alleys and stepped narrow streets are almost Moorish in feel.

Both the old upper town and modern lower district are almost given over entirely to tourists during summer, but it’s still a pleasant spot, with cars not allowed into the old centre. There are beaches on either side of Sperlonga’s headland, and although a lot of space is private, it’s never too difficult to find a decent spot.

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written by

updated 06.06.2024

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