Viterbo is the perfect destination to enjoy relaxation, nature and clean air! Discover what to see and do in Viterbo near Rome, in a day or more!
Viterbo is located in the northern part of Lazio, in an area called Tuscia. It has got very ancient origins, so much so that its name is believed to derive from Vetus Urbs, or Old Town.
This is really a wonderful place! It hides within it a medieval centre, considered the largest in Europe, with marvellous buildings that are still well preserved and an almost perfectly intact city wall. If you want to breathe in the medieval air, you can’t miss a visit to the San Pellegrino quarter, which is the best testimony to the city’s past!
When asking yourself what to see in Viterbo and its surroundings, you should definitely list the medieval quarters, picturesque villages, churches, towers and historical residences, but not forgetting the sea, lakes, thermal baths, parks, as well as Etruscan and Roman archaeological sites… It is a place full of wonderful activities and discoveries!
As many know, Viterbo is known to be the city of the Popes: from 1257 to 1281 it was chosen, due to its strategic position, as the papal seat. In fact, the Papal Palace saw several popes elected during this period and the city achieved great fame. Besides being a papal city, Viterbo is also very famous for its thermal baths and the University of Tuscia.
Speaking of Viterbo’s origins, these are very ancient. To understand them, it is necessary to go back many years, to the Etruscan civilisation that founded the city. It is indeed from here that the name Tuscia derives. It means “territory inhabited by the Tusci”, which would be, precisely, the Etruscans! In the Ferento archaeological area, the remains of this civilisation are preserved, such as the Theatre, the Amphitheatre, the Baths and the Forum.
In short… Tuscia is a marvellous place where you can find relaxation, history and nature always in contact with each other, without forgetting the thermal baths and the excellent food and wine offer!
You should also know that Viterbo and the Tuscia area have been the sets of famous TV series and films, such as Orson Welles’ Othello and Alberto Sordi’s film “Il Vigile”.
So, let’s stop talking and start this tour! I will start by outlining what to see in Viterbo in a day or more, and then I will introduce you to the best places to visit around the city, should you be interested in a longer holiday.
What to see in Viterbo in a day
Let us therefore start with a roundup of places of interest that you cannot miss when visiting Viterbo, should you stay just one day.
The San Pellegrino district
If you should find yourself visiting Viterbo in one day, I would definitely recommend starting here. In fact, the San Pellegrino district, for its medieval air I mentioned earlier, but also for much more, is a magical place that is definitely worth a visit! It has got two typical elements in particular: the “profferli”, i.e. external staircases that connected the courtyard (on the ground floor) to the houses on the first floor, and the “bridge” houses, which joined two buildings above the street, at first or second floor level.
The Palace of the Popes
This is one of the most important sites in the city, built in 1266 by Raniero Gatti in the Romanesque style. Many elections took place in the palace, including one that is still remembered today. After the death of Clement IV, the cardinals met to elect a new pope from December 1268 to September 1271… They could not reach an agreement! In order to speed up the election, the Capitano del Popolo had the cardinals locked up in a room in the palace, decreasing food supplies and even went so far as to uncover the roof to increase the inconvenience! Eventually, out of desperation, it came to the election of Pope Tebaldo Visconti.
Cathedral of San Lorenzo
It is the city’s cathedral and has a great story to tell! It was built in the 12th century in Romanesque forms. In 1811, Pope Alexander III recognised it as the main Church of Viterbo and Tuscia and, only a few years later, obtained the official concession of the bishop’s chair. Later, with the presence of the popes, it gained more and more prominence as it became the site of important religious and political events.
Colle del Duomo Museum
The museum is located in Piazza San Lorenzo and was founded in 2000, on the occasion of the Jubilee. Thanks to this complex, you can relive the entire history of the city, from its origins to the present day, passing through the Middle Ages, the period of its greatest splendour.
The Palazzo degli Alessandri
It is located in the heart of the city, in Piazza San Pellegrino, and can be considered the most photographed palace in Viterbo! This medieval-style jewel has three floors and dates back to the 13th century. What immediately strikes the observer is the impressive architectural style, with a characteristic “profferlo” (the one I mentioned earlier) set into the perimeter wall, with a fascinating façade and unique windows.
According to an old folk tale, the building, known as Casa Poscia, was once the residence of Viterbo’s most beautiful maiden, the Bella Galiana. The building is in fact often remembered as “2the house of the Bella Galiana”. It is a real jewel, with one of the best preserved proffers in the city. With two storeys, it is stylistically and structurally similar to the houses in the medieval quarter of San Pellegrino.
Piazza del Gesù
This has always been the civic hub of Viterbo, where the entire population gathered to discuss city matters. It is a beautiful square with a wonderful fountain in its centre.
The Pianoscarano Quarter
This is one of the oldest quarters in the city of Viterbo. Its name seems to derive from the Lombard term “squara”, which translates as “schiera”, i.e. a place where troops were encamped. The district has always been inhabited mainly by peasants and small artisans, so the houses have no artistic merit of note. However, due to its dense population even in the Middle Ages, it has two churches: the church of San Carlo and the church of Sant’Andrea.
Taken together, the fountains of Viterbo constitute an architectural complex without equal! The city is characterised by large squares with striking fountains, which adorn the landscape. The fountain of Santo Stefano, in Piazza delle Erbe, is certainly the most important one. It dates back to 1621 and was named the symbol of the city with its lion of Viterbo. Even if you visit Viterbo in one day, you will appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of every fountain in the city.
The Civic Museum
It was founded in 1955 and today houses artefacts from Ferento and other archaeological sites in the Viterbo area, as well as a picture gallery with works from the 12th to the 19th century.
The Church of Santa Rosa
The church was rebuilt in 1850 on the site of a pre-existing temple belonging to the Clarisse nuns, on the initiative of the city’s bishop at the time. It is an important centre of spirituality for Viterbo, honouring the saint as its patron saint. Every year, on 3 September, the city celebrates Santa Rosa with the traditional transportation of the “Macchina of Santa Rosa”, which we will discuss later. I advise you not to miss this stage in your visit to Viterbo!
If you are looking for an adventurous and breathtaking activity, this is definitely for you. Underground Viterbo is a network of tunnels, which lead all the way beyond the city walls and guard the ancient history of the city.
Palazzo dei Priori
It is the seat of the municipality and is located in Piazza del Plebiscito. Opened in the 13th century, it has since become the true social and institutional centre of the city.
Palazzo del Podestà
A few steps from Palazzo Priori, we find Palazzo Podestà, an ancient building constructed in 1264. The two palaces are connected by a corridor, which is now a picture gallery. Palazzo Podestà was originally the palace of the Capitano del Popolo and over time has undergone several modifications and interventions. Today it is the seat of various municipal offices.
The Awakening of Seward Johnson and Faul Valley
Today in the Valle di Faul in Viterbo, the green lung of the historic centre, a sculpture of titanic dimensions is preserved. “The Awakening”, created by Seward Johnson, represents the awakening of man and his consciousness. This wonderful sculpture travelled a long way before finding its place in the world. It was moved several times to different green areas of Maryland to Washington and there it found its home.
But then if the statue is in the United States, what to see in Viterbo? A copy. In 2009, the author created a copy of the statue, which was also moved to different parts of Italy, until in 2011 it was placed in the Faul Valley, where it still stands today. Such a sculpture cannot be seen everywhere, so it is definitely on the list of what to see in Viterbo!
What to see near Viterbo Italy?
Now that I have explained what to see in Viterbo in case you are in town for a day or so, I can tell you about the surroundings. I assure you they are just as beautiful and exciting to visit, characterised by several enchanting villages.
Villa Lante and Bagnaia
Bagnaia is a hamlet of Viterbo, located on the stretch of the Via Francigena that passes between the Cimini mountains. It is known for the wonderful mannerist garden of Villa Lante, dating back to 1566. In 2011 it was voted “Italy’s most beautiful park”, while in 2014 a commemorative coin with a face value of 5 euro was dedicated to it.
Calcata stands on a spur jutting out into the void. It is a small jewel with a medieval appearance, considered one of the most enchanting landscapes in the Lazio region, with impenetrable vegetation and vivid, seasonal colours. Definitely a destination to consider when visiting Viterbo and its surroundings!
Civita di Bagnoregio
Called the “dying city”, it is one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. It is situated on the top of a tuff hill and can only be reached via a narrow footbridge from where you can enjoy a spectacular view! The village is perfect for a romantic outing or to see a place that is absolutely different from any other.
Bomarzo and the park of monsters
Bomarzo is another marvellous medieval town! It preserves many ancient buildings such as Palazzo Orsini, which dominates the town centre. The town is best known for its Park of Monsters, a unique place. Referring back to Dante’s descent into the underworld, it depicts a path of purification of the soul through various figures, which correspond to the trials the soul must undergo to purify itself… And you, when visiting Viterbo, would you like to try your hand at this purification path?
This town stands on seven tufa rock promontories 180 metres above sea level, with a breathtaking panorama. It offers a myriad of places to visit! First of all, of course, the entire medieval town, still perfectly preserved. Tuscania is also famous for its two basilicas of San Pietro and Santa Maria Maggiore, masterpieces of Romanesque architecture.
Caprarola is located on the southern slope of the Cimini Mountains, perched on a tuffaceous spur. It is known for the Palazzo Farnese, one of the most important palaces of Renaissance-Mannerist architecture. It was built in the 16th century to a design by Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, on the foundations of an earlier fortification. In fact, the initial idea was to create a new fortification, but the plan was changed and a wonderful villa was built.
In the province of Viterbo, this is the municipality with the highest altitude, exceeding 600 metres above sea level. It offers visitors exceptional views over Lake Bolsena and the Viterbo plain. On particularly clear days, the view can reach as far as the central Apennines and the Tyrrhenian Sea.
The Montefiascone area is rich in materials of lava origin, thanks to the volcanic Lake Bolsena. Such as tuff, which has favoured the grape growing. Montefiascone is in fact renowned beyond the local borders for its high-quality production of DOC wines. For wine enthusiasts, it is a place not to be missed if you visit Viterbo and its surroundings!
Lake Bolsena and Lake Vico
Lake Bolsena, formed 300 000 years ago, is the largest volcanic lake in Europe. It has two islands within it, the island Bisentina and the island Martana. Three wonderful villages overlook the lake: Marta, a picturesque town on the southern shore, Bolsena, remembered for the Eucharistic miracle of Bolsena, according to which in 1263 during a mass the host allegedly bled, and finally we find Capodimonte, which preserves the Rocca Farnese, with important Etruscan remains and Renaissance residences.
This is an ancient town that was initially settled by the Etruscans, then over time became a rich Roman municipium. Later, after several wars and destructions, it was organised as a medieval municipality, with a city wall and watchtower. It has a lot of history to tell… I highly recommend a visit, if you are in Viterbo and its surroundings.
The Tuscia is rich in Etruscan necropolises that tell the story of this wonderful civilisation! We are so lucky to find an immense archaeological area here, entirely dedicated to these necropolises, with burial grounds, tombs, tunnels and museums, capable of taking us back a long way in time! Among the most important Necropoles, there is the Necropolis of Tarquinia, which together with the Necropolis of Cerveteri has been a UNESCO heritage site since 2004. The rock Necropolis of Castel d’Asso and Norchia are also famous and worth a visit.
Soriano nel Cimino
It is located on the slopes of Mount Cimino, 509 metres above sea level in a splendid panoramic position overlooking the surrounding countryside, but you can also see the Tiber Valley and the mountains of the distant Sabina. The town shows itself to the visitor dominated by the imposing Orsini Castle, which defines its boundaries and makes it recognisable from every vantage point.
Gradoli is located on the north-western hills of Lake Bolsena. It is the land of production of DOC Aleatico di Gradoli wine, Aleatico di Gradoli liquoroso and Aleatico di Gradoli liquoroso riserva. In addition to exceptional wine tastings, there is a famous Palazzo Farnese here, definitely worth a visit!
The medieval village of Vallerano is located south of Monte Cimino at 390 metres above sea level. Thanks to its position, there has been for centuries a climate very suitable for the cultivation of chestnuts, which have made Vallerano famous beyond the regional borders. Here we also find many Etruscan testimonies!
This is one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. It is perched along a tuffaceous spur, has towers and crenellated walls, all accompanied by a fantastic wooded landscape.
Vignanello with the Ruspoli Castle
The characteristic village of Vignanello is nestled in an area of woodlands, streams, cultivated fields, cottages and hamlets. The town’s most representative monument is the mighty Ruspoli Castle, built in the 16th century. When visiting the castle, you will also have access to the beautiful gardens behind it, created in 1611 by Ottavia Orsini.
Acquapendente and Torre Alfina
Acquapendente is located in the northern part of Tuscia and is not only a wonderful place, but also a spiritual place of great devotion. In fact, in the Romanesque crypt of the cathedral there is the Sacellum of the Holy Sepulchre, which has preserved the relics of the stones stained with the blood of Christ. This place is also characterised by large forests and charming villages, such as Torre Alfina. In this medieval village, which is among the most beautiful villages in Italy, we find the castle of the same name.
What to do in Viterbo?
In and around Viterbo there are many things to see, but there is no shortage of activities either!
You can relax at the thermal baths, visit the picturesque villages I have mentioned, historic villas, gardens or archaeological sites. On the other hand, if you are looking for an even more special activity, you can dedicate yourself to ceramics, with special pottery courses to learn the noble art of working with this precious material!
a. Thermal baths
As we all know, Viterbo is the city of thermal baths. In particular, the most famous are the Terme dei Papi (Baths of the Popes), so called because the popes of the time found benefit from thermal treatments. The name was created in 1540 when Nicholas V had a splendid palace built on the site, so that he could stay there when needed for such therapies.
Prices vary depending on the treatment, they can range from 5 euro for aerosol or inhalations, up to 40 euro for massages or similar treatments, but you can also choose to do a full day package with treatments of your choice.
On the other hand, if you are looking for natural spas with free access, you can find the Bullicame thermal area, with hot spring water. It is one of the four most famous free spas in Viterbo, together with Masse di San Sisto, Piscine Carletti and Bagnaccio.
Incidentally, the Bullicame bath is famous because it was mentioned by Dante Alighieri in the Divine Comedy!
b. Sports & nature
What to do in Viterbo if you love to be in contact with nature? You can choose from many outdoor sports such as trekking or various activities such as surfing or windsurfing by the sea or lake, tours through the vineyards or along the Via Francigena, even by bicycle or Vespa! In short, you can choose how to spend a beautiful day in the sun, devoting yourself to history and culture or to sport and nature, with aperitifs or picnics in the countryside!
c. Food and wine
In the Tuscia Viterbese area, food and wine reign supreme, certainly influenced by its geographical position, north of Rome and on the border with Tuscany and Umbria.
Here we find many typical foods such as hazelnuts, truffles, Canino olive oil, Canepinese hay and lombrichelli. Or cured meats such as the Susianella viterbese, lentils from Onano, leprino rabbit of Viterbo, chestnuts and acquacotta. And, as I have already mentioned, the wines are also excellent and some very famous, such as the EST!EST!!EST!!! from Montefiascone or the Aleatico from Gradoli.
In short, it is certainly important to know what to see in Viterbo, but knowing what to eat and drink is not to be underestimated either!
Events in Viterbo
Noteworthy events in Viterbo are:
- The transport of the Macchina di Santa Rosa, the patron saint of the city, which on the evening of 3 September is illuminated, raised and transported by a hundred men, called “Facchini di Santa Rosa”, along the streets of the city. In 2013, it was included in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
- San Pellegrino in Fiore (San Pellegrino in Bloom) is an event that takes place in springtime. It involves many local floriculturists who create a colourful exhibition of plants and flowers in the heart of the city.
- The Caffeina Christmas Village, on the other hand, consists of many fairytale settings related to the magic of Christmas (usually held from 23 November to 6 January).
How to get to and visit Viterbo
To get to Viterbo there are many alternatives, either by car, by plane landing at Fiumicino airport in Rome, by train (there are direct connections from many cities such as Florence or Rome) or by several buses that leave from the nearby cities.
While visiting Viterbo, you can comfortably move around on foot, as the city is not very big, or, if you prefer, there are also several bus lines.
At this point my guide ends here. I hope I have shown you the best of what to see and do in Viterbo, and I wish you also have time to visit the surroundings, which are truly beautiful!
So, have a good trip in the Tuscia and I recommend… also enjoy the local food and wine! 😋