Despite Italy’s popularity as a tourist destination, much of the country remains overlooked as people swarm to cities like Rome, Venice and Florence. The Tuscia region is one prime example: this fertile area is full of cultural gems, longstanding traditions and a rich culinary heritage just waiting to be discovered by travelers and Italians alike. Situated in northern Lazio, Tuscia borders Tuscany and Umbria and combines influences from each region while remaining distinctly its own.
La Tuscia was the stronghold of the ancient Etruscans, a powerful and wealthy ancient civilization that ruled much of northern and central Italy was eventually absorbed into the Roman Empire. The Etruscans had a profound influence on the ancient Romans and taught them their alphabet, their engineering skills and architectural style. The painted tombs of Tarquinia provide one of the greatest insights into this remarkable civilization though Etruscan heritage can be seen and felt throughout Tuscia to this day.
From the thermal baths of Viterbo and the hilltop town of the Civita di Bagnoregio to the Bomarzo Monster Park and Mannerist gardens of Villa Lante, there’s a lot to love about Tuscia. Read on to discover the best experiences you can’t miss!
1. Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola
The 16th century Palazzo Farnese is an incredible architectural and artistic feat. Built in the Renaissance and Mannerist style, this pentagonal villa is located in the town of Caprarola (and not to be confused with Palazzo Farnese in Rome). It was originally intended to serve as a fortress to protect the Farnese noble family and was later adapted into a grand residence that expressed the family’s wealth and power. The palace is notable for its double helical staircase, elaborate frescoes and lush gardens, inspired by those of Villa d’Este in Tivoli.
2. The Bomarzo Monster Park
The Sacro Bosco di Bomarzo, or the Park of Monsters, attracts a lot of attention for its whimsical and ghoulish statues. Pier Francesco Orsini commissioned Pirro Ligorio to develop this surrealistic garden as a way to cope with the grief of his wife’s death: the garden is intended to surprise and agitate, rather than delight visitors. It features over a dozen grotesque mythological sculptures, animals and allusions to historical figures, including siren, bears, elephants and even a tilted house. The most famous statue is the mouth of Orcus, god of the underworld, with the words “Ogni Pensiero Vola” (Every Thought Flies) etched in stone.
3. Viterbo: The City of the Popes
The medieval city of Viterbo is the focal point of the Tuscia region and has a long and interesting history. Originally an Etruscan city, it was once the seat of the Popes (1257 to 1281) and even played host to the longest papal election in the history of the Catholic Church. Following the death of Pope Clement IV, the election stretched on from November 1268 to September 1, 1271 due to political infighting.
The cardinals were famously locked into the Palazzo dei Papi “con chiave” (with key), until they came to an agreement; this is the reason we refer to papal elections as papal conclaves. Viterbo itself has some interesting architecture and be sure to stroll through quartiere San Pellegrino, the most charming neighborhood of the city.
4. Civita di Bagnoregio
The Civita di Bagnoregio is one of those places that is so picture-perfect, it’s hard to believe it’s real. Perched upon a hill within the Tiber River valley in northern Lazio, the town seems to exist in another realm, out of time and place in today’s modern era and yet another beautiful example of how history persists in every corner of Italy. It was originally settled by the Etruscans 2,500 years ago and then largely abandoned in the 16th century due to corrosion, lending it the name La città che muore, “The Dying Town”. Only a handful of residents live here year-round but tourism has helped bring the town back to life and Civita di Bagnoregio has come to be exceedingly popular in recent years.
5. Painted Tombs of Tarquinia
The painted tombs of Tarquinia are not only interesting for archeologists and history buffs – these ancient necropolises are absolutely exquisite in their beauty and detail and humbling to realize they were painted thousands of years ago. The tombs date back to the 7th century BC and and contained vivid frescoes depicting winged deities, exotic animals, banquets and ancient sports.
The area became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004 and the tombs are noteworthy for representing “the first chapter in the history of great Italian painting”. The Etruscans had an enormous influence on the ancient Romans and these tombs and artifacts provide one of the few ways to appreciate the wealth, power and eminence of one of the world’s great ancient peoples.
6. Thermal Baths
Viterbo has been a renowned thermal area for thousands of years and was popular among the Etruscans, Romans and even the Popes for its healing properties. The surrounding countryside is dotted with bubbling hot springs, including Bullicame, which Dante mentioned in The Inferno, Piscine Carletti and Il Bagnaccio, each located within short driving distance from the city. With temperatures that reach 58°C, these wild pools are the perfect to warm up, relax and gaze up at the stars on brisk autumn and winter evenings. There are also a number of hotels in Viterbo that have spas, pools and specialty treatments for guests: check out the Hotel Salus Terme or the Terme dei Papi for a restorative weekend away.
7. Lazio’s Local Artisans
The Tuscia region, like others in Italy, boasts a rich history of local craftsmanship. With the new Tuscia Experience itinerary, you can now step inside artisan studios and workshops to meet the makers and learn about their skills firsthand. The experience leads you on a fascinating journey through the crafts of the region, including a lesson in bookbinding at the Antica Legatoria Viali (which dates back to 1891!), an art deco glass making at Bell Ornato to jewelry design at Gioielli Titanio and a wax modeling tutorial at Bottega d’Arte Mortet.
There’s also a longstanding ceramic history in the area so don’t miss learning about Viterbo’s Zaffera ceramic style at the Artistica Laboratorio di Ceramica Studio d’Arte and Greco-Etruscan works of art at Mastro Cencio. This type of experiential tourism is so rewarding because it introduces you to the people of the land – their identity, their pride and their passions – and reveals the talent and artistry behind every tradition.
See the participating artisans in the Tuscia Experience brochure.
8. Villa Lante in Bagnaia
Villa Lante is considered one of the best examples of an Italian Garden (“Giardino all’Italiana”) thanks to its geometry, beauty and careful landscaping. The property was designed by De Vignola in the 16th century, who was inspired by other famous gardens of the time, including the Vatican Gardens, Villa d’Este and Villa Adriana at Tivoli. It has fantastical water elements, including numerous fountains, grottos and even a waterfall staircase, demonstrating man’s supreme artistry and ability to triumph over, and control, nature. There are also two houses on the property with frescoes and trompe-l’œil paintings to admire, though the gardens are undoubtedly the main draw of this villa.
9. Local Cuisine
Tuscia has a rich and varied culinary tradition and I was surprised to learn the region is famous for hazelnuts (it even supplies them for Nutella and Ferrero Rocher!). In addition to introducing you to the arts of the area, Tuscia Experience also introduces you to its food artisans. You’ll have the opportunity to visit to learn about and taste the following local specialties: lentils, chickpeas and other pulses at Azienda Agricola Biologica Marco Camilli, a traditional pasta called Fieno Maccaroni (perfect for serving with a local ragù) at Pastificio Artigianale Fanelli, prosciutto, salamis and sausages at Salumificio Coccia, marmalades and herb blends at Sapori di Ieri and craft beers made with ancient herbs at Birrificio Itineris. In Viterbo, dine at Il Richiastro or Taverna Etrusca.
10. Volcanic Lakes
Tuscia has two volcanic lakes in its territory, the Lago di Bolsena and Lago di Vico, meaning you can go snorkeling, sailing and windsurfing, as well as hiking, biking and horseback riding while you’re in the area. Lago di Bolsena is a fairly large lake with a number of charming lakeside towns on its shores, including Montefiascone (well-known for its Est! Est! Est! white wine), the colorful fishing town of Marta, the picturesque borgo of Capodimonte and the town of Bolsena itself. Nearby, Lago di Vico is a protect nature reserve so it’s ideal for swimming and kayaking.