A pretty hill-town perched high above Lake Albano (Lago di Albano), Castel Gandolfo is just a few miles south of Rome, and is the summer residence of the Pope
Castel Gandolfo is one of the Castelli Romani, historic towns dotted around the wooded Alban Hills and dominated by grand villas. The summer residence of the Pope, Castel Gandolfo is little more than a pretty village clustered around the Papal Palace and the extensive gardens enjoyed by popes for centuries. It was a particular favourite of John Paul II, and one of the first acts of his successor, Benedict XVI was to thank the people of Castel Gandolfo and assure them that he, too, would be spending his summers in their "beautiful little town" above Lake Albano.
Much of Castel Gandolfo is discreetly dedicated to the various Pontifical villas and religious foundations. The Papal Palace - with astronomical observatory attached - dominates Piazza della Libertà, but other locations, like the sprawling papal gardens, are tucked away out of sight.
The papal tradition of spending summer here dates back to Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644). However, it wasn't the first time that an important Roman had summered on this spot; the pontifical gardens of the seventeenth-century Villa Barberini cover the site of a villa belonging to the Roman Emperor Domitian. The Pope's gardens are truly spectacular, but sadly not open to the general public. With splendid views reaching over the plain to the sea, they contain extensive formal areas, farmland and a large chamber dating back to the time of Domitian.
On the attractive main square, Piazza della Libertà, the church of San Tommaso di Villanova, designed by Bernini, sits opposite the palace gateway. As well as a couple of cafes, there are also a few shops selling local produce and tourist fripperies in the piazza, perhaps with an eye to the faithful who arrive on summer Sundays to see the Pope.
Castel Gandolfo is a sleepy little place, but although there's not a great deal for tourists to see, it's a pleasant spot to spend a few relaxing hours. There are some good places to eat, including the panoramic terraces of the Ristorante Bucci (pictured). The area is renowned for its local produce, and several establishments offer you the chance to taste and buy wine, meat and other local specialities. The town is picturesque, offering good photo-opportunities and a chance to appreciate Italian small-town atmosphere. It's hard to believe you are just a few miles from Rome as you admire the peaceful lake views or wander the tiny lanes.
There is a tourist information kiosk (limited opening) close to the piazza (under an arch and down a slope) on Via Massimo d'Azeglio. Some decent public toilets are located below the piazza, overlooking Lake Albano. To reach Castel Gandolfo station, descend the zig-zag footpath helpfully called Via della Stazione.