Tuscia is an under-the-radar slice of Italy and a sanctuary from the relentless pace of Rome, filled to the brim with medieval villages, ancient necropoli, and forests that could double as movie sets (and not the kind where you stumble upon a Starbucks). Let’s just say, if you’re looking to swap the wailing sirens for some whispers from the past, this is your spot.

Tuscia, you see, isn’t just a pretty name plucked from a fancy Italian travel brochure. It’s steeped in history, originally known as ‘Etruria’—a nod to the Etruscans who were hanging around long before the Romans came in with their sandals and togas and made everything, well, Roman.

Nowadays, the area is essentially what’s left of the province of Viterbo, and though it might have shrunk a bit since its ancient heyday, it hasn’t lost an ounce of charm. While the throngs of tourists bottleneck at the usual hotspots, the hidden gems of Tuscia remain blissfully overlooked. That’s right, fewer selfie sticks and more actual sticks, from, you know, trees.

In Tuscia, the best experiences come from simply wandering into towns that look like they’ve been plucked straight out of a medieval fairytale. Think cobblestone streets that challenge any high-heeled shoe, stone houses that scoff at modern architecture, and local trattorias where the wine flows cheaper than water and you can forget about your diet.

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Bomarzo

statue in parco dei mostri, in bomarzo Italy - hidden gems in tuscia
Lions attacking a dragon

Bomarzo, where Italy boldly declares, “Let’s get weird!” Nestled in the lower Tiber valley and a mere stone’s throw (if you can throw 70 kilometers) from Rome, Bomarzo is the lesser-known cousin who’s into Gothic art and doesn’t get invited to the mainstream parties.

The town’s claim to fame? The Parco dei Mostri, or Park of the Monsters, also lovingly dubbed the Sacro Bosco (Sacred Grove). This isn’t your average picnic spot unless your idea of a picnic involves dining with stone ogres and mythical creatures. When I first spotted those photos of the park’s grotesque carvings, it was like finding out the Addams Family had a yard sale. I was all in, especially to snag some epic shots amid the chaos.

But here’s the thing: the day I visited, it seemed like everyone and their mystical creature had the same idea. There are days you feel like flaunting your downward dog in front of an audience, and then there are days you don’t. Setting up a tripod and twisting into pretzel poses while tourists gawk can feel a bit like being an unwilling participant in a Renaissance fair.

Yet, despite the crowd, the park remains a bizarre blend of disturbing and delightful. It’s the kind of place where you wander among ancient, moss-covered statues that look like they could spring to life and ask you for directions to the nearest haunted castle. Enchanting yet eerie, Bomarzo’s monster-filled grove is the perfect offbeat escape for anyone looking to step outside the ordinary and into the pages of a storybook that Tim Burton might have dreamt up.

temple in bomarzo, one of the hidden gems in tusica

Tucked beneath the towering Orsini Castle lies a park that’s more Brothers Grimm than botanical garden, crafted in the whimsical and slightly morbid fashion of the 16th century. Bomarzo’s Parco dei Mostri, or Park of the Monsters, is where art meets angst in a forest setting. The park, commissioned by a heartbroken Pier Francesco Orsini after the death of his wife, is less about flower beds and more about emotional catharsis through some seriously spooky sculptures.

Orsus statue in bomarzo, one of the hidden gems in tuscia

Orcus

As you meander through this eerie arboretum, you’ll find yourself face-to-face with statues that are both whimsical and somewhat unsettling. These figures, some standing free while others emerge from the region’s naturally abundant Tufo rock, populate the park like guests at a ghostly gala. It’s as if Orsini threw the sculptural equivalent of a grief group therapy session, but made it Renaissance-style.

Statue of Elephant at Bomarzo Monster Park

Elephant at Bomarzo Monster Park

One particular inscription on an obelisk captures the essence of the park: “sol per sfogare il Core” (“just to set the heart free”). And boy, does it feel like every statue here was a personal demon Orsini needed to unleash.

The park’s pièce de résistance is the gaping mouth of Orcus, an iconic image that might as well be the poster child for ancient world emo. Above this terrifying portal reads, “Ogni pensiero vola,” which translates to “all thoughts fly,” or, if you’re feeling particularly dramatic, “abandon all thoughts, ye who enter here.” Step inside this ‘hell mouth’ and whisper; thanks to some nifty acoustics, your secrets will travel outside its walls—proof that even in the 16th century, people were engineering their own versions of ancient whispering galleries.

waterfalls in bomarzo, a hidden gem in tuscia

 

Civita di Bagnoreggio

If you’re in the mood for a place that’s teetering on the brink of existence, then Civita di Bagnoregio is your next must-visit destination. Just a breezy 120 kilometers north of Rome, this village is affectionately known as “La città che muore” (The Dying Town), which sounds more like a horror movie title than a travel recommendation, but trust me, it’s worth the trek.

Pedestrian path leading up to Civita di Bagnoregio, the 'dying city' on top of tufo cliffs in Tuscia.

Why the gloomy nickname? Civita di Bagnoregio is practically an island in the sky, isolated from the world except for a footbridge that demands a €5 tribute to cross—like the world’s most picturesque toll booth. This medieval marvel sits atop a mesa of volcanic tuff as fragile as a flaky croissant, slowly crumbling away due to erosion’s unrelenting nibbles. The edge of the village is a literal cliffhanger, with buildings occasionally taking the plunge as the ground beneath them gives way. Founded over 2,500 years ago by the Etruscans, the village also claims fame as the birthplace of Saint Bonaventure, whose childhood home, rather dramatically, fell off the cliff. Thanks, erosion!

Tufo stairs and apartments in Civita di Bagnoregio, a hidden gem of Tuscia

Despite its precarious perch, Civita di Bagnoregio has seen a resurgence as a tourist hotspot, partly thanks to the entry fee implemented by the local mayor. This small fee not only boosts tourism but lets the village’s dozen permanent residents (outnumbered by cats, by the way) live tax-free. Hopefully, the cash influx will fund some much-needed renovations to keep this scenic spot from becoming a scenic memory.

Stairs in Civita di Bagnoregio with potted plants lined up on each step.

And for you cat enthusiasts, here’s a tidbit: in January 2020, CNN reported that feline citizens outnumber their human counterparts here. So, if the town’s dramatic charm isn’t enough, come for the cats. Civita di Bagnoregio, the ultimate cat-lover’s cliffside retreat—just watch your step!

Bolsena

Bolsena a place where you can soak up some sun, enjoy a little volcanic history, and not worry about an eruption ruining your vacation. About 120 kilometers north of Rome, this charming community sits prettily on the edge of Lago di Bolsena, Italy’s largest volcanic crater lake. It’s like nature’s own version of a hot tub, minus the bubbles—because the last time the nearby Vulsini volcano decided to throw a party was back in 104 BC.

Boats pulled up on shore on lake Bolsena in Tuscia

Lago di Bolsena, the star of the show, is a masterpiece of volcanic and tectonic craftsmanship. Formed by a collapsed volcano, the lake is now a serene patch of water that’s completely self-sustaining—fed by an aquifer, rainfall, and runoff, with a single outlet at the southern end. And yes, before you ask, they’ve modernized since the Roman times; there are sewage treatment plants keeping things pristine.

old wooden dock jutting out into the water on Lake Bolsena in Tuscia.

Floating like emerald gems on the lake are Isola Bisentina and Isola Martana, both born from the fiery underwater eruptions that shaped this unique landscape. If you’re into art, you might appreciate that Raphael himself gave this lake a shoutout. Over in the Vatican, in Raphael’s scuola within the Stanze, there’s a famed fresco depicting the dramatic creation of this very lake.

Bolsena offers more than just a geography lesson though. It’s a gorgeous escape where you can paddle around in history’s wake, enjoy some lakeside tranquility, and ponder how even a volcano can mellow out after a few millennia.

Oriolo Romano

Oriolo Romano might not top the enchantment charts like some storybook towns in Italy, but let’s be real—sometimes practicality wins. Nestled slightly off the beaten path, Oriolo Romano became my go-to spot, not for its charming vistas (though it has those in spades), but because you can buy lunch during the sacred Italian riposo. Yes, their supermarket doesn’t bow to the typical midday shutdown, which was a lifesaver when my stomach was on the brink of a hunger strike.

Turquoise doors in Oriolo Romano, Italy.

While it might wear a bit more grit than glitter, Oriolo Romano is not without its treasures. Take the Palazzo Altieri di Oriolo, for instance. This stunner houses frescoes that spin tales from the Old Testament alongside landscapes depicting Altieri’s once vast domains. It’s a bit like walking through a history book, if history books were lined with art.

Winding road in Oriolo Romano, Tuscia

Then there’s the Fontana delle Picche, a central fountain that isn’t just a place to toss coins and make wishes; it’s a masterpiece designed by Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola. It’s the kind of spot that makes you want to sit, stare, and contemplate becoming a fountain aficionado.

Eerie looking fountain in Oriolo Romano, Italy

A few kilometers from the main hustle and bustle is the Parco della Mola, where nature cranks up the volume. The park features hiking trails that could double as therapy sessions, a natural thermal water bath to soak away your stresses, and a quaint lake with its own personal waterfall—a perfect picnic backdrop or just a spot to humblebrag on Instagram.

Canale Monterano

Monterano Antica is essentially Tuscia’s version of a ghost town, hauntingly beautiful and a bit more known than some might wish, sharing the spotlight with Civita di Bagnoregio as one of those ‘on the radar’ locales. Yet, even with its semi-celebrity status, Monterano offers a slice of solitude compared to the tourist jams in Rome and Tuscany. Located just a mere 40 kilometers north of Rome atop a tufaceous hill, this place is steeped in the kind of dramatic history that would make even the most stoic historian swoon.

Ancient ruins of Canale Monterano, Monterano Antica

Monterano’s claim to fame? Its captivating ruins. This deserted village has been the backdrop for numerous films, its forsaken splendor a magnet for cameras and those longing to tread through scenes of cinematic melancholy. The tale of its desertion is like something straight out of a period drama: in the late 1700s, French troops stormed into Rome, disrupting the pope’s secular sway and declaring a Roman Republic. This shift didn’t sit well with the rural folks, leading to uprisings that eventually saw Monterano sacked and scorched by French revolutionary militias. The survivors had no choice but to flee, leaving behind the crumbling remains to tell their tale.

Bernini lion sculpture in Monterano antica

One can’t help but be awestruck by the sight of Monterano’s beautifully preserved aqueduct, boasting a double arch that could easily star in any historical epic. Honestly, it’s so picturesque, it’s almost ridiculous—like Mother Nature herself decided to go into the set design business.

Ancient ruins in Monterano Antica with a broken fountain in front of the old building.

The real magnet for me, however, was the church of San Bonaventura. Commissioned in the late 1670s by the Altieri family, its design comes courtesy of the legendary Gian Lorenzo Bernini (my favorite sculpturist). Time and nature have had their way with it, leaving a haunting blend of overgrowth and faded marble that’s both sobering and stunning. It’s one of those places that doesn’t just showcase history; it makes you feel it, right in the chest.

Hallway ruins in building in Monterano Antica, Canale Monterano, Tuscia

 

Tarquinia

Step aside, Rome and Florence, and make some room for Tarquinia, Tuscia’s very own treasure trove of ancient history. If you’re looking to delve into the past without elbowing through a sea of selfie sticks, this is your place. Tarquinia, a quaint town just 100 kilometers north of Rome and a short hop from the cruise ship hub of Civitavecchia, is an archaeological enthusiast’s dream come true.

Long domed, columned hallway in Tarquinia, Tuscia's hidden gems

This town isn’t just another spot on the map; it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, celebrated for its rich tapestry of Etruscan and Roman heritage. And get this—Tarquinia was the first World Heritage Site to sport a QR Code on its signage. That’s right, you can whip out your smartphone and get instant info on the fly, making it feel like you’re time-traveling with a digital guide.

Strange stone formations in Tarquinia

What really sets Tarquinia apart are its ancient Etruscan tombs and sprawling necropoli, decked out with stunning wall paintings and tumulus tombs carved right into the rocks. These aren’t your garden-variety grave markers; they’re vibrant, vivid depictions of daily Etruscan life (think dances, weddings, and the occasional demon—because what’s a little afterlife without some drama?), eroticism, and mythical creatures. It’s like stepping into a party where the guests are millennia old, and the vibe is eternally lively.

Etruscan paintings in a cave in Tarquinia, one of the hidden gems of Tuscia

Some of the headline acts include the Tomb of the Bulls, Tomb of the Augurs, and the Tomb of the Leopards, each offering a window into the world of the Etruscans, a people not known for their diary-keeping. These tombs provide a peek into the secret lives of an ancient civilization, with scenes of afterlife antics and high-society hobnobbing that are virtually unrivaled elsewhere in the Etruscan domain.

Though Tarquinia is slightly more on the map compared to other hidden gems in Tuscia, you’ll still escape the overwhelming crowds typical of Rome’s more tourist-trodden day trips. So, if you’re up for a historical adventure with room to breathe (and maybe a quiet moment with an ancient Etruscan or two), Tarquinia is your go-to getaway.

Barbarano Romano

I had to save the best for last—or at least, the quaintest. Barbarano Romano was my first stop in a month-long European adventure, a tiny village nestled 50 kilometers north of Rome that’s more about timeless charm than bustling activity. With only 1,000 residents, it’s the kind of place where you might not find a restaurant, but you’ll discover vistas and vibes in abundance.

Old wooden doors on Tufo buildings in the village of Barbarano Romano

Perched atop a volcanic rise of tufaceous rock and still cradled by ancient city walls, Barbarano Romano is a snapshot from a bygone era. The main church, S. Maria Assunta, welcomes you with a marble plaque dating back to 1280—standing as a silent testament to centuries of history. Walking through the village, surrounded by original buildings that have weathered the ages, it’s impossible not to drift into daydreams of medieval life. Let’s just say, my imagination got a serious workout here.

Path through tufo stone with etruscan caves and overgrown vines

While it’s true that Barbarano doesn’t boast the usual tourist trappings—really, not even a single restaurant—it compensates with sheer beauty and a tranquility that’s hard to find in more populated spots. It lies at the heart of the protected Marturanum Regional Park, renowned for its extensive Etruscan necropoli. So, if ancient cemeteries are your thing, you’re in for a real treat.

Split cobblestone streets in a medieval Italian village with vines growing on the tufo rock structures.

For those seeking a break from the clamor of modern life, Nina’s Guest House was a slice of paradise. It’s the perfect base camp for exploring Barbarano and the surrounding hidden treasures of Tuscia. Here, the lack of a local dining scene is just an excuse to indulge in homemade meals or picnic amidst the ruins—because sometimes, the best flavors are the ones you create yourself amidst the backdrop of history.

If you’re itching for a trip where you can actually hear yourself think and not just hear about the latest Roman ruins, Tuscia offers a quaint retreat. Because let’s be honest, sometimes the best part of traveling is escaping the other tourists!

 

 
Pinterest graphic - Hidden Gems in Tuscia with image of Barbarano Romano
 

In Rome and heading elsewhere in Europe? Skip the plane, hop on the Nightjet instead – the famed overnight train from Rome to Vienna

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