When the best answer to “What to do in Rome?” is to get out of town for a day trip, try venturing around Italy’s Lazio region.
Take a train north out of Rome (leaving from Ostiense Station) for an hour or so, to Bracciano. Watch for the Castello Odescalchi breaking from the fig trees, the centro storico (historic center) huddled up against it and the lake revealing itself in bits.
Bracciano is one of three towns situated on Lago Bracciano (Lake Bracciano). Actually, only Anguillara and Trevignano are on the lake; Bracciano and its castle lumber above it. The town is far enough from Rome to feel as if you’re getting away and small enough to see it all, yet large enough not to get bored. It’s where I go for a day trip when I want out of the city.
Bracciano’s main tourist attractions are the Castello Odescalchi and the picturesque streets of the historic center. Join an English-language guided tour through the sumptuous halls of the Renaissance-era castle. Through the paned windows, admire the view of the verdurous hill toward the lake or look over the parapet of the corner tower at the unique chaos of terra cotta roofs. The entrance ticket to the Castle is only 7 Euros, tour included. If you’re lucky and it’s spring or early-fall, you might even catch an elegant Italian (or non-Italian) wedding; Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were married here in 2006.
Afterward, take a stroll through the narrow, winding streets of Bracciano’s historic center. Don’t worry about getting lost, for the ways all seem to meet at the sentinella (sentry). Here, the view of olive trees stretches down to the lake, fringed by the distant Apennine Mountains. In the winter, their peaks are white and I’m reminded of how thankful I am that the snow is so far away.
To the left of the sentinella, there is a trail that leads down to the lake. It’s pretty steep and the gravel is loose but I’ve always thought the adventure is worth it. There is also a paved path – very steep at first – down to the lake. It branches right off Via del Lago, which is a left off the main street, Via Principe di Napoli.
In winter, Lake Bracciano is velvet purple; in summer it’s cobalt blue. The lake is volcanic in origin and very deep at the center.
In the summer there’s a scheduled ferry that travels between the lake’s three towns, paddle boats to rent and camping grounds. There are bars and restaurants along the waterfront selling chairs and umbrellas, but there’s lots of free beach too. If it’s cold when you go, the lake will be a husk of its summer self, but when else would you have the whole expanse to yourself?
During lunchtime (13.30-16.30) the streets are nearly deserted. But you’re lucky, because Bracciano has lots of excellent restaurants. Eat pasta at Il Vagone, which you can find by taking a right out of the train station and then continuing straight. In the historic center, don’t miss Clara and Sisto’s porchetta, roasted in an ancient oven according to an old family recipe. Or there’s a handful of places serving sumptuous food in the piazza under the castle.
For espresso or dessert, stop in to Caffé Grand’Italia. The sweets, cookies, cakes and gelato lining the glass cases taste as fantastic as they look.
After lunch, Bracciano seems to magically swell with activity once again. The residents pour out onto the streets to do their grocery shopping. They linger on corners and benches, talking and enjoying their city. Sit in the Piazza del Comune and join them, or do some shopping yourself.
When you’re finally ready, clamber back on the train to drowsily watch the undulant landscape of Italy’s Lazio region passing by, an ideal finish to a day well spent.
Tren Italia website for Rome train schedules
Amber’s favorite Belle trip tips for Bracciano:
Clara and Sisto’s porchetta: In summer, at the small restaurant on Via del Lago. You’ll find it on the left side (going down to the lake), on the corner near the stairs. The big pig sits out front in a glass case. You can’t miss it.