The magnificent Barberini Gardens surrounding the papal palace at Castel Gandalfo are an easy day trip from Rome. In centuries past, it took a day or two for the papal entourage to arrive by horse-drawn carriages to the idyllic estate 16 miles southeast of Rome. Now it’s a quick 40 minute train ride from Rome’s Termini station, dropping you at a tiny train station overlooking scenic Lake Albano. You walk up the hill to the main square facing the palace, which for centuries has served as the summer of residence of the popes. Pope Francis generously opened the gardens to the public in 2014 for the first time, and then he opened the apostolic place in October of 2016.
See the link at the end of this post to reserve your tour on the Vatican website. In high season, make sure you reserve well in advance as the garden tour is a much coveted ticket. The tour begins in the courtyard of the papal palace, designed in the 17th century by architect Carlo Maderno for Pope Urban VIII.
Our guide presented the tour in English, giving us the history of the palace and garden design along with anecdotes from the lives of the popes. The garden grounds include ancient grottoes and archaeological finds from ancient Roman Emperor Domitian. Like so much in the environs of Rome, archaeologists don’t have to dig far before they discover evidence of ancient life and art.
The Barberini gardens abound with tall cypresses and umbrella pines that are reminiscent of the Roman landscape. The vistas are magnificent with magnolia trees, floral parterres, antique statuary and fountains. In the distance, a patchwork of green fields stretch down to the sea.
There is nothing to break the calm. We were astonished to see a tall garden hedge that stretched on for blocks being clipped by gardeners with hand clippers, guided by level strings. It is truly another world. We relished not only the beauty of the gardens and the palace, but the incredible aura of peace.
The garden tour itself takes less than two hours, but you’ll want a few more hours to stroll in the charming little town, have lunch overlooking the beautiful lake, and then visit Apostolic Palace—the papal residence—where you’ll find painted portraits of the popes, precious decorative art and religious relics from the Vatican’s collections, and marvelous vistas from the villa overlooking the lake.
As Paddy Agnew wrote in the Irish Times, “When else, before now, could you wander through a pope’s house, inspect many of his clothes (most of them hundreds of years old), walk around his bedroom, view his most imposing furniture (the sort they used to carry him around in) and, above all, enjoy the wonderful panoramic views out over the lake?”
Don’t miss the black and white photos documenting the time during the Second World War when 12,000 people took shelter on the palace grounds in tents and makeshift dwellings. After Italy was occupied by the Nazi army in January 1944, thousands became refugees, escaping some of the bloodiest fighting in the villages surrounding Lake Albano. Pope Pius XII, confined inside the Vatican, opened up Castel Gandalfo as a sanctuary to whoever could make it there. The grounds eventually sheltered 12,000 people, including many Roman Jews. His own bedroom at Castel Gandalfo was reserved for women giving birth, which must have given them both comfort and a very auspicious blessing. More than 50 babies were born there; they became known as “the Pope’s Children.”
We felt so fortunate to tour the gardens and bask in all the papal splendor. Pope Francis, the “People’s Pope,” who is known for his humanity and simpler tastes had only visited a few times at the time of our visit—and didn’t spend the night, according to the guards.
As we were leaving the palace, a guard asked us how we liked the gardens. “Absolutely magnificent,” I gushed. “But we didn’t see the Pope,” Jim said. The guard looked surprised then called out, “Pope!” And turning in the other direction, “Pope!” Shrugging his shoulders, he said, “Sorry— No Pope today.”
Trains leave from the Roma Termini train station. WARNING: The platform number noted “bis” designated an outside platform at least a five minute walk down the platform to an outside track where a more luxurious train awaited. Not knowing this, we missed the first train but got the next one because we had planned to arrive early.
Buy your tickets to visit Castel Gandalfo here:
A historical view:
See more from our visit below.