Italy has many interesting monasteries and abbeys that can be visited, ranging from evocative ruins to monasteries still in use today where you can take a tour, have lunch, or sometimes even spend the night. They're often in a very beautiful setting, too. Here are the ten best monasteries to visit in Italy.
La Sacra di San Michele, Piemonte
La Sacra di San Michele, or Saint Michael, is a stunning Abbey and monastic complex sitting atop a hill in Piemonte's Susa Valley, about midway between Mont San Michel in France and San Michele Sanctuary in Puglia. Dating from 983, it became one of Europe's most famous Benedictine monasteries from the 11th - 14th centuries. A visit includes seeing the restored frescoes, the newer monastery from the 12th - 15th centuries, and museum of daily life. The abbey was the inspiration for the book, The Name of the Rose.
Originally founded in 529 by Saint Benedict, Montecassino is one of Europe's oldest monasteries. It sits atop Monte Cassino with magnificent views of the surrounding area. Monte Cassino is famous as the scene of World War II battle in which the abbey was completely destroyed in the bombing, but it has since been rebuilt. It's still a working monastery but is open to visitors. Allow a couple of hours as there is a lot to see.
La Verna is one of the sites in Italy associated with Saint Francis, where he is said to have received the stigmata. Saint Francis founded a small church in this beautiful spot, perched on a rocky promontory, in 1216. Later a Franciscan monastery and larger church were developed but you can still see the original church, the cave where he slept, and the chapel built on the spot where he received the stigmata.
Monastery of Santa Croce at Fonte Avellana, Le Marche
The Benedictine Monastery of Santa Croce, in central Italy's le Marche region, offers one-hour guided tours of the monastery (call in advance for an English tour). If you book ahead you can also eat lunch in the monastery. There's a shop selling products made by the monks and a bar serving herbal teas and the monastery's special liquor. Founded in 980, it's now home to the Camaldolese monks.
Just across the border into Eastern Umbria, there are several ancient monasteries and abbeys to see in Monte Cucco National Park.
Saint Benedict's Monastery in Catania, Sicily
The Monastero di San Benedetto, was established in 1334 but the Benedictine sisters moved to the monastery's current location in 1355 in what was the home of the Count of Adrano, built above the ruins of a Roman temple. A visit includes excavations of a Roman house found within the monastery, the Baroque frescoes in Saint Benedict's Church, and the 18th century Parlor of the Cloistered Convent, still home to 28 nuns.
Saint Onofrio Cloister, Rome
A peaceful spot on the Janiculum Hill, Saint Onofrio Cloister dates from the 15th century. In the cloister are frescos with scenes from the life of the hermit Onofrio. Renaissance Poet Torquato Tasso lived in the monastery and died there on April 25, 1595. His elaborate tomb is in a chapel at the monastery and there's also a museum with manuscripts and editions of his work. The Franciscan Friars of the Atonement still live at the monastery.
Also in Rome is the Santa Croce in Gerusalemme Church and Monastery complex with a monastic garden that can sometimes be visited on request. Behind the garden are remains of the ancient Roman Castrense Amphitheater.
For a more macabre monastery experience in Rome, head to the Capuchin Crypt, near Piazza Barberini, where bones of more than 4000 deceased monks are artistically displayed in a series of chapels in the convent's crypt.
Santa Chiara Church and Monastery were built in the 14th century and the original church was the largest Clarissan church ever built. The majolica tiled columns and benches and 17th-century frescoes in the cloister are beautiful and the peaceful courtyard makes a good contrast to the bustling center of Naples. The visit includes the archeological area with an excavation of a Roman bath, a museum with religious and archeological relics, Christmas cribs, tombs, and relics of Saint Louis of Toulouse, including his brain.
Pomposa Abbey, a Benedictine Monastery near Ferrara, dates from the 9th century and was once one of the most important monasteries in northern Italy as it was a center of culture. Its library was famous for its manuscripts and our system of musical notation was developed here in the 11th century. Inside the Romanesque Church are frescoes and inlaid mosaic pavement.
The San Marco Museum is housed in the monastery cloisters and is famous for its frescoes and artworks created by the monk and Renaissance artist, Fra Angelico. Its also important as the monastery where Savonarola, the 15th-century Dominican monk who preached against art and literature, lived, and visitors can see his cell. The museum also contains other important Renaissance artworks.
Romanesque Cloister at Torri, Tuscany
Near Siena, the Church of the Holy Trinity at Torri is an off the beaten track place rarely visited by tourists, with limited visiting hours. It's said to be the only example of a Romanesque cloister still standing in Tuscany. The cloister has beautiful marble columns topped with interesting carved capitals. The monastery was first mentioned in 1070 and remodeled in the 13th century.
Some monasteries and convents rent out rooms for overnight guests. Accommodations may be basic and some have a shared bathroom down the hall but they can be economical and are usually clean, safe, and quiet.