Tarquinia, Italy: Unforgettable, Untouristy Cultural Marvel near Rome

A day-trip away, Tarquinia has astonishing Etruscan history & painted tombs

Tarquinia is Haunting and Unforgettable

Italy is a cherished luxury travel destination -- so much so, that travelers can feel lost amidst hordes of tourists. The antidote is close by: the small city of Tarquinia northwest of Rome.

Tarquinia is only an hour northwest of Rome on Italy's railroad system, Trenitalia. It is suitable for a day trip by train or car, or for a visit of a night or two.

Feeling Rome Tourist Burnout? Take the Train to Authentic Tarquinia

As close as Tarquinia is to Rome, it is another world. Tarquinia's world is the world of honest, everyday. small-town Italy. In Tarquinia, the pace is serene and the experience real. You may be a visitor, but you feel like a Tarquinian, not like a walking wallet in amongst Rome's tourist hordes.

Tarquinia's off-the-beaten-path authenticity alone would make it a luxury travel destination for travelers who seek real life wherever they go. But Tarquinia has so much more to offer visitors.

Read on for the Top 10 Luxury...MORE Travel reasons to put Tarquinia on your Italian itinerary. And check Tarquinia's English-language websites for travel and tourism.

  • 01 of 11

    Tarquinia's City of the Dead: Monterozzi Necropolis

    Famous painted Tomb of the Leopards in in Tarquinia, Italy
    ••• Tomb of the Leopards in Tarquinia's Etruscan Necropolis. ©Karen Tina Harrison

    What Tarquinia Is Most Famous For: Its Necropoli

    The Etruscans celebrated death as another stage of life. Their vast cemeteries, scattered in and around Tarquinia, have survived.

    These Necropoli are fully zoned and landscaped 
    neighborhoods, with streets, trees, walking paths, and beautiful views.

    Making Room for the Newly Departed Rels

    Inside the Necropoli are series of elaborate family tombs, furnished with cot-like benches for new arrivals.

    Their walls are painted with intricate scenes that illustrate the family's tastes and philosophies: they may depict hunting scenes, or parties with music or dancing, or parades of mythological animals.

    Etruscan Funerals Were More Like Joyous Wakes

    When a relative needed to move in, the family would open the tomb for a party that was a celebration of life and the hereafter.

    Welcome Home, Etruscans: Monterozzi Necropolis, A Housing Development for the Dead

    Monterozzi Necropolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the 3,000-year-old cemetery right in...MORE Tarquinia, a short walk from the piazza. The setting of this marvel alone, overlooking a perfect Italian landscape of golden fields, is enough to warrant a visit.

    But here's the incredible thing about Monterozzi Necropolis. It is a fully zoned and landscaped neighborhood for families: of the dead.

    Dead People Live Here

    The Necropolis is a city of homes. These homes are intricate underground family tombs dug right into the stone.

    • There are hundreds of tombs housing thousands of family members
    • Every family had a tomb. Many were patterned after the family's house
    • The newly departed were laid on stone beds and gently moved as needed

    Tombs with Decorated Rooms

    Two hundred of the tombs still display their elaborately painted walls. These frescoes reveal the character of the family: pious, fun-loving, cultivated, close-knit, or status-conscious.

    Many murals reveal Etruscans feasting or embracing. This vanished civilization enjoyed its time on Earth

    • About's Europe Travel Guide's photos of Etruscan tombs
    • Who were the Etruscans and what happened to them?

     

  • 02 of 11
    A colorful church parade in Tarquinia, Italy
    ••• Church parade in Tarquinia. ©Karen Tina Harrison

    The Real Italy Is in Tarquinia

    If you're ever had the sensation of being pushed along in a moving mass of tourists in Rome, Florence, or Venice, Tarquinia is the antidote.

    Visitors to Tarquinia never feel like they're on a stage set of Italy. Tarquinians appreciate every single visitor and treat them very well. You will not feel exploited or devalued here.

    And you will see real Italian life close-up, not the tourist version. In Tarquinia, the day-to-day life of an Italian town unfolds around you. Walking down Tarquinia's winding Renaissance-era streets or sunning in the piazza, you will see all sorts of sights, so human that they are thrilling.

    In the space of a couple of hours on one summer afternoon, I witnessed these profoundly Italian sights:
    • A church parade with priests hoisting banners of the local saint, the Madonna di Valverde
    • A young newlywed couple and their wedding party emerging from a church
    • An impromptu, raucous parade of cars, its inhabitants shouting over...MORE Italy's soccer win over Germany
    • Children racing through the piazza on their bikes, followed by their barking dogs
    • And all the characters you'd expect in an Italian town: leggy teenage girls in big sunglasses; young men on their motorbikes; smartly suited businesspeople checking their iPhones; couples meeting for kisses and a quick café coffee; widows in traditional black; bakers rushing by with baskets of bread to deliver; and solitary women feeding the pigeons and doves

    Did I glimpse a single tour bus or gaggle of tourists in Nike sneakers? No

  • 03 of 11

    Where to Stay in Tarquinia

    Valle del Marta hotel in Tarquinia, Italy
    ••• Sunset from Valle del Marta Hotel patio. ©Karen Tina Harrison

    Not Luxury Hotels, But Truly Italian Inns

    Tarquinia is within easy day-trip distance of Rome, an hour by train. But there's so much to see here, it's worth spending a night or two.

    Tarquinia offers a variety of hotels, none of them at the luxury level. But Valle del Marta, named for the local river valley, is very pleasant. It is a quiet resort that adjoins an organic farm. Both are owned by the same longtime Tarquinian family.

    The hotel is laid out along a serene park-like lawn and trees. Every suite's furnished patio overlooks this tranquil view. Inside, the décor is old-fashioned but comfortable, with a canopied bed, large wooden armoire, and a spare bathroom. Wifi is free.

    Valle del Marta's common spaces are social and well-designed. Guests enjoy a buffet breakfast indoors or outside on a poolside patio. There's a comfortable lobby, a small spa, and two pools: a splash pool and a narrow lap pool that accommodates one happy swimmer.
    • More hotels in Tarquinia

  • 04 of 11
    Tarquinia, Italy's beautiful central piazza
    ••• Tarquinia magic hour. ©Karen Tina Harrison

    Thousands of Years to See in Tarquinia

    Tarquinia's profoundly affecting Italian vistas take many forms. (And certain city buses are free. Indeed, Tarquinia values its visitors.)

    Tarquinia's imposing natural setting is up a hill from the beach (il Lido di Tarquinia) and amidst lush countryside, with rolling hills, a turquoise sky, and caressing sunshine.

    Tarquinia's spectacular architectural wealth spans the centuries from medieval times onward. This bounty includes:
    • A medieval monastery and fort, lit at night for mystery and glamour
    • Soaring churches from Gothic and Renaissance times
    • Renaissance palazzos where nobles lived (one is now Tarquinia's grandly frescoed city hall)
    • A Renaissance city square (piazza) complete with a photogenic fountain
    • And unspoiled old streets, yours for poetic promenades

    Continue to 5 of 11 below.
  • 05 of 11

    Tarquinia's Incredible History

    Take a walk on the Gothic side in Tarquinia, Italy
    ••• Take a medieval walk. ©Tarquinia Turismo.

    What a Past!

    Tarquinia is a vividly historic location, with world-renowned archeology. It is so old, it is older than Rome! Tarquinia – then Tarchuna -- was the biggest city in the Etruscan empire, Etruria. 

    Nobody knows who the Etruscans were, since their language is now undecipherable. (Everything we know about them is from their graves) Some marvelous facts about Tarquinia's past:
    • One theory is that Etruscans came from Troy in Greece, another is that they were indigenous people
    • Their rich copper and iron mines created trade and wealth, and the Etruscan civilization prospered for centuries
    • The Etruscan Empire spread out over much of northern and central Italy in the last millennium BC, and established places with names such as Tusca (now Tuscany) and Perusia (Perugia)
    • The conquering Romans removed the last Etruscan king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, in 509BC, and established the Roman Republic

    What Was Etruscan Society Like?

    The Etruscans traded mainly with ancient Greece, and...MORE imported many elements of Hellenic culture. Among them: the 12 Olympian gods, advances in architecture like irrigation and sewage; cultivation of olives and grapes, winemaking, and the Greek alphabet, which became our Roman alphabet

    Etruscan society was more egalitarian than the Roman civilization that followed it. Women were highly respected

    And Etruscan family tombs (which you will read more about below) were decorated like theaters, hunting lodges, and banquet halls showing an appreciation for the good life

    Friends, Romans, Conquerors

    In more recent centuries, Tarquinia became a literary center. with authors beating a path to Tarquinia.

    Generations of famous writers have been drawn to Tarquinia's mystery and history: its enigmatic Etruscan past, its legends, and its beauty.

    A Frenchman Made Tarquinia Famous

    Henri Bleyle Stendhal, the great 19th-century French novelist who penned The Red and the Black, was for a time a diplomat in Rome. He became enchanted with Tarquinia, then known as Corneto, and authored a long article about its recently discovered Etruscan tombs.

    Stendhal also wrote of a Corneto-born (Tarquinian) cardinal who double-dealt between the Pope and Henry VIII, and was even accused of murdering the Pontiff.

    Tarquinia Tempted Lady Chatterley's Creator, Too

    D.H. Lawrence, the English novelist most famed for Lady Chatterley's Lover, visited Tarquinia extensively in the years between World Wars I and II.

    Here, he penned comparing an idealized Etruscan society with the impending terrors of Fascism.

    Lawrence's friend and fellow Englishman Aldous Huxley was enraptured by Etruscan tomb paintings.

    Titto Marini, Tarquinia's native son, was a poet who lived here his entire long life.
    • He died in 1980, leaving his poems, his essays, and his fountain-laden estate as public places for everyone's enjoyment

  • 06 of 11
    Etruscan tomb dug into the soft rock of Tarquinia in Italy
    ••• Welcome to a Cerveteri Necropolis family grave. ©Karen Tina Harrison

    The First Twin Cities: Monterozzi/Cerveteri, the Etruscan Twin Cities of the Dead

    Another Etruscan city sits about an hour from Tarquinia. Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cerveteri is a metropolis that's a necropolis: another cemetery city.

    Cerveteri, Another Nice Place to Live (in Eternity)

    Cerveteri is a 2,800-year-old network tombs laid out like a town. It has neighborhoods, walking streets. plazas, parks, and lookouts. And of course, family homes. (Confusingly, Cerveteri is also called Banditaccia and by its Etruscan name, Caere.)

    Cerveteri's most famous "homes" are built under dome-like soft volcanic rock structures, tumuli, that resemble giant mushrooms.

    Architect-Designed Homes (for Your Dead Family)

    Inside, the homes are all different. It is believed that they were designed and decorated to resembles the families' homes, none of which have survived over the millennia.

    These tombs feature various rooms with seating for funeral events. They are still richly...MORE embellished with frescoes of daily or fantasy scenes. And they have shelves and niches for family treasures such as Greek urns and jewelry – some of which is still present.

    Cerveteri's #1 Draw: The Wealthy Family's Tomb-Mansion

    The most-visited crypt at Cerveteri is the "Tomb of Reliefs," the final resting place of members of the powerful Matuna clan.

    To reach this marvel, you walk down a long stairway cut into the rock, and reach an entrance hall with Greek-style columns

    This is the main burial chamber, with beds and ledges for nearly 50 Matunas.
    • The beds feature carved pillows whose red paint is still visible, 2600 years later
    • Niches once held oil lamps and funerary offerings – some art objects and some items from daily life

    The walls are painted with objects of the Matunas' day-to-day life, such as kitchen utensils and fishing nets. The message conveyed is "Matuna Family, you are home"

  • 07 of 11
    The Etruscan art masterpiece: giant winged horses in Tarquinia, Italy
    ••• Tarquinia's rarest treasure. ©Karen Tina Harrison.

    Never a Dull Moment in Tarquinia's Museums

    Many treasures of Tarquinia's tombs are on display in the town's well-curated museums. These are very worth spending some time at:

    The Tarquinia National Museum is situated in the graceful porticoes, Renaissance-era Palazzo Vitelleschi on Tarquinia's main Piazza Cavour. The museum is devoted to objects discovered in the necropolis.

    Highlights of the Tarquinia National Museum include stone sargophagi; delicately worked gold jewelry; pottery and vases of Greek origin, some depicting X-rated activities.

    The museum's masterpiece, which draws viewers the world over, is a stone relief pair of nearly life-size horses. Once gracing an Etruscan temple, these steeds are probably the two most spectacular works of Etruscan art.

    The other Etruscan treasure is the funerary sculpture of a beaming Etruscan husband and wife, seen at the end of this article

    Next Door and Worthwhile: Tarquinia Ceramic Museum

    The Tarquinia Ceramic Museum (Museo della...MORE Ceramica d'Uso a Corneto) is devoted not to Etruscans but to much later times: the medieval and Renaissance periods.

    The museum contains hundreds of objects, mostly used in day-to-day life in Corneto, Tarquinia's name in these times.
    • The collection is strong on painted pottery and dishes. A reconstruction of a 500-year-old kitchen is not to be missed.

  • 08 of 11

    Near Tarquinia: Villa Lante, the Wonder Home of its Day

    Neptune, the Roman got of the sea, rules over Villa Lante in Italy
    ••• Neptune, Roman god of the sea and ruler of Villa Lante's fountains ©Karen Tina Harrison

    The Billionaire's Mansion of 500 Years Ago

    Villa Lante, a half-hour's drive from Tarquinia, presents yet another era of its history: the late Renaissance. This magnificent estate and garden, which rivals anything in France, was built in the 1500s.

    The garden was originally a country villa for the bishop of Viterbo, and was constructed mainly by two aristocrats of the Italian Renaissance.

    One was the 17-year-old nephew of the pope, with, let's say, some family influence. He became a cardinal himself.

    The force behind Villa Lante was Cardinal Gambara, was a scholarly man in later life. (Veronica Gambara (see a picture here) was a poet and political force.) 

      Villa Lante is not the usual sedate garden. The older cardinal engaged a famous architect of his era, Giacomo Barozzi, who was known as "Il Vignola."

      The Design Extravagance of Its Time: Villa Lante's Cascading Fountains

      Il Vignola's vision for Villa Lante was predicated on waterworks. They were state-of-the-art...MORE for their time, much like an estate today with its own Pilates recording studio and heliport.

      Il Vignola's design wowed onlookers with complicated features (like fountains cascading down a hillside) and with surprises (like massive stone Neptunes or grotesque, mask-like faces commanding the waters).

      Villa Lante's most enchanting features are still its cascading fountains and stepped grottoes with chutes of water.

      Even Cardinals Lose Their Family Castles

      Villa Lante's story does not end with the eclipse of the Gambaras.
      • The property was sold to the Duke of Lante in the 1700s
      • In the late 1800s, it was owned by an American heiress straight out of a Henry James novel
      • The villa was heavily damaged by Allied bombings of Rome during World War II and was patiently restored by its subsequent owner.

      Go Visit; Classy Villa Lante Doesn't Charge Admission

      Villa Lante is the main attraction in the charming old town of Bagnaia near the city of Viterbo. Villa Lante offers free admission, and welcomes picnickers. It's a must.

      Continue to 9 of 11 below.
    • 09 of 11

      Near Tarquinia: Villa Farnese, a Popes' Palace

      Villa Farnese palazzo near Rome
      ••• Stairway to power at Villa Farnese. ©Karen Tina Harrison

      Villa of the Farnese Family: Dynasty as Powerful as the Medici

      Villa Farnese, not far from Villa Lante, is another easy trip from Tarquinia. It was the local estate of one of the Italian Renaissance's most powerful, respected, and feared families, The House of Farnese, which married into royal lines and produced popes and kings and queens all over Western Europe.

      The mansion and estate that comprise Villa Farnese captivate art lovers. (The Farnese Gallery, in Rome, is a treasure house of Italian painting.)

      All of Renaissance Style in One Palazzo

      Villa Farnese is like a crash course in Renaissance architecture and art. From the outside, the Villa Farnese is impressive, lording it over the town of Caprarola. Its architecture is magnificent, and the art inside is exhilarating.

      The Villa Farnese was built as securely and solidly as a fort to defend the controversial, super-rich Farnese family from its enemies. The building as is done in a rather severe late-Renaissance style called...MORE Mannerism, with a solid, blocky, rectangular aspect and less-ornamented embellishments. The effect is handsome and forbidding.

      A Fort Outside, a Palace Within

      Inside, Villa Farnese is a palace with grand rooms and airy proportions. Its numerous reception salons, ballrooms, and banquet rooms bespeak of royal life
      • It has five spiral staircases
      • Its many private suites suggest the dynastic power of the Farnese

      Fresco-a-Go-Go

      The main attraction of Villa Farnese is its incredible frescoes and paintings, on every wall and ceiling.
      • These paintings depict landmark events in the lives of Alexander the Great and of course the Farnese
      • One wall displays a map of the world as known in 1574, and above it the constellations of the heavens

      Villa Farnese's gardens are equally arresting.
      • The garden villa called the Casinio is today an official residence of a big shot: the President of Italy

      Villa Farnese Still Amazes

      The Villa Farnese is an art haunt, and one that hosts frequent concerts. It is a center of the good life, and just as impressive today as when the House of Farnese was famous and feared.

    • 10 of 11

      Tarquinia's Dining

      Pizzeria 2 Gallozzi near Rome, voted the best pizza in Italy
      ••• The 2 behind Pizzeria 2 Gallozzi, voted Italy's best. ©Karen Tina Harrison

      Tarquinia's Tempting Tables

      Tarquinia is a stronghold of honest Italian cooking. Visitors will find an array of Italian restaurants, many serving local dishes and house-made pastas.

      One Restaurant You Can't Miss: Ambaradam

      My favorite Tarquinia restaurant was Ambaradam, a heart-and-soul Italian restaurant. Dining is indoors in a centuries-old, space, or outdoors on Tarquinia's central Piazza Cavour

      Everyone comes to Ambaradam, from luxury travelers in town for a night or two to young parents showing their toddlers how to twirl pasta.

      If you dine at Ambaradam, you will congratulate yourself on having found the true local place in this vivid Italian town. Service is respectful, and the Tarquinia people-watching is unparalleled.

      This is a restaurant to love, with generous portions of delicious food; fresh salumeria appetizer platters will be enough for many diners. But then you'd miss the seafood linguine.

      The Pizzeria You Were Hoping to Find Is Right Here

      When in Caprarola, or...MORE following a visit to Villa Farnese, do as the Caprarolese do, and eat at Pizzeria 2 Gallozzi. For pizza connoisseurs, it will be just as much a pilgrimage as a visit to Villa Farnese is for art lovers. Pizzeria 2 Gallozzi is owned by two brothers of the Gallozzi family. It resembles a friendly pub, complete with numerous Italian, German, and English beers on tap.

      The Pizza that Captivated Italy

      But of course the main event is the pizza, baked in a massive, multi-level, wood-fired brick oven. What you can expect at Pizzeria 2 Gallozzi:
      • Pizza that merits its award for Italy's best, based on a national competition (this prize pie: a four-cheese pizza with nutty fontina cheese and creamy mushrooms)
      • Dozens of thin-crust pies with toppings ranging from traditional (prosciutto) to modern (arugula)
      • The pizzeria's well-known dessert pizza, with Nutella, chestnuts, and walnuts
      • To cap your experience, a nip of Limoncello on the house

    • 11 of 11
      ••• An Etruscan tomb treasure at Villa Giulia in Rome. ©Karen Tina Harrison

      Where to find out More about Spellbinding Tarquinia

      • Tarquinia's English-language tourism website
      • Tarquinia photos on Pinterest
      • From About's Italy Travel Expert, more Tarquinia travel tips

      Ethics note: as is common in the travel industry, the author was provided with a complimentary visit for the purpose of describing Tarquinia.