Tarquinia, Italy: Unforgettable, Untouristy Cultural Marvel near Rome

A day-trip away, the Etruscan capital amazes with painted tombs and prized pizza

Etruscan winged horses sculpture

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Feeling Rome Tourist Burnout? Take the Train to Authentic Tarquinia

Italy is a cherished luxury travel destination, perhaps excessively so, packing Rome with hordes of tourists. The antidote is close by: the small city of Tarquinia northwest of Rome on Italy's railroad system, Trenitalia. This destination is suitable for a day trip by train or car, or for a visit of a night or two.

Tarquinia is Haunting and Unforgettable

As close as Tarquinia is to Rome, it is another world. This is the world of honest, everyday, small-town Italy. In Tarquinia, the pace is serene and the experience real. Tarquinia's off-the-beaten-path authenticity alone would make it a luxury travel destination for travelers in search of authentic places. But Tarquinia has so much more to offer visitors. Read on for top 9 reasons to put Tarquinia on your Italian itinerary. Check Tarquinia's English-language tourism site and tripsavvy's Tarquinia travel basics.

  • 01 of 10

    Tarquinia's City of the Dead: Monterozzi Necropolis

    Most famous Etruscan tomb in Tarquina
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    Tarquinia's Lure: Its Necropoli, Cities of the Dead

    The Etruscans celebrated death as another stage of life. Their vast cemeteries, scattered in and around Tarquinia, have survived. Their Necropoli ("cities of the dead") are fully zoned and landscaped neighborhoods, with streets, trees, walking paths, benches, views, and family homes...tombs that house their dead.

    Monterozzi Necropolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the 3,000-year-old cemetery right in Tarquinia, a short walk from the piazza.

    Making Room for the Newly Departed Rels

    Inside tMonterizzi are hundreds of elaborate family tombs, furnished with cot-like benches for new arrivals. Their walls are painted with intricate scenes that depict the family's tastes: sports, hunting, parties with music or dancing, or couples embracing. When a relative needed to move in, the family would open the tomb for a celebration of life and the hereafter. Etruscan funerals were joyous wakes.

  • 02 of 10
    Tarquinia, ancient city near Rome
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    The Real Italy Is in Tarquinia

    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 central 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; young newlyweds and their wedding party emerging from a church; an impromptu, raucous parade of cars, its inhabitants shouting over Italy's soccer win over Germany' children racing through the piazza on bikes, their barking dogs following.

    And Italian characters: 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; solitary women feeding the pigeons and doves.

  • 03 of 10

    Where to Stay in Tarquinia

    Tarquinia Italy hotel
     Fabio Baiardini/Flickr

    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, the view of every suite's furnished patio. Décor is old-fashioned but comfy, with a canopied bed, wood armoire, and simple bathroom. Wifi is free.

    Valle del Marta's lobbies and decks are social and well-designed. Guests enjoy a buffet breakfast indoors or outside. There's a small spa, a splash pool, and a narrow lap pool that fits one happy swimmer.

  • 04 of 10
    Tarquinia Etruscan capital
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    Thousands of Years to See in Tarquinia

    Tarquinia's profoundly affecting Italian vistas take in lush countryside,  a turquoise sky, caressing sunshine, and the sparkling Tyrrhenian Sea. e. take many forms. You can see it all on certain city buses that are free. Indeed, Tarquinia values its visitors.) 

    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 Gothic and Renaissance churches; a Renaissance city square (piazza) and palazzos where nobles lived (one is now Tarquinia's grandly frescoed city hall); unspoiled old streets, yours for poetic promenades

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  • 05 of 10

    Tarquinia's Incredible History

    Famous Etruscan Sarcophagus of the Spouses
     Frans Vandewalle/Flickr

    What a Past!

    Tarquinia is a vividly historic location, with thrilling artifacts. Tarquinia – then Tarchuna – was the biggest city in the Etruscan empire, Etruria, which predated Rome. Its rich copper and iron mines created trade and wealth, and the Etruscan civilization prospered for centuries The conquering Romans removed the last Etruscan king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, in 509BC, and established the Roman Republic. Who were the Etruscans?

    Etruscan Society Was Way Ahead of Its Time.

    The Etruscans traded mainly with ancient Greece, and developed many elements of Hellenic culture. Among the Etruscans' innovations: the 12 Olympian gods, irrigation and sewage; cultivation of olives and grapes, winemaking, jewelry-making, horsemanship, 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, homosexuality commonplace, and slaves rare.

    Friends, Romans, Conquerors

    In more recent centuries, Tarquinia became a literary center. Generations of famous writers including Shakespeare, Stendhal, and D.H. Lawrence have been drawn to Tarquinia's mystery and history .

  • 06 of 10
    Etruscan Necropolis Matuna Family Tomb of the Reliefs i
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    Monterozzi/Cerveteri, 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 is a 2,800-year-old network of tombs laid out like a town, with neighborhoods, sidewalks. plazas, parks, and quiet nooks. And of course, family homes. 

    Architect-Designed Homes (for Your Deceased Family)

    Cerveteri's most famous "homes" are built under dome-like soft volcanic rock structures, tumuli, that resemble giant mushrooms. Inside, each homes is different. It is believed that they were designed and decorated to resemble the families' actual homes.

    These tombs feature various rooms with seating for funeral events. They are still richly 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: A Wealthy Family's Tomb-Mansion

    The most-visited crypt at Cerveteri is the "Tomb of Reliefs," (shown) the final resting place of members of the powerful Matuna clan (shown). 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, both art objects and family heirlooms. 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 10
    Etruscan stone horses in Tarquinia
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    Never a Dull Moment in Tarquinia's Museums

    Numerous treasures of Tarquinia's tombs are on display in the town's well-curated museums. 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. http://www.visitlazio.com/en/dettaglio/-/turismo/907138/museo-archeologico-nazionale-tarquiniense

    Highlights of the Tarquinia National Museum include stone sarcophagi; 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 Ceramica d'Uso a Corneto) is devoted not to the Etruscan era but ​to much later times: the medieval and Renaissance periods. The collection is strong on painted pottery and dishes. A reconstruction of a 500-year-old kitchen is not to be missed.​​​​​​

  • 08 of 10

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

    Fountains of Villa Lante Italy
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    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, a scholarly man in later life. The cardinal engaged a famous architect of his era, Giacomo Barozzi, who was known as Vignola.

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

    Villa Lante is not the usual sedate garden. Vignola's vision for Villa Lante was predicated on waterworks. They were state-of-the-art for their time, much like an estate today with its own Pilates gym, recording studio, and heliport.

    Vignola's design wowed onlookers with ingenious features (like stepped grottoes with chutes of water, and fountains cascading down a hillside. It also held surprises like massive stone Neptunes or grotesque, mask-like faces.

    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 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. Here's Villa Lante's site, in English.

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  • 09 of 10

    Near Tarquinia: Palazzo Farnese, a Popes' Palace

    Palazzo Farnese staircase
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    Palazzo of the Farnese Family: Dynasty as Powerful as the Medici

    Palazzo 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 Villa Farnese Gallery, in Rome, is a treasure house of Italian painting.)

    All of Renaissance Style in One Palazzo

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

    A Fort Outside, a Palace Within

    Palazzo 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 Mannerism, with a solid, blocky, rectangular aspect and less-ornamented embellishments. The effect is handsome and forbidding.

    Inside, Palazzo 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, and its many private suites suggest the dynastic power of the Farnese.

    Fresco-a-Go-Go

    The main attraction of Palazzo 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

    Palazzo 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.

    Palazzo Farnese Still Amazes

    Palazzo 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 10

    Tarquinia's Delicious Dining (and Beloved Pizzeria)

    Best restaurant in Tarquinia, Ambaradam
    Ambaradam 

    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

    Ambaradam is a heart-and-soul Italian restaurant. Dining is indoors in a centuries-old grotto-like 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 following a visit to Palazzo 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

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