As newly elected Pope Francis prepares to make his Easter debut at St Peter's, Rome basks in the international spotlight. But while all eyes are turned to the Vatican and crowds of people flock to the city's headline sights, the surrounding region of Lazio remains largely undiscovered by the mass of tourists.
Bordering Tuscany and Umbria in the north and Campania in the south, this often overlooked region of central Italy is rich in cultural interest and natural beauty. Outside of Rome, it is sparsely populated and geographically diverse, with large volcanic lakes at Bracciano, right, and Bolsena, sandy beaches and remote Apennine peaks. Its northern reaches are lush and green, their soft rolling contours reminiscent of the classic Tuscan countryside further north. To the south and east, the landscape takes on a sharper note as the hills become higher and the terrain less hospitable.
In the centre is Rome, Lazio's great showcase city. Founded in 753BC – if the legend of Romulus and Remus is to be believed – it grew to become the fearsome Caput Mundi (capital of the world), the hub of an empire that stretched from Spain to the Middle East, from North Africa to northern England. Decline set in after the 5th century when it fell to Germanic barbarians. But many of its monuments survive, not only in the city itself but also in the surrounding countryside, where you'll find epic sites such as Ostia Antica and the Unesco-listed Villa Adriana at Tivoli.
During the Middle Ages, Rome became an important religious destination as Christians flocked to the city to worship at the tombs of saints Peter and Paul. Trailblazing British pilgrims arrived on the Via Francigena, a 2,083km road that ran from Canterbury through France and Switzerland down to Rome. Some 800 years on, the Via is still open to walkers. Camino Ways (020-3468 1516; caminoways.com) is one of a number of operators that offers hiking tours along the Lazio leg of the route.
The Vatican and its priceless treasures are still a big draw for the city, especially at Easter when huge crowds gather on St Peter's Square to hear the Pope deliver his urbi et orbi blessing. To see where the papal conclave recently elected Pope Francis, head to the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums (00 39 06 698 84 676; mv.vatican.va) on Viale Vaticano. Admission €16.
Religious activity apart, spring is a gorgeous time to be in Lazio. Sunshine and blue skies bring out the best of Rome's colourful streets and the countryside is awash with greenery and wild flowers. In Rome, the Spanish Steps burst into life in mid-April when they are adorned with hundreds of blooming azaleas. Later, on 21 April, the city celebrates its birthday with fireworks and historical re-enactments.
But long before Rome was founded, Lazio was home to a thriving ancient civilisation. The Etruscans emerged from the Stone Age to dominate pre-Roman Italy. Little now remains of their once powerful city-states but Lazio's northern landscape is littered with haunting reminders of their passing.
For outdoor enthusiasts, there's excellent hiking in the Parco Nazionale d'Abruzzo, Lazio e Molise (00 39 0863 91131; parcoabruzzo.it), a remote wilderness in the region's wild south-east where Marsican brown bears and Apennine wolves roam free in the wooded mountains. To the west, the wetlands of the Parco Nazionale del Circeo (00 39 0773 512240; parcocirceo.it) sidle up to sand dunes and the region's best beaches, which offer birdwatching and watersports.
Archaeological hot spots
Rome's ancient ruins are heart-stopping. A €12 ticket covers the Colosseum (00 39 06 399 67 700; coopculture.it), Roman Forum and Palatine, where Romulus founded the city.
Outside Rome is the archaeological site of Ostia Antica, above, (00 39 06 563 502 15; www.ostiaantica.beniculturali.it), which has survived in remarkable shape. It's thrilling to explore the amphitheatre, forum and Terme di Nettuno. Admission €8. In Tivoli, Villa Adriana (00 39 06 382 733; villaadriana.beniculturali.it), Emperor Hadrian's summer house, is another inspiring spectacle. Much of the vast complex has crumbled away but it will still keep you engaged; admission €8.
The Etruscans forged a sophisticated society in the hills of southern Tuscany, Umbria and northern Lazio. In Tarquinia you can admire tomb frescos, above, at the 7th-century BC necropolis (necropoliditarquinia.it), and a rich collection of jewellery, sarcophagi and tools at the Museo Nazionale di Tarquinia (00 39 0766 856 036). Entry to either site is €6, joint ticket €8.
Another key stop is Cerveteri, home to the Necropoli della Banditaccia (00 39 06 994 0001), an eerie town of the dead lined with tombs; entry €6.
In Rome, visit the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia (00 39 06 322 6571; villagiulia.beniculturali.it) at Piazzale di Villa Giulia; entry €8.
A verdant pocket of wooded hills, volcanic lakes and medieval towns, the Castelli Romani have long served as a cool summer refuge for Romans.
Its best known towns are Frascati, an elegant wine centre, and the charming Castel Gandolfo.
Food and fine wine are Castelli's main draws. A local speciality is porchetta, herby spit-roasted pork from Ariccia. Taste it at no-frills Osteria da Angelo (00 39 06 933 17 77; osteriadangelo.it), where you can eat your fill for about €25.
Where to stay
In Rome, the recently opened Dimora degli Dei (00 39 06 681 93267; pantheondimoradeglidei.com) offers six refined, high-ceilinged rooms and a prime location near the Pantheon, left. Doubles from €120, including breakfast.
Behind the Roman Forum, Forty Seven (00 39 06 678 78 16; fortysevenhotel.com) is a stylish boutique hotel whose sharply designed modern doubles start at €170, including breakfast.
For exploring Lazio's Etruscan territories, the Agriturismo Antica Sosta (00 39 0761 251 369; agriturismoanticasosta.it) is conveniently situated just outside Viterbo. It has a highly rated restaurant and spacious, tastefully decorated doubles from €65, including breakfast.
To escape the crowds, head to Subiaco, where you can bunk down in modest monastic digs at the Monastero di Santa Scolastica (00 39 0774 85569; www.benedettini-subiaco.org). Doubles start at €74, including breakfast.
Deep in Lazio's eastern hills is the Monastero di San Benedetto (00 39 077 485 039; benedettini-subiaco.org), above, a mountaintop monastery built over the cave where St Benedict supposedly holed up for three years to meditate. It takes some getting to, but it's worth it for the lovely 13th- to 15th-century frescos and huge panoramas.
Another dramatic sight is Civita di Bagnoregio (www.civitadibagnoregio.it), a rocky ghost town grafted on to a giant tufa outcrop in a ravine about 30km north of Viterbo.
Off Lazio's southern coast, the Pontine Islands are popular with Romans, but little known to outsiders. The largest and easiest to get to is Ponza (www.isolaponza.it), whose craggy coves are wonderfully tranquil in spring. Year-round ferries serve the island from Terracina.
Lazio is easily accessible from the UK. Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport is served by Monarch (0871 940 5040; monarch.co.uk) from Luton, Birmingham and Leeds/Bradford; British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow and Gatwick; Alitalia (0871 424 1424; alitalia.com) from Heathrow and, soon, London City; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Gatwick and Bristol; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from Glasgow, Leeds/Bradford and Manchester. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies to Rome's smaller Ciampino airport from Stansted, East Midlands, Manchester, Edinburgh and Prestwick.
You can get almost everywhere in Lazio by public transport. Trenitalia (trenitalia.com) trains run from Rome's Stazione Termini to destinations across the region, and there's a comprehensive bus service operated by Cotral (cotralspa.it). That said, a car will save you a lot of time. Car hire is available at both airports and Stazione Termini.