Italy has many historic monasteries and abbeys, mostly dating from medieval times. Some of them were built in stunning isolated settings, on mountaintops or perched on rocky promontories, often so that monks could escape religious persecution. Others were on the edges of cities which have since grown bigger.
While many monasteries and abbeys are no more than evocative ruins, there are some that are still working monasteries that can be visited and some that have been turned into museums. Here are a few of my favorites:
Montecassino Abbey, Between Rome and Naples
Montecassino is probably Italy’s most well-known abbey, known for the crucial World War II battle site of Monte Cassino. It’s also one of Europe’s oldest monasteries, having been founded in the 6th century by Saint Benedict. It’s still a working monastery today but much of it is open to the public, including the church, cloisters, and the Loggia of Paradise from where there are great views. There’s also a museum.
La Sacra di San Michele, Piemonte
La Sacra di San Michele, or Saint Michael, is a beautiful abbey and monastery dramatically perched on a rocky mountain in northern Italy’s Piemonte region. Located about midway between Mont San Michel in France and San Michele Sanctuary in Monte Sant Angelo, Puglia, it’s one of the most important places dedicated to Saint Michael. Founded in 983, it was one of Europe’s most famous Benedictine monasteries during the 11th – 14th centuries. The newer monastery dates from the 12th – 15th centuries and there are beautiful restored frescoes, the newer and a museum of daily life. The views over the Susa Valley are stunning as is the view of the monastery as you approach it.
- La Sacra di San Michele Visiting Information
- We visited San Michele as guests of Bella Baita Italian Alps Retreat, a highly recommended place to stay.
Santa Croce Monastery of Fonte Avellana, le Marche
Although not high on a mountain, the Benedictine Monastery of Santa Croce of Fonte Avellana, is also in a pretty setting. It’s still a working monastery, home to a group of Camaldolese monks. Founded in 980, one of the most interesting things to see is the ancient Scriptorium where monks used to spend daylight hours copying texts. You can take a guided tour (call in advance for a tour in English) and you can even eat lunch in the monastery by booking ahead. Stop in the shop selling products made by the monks and try an herbal tea or the monastery’s special liquor in the bar.
There’s another monastery of Camaldolese monks in Camaldoli, Tuscany, that’s open to visitors too.
La Verna, Tuscany
There are several monasteries and churches associated with Saint Francis, the most famous being the basilica in Assisi, Umbria. My favorite though is La Verna, another beautiful spot atop a rocky promontory in eastern Tuscany. La Verna is where Saint Francis is said to have received the stigmata in 1224. He founded a small church here and later a Franciscan monastery and larger church were built. Visitors can still see the original church, the cave where he slept, and the chapel built on the spot where he received the stigmata. There’s also a museum and guest accommodations on site.
Pomposa Abbey, Emilia Romagna
Pomposa Abbey is a 9th century Benedictine Monastery that was once a center of culture with a library well-known for its manuscripts, making it one of the most important monasteries in northern Italy. It was here that our system of musical notation was developed in the 11th century. Pomposa is no longer a working monastery but visitors can walk through the complex and visit the Romanesque Church decorated with frescoes and inlaid mosaic pavement and admire the 11th century bell tower. There are a couple of restaurants nearby, making for a nice day out in the countryside near Ferrara.
Santa Giulia Monastery Complex, Brescia
The Santa Giulia City Museum of Brescia, in northern Italy, is one of my favorite museums. Housed in an 8th century convent, the museum is a journey through history that includes remains of ancient Roman houses uncovered in the convent’s garden and 2 stunning churches dating from the 8th and 12th centuries.
- Find out more about it in our Brescia Guide
Santa Chiara Monastery, Naples
Santa Chiara Monastery, built in the 14th century, is another of my favorites. In the cloister are beautiful majolica tiled columns and benches and 17th-century frescoes, a peaceful contrast to the bustling center of Naples. The monastery’s original church was the largest Clarissan church ever built. The complex includes an archeological area with a Roman bath excavation and a museum with religious and archaeological relics, Christmas cribs, and relics of Saint Louis of Toulouse, including his brain.
San Marco Monastery, Florence
Florence’s San Marco Museum, housed in the Dominican monastery cloisters, is important primarily for the art and frescoes created by the famous monk and Renaissance artist, Fra Angelico. However it was also the monastery that was home to Savonarola, the 15th century monk who preached against art and literature and visitors can see his cell inside the monastery. Other Renaissance art works are also inside the museum, which is usually much less crowded than Florence’s more famous museums.
- Find out more about it in our Florence Guide
Related Reading and Lodging
For more places to go, get the book The Pilgrim’s Italy: A Travel Guide to the Saints, covering religious sites in eight of Italy’s regions from Puglia in the south through the Veneto in the north.
Would you like to stay in a monastery or convent? Monastery Stays has many listings in Italy.