Is it worth visiting Castel Sant Angelo Rome?
People ask me this a lot, along with "what's inside?"
I am here to tell you, visiting Castel Sant'Angelo should be on your list of Rome must-sees. Here's why.
What if I told you that you could visit the tomb of a Roman emperor, see Raphael-inspired art, check out the site of fierce centuries-old battles with leftover cannons and cannonballs, and have a spritz with a stunning view of Saint Peter’s basilica, all in one place?
And that’s not all! You can admire a piece of Michelangelo architecture, see where popes lived when they were hiding from their enemies, and walk around a real castle-moat.
If you’re lucky, you can even cross the secret passageway between a castle and the Vatican, check out a Raphael-designed toilet specially designed for a pope, and visit the cells of one of the most feared dungeons in Roman history.
Are you convinced? If not, how about this view:
Finally, a great reason to visit Castel Sant’Angelo is because you can see with your own eyes the progression of its architecture that reflects the transformation of Rome itself over the last 1,900 years.
On this page, we’ll go over:
The history of Castel Sant’Angelo is pretty complex and also really fascinating.
The monument has changed names, personalities, architecture, and uses many times over the nearly 2,000 years of its existence.
If you visit the Ara Pacis, you will see a large, round, ancient monument in front of it.
That monument is the mausoleum of Rome’s first emperor, Octavian Augustus. (Sadly, the monument has been closed for decades, although recently, a new project is underway to restore it so we can all visit it.)
Emperor Hadrian came along about a hundred years later. He saw himself as the next Augustus.
Like Augustus, he envisioned grand building works for Rome (you may know some of his accomplishments, such as the Pantheon, and his wall in what is today England.)
One of the things that inspired Hadrian was Augustus’ mausoleum. If it was good enough for Augustus, it was good enough for Hadrian. So, he had one built for himself on the Tiber river.
The Hadrianeum or Sepulcrum Antoninorum, (which means Hadrian’s Mausoleum) as it would be called at first, was built between 135 – 139 CE, completed under Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius one year after Hadrian’s death.
Hadrian was cremated and buried there once it was completed.
Subsequent emperors were also buried there up to and including, in 217, Emperor Caracalla (he of the baths).
As Rome’s fortunes changed, so did Hadrian’s mausoleum.
Towards the end of the 3rd century, the mighty Roman Empire began its long slow decay.
In 271 CE, Emperor Aurelian had defensive walls built around the city. These walls encompassed Hadrian’s Mausoleum.
In 401, Hadrian’s tomb, as part of the Aurelian Walls, was converted into a military fortress.
In 403, the Western Roman Emperor Honorius expanded and modified the Aurelian walls, nearly doubling them in height. The mausoleum began to take on a new identity. The word castellum was starting to be used to describe it.
Despite the walls’ new height and thickness, Rome continued to suffer near-constant attacks. Tribes from the north, such as Barbarians, Goths, Visigoths, and others continuously sacked Rome.
In one brutal raid by the Visigoth hordes led by Alaric in 410, the urns and ashes from the fortress were broken and scattered. Bye-bye priceless relics from Ancient Rome.
When Rome was attacked by Goths in 537, the Romans withdrew to the fortress and threw many of the original bronze and stone decorative statues at the raiders in an attempt to defend themselves.
Can you just picture this?
I cringe at what was lost. Anyway, it was all to no avail. Rome was mercilessly razed.
Thankfully, one thing from Ancient Rome, besides the building itself, survived these raids.
The porphyry marble lid of Hadrian’s tomb was somehow preserved and placed on top of the tomb of Otto II in the grottoes of St. Peter’s Basilica. It eventually made its way to becoming the base of a baptismal font, which can be seen in the first chapel on the left-hand side of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Why is this monument called Castel Sant’Angelo – Castle of the Holy Angel?
In 590, Rome was suffering from a devastating plague that had been raging through the region for about 50 years. Pope Gregory I led a penitential procession to drive away the infestation. The procession passed right by the castle. And in that moment, the pope had a vision of the Archangel Michael above the castle, sheathing his sword.
Coincidentally, after this event, the plague ended.
Naturally the Pope took it as a sign that his vision had divine meaning. The fortress was now referred to as Castel Sant’Angelo – Castle of the Holy Angel.
Of course a castle named for an angel should have an angel adorning its roof.
There have been 6 angels up there:
Once it ceased being an imperial burial place, Castel Sant’Angelo played the part of lone or at least main, fortress in Rome.
In the Middle Ages, popes often sparred for control of it with powerful noble families, mostly the Crescenzi and the Orsini.
In the 9th century, Pope Leo IV linked the castle to the Vatican walls.
In 1277 Pope Nicholas III (Orsini) moved the Apostolic See there, due to its location near St. Peter’s Basilica.
He then renovated the part of the existing Leonine wall that linked the castle to St. Peter’s Basilica. He also covered a portion of the top of it to create the Passetto di Borgo (which you can walk along today if you take the Castel Sant’Angelo Secret Tour.)
The 800-meter long (2,600 feet) passageway allowed the Pope to escape and hide in the fortified castle if Rome or the Vatican came under attack, which was a pretty common event back then.
In 1367, to mark the end the Avignon papacy and return of the Holy See to Rome, Pope Urban V received the keys to Castel Sant’Angelo. It was this moment that sealed the building’s destiny as a papal stronghold.
From then on, many popes had a hand in altering the structure and function of the castle.
Pope Boniface IX built a new internal ramp in the late 14th century. Pope Nicholas V built small towers on the outer walls in the early 15th century.
Pope Alexander VI (Borgia) was one of the popes who oversaw a majority of works on the castle. In the late 15th century, he had bastions built on each corner, created warehouses to store supplies, and adorned many rooms as sumptuous apartments, painted by the foremost artists of the day.
In 1514 Pope Leo X (Medici) built a chapel of Saints Cosma e Damiano, the twin Greek saints who were protectors of the Medici. The pope had Michelangelo build a small outer aedicule (shrine) as part of the chapel.
Raffaello da Montelupo, who worked for Michelangelo, made a Madonna for the chapel.
In 1536 the same artist, Montelupo, created a marble statue of the Archangel Michael to be placed on top, to replace the previous bronze statue that had been melted down to make weapons during the 1527 Sack of Rome.
It’s quite interesting to see the two different styles of these most recent angels. The one designed by Raffaello da Montelupo shows the influence of working alongside Michelangelo on Pope Julius’ tomb, where the warrior pope is seen resting and at peace.
In contrast, the angel now on top of the castle is much more dynamic and dramatic.
Influenced by a famous painting by Guido Reni that you can see in the church of the Cappuccini on via Veneto, the Flemish angel seems to be almost leaping upwards as he sheaths his sword.
Pope Alexander VI, who had once escaped to the castle in fear for his life, actually enjoyed staying there. He turned some of the rooms into his private party palace, complete with stunning art by the best artists of the day.
The Borgia pope’s coat of arms used to adorn the outer wall of the castle, but these were mostly destroyed by French troops in the battle to unify Italy in the 19th century. You can, however, see intact coat of arms inside the castle.
In 1542, Pope Paul III (Farnese) embellished the papal apartments even further, so he and subsequent popes could hang out in style.
Some of the Renaissance work has been lost, but much remains and it’s absolutely stunning.
The castle was used as a prison almost from the time it ceased being a mausoleum. Prisoners were held there before their executions. Sometimes they were simply left to starve to death (similar to the much more ancient Mamertine Prison.)
Supposedly, Pope Alexender IV held lavish parties right over the dungeons where the condemned were held.
Executions were sometimes held in the courtyard. But they were also held in front of the castle for effect. Look guys, behave yourselves or you’ll have to suffer the consequences. Caravaggio wrote about witnessing a gruesome execution here.
People who were held prisoner and executed included popes in the Middle Ages, but also nobles, artists, and philosophers.
Some of the most famous prisoners include Giordano Bruno, Beatrice Cenci, Benvenuto Cellini, and “il Cagliostro.” Cellini and il Cagliostro survived to tell the tale. Most others were much less fortunate.
Giordano Bruno was a Dominican friar and philosopher.
A contemporary of Galileo Galilei, Bruno is famed for his ideas that the earth revolved around the sun and that stars might be other solar systems with their own plants, a theory called cosmic pluralism. He embraced the nascent Copernican model.
Bruno also posited that the universe was infinite and disagreed that the earth was at the center.
During the Roman Inquisition, Bruno was charged with heresy.
In 1593 he was imprisoned in Castel Sant'Angelo and remained there until his horrific execution in February, 1600 in Campo dei Fiori.
His crimes were not actually about his cosmic theories, but rather his ideas about the divinity of Christ, reincarnation, and other unfavourable views.
In January 1600 he was found guilty. He was burned at the stake, naked and upside-down, in the centre of Campo dei Fiori. His ashes were thrown into the Tiber river.
Giordano Bruno remains to this day a martyr for science and free thought. He was eventually exonerated, and a commemorative statue of him was placed in Campo dei Fiori, with Bruno's gazed fixed towards the Vatican across the river.
The tragic story of Beatrice Cenci makes me cringe every time I hear it or write about it.
Beatrice came from a noble family. Her father was a violent brute, beating his family members and supposedly raping Beatrice several times over.
All of Rome knew what he was, but he never had to answer for his crimes due to his wealth and status.
Beatrice, her stepmother, brother, and a servant conspired to murder Francesco Cenci. And while all of Rome knew about this, too, nobody wanted to see the family suffer for their crime.
Unfortunately, the pope felt differently (let’s remember that when a noble family died intestate, the wealth came to the Church.)
The servant was tortured and killed without revealing anything.
But Beatrice, her stepmother, and her older brother were tried and sentenced to death. The youngest brother had to watch these executions.
Caravaggio was present and it’s likely he used the murder of Beatrice, who was beheaded, as inspiration for his painting of Judith beheading Holofernes.
If you visit the Jewish Ghetto, you can see the loggia of Palazzo Cenci.
Along via Giulia, where Beatrice was held before being taken to the execution scaffolding in front of Castel Sant’Angelo, you can see this plaque:
Beatrice is buried high on the Gianicolo Hill in the lovely church of San Pietro in Montorio.
Count Alessandro di Cagliostro (1743 - 1795) was the alias of the occultist and bonvivant Giuseppe Balsamo.
Cagliostro was born poor, but grew up to embrace a fascinating, if a bit illegal, life full of adventure and shenanigans.
He made his way into the royal courts of Europe, practicing dark arts and magic. He became infamous for some of his misdeeds including a particularly shocking case of a stolen diamond necklace that involved Marie Antoinette.
Cagliostro was a mason, mystic, healer, and alchemist.
Sadly, he lived during the Inquisition in which people like him were often betrayed by their friends and relatives to curry favour with the Inquisitors.
And that's exactly what happened.
Possibly Cagliostro's wife was the one to betray him during Confession, but either way, on 27 December 1789 he was arrested and imprisoned in Castel Sant'Angelo. He was sentenced to death, but his sentence was later reduced to life imprisonment. He was moved to another prison where he eventually died.
Benvenuto Cellini (1500 – 1571) was an Italian goldsmith, sculptor, jeweller, poet, and artist.
He lived a very colourful life and his deeds/misdeeds almost overshadow his masterpieces.
One of Cellini's best-known works sits in Piazza della Signoria in Florence - Perseus with Medusa's head.
As a jeweler he was sometimes involved in making or fixing important pieces of nobles and popes.
At one point, he was falsely accused of stealing some jewels from the pope's tiara.
Nonetheless he was imprisoned in Castel Sant'Angelo. He managed to escape but broke his leg in the process. He was put back in prison but later pardoned.
Cellini would be accused of many things, most of them true (sodomy, murder, rabble-rousing) but he was in such favour with the Medici's and the French court that he outlived it all and died peacefully at the age of 71.
After the unification of Italy, Castel Sant’Angelo became a military barracks. In 1901 it was converted to the Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo.
While most museums have a unified theme, Castel Sant’Angelo offers one of the most varied collections of art, artefacts, and architecture in Rome.
Because it’s been in constant use since its inception under Emperor Hadrian nearly 2,000 years ago, the castle reflects the changes the city underwent through its sometimes turbulent history.
In Castel Sant’Angelo’s interior, you will find architecture and artefacts from imperial Rome, weapons and architecture from medieval Rome, and masterpieces from the Renaissance.
A few highlights to look for:
As I mentioned above, you will see the last two angels made for the castle: the one by Raffaello da Montelupo, and the one now on the roof.
Throughout the upper floors of the castle where the popes lived, you will see what is called grotesque painting.
In the papal apartments you will also find paintings by Luca Signorelli, Giulio Romano, Perin del Vaga and others of Raphael’s school.
When Hadrian’s Mausoleum was built, it was the tallest building in Rome.
Like the building that inspired it, the mausoleum of Augustus, Hadrian’s mausoleum was also a decorated cylinder.
It was topped with cypress trees and Hadrian as the sun god Helios driving a golden quadriga (4-horse chariot). On all sides along the top there would have been statues of previous emperors.
A wall surrounded the mausoleum. The entry was through a large bronze gate flanked by two bronze peacocks.
You can see the peacocks in the new wing of the Vatican Museums (in the Pinecone courtyard you can see copies.)
The building was made of travertine and tufa using the opus caementicium pattern. You can still see some of this stone today on the first levels.
There was a helicoid ramp inside that allowed access to the top.
That is the ramp you walk on today when you visit the inside of the castle. And it’s the ramp you use to exit the monument.
As you exit, take a look at the little model of the original mausoleum.
Have you read the book Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, or seen the movie with Tom Hanks, based on the book?
In the book and movie, Castel Sant’Angelo was the setting for the mysterious location of the Chapel of the Illuminati, not to mention the Passetto di Borgo that allowed the pope to escape danger.
There were and still are many hidden secret rooms in the castle, making it a perfect backdrop for a thriller like Angels and Demons. The Passetto di Borgo is romantic enough in real life, with its history of popes fleeing marauding hordes. And it fit perfectly with the story of Vatican-related intrigue in Angels and Demons.
Before Dan Brown came along, there was Puccini. In Puccini’s opera, Tosca, the roof terrace is where the main character leaps to her death in the third act.
If you are a gaming fan, you can climb to the top of Castel Sant’Angelo in Assassin’s Creed II, and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.
My personal favorite reference to Castel Sant’Angelo in film is with the classic Audrey Hepburn/Gregory Peck movie Roman Holiday. I love to see the two of them dancing underneath, and all that follows, both hilarious and romantic, in this iconic scene (you can see Castel Sant'Angelo in the below clip, which is dubbed in Italian.)
The first thing you may be asking yourself is IF you should visit Castel Sant’Angelo. I addressed this first thing, explaining why I think it’s worth it to visit Castel Sant’Angelo.
You may not think you have time. If you want to fit in a visit to this fabulous monument, here are my tips:
If you visit on your own, i.e. without a tour, consider using the well-made audio-guide. You can pick this up when you enter the monument.
Even if you don’t use any guide at all, the route is well-marked and you will find some signage as you go, so you’ll know what you’re looking at.
I am a big fan of taking tours, especially when it comes to such a complex monument as Castel Sant’Angelo. You can easily go on your own, using an audio-guide or not, and take your time. But a tour will bring the history to life. Also, there are some things you can see only if you are on a tour:
I am a big fan of booking in advance. Even in what you might call low or mid season, you can come upon unexpected queues. There is only a small fee for booking in advance, and it will give you peace of mind.
Do you need to book in advance? Castel Sant'Angelo does not require it. But lately it has become a more popular monument in Rome, as people look to what they hope will be less-crowded sites like the Colosseum and Vatican.
Castel Sant’Angelo is stunning at night, even just to look at from the bridge. To visit the castle at night is another matter.
In recent years, the castle has been open for various types of night visits and even concerts. There is not one consistent night visit of Castel Sant’Angelo.
But by far your best chance of getting to visit Castel Sant’Angelo at night is to be in Rome in the summer months, and on a weekend (Thursday – Sunday.) Look for night tours on our trusted partner websites Get Your Guide and Viator, and if you can book one, you’re good to go!
Unlike the Colosseum, Castel Sant’Angelo is surrounded by its own park.
And the park is usually not crowded. This is a great place to hang out and chill. Rest your feet, let your kids play, just enjoy some green space and a beautiful view.
One of the best views of Castel Sant’Angelo is from the Angel Bridge. I recommend early morning, dusk, or nighttime.
Some other excellent views of the castle include from the Vittorio Emanuele II bridge, and from underneath the Angel bridge.
The first time I discovered the café on the roof of Castel Sant’Angelo, I thought, this has to be Rome’s best kept secret. I mean, there is nothing like this view. Not exactly anyway.
I still feel that way but after having numerous aperitivos up there I can give you some advice:
The first time I saw the view from Castel Sant’Angelo, I was completely shocked. I had had no idea it would be so amazing. I hesitate to use the word “amazing” as it’s overused, but I was truly amazed.
First of all, the vantagepoint on the curve of the Tiber and across from Rome’s center allows you a nearly 360-degree panorama of Rome.
Second of all, the height of the castle is enough to allow you rooftop views but not so high up that the rooftops get lost in a sea of buildings.
Obviously, the view of Saint Peter’s dome is superb, as it’s so close.
Once you are up on the terrace, take note of the bell of the condemned which sits to the left of the angel. The bell rang before each execution.
When Hadrian had his mausoleum built, he also ordered a bridge that would connect his mausoleum to the city on the other side of the Tiber. That bridge still exists today even though it, too, has been changed a bit since its inception.
At the time of its creation, the bridge was called, justifiably, Pons Aelius (after Hadrian whose full name was Publius Aelius Hadrianus).
Once the mausoleum changed its use and name, the bridge followed suit and was also renamed to Ponte Sant’Angelo, or Angel Bridge.
The structure of the bridge is from ancient Rome whereas the beautiful angels that adorn the bridge were inspired by designs of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. If you want to see the actual angels that Bernini made that did inspire the ones on the bridge, you can visit the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte.
In darker times, and before the angels you see today, Ponte Sant’Angelo was sometimes adorned by the severed heads of those who’d been executed at the castle. Something right out of a horror movie but that’s the way it was!
The angels you see today hold various objects that symbolize the Passion of Christ. The order is from Rome towards the castle.
Hours: Open daily 9 am - 7.30 pm.
Standard Castel Sant'Angelo entrance fee – 15 Euros
Reduced entrance fee (EU citizens aged 18-25) – 2 Euros
Free for – Everyone under 18
When you book via TicketOne, the orrifial Castel'Sant'Angelo ticketing agency, there is a small booking fee.
Address: Lungotevere Castello, 50.
The nearest Metro stops are both on the red line A - Ottaviano or Lepanto. Castel Sant'Angelo is about a 20 minute walk from either of these.
Depending on where you are coming from, there are many buses that stop right near Castel Sant'Angelo, including the 40, 64, 70, 62 and many others.
The time needed to visit Castel Sant'Angelo depends on you - the time you have and your interest in what's inside.
You could visit Castel Sant’Angelo in about an hour if you just wanted to breeze through it and get to the roof for the views.
Of course, I would recommend you spend at least a bit of time soaking up the architecture, art, history, and ambiance. Add on at least a half hour for a drink with a view, and it could become a 3-hour experience.
So if you go on your own, you can take as much or as little time as you want.
Tours usually last about 2 hours. I have taken a few different types of tours and they are always worth it and interesting.