The Abbazia di Montecassino, or the Montecassino Abbey as it’s known in English, has a tumultuous 1,500-year history of destruction and recovery.
As with all great historical buildings, the Abbey has many stories to tell. It’s picked up many monikers in its time as the centre of Western Christianity; being referred to both as the ‘Lighthouse of Western Civilization’ and the ‘Athens of the Middle Ages’. Today Monte Cassino Abbey remains one of Europe's oldest monasteries and is one of Italy's best-kept secrets.
A short drive from Rome, Monte Cassino is popular with Italian visitors, but can often be overlooked by international tourists. Even without its religious significance or resilient history, the views alone make a visit to Monte Cassino one of the best things to do in the Lazio region of Italy.
As you ascend the switchback road from Cassino, the haze starts to give way to clear blue skies as you catch glimpses of a great hilltop monastery high above the clouds. When you enter the abbey. you are met with sweeping views of the Latin Valley, beautifully framed by palatial balconies and great columns.
In the morning, the peaks of the snow-capped Abruzzo Mountains jut out of the low-hanging clouds below. You can see why St Benedict chose this spot - Monte Cassino feels about as close to heaven-on-earth as you can get.
It’s grand but understated. White stone walls are broken up with large squares, cloisters, and gardens, along with statues and sculptures depicting Saint Benedict and his sister Saint Scholastic. The cathedral-basilica is more opulent, adorned with golden relics and numerous frescoes.
Underneath, you are led through a tunnelled staircase with a starry-sky ceiling to the crypt - revealing intricate golden mosaics of religious figures. Next, head inside the Monte Cassino Museum to find exposed manuscripts, scrupulously transcribed by monks, and the cloister of St. Anna built around a well from Roman times.
The Montecassino Abbey is perhaps most famous for its resilience. It was the first house of the Benedictine Order, established by the Benedict of Nursia himself in 529 CE. The abbey has since been destroyed and rebuilt on many occasions.
From invading Lombards to being sacked by Saracens and then getting flattened by an earthquake in 1349, the abbey on top of the mountain was rebuilt from the ground up on numerous occasions. During the French Revolutionary Wars, it was sacked once more by French troops, and dissolved by the Italian government in 1866.
It then became a national monument, with the monks acting as custodians of its many treasures - after the outbreak of war many treasures were brought here for safekeeping. These were luckily returned to the Vatican when Monte Cassino became the latest frontline in the Allied forces' battle for Italy.
In 1944, between 17 January and 18 May, the abbey became a pivotal location for the Allies and their eventual victory in WWII. But this came at a great cost. Many died on both sides and the abbey was destroyed once more. The only remnants that could be salvaged were the imposing bronze doors, originally cast in Constantinople in 1066.
The allied bombing of Monte Cassino was one of the biggest cultural losses of WW2 and today remains a highly debated decision of the war itself. The Italian campaign arrived at a stalemate at Cassino and the Gustav Line in January 1944.
Allied Forces assumed that the Germans were using Monte Cassino, a neutral religious monument, as a fortified position and observation post. It’s thought that misinformation led to aerial bombers being dispatched over the sacred site on February 15, 1944. The resulting bombardment led to its total destruction.
While not a single German soldier was injured and the two resident monks survived unscathed, an estimated 115 refugees taking shelter from the surrounding chaos perished during the attack. Following the bombing, German forces hid in the rubble, fortifying the site and making further advancement impossible.
Finally, five months into the bloody campaign (four months after the monastery was levelled) allied troops captured Monte Cassino on May 18, 1944.
In total there were believed to be 55,000 Allied casualties, with German losses estimated at around 20,000. The rebuilt abbey and surrounding war grave cemeteries serve as a stark reminder of the costliness of war.
The small town of Cassino is the easiest place to stay when visiting Monte Cassino. There are lots of great guesthouses like the quirky B&B Parini, and a few traditional hotels like Hotel Piazza Marconi, just a 10-minute walk from Cassino Train Station. By staying in Cassino, you can beat the crowds and get to the abbey early - just as it’s emerging from the morning mist.
If you are travelling in a motorhome or campervan, you can stay even closer at the Monte Cassino Abbey car park, but take note that there are no services at this site (you will need to be self-contained). You can also visit Monte Cassino on a day trip from Rome or Naples.
In the mountains of Lazio in the Latin Valley, about 130 kilometres southeast of Rome, is the small town of Cassino. From here, the Abbey is a 15-minute drive on switchback roads, 520 metres up the side of the mountain.
Getting to Monte Cassino from Rome is easy to do on a day trip or as an overnight stopover on the way to Naples. Cassino town is just a few kilometres off the main A1 autostrada from Rome to Naples. It takes around an hour and a half (136 km) to get there by car from Rome.
The best way to get from Rome to Montecassino without a car is by train, with Trenitalia it takes around 2 hours to get to Cassino from Roma Tiburtina. A bus to Montecassino leaves from the Cassino train station at 9:55 am, 12:30 pm and 3:15 pm. You can also visit as part of an organised day trip.
The Abbey is open every day but the hours vary by season so check the website before visiting.
Guided tours are available for individuals and groups in Italian, English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Polish.
The church is closed during mass, but visitors are welcome to attend.
There is a small charge for parking and it costs €5 for the museum, but the monastery itself is free to enter.
Visitors are asked to wear appropriate church clothing and to not eat or drink while inside.
No pets are allowed on the grounds.
Last Updated 4 September 2023