Europe’s Convents Offer Tranquility — and Treats

By Rick Steves
Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy
Amid the tangle of downtown Rome, convents can provide a restful oasis for weary travelers. (photo: Rick Steves)
Nun selling convent-produced almond cakes, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Nuns throughout Spain bake and sell specialty treats, like these almond cakes in Santiago de Compostela. (photo: Rick Steves)

Once, while traveling in the 1970s, the youth hostel where I had planned to stay was full, and the staff directed me to a nearby convent instead. As I walked there, I wondered if I was signing myself up for draconian curfews, spartan accommodations, and Mass at dawn.

Without funds for much else, I was resigned. But I shouldn't have worried — it turned out to be a beautiful, warmly welcoming, and deeply restful experience. Yes, it was austere compared to any hotel, but it had everything I needed, was exquisitely clean, and didn't require so much as a bedside prayer.

Around Europe, particularly in Spain and Italy, convents provide tranquil and often economical sleeping quarters. They can also be a way to tap into a deeply ingrained cultural heritage. In the past, many rich Europeans sent a daughter or two to a convent to live with nuns, where they excelled at needlework and baking — skills still practiced today. Today, overnight guests can still get a taste of life as a Polish nun in Rome, spend some time in a serene monastery garden, or buy some cookies from a sequestered nun in Spain.

To find convent accommodations, try an aggregator such as Monastery Stays or Paradores of Spain. St. Patrick's Church in Rome, home to the Catholic American Community of Rome, also lists places throughout Italy. These days some religious orders have third parties run their guesthouses as businesses, but there are plenty of convents where the nuns themselves manage the hospitality.

At Casa di Santa Brigida in Rome, for example, the nuns are five-star-caliber hosts. This lavish 20-room convent — with a library, roof garden, and pearly gates instead of doors — makes exhaust-stained tourists feel like they've died and gone to heaven. With soft-spoken sisters gliding down polished hallways, it's a peaceful retreat in the middle of crusty, medieval Rome — though it's not as economical as most convent stays (about $230 a night).

Many convents offer only twin beds, and English can be in short supply. Accommodations can feel restrictive to those used to hotels; check-in hours can be limited, and some of these places do enforce curfews (say, around 11:30 p.m.). You'll need to book most far in advance and respect the rules of the house.

But the advantages of staying in these peaceful places can more than make up for the drawbacks. Many are great deals in amazing locations. In many key Catholic cities, a grand bishop's palace — historically owned by the church — stands near the cathedral. Nowadays, these former palaces can be ideal spots to spend the night. For example, right above Assisi's famed Basilica of St. Clare is St. Anthony's Guest House, where the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement offer a serene welcome within the old city walls just a few minutes' walk from the main piazza.

Convents can have wonderful ambiance. You might climb into bed in your simple room next to a 500-year-old fresco peeking through the whitewash on the wall — then wake in the morning to the sound of sisters singing hymns during Mass. Convents commonly feature walled gardens — dreamy oases with quiet, prayerful atmosphere, where guests are free to wander and rest.

To nourish your sweet tooth along with your soul, look for nun-baked pastries — especially common in Spain. In Ávila, local nuns make pastries called yemas — soft-boiled egg yolks that have been cooled and sugared; they're sold all over town.

Arcos de la Frontera, one of Andalucía's white hill towns, has just one remaining convent still in operation. Here, the sisters are cloistered from the public behind no-nunsense, spiky window grilles with tiny peepholes in the latticework for the nuns to see through. Visitors stepping into the lobby find a one-way mirror and a spinning cupboard that hides the nuns from view. On request, one of the sisters will spin out some boxes of excellent, freshly baked nut-studded cookies or cupcakes. (Though these nuns don't speak English, they have mastered Google Translate.)

For centuries, most of Toledo's almond-fruity-sweet mazapán was made at local convents — but with the city's population of nuns dwindling, it's become difficult to get this treat directly from the source. Fortunately, area convents still supply mazapán to El Café de las Monjas, a pastry and coffee shop. For a sweet and romantic evening moment, pick some up and head down to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, where you can nibble your treats on a bench in front of Spain's best-looking city hall while admiring the country's most magnificent cathedral — built back when Toledo was Spain's capital — shining brightly against the black night sky.

Whether staying overnight, enjoying a quiet convent garden, or indulging in a taste of sugary blessings from smiling nuns, a European convent may inject a peaceful energy into your travels.