Want to see Sacra di San Michele, an incredible mountain-top abbey, in person? This post will help you plan your visit, whether you want to hike up, drive up, or take a tour. Read on for all the details.
Perched on the peak of Mount Pirchiriano, just 60 km west of Turin, Sacra di San Michele will spark your imagination to heights it’s never been before. At least, that’s what it did for one of Italy’s most famous authors, Umberto Eco, who based the mystery filled fictional Benedictine Abbey in The Name of the Rose on this very real one.
As you stand on Sacra di San Michele’s dramatic balcony, watching birds swoop by at eye level and following the line of the Susa River valley until it disappears between crisp, white Alps, perhaps a novel filled with mystery and intrigue will come to you, too.
If you’re feeling inspired, read on for all the details to take a…
Day Trip to Sacra di San Michele
Check out our short video of our visit to Sacra di San Michele so you know what to expect before you go.
History of Sacra di San Michele
The abbey was founded in the late 900s (reports range from 966 to 987) as a part of the cult of St Michael aka the archangel Michael.
It is one of a group of abbeys dedicated to St Michael that form a pilgrimage route more than 2,000 km long. The sect was known for building their places of worship in dangerous or relatively inaccessible, like mountain tops, deep caves, or rocky promontories.
All of the abbeys along the route lie in a perfectly straight line, presumed to be an energetic ley line, running from Israel to Ireland.
The most famous of the group is Mont Saint Michel in France, where, before the tourist-friendly promontory was built, the tides made getting inside a dangerous activity.
If you’re interest in dedicating a year of your life or so, you can start the pilgrimage in Jerusalem at Monastery of Mount Carmel.
You’ll pass through the Monastery of St Micheal in Greece, Monte Sant’Angelo in the south of Italy, Sacra di San Michele, Mont St Michel in France and St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, England.
It all ends (presumably after a cold swim) on Skellig Michael, the windswept Irish island that was home to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
With a history like this, a day trip to Sacra di San Michele (known as St Michael’s Abbey in English) from Turin can’t help but evoke a time when the world was more mysterious and magical than it is today.
Even if you don’t care about religious sites or history, the beauty of the surroundings and the fresh air is well worth the time — and the climb.
Inside Sacra di San Michele
In its early centuries, the abbey went through a period of strong growth, with rooms being added to house monks and pilgrims. A new church was added in the 12th century, including an imposing lower level — and this is the main structure we see in photos today.
The Benedictine monks of San Michele expanded their influence during this time, too, eventually overseeing religious and legal matters in much of northern Italy and parts of the neighbouring France.
But, what goes up must come down, and the abbey and its management began to decline until 1622, when Pope Gregory the 15th shut it down for good. For a few hundred years it remained empty, until the mid-1800s, when the Rosminians, a Catholic charity, moved in and began to restore and revive the place.
Fast-forward a couple of hundred years to today and you’ll still find pilgrims, though possibly of a less pious sort, gathering daily in the abbey. For we modern pilgrims, there are modern amenities, like a parking lot, a cafe, and flushing toilets.
Though not as striking as the exterior, the interior of today’s church is worth the €8 entrance fee (unless you’re on an extremely tight budget). You’ll get to ascend the Stairway of the Dead, where early monks and benefactors are buried in tombs encased in the walls.
Up close, the flying buttresses are immense slabs of stone, impressive in their size and function. The 12th Century Door of the Zodiac was carved by Maestro Nicolao, a renowned master mason. The symbols of the zodiac decorate one side of the door, while on the other, 16 other constellations appear.
Don’t be fooled by the heft and imposing nature of the door that leads into the church itself. Despite its appearance of being permanently closed — and the decoration of the devil in snake form urging you to go away — it is the way in. We tried the door a few times and almost turned back to look for another way in before we got up the nerve to heave it open!
Inside the church itself, you’ll find tombs of Savoys placed here in the 1800s. There are also many sculptures, wall frescos, and an interesting progression of pillars with capitals to examine.
Step out the back door to the large patio for the most impressive views you’ll see all year.
The Susa river valley spreads out in two directions, while the Alps watch over from the north and west. Directly below, you’ll see the ruins of the earlier monastery. Watch birds soar in and out between the crumbling walls and prepare for your imagination to be set alight.
Hiking to Sacra di San Michele
Not being particularly taken by religion, we came to Sacra di San Michele mostly for the hike. We wanted to get into Piemonte’s beautiful countryside and enjoy the fresh air, which is sometimes absent in Torino.
There are a few hiking routes to Sacra di San Michele but we chose the one starting in the charming town of Sant’Ambrogio. It’s easily accessible by train from Turin, and you can start your hike at the train station like we did.
From there, cross the busy main road and head straight into the heart of the village. Leave a little time to wander the narrow streets of the town, absorbing the essence of small-town Italy, which doesn’t seem to have changed for a hundred years.
Family run shops beckon with open doors and enticing scents, while impossibly tiny cars zoom by improbably narrow streets. Every once in a while, you’ll get a glimpse of Sacra di San Michele through a gap in the buildings. Don’t forget to bring your camera.
To get to the start of the trail, find Chiesa di San Giovanni Vincenzo, a large catholic church in the centre of town. Walk through its parking lot and out the back — then start climbing. It’s all uphill from here.
There are signs to point the way and soon you’ll be walking a narrow paved path behind the houses of the village. This is a great way to get a glimpse into the lives of locals!
Up the Pilgrimage Route
After about 15 minutes, the path takes a sharp turn above the last houses in town and you’ll find yourself on a wooded hillside. Because it’s a pilgrimage route, the trail is paved with rounded stones, slippery from years of wear. Bring good shoes so you avoid turning your ankle or slipping down the hill.
The climb from here is uphill but not terribly steep. It will give your calves and quads a workout and you’ll work up a sweat, too. Take your time. There are plenty of rest spots along the way, including a couple of water spigots, where the water is not only potable but deliciously crisp and cold.
The other remarkable feature of the climb is the series of crosses placed along the route, representing the stations of the cross. They are all similar, so not too exciting, but they do serve as way markers, letting you know how far you’ve gone and how much is left.
Emerging from the forest around an hour later, you’ll get your first up-close views of the abbey. If your breath is not already quick and shallow from the hike, the first sight of Sacra di San Michele will do the trick.
Save some leg strength for the hike down. Walking on the slippery cobbles will leave you feeling the trek by the time you reach the bottom.
San Michele Brewery
Now, I reveal the secret behind why we chose to hike the Sant’Ambrogio route…
In the middle of town, this modern brewery offers a great selection of their own beers. A tasting session is the perfect way to restore your energy after a day of hiking. They also have an extensive menu, so you won’t need to go hungry!
Other Routes for Adventurers
There are a few other routes you can take up to the abbey.
Alternative Day Hiking Route
From Frazione Mortera, which is just above Avigliana, there is another popular trail that leads up to the abbey from a slightly different direction. It takes about the same amount of time (around 1.5 hours) but is less steep, since you start from a higher altitude.
You can also leave from Chiusa di San Michele, and hike up the mule track to the abbey.
Multi-day Through Hike
If you’re a long-distance hiker, you can come to Sacra di San Michele from Oulx, crossing over the Gran Bosco park and Orsiera Rocciavrè wildlife park. The route is about 60 km long, so be sure to prepare for an adventure and make accommodation or camping plans before you set out.
Had we planned a little better and had a little more climbing experience, we might have tried the via ferrata route to Sacra di San Michele. If you want to take this route, you’ll need around 4 hours, plus the proper equipment. For safety, we recommend hiring a local guide.
Sacra di San Michele Tour from Turin
5 hours, €38, book ahead online
If you’d rather skip the hike and travel to Sacra di San Michele with a guide, this tour will help with that. Travel by private coach from Torino and explore the abbey with a guide who will explain what you’re seeing!
Hours and Prices
The opening hours of the abbey are a little complicated, changing frequently based on time of day and year. So make sure to take note!
- Adults €8
- Reduced €6 (ages 6 to 18 and over 65)
- Free Kids 5 and under
- Family ticket €6 per person, 2 adults & 2 kids (6–18)
Winter Hours: October 16 to March 15
- Monday to Friday — 9.30 am to 12.30 pm & 2.30 pm to 5 pm
- Saturday — 9.30 am to 5 pm
- Sunday & public holidays — 9.30 am to 5 pm (entry from 12 pm to 1 pm only for the participation in the Saint Mass)
- January & February — closed Monday (except public holidays)
Summer Hours: March 16 to October 15
- Monday to Friday — 9.30 am to 12.30 pm & from 2.30 pm to 6pm
- Saturday — 9.30 am to 6 pm
- Sunday & public holidays — 9.30 am to 6 pm (entry from 12 pm to 1 pm only for the participation in the Saint Mass)
- Easter Monday, April 25, May 1, June 2 — 9.30 am to 7 pm
- July & August every day — 9.30 am to 7 pm
How to Get to Sacra di San Michele
If you’re coming from Turin, it’s easy to take the train to the two main starting points for a hike up the mountain.
- Torino Porta Nuova to Sant’Ambrogio, 1 train per hour, 30 mins, €4
- Torino Porta Nuova to Chiusa di San Michele, 1 train per hour, 40 mins, €4
By car, it’s a 30-minute drive from Torino, and there is plenty of free parking just off the main road in Sant’Ambrogio.
But, of course, we recommend taking the train because it’s just as quick and better for the environment. Plus, you can have a few beers at the San Michele Brewery if you don’t have to drive!
We hope this guide to visiting Sacra di San Michele is useful in planning your trip. We loved getting out into the fresh air of the Susa Valley and exploring the ruins of this 1,000-year-old abbey. Drop us an email if you need help planning or if we inspire you to go! We’d love to know.
♥ Happy transformational travels, Jane & Stephen
We’re not going to lie, it takes a LOT of work to create travel guides like this. But it’s easy to help us out! If you book or buy something using one of our personal links in this post, we’ll earn a small fee at no extra cost to you. Of course, we would never recommend anything we didn’t 100% believe in! Huge thanks in advance! –S&J
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