32km (20 miles) E of Rome

Perched high on a hill east of Rome, Tivoli is an ancient town that has always been something of a retreat from the city. In Roman times it was known as Tibur, a retirement town for the wealthy; later during the Renaissance, it again became the playground of the rich, who built their country villas out here. You need a full day to do justice to the gardens and villas that remain—especially if the Villa Adriana is on your list, as indeed it should be—so set out early.

Getting There—Tivoli is 32km (20 miles) east of Rome on Via Tiburtina, about an hour’s drive with traffic (the Rome–L’Aquila autostrada, A24, is usually faster). If you don’t have a car, take Metro Line B to Ponte Mammolo. After exiting the station, transfer to a Cotral bus for Tivoli. Cotral buses depart every 15 to 30 minutes during the day. Villa d’Este is in Tivoli itself, close to the bus stop; to get to Villa Adriana you need to catch a regional bus from town. 

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Exploring Tivoli & the Villas

Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa) ★★★—The globe-trotting Emperor Hadrian spent the last 3 years of his life in the grandest style. Less than 6km (3 and 3/4 miles) from Tivoli, between a.d. 118 and 134 he built one of the greatest estates ever conceived, and he filled acre after acre with some of the architectural wonders he’d seen on his many travels. Hadrian erected theaters, baths, temples, fountains, gardens, and canals bordered with statuary, filling the palaces and temples with sculpture, some of which now rest in the museums of Rome. In later centuries, barbarians, popes, and cardinals, as well as anyone who needed a slab of marble, carted off much that made the villa so spectacular. But enough of the fragmented ruins remain to inspire a real sense of awe. For a glimpse of what the villa used to be, see the plastic reconstruction at the entrance.

The most outstanding remnant is the Canopo ★★★, a recreation of the Egyptian town of Canopus with its famous Temple of the Serapis. The ruins of a rectangular area, Piazza d’Oro, are still surrounded by a double portico. Likewise, the Edificio con Pilastri Dorici (Doric Pillared Hall) remains, with its pilasters with bases and capitals holding up a Doric architrave. The apse and the ruins of some magnificent vaulting are found at the Grandi Terme (Great Baths), while only the north wall remains of the Pecile ★, otherwise known as the Stoà Poikile di Atene or “Painted Porch,” which Hadrian discovered in Athens and had reproduced here. The best is saved for last—the Teatro Marittimo ★★★, a circular maritime theater in ruins, with its central building enveloped by a canal spanned by small swing bridges.

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For a closer look at some of the items excavated, you can visit the museum on the premises and a visitor center near the villa parking area.

(Largo Marguerite Yourcenar 1, Tivoli. tel. 0774-312070. 10€. Daily 8:30am–sunset. Bus: 4 from Tivoli.)

Villa d’Este ★★—Like Hadrian centuries before, Cardinal Ippolito d’Este of Ferrara ordered this villa built in the mid-16th century on a Tivoli hillside. The dank Renaissance structure, with its second-rate paintings, is not that interesting; the big draw for visitors is the spectacular gardens ★★★, designed by Pirro Ligorio. As you descend the cypress-studded garden slope you’re rewarded with everything from lilies to gargoyles spouting water, torrential streams, and waterfalls. The loveliest fountain is the Fontana dell Ovato ★★, by Ligorio. But nearby is the most spectacular engineering achievement: the Fontana dell’Organo Idraulico ★★ (Fountain of the Hydraulic Organ), dazzling with its music and water jets in front of a baroque chapel, with four maidens who look tipsy (the fountain “plays” every 2 hours from 10:30am). The moss-covered Fontana dei Draghi (Fountain of the Dragons), also by Ligorio, and the so-called Fontana di Vetro (Fountain of Glass), by Bernini, are also worth seeking out, as is the main promenade, lined with 100 spraying fountains. The garden is worth hours of exploration, but it involves a lot of walking, with some steep climbs.

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(Piazza Trento 5, Tivoli. tel. 0774-312070. 10€ Tues–Sun 8:30am to 1 hr. before sunset; Mon from 2pm. Bus: Cotral service from Ponte Mammolo (Roma–Tivoli); the bus stops near the entrance.)

Villa Gregoriana ★—Villa d’Este dazzles with artificial glamour, but the Villa Gregoriana relies more on nature. Originally laid out by Pope Gregory XVI in the 1830s, its main highlight is the panoramic waterfall of Aniene, with the trek to the bottom studded with grottoes and balconies that open onto the chasm. The only problem is that if you do make the full descent, you might need a helicopter to pull you up again (the climb back up is fierce). From one of the belvederes, there’s a view of the Temple of Vesta on the hill.

(Largo Sant’Angelo, Tivoli. tel. 0774-332650. 8€. Daily Mar–Oct 10am–dusk. Closed Nov–Feb. Bus: Cotral service from Ponte Mammolo (Roma–Tivoli); the bus stops near the entrance.)

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Where to Eat in Tivoli

Tivoli’s gardens make for a pleasant picnic place, but if you crave a sit-down meal, Antica Trattoria del Falcone, Via del Trevio 34 (tel. 0774-312358) is a dependable option in Tivoli itself. Just off Largo Garibaldi, it’s been open since 1918 and specializes in excellent pizza (ask for the pizza menu), Roman pastas, and roast meats. It is open daily for lunch and dinner.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.