Tivoli & Hadrian's Villa

Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli
The Canopo pool at Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli

Tivoli's magnificent villas and gardens that once belonged Roman Emperors or Renaissance princes make for an easy and rewarding sidetrip from Rome

The ancient town of Tivoli, 19 miles east of Rome, has been a retreat for the wealthy since Rome was founded.

The enlightened 2nd-century emperor Hadrian indulged in his passion for architecture by building a vacation home here, the renowned Villa Adriana.

A Renaissance cardinal and 19th-century pope followed suit, constructing the magnificent palaces and fountain-filles gardens of Villa d'Este and and Villa Gregoriana, respectively.

Hadrian's Villa

Five kilometers (3 miles) before the town on the road to Rome lie the ruins of the most fabulous palace built during the Roman Empire, the Villa Adriana.

The Emperor Hadrian was quite an accomplished architect, designing not only Rome's Pantheon but also his own lavish Imperial palace in AD 118, a countryside retreat within easy reach of the capital and from which he could rule the Empire (and so architecturally advanced that it even included central heating). Hadrian was also a well-traveled man, and picked up so many architectural ideas from his voyages throughout the Empire (from Egypt to Greece to asia Minor) that he decided to recreate his own versions of famous buildings here at his villa.

This is why today you can wander the 225-foot-long pool of the Canopus, an Egyptian-inspired piece lined by statues with a beautiful curved colonnade at one end and a Temple of Serapis at the other. Recent reinterpretation of the statues lining this canal suggest that the whole ensemble might be meant to represent the Mediterranean world, with the temple at the end portraying Egypt, the statues that imitate the caryatids from Athens' Acropolis in the middle symbolizing Greece, and the statues of Amazons at the other end standing for Asia.

To honor the genius of the ancient Greeks, Hadrian built himself a peristyle—sort of like a giant cloister measuring 766 by 320 feet—called the Pecile, loosely modeled after the Stoa Poikile, or "painted porch," of Athens under which the great philosophical school of Stoicism was founded.

The Teatro Marittimo was a retreat for the Emperor, who could escape with his thoughts to this circular structure in the middle of a pond and pull the wooden bridges after him for seclusion.

The Imperial Palace is grouped around four courtyards. In the staff wing are preserved some fine mosaics, and you can see some good portions of both the Small Baths and the Large Baths still standing at the west end of the compound.

The grounds of this archaeological park are vast, spread over 300 acres, and parts are still being excavated. Wander for as long as you can, looking for the Greek Theater and the ruins of the Accademia, and pausing the in the two small museums to get a better grip on the original layout of the palace.

Spend two to four hours exploring the site and take a picnic amid the olive and cypress trees and broken bits of ancient columns littering the grasses.

Hadrian's Villa is on the town outskirts at Largo Marguerite Yourcenar (tel. +39-0774-530-203, www.villaadriana.beniculturali.it or www.coopculture.it).

There are more interesting details about Hadrian's Villa at two independent hobbiest sites maintained by an archeologist (www.villa-adriana.net) and an art historian (sights.seindal.dk/sight/901_Hadrians_Villa.html).

Hadrian's Villa is open daily 9am to one hour before sunset (as early as 5pm in winter, working its way up to 7:30pm May through August).

The Villa d'Este

The Villa d'Este's fountains are at their most spectacular, obviously, when the villa lets the plumbing go full force and the jets are at their zenith. It pays to call ahead before making the trek out here to be sure the fountains will be full blast (they usually are on sunny weekend days).

The Humanist and fabulously wealthy Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este, son of the notorious Lucrezia Borgia, transformed a 13th-century convent bang in the center of town into the sumptuous Villa d'Este in the 16th century—well, architect Piero Ligorio started it in 1550 at least; the construction outlived both men and the gardens were added to up until 1927.

This pleasure palace is renowned less for the (relatively) modest villa itself than for the spectacular gardens, a baroque fantasy of some 500 fountains terraced down a hillside and surrounded by artificial grottoes and scads of umbrella pines, cypress, ilex, elm, and cedar. Call before making the trip out here to be sure the fountains will be going at full blast that day, for the play of water against the sunlight is what the Villa D'Este is all about.

Though many of the fountains are spectacular—including the high jets of the Neptune Fountain and the long wall of One Hundred Fountains whose decorative frieze is romantically overgrown with mosses—they don't hold a candle to the recently restored musical fountains: the famous Water Organ fountain and the Fontana della Civitta (currently not working again) that recreates birdsong and the screech of an owl. Each sounds off every two hours starting at 10am (Civitta) and 10:30am (Organ), respectively.

The Villa d'Este is at Piazza Trento 5 (tel. 199-766-166 in Italy, +39-0412-719-036 from abroad; www.villadestetivoli.info).

It is open Tuesday to Sunday from 8:30am until one hour before sunset.

The Villa Gregoriana

A better bet when the Villa d'Este's fountains aren't on is the 19th-century Villa Gregoriana, whose gardens are much more sedate. This villa has the largest, most charming water-staircase in Tivoli; it's a slow-motion waterfall that leaps gently down the long slope of the gardens. The views out over the valley are nice, and there are some inviting grottoes off to the sides as well.

One warning: Following the waterfall to the bottom is easy; climbing back up is more arduous than you might expect.

The Villa Gregoriana is at Piazza Tempio di Vesta (tel. +39-07-7433-2650 or +39-06-3996-7900, www.visitfai.it).

It is open Mar, Nov, and Dec Tues-Sun 10am–4:00pm; Apr-Oct Tues-Sun 10am–6:30pm. Last entry: one hour before closing.

(In summer, the villa sometimes hosts special evening guided tours featuring period music and cocktails or dinner.)

Grabbing a bite to eat

Since the 1950s, Le Cinque Statue (tel. +39-07-7433-5366, www.ristorante5statue.it), Largo S. Angelo 1, has been pleasing the palates of Tivoli visitors with honest home cooking, Roman style.

Tips & links


Tivoli Tourist Office
Piazzale Nazioni Unite
tel. +39-0774-453-203 or +39-0774-311-249

Private info site:

Hadrians' Villa

Useful private sites:


Villa d'Este

Villa Gregoriana


Bus: Tivoli - Avezzano, Tivoli Carsoli

How long do Tivoli & Hadrian's Villa take?

Planning your day: The best way to see Tivoli is to leave early in the morning, take a picnic, spend the day, and return to Rome in time for dinner—or dine at Le Cinque Statue before heading back to the city. » Rome itineraries

Visitor Information

Tivoli's tourist office (tel. +39-0774-313-536 or +39-0774-311-249; www.comune.tivoli.rm.it) is on Piazzale Nazioni Unite. It's open Tues-Sun 10am–1pm and 4–6pm. You can get more info from the private site www.tibursuperbum.it.

How to get there from Rome

Take Rome's B Metro line to Ponte Mammolo stop, where you catch the COTRAL bus to Tivoli-Villa d'Este (every 30 min.) or Tivoli-Villa Adriana (every hour)

Tivoli & Hadrian's Villa tours
Rome tours

Share this page

Intrepid Travel 25% off

Search ReidsItaly.com