Feel like a relaxing day trip outside the bustle of central Rome? Try this day trip in the beautiful hilltop town of Tivoli!
One of Lazio’s most beautiful countryside villages, Tivoli was once the cool retreat for the wealthy Roman elite during the classical and Renaissance eras. Now the town is famous for the villas and gardens left behind from the era providing the perfect countryside escape with plenty of sightseeing and history to enjoy.
Located where the Aniene river erupts from the Sabine hills 40km northeast of Rome, Tivoli has abundant travertine quarries for global exports and ample water to supply Rome’s aqueducts. Above the extraordinary natural beauty of Tivoli are the three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Villa d’Este, Villa Gregoriana and the wondrous Villa Adriana.
Looking back towards Villa d’Este through rows of flowers and hedges
Villa d’Este is located across the main square of Largo Garibaldi and was originally the country villa of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este. Today, the ticket office is at the side entrance once used when the villa was a convent prior to 1550, rather than the grand doorways the Cardinal himself would have used after his renovations.
Whilst the interiors of the villa are worth a stroll to admire the original marble floors, Mannerist frescoes and scenes of the history of the d’Este family, the gardens are the main attraction here. All perfectly manicured and preened to perfection, this is the place to come in spring when flowers are in full bloom.
It was Cardinal d’Este, the Governor of Tivoli at the time, that realised the idea of ‘hanging cliff’ gardens with architects Pierro Ligorio and Alberto Galvani in 1560. The gardens feature an incredible system of waterworks that function entirely without pumps.
A complex system of pools, water jets, fountains and cascades are part of the 875 metres of canals and are spaced between grottoes, statues of nymphs and ornamental basins. In later years, works such as the impressive Fountain of Bicchierone by Gian Lorenzo Bernini shooting water 10 metres in the air were added to the already impressive display.
Bernini’s ‘Bicchierone’ Fountain, Villa d’Este
On a walk through the garden the Fontana dell’Ovato (Oval Fountain) stands out as a magnificent curved terrace around artificial mountains, designed by Pierro Ligorio. Meanwhile the Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune) is the most famous image of Tivoli, ejecting a cascade of water into a set of central fish ponds. The Fontana dell’Organo is also a must see as the fountain is essentially a giant water organ that plays every couple of hours.
Fontana dell’Ovato – the impressive Oval Fountain
At the top of the gardens lies the Vialone, or terrace, with panoramic views across the Roman countryside. This terrace was once used for summer concerts and festivities by the d’Este family though now only holds the occasional wedding. It is from here that Franz Liszt is said to have been inspired to compose a famous piano concerto as a guest of the d’Este family.
Il Vialone – the terrace at Villa d’Este
Looking down from the terrace grants the best viewpoint of Rometta, or ‘Little Rome’. The Fountain of Rometta is Ancient Rome in miniature with each major attraction represented in one of seven fountains, representing the seven hills of Rome. It features a boat with an Obelisk mask, a statue of the ‘she wolf nursing her twins’ and of Rome Triumphant.
Grande Cascata – the 70m high waterfall, Villa Gregoriana
Located on the opposite side of the Aniene river to Villa d’Este, Villa Gregoriana is a hidden treasure of landscaped gardens protected by the Fondo Ambiente Italiano (Italian Environment Fund). It was commissioned in 1831 by Pope Gregory XVI to ease the periodic flooding of the town and was the first engineering project of its kind to incorporate a series of overgrown romantic gardens and picnic spots for people to enjoy.
By diverting the river around a gorge 60 metres deep, two main waterfalls were created and the larger of these is the Grande Cascata. Enter through the back entrance of Villa Gregoriana to see this waterfall first before following the winding path all the way to the bottom of the gorge.
On the way it is possible to see the ruins of an old Republican-era villa on the far side with the looming Acropolis overshadowing the gorge.
After a series of romantic archways etched into the rock cliff, the roaring Grotto of Neptune emerges as the halfway point of a walk through the villa. The sound of the water crashes all around and there is a path leading into the rock cave that shows the water to flowing from under the Tivoli town centre.
On the other side of the gorge, the main entrance of the villa is located at the ruins of the Temples of Vesta and Sibilla dating back to the 1st century BC. The temples command a grand view over the so-called ‘Valley of Hell’ and little waterfalls from the bridge of Gregoriana (Ponte Gregoriana).
Views from the Ponte Gregoriana towards the ancient Acropolis and overlooking the Aniene Gorge
The bridge was also commissioned by Pope Gregory XVI and links the surrounding hillside and train station to the old centre of Tivoli. The ancient Acropolis is the perfect spot to finish the walk and have a rest in the café and attached gift shop with all local produce and crafts.
The Canopus and Temple of Serapis (Wikimedia Commons)
As one of the best preserved and most visited archaeological sites in Italy, Villa Adriana is a must see in Tivoli. Villa Adriana, also known as Hadrian’s Villa, was the luxury country retreat for Roman Emperor Hadrian and his court during the second century AD. It is said Emperor Hadrian grew tired of his residence on Palatine Hill in Rome and built this private villa with over 30 buildings for his retirement around 135 AD.
Today, what’s left of the villa remains as romantic ruins set in beautiful gardens extending over 80 hectares. One of the main highlights includes the Teatro Marittimo (Maritime Theatre), a manmade island in the middle of a circular pond that formed Hadrian’s own private quarters.
Hadrian was known to be an avid traveller and the style and decorative design of the complex reflects this with influences from Egypt, Greece and Rome. Villa Adriana earned its UNESCO World Heritage status for being a masterpiece that brings together these cultures from the ancient Mediterranean world and went on to influence many architects and designers during the 19th and 20th centuries.
At the entrance, the Pecile is a long, covered portico and an outstanding replica of a building in Athens, whilst the Canopus reflects the sanctuary of Serepis near Alexandria, Egypt. The Canopus is perhaps the most famous and best preserved of all the attractions in the complex with its large archways and statues intact. The Temple of Serapis is framed at the end of a channel bordered by romantic columns.
Beyond the former warehouse and two bath complexes lies an underground passageway (cryptoporticus) and the relics of the emperor’s imperial apartments.
The site also includes Roman baths, libraries, theatres, temples, barracks, gardens and fountains alongside various other buildings and living quarters. Public transport is required to reach Villa Adriana from Tivoli but it is definitely worth the trip as the Villa is essentially ruins of a small town of marble pillars and grand palatial buildings amongst beautiful grounds and waterworks. It just about deserves a day trip in itself!
View from the top of Villa d’Este
Whilst Tivoli is a cool retreat from the hustle and bustle of Rome, keep in mind the walks can still be quite arduous in the hot summer, so we recommend going in spring or autumn.
All the main sites in Tivoli are free to enter on the first Sunday of each month.
Standard tickets are €8 or €4 reduced for EU citizens aged between 18 and 25. All citizens under the age of 18 can enter free.
Audio guides and guided tours are available in English, French, German and Spanish.
Villa d’Este is open Tuesday to Sunday 8.30am to 7.45pm with last entries at 4pm and on Monday from 2pm. The hydraulic organ is activated daily from 10.30am every two hours.
Entry is €6 for adults and €3 for children. EU citizens enter for €2.50 and families for €15. The gardens are open from 10am to 4pm, with last admission at 3pm, from Tuesday to Sunday. From April to October, these hours will be extended from 10am to 6.30pm.
Make sure you take good walking shoes as the path through Villa Gregoriana is also quite steep at times and the paths can get muddy in winter.
Standard tickets are priced at €8 and reduced tickets €4. The Villa is open every day from 9am to 6.30pm, with last admission 5pm. During summer from May to August, the Villa observes extended hours from 9am to 7.30pm.
The C.A.T. Company (Urban Local Transportation of Tivoli), offers connections from Tivoli’s main square through 3 bus lines with around 30 daily buses.
Where to Eat
Dining in Tivoli’s old centre
Il Gelato di Pinocchio
With all that walking and sightseeing, it’s time for gelato and Il Gelato di Pinocchio is the place to go. Located halfway between Villa d’Este and Villa Gregoriana in the centre of Tivoli, the gelateria is a local spot serving homemade gelato in a range of flavours. There are tables outside to sit and enjoy or take by the river for views of the Aniene valley or back to the Piazza Garibaldi terrace overlooking the Lazio countryside.
For a hearty lunchtime meal, you can’t go past Taverna Quintilia. Located in the old laneways near Villa d’Este, this Taverna is cosy and casual with great service and outside tables to enjoy the holiday atmosphere. The pasta is a must!
The Michelin-starred restaurant Sibilla is the perfect way to end a long day of sightseeing in Tivoli. With a clientele that has included royals and celebrities, the restaurant provides fantastic service and food with views across the Aniene valley – best enjoyed at sunset with a glass of vino.
Ristorante da Sandrina
Ristorante da Sandrina is a gorgeous local family-run restaurant in Tivoli. It provides homemade, traditional Italian food and is a prime spot to escape the tourist crowds. Be aware, as with most places in Tivoli, the restaurant is closed during siesta from 2.30pm before opening again for dinner at 7.30pm.
How to get there
Trains to Tivoli run hourly from Rome’s Tiburtina station on metro line B (Roma-Pescara line) for 2 euros. Villa Gregoriana is a 5 minute walk from the station and Villa d’Este around a 15 minute walk.
COTRAL buses for Tivoli leave every 10 minutes from outside Ponte Mammolo metro station in Rome on metro line B and stop in Tivoli’s main square – Piazza Garibaldi (Largo Nazioni Uniti), opposite Villa d’Este and around 1km from Villa Adriana. The trip takes 45 minutes and it is possible to ask the driver to stop at Villa Adriana.
COTRAL buses also run direct to Villa Adriana from Ponte Mammolo and stop 300m from the villa. There are 7 buses to Villa Adriana a day, Monday – Saturday.
There are also plenty of parking spots for those who opt to drive but be prepared to pay about €5-7 for a half day.