Updated: May 9, 2021
Only 30 km from Rome is one of the jewels of Lazio – the ancient hilltop town of Tivoli. Inhabited since the 13th century BC, the town has always played an important role within the region: as a political ally to Rome, a country retreat for emperors and poets, and a site of papal power. Although the modern town has plenty of charm – not to mention breath-taking panoramic views of the countryside – visitors who make the day trip to Tivoli tend to be drawn by the villas. Hadrian’s Villa is a vast archaeological site containing the magnificent ruins of the imperial estate, while Villa d’Este is a 16th century villa renowned for its hillside garden filled with thousands of fountains. This guide is divided into two sections for clarity: the first focusing on Hadrian’s Villa, and the second on Villa d’Este. General tips and links for Tivoli are at the end of the guide.
Hadrian’s Villa was once the home of the Emperor Hadrian – an enormous estate including not only living quarters, but also baths, libraries, art galleries, theatres, pools and gardens. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and major tourist attraction, particularly popular as a day trip from Rome. The site is enormous, containing extensive archaeological remains and attractions such as the Maritime Theatre and the atmospheric Canopy, a lake surrounded by statues and columns.
History of Hadrian’s Villa
Hadrian’s Villa was constructed between the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD in Tivoli (Tibur) as a summer retreat for Hadrian. The area was popular with wealthy Romans – especially those with Spanish origins like Hadrian – and offered a welcome respite from the heat and chaos of the capital. The emperor preferred his country villa to the palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome, and over the years Tivoli became his primary residence. He even began to govern from Tivoli, conducting all political business from the comfort of his luxurious country home.
After the death of Hadrian, the villa was used by his successors, including Marcus Aurelius and Septimius Severus. During the 4th century the villa fell into disuse, and over the following centuries it was plundered for valuable statues and marble. The remaining riches were taken by Cardinal D’Este in the 16th century, in order to enrich the splendour of his own villa in Tivoli.
Facts about Hadrian's Villa
Hadrian’s estate was extraordinarily opulent, even by imperial standards. It covered an area of 300 acres, and included temples, thermal complexes, libraries, pools and a Greek Theatre. You can still see the remains of many of these buildings on a Hadrian’s Villa tour.
In Hadrian’s day the villa would have been filled with beautiful artworks. Nearly all of the art was stolen over the centuries, and some works are now on display in Rome, such as the Crouching Venus in Palazzo Massimo and the Furietti Centaurs in the Capitoline Museums.
The Belgian author Marguerite Yourcenar was so inspired by her visit to Hadrian’s Villa that she wrote a novel, Memoirs of Hadrian. This fictionalised autobiography features scenes set in Tivoli, towards the end of Hadrian’s life.
Busts of emperors such as Marcus Aurelius and Caracalla that were discovered on site suggest that successive Roman rulers used Hadrian’s Villa after his death. It has been speculated that Queen Zenobia of Palmyra may have also lived here in the 3rd century.
VISITING HADRIAN’S VILLA
How to Get to Hadrian’s Villa
To get to Tivoli from Rome, you can take the train from Tiburtina station. Tickets cost €2.60 one way, and journey time is 45-70 minutes. Alternatively, take the bus from the metro station Ponte Mammolo (B line), which has a similar cost and a journey time of around 45 minutes (or considerably longer during rush hour). If you’re visiting Tivoli on a Sunday, be sure to check timetables as public transport can be irregular. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to get to Hadrian’s Villa unless you book a private tour of Tivoli. Whether you arrive in Tivoli by train or bus, you’ll still have to get a local bus or taxi in order to reach the ruins. Don’t consider walking – it’s a lengthy and unpleasant walk along busy roads. Catch the local CAT bus from the main square in Tivoli or call a taxi to reach Hadrian’s Villa.
Tickets & Entry for Hadrian’s Villa
Hadrian’s Villa is open every day of the week. Opening hours vary, according to the season; the site opens at 9.00 and closes at 17.00 in the winter and 19.00 in the summer. Tickets cost €8 and can be bought online or at the ticket office on site.
What to See At Hadrian’s Villa
Although many of the original buildings are no longer standing, these impressive remains are well worth seeing:
The Maritime Theatre was Hadrian’s sanctuary. He would cross the narrow moat using a drawbridge and relax in the luxurious surroundings of his private house, devoting time to interests such as art, architecture and philosophy. The remains are some of the most iconic and atmospheric ruins in Hadrian’s Villa.
On your Tivoli tour make sure you take a walk through the dining room known as Piazza D’Oro – the golden court. This was once a lavishly decorated hall, but today the only indication of its former grandeur is the enormous size of the room.
The most ancient of the various thermal complexes in Hadrian’s Villa is the Heliocaminus. Given its location in the noble part of the estate, we can assume that the emperor himself would have bathed here.
The Canopy is perhaps the most recognisable of all of the ruins in Tivoli, featuring in countless, paintings, photos and postcards. This artificial lake lined with columns, arches and statues was influenced by Greek architecture, and also features a grotto dedicated to Serapis, the Graeco-Egyptian god of the underworld.
Villa d’Este is a 16th century house and garden in the centre of Tivoli, and is famous as a stunning example of Renaissance architecture and garden design. Commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, the villa was originally intended to be a luxurious private residence. The architect behind the garden’s design, Pirro Ligorio, was also a classical scholar, and his designs were strongly influenced by antiquity and, in particular, the nearby ruins of Hadrian’s Villa. The gardens are renowned for their spectacularly theatrical array of fountains, featuring ornate statues and grottoes. Today Villa d’Este is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and state museum, and a visit to the villa is a popular day trip from Rome.
History of Villa d’Este
Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este was extraordinarily wealthy, and in 1550 he was in need of a residence that was both grand enough for his tastes, and large enough to accommodate his expanding household. He chose Tivoli for various reasons – the cooler summer climate, the abundance of natural water supplies, and its proximity to Hadrian’s Villa – and then commissioned the construction of the villa and gardens. A huge team of distinguished artists and architects contributed to the construction of Villa d’Este. The building work took 20 years due to the Cardinal’s work commitments in Rome and the lawsuits of locals in Tivoli who were unhappy about the demolition of their houses to make way for the villa. D’Este stopped at nothing to achieve his dream of creating a villa even more extravagant than Hadrian’s, even diverting the nearby river to supply water for the multitude of fountains. D’Este only got to enjoy his new home for a few years, hosting visits from artists, writers, philosophers, and the Pope until his death in 1572. Over the following centuries the villa continually changed owners, most of whom did little to maintain the house and gardens. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the dilapidated building was finally renovated, and the overgrown garden restored to its former glory. After the First World War Villa d’Este became the property of the Italian state and underwent further renovations, eventually opening to the public.
Facts about Villa d'Este
Villa d’Este was designed to be even grander and more luxurious than the building it overlooks – Hadrian’s Villa. The architect who designed the villa’s fountains even used marble and statuary from Hadrian’s Villa; while it may seem shocking to steal from an Ancient Roman site of such importance, this kind of theft was common practice at the time.
Villa d’Este had a profound influence on European garden design, due to its innovative use of pools and fountains. It’s generally acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful and culturally significant Renaissance gardens in the world.
There have been many distinguished guests at Villa d’Este over the years, including Franz List, who composed “Water games at Villa d’Este” and held a concert at the villa.
Villa d’Este has appeared in numerous films, including Ben Hur, Three Coins in the Fountain and To Rome with Love.
VISITING VILLA D’ESTE IN TIVOLI
How to Get to Villa D’Este
For suggestions on how to get to Tivoli from Rome, see the “How to get to Hadrian’s Villa” section above. If you’ve reached Tivoli by bus, Villa d’Este is just a 5 minute walk away from the bus stop in the main square. From the train station, cross the bridge and you’ll reach Villa d’Este in about 15 minutes. Alternatively, you can take the CAT bus from the train station and get off in the town centre.
Tickets & Entry for Villa d’Este
Villa d’Este is open Tuesday-Sunday. The villa opens at 8.30, while the last entrance time is 16.00 in the winter and 18.45 in the summer. Tickets cost €8 and can be bought online or from the ticket office on site.
What to See at Villa d’Este
Villa d’Este consists of the villa itself and the extensive gardens. On your Villa d’Este tour you’ll have time to explore both the house and gardens in-depth, but these are the main sights to look out for:
The Vialone is a 200-meter-long terrace that offers spectacular panoramic views of the garden and the surrounding countryside. In Cardinal d’Este’s day the space would have been used for fireworks, games and general festivities.
There are thousands of fountains in the gardens of Villa d’Este, impressive both individually and collectively, for the sheer quantity of spouts. One of the most magnificent is the fountain complex known as the Hundred Fountains, an architectural masterpiece that’s been celebrated in art and literature. It’s formed of three “canals” and 300 spouts, as well as some decoration that has mostly been hidden by the vegetation.
Another highlight is the Oval Fountain, a theatrical creation consisting of multiple spouts, grottoes and statues. In the Renaissance the grotto behind the fountain would have been used as a meeting place during the heat of the summer.
Although Villa d’Este is famed for its gardens, the house is beautiful too. Don’t miss the apartments of the Cardinal, which are richly decorated with colourful frescoes and mosaics. To discover the stories and symbolism behind the artwork, we recommend a private tour of Villa d’Este.
To make the most of your time consider booking a tour of Tivoli. Going on a private tour as a day trip from Rome means all the transportation is taken care of, so you don’t have to worry about bus timetables and getting to Hadrian’s Villa. You’ll particularly appreciate the company of a knowledgeable personal guide when you’re exploring Hadrian’s Villa, as there isn’t much in the way of signage.
If you decide to organise the day trip from Rome to Tivoli yourself, plan your travel arrangements carefully. Check train times or bus timetables and think about how you’re going to get to Hadrian’s Villa from the town centre.
Bring bottled water and wear comfortable shoes for exploring Hadrian’s Villa – the archaeological site is huge and walking is inevitable.
There are no cafes in Hadrian’s Villa or Villa d’Este, so you may want to bring a packed lunch. Alternatively, there are plenty of good dining options in the town centre, ranging from the scenic Sibilla (Via della Sibilla 50) to the sandwich shop Da Pippo (Via San Valerio 20), which serves up superior panini.
Although the majority of visitors to Tivoli are day trippers, it’s worth staying overnight, if only to experience the peaceful atmosphere after dark, when the crowds have dispersed. In addition to Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este there’s the beautiful park of Villa Gregoriana and numerous ancient churches and monuments – more than enough to keep you busy for a couple of days.
Here are some useful resources, from practical information to digital reconstructions of Hadrian’s Villa: Tibur Superbum: Hadrian’s Villa Digital Hadrian’s Villa Project The Guardian: the tunnels of Hadrian’s Villa UNESCO: Villa d’Este, Tivoli Rome Art Lover: Villa d’Este – the Gardens