Tivoli's Roman Villas

Hadrian's Villa — complete with copies of his favorite buildings from around the world — was a modern-day Vegas, sans Siegfried and Roy.
By Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw

At the edge of the Sabine Hills, 18 miles east of Rome, sits the medieval hill town of Tivoli, a popular retreat since ancient times. Today it's famous for two very different villas: Hadrian's Villa (the emperor's Versailles-like place of government, which enabled him to rule from outside but still near the capital city), and the recently restored Villa d'Este (the lush and watery 16th-century residence of a cardinal in exile).

Hadrian's Villa

Hadrian's Villa was built at the peak of the Roman empire. The emperor Hadrian, who ruled from A.D. 117 to 138, sought refuge here from the political complexity of court life in Rome. The Spanish-born Hadrian was an architect, lover of Greek culture (nicknamed "the Little Greek"), and great traveler.

Hadrian visited every corner of the vast empire, from Britain (where he built Hadrian's Wall), to Egypt (where he sailed the Nile), to Jerusalem (where he suppressed a Jewish revolt), and to Athens (where he played backgammon). He beautified Rome with the enduring Pantheon, his tomb (Castel Sant' Angelo), and this villa, a park filled with copies of his favorite buildings from around the world (similar to today's Legoland, Disneyworld, and Las Vegas).

Hadrian's was the largest and richest Roman villa anywhere. He spent his last 10 years on this estate, enjoying its 300-plus, evocative acres.

As a visitor, you're more likely to feel like a Roman soldier than an emperor or nobleman: To explore the villa, be ready for a long march in the heat — lots of walking is unavoidable.

Start your visit at the plastic model of the villa for an orientation. Be sure to tour Teatro Marittimo, the circular palace that was Hadrian's favorite retreat, and the Egyptian Canopus, a sanctuary of the god Serapis, with its statue-lined canal.

Regrettably, this "Versailles of Ancient Rome" was plundered by barbarians. The marble was burned to make lime for cement. The art was scavenged and wound up in museums throughout Europe. Visitors have to piece together the majesty from the parts that remain.

Villa d'Este

Ippolito d'Este's grandfather, Alexander VI, was the pope...probably the only reason Ippolito became a cardinal. Ippolito's claim to fame: his pleasure palace at Tivoli. In the 1550s, Ippolito destroyed a Benedictine monastery to build this fanciful, late-Renaissance palace. Like Hadrian's Villa, it's a large residential villa. But this one features hundreds of Baroque fountains, all gravity-powered. The Aniene River, frazzled into countless threads, weaves its way entertainingly through the villa. At the bottom of the garden, the exhausted little streams once again team up to make a sizable river.

The cardinal had a political falling-out with Rome and was exiled. With this watery wonderland on a cool hill with fine views, he made sure Romans would come to visit. It's symbolic of the luxury and secular interests of the cardinal.

After years of disuse, the villa has been completely restored. All the most eye-popping fountains have been put back in operation, and — with the exception of the two highest jets of the central fountain, which are electric-powered — everything still operates on natural hydraulics. A new terrace restaurant has been installed on the highest level of the garden, opportunely placed to catch cool afternoon sea breezes coming in across the plain of Rome. Expect lots of stairs.

Getting to Tivoli

The town of Tivoli, with Villa d'Este in its center, is about 2.5 miles from Hadrian's Villa ("Villa Adriana" in Italian).

Reaching the town of Tivoli is easy, and Villa d'Este is in the town center. Getting to Hadrian's Villa is complicated and time-consuming — you'll go into Tivoli and backtrack on another bus — but many find it well worth the trouble.

From Rome, take a Metro/bus combination. Ride Metro line B to Ponte Mammolo, and then take the local blue Cotral bus to Tivoli (3/hour, direction: Tivoli).

For Villa d'Este, get off in downtown Tivoli, near the central square and the big park with amusements. Cross the road and follow signs (for about a block) that lead to the villa.

To get to Hadrian's Villa from downtown Tivoli, catch orange city bus #4X. Buy your ticket at a nearby tabacchi shop. When you're ready to leave Hadrian's Villa to go back to Tivoli, catch bus #4 or #4X in the direction of Tivoli. If you're continuing on to Rome, get off at the main road and change to a Cotral bus (ask the bus driver for help — he knows what you need to do). Departures after 16:30 can be sparse.

When day-tripping, remember that Hadrian's Villa is open daily, but the Villa d'Este is closed on Mondays.