TIVOLI DAY TRIP - Abraham Lincoln - James M. McPherson

Rick Steves Rome 2016 - Rick Steves, Gene Openshaw (2015)


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, a Versailles-like seat of government from which the emperor ruled (outside but still near the capital), and the restored Villa d’Este, the lush and watery 16th-century residence of a cardinal in exile. These two sights complement each other well: While Hadrian’s Villa (“Villa Adriana” in Italian) is about evocative ruins that ache with an untold history, Villa d’Este is simply beautiful, carefree, and relaxing—a pure confection.

Getting to Tivoli, you’ll likely travel along the Via Tiburtina. The road was initially built by the ancient Romans; today it takes you through areas of ugly concrete sprawl. Famous for its thermal baths (smell the sulfur?), the area also contains the travertine quarries that supplied Rome with material for many of its buildings, including the Colosseum. While you’re out in the countryside, also keep an eye out for the many olive groves (this area bottles up the prized Sabina olive oil), as well as flocks of sheep that produce the local pecorino romano cheese.


Because public transportation connections are a bit complicated and time-consuming, give yourself the better part of a day for the trip to Tivoli, and to see both of the villas. Note that Hadrian’s Villa is open daily, Villa d’Este is closed on Monday, and fewer buses run on Sunday.

If visiting both villas, see Villa d’Este first, then head straight back to Rome after Hadrian’s Villa.


With a Tour or Driver: Several Rome tour companies—including Context Rome, Rome Walks, and Through Eternity—offer private tours of the villas (see their respective websites for specifics; tour companies listed on here). You can also hire a driver for the day to make the trip there and back faster and easier (drivers are recommended on here).

On Your Own: Reaching the town of Tivoli and Villa d’Este is easy. Getting to Hadrian’s Villa is more of a challenge and requires patience, but many find it well worth the trouble.

From Rome, take a Metro/bus combination. Ride Metro line B to Ponte Mammolo (direction: Rebibbia), and then catch the local blue Cotral bus to Tivoli (€2.20, 3/hour, 50 minutes; at Ponte Mammolo, check the monitor for departure schedule, then buy bus tickets at the bar or newsstand downstairs, easiest to buy return ticket at the same time; buses leave upstairs and can be crowded, be prepared to stand, validate ticket on board, direction: Tivoli, www.cotralspa.it).

If you’re only going to Hadrian’s Villa and not all the way to Tivoli, hop off the Cotral bus shortly after passing the quarries and walk approximately 20 minutes through a residential area (ask the driver or fellow passengers which stop you need for “Villa Adriana”; it’s roughly 35 minutes from Ponte Mammolo). The way is not well-signed, so don’t be shy about asking locals for directions.

For Villa d’Este, get off in downtown Tivoli, near the central square and the big park with the playground (start paying attention as the bus winds up the hill—your stop is shortly after it levels out; ask the driver, “Villa d’Este?”). The round TI kiosk is just uphill to the right. The entrance to the villa is across the square, past the modern-art arch—follow the signs (for about a block downhill).

To get to Hadrian’s Villa from downtown Tivoli, catch orange “CAT” city bus #4 or #4X at the bus stop near the playground. Buy your ticket at a tobacco shop (there’s one right where you got off the Cotral bus) or newsstand (€1, roughly every 30 minutes, 10-minute ride, infrequent on Sun, drops you near the villa entrance—confirm schedule and stops at TI or ask driver, www.catbustivoli.com). A taxi is €10-15 (look for one near the arch in the main square under the pine trees; confirm the price before getting in).

When you’re ready to leave Hadrian’s Villa, catch bus #4 or #4X in the direction of Tivoli (ask for schedule and confirm where the return bus will stop when you buy entrance ticket, bus tickets also available). To continue on to Rome, get off at the main road, Via Tiburtina, and change to a Cotral bus (confirm destination with bus driver—you want “per Roma”; have your Cotral ticket in advance). Note that some buses go to the train station in Tivoli, where departures are sporadic but will eventually get you back to Rome (usually Tiburtina station)—the bus is better.

Orientation to Tivoli

(See “Tivoli Area” map, here.)

The town of Tivoli, with Villa d’Este in its center, is about 2.5 miles from Hadrian’s Villa.

Modern Tivoli was heavily reconstructed after being bombed during World War II, when it was a Nazi stronghold. While most of Tivoli blankets the hilltop in less-than-charming concrete, a more rustic and picturesque quarter clings to the cliffs above a gorge on the back side of town. This area, anchored by the sleepy Piazza Rivarola, has a few evocative ancient ruins of its own. Strolling the main pedestrian drag gives you a glimpse of a small, unembellished Italian town.

Tourist Information: The TI is on Largo Garibaldi, near the bus stop, and has bus schedules (Tue-Sun 9:30-17:30, closed Mon, tel. 0774-313-536).


Sights in Tivoli

Villa d’Este

Clinging to a steep hillside just below Tivoli’s main square, this Renaissance-era palace has a dull interior but a spectacularly entertaining garden, divinely landscaped and punctuated by pools, streams, waterfalls, and thundering fountains that harness the natural hydro power of the Aniene River. If you can handle the many stairs (it’s more vertical than horizontal), exploring these gardens is a peaceful and picturesque experience.


Cost and Hours: €8, €11 with special exhibits; May-Aug Tue-Sun 8:30-19:45, April until 19:30, Sept until 19:15, closes as early as 17:00 off-season, closed Mon year-round, last entry one hour before closing; audioguide-€4, tel. 0774-335-850 or 0774-332-920, www.villadestetivoli.info.

Background: Ippolito d’Este’s grandfather, Alexander VI, was the pope. Ippolito was fast-tracked for church service from birth and became a cardinal. His claim to fame: his pleasure palace at Tivoli. In the 1550s, he destroyed a Benedictine monastery to build this fanciful late-Renaissance palace. Like Hadrian’s Villa, the Villa d’Este is a large residential estate. 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. Pirro Ligorio, Tivoli’s architect, was also the archaeologist in charge of excavating Hadrian’s Villa, and that site provided much in both inspiration and raw material for the fancy fountains of Villa d’Este. Ligorio could basically use Hadrian’s Villa as a quarry to provide statuary and decorative stonework for his vision here.


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

After years of neglect, 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. The terrace restaurant on the highest level of the garden is opportunely placed to catch cool afternoon sea breezes coming in across the plain of Rome.

Visiting the Villa and Gardens: Pick up the small map as you enter, and follow its suggested counterclockwise route down, then back up, through the garden. Also at the entry, note the posted schedule listing when the water organ (la fontana dell’organa) will play—a cute five-minute performance every two hours.

Your ticket also includes the interior of the villa itself, but you can make short work of that—the main floor is essentially an empty shell, aside from temporary exhibits, while the lower floor has some vivid frescoes that pale in comparison to similar palace decor in Rome (each room is described by posted English descriptions).

Rather than linger in the rooms, follow the signs for giardino until you pop out at the terrace overlooking the gardens. Descending toward the right, you’ll first come to the grotto-like Oval Fountain (fontana dell’ovato), with its soothing cascades. From here, the Hundred Fountains (cento fontane) scamper all the way across the length of the terrace. But stick to this side of the garden for now, and continue down to the overlook above the Neptune Fountain (fontana di Nettuno), where you’ll also find the water organ. Head back across to the middle of the garden, descending for a good look at the Fountain of the Dragons (fontana dei draghi). Then descend to the row of fish ponds that stretches scenically in one direction to the bottom of the Neptune Fountain, and in the other to a viewpoint overlooking the countryside. The lowest level of the park has a few smaller fountains (including the many-breasted Artemis, along the bottom wall). When you’re ready, huff your way back up to the top...and the exit.

Hadrian’s Villa

Built at the peak of the Roman Empire by Hadrian (ruled A.D. 117-138), this was a retreat from the political complexity of court life. The Spanish-born Hadrian—an architect, lover of Greek culture (nicknamed “The Little Greek”), and great traveler—envisioned the site as a microcosm of the lands he ruled as emperor, which at that point stretched from England to the Euphrates and encompassed countless diverse cultures. In the spirit of Legoland, Epcot, and Las Vegas, he re-created famous structures from around the world, producing a kind of diorama of his empire in the form of the largest and richest Roman villa anywhere. Just as Louis XIV governed France from Versailles rather than Paris, Hadrian ruled Rome from this villa of more than 300 evocative acres. He basically spent his last decade here. Regrettably, this “Versailles of Ancient Rome” was plundered by barbarians and Renaissance big shots who all wanted something classical in their courtyards. They even burned the marble to make lime for cement. The scavenged art wound up in the Vatican Museums, the Louvre, and other museums throughout Europe. Today, Hadrian’s Villa is a harmonious blend of nature and ruins—ideal for wandering while pondering the legacy of a great civilization.


Cost and Hours: €8, €11 with special exhibits, cash only; daily May-Aug 9:00-19:30, April and Sept 9:00-19:00, closes as early as 17:00 off-season, last entry 1.5 hours before closing; audioguide-€5, tel. 0774-382-733, www.villaadriana.beniculturali.it.

Visiting the Ruins: Information at the site is sparse, but occasional posted maps and English descriptions do help keep you on track.

From the ticket booth, hike about 10 minutes up the main path through olive groves. You’ll reach a field with a WC (hidden underground); beyond that, inside the modern beige building, is a model of the reconstructed site that’s helpful for getting oriented.

Just beyond that, go through the high brick wall to pop out at the Athenian-style Greek Pecile, a long, enclosed courtyard with a tranquil, fish-stocked pond. This wall—and the pond—are all that remain of the original structure.

Beyond the left end of the pond is a cluster of other ruins, including the long stadium and the Teatro Marittimo (a circular palace, Hadrian’s favorite retreat on an island, where he did his serious thinking). Continuing up through the ruins and to the left, you’ll reach what’s left of the palace itself; at the far corner is the vast Piazza d’Oro, which was once filled with fountains and flowing water.

Looping back around, you’ll come to a dramatic overview of the gigantic (and aptly named) Great Baths complex. Descending to explore this area, continue to the left to find the villa’s highlight, the Egyptian Canopus (sanctuary of the god Serapi), a canal lined with statues.

Backtrack a bit to complete your loop, passing the Small Baths on your way to the Pecile. When you get back to the long wall, walk through it and continue straight ahead, down the cypress-lined lane, to reach the circular temple; stairs on the left lead down to the Greek Theater, and then back to the entrance.

Villa Gregoriana Park

The steep park called Villa Gregoriana incorporates a landscape enjoyed from antiquity to the Romantic Age and today. Over a 1.5-mile network of trails, you’ll descend into the Aniene River valley, passing views of waterfalls, trees, and raw wilderness. For those with more interest in nature than antiquity—although bits of the ancient villa remain—it offers a convenient alternative to Hadrian’s Villa.

Cost and Hours: €6, April-Oct Tue-Sun 10:00-18:30, shorter hours off-season, closed Jan-Feb and Mon year-round, last entry one hour before closing, several hundred feet of elevation change over uneven steps—good shoes and knees helpful, tel. 0774-332-650, www.visitfai.it/parcovillagregoriana).

Getting There: It’s handy to access the park through its back entrance, adjacent to the recommended Ristorante Sibilla. From the exit/main entrance (on the other side of the ravine from where you entered), it’s a 15-minute walk back to the center of town. Or bus #4 leaves sporadically from the piazza out front (Largo San Angelo) and goes through the center of town on its way to Hadrian’s Villa and beyond (tickets at green newspaper kiosk or Flo’s Bar, but better to buy ahead).

Eating in Tivoli

Eateries catering to tourists cluster around the main square, Largo Garibaldi—but for more choices and a better look at this tidy, no-frills town, head up Via del Trevio (which eventually curves and becomes Via Palatina then Via Ponte Gregoriano). This also takes you to the more scenic, older part of Tivoli—well worth exploring.

About a 10-minute walk from Largo Garibaldi, you’ll arrive at l’Ape 50 (on the left), a classy but unpretentious place serving gourmet sandwiches and other foods at a reasonable price (big €5 sandwiches, Tue-Sun 12:00-15:00 & 18:00-24:00, closed Mon, shorter hours in winter, seating inside or out, Via di Ponte Gregoriano 5, tel. 0774-556-471).

Farther on, angling left at Piazza Rivarola, you’ll find the gourmet’s choice for a splurge, Ristorante Sibilla. It’s been open since 1720 but boasts a trendy, modern ambience. The restaurant neighbors two ancient temples, provides a glimpse of the waterfalls from its spectacularly set terrace, and offers pricey but tasty traditional cuisine (€9-12 pastas, €18-22 secondi, Tue-Sun 12:30-15:30 & 19:30-22:30, closed Mon, reserve for outdoor seating, Via della Sibilla 50, tel. 0774-335-281). The restaurant is adjacent to the back entrance to Villa Gregoriana Park.