Tivoli is one of the most popular day trips from Rome thanks to its proximity to the capital and its two UNESCO World Heritage sites: Villa d’Este and Villa Adriana. Nestled in the Sabine Hills and famed for its healing springs, the town became a popular residential and resort area when wealthy ancient Romans like Hadrian, Maecenas and Augustus began building villas in the countryside. Popes and cardinals followed suit during the Renaissance and Tivoli became an essential stop for intellectuals traveling through Italy on the Grand Tour in the 17th century.
Today, Tivoli is recognized for its rich cultural heritage, numerous garden villas and beautiful scenery. Here’s what to see, do and eat in a day.
The Villas of Tivoli
Built in the 2nd century AD by Roman emperor Hadrian, Villa Adriana was designed as an “ideal city” and incorporates elements from across the Mediterranean region, including Ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian architecture. The archeological park is a palatial complex with reflective pools, ancient theaters, residential buildings and vaulted bath structures interspersed by gardens, lawns and fountains. Together with Villa d’Este, Villa Adriana is considered an impressive engineering feat for its use of abundant water and integrating manmade elements into the landscape. It is an evocative setting that influenced many artists of the 19th and 20th centuries and is worth visiting with a guide to fully appreciate the symbolism of this important site.
With its many fountains, pools and basins, Villa d’Este was considered remarkably innovative in the 16th century and still astounds visitors to this day. It is one of the best examples of Italian Renaissance garden architecture and includes an impressive network of “51 fountains and nymphaeums, 398 spouts, 364 water jets, 64 waterfalls, and 220 basins, fed by 875 metres of canals, channels and cascades, and all working entirely by the force of gravity, without pumps” (source).
Villa d’Este its gardens were commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este of Ferrara after he became governor of Tivoli, and the designs were carried out by Pirro Ligorio. A leading classical scholar of the time, Ligorio carefully studied nearby Villa Adriana and sought to create something that would exceed the fame of its predecessor. The cardinal even went as far as removing marble statues from Emperor Hadrian’s villa to decorate his own.
The villa features panoramic gardens set upon two levels, a long alley with a canal and one-hundred fountains, and you can visit the cardinal’s apartment with richly-decorated halls, frescoed ceilings and views of the countryside.
Though Villa Gregoriana does not yet have UNESCO-status like its neighbors, this park is a true verdant oasis in the heart of Tivoli and home to the Cascata Grand, Italy’s second highest waterfall. Established by Pope Gregory XVI in the early 19th century, the park bears his name though the site has been of strategic importance for millennia. Located along the transumanza path which saw saw shepherds migrate from southern Italy to the north during the changing seasons, it is also home to the 1st-century Roman Temple of Veste which sits atop the acropolis of the city overlooking the waterfall. Today, the Villa Gregoriana is managed by the Fondo Ambiente Italiano, the National Trust of Italy.
Where To Eat
While you’re in Tivoli, you can’t miss the chance to dine at the 300-year-old Ristorante Sibilla located the the foot of the acropolis of Tivoli near Villa Gregoriana. The restaurant has attracted notable personalities over the centuries, including King Frederick William III of Prussia, Princess Margaret, Yoko Ono and Lance Armstrong, among others. The restaurant serves seasonal Italian dishes with a contemporary spin and has excellent seafood. You’ll find risotto cacio e pepe and ravioli stuffed with buffalo mozzarella along with sea bass carpaccio served with passionfruit and grilled lamb served atop an artichoke cream.
Located inside a medieval palazzo in Tivoli’s Piazza delle Erbe, La Fornarina is a trendy restaurant and pizzeria beloved by locals. Famed pizzaiolo Duilio Girotto consults on the pizza menu, which includes classics and gourmet varieties that have been leavened for 72-hours, along with calzoni and “I Fornaretti” pizza sandwiches stuffed with local ingredients like porchetta di Ariccia. The restaurant menu is tantalizing as well, with dishes like tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms and gorgonzola, or seafood ravioli with clams and crispy zucchini blossoms.
Tivoli spelled backwards and a play on “I love it”, Ilovit is an artisanal cafe and bakery opened by two women. Serving coffee, cakes and smoothies, it’s a great place for breakfast and a taste of Iloveit’s signature tiramisu any time of the day. You’ll find the classic coffee and chocolate combo, along with creative varieties like passionfruit, pistachio, strawberry and more. The special occasion and birthday cakes are delicious too, if you happen to stay in town for a while.