Rome is known as the Eternal City, but let’s face it — after a few days of dodging motorbikes, inhaling urban air, and being overwhelmed by art, architecture, and monuments, it’s time to escape to a place of tranquility. While there are around 20 lovely parks and gardens inside the Italian capital — including Villa Borghese, Villa Ada, and Villa Doria Pamphili — you might be ready for a day out of town.
Here are my three favorite Renaissance gardens that lend themselves to a wonderful day trip from Rome.
Note: If you are unable to manage stairs or long climbs, it’s probably best not to attempt these challenging sites. That said, I do include one accessibility note below.
1. Villa D’Este
A UNESCO World Heritage Site In Tivoli
Just a 30-minute drive away from Rome (or an hour by bus or train), Villa d’Este is renowned for its magnificent garden design complete with an amazing display of fountains, grottoes, and even an organ that is activated by waterworks. The villa was commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, in part to soothe himself for not becoming pope. Almost completed by the time the Cardinal died in 1572, the park was purchased by the Italian government in the early 1900s and in 2001 became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While you can visit the villa, including the apartments of the Cardinal, you really want to take your time to enjoy the gardens and its extraordinary system of fountains. I am always struck by how these cardinals liked to surround themselves with statues of scantily clad bare-breasted goddesses, the fountain of Diana of Ephesus being one such example.
The Fountain of the Organ starts singing at 10:30 and you can catch its “pipes” every two hours after that. Be sure to stroll along the celebrated marvel of the Hundred Fountains — nearly 300 spouts in the form of masks. Another favorite of mine is the Fountain of the Owl, complete with moving and singing birds.
Accessibility Note: The good news for those who have difficulty walking is that Villa d’Este is partially accessible. There is a lift from the Palazzo to the garden for those with mobility challenges. But watch out on the slippery wet stone pathways!
Opening hours are every day from 8:45 a.m. to 7:45 p.m., except on Mondays when Villa d’Este doesn’t open until 2 p.m. Tickets can be reserved by clicking here.
Pro Tip: Admission is free on the first Sunday of every month.
For more info about visiting Villa d’Este, click here, where you can also find specific directions for arrival under “How to Reach Villa d’Este.”
2. Bomarzo Monster Park
A Unique Walk In The Woods
Right below the little hilltop town of Bomarzo, in the mid-16th century, the Prince of Bomarzo, Vicino Orsini, made one of the strangest and, at the same time, one of the most enchanting places in all of Europe. Orsini called it his “poor little grove,” where he regularly hosted cardinals and nobility. Once full of lively fountains punctuated by breathtaking views, the park fell into disuse until the 1960s when the local Bettini family bought the grove, restored it, and made it accessible to the public.
Today you can wander along the well-marked paths that lead you through a fantasy world full of sphinxes, giants, bizarre creatures, gods, and goddesses — all sculptured out of gigantic boulders of the local lava stone. One of my favorites is a mysterious little villa that is sharply leaning to one side. You enter and climb up and down its sides (please not in high heels — but rubber soles!) and watch through its tiny windows while others clamber at a diagonal. The experience is joyful and childlike — truly an Alice in Wonderland sensation.
Another favorite of mine is a grinning ogre’s head called the Mouth of Hell, with a version of Dante’s best-known line from the Divine Comedy written round it — “Lasciate ogni pensiero voi ch’entrate” (“Abandon all care, all who enter”). But don’t despair. Upon entering the Mouth of Hell, you’ll find yourself inside a grotto, complete with stone benches and a stone table where you can enjoy a picnic!
This park has inspired a number of writers, musicians, and painters, including the Spanish painter Salvador Dalí, who made a short movie about the park and created a painting based on the park.
The Sacred Wood is 105 kilometers (65 miles) north of Rome (by car) on Autostrada A1. Direct trains also leave Rome for Attigliano, where you can catch a sporadic bus or two for Bomarzo.
The park is open every day of the year, from 9 a.m. to sunset. It offers a bar, restaurant, children’s playground, and picnic area.
3. Villa Lante
Romantic Views And Dancing Waterworks
If you have traveled to Bomarzo by car, it’s definitely worth the extra 15-minute drive to the nearby town of Bagnaia, where you will discover Villa Lante, voted in 2011 as the Most Beautiful Park in Italy. Created around the same time as the Sacred Wood, Villa Lante retains the same tone but is much more refined.
The composition of Villa Lante is particularly harmonious, allowing a peaceful calm to enter one’s tired traveling soul. Its construction began in 1511, and by 1566 the garden was full of fountains and two twin manor houses complete with frescos. An aqueduct was even built by its owner Cardinal Gambara to supply water to the fountains. He also commissioned a hydraulic engineer, Tomaso Chiruchi, to perfectly adjust the giochi d’acqua (water games).
Any visitor will find these waterworks, which continue to work to this day, delightful as well as restorative. I love wandering around this intimate garden, climbing to the top, where the view is magnificent. Along the way, I always pause at the Mensa del Cardinale (Table of the Cardinal). It’s not hard to imagine the 16th-century cardinals and bishops dining around this long peperino stone table, accompanied by the sound of a refreshing cool stream that runs through its middle to keep fruits and vegetables fresh.
A bonus for any fans of The Young Pope: Villa Lante was used to create the grounds of the Vatican for the TV series.
Villa Lante is a short walk up from the center of Bagnaia, a medieval town where you can enjoy a drink or meal on the main piazza. Next to Villa Lante is a large park where you can also easily find a shady spot for a picnic.
Opening hours are from 8:30 to 7:30 (April 15 to September 15), Tuesdays to Sundays. Closing times do change during the year, depending on the sunset. The entry fee is a bargain (currently 5 euros!) but be sure to bring cash, as cards are not accepted. You need to make an appointment to visit the manor houses by calling +39-0761-288008.
Find more information (in Italian) here.
While visiting these gardens, you might keep in mind that they were once exclusive retreats open only to princes, church leaders, and nobility. So don’t forget to acknowledge each one’s special synthesis of intellectual thought and artistic harmony. While these gardens once had much more gravity than we give them today, they still evoke our deep human connection to the natural world and our desire to create something beautiful and inspiring that perfectly harmonizes with Nature.
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