A Short Guide To Tivoli, Italy

Once the summer retreat of rich Romans, Tivoli has been many things over its thousands of years of existence: The seat of a Byzantine duchy, an outpost of French and Austrian soldiers, a Papal stronghold, and a stop along the Grand Tour for well-heeled Europeans of yesteryear, among other things.

With ancient temples, beautiful gardens, and history around every corner (not to mention delicious places to eat), visiting Tivoli is a must for anybody wishing to see how Romans of the past spent their holidays.

Villa d'Este

A Short History Of Tivoli, Italy

Just a stone’s throw from Rome, Tivoli is naturally a very popular place to visit. The town is home to UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the form of beautiful villas, and has long been visited by tourists. In fact, as I have said before Tivoli was a stop on the Grand Tour undertaken by wealthy Europeans in the 18th and 19th century.

Tivoli is a particularly attractive city, thanks not only to its historic buildings but also due to its location. Thanks to the Aniene River and Sabine Hills, many waterfalls are found in the area.

The story of the founding of Tivoli begins centuries ago. It’s said to have been founded by Catillus the Arcadian, who escaped a massacre at Thebes. Whether that’s true or not, actual evidence states that people have been living here since 13 BC. The city that was built here became known as Tibur and was an independent ally of Rome, before allying itself with the Gauls in 361 BC, building defensive walls around the city.

In 338 BC, Rome defeated the city. Later, in 90 BC, people who lived in Tibur became Roman citizens. The area became a resort, famed for its landscape and the high quality of its water. Many Roman villas were built here: one belonged to Emperor August, another to Emperor Hadrian – the ruins of which still stand today – and the poet Horace also had a villa in Tibur, among others.

The city became an independent commune in the Middle Ages until it fell under Papal control. During the Renaissance, popes built various structures in the city, including the Rocca Pia, constructed by Pope Pius II in 1461 as a symbol of Papal power in the region. A second wave of villas were built here around the 16th century, including the Villa d’Este (a UNESCO World Heritage Site today).

What To See And Do In Tivoli, Rome

Given its long history not only as a town in its own right, but as a resort long-visited by tourists, Tivoli has plenty of sights to see and things to do to its name. Close enough to Rome for a day trip from the city, visiting Tivoli is not only rewarding but convenient, too.

You should also read my post 28 Best Day Trips From Rome.

Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa)

Inscribed by UNESCO in 1999, this is arguably Tivoli’s most famous attraction and one of the most visited archaeological sites in Italy. It was built under the orders of Emperor Hadrian between 118 and 138 AD. The enormous villa covers an area of around 120 hectares (300 acres) and includes buildings and gardens. It was designed to seem like an ideal city.

The villa was not just an impressive home, but also included temples, baths, theaters, gardens, barracks and nymphaeums, too. It was particularly palatial and was an incredible feat of engineering, particularly in terms of the fountains and lawns of the garden.

The main structure at Hadrian’s Villa was spread across two floors. The ground floor was a busy, noisy place where those who worked in the house and visitors would spend their time; the upper floor, where the emperor himself would stay, was a quiet, more reserved space.

Hadrian's Villa

Today, thankfully it is still possible to experience the majesty of this estate, although much of it lies in ruins.

Some of the most interesting buildings at the complex include the Maritime Theater, which once contained a pool that represented a body of water; the Canopus, a canal edged with caryatid columns (in the shape of people), a homage to the Egyptian city of the same name; there’s also the Great and Small Baths, where people would have gone to relax and enjoy the famed waters of Tivoli.

The complex is massive, so you may be better off exploring on a guided tour.

The tour I did is this Villa d’Este and Hadrian’s Villa day tour from Rome. Just opt out of lunch as the one included is apparently not good (so told me the other people in my group).

There’s also this Villa D’Este and Villa Adriana day trip from Rome which is similar to the one above, and does not include lunch.

Finally, you can book your private tour to Tivoli here.

Make sure to also read my post A Guide To Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli: 17 Best Things To Know.

Villa d'Este Tivoli Gardens

Villa d’Este

Another UNESCO World Heritage Site at Tivoli, this former royal residence was built in the 16th century, originally for the powerful Este family. With incredibly inventive garden design, which includes 51 fountains, 64 waterfalls, and 220 basins, the Italian Renaissance design is a watery world, impressive even by today’s standards. It’s an amazing example of this period of time and its culture.

The palace and the gardens here were originally laid out by Italian architect Pirro Ligorio on behalf of Cardinal Ferrera, who became the governor of Tivoli in 1550. Ferrera desired a lavish residence which reflected his newfound status, and employed Ligorio to realise his vision.

Fontana dell'Ovato Villa d'Este

The gardens still wow to this day, and were a model for gardens across Europe for centuries after; they also inspired other architects and artists of the time.

Some of the most famous features of the Villa d’Este include the Viale delle Cento Fontane, or the Avenue of a Hundred Fountains, which combines ornate topiary with an impressive number of fountains – actually closer to 300 spouts than just 100 – that trickle over a two-tiered trough. Sculptures depict scenes from Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, others illustrate boats and vases; much of it unfortunately can’t be seen fully due to overgrowing plants.

There’s also the Fontana dell’Organo. This is considered the centerpiece of the Villa d’Este and is one of the garden’s facets. Translated to “Fountain of the Organ,” work began on this masterpiece in 1556. It’s actually a water organ, creating music as the water runs through a series of different whirlpools, dropping down pipes and forcing out air to create sounds.

It was so incredible at the time that, when Pope Gregory XIII visited in 1572, he made a point of inspecting the inner workings of the fountains just to check it wasn’t a hidden person making the music inside!

To get your Villa d’Este tickets on Tiqets, click here.

Villa d’Este is actually quite big to explore – especially the gardens. You may be better off joining a guided tour.

I did this Villa d’Este and Hadrian’s Villa day tour from Rome – it’s not too in depth, and leaves you plenty of time to explore the area on your own too.

Alternatively, you could opt for this Villa D’Este and Villa Adriana day trip from Rome which includes transportation and a live guide, as well as skip-the-line tickets for all sites.

Head over to my post A Guide To Villa D’Este And Tivoli Gardens, Italy.

Villa Gregoriana Tivoli
Photo by Sopotnicki @shutterstock

Villa Gregoriana

Villa Gregoriana may not be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it is no less impressive than either of Tivoli’s inscribed villas. Commissioned by Pope Gregory XVI in 1835, this more recent villa actually consists of a park that stretches out from Tivoli’s ancient acropolis. It’s a wooded ravine that’s scattered with grottoes and the ruins of buildings from centuries ago.

One of the most impressive parts of the Villa Gregoriana is the powerful waterfall, the “Grand Waterfall”, which cascades into the ravine – best viewed from the viewpoint, reached on one of the pathways and a series of steps. From here you can see the falls and rainbows created by the spray.

Walking among the woodlands and caves along the park’s many paths, you’ll be led along the Valley of Hell, where the river course leads to the Siren’s Cave. There’s also the ruins of a Roman villa here, as well as a Napoleonic era tunnel.

Overall, it’s much less touristy than the other two famous gardens of Tivoli, and exploring the landscape of Villa Gregoriana allows you to take a breather from the tourist crowds elsewhere.

Tivoli Rome

Temple of the Sybil

Part of Villa Gregoriana, the Temple of the Sybil dates back to 150 BC. The ancient structure sits atop the acropolis, the highest point of Tivoli, and was built in a classic rectangular shape.

It’s not clear as to whom this religious building was dedicated; some people say it is to Hercules, others believe it was intended for the Sybils, women who were believed to be able to see the future. People also call it the Temple of Vesta, the goddess of the home and the hearth.

Either way, artists have often made their way to this temple to sketch the ruin – especially during the days of the Grand Tour.

Photo by ALEXEY IZOTOV @shutterstock

Walk across the Gregorian Bridge

This picturesque bridge was constructed by Pope Gregory XVI in 1834 in order to connect the city of Tivoli with Villa Gregoriana. It is a single-arch bridge constructed from travertine, and dramatically crosses over a ravine in a striking display of design.

Sadly, the bridge was destroyed by retreating German troops on the 27th May, 1944. Thankfully, however, the bridge has been rebuilt and is now an integral part of the city. From the bridge you can catch a particularly attractive view overlooking Villa Gregoriana and ancient temples. A procession takes place on this bridge every year, in which the waters of the Aniene River are blessed.

Santuario di Ercole Vincitore Tivoli
Lalupa, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sanctuary of Hercules Victor

Construction began on this enormous sanctuary to Tivoli’s guardian deity, Hercules Victor, during the 2nd century BC. It’s made up of three parts: a theatre, a large square, and the temple itself. The herculean complex took around a decade to build and originally took up a space of around 3,000 square meters.

It’s believed that the magnificent design of the sanctuary was intended to impress visitors who were traveling from Rome to Tivoli – you could say it was something of an ancient tourist attraction!

The sanctuary itself housed a statue of Hercules, but in later years – thanks to its location near the Aniene River – it has been used for various purposes over the centuries. In fact, until recently, the area was taken up by paper factories, though it has housed wool mills and foundries over the years. Its history reflects the history of Tivoli itself.

Rocca Pia Tivoli

Rocca Pia

This fortified bastion has become a symbol of Tivoli. Built in 1467 by Pope Pius II in order to protect the city and to control the goings on inside (i.e. to stop uprisings), the square fortress consists of four round towers of varying heights. In its heyday, the castle could only be accessed via a drawbridge.

Amazingly, it took only a year to construct, but even so it was practically impenetrable. Over the years, it has been used as a barracks, which housed French and Austrian invaders, and was turned into a prison by Napoleon. It remained in use as a prison until the 1960s.

Today the imposing fortress is not actually open to visitors. However, just glimpsing the formidable structure gives you an insight into the defensive importance of Tivoli and the powerful people who have ruled it over the centuries.

traditional italian dishes

Practical Guide

Where to eat in Tivoli, Italy

Agriturismo Bel Poggio

This rustic eatery on the outskirts of Tivoli offers the chance to enjoy meals prepared entirely with locally produced ingredients. Here, diners can enjoy an array of traditional Italian dishes, surrounded by green rolling hills. There’s also accommodation here, if you feel like spending a night or two in Tivoli.

Ristorante Sibilla

Ristorante Sibilla is not just any old eatery – this restaurant is actually 300 years old, so choosing to eat here means literally taking in a part of the city’s history. First opening its doors in 1720, the restaurant has played host to a number of prominent diners over the years including Princess Margaret and Yoko Ono.

The restaurant is high-end, however, and prices match, but it’s a pleasant place to enjoy top quality food; there’s even a charming sun-dappled terrace with views out across the valley.

pasta alla gricia

La Fornarina

This restaurant can be found in Tivoli’s bustling main square, Piazza Palatina. Taking up space inside a mediaeval palace, the popular eatery has an array of delicious pizzas on its menu (the specialty dough is leavened for 72 hours), as well as hunger-inducing pasta dishes to choose from.

Il Ciocco

Il Ciocco is a classic Italian restaurant that provides a fantastic place to enjoy a meal. The views steal the show here, as they overlook waterfalls and ancient temples. The menu consists of hearty pizza, pasta dishes and seafood, all served up in an enchanting atmosphere. Prices are reasonable.

Osteria La Briciola

Away from the busy city centre, this cosy restaurant with high quality service provides a homely place to enjoy traditional cuisine. Surrounded by the rolling hills on the outskirts of Tivoli, here you can indulge in five-course dinners and sample some of the restaurant’s extensive wine cellar, some of which consists of small batches made by local vineyards. The varied menu is seasonal and beautifully presented; the desserts are a must.

visiting Hadrian's Villa Tivoli

How to get to Tivoli from Rome

By Train

If you want to get the train from Rome to Tivoli, you’re in luck – it’s very simple to reach the town from the capital city. It’s not as quick as driving, but takes just over an hour, making it a great place for a day trip from Rome. There are daily direct trains departing from Rome Tiburtina for Tivoli, easing the potential hassle of having to change. There even are some direct trains from Roma Termini.

Otherwise, many trains departing from Rome Termini Station will require you to change in Rome Tiburtina, making the trip overall longer and a bit more complicated – and you may risk missing the connection if the train is running late.

Opt for a direct train where possible – just try to arrive on time so you’re not sitting around waiting for the next one.

For information on booking Trenitalia tickets and to see the schedule, you can check the official website or the Omio app.

Villa d'Este Tivoli

By Guided Tour

To fully take the stress out of visiting Tivoli, and if you’re short on time, a tour from Rome would be a good idea. Opting for a tour means you won’t have to worry about missing transport connections, or figuring out where to park if you’re driving yourself.

Most tours to Tivoli will depart from Via Cavour. You’ll typically have to be there twenty minutes before departure at 9:30 am. The tour whisks you to the historic town itself via air-conditioned coach, beginning with a trip to Hadrian’s Villa and then Villa d’Este, among others.

I recommend this Villa d’Este and Hadrian’s Villa day tour from Rome. Opt out of lunch so you can enjoy one of the places recommended above!

There are plenty of other options. You can opt for this tour which includes hotel pick up and drop off, making things even more convenient.

If you prefer a private tour, you can book it here.

By Car

Getting to Tivoli by car from Rome is relatively easy. The town is around a 40-minute drive, mostly along the E80 highway. The only downside with taking the car is that, although it’s quick to drive there, parking can be an issue – especially on weekends or holidays, or during the summer. You should make sure to research ahead of time and aim for a specific car park within the town rather than putting just “Tivoli” into your maps or sat nav.

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2 thoughts on “A Short Guide To Tivoli, Italy”

  1. We’re Heading to Tivoli by car from Rome Termini. Your posting is more then appreciated and I will be refering back to it every step of the way, Then it’s a scenic trip to Pescara etc.
    Many Thanks
    PS do you have the address for the parking atPiazza Garibaldi or any other near Villa De Este?? :-))

  2. Well, the parking in Piazza Garibaldi will be in Piazza Garibaldi… not sure it makes sense!

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