Located in the the quaint Tivoli, a lovely small town close to Rome, Hadrian’s Villa (Villa Adriana in Italian) is a truly impressive site. Once the representation of the opulence and wealth of Roman emperors, Hadrian’s Palace remains to date a must visit site for history buffs. You can visit on day trips from Rome – and in fact, you can combine your visit with that of Renaissance Villa d’Este and Tivoli Gardens.
If you are looking for an interesting place to visit close to Rome that is not as crowded with tourists, then keep on reading. In this post I will share the history of Hadrian’s Villa, the main sights you should check out there, and some practical information that will help you plan your visit.
Make sure to also read my post 28 Best Day Trips From Rome.
The History Of Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli
Hadrian’s Villa is one of the Roman emperor Hadrian’s many residences during his reign from 117 to 138 AD. Today the remains of the villa are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated as such to showcase and protect the history and architecture on display here.
It is believed that Hadrian did not like his palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome. Because of this, he began to seek out a place where he could build a palace to be used as a countryside retreat. It was actually very normal to build himself a villa to retreat to, where he would unwind from the stresses of everyday life.
Previous emperors, such as Trajan, and noble Romans had also built themselves villas in the countryside. These kinds of estates would usually be surrounded by farmland which would be used to supply the villa with food so that nothing needed to be imported.
Hadrian settled on Tibur, in the countryside east of Rome. Tibur – today known as Tivoli – was already a popular retreat spot for Roman citizens who originally would have come from Hispania (Spain today). Hadrian’s parents hailed from Hispania, so he likely became acquainted with the area of Tibur during his early years.
Hadrian’s wife, Vibia Sabina, who was the niece of Emperor Trajan, is also thought to have had a connection to the area. Part of the Roman nobility, Vibia’s family owned large swathes of land in Tibur; the site that Hadrian eventually chose for his imperial palace already had a property belonging to Vibia’s family situated on it.
The remains of Hadrian’s Villa today indicate that there have been three different construction phases. This is known from the brick stamps that have been found throughout the property. Those phases are 118 to 121; 125 to 128; and 134 to 138 AD. And rather than being just one building, there are many different parts to the complex, because this needed to be more than just a personal summer retreat – it also needed to be a place where he could work, meet with officials and entertain guests.
Hadrian’s palace was said to be one of “exceptional pomp” and used innovative ideas in architecture and garden design. It is also believed that Hadrian took inspiration from his travels to the many provinces of the Roman Empire, including reproductions of monuments from Egypt and Greece, for example.
The enormous complex, extending across 300 hectares, is like a citadel. It was, at the time, an imposing property larger even than the city of Pompeii, separate from the people, which suited Hadrian’s absolutist character of ruling.
The vast area of land contains a wide array of features, including baths, fountains, farmland and even cultivated wilderness areas. So inspired by his travels as he was, Hadrian even had various buildings named after Egyptian cities or temples.
In general, Hadrian’s Villa can be separated into four fairly distinctive areas, each with its own central nucleus, though water was an integral part of the design throughout. Because it required so much water, multiple new aqueducts had to be built specifically to feed the water features of Hadrian’s new palace.
Towards the end of his reign (from around 182 AD), Hadrian actually moved into the villa full-time and governed the entire Roman Empire from it. This meant that the villa had to transform into a court, with various officials housed here as well.
There were also a large number of visitors and bureaucrats coming and going, being entertained and staying temporarily. A special postal service kept residents in contact with government buildings back in Rome.
Even though these hundreds, possibly thousands, of people lived in the villa, it remains unknown whether or not Hadrian’s wife, Vibia, lived there with him; they had something of a distant relationship. It is thought, however, that his childhood nurse, Germana, did possibly live with him, due to a close relationship they’d formed over the years.
After Hadrian’s death, the villa continued to be used by a succession of Roman Emperors as an imperial residence. The busts of Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, Septimius Severus and Caracalla have all been discovered there, suggesting that the villa was used by them. Zenobia, the former ruler of Palmyra, in the province of Syria, may have also lived there in the 270s.
The villa complex eventually declined with the gradual wane of the Western Roman Empire in the 4th century. Parts of the palace fell into disrepair and valuable materials such as marble were removed by the ruling classes of Rome. During the war between the Ostrogoths and the Byzantines (535-554), Hadrian’s Villa was used as a warehouse by both sides.
There’s also evidence to show the sacking of the villa during excavations; the discovery of lime kilns on the site suggests its use as a quarry for extracting raw materials. Some of it was even used to build Christian basilicas and shrines in Rome.
By the 16th century, many of the estate’s various pieces of art, statues and other riches were removed under the orders of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este to decorate his nearby Villa d’Este (also in Tivoli).
Archaeological excavations of the site have been sporadic for the past few centuries and continue to this day. In fact, from the first topographical survey of the property – dating to around 1560 – to the present day, Hadrian’s Villa remains to be fully excavated.
Main Things To See At Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli
Because of millennia of misuse and abandonment, much of the Imperial Palace itself lies in ruins. But even so, the foundations of the building allow visitors to get a better understanding of the sheer scale of this grand powerhouse of the Roman Empire.
The palace was one of the first buildings to be constructed on the estate, and included offices for staff, a library and an open courtyard. You can still spot the original Republican era walls in some parts, the central courtyard is visible, and – in the western part – there’s even floor decoration to be seen.
During excavations of Hadrian’s Villa, historians have uncovered an incredible mosaic flooring, which is now on show at both the Vatican Museums and the Museum of Berlin.
Canopus and Serapeum
Named after the Canopus Canal of ancient Egypt, the Canopus is a large pool located at Hadrian’s Villa. It’s also here that you’ll find the Serapeum, a copy of the famous ancient Greek Temple of Serapis in Alexandria.
In its heyday, the Canopus would have been completely surrounded by Corinthian columns interspersed with classical Greek statuary. The Serapeum is an artificial grotto; Hadrian did not use this as a temple, rather he used it as a triclinium or dining room, used to entertain and relax, during the summer months.
In the triclinium at the Serapeum, there would have been various beds for banquets to be held on, and spectacular water features would have surrounded the diners. The Canopus itself, at 120 meters (393.3 feet) long, would have only added to the impressive nature of this part of the villa.
Believed to have been constructed between 118 and 125 AD, the Heliocaminus Baths were just one of several bath complexes built at Hadrian’s Villa. These baths comprised changing rooms and a selection of baths kept at different temperatures (generally: hot, cold and tepid).
There was even a steam room here, which was very rare, that was heated by the sun. A domed room with large windows, this room amplified the sun’s rays, making it hot.
When entering this part of Hadrian’s Villa, visitors can still see the walls of the steam room, the circular seating and even some of the original marble lining on the walls.
Situated in the west of the complex, these baths are so titled because they are smaller in size than the Grand Baths situated on the site. However, the small baths are ones of luxury, and are more architecturally impressive, and were used by Emperor Hadrian himself and his inner imperial court.
The architecture of the small baths is confusing for historians as there does not seem to be one central theme to them. Rather, there is an unusual collection of bathhouse features involved.
This includes an octagonal central chamber, marble wall decorations and the ingenious use of vaulted ceilings. Much of the architecture still remains, including well-preserved brick walls and archways, making this a particularly interesting place for visitors to spend time marveling at the design.
Close to the center of Villa Adriana was the Piazza d’Oro, or “Gold Square”. As you might be able to tell from its name, this was one of the most luxurious parts of the palace. This is where Emperor Hadrian really showed off his wealth. It would have had a vaulted ceiling, a four-sided colonnade with columns constructed from Egyptian granite, as well as a triclinium, its own canal and a nymphaeum.
It isn’t known what this grand room would have been used for, but there are a few theories. One states that it would have been Hadrian’s private library, due to the similarity to the Stoa of Hadrian in Athens (a library).
No matter what went on here, and even though it has been looted throughout the centuries, the ostentatiousness of the design of the Piazza d’Oro can still be felt to this day.
As much of Hadrian’s Villa was dedicated to innovative ways of using water, you may be thinking that it made sense that the theater had a watery theme. But the maritime theater was not a theater at all, and was misidentified during excavations.
In fact, this is thought to be a residence – an example of Hadrian stamping his own identity on the property, as it veered away from all Roman architectural standards of that era. It is believed that Hadrian stayed here while construction on the main Imperial Palace was taking place.
The so-called maritime theater is made up of an island in the middle of a moat; no straight lines are used, only curved lines, with the island surrounded by arcs of Ionic columns.
On the island there is a building, or domus (house), which contains three bedrooms with heated floors, heated baths, a library, lounge, art gallery and a fountain. It’s also thought that during the times of Hadrian it was connected to the land by a drawbridge, allowing him to have privacy whenever he wanted to and retreat from court life.
This one actually is a theater, and is situated in the south of Hadrian’s Villa. The south theater was a performance venue, measuring 50 meters (164 feet) across, and featured room for around 1,100 theater-goers to enjoy performances here.
It is debated whether this is a theater or if it is, more specifically, an odeon used for music and poetry. What is clear is that this was a venue where the emperor and the people of his court could go to enjoy drama, music, comedy or some general entertainment.
Unlike a lot of Villa Adriana, the vigilant’s station was not a luxurious building, but instead served more of a practical function. Built between 118 and 125, during the first construction phase of the complex, it was used by guards who oversaw the security of the villa.
The vigilant’s station features multiple levels built around a symmetrical courtyard. Its sheer size shows how large the villa complex as a whole must have been to warrant a security force on such a scale.
In fact, the latrine on the southwest side of the vigilant’s station is one of the most notable features of the building, and could accommodate up to 15 people at one time.
Practical Information For Visiting Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli
Opening hours of Hadrian’s Villa
Hadrian’s Villa opens every day at 8:15 am. The onsite museum is open from 10:00 am. Closing time are as follows:
From November to February included
Villa Adriana – 5:00 pm
Mouseia – 4:00 pm
Villa Adriana – 6:30 pm
Mouseia – 5:30 pm
April to mid September
Villa Adriana – 7:30 pm
Mouseia – 6:30 pm
The ticket office and the gates close an hour and a half before closing time.
Both sites are closed on 1st January and 25th December.
For more accurate opening times make sure to check the official website here.
Best time to visit
To fully make the most of a trip to Hadrian’s Villa, you are better off to arrive in the morning. There’s a lot to see here so you’ll need to set aside time to see it all.
Also, in the summer months it gets quite hot here, which is another reason to start as early in the day as possible; otherwise, avoid summer, as in addition to the heat it will be a bit busy with tourists.
Hadrian’s Villa tickets
General Hadrian’s Villa tickets cost €10 (€12 when there are special exhibits). Reduced tickets cost €2. and are available for EU citizens and residents between 18 and 25 years of age – you may be asked for your ID card upon entering.
Free admission is available for anyone under the age of 18 and for disabled visitors.
Admission is free on the first Sunday of every month, and it is free to visit for women on International Women’s Day on 8th March.
There is a €2 online booking fee that everyone must pay.
In addition to the plain ticket, there’s also a combined ticket – the Villae Pass Tivoli – which gives you access to Hadrian’s Villa, Villa d’Este and the Sanctuary of Hercules Victor. It costs €21 + €2 booking fee for adults (the fee is €25 during special exhibits); €6 + €2 booking fee for concessions; and it is valid for three days.
Audioguides are available for €5.
The official site for Hadrian’s Villa tickets is CoopCulture. Just beware that tickets bought on the official website can’t be refunded or modified. For a more flexible cancellation policy, you may want to get your tickets on third party booking sites.
Should you get a guided tour of Hadrian’s Villa?
Since there’s so much to see at Hadrian’s Villa, a tour would be worth it – especially if you are particularly interested in this sort of history. That’s how I visited and I am glad I did, as the site is massive and it’s impossible to understand what you see without someone that feeds you all the relevant information.
Guided tours will generally include transportation from Rome and also go to Villa d’Este and Tivoli Gardens.
To get your guided tour of Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este on Tiqets here.
The tour I did is this Villa d’Este and Hadrian’s Villa day tour from Rome. You can book the tour with or without lunch. I opted for no lunch and was glad for that as others in my group who had lunch included said it was not good.
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.
There’s also an audio guide for visitors to make use of, which is also available in various languages; this costs €5 and lasts 1 hour 15 minutes.
How to get to Hadrian’s Villa from Rome
If you’re driving from Rome take the A24 highway and exit at the Tivoli tollbooth. From there it’s around 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) until you reach the area, then follow directions for Villa Adriana. There is official parking located at the entrance to the site. The journey should take around one hour by car, depending on traffic.
By guided tour
This is the easiest option to visit Villa Adriana and the other sites in Tivoli. Most tours will ask to meet in a specific place, and from there you’ll board a bus to Tivoli. Hadrian’s Villa is normally the first stop on the tour. You will then go to lunch and afterwards visit Villa d’Este and Tivoli Gardens before making your way back to Rome. Tours are usually full day – you’re normally back in Rome around 5:30 or 6:00 pm.
Most tours are for groups of up to 20 persons.
If you prefer a private tour, you can book it here.
If you want to take the bus, the best way to get there from Rome is to take metro line B to Ponte Mammolo station. From there you can take one of the many buses via Prenestina to the entrance of the villa. Travel time is between 45 minutes and one hour.
You can either take a train from Rome Termini or Tiburtina station to Tivoli. From Tivoli, simply take one of the regular buses that connect the station to the site. The journey by train takes around an hour.
Other useful information
Are there any security checks?
There are no security checks but there are a number of items that are not permitted to be brought into the estate. These include large backpacks and suitcases.
Interestingly, you cannot wear period clothing or costume (e.g. dressing up in a toga-like an ancient Roman) on the site.
There are toilets available for visitors at the main entrance (only open at weekends) and at the plastic model of the villa.
Hadrian’s Villa does have access for disabled visitors. However, this is an ancient site with many undulating services and is only partially accessible via a specific route for those with disabilities.