If you google ‘Rome’ and ‘Villa,’ you’re going to end up with a lot of lousy hotel websites, which is a shame, because the various villas throughout the town and immediate environs are one of the major elements that make Rome so singular as a city. But, Roman villas can be confusing because there are a lot of them and they all feature different things. Never fear! Your friendly neighborhood art historian/blogger is here to explain the differences between them and suggest which are the five best for the various activities you might be interested in!
Rome has had villas since its beginnings as a city 2500+ years ago. Villas, in the basics, are suburban or exurban houses (which may or may not have been fully functioning homes) on a bit of land built by and for the wealthy, aristocracy, papal curia, or anybody who had the means and desire. Owning a villa had intellectual connotations (because of their origin in antiquity as a setting for the cultivation of a pastoral, poetic lifestyle), and were places you could show-off your fancy art collection, your taste in architecture and garden design, and generally have a nice place to go with fresh air when you felt like getting out of the city. After the classical period, villa construction waned in the Middle Ages, though the medieval Roman aristocratic families did own huge tracts of land surrounding the city, which in some cases later became villas. Proper villa building really picked up in the later Renaissance, became big business in the Baroque, and continued into the 20th century.
Nowadays, the Villas are mostly city parks, some are still privately owned, but open to the public, and a few are used as private residences (for instance, the Villa Wolonsky, a 19th century villa, is the residence for the British Ambassador to Italy, which is not generally open to the public). Some are strictly parks, whereas some have impressive museums, some are primarily just museums, with a teeny bit of grounds, and some have tempting buildings that are never open.
So here is a list of the five best Villas in Rome (or within an hour on public transit) for your various desired activities.
1. Best Villa that has it all: Villa Borghese
It’s not revelatory to suggest the Villa Borghese is worth your time. It’s a beautiful park, with sculptures, fountains, ponds, and lovely views. The Villa includes multiple worthy museums, not least of all the Galleria Borghese, which is located in the original baroque casino, has a spectacular collection of paintings and three ridiculous Bernini sculptures, but also the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, which has a nice permanent collection and has featured some great exhibitions. The Villa Borghese is easy to get to on public transit (metro A to Flaminio, and head up the hill into the park) so it’s extremely popular with tourists, but it’s big enough that even if you’ve been fighting crowds all day it’s easy to find a corner where all you’ll hear is birdsong and the wind in the pines.
2. Best Villa if you want to enjoy the outdoors like a Roman: Villa Doria Pamphilj (or Pamphili)
Also relatively easy to get to via a bus (either the 75 or 44) or long walk up the Janiculum (Gianicolo) Hill, the Villa Pamphilj is great for enjoying the peaceful outdoors. Though it does have a beautiful villa house, the Casino del Bel Respiro (the little house of the deep breath), it’s open rarely and only by appointment. The Villa Pamphilj is best enjoyed for its running trails, lying in the grass, pick-up games of soccer, or meandering slowly through the trees. The park is huge, so it’s easy to find a quiet corner for a picnic or sunbathing. Because it doesn’t really have a visitable museum and because it’s not quite as easy to get to as the Villa Borghese there are significantly fewer tourists in the Villa Pamphilj, which means in addition to lovely outdoor noises, you’re much more likely to hear some Italian, a sometimes rare sound in the tourist clogged center.
3. Best Villa that is only a museum: Villa Farnesina
Right on the edge of Trastevere, the Villa Farnesina boasts excellent High Renaissance architecture and a few lovely paintings by the likes of Raphael, yes, that Raphael. Bonus points because the Villa Farnesina is little, so you can up your cultural bona fides without slogging for hours through the Vatican Museums. And it’s rarely ever crowded, so you can enjoy the fancy frescoes in relative peace. Runner up for this category is the Villa Giulia, which features an unparalleled collection of Etruscan artifacts, primarily from Cerveteri, and is conveniently situated on the northern edge of the Villa Borghese.
4. Best Villa hidden in plain sight: Villa Celimontana
The petite Villa Celimontana is perfectly located on the Caelian (Celio) hill right above the Colosseum. Less than a five minute walk up from one of the busiest sights in Rome is one of the most peaceful places to sit under the trees and appreciate one of the city’s Egyptian obelisks up close. Though (as of the last time I meandered up there, about two weeks ago) there is a lot of construction going on in the park, the area off the entrance on the Via della Navicella was still open and quiet, with plenty of benches, or patches of grass free for the taking.
5. Best Villa imitating Paradise on Earth: Villa d’Este
Located in Tivoli, easily accessible in under an hour from Rome, perfect for a half-day trip, the Villa d’Este is without doubt one of the most beautiful places on earth. Set on a high, high hill up above the city, providing a staggering view practically to the sea, the manicured gardens, humorous sculptures, and dancing fountains are truly magical. If I knew I had one day left on this planet, I would almost certainly choose to spend at least part of it up at the Villa d’Este.