Rome can get quite hectic and, although I love the city, it doesn’t take long until you’re wishing for something a bit more peaceful.
It was the same for the great Roman Emperor, Hadrian, who wanted to escape the bustle of the capital in the second century AD. To do this, he built a villa about 25 kilometres on the outskirts of what is now Tivoli.
Hadrian’s Villa is an expansive complex of buildings on a huge compound that stretches out over about 120 hectares. Pools, libraries, temples, palaces… it has it all.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of people could comfortably have lived in this sprawling mini-city and the word ‘villa’ really doesn’t do it justice. In fact, Hadrian like it so much that he decided it would be his official residence, and he ruled the empire from here in his later years.
About two thousand years later, the villa is obviously not looking its best, but there’s plenty to see, including the remains of many of the main buildings – as well as the statues and other artworks which decorate the grounds, symbols of Hadrian’s love of foreign cultures and the lands he visited.
Hadrian’s villa is a masterpiece and a World Heritage Site.
Visiting Hadrian’s Villa is a fantastic day trip from Rome – but it’s not the only magnificent World Heritage Site that you’ll find out here. In the centre of Tivoli is Villa d’Este, a more modern home but one that is just as glorious in its own way.
Most people do a day trip to Tivoli from Rome to see both Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este, and there’s a very good and affordable tour here that I would recommend, if you would like to do that.
There are some other good options from Rome, if one of these works for you:
There’s lots to learn and a tour will certainly give you a much better understanding – plus it’ll avoid all the hassle of driving or organising public transport.
Who was Emperor Hadrian?
To understand a bit about Hadrian’s Villa, we need to quickly look at who Emperor Hadrian was, and why he wanted to build such an opulent palace complex outside the capital of Rome.
Hadrian was not always destined to be Emperor, in the sense that he was not born an heir. But he had family connections with Trajan, who would become emperor and anoint Hadrian as his successor. Hadrian took charge in 117 AD.
He’s considered one of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ – a series of rulers from 96 AD to 180 AD when Rome was at its peak – and even amongst them he stands out for overseeing one of the greatest periods of prosperity.
Whether that was purely because of his leadership skills or partly because he inherited a strong foundation is a matter for debate. But it’s generally accepted that he made wise decisions to consolidate the Roman Empire rather than expand it, strengthening borders with projects like Hadrian’s Wall in Britain.
Hadrian was, in some ways, quite down to earth. He would often eat and even sleep amongst his soldiers, for instance. And he spent much of his time away from the trappings of Rome, travelling to meet people across the empire.
He was also an extremely cultured man, who loved things like architecture, Egyptian art, and Greek poetry, and these influences can be seen in the monuments he built around the empire (including his villa in Tivoli, of course). But he’s perhaps best remembered for a different love – of the young man/boy, Antinous.
Although Hadrian was married (to a woman called Vibia Sabina), he fell in love with Antinous, who was about 14 when they met. They began a relationship and were constantly together, until Antinous died by drowning in the Nile in Egypt at about the age of 19.
The circumstances are still a mystery but the most popular theory is that Antinous sacrificed himself to heal Hadrian of an illness – and, because it appeared to work, a cult formed around the young man who Hadrian had deified.
Hadrian died about eight years later, in 138 AD at the age of 62.
The history of Hadrian’s Villa
So, all of these elements of Hadrian’s life come together for the story of Hadrian’s Villa (Villa Adriana, in Italian).
It was common for Roman Emperors to build villas to escape the capital for holidays and during summer… but Hadrian took it to a whole new level with his enormous and opulent villa in Tivoli.
Construction started on Hadrian’s Villa around 118 AD, just a year after he became emperor, and his interests in the art and architecture of foreign land – particularly Greece and Egypt – were incorporated into the designs.
The first phase of construction was finished within about five years, and Hadrian started to use the villa from 125 AD. From about 128 AD, it became the emperor’s official residence, and the last buildings were finished in 138 AD.
Because Hadrian had never been a huge fan of Rome, he lived permanently at his villa and ruled the empire from here. It’s one of the reasons the area is so large (about 120 hectares), because it operated as a mini city. Many of the buildings were constructed for administration and accommodation for government officials. This was much more than just a holiday home.
But it’s also believed that Hadrian’s homosexuality played a large part in the design and layout of the villa. Although having young male lovers was acceptable at the time, the emperor probably wanted to create a sanctuary where he could surround himself with men and live the life he wanted, without the judgment of the noble class in the capital.
The top things to see at Hadrian’s Villa
Although Hadrian’s Villa (Villa Adriana) is in ruins today, it’s not hard to get a sense of how grand it must all have once looked when it was full of people, decorated with artworks, and with the water features functioning.
Many of the buildings are missing their roofs or walls these days and a lot of the statues and marble were taken to decorate the nearby Villa d’Este, built many centuries later up the hill in the centre of Tivoli.
But enough still remains to spend a couple of hours wandering and exploring. The crowds are relatively thin on the afternoon I visit and, once spread out across the grounds, don’t spoil the experience at all.
Each structure or building deserves careful study on its own – yet Hadrian’s Villa is also more than the sum of its parts. It is a testament to the great Roman Empire and the power and wealth of its leaders.
As you take a tour of Hadrian’s Villa, you’ll discover more than 30 buildings across the site, but there are a few particular things to see at Hadrian’s Villa that I’ve marked on this map:
And here’s a bit more information about each of them.
After coming through the main entrance of Hadrian’s Villa and following the path down to the pool, one of the first buildings you’ll see on your left is the Maritime Theatre.
It’s a small villa-within-a-villa built on an island, protected by a moat and high walls beyond that. It was planned so Hadrian could escape from the busy life of his day-to-day tasks here.
The design was unusual for the time because it didn’t use straight lines, instead based around circular shaped with convex and concave walls. It’s considered to be one of the architectural highlights of the whole site.
Go through the Maritime Theatre and you’ll reach the Hospitalia, which was a two-level building that had guest rooms (hence the name, referring to ‘hospitality’).
You can get a sense of the size of the rooms, which have alcoves for beds, and you can see where the toilet facilities would’ve been (one between 15 people).
The mosaics on some of the floors hint at the elaborate decorations that were presumably here to impress visitors being hosted.
From the Hospitalia, you can walk out across the Imperial Palace, one of the first buildings that would’ve been built here when Hadrian turned the site into his villa.
It’s mainly in ruins now and not one of the most impressive areas on the site, but you can see the basic layout to understand how the offices and administration spaces might’ve worked when the Roman Empire was being ruled from here.
On the other side of the palace, you’ll find the Piazza d’Oro, one of the most decadent parts of this complex of imperial buildings. It had a large courtyard that was probably covered with gardens and fountains – and most likely used for banquets and other functions.
It was once full of artworks and imperial portraits, suggesting it was an extremely important part of the complex, with one of the rooms likely to have been the emperor’s private library.
From the Imperial Palace complex, walk into the centre of the villa site to the Stadium Garden, an open-air garden that would’ve been filled with statues – a bit like a gallery.
Off to one side is the Three Exedras building (also called the Arcaded Triclinium), which is another of the site’s highlights. It has several spaces within it, decorated with fountains, sculptures, and columns.
While we don’t know exactly what it was used for, it was likely for some kind of entertainment. One of the spaces is probably a dining room for hosting banquets, for example.
Continuing on your tour of Hadrian’s Villa, you’ll next reach the baths, an expansive space with different pools, saunas, exercise areas, and latrines.
There are two distinct parts to the space – the Great Baths and the Small Baths and, although they are quite similar, the Small Baths were more elaborately decorated, with better quality marble and more intricate designs.
It’s likely the Small Baths were used by the higher nobility, while the Great Baths were used for lesser-ranking people like military officers and priests.
In the middle of the baths is the access to the Vestibule which, despite its proximity, actually had nothing to do with the complex of pools.
The Vestibule was one of the main entrances to the whole villa, used by important people arriving by horse or chariot.
It had a staircase up from the road to a courtyard with a small temple on one side and a grand hall on the other, creating a sense of luxury and statesmanship as a first impression to any visitors.
The Vestibule is on the same axis as the Canopus, one of the most important things to see at Hadrian’s Villa.
The Canopus is a terraced garden that has a 120-metre-long canal down the centre of it. A colonnade would once have run around the edge of the canal and been decorated with impressive sculptures.
The reason it’s so interesting is because the canal is said to represent the Nile where Hadrian’s lover drowned. But there’s also a mix of styles, including Greek statues and a representation of Romulus and Remus.
It is, in many ways, a collection of all the different loves of Hadrian, combined into one picturesque landscape.
The best Hadrian’s Villa tours
Recently archaeologists found a system of tunnels underneath the whole complex — some of them large enough for chariots to pass through. It’s along these tunnels that the servants and slaves would have moved, to stay out of sight of the more noble citizens above them.
And even today, new things are always being discovered. It’s one of the reasons I think taking a tour of Hadrian’s Villa is a great way to visit the site, so you can learn all about the details and have the ruins you’re seeing put into context.
There are some other good options from Rome that you may prefer, though:
While you can wander around the site yourself for a couple of hours, the thing with Roman ruins is that it’s always much more rewarding to have an expert bring them to life for you.
Details for visiting Hadrian’s Villa
Of course, it’s also possible to visit Tivoli from Rome independently. You can do a day trip and have time to see the two main sites, or you can even stay overnight (it’s a lovely town).
I’ve got a few details about visiting Hadrian’s Villa below, but probably the most important thing to know is that it’s not in the centre of Tivoli and is actually about 5 kilometres away.
If you’re travelling from Rome by public transport just to see the villa, it may be quicker to use the metro and bus combination that I mention below. But if you’re planning to also see the town, you can get the train direct to the centre.
Give yourself at least two hours to see Hadrian’s Villa properly and another couple of hours to see Villa d’Este, if you have time.
Where is Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli?
Hadrian’s Villa is in Tivoli but in the outskirts, about five kilometres from the town centre or the train station. You can see it on a map here.
The carpark is at the end of Via di Villa Adriana.
How do you get to Hadrian’s Villa?
The quickest way from Rome to Hadrian’s Villa by public transport is to catch the Metro Line B to Ponte Mammolo and then get the bus going to Via Prenestina, which will stop near the villa’s entrance.
If you’re planning to also visit the town, you can get the train directly to Tivoli station from Roma Termini or Roma Tiburtina, which will take about 40 minutes. From Tivoli station, there are buses to Villa Adriana.
When is Hadrian’s Villa open?
Hadrian’s Villa is open at the following times throughout the year:
31 October to 27 February: 0830 – 1700
28 February – 26 March: 0830 – 1830
27 March to 30 September: 0830 – 1930
October: 0830 – 1830
The ticket office closes 1.5 hours earlier.
How much does it cost to visit Hadrian’s Villa?
The entrance fee for Hadrian’s Villa is €10 for adults and €2 for a reduced ticket. Children under 18 are free.
You can also get a combo ticket for Hadrian’s Villa, Villa d’Este, the Sanctuary of Hercules Victor, and Mena Ponderaria. It costs €25 for adults and €6 for a reduced ticket.
For more information, you can visit the official website of Hadrian’s Villa.
Less than an hour from Rome, Hadrian’s Villa is probably the most impressive site you could visit nearby. Combined with Villa d’Este, it makes the perfect excuse for a day trip to Tivoli from Rome.
Hadrian created his villa as an escape from the city – and you can do the same.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN TIVOLI
Although you can visit as a day trip from Rome, there’s enough to see to make a lovely overnight stay in Tivoli.
There aren’t really any hostels in town, but you’ll find good rates at La Giada.
I think Cristallo Relais is a wonderful little hotel with excellent value for money.
For a rustic villa atmosphere, have a look at the charming Casale Colleoni.
And for an incredible historic hotel, Residenze Gregoriane is a very special experience.