Sited on a hilltop, with fresh mountain air and a pleasant position on the Aniene River, Tivoli has long been a retreat from the centre of Rome. The major sight is the Villa d’Este, the country villa of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este now been restored to its original state with beautiful Mannerist frescoes. It’s the gardens that most people come to see, peeling away down the hill in a succession of terraces, their carefully tended lawns, shrubs and hedges interrupted by one fountain after another. Tivoli’s other main attraction is the Villa Gregoriana, created when Pope Gregory XVI diverted the flow of the river here to ease the periodic flooding of the town in 1831. At least as interesting and beautiful as the d’Este estate, it remains less well known and less visited, and has none of the latter’s conceits – its vegetation is lush and overgrown, descending into a gorge over 60m deep.
Villa d’Este in Tivoli, Italy © Marco Rubino/Shutterstock
Probably the largest and most sumptuous villa in the Roman Empire, Villa Adriana, just outside Tivoli, was the retirement home of the Emperor Hadrian for a short while between 135 AD and his death three years later. Hadrian was a great traveller and a keen architect, and parts of the enormous site were inspired by buildings he had seen around the world. The massive Pecile, for instance, through which you enter, is a reproduction of a building in Athens; the Canopus, on the opposite side of the site, is a copy of the sanctuary of Serapis near Alexandria, its long, elegant channel of water fringed by sporadic columns and statues leading up to a temple of Serapis at the far end.
Lido di Ostia has for years been the number one, or at any rate the closest and most accessible seaside resort for Romans. The beaches are ok, and much cleaner than they used to be, but you have to pay to use them and the town doesn’t have a great deal to recommend it apart from its thumping nightlife in summer, and with a little more time you could do better. Inland, however, the excavations of the Roman port of Ostia – Ostia Antica – constitute one of the finest ancient Roman sites you’ll see anywhere. Until its harbour silted up and the town was abandoned during the fourth century, Ostia was Rome’s principal port and a thriving commercial centre. Over the centuries the sand and mud of the Tiber preserved its buildings incredibly well and the excavations here are an evocative sight: it’s much easier to visualize a Roman town here than at the Forum – and it even compares pretty well with far better-known sights like Pompeii.
There’s not much to sleepy Santa Severa but it’s easy to get to and has everything you need for a day at the beach, with long stretches of sandy beach – some free, the rest given over to the usual letti and ombrelloni – and a tavola calda right on the seafront; there’s also a castle at the southern end of the beach, home to a small municipal museum, if you get bored. The only drawback is the fact that the train station is a 20min walk from town, with erratic connecting buses and no real alternative transport.