Spending a sunny weekend outside is almost an institution in Rome, and thanks to the benefits of a mild Mediterranean climate, its great outdoor venues are adored gathering points in every season. Whether you fancy a holiday spent among immortal artwork, ancient history or nature, Rome’s green oases offer a combination of culture and relaxation.
And it doesn’t matter if you choose larger parks such as Villa Borghese, Villa Doria Pamphilj and Villa Ada, or smaller gardens such as Villa Celimontana or the lovely Villa Torlonia, a day out in the green is an artful way of Italian living. While there’s an endless list of public parks and natural reserves in Rome, we suggest a starting point from which to set off to explore the green side of the Italian capital.
By far the most popular among tourists, Villa Borghese is a big, albeit not the largest, park in central Rome. It’s also a favorite spot for locals, especially young couples on the quest for a quiet corner and bikers leisurely riding in a slow-paced lane far from the race-like reality of the city center. Villa Borghese is the perfect stop for those who enjoy strolling in parks festooned with white marble fountains and bucolic-style statues.
And there’s never a shortage of activities in Villa Borghese, from walking around its lake, gardens and marble temples, to renting a bike and cycling along its lanes, to visiting the Bioparco, one of Italy’s biggest zoos. And you can always check out one of many museums, such as Galleria Borghese, the 17th-century residence of cardinal Scipione Caffarelli Borghese, who was obsessed with art masterpieces and gathered an impressive collection of paintings and sculptures in ancient, Renaissance and contemporary styles; Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, showing the work of 19th- and 20th-century artists, such as Boccioni, Altamura, Carrà and De Chirico; and Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia, Pope Giulio III’s 16th-century manor that now exhibits important findings from Etruscan times.
Villa Borghese has many entrances, and the handiest are those near Piazza di Spagna (inside the metro station you will see the signs for the park), Piazzale Flaminio (near Piazza del Popolo) and Piazzale San Paolo del Brasile.
Villa Doria Pamphilj
Villa Doria Pamphilj, laid out on Gianicolo Hill (which is devoted to god Janus), is Rome’s largest park. Formerly the country house of a noble Roman family, the garden stretches out between the Monteverde area and the ancient Aurelian Walls.
Dotted with beautiful mansions formerly belonging to wealthy Roman families and artists, lakes, canals, fountains, tree-lined boulevards and elegant statues, Villa Pamphilj is a good place for joggers and whoever wants to get fit, with running trails and sport facilities all through the park. It is an ideal place for families to go for a picnic or for people to relax with a book, but as soon as you enter, you’ll be confronted with swarms of athletes engaging in all sorts of sports, from cycling and soccer, to Pilates and tai chi.
Like most of the city’s public gardens, Villa Pamphilj has a long history. Among its finest buildings are Casino del Bel Respiro, built in classic style in the 17th century and today used by the Italian government to welcome foreign leaders, and Doria Pamphilj Chapel, the funerary mausoleum of the Doria Pamphilj family, beautifully decorated with colorful mosaics.
In the park near the entrance in 102 Via Vitellia is an organic bistro, Vivi Bistrot, with a weekday buffet (it’s à la carte on weekends). It also provides a picnic box for customers who would rather have their meal sitting on the grass.
Rome’s second biggest park, Villa Ada also boasts its own rich past. Residence of the Savoias, a former Italian royal family, the park is located in northern Rome with its entrance at 265 Via Salaria. Loved by locals, who come here for jogging and other types of athletic activity, it also makes for a great place to unwind.
Created in the 17th century as a farming estate, it was bought by the Pallavicini family in the 18th century and subsequently by the Savoias in 1872. Apparently, King Vittorio Emanuele II loved the new green property so much that he purchased the surrounding gardens to make it bigger. The wine caves of the villa were used as bomb shelters during World War II, and Mussolini was arrested here on July 25, 1943, after an official meeting with the king.
After the fall of the monarchy, Villa Ada became public and now houses the Embassy and the Consulate of Egypt. Quite unsurprisingly, and in line with the city’s spirit, the villa also contains the archaeological remains of an urban settlement dating back to the 8th century B.C.
Boasting a great array of plant species, such as holly oaks, laurel oaks, elms, maples, poplar and olive trees along with palms and other tropical plants, and wildlife, like moles, hedgehogs, wild rabbits and porcupines, Villa Ada is a huge environmental treasure and a break from the hustle and bustle of the area.
The most recent “aristocratic” park in Rome, Villa Torlonia is one of the richest gardens in terms of buildings and artistic decorations. Initially a farming estate belonging to different Roman noble families throughout the ages, Giovanni Torlonia bought the park in 1797 and revamped it into a luxurious residence composed of themed architectural gems immersed in nature. He started giving the villa the look we see today.
The park’s appearance has been curated by various architects and gardeners, each giving a personal spin to the different areas, with the north having a more traditional style with straight and symmetrical tree-lined boulevards, while the southern part shows more winding and sinuous paths with exotic buildings, adding to the romance of the place.
Villa Torlonia has gone down in history as “Mussolini’s residence” because the Duce rented the estate from 1925 to 1943. Apart from organizing social and sporting events, Mussolini didn’t make any substantial change to the property, except for the “war gardens,” where corn and potatoes grew and poultry and rabbits were raised. To some extent, he brought the villa back to its rural origins. In 1919, Jewish catacombs that were used as bomb shelters during World War II were discovered under the park.
Today, Villa Torlonia, accessible from 70 Via Nomentana, might not be the playground and sports hub like other parks in the city, but a day spent here dawdling about its manors, temples, fountains and pillars certainly makes for a fascinating journey through Roman history.
Located on the western top of Colle Celio (the Cealian Hill), Villa Celimontana is a green paradise that was originally property of the Mattei family. Generation after generation, the Matteis strove to decorate and embellish it with beautiful trees, statues and artwork, in the quest to reproduce the perfect union between art and nature. Stepping over its arched entrances and walking around the Roman ruins from the Flavian and Trajan times makes you feel as if you could stumble across toga-clad senators and sandaled gladiators.
Between the always-packed Colosseum and the majestic Caracalla Baths, Villa Celimontana is a peaceful haven for those who want to relax just a stone’s throw away from the city’s most touristy areas. The park is crowded with locals, especially the weekends, and although it does have a cycling lane, it’s mainly a family-oriented park, with a fully equipped playground for children, small gardens and fountains. Moreover, its proximity to a few churches makes it a great location for newlywed couples to pose for romantic shots.
In the summertime, the park hosts the famous Celimontana Jazz Festival, an important jazz event where music lovers can listen to their favorite artists from all over the world.
Photos Courtesy of Angela Corrias