Hadrian’s Villa: the biggest imperial palace of Ancient Rome

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Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli is a great day-trip from Rome, especially for those who want to discover more about ancient Rome and sites off the beaten path.

Below you’ll find our favorite highlights that we think you shouldn’t miss when in Hadrian’s Villa.

What is Hadrian Villa?

Hadrian’s villa is the luxury villa of the emperor Hadrian, who lived around the 2nd century AD. It is located just about 1 hour drive from Rome.

This villa was so lush and majestic that it is considered to be the “Versailles palace” of antiquity.

You need to imagine that this villa was even bigger than the Domus Aurea of the emperor Nero, located in the heart of Rome!

There’s so much to see in the archaeological park of Hadrian’s Villa, so we made a selection of our favorite sights that we think you shouldn’t miss.

Hadrian left many incredible landmarks also in the city of Rome, such as the Pantheon and the Temple of Hadrian in Piazza di Pietra. We visit both of these during our Best of Historical Center of Rome tour

Our favorite highlights of Hadrian’s Villa

The relief model

plastico relief model villa adriana hadrian's villa

The first thing you’ll find when visiting Hadrian’s villa, is this relief model which shows what the villa must have looked like originally.

This relief model is a piece of history itself, it was made 70 years ago!

Let’s talk about some numbers, to give you an idea of the extension. The whole complex of this villa was about 120 hectares, which equals about 168 soccer fields! The area of the villa which has been excavated is about 60% of the total extension, the rest is still underground.

This villa was literally just like a city

Hadrian didn’t like the imperial residency in Rome, too crowded, too chaotic. He spent very little time in Rome.

He instead traveled a lot around the empire. His favorite places were Greece and Egypt. And what do you do when you really like a place you’re visiting and you’re going back home? You bring a souvenir! The souvenirs that Hadrian brought back were not magnets though, but buildings!

He in fact took inspiration from the places and buildings he saw around the world and he would build similar buildings here in his villa in Tivoli.

This was his house and his architectural hobby.

And the biggest Imperial palace of Ancient Rome.

As you understood by now, there’s so much to see. So now we’re showing you some highlights that we think you should see when visiting Hadrian’s villa.

The Canopus

canopus hadrian's villa

The most impressive souvenir that Hadrian brought back home is this. The Canopus. This pool surrounded by columns and statues was meant to remind Hadrian of Egypt.

In particular of a canal, that from the Nile river connected the city of Alexandria to the town of Canopus, hence the name. This town was famous because people would travel from all over to visit the temple of Serapis, the healing god.

You need to imagine this pool was surrounded by statues, caryatids and columns. More than 100 meters (300 feet) long.

The Canopus reminded Hadrian of his biggest love, Antinoo.

A little context: Hadrian was married to a beautiful woman called Sabina. But he fell in love with one of the most beautiful boys called Antinoo.

He met him during his travels and then soon became his companion.

Unfortunately Antinoo died in the Nile. No one knows exactly what happened, maybe an accident, some says he gave away his life to save Hadrian’s life. Anyways the Nile reminded him of Antinoo, so he made a reproduction of this river in his villa. 

Hadrian would organize spectacular banquets around this pool. You need to imagine that the guests of the banquet would lay on their banquet beds around the pool.

And where was the emperor Hadrian sitting? In the Serapeum.

The Serapeum

serapeum villa adriana tivoli hadrian's villa

We can find the Serapeum at the end of the Canopus. If the Canopus represented the Nile river, the Serapeum represented the temple of Serapis in the town of Canopus.

This was the place where Hadrian had banquets together with his family and his closer people. And right in front of him there was the pool and all the guests of the banquet.

It was an apse with columns, covered in colorful marbles. It was a nymphaeum, where water was pouring continuously to refresh the guests. A sort of A/C of antiquity!

The vault was entirely covered with blue mosaics that reflected the water reflection.

How do we know this was an area dedicated to banquets? We know that thanks to that sort of platform you see in the picture above, which is slightly sloped.

Imagine this covered with mattresses, silk and other luxury materials. This is where the banquet guests would lay down, about 18 of them. The emperor would sit in the little “grotto” behind this semi-circular banquet bed, together with few closer people.

There was like a veil of water behind him. And also a veil of water like a theatre curtain separating the emperor from the guests.

The emperor made a very spectacular entrance to the banquet. Imagine that the guests were waiting for the emperor to arrive at the banquet. When the emperor arrived the veil of water would be stopped and the guests would see the emperor already sitting at this banquet table

The thermal baths

This wasn’t though a private residency, quite the opposite. Hadrian transferred a lot of governative functions in this Villa. Here he gathered with his councelors, and hundreds of noble Roman people, senators, came to meet Hadrian here.

Therefore he needed to entertain and surprise them all the time, so that he could have their support and respect. That is why not only he had thermal baths, but also a theatre, an area for gladiator fights, a music hall, an athletic stadium, and space for banquet both inside and outdoors.

More than a villa, this was a small city.

Today you can only see raw walls for the most part. But if you take a closer look, you can still find details that help your imagination picture how amazing these rooms were.

Rooms of any shape, of any size and so many colors. Incredibly tall ceilings, marble revetment all over, colorful mosaics, shiny marble floors, water fountains and pools that reflected against the shiny walls.

A place that would make your head spin and drop your jaw.

The Maritime Theatre

hadrian's villa

All in all, what Hadrian wanted when designing his villa was to continuously amaze. The idea was to turn a corner and find yourself in front of an amazing view. There were no axial paths. But an unexpected surprise behind every corner.

And you can really understand that in the Maritime Theatre.

This is where Hadrian built a villa within a villa. A place to escape within his own villa, where he could escape, maybe with Antinoos.

This is the Maritime Theatre. A little sophisticated house on an artificial island. There were drawbridges that Hadrian would move away when he did not want to be disturbed on the island.

Here Hadrian gave free space to his creativity and experimented many innovative architectural styles. Convex against concave. Concrete domes supported by columns, in contrast with the concrete walls faced with bricks.

Opening times and how to visit

Before you go, make sure you check the opening times on the official website: https://villae.cultura.gov.it/en/opening-time-and-tickets/.

We recommend pairing your visit to Hadrian’s Villa with Villa d’Este in Tivoli, another wonderful gem of this area. You can easily visit them both within the same day.

To reach Hadrian’s Villa on a day trip from Rome by public transport:

By BUS from Rome: Take the subway, Metro B, and get off at the station of Ponte Mammolo, then take the Co.Tra.L. bus via Prenestina (preferable), which stops about 300 m from the entrance to the Villa; otherwise take the Co.Tra.L bus via Tiburtina or via the motorway, which stops on the Via Tiburtina near the hamlet of Tivoli Villa Adriana, then proceed on foot for about 2 km.

BY RAIL from Stazione Termini or from Stazione Tiburtina until reaching the railway station of Tivoli. After this, take one of the local buses (CAT 4 or CAT 4 X) which stop at the entrance to the site. You can also take a Co.Tra.L bus via Prenestina, which stops about 300 m from the entrance to the site or use one of the other Rome-Tivoli bus service lines, which stop on the Via Tiburtina about 2 km from the entrance. Alternatively, you can travel by train to the station of Bagni di Tivoli (Tivoli Terme) and then use the Rome -Tivoli-via Tiburtina Co.Tra.L bus service

Written by Federica

Creative director of Live Virtual Guide. Her favorite things are gelato, pizza and the hidden gems of Rome.

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