Text and photos by Jesper Storgaard Jensen
Although Rome Botanical Gardens were founded in 1883, they still seem to be a well-kept secret to many visitors. Find out why, and how, to visit this beautiful site.
The gardens cover an area of 12 acres, and yet they are virtually unknown to many visitors, even to many Rome residents.
You’ll find around 3,000 different plants, a green and luxuriant atmosphere, and splendid views to the eternal city.
When you mention Rome’s most famous villas (meaning parks), you probably think first of Villa Borghese, Villa Ada, and the huge Villa Doria Pamphilj.
But right here in the heart of Italy’s capital, you’ll find another small green gem. It’s hidden away in one of the city’s most popular neighborhoods, Trastevere, known for its cozy atmosphere and vivid restaurant scene.
The Rome Botanical Gardens officially opened in 1883. But the story actually goes much further back in time. Local history books tell us that, “in the Middle age a botanical garden could be found in Rome”.
In ancient times the area belonged to the Vatican (who have their own gardens by the way!) The gardens were used for growing plants for medical purposes. In 1660 Pope Alessandro VII decided to donate the garden to Rome's secular university.
This apparently made Pope Alessandro VII quite unpopular among Vatican priests who, until that moment, had had exclusive access to studying the plants.
Today the garden is run by Rome’s La Sapienza University.
Once you enter the garden, you’ll be met with quite a majestic sight.
This is the Viale delle Palme, or Avenue of Palms, where huge palms beckon you to go down this exotic avenue that leads you towards the Fountain of Tritons.
You’ll soon discover that this place exudes colors, scents, and an exceptional nature-experience.
Around the Fountain of Tritons - made in 1742 by the almost totally unknown sculptor Giuseppe Poddi - you will usually find a gathering of people sitting and chatting on the benches, or lying and reading on the lawns.
What really strikes you in this garden is the variety of the plants.
Close to the fountain, look for a conifer tree. This tree is extremely rare and for many years - until 1994 when it was rediscovered in Australia – it had been considered extinct. Only a few specimens can be found around the world, and one of them is here in Rome.
Further on you’ll find a vegetable garden called Orto dei Semplici, which abounds with medicine and curative plants. This is a testament to the gardens' existence in the Middle Ages, because that is when monasteries grew plants for medicinal use.
The garden is quite luxuriant year-round, but in spring time you’ll really get the impression of having come to an exotic and almost “jungle-like” garden.
It's wonderful simply to walk around without a plan and let yourself be guided by your instinct, along narrow paths, or through passages of green vegetation. Despite being in the middle of Rome you’ll probably be surprised to find that the only noise you hear is of the birds singing.
When you wander about, you might end up finding what resembles a genuine bamboo forest, supposedly among the biggest of its kind in Europe. This is just another example of the garden’s variety.
The Rome Botanical Gardens, situated just below the Gianicolo view point, are designed in such a way that you move upwards from the entrance at the bottom.
At a certain point you’ll also bump into one of the garden's main attractions, the huge fountain called Scalinata degli Undici Zampilli (Stairway of the Eleven Jets) which is embraced by two monumental staircases.
The architect Ferdinando Fuga designed this very particular fountain and its staircases in 1742-44. It’s composed of six basins where the water cascades joyfully. From here you have a wonderful view of the garden below.
In spring a very special event attracts masses of Romans - the cherry trees blossom in the Japanese Garden-section.
The air is full of the scent from the cherry trees, and in some passages you’ll be able to walk under what seems to be nature’s own pink rooftop, made entirely of the blooming cherry trees’ foliage, and in some passages the small pink leaves almost constitute colorful blankets.
In this area you’ll see a real Japanese pagoda, a small waterfall, and running streams. You might even pause for a moment to ask yourself if you are in Kyoto or in Rome.
The surprises are far from over.
If you are a garden lover and especially if you have botanical knowledge, the Mediterranean garden will be like a candy store for you.
Don't miss the rose garden, or the greenhouse that has a constant humidity of 80 percent. Here you’ll find a collection of tropical plants and even some specimens of “frightening” carnivorous ones. There are redwoods, firs, pines, orchids, Lebanon cedars, larches, and a small artificial lake full of water plants.
It’s quite easy to pass several hours in this these beautiful gardens, letting your senses guide you.
Speaking of our sense of smell, before leaving the garden you must not forget to visit one more very special place.
It’s called the Aromatic Garden and it has been developed also with blind visitors in mind.
Here you’ll find sage, basil, rosemary, small bushes of oregano and mint, branches of lemongrass, geraniums, and much more.
Quite quickly the visitors feel challenged to find out the names of the numerous plants, and you’ll see people of all ages gently rubbing the plants and then smelling their fingers to find out which plant they have in front of them.
Some of the plants we know from everyday use, and some smells will be totally new to us, allowing us to make to new floral acquaintances.
In this part of the garden you'll hear constant laughter and frequent outbursts of surprise, and this is really a great last stop before you leave Rome’s secret gardens – whether or not you have a green thumb.
Orto Botanico Roma/Rome Botanical Gardens
Address: Largo Cristina di Svezia, 23 A
Opening hours: Open daily from April to October : 9:00 am - 6:30 pm; and from November to March : 9:00 am - 5:30 pm
Entrance ticket: 8 euro for adults, but with possibilities of discount
For more info check their website.