Text and photos by Jesper Jansen
The Villa Borghese Rome is the perfect oasis from the hustle and bustle of Italy's capital.
The Villa Borghese is a lush, idyllic park spread over 79 acres where the past and present walk hand in hand.
No wonder Villa Borghese is the Romans' favorite park.
The Villa Borghese park is a wonderful place to relax, eat, drink, play, watch movies, visit museums, and much more.
Here's everything you need to know about visiting the Villa Borghese Rome:
Step into a gigantic, green living room.
Villa Borghese Rome is a place of history, architectural beauty, innumerable plants and trees, enchanting fountains, breathtaking views of Rome, and attractions for the entire family.
And in the autumn — after the summer months in which the Italian capital has been sweating and sweltering in the oppressive mixture of heat and humidity — this green wonder provides true relief.
With the arrival of autumn, a freshness envelops the park.
The many trees and plants provide a welcome, cool shade.
Their green leaves begin their metamorphosis towards yellow, brown and red, and Rome's living room turns into a lovely and laid-back experience for the Romans and a must-see attraction for visitors.
Villa Borghese — the city's enormous, verdant salon — started coming into being in the beginning of the 17th century.
In 1606 Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1575-1633) began buying plots of land with the intention to create what he called "the park of wonders". Above all, the park was intended to be a status symbol of the Scipione family's wealth and social importance.
Scipione hired some of the period's finest architects. Flaminio Ponzio and Giovanni Vasanzio designed and constructed the park's main building, Casino Nobile, to house the impressive Scipione art collection.
Later it would become the pre-eminent Galleria Borghese that is admired by art lovers from all corners of the world.
Domenico Savini da Montepulciano was tapped to be the gardener — a role that today merits the modern title of landscape architect.
He headed the ambitious garden project that included determining the placement of not only the plants but also acclaimed sculptures, such as those by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
The project was completed in 1633.
This "park of wonders" contained extremely orderly gardens adorned with gorgeous fountains and statues, some ancient and others created exclusively for the site.
There were forests reserved for hunting, open spaces, and areas where nature was left untouched in all its savage, wild beauty.
In the 18th century, the park was enlarged and the various gardens were transformed following the rules of traditional Italian and English gardens.
New statues and fountains were added and an impressive arch — a copy of Rome's Settimio Severo arch — was erected next to the man-made lake.
In the years following Italy's unification in 1861, a legal battle began over the ownership of the park pitting the Italian state against the Borghese family.
The state won and the family was forced in 1901 to sell the whole villa to the Italian state at quite a low price.
Just two years later, the villa was donated to the city of Rome, which immediately turned it into a public park.
Spread across about 79 acres, Villa Borghese Rome is far from the city's biggest public park.
Villa Ada is larger as well as the gigantic Villa Doria Pamphilj, which is about five kilometres from the historic centre and covers more than double area of Villa Borghese. (See the map at the bottom of this page.)
But Villa Borghese is beyond any doubt Rome's most beloved and famous park.
A place where the past and present walk hand in hand, where statues and fountains fight to capture the visitors' attention and where both nature and art are richly represented.
The presence of numerous museums within the park has earned Villa Borghese the nickname “la villa dei musei” (the park of museums).
The splendid Galleria Borghese, one of the world's leading museums, is the cornerstone in Villa Borghese’s reputation as an exemplary museum centre. The Galleria has only a total of about 16 rooms that are located on two floors.
But the space is packed with some of finest art in the world from the 1500s - 1800s.
The rooms are graced with works by the painters Raphael, Titian, and Caravaggio and sculptures by Bernini and Canova, just to mention a few.
One of the park's biggest attractions is the garden that surrounds the man-made lake.
In 1786, architect Antonio Asprucci designed and constructed the Giardino del Lago (the Lake's Garden) and the surroundings. The small Esculapio Temple sits on a tiny islet that juts into the lake.
The best way to get close to and admire the temple is simply by paddling out in one of the small row boats that are available for rent by the lake. Not surprisingly, this is a very popular activity for families with children and romantic souls.
In the 1930s, there was even a small library in a kiosk next to the lake. Here you could take out a book, sit by the lake on specially made benches and leisurely read until sunset.
Once the sun had dipped beyond the horizon, the books had to be returned. This practice unfortunately disappeared and today it’s BYOB – bring your own book.
The park captivates nature and gardening lovers.
The list of the park's botanic species is rather long and includes, for example, various kinds of plane trees. These are particularly visible and dramatic in the wonderful Plane Tree Valley, which Rome’s dog owners have adopted as their favourite doggy park.
But you'll also be able to spot oaks, holms, laurels, cottonwood, eucalyptus, hackberries and many other trees.
The natural beauty is exalted by the man-made variety especially with regard to the fountains.
The Romans’ have created masterpieces, more than 30 scattered through the park. Small, enormous, artistic, bizarre and fascinating — you'll find the gamut.
The best known and most artistically acclaimed is probably the centrally located Sea Horse Fountain, which is close to Piazza Siena (the park has various areas that are identified as “piazzas” even though they are not typical urban spaces).
It was designed in 1791 by the Italian painter Christopher Unterberger and sculpted by Vincenzo Pacetti. Its main ornamental elements are four seahorses that seem to emerge from a pool of water.
The amazing aspect of Villa Borghese's many fountains is that they seem to fit perfectly into the park's natural environment. The green plays with the colours of the marble and the water underlines the artistic beauty.
Villa Borghese Rome is not only filled with birds singing, the dancing shadows of trees, romantic lakes and an impressive botanic variety.
Here you'll also find several cultural institutions, including the Cinema dei Piccoli (Children's Cinema).
It opened in 1934 and soon added the name Casa di Topolino (Mickey Mouse House).
Unfortunately, the Walt Disney Corporation wasn’t amused, declaring it an unfair use of the name of Disney’s famous and legally protected mouse. The American cinema giant won the case, and the Cinema dei Piccoli had to remove the Topolino title from their facade.
The cinema added a new chapter to its history in 2005 when it was admitted to the “Guinness World Records” book for being the world's smallest active cinema.
Today it shows one film for children in the afternoon and two films for adults in original language with Italian subtitles in the evening.
Rome's Bioparco — formerly known simply as the Zoo — has an even longer history dating back to its inauguration in 1911.
Located in a corner of the park towards the Valle Guilia area, the zoo was constructed by the German Carl Hagenbeck, who had already built Hamburg’s zoo.
By the mid-1990s, the zoo was in such bad shape that many Romans were counting its days.
But the zoo clawed its way back, thanks to a shift in ownership. In 1998, the zoo was turned into a limited company, the Bioparco, with the city of Rome as a main shareholder.
Slowly, it began to improve. Better conditions were created for the animals, new animals were purchased from other zoos, the whole area was cleaned up and professional PR campaigns attracted visitors.
Today the Bioparco is a very popular family attraction for both Romans and tourists. The Bioparco is home to about 200 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians from five different continents. Those of the human species that visit the Bioparco annually, amount to a total of about 800,000.
Long before the 1953 film “Villa Borghese”, directed by Vittorio de Sica and Gianni Franciolini, Rome's central park was a stage for Roman life.
The film is divided into six different episodes, each of which takes place in the park. And such drama and activity continues today.
The park is definitely “democratic”, attracting all social classes with its idyllic beauty. It's both chic and popular, historic and romantic. It's ideal for intellectuals with their noses in books and people lying in the grass contemplating the floating clouds.
It's for families and friends enjoying picnics on the lawns or fiancées walking hand in hand along the shaded pathways.
In fact, both of the latter categories have several spots to choose from: the classy and recently updated Casa del Lago, where you can have a light snack in the shade, or the historic La Casina dell'Orologio, a beautiful kiosk-pavilion whose architecture transports you back to its founding in 1922.
Villa Borghese Rome is all that and even more.
“La passeggiata del Pincio”, a leisurely stroll in the Pincio area, has always been a favorite activity for Romans and a definite, three-star must-do for tourists.
If you’ve taken this stroll and watched the setting sun turn the city's buildings and monuments into dark silhouettes on a glowing orange background, you know why.
It's as though you were taking a stroll down memory lane.
Ahhh, Villa Borghese Rome ... what a treat!
To stroll lazily through the this huge garden. To go for a romantic rowing tour of the garden's only lake. To put Rome below your feet at the Pincio to get a stunning view to the city center or simply to enjoy a cup of coffee while the many sounds of the city can barely be heard.
All this is waiting for Rome-visitor with a love for the laid-back life. And now that you have actually decided to visit Villa Borghese Rome, the best way to satisfy your coffee thirst is at the Casina del Lago, quite close to the park’s lake.
This cozy café is sited in a neoclassical building. It was built in 1920 and actually seems to be a reminiscent of a mountain hut.
During the period 2001-2007, it underwent an extensive internal modernization, and today it has become a very popular “coffee watering hole” frequented by both locals and tourists. The place also offers a large selection of panini and sandwiches, so in other words you’ll also be able to enjoy a light lunch to the tones of the chirping birds.
Address: Viale dell'Aranciera, 2.
Opening hours: Tue - Sun 9:00 AM - 7:00 PM (in winter time it closes at 5 PM.). Closed on Mondays.
Phone: +39 06 8535 2623
Quite an impressive amount of coffee has run through the Casina dell’Orologio’s antique coffee machine since this small pavilion café first opened its doors in 1922.
This year is proudly written on the espresso and cappuccino cups, which, over the years, have been placed thousands of times on the original marble counter in front of clients.
This pavilion is one of Villa Borghese Rome’s most ancient architectural prides, surrounded by chestnut trees, plane trees and oak trees, and situated just a meters from the garden’s famous water clock - which has given the cafe its name - and a modest distance from the Pincio balcony, from where there is a beautiful view of the eternal city.
The beautiful location has, over time, made the place a popular excursion destination for both ordinary Romans and various celebrities.
The VIP list includes three Italian presidents, Federico Fellini, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Italian painter Renato Guttuso and many more. The place offers a selection of paninos but most exciting is probably the department of sweets and typical Italian cakes, including the classic Sicilian calorie bombs cannoli and cassate.
This is a very idyllic corner of Villa Borghese Rome which is quite hard to leave, once you have sat down.
Address: Viale dei Bambini
Opening hours: Daily 8:00 AM to 9:00 PM. Closed on Wednesday.
Phone: +39 06 679 8515
More info on their website
When you find yourself sitting at the Caffè del Pincio - drinking a cup of coffee or sipping a colorful cocktail while letting your eyes pan over Rome's roofs and domes – is quite difficult not to get a feeling of being on the “sunny side of the street”. Casina Valadier has, over time, lived a somewhat changeable life in that part of Villa Borghese, which is sited just a 10-minute walk from the Spanish Steps.
The aristocratic building, which was destined to become a restaurant, was built in 1817 by renowned architect Giuseppe Valadier.
The restaurant's heydays were in the 1960s and 70s, after which Casina Valadier was abandoned due to various legal harassment.
After decades of decay, the building was refurbished and reopened in 2004, and in recent years the site has experienced its second youth. As mentioned, the café section has an excellent view to Rome and the cocktail mixer, Fabrizio Valeriani, is happy to offer a long drink, for example. the house's specialty, a Ghost or a Mint Julep, whose history dates back to the early 19th century.
If you find it difficult to leave Casina Valadier after your visit to the café, you can take a seat in the restaurant, where the view is even better and the kitchen otherwise excellent.
Address: Piazza Bucarest
Opening hours: Daily 11:30 AM to 11:00 PM. Closed on Mondays.
Phone: +39 06 6992 2090
More info on their website
Not far from Via Veneto you’ll find the Casa del Cinema, The House of Cinema, which is one of several cultural institutions in Villa Borghese Rome.
Quite often cinema event take place here. The House of Cinema also has a small café which allows you to sit down inside as well as outside, to enjoy a cup of coffee and a glass of wine with a light snack.
Address: Largo Marcello Mastroianni, 1.
Phone: +39 06 0608
More info on their website.
Villa Borghese Rome almost seems to constitute its own mini-universe with several things to do and attractions to visit:
Especially during the warmer periods rowing on the villa’s lake is a popular attraction, especially if you are in a romantic mood. Boats can be rented for typically half an hour. This is an extreme pleasant way to slow down and to live the garden from a different angle.
The boat trip is definitely nice, but if your temper needs some more speed and action, then perhaps the rickshaw applies more to you!
In Italian the English word “rickshaw” has become “risciò”, which really doesn’t matter because the way of travelling is the same.
Next to the Casa del Cinema (mentioned above) you’ll find a place where to ret rickshaw-bikes.
Villa Borghese is definitely a “cinema garden”, not only due to the presence of la Casa del Cinema, but also due to the Cinema dei Piccoli, the world’s smallest active cinema.
This is one of very few cinemas in Rome that show films in original language with Italian subtitles.
More info on their website.
Galleria Borghese is probably the best example of why Villa Borghese is also nicknames “the museum park”. Several museums can be visited in the park, but Galleria Borghese is the most prestigious of them all.
Yes, also one of the most prestigious in the entire Rome. It has only about 16 rooms but here you’ll be surrounded by so much beauty and art that you’ll risk feeling dizzy.
Canova, Caravaggio, Raffaello, Rubens, Tiziano and many other world famous artists will await you. Wonderfully painted ceilings will constantly make you stretch your neck in order to take in all the beauty of this place. In high season, it would be best to book tickets on beforehand.
Once its name was Rome’s Zoo but some years ago it changed to Il Bioparco di Roma.
When the name changed an ambitious renewal of the zoo, which was opened way back in 1908, was started.
Today, the Bioparco is, of course, a major attraction among families with children, both Romans as well as visiting tourists. The Bioparco hosts about 200 animal species including mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians from the 5 continents, and you can easily spend to most of a day just walking around in different kinds of exotic environments.
More info on their website.