I have garden radar. I don’t enjoy weeding or watering or really any sort of plant maintenance, but I am always on the lookout for gardens. I blame my mom. Did I ever tell you my mom went back to college? That’s right. More than 25 years after the first time around, my mom went back and got her degree in horticulture. She always had a green thumb, but now she can drop some serious plant knowledge. So I’m always hunting for a garden she might enjoy.
I have also grown to appreciate gardens more because of the adorable weirdos. Those two are bad at museums, bad at guided tours, bad at staying quiet in churches . . . You get the picture. But they are good at running around outside. Enter gardens. The adults get to look at pretty stuff and history, but the kids don’t feel stifled. And admission for the kids is usually free! Win win win. (This is why we have not yet ventured to the Garden of Ninfa. Guided tours only. Eep. Someday.)
This list isn’t unconditionally kid-friendly because 2/3 have some serious anti-stroller steps, but here are three stunning formal gardens we have really loved. These gardens will make you feel fancy even while wearing a baby and herding a toddler.
1) If you don’t have a car, try Villa d’Este in Tivoli
What do you do when exiled from Rome? Why post up at your fancy fountain palace, of course. Cardinal Ippolito d’Este had his palace and gardens built in the 1550s, designed by the architect Pirro Ligorio. (Heads up, this name comes up again.)
These gardens go down a hillside (hence the steps) and feature about eleventy billion amazing fountains. These fountains were originally all gravity-powered; now only two jets of the largest fountain are electric. Whenever I fall into the trap of thinking that people who lived before us somehow thought less than modern man, I remember things like this. Or basically just look around Rome. Or think of Leonardo da Vinci. You get what I mean.
Villa d’Este is a short bus trip from Rome. (Tivoli is 18 miles east of Rome.) While in Tivoli, you could also make a stop at Hadrian’s Villa, but that is a little trickier by bus. If you can’t stop at Hadrian’s Villa, just look around Villa d’Este. Hadrian’s Villa provided much of the raw material used to create the fantastical fountain fun.
Villa d’Este is closed on Mondays. There is a restaurant, but it was closed during our February visit. But fear not; Villa d’Este is in the middle of historic Tivoli where you will find plenty to eat. The town is very adorable and worth a look around. If you could only do one day trip from Rome, I’d recommend some combination of Villa d’Este/Tivoli/Hadrian’s Villa over Orvieto. Also, if you visit in late summer, check to see if the gardens are offering evening fountain shows.
2) If you’d like a Villa d’Este experience with fewer tourists, try Villa Lante in Bagnaia (near Viterbo)
If you visit Villa Lante after Villa d’Este, you will get a distinct feeling of deja vu. These gardens, featuring flowing fountains and cascading water, were inspired by Villa d’Este. Pirro Ligorio (remember him?) consulted on their design.
These gardens also necessitate steps to reach the varied levels, but the steps are not as intimidating in number or steepness as their Villa d’Este counterparts.
Villa Lante is closed Mondays. No food options inside, but tiny Bagnaia has you covered. (We ate at Il Borgo on the main piazza.) Don’t skip a stroll around town. I think I enjoyed the quiet streets almost as much as the garden. Almost.
3) If you adore Versailles and don’t mind a side of chaos, try Reggia di Caserta
This Bourbon Royal Palace, built in the 1750s, has a distinctly Versailles vibe. Probably because of the palace + very long formal gardens situation.
This photo below doesn’t really do it justice. Looking straight out, you have the path out to the English gardens. That white bit on the mountain is actually a waterfall. And those trees on both sides are woods that are also part of the sight.
We sprung for a horse-drawn carriage ride. It was not cheap (50 euro for about 30 minutes), but I’m glad we did it. There is just so much ground to cover! MILES! This way we actually got to see some of it. They also have bike rentals. If you are not accompanied by two kids under age three, this seems to be the way to go. The walk to the gardens is deceptively long. We did see plenty of people walking, but it looked like a very pleasant biking opportunity.
Your 12 euro (kids free!) gets you not only into the ridiculous gardens, but also the redonkulous palace. After the initial grand staircase, the palace was very stroller-friendly. I’m not sure why, but we had much more success on this one than we did at the Residenz in Munich.
The palace is not stuffed with furniture–although there is some–but your eye will find plenty to gawk at with the incredibly ornate rooms. They also have a nativity scene that is bigger than my kitchen.
Reggia di Caserta is closed Tuesdays. There is a restaurant/bar inside. This would be a great garden for a picnic.
But wait, you ask, why the side of chaos? Reggia di Caserta is the farthest garden from Rome on this list; it will take you, traffic permitting, a little over two hours to get there. It is also south of Rome, really more of a day trip from Naples than Rome.
My experience with southern Italy is fairly limited so far, but I will agree that Italy “intensifies” as you head farther south. For example, I don’t think we saw a single working traffic light in the town of Caserta. I do think I saw more hand gestures during a mile long drive through town than I have during months in Rome. Everything worked out. I just wanted to give you a heads up that you might be encountering something less than the well-oiled machinery and efficiency of Rome on your trip. (SNORT.)
Now go forth and strut in the fancypants garden of your choice. Soundtrack optional.
P.S. Want a slightly less formal garden? Check out the Monster Garden in Bomarzo for another day trip option.