Maybe not on the first trip to Italy, but certainly the second time around you should try to visit Tivoli (Villa D’Este).
Appeals to those who love romantic Italian Villas, Italian Rennaisance gardens, and breath taking fountains. It is currently a UNESCO world heritage site.
Little bit of historical reference (Source): The Villa was commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito Il d’Este who was part of the famous Este family, a prominent supporter of the arts. Cardinal Ippolito was known for an extravagant lifestyle which may have prevented him from being elected Pope (despite multiple attempts). D’Este was ultimately given the position of Governor of Tivoli and he commissioned Pirro Ligorio (an Italian architect that studied the ancient Roman ruins and antiquities) to change an old monastery into a new villa and garden (~1560). Interestingly, much of the marble used to build the villa was harvested from ruins of Hadrian’s villa (nearby summer residence of Emperor Hadrian I). Adjacent houses and roads were demolished, and the nearby river Aniene was reported diverted to source the fountains. Decreasing funds (1569) led to construction slowing down.
The last guest that D’Este entertained to the villa was Pope Gregory XIII in 1572 (he had to sell many of his own personal items in order to pay for the decorations for the Pope and rushing to complete the “dragon fountain”). The cardinal passed later that year. Subsequent heirs and owners struggled to pay for the costs of the unfinished fountains and maintaining the Villa.
Then in 1850-1896, Cardinal Gustav von Hohenlohe helped to restore the villa and gardens. Franz Liszt even composed two pieces of music inspired by the Villa. After WWI, the Villa was acquired by the Italian State, serving now as a famous place for movies and tourist attraction.
How do I get there?
I looked through several options (Taxi/Private Car, Train, and Bus). Ultimately I chose train because the Villa is close to the train station (15 minute walk) and I enjoyed using the Italian train system. So far the Italian trains have been very reliable, and I didn’t want to depend on waiting aimlessly at a bus stop. The tickets were very reasonable (3-4 Euros). Private Car is the way to go but obviously much more expensive.
Once you buy your ticket in Roma Termini Station from the small ticket machines attached to the walls, you get on your train and arrive in Tivoli. The trains run frequently nearly every hour. There is a small river that divides the train stop and the town. Follow the small crowd of people who get off the stop and cross the bridge and enter the town. The town is quiet and felt safe. I spotted a few lone travelers. Just as a side note: the town felt very quiet and in some parts slightly deserted, (we were there Tuesday afternoon).
Official Site for Villa D’Este
The Villa D’Este is located in Tivoli, a small town also known for two other famous tourist attractions, including Hadrian’s Villa and Villa Gregoriana. If you have a full free day, I recommend taking time to try to visit at least Hadrian’s Villa and Villa D’Este. Making the choice between D’Este and Hadrian’s Villa is a personal choice. One is much more recent and well preserved, with beautiful gardens, the other is an engrained part of history, though may require a little bit more of an imagination. I ultimately chose Villa D’Este as we would be looking at numerous ruins in Rome, and I was dying to see the 100 fountains (worth it!).
How long does it take?
We spent approximately a full half day in VIlla D’Este (including traveling to and from Rome). Some of the trains are slower and can take 1.5 hours, but if you time it right, there are specific trains that will get there in 30 minutes (Score!) We went in May and there was a small line that took about 30 minutes of waiting. Once we were in, the Villa and gardens were not crowded, as the grounds are large enough to make everyone look spaced out. However, around the famous fountains, it was hard (somewhat impossible) to get a picture without hoards of people in it. I recommend arriving extremely early or late if that bothers you.
The actual Villa is small and took about 30 minutes (maybe 1-1.5 hours if you like to take your time and read through all the small printed info booths in each room). The Villa was mostly empty, so most of the time we were staring at the beautiful frescoes. (Apparently the furniture was removed in 1751 - long gone). The fountains itself were beautiful but not overwhelmingly large (e.g. Versailles). We were able to tour it all under 2 hours.