Each of Rome’s original seven hills feature major tourist sites and, within walking distance, hidden oases of shade, respite and unexpected viewpoints. They’re little and big green miracles every bit as Roman as the city’s ruins, churches and museums. These postcard-worthy parks, so unlike any in the United States, provide memorable glimpses into living Rome as well as soul-restoring breaks from the hubbub.
Capitoline: Ascending Michelangelo's Cordonata ramp to Piazza del Campidoglio is an unforgettable experience, despite the selfie-snapping mobs. While the Capitoline Museums beckon art lovers, many visitors come for the grand overlook onto the Imperial Forum. Whatever the draw, the thronged capitol of Rome's municipal government conceals peaceful retreats.
Accessible from the Palazzo dei Conservatori museum’s second floor (or via a separate entrance around the corner on Piazzale Caffarelli , if one hasn’t been to the museum), the Caffarelli Terrace provides a sweeping view over private gardens, Teatro Marcello and the Jewish ghetto, a soothing perspective removed from the fray.
On the opposite incline, a stream of humanity heads for the panorama of the Imperial Forum and the Palatine. I slip between the Palazzo Senatorio and the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli into a bite-sized park with stone benches that offers shaded tranquility. Bypassed by most, its foreground of old trees frames arguably the most romantic view of the Roman Forum and certainly the coolest, temperaturewise.
When I descend the Cordonata, a proud Roman matron insists, “You haven’t gone to Palazzo Venezia’s courtyard yet? My dear, I stop to collect my thoughts there every morning.” Refurbished and opened to the public in 2017, this landscaped garden surrounds a 17th-century fountain. At its center, a woman stepping around mythological water creatures represents Venice’s friendship with Rome. Though picnicking is prohibited, a hiatus under magnolias and palm trees is a definitive pick-me-up for conquering what’s next.
The Palatine: Visitors inside the Imperial Forum typically hike the Palatine for the Farnese Gardens promontory's splendid view onto the Forum and Capitoline Hill. I cherish this overlook, too, but I always approach the Forum from behind, choosing the entrance midway down Via San Gregorio, to experience the Palatine's paths of untrammeled greenery and ruin-strewn acres, offering a quiet refuge. The former Barberini Vineyard is a rolling field of open countryside. Hillsides of unruly acanthus — nature's template for Corinthian columns — precede the Domus Augustana. I step through poppy-dotted lawns to pause before the isolated stadium. A scattering of visitors study the remains of Domus Flavia. I lean on the southern wall to survey the huge Circus Maximus, and beyond it the leafy Aventine Hill. This verdant expanse exists in the red-hot middle of Italy's most populated city. It always seems I've lucked out, but it has happened so many times. And what a place to picnic, where Augustus and Cicero once dined!
Caelian: When tour groups swarm down Via dei Fori Imperiali toward the Colosseum, I diverge. Just 10 minutes up Via Claudia awaits an otherworldly escape from the gladiatorial mobs: Villa Celimontana. About 27 acres of grassy slopes and palm and umbrella pine enclaves welcome sunbathers, joggers and joyous children. I lie prone to watch treetops sway beneath the fierce blue sky, as an elementary-school yoga class is being taught: "Now think like a tree." There's a 15th-century palace inside the grounds. Here, the ducal Mattei family once replenished religious pilgrims undertaking the Visit of the Seven Churches with bread, wine, cheese, eggs, apples and salami. In that same spirit of common good, free nightly summer jazz concerts are staged here under the stars through early September .
Esquiline: Michelangelo's statue of Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli and the important basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore draw visitors to the base of the Esquiline. This largest of the hills ascends straight behind the Colosseum. Once the pleasure ground of wealthy Maecenas, it captivated the likes of Augustus, Horace and Virgil. Sadly — and inexplicably, considering its location — its grounds are poorly maintained. The one exception is pretty Viale Domus Aurea, a short staircase up from Via Nicola Salvi or Via Labicana. It's an elevated path with benches alongside rose trellises, showcasing a cypress-lined vista of the Colosseum.
Viminal: Trajan's triumphal column and ancient marketplace bathe in direct sunlight, which quickly becomes exhausting. But a five-minute climb up Via Panisperna brings reprieve in the delightful if minute Villa Aldobrandini, accessed from a gate on Via Mazzarino. Once the property of Pope Clement VIII and only recently opened to the public, this shady walled garden rises 30 feet from its base of ruins dating to the 2nd century A.D., catching cooling sea breezes from a spacious balcony. Plus, there's a drinking fountain.
The frantic Stazione Termini is at the opposite base of the Viminal. Termini faces the Museum of the Baths of Diocletian. Walking around the museum — quite surprised — I step into a peaceful, fragrant 16th-century garden. Ancient statuary and sarcophagi are strewn between benches and profuse flowers that encircle a trilling fountain. Palazzo Massimo overlooks it. Inside the palazzo is an indoor garden voyage, a room recovered from Augustus’s wife Livia’s villa. The room, draped in vivid frescoes of teal skies enveloping a bird-filled orchard, is so luscious it’s transcendent.
Quirinal: The ever boisterous Trevi Fountain burbles at foot of the Quirinal. Enterprising folk climb up forking alleys to reach the high square outside Palazzo Quirinale, Italy's presidential residence. Ashort walk further up Via del Quirinale are the Churches of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and St. Andrea al Quirinale. Both open their sloped low-key circular gardens daily, each typically designed with grass lawns bordered by low stone enclosures, benches and drinking fountains for an interlude of refreshment.
Aventine: Long lines stream outside Santa Maria in Cosmedin, ready to test their luck by sticking a hand into the Bocca della Verita. From here, the Aventine inclines up, overlooking the Circus Maximus. At its peak, those who have undertaken the climb wait their turns to peek into the bronze keyhole of the Priory of the Cavaliers of Malta for a poetic glimpse of St. Peter's. I reward my ascent by taking a breather inside Parco Savello, nicknamed the "Park of Oranges." Aligned in a cross shape, four small orange orchards thrive. The gravel axis invites promenades to a broad terrace. Despite the "prohibited" signs, as many families and couples stretch under the trees as on the benches. Solo acoustic guitarists play in turns as I inhale the music and heady whiffs of oleanders. The descent, down the Clivo di Rocca Savella pedestrian path, is equally winsome.
Inside the city’s Aurelian walls, dating to the 3rd century A.D., are other hills — the Vatican, Pincian and Janiculum — sporting expansive parks. But where the bulk of travelers move in unnervingly thick phalanxes, competing to the enter the best-known antiquities, to know that precious escapes are within reach seems to me to be the only way to remember Rome as a green-dappled city, lived and loved.
Calcagno is a writer based in Chicago.
More from Travel:
If you go
Where to stay
San Anselmo Hotel
Piazza di Sant’Anselmo 2
A superior value on the peaceful Aventine with elegant decor and lovely gardens. Rooms from about $152 per night.
Residence Torre Colonna
Via delle 3 Cannelle 18
An eclectic experience in a restored 13th-century tower with only five rooms, each decorated with splashy modern art. Rooms start about $165 per night and include rooftop breakfast.
Where to eat
Piazza Caffarelli 4
The Palazzo dei Conservatori Capitoline Museum offers an airy restaurant on a panoramic terrace atop the Capitoline. Accessible through the museum or by following the path along the street-facing side of the museum to the door marked number four, the restaurant is delightful for a midday pause or afternoon apperitivo. Open daily 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sandwiches from about $7, entrees start about $20, cocktails about $14.
Carrefour Express Supermercato
Via del Teatro di Marcello 2
There’s no better place to picnic than on the southeast grounds of the Palatine. Find decently-priced, on-the-go supplies at the Carrefour Express supermarket at the base of the Campidoglio. Open daily 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Village Celimontana at Mattei Palace
Via della Navicella 12
This sunny, outdoor cold-food restaurant faces the Mattei Palace in the Villa Celimontana park on the Caelian, but its real draw is a free jazz festival on summer evenings when all seats are full and the wine is flowing. Open daily 10 to 2 a.m. Grilled entrees start about $10.
Nvmen Concept Space
Via Capo D’Africa 9
On the Esquiline mere blocks from the Colosseum, the menu is casual but the spacious contemporary art gallery atmosphere makes it a whimsical reprieve from the ordinary. Open daily 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summertime. Sandwiches, burgers and salads start about $7.
Terre e Domus
Largo di Foro Traiano 82
Facing Trajan’s column at the foot of the Quirinal, this hip eatery and food store specializes in tasty bio-sustainable seasonal Roman fare with a twist. Open daily 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Entrees start about $15.
Al Massimo Caffe Museo
Via Giovanni Amendola 6/12
Steps from Stazione Termini on the Viminal, this newly opened cafe’s finest asset is its terrace restaurant shaded by large umbrellas and encircled by raised flowering terra-cotta planters. Open daily noon to 3 p.m. and
5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Entrees start about $13.
Via Galvani 35
Inside the Aventine’s foodie-popular Testaccio area, this easygoing combination bakery, local beer promoter and artisanal pizza spot is a scrumptious gem. Open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., closed Sundays. Whole pizzas start about $13.
Via Teodoro 74
Between the Aventine and Palatine at the Tiber-facing end of Circus Maximus, this farmers market specializes in all kinds of delectable local food from Rome’s Lazio region and features a sit-down courtyard serving select chef entrees. Open weekends from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Entrees start about $7.