On Rome's seven hills, countless wonders underfoot

The eastern slope of Rome’s Palatine hill, which is distinguished by unexpected greenery.

Rome is where I grew up, and with each return, I stroll her parks with nostalgic ardor, inhaling the heady scent of the bay laurels that famously wreathed emperors and poets. Ancient Rome was never indifferent to nature’s lure and neither is modern Rome. The wonder is that so few visitors savor the city’s green spaces. For any traveler who has questioned what to do during Rome’s midday closures or longs for respite, why not sit on a shaded bench and stretch those legs?

Each of Rome’s original seven hills features major tourist sites and, within walking distance, hidden oases of shade 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 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.

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 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. 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.

On Rome's seven hills, countless wonders underfoot

A view of the back of the Colosseum seen from Esquiline hill.

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, 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 fountain. Palazzo Massimo overlooks it. Inside the palazzo is an indoor garden voyage, a room recovered from Augustus’ 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 the foot of the Quirinal. Enterprising folk climb up forking alleys to reach the high square outside Palazzo Quirinale, Italy’s presidential residence. A short 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.

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 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.