Green Italy: the secret garden hotels of Rome

by Lee.Marshall

Lemon trees, gravel courtyards, butterfly sanctuaries, fragments of Ancient Roman wall… Even in frenetic Rome, you can come home to your own private garden at a b&b or boutique hotel

Every year, the environmental pressure group Legamb-iente produces a report on the ecological awareness of Italy’s 103 provincial capitals. Rome generally comes somewhere in the bottom half of the table. This is a big city, with all the problems of pollution, noise, transport and overcrowding that entails – and its public administrators have been slow to implement the wide-reaching green policies the city needs if it really is to remain Eternal. However, there is one league table in which Rome always scores 10 out of 10: for the amount of public green space within the city’s boundaries.

This is as much a case of luck as foresight. All three of Rome’s largest public parks were originally private estates, bought or absorbed by the city recently enough to be preserved as civic green spaces. The Borghese Gardens were created at the beginning of the 17th century by cardinal Scipione Borghese around the villa of the same name as his own private "garden of delights". To the west of the centre,  the 445-acre Villa Doria Pamphilij was, until 1965, the back garden of the family that bears its name. Italy’s royal Savoia dynasty owned the northerly Villa Ada – today the largest public park in Rome – until they were sent into exile in 1946.

Today, all three are owned and run by the municipality, and locals use them enthusiastically for picnics and strolls, jogging, rollerskating, cycling, impromptu football tournaments and even the occasional cricket match – the latter generally involving the capital’s Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities. You’ll see plenty of people communing with their laptops, too – all three parks are included in Rome city council’s free Wi-Fi scheme, which also takes in squares and tourist meccas such as Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain (see for more information).

There are other, smaller parks too, dotted around the city – including the wonderful Giardino degli Aranci or Parco Savello on the Aventine hill, with its winter-fruiting orange trees and view across the Tiber and the rooftops of the centro storico to St Peter’s. Another example is the equally panoramic Gianicolo, where courting couples smooch, oblivious to the busts of Risorgimento heroes that look on (not as sternly as they once did, as most of them seem to have had their noses knocked off). If all you need are swings and a slide for the kids, head for Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice in Testaccio, or Piazza San Cosimato in Trastevere. They are hardly cutting-edge playspaces, but they will do.

What do you do, though, when you want to come home to a garden after a hard day’s sightseeing? Easy – check into one of Rome’s garden hotels, which come in all shapes, sizes and price brackets. The following are personal favourites.

Hotel de Russie

Via del Babuino 9. Double rooms from €450.

Designed by neo-classical architect and urban planner Giuseppe Valadier, the garden of this luxury Rocco Forte property near Piazza del Popolo rises on a series of landscaped terraces towards the Pincio. The Stravinskij bar – a great place for an aperitivo even if you’re not staying – occupies the lower courtyard, fringed by lemon trees, while the terrace above is used by the hotel’s Le Jardin de Russie restaurant, which since 2008 has been in the hands of one of Italy’s top chefs, Fulvio Pierangelini. Beyond this is the Secret Garden, a place of gravel walks among verdant plots of greenery which were planted in consultation with the local branch of the WWF to create a butterfly sanctuary. The interiors and bedrooms are equally charming – and unlike many of the Hotel de Russie’s design rivals, the hotel’s sexy, classic-moderne style of décor has aged surprisingly well since its turn-of-the-millenium opening.

The Inn at the Roman Forum

Via degli Ibernesi 30. Double rooms from €210; Master Garden Rooms from €450.

The best-kept garden secret in Rome has to be the delightful walled bower on the fourth floor of this characterful, stylish boutique Inn at the Roman Forum is partly built – hence the fourth-floor garden. To enjoy this very Roman giardino segreto, though, it’s not enough to stay in the hotel – you have to reserve one of the two Master Garden rooms, which have exclusive use of the green space. If you’re feeling possessive, you could even take them both.

Hotel Santa Maria

Vicolo del Piede 2. Double rooms from €175.

This good-value 18-room refuge feels like a little village in the centre of Trastevere. Carved out of a 16th-century cloister, the Hotel Santa Maria consists of a series of low, single-storey rooms set around a pretty gravelled courtyard, where breakfast is served – weather permitting – under the orange trees. The decent-sized rooms are done out in warm colours, with vases of cut flowers and bright photo-realist paintings guarding against rainy-day gloom. For those relaxing in the courtyard over a glass of sparkling wine after a hard day’s sightseeing, the rural illusion is challenged only by the washing strung out to dry in the apartment blocks that loom above the hotel on three sides.

Buonanotte Garibaldi

Via Garibaldi 83. Double rooms from €220.

Textile designer Luisa Longo runs one of Rome’s most luxurious b&bs in this still rustic corner of old Rome. A gate in a high wall on a Trastevere street leads into a delightful magnolia-shaded courtyard surrounded by two low-rise houses daubed in yellow ochre. The atmosphere is somewhere between Chianti and Mexico; but it’s all very romantic and tasteful, with a touch of flamboyant eccentricity in the hand-painted silks by Longo herself which liven up the three simple bedrooms. Breakfast at Buonanotte Garibaldi is a real treat: no plastic-wrapped croissants here, just a mouthwatering array of fresh fruit, homemade cakes, freshly baked bread and other temptations.

Dependance Valle delle Camene

Via di Valle delle Camene 3c. Apartment €160 a night including breakfast.

It doesn’t come much more personalised than this: an upmarket b&b with a single guest apartment in the only corner of Baron von Hoffmann’s sumptuous Roman residence and park that escaped appropriation by the Italian state after the First World War. Current owners Francesco and Viviana Agnello di Segneferi have turned an annexe of their villa into a charming bolthole decorated warmly with antique furniture, mosaics and tiles. There’s a private patio bordered by a fragment of Ancient Roman wall, and the shady garden with its gravel paths is yours to wander through. Best in summer (it can get a little gloomy out of season), Dependance Valle delle Camene is perfect for a couple looking for a very private Roman hideaway.


I've lived in Rome since 1984. For the last fifteen years, I've made a living as a travel writer specialising in Italy (I'm a contributing editor for Condé Nast Traveller UK and the US travel and lifestyle magazine Departures). But that's really just an extension of the way I live in places and the way I travel: I've never been the kind of person who always goes on holiday to the same place, or who settles on one favourite trattoria and never eats anywhere else. So if I have any authority as a Rome expert, I suppose it's because - in addition to my passion for my adopted hometown – I'm just plain curious.

I arrived in Rome with my partner in September 1984, fresh out of university in England and with no clear idea about how long the stay might last (was it a holiday or a serious move? Neither of us were sure). It was touch and go at first, and fate took a hand in our decision to stay: on the day the money ran out, we both found jobs teaching English. Then came the sheer effort of finding somewhere to live, assembling all those bits of paper that Italian officialdom is so fond of, getting to grips with a new culture, a new language, a new job. All of this gave me an unusually intense and untouristy introduction to Roman life.

I’m ashamed to say that it was four years before I got around to looking inside the Colosseum – by this time I was an honorary Roman, and so I had the same slight resistance that a New Yorker might have to visiting the Statue of Liberty. But it was probably also something to do with the obviousness of the attraction – by this time my wife and I (we got married in the Rome registry office on the Campidoglio in 1988) had visited most of the city’s Medieval churches, toured the lesser Etruscan sites of Lazio, been to Ostia Antica (easily my favourite Ancient Roman site in Italy) three or four times. It’s the richness of Rome that I’ve always loved: ten different visitors could spend ten days in the city and not overlap once.

Not long after the birth of our daughter Clara in 1990, I gave up English teaching and became a freelance writer, soon specialising in two of my great passions – film and travel. In between the major film festivals, my wife and I worked on updates of the Time Out Rome guide and I wrote article after article on Italy for Condé Nast Traveller and other publications.

But it has always been a special treat to be able to write about Rome – I think I put more or myself into these pieces, because I'm working out on paper how it was that I came to think of this city as home. It’s difficult to analyse one’s love for a place. There’s the food, and the wine, and the weather, and the sheer beauty of the city – all those things are important. But the draw for me has a lot to do with Rome’s air of theatricality – all those Baroque stage sets that just happen to be piazzas and churches; and all those locals who walk and talk and gesture with the innate confidence of people who are always on camera. After more than a quarter of a century and plenty of run-ins with reality, I have never quite got over the feeling that my life in Rome is one long film (shot, or course, in golden evening light).

These days I divide my time between an apartment in the Testaccio district of the city and a house in the Umbrian countryside, but for all the charms of la campagna umbra it’s still Rome that really stirs my soul. I hope I’ve been able to communicate something of this passion in my Rome Expert guides and blog for Simonseeks. Personally I don’t think anyone can ever claim to be a real Rome Expert: there’s just too much to see, do, eat, study and drink. But I’ve built up a decent Rome radar in the last couple of decades – and I’m going to give it my best shot.

My Rome

Where I always grab a coffee
My local is a buzzy place called Linari (Via Zabaglia 9) in the down-to-earth Testaccio district. They know just how I like my cappuccino (in a small glass, with less milk than usual), and their cornetti (breakfast pastries) are some of the best in Rome.

My favourite stroll
Rome backstreets in general. I love working out routes across the city that take me down Medieval lanes and across Renaissance piazzas, avoiding the traffic. It makes you realise that there’s a secret city out there that those in cars never see.

Fiction for inspiration

The great Rome epic novel has yet to be written – but I enjoyed When We Were Romans, written by my friend Matthew Kneale, which gives a very evocative and dramatic child’s-eye-view of the Eternal City.

Where to be seen this summer
The hot ticket will be Zaha Hadid’s new MAXXI contemporary art and architecture museum (, due to be inaugurated towards the end of May. It should breathe new life into the rather sleepy Flaminio quartiere north of Piazza del Popolo, where cool bar/restaurant chalet Tree Bar (Via Flaminia 226) currently gives a taste of how the area might evolve.

The most breathtaking view
Rome spread out like a 3-D diorama from the main terrace of the Gianicolo hill above Trastevere.

The best spot for some peace and quiet
Rome’s Orto Botanico, or Botanical Garden, is perhaps not the world’s best kept, but it is a lovely green oasis on the edge of Trastevere (Largo Cristina di Svezia 24, tel +39 06 4991 7108, entrance €4, closed Sun).

Shopaholics beware!
I love the quirky mix of shops in the lanes that lie just one or two blocks north of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Artists’ supply shops, designer chocolate, creative jewellery and accessory boutiques, vintage clothes stores, shops selling modernist antiques, my favourite no-brand jeans brand, SBU (Via San Pantaleo 68-69, tel +39 06 6880 2547) – this is a great area for alternative shopping.

City soundtrack
Load Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater on your MP3 player, and use it as your background music. It’s pure Baroque drama – just like Rome itself.

Don’t leave without... looking through the keyhole of the gate into the garden of the Knights of Malta HQ on the Aventine hill (Piazza Cavalieri di Malta). The cupola of Saint Peter’s is framed at the end of the rose walk, with the rooftops of Rome on either side. Where else in the world can you see three sovereign states through one keyhole?