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A view of the topiary garden of Villa Arconati in Milan.

The Beautiful Gardens of Italy

outdoor italian destinations

With destinations in Italy opening up for tourism again, travels that take in the great outdoors look set for a genuine post-pandemic boom. In this brave new outdoor world, Italy’s beautiful, fragrant and historic gardens are seeing a great resurgence. Alongside the Renaissance art that draws visitors from all around the world, Italy has gardens and green spaces that date back centuries. While many visitors to Italy are familiar with the most famous gardens, such as those at Villa Borghese in Rome, the most popular park in the city, or outside the Eternal City, the stunning Villa d’Este Gardens at Tivoli. Those who visit Florence are often surprised by the size of the Boboli Gardens, located behind the Pitti Place. The Renaissance garden is a museum that is part of the Uffizi Galleries and was created by the Medici family. It contains fabulous works of art and numerous galleries and exhibitions. It was also during the Renaissance that the world’s first botanical garden was created in Padua in 1545. Still open for tours today, it has preserved its original layout, with a circular central plot, symbolizing the world, surrounded by a ring of water.

There are many gardens that are stunningly beautiful that are open to the public. An example is Villa Arconati located outside Milan. Dating from the early 17th century, it was in a state of disrepair until its current owners began refurbishing the historic villa 25 years ago. The estate is of significant cultural and historic importance; at one time housing some of Leonardo da Vinci’s original codexes. Today, its owners take pride in what they claim is the largest Roman statue in northern Italy. The restoration work has been an enormous undertaking. Its vast gardens have been carefully manicured and its many fountains and outdoor architectural curiosities have been given a new lease of life.

In the Lombardy region, the three beautiful Borromean Islands of Lake Maggiore have been owned by the Borromeo family since the 15th century. Tourists have flocked to the islands since the times of the Grand Tour of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Borromeo Estate is made up of six different sites which include not only sumptuous palaces and magnificent botanical gardens, but also a zoo and an outdoor adventure park.

Historic Villa Reale di Marlia near Lucca in Tuscany, was constructed in the late Renaissance and was once owned by Napoleon’s sister. It is surrounded by sprawling gardens, with centuries old follies throughout the grounds. For the uninitiated, a folly is a building constructed purely for decoration, such as using features of Roman temples and were immensely popular during the 17th and 18th centuries. The property has undergone a complete restructure and in 2015 was opened to the public for the first time. Visitors delight in the fresh air and intoxicating fragrance of the thousands of garden plants.

gardens to visit

The Pope’s summer palace, Castel Gandolfo, has only recently been opened to garden lovers. Barberini Garden is on the south-west shore of Lake Albano and built over the ruins of an ancient Roman villa, Albanum Domitiani. Beautifully designed and meticulously maintained, it is one of the very few gardens that you can visit and admire in the pouring rain, thanks to a Roman cryptoporticus or covered passageway. There is a magnificent magnolia collection and a model farm that grows produce for the Pontiff’s table.

In the Emilia Romagna, Castello Visconti in Grazzano Visconti, is a majestic 14th century castle that is still home to the Visconti family. Lanes weave in and out of a wooded area where cypresses, pines and holm oaks have grown to their full splendor. The garden is colorful and neat, dotted with statues on pedestals. Roses and hydrangeas add color and variety in summer and an adorable children’s play cottage is set to the side. The charm continues to the nearby village of Grazzano Visconti, which was created in neo-medieval style a century ago.

Villa della Pergola in Alassio, Liguria was saved from developers by the Ricci family only a few years ago. With the help of Italian landscape architect Paolo Peyrone, the garden has been brought back to life. Abandoned for years, it now has a newly planted collection of agapanthus, long pergolas of wisteria and cascades of pink banksia roses. The villa itself is now a luxury hotel.

Halfway between Catania and Siracusa in Sicily, the 148 acres grounds of the Marquis of San Giuliano’s Estate include almost ten acreas of garden and groves producing a million pounds of oranges, their scent filling the air. In 1990, landscape designer Oliva di Collobiano created a garden of four distinct spaces enclosed by drystone walls. There is an exotic garden with ponds and water lilies; a tropical garden with palms and monumental cacti; a Mediterranean garden with roses and grapefruit trees and a scented garden with helichrysum, myrtle and citrus.

historic gardens

Castello San Pelagio in Padua is a 300-year-old castle that reopened as Italy’s first privately owned museum of flight in 1980. It has displays on flying machines from Leonardo’s man-powered design to the Wright Brothers and Charles Lindbergh. The garden is unique in that it also features vintage aircraft, including a WWII hospital plane alongside its spectacular rose collection. Next to the garden’s maze is a vintage Italian air force fighter plane. The gardens also contain a rich collection of cypress and ancient lime trees, plus lavender, jasmine and clematis.

In the early 13th century, Saint Francis of Assisi built a hermitage on the Island of Garda located within the famous lake. It later became an important ecclesiastical center which has been transformed recently into a large, privately owned garden open to the public. The perfectly groomed garden faces the lake, as do the glass houses. The ticket price includes the return boat trip from several points around the lake shore and a drink on the terrace of the villa.

In the Piedmont region, Palazzo Malingri in Cuneo, contains a garden that was remodeled at the beginning of the 19th century, with winding paths, panoramic vistas and shady woods. Owner Aimaro Oreglia d’Isola, a prominent Italian architect, has added a fine collection of plantings, including anemones, hydrangeas, hostas and a carpet of wild violets in the woods. The garden is surrounded by stone walls and outside are vineyards and a deer park.

Palazzo Patrizi is a 16th-century castle built on the slopes of the Tolfa mountains near Lake Bracciano in the Lazio region. The estate with a hunting lodge, covers miles of countryside. The gardens include one of the most beautiful rose gardens in Italy, the work of the current Marchesa Umberta Patrizi Montoro. Hundreds of rambling roses cover both the castle and the walls and grow in the kitchen garden beside the vegetables. So as 2021 has led to a back-to-nature surge for travelers, there are countless ways to experience and delight in the glorious gardens of Italy.