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12 Most Beautiful Gardens in Italy

With its variety of temperate and subtropical climates, its stunning landscapes and opulent villas and palaces, Italy is one of Europe's foremost destinations for tourists interested in gardens. The landscaping and design of the great villa gardens has inspired garden designers for centuries, and today, the Italianate style is one of the definitive internationally recognized styles. These gardens are not only interesting to horticultural enthusiasts but are among the top tourist attractions in Italy. This list is only the beginning - there are many more gardens of special note: the 30 acres at the 18th-century Villa Pisani near Venice are renowned for the world's most puzzling hedge maze, and in Padua is the world's oldest existing academic botanical garden and the original of all botanical gardens. But these dozen gardens are among the most beautiful anywhere in the world.

1 Villa d'Este Gardens at Tivoli

Villa d'Este Gardens at Tivoli
Villa d'Este Gardens at Tivoli
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The extensive series of gardens created by Renaissance Cardinal Ippolito d'Este to surround his villa stand at the pinnacle of Italian garden design and are, in fact, the model for formal gardens across the continent - and world. They seem to embody the very soul of the Italian Renaissance. The layout - revolutionary for its day - created a set of "rooms" to highlight fountains, set against a backdrop of the surrounding Campagna hills so that each seemed a garden unto itself. He arranged these along a central alley with intersecting walkways and allées leading to the major fountains. You'll need several hours to see all these and to appreciate the many pools, fountains, cascades, and playful water features, as well as the pavilions, statuary, grottos, and the views from all the terraces. Above all, don't miss seeing the view from the Gran Loggia, walking behind the waterfall at the Fontana dell'Ovato - a water theater designed for performances - and listening to the water-powered organ in the elaborate Fontana dell'Organo.

Address: Piazza Trento, Tivoli

Official site: www.villadestetivoli.info

2 Villa Carlotta, Como

Villa Carlotta, Como
Villa Carlotta, Como
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The western shore of Lake Como, on which rise the hillside gardens of Villa Carlotta, has such a mild year-round climate that it's called Tremezzina Riviera. Foliage here stays green all winter, even when the subalpine peaks that form a backdrop to the gardens are white with snow. More colorful than most classic Italian gardens, which depend more on their intricate formal designs and manicured hedges, Villa Carlotta dazzles with masses of flowers that change with the seasons. The gardens follow the natural slopes and curves of the hillside, backed by woods that open to reveal magnificent lake and mountain views. Visit in May to see the 400 camellias and 40-foot-tall banks of rhododendrons in full bloom or all summer long to see the 200 roses and the succession of brilliant annuals. The woodland gardens are a cool and pleasant break on a hot summer day.

Address: Via Regina 2, Tremezzo, Como

Official site: www.villacarlotta.it

3 Medici Villas near Florence

Medici Villas near Florence
Medici Villas near Florence caccamo
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On the hillsides overlooking Florence, the Medici family built villas where they could retreat from the summer heat of their city palaces. They took advantage of the open space to surround these with opulent gardens designed in the height of Renaissance fashion. Three of these gardens are open to tourists. Villa Gamberaia sits in a typical Renaissance garden of box hedges trimmed in geometric precision, formal parterres and terraces, fountains, and architectural features. A favorite subject for garden historians, the gardens were described by Edith Wharton in her book Italian Villas and Their Gardens as "Probably the most perfect example of the art of producing a great effect on a small scale..."

While there, stop at nearby Villa la Petraia, whose terraced gardens and allées of orange trees open to good views of Florence. A few hundred yards west of it is the Medici Villa di Castello, its air filled with jasmine and other fragrant plants. The elaborate grotto with mosaics and animal sculptures is thought to be the work of court architect Giorgio Vasari.

Address: Villa Gamberaia, Via del Rossellino 72, Settignano

4 Boboli Gardens, Florence

Boboli Gardens, Florence
Boboli Gardens, Florence
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It took a century to complete the terraced gardens that cover 111 acres behind Florence's Palazzo Pitti. Always listed among Europe's best classical garden parks, the Boboli deftly combine landscape gardens and carefully manicured "nature" with the formal parterre, architectural follies, and water features common to Renaissance gardens. All this is tied together by promenades and more intimate paths that make strolling these gardens a welcome respite from the city. And from the top, at the terrace near the Kaffeehaus, you'll get a smashing view of Florence and Brunelleschi's great dome. Highlights to look for are the Fontana del Bacco - showing a court dwarf as Bacchus riding a tortoise; the ornate "cave" of Grotta del Buontalenti; the Rococo Kaffeehaus; the Neptune Fountain; and Abbondanza, the enormous statue of Plenty. An allee of tall cypresses flanked by chestnut, cork oaks, and pines leads down to an oval piazza with an island and Giambologna's Oceanus.

5 Villa Balbianello, Lenno

Villa Balbianello, Lenno
Villa Balbianello, Lenno
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One of the loveliest sights from the boats that ply Lake Como is the garden-covered peninsula of Punta di Balbianello, rising steeply from the water. The terraced gardens and Baroque villa were built for a cardinal in the 1700s. You can follow a trail there from the village of Lenno, but the best way to arrive is by the small boat from Lenno's dock. The boat circles the peninsula for views of the gardens from below before you land and climb to the villa at the top. Paths wind among the plantings, encircling the peninsula, where the stately trees, flowering shrubs, and terraces of columns and statuary were all placed to frame views of the lake and the mountains to its north. The villa is interesting, but no match for the gardens and the views.

Address: Via Comoedia 5, Lenno

6 Villa Taranto, Lake Maggiore

Villa Taranto, Lake Maggiore
Villa Taranto, Lake Maggiore
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You could easily mistake the formal beds of massed flowers, manicured lawns, and shaded woodland paths of Villa Taranto for an English garden park - and rightly. It was designed by a retired Scottish army officer in the late 1940s, a botanist who found this microclimate on the western shore of Lake Maggiore to be perfect for growing plants from around the world. You'll find plants indigenous to northern Italy, but also species from Amazon rain forests and other exotic environments. In the landscape-style gardens and park are more than 20,000 varieties of flowers, trees, shrubs, and water plants. The dahlia collection alone numbers more than 300 kinds.

Address: Via Vittorio Veneto, Verbania

Official site: www.villataranto.it

7 Giardino Giusti, Verona

Giardino Giusti, Verona
Giardino Giusti, Verona
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One of the finest examples of an Italian Renaissance villa garden lies behind the Verona villa of Venetian diplomat Agostino Giusti. He commissioned the garden in 1570 and it is unusual in several ways. First, it is relatively small, and second, instead of leading upwards as a setting for the villa, it rises steeply above the villa, to reveal one of the finest views across the city over the villa's rooftop. It is beautifully designed for an in-town residence, its formal parterres, hedge maze, and winding walks designed for strolling and as a shaded respite from Verona's summer heat. Its wilder section is reached by narrow paths enclosed by shrubbery and trees as they climb steeply to a grotto and terrace.

Address: Via Giardino Giusti 2, Verona

8 Parco Giardino Sigurtà

Parco Giardino Sigurtà
Parco Giardino Sigurtà Gabriele Vincenzi
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Spreading across 600,000 square meters (more than 120 acres) along the banks of the Mincio river, about 24 kilometers from Verona, Sigurtà is a garden park with 13 different sections. Each has its own parking area, so you can either explore the entire complex on foot or drive between sections. Crowning a hilltop above the park, the towers of a ruined castle are framed by the garden's promenades and landscapes. From the brilliant flower beds and manicured lawns to the herb garden and 18 ornamental ponds and lakes, Sigurtà includes nearly every feature found in an Italian garden, but often with a twist. There is the expected maze and a grotto, but the box trees and shrubs are not carved into the traditional shapes found in the usual topiary garden. Instead, they have been gently trimmed, but allowed to create their own curious and often fantastic shapes. The garden is perhaps best known for its display of tulips in the spring, when one million plants burst into bloom. But subsequent seasons bring profusions of irises, roses, lilies, and asters in turn.

Address: Valeggio sul Mincio

Official site: http://www.sigurta.it/

9 Frascati Villas near Rome

Frascati Villas near Rome
Frascati Villas near Rome
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Noble Roman families of the 16th and 17th centuries built magnificent summer villas - palaces really - in the nearby Alban Hills. Frascati was the most popular, and a number of these villas still stand, surrounded by outstanding gardens and parks. Each of these gardens is different, and you can visit several of them. Along with the gardens of Villa Torlonia is the elegant terraced park of Villa Aldobrandini with grottoes, fountains, and cascades overlooking views of the Alban Hills. Its focal point is Teatro delle Acque (water theater), a fountain whose stairs curve from terrace to terrace around cascades. You'll find another Teatro delle Acque in the park surrounding Villa Falconieri, just outside of the town, this one with grottoes and statuary.

10 La Mortella, Ischia

La Mortella, Ischia
La Mortella, Ischia
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The unique environment of an island riddled with thermal springs inspired the wife of British composer William Walton to create a tropical garden surrounding their home on the island of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples. This natural warmth creates a natural heating system to protect the roots of plants that would normally not flourish here. In 1946, Lady Susana Walton engaged British landscape designer Russell Page to create the gardens, which now contain more than 800 rare plants native to four continents. But more than a botanic garden, la Mortella is a peaceful oasis dedicated to beauty and a setting for the arts, including sculpture and music. The most recent addition is a Greek theater where an entire symphony orchestra can perform in lush tropical surroundings.

Address: Via Francesco Calise 39, Ischia

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11 Isola Bella and Isola Madre, Lake Maggiore

Isola Bella and Isola Madre, Lake Maggiore
Isola Bella and Isola Madre, Lake Maggiore
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Every inch of Isola Bella that is not covered by the grandiose 17th-century palace of Count Vitaliano Borromeo is devoted to his equally bombastic gardens. They are the epitome (some might say caricature) of Italianate gardens. To create more space on the relatively small island in Lake Maggiore, a series of 10 terraces were constructed to a height of 32 meters, climbed by wide stone stairways. The terraces are completely covered in flamboyant flower beds, tall cedars, rows of lemon and orange trees, camellias, magnolias, oleanders, and other trees, interspersed by statues. The only place for the eye to rest is on the beautiful lake and mountain views the gardens frame. Both the palace and the garden are fun to visit, and still owned by the Borromeo family.

For a more restful garden experience, take the boat on to Isola Madre, where a modest villa sits in an English-style green park of rolling lawns and tall trees. A shady path circles the shore; the gardens are lush and restful, a good counterpoint to Isola Bella. They are especially beautiful in the spring and early summer, abloom with azaleas, rhododendrons, and camellias.

Address: Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore

12 Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio

Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio
Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio
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The setting, high above the town on a point of land surrounded by Lake Como on three sides, couldn't have provided a better backdrop for gardens. The 19th-century Italianate style of landscaping takes advantage of every angle to frame the lake and mountain views. The rose gardens, for which Villa Serbelloni is the most famous, are bordered by boxwood hedges. You can only visit the gardens on tours, which you can reserve in the PromoBellagio office in Piazza San Giacomo, below in Bellagio. While in the village, stroll along the lakeshore through the manicured gardens of Villa Melzi d'Eril. Designed in the early 19th century, the gardens are open and uncluttered, with occasional statues, a lakeside gazebo, a Moorish-style pavilion, and a water garden.

Address: Piazza della Chiesa 14, Bellagio

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