When looking at a map of the city of Rome, you’ll notice a number of large green areas. They are inferior in number to the city’s churches and fountains, but they certainly constitute an impressive number nonetheless.
Rome’s public parks are a wonderful place for taking relaxing walks, playing soccer, picnicking, jogging, and carrying out other common park activities. But Rome’s green lungs, as they’re often referred to, have much more to offer. Many of them are also a place where within their confines you can actually visit several museums; amble around some of Europe’s most singular animal expositions; rent bikes, roller blades and quadri-cycles; go to a movie in the world’s smalles cinema; watch a Shakespearean play acted out in a perfect replica of the Globe Theater; pick out and adopt a dog from one of Rome’s municipal kennels; snack and dine in a number of historic cafés and surf the net in the many wireless hot-spots, just to mention a few.
I’ll be guiding you through a tour of Rome’s public parks and their multiple attractions and services. The first segment of the Parks series brings us in the northern part of the city, where we shall be visiting Villa Borghese.
Villa Borghese | My favorite place in the world is a heart-shaped, country club-style public park, which was the baroque playground of an epicurean Cardinal named Scipione Borghese. The rotund and fun-loving Scipione started buying vineyards and annexing them to his property in the late 1500s, creating a “villa of delights,” as he liked to define the property. At the end of a long legal battle with his heirs, the State purchased the entire Villa property in 1901. Two years later the Park was ceded to the Municipality of Rome and opened to the public.
Several generations earlier, Prince Marcantonio Borghese IV (1730–1800) undertook major works to transform the main buildings started by his ancestor, and also the park. The most far-reaching project saw the construction of the Giardino del Lago (the Lake Garden) in an area called the “piano dei licini” (plain of oaks). It’s lovely to calmly stroll the pond’s perimeter and feed bread to the ducks and gulls that live there. But the most fun is renting a small rowboat and navigating under the willows and magnolias.
There are a million fun things to do in Villa Borghese besides hugging trees, catching the Park Train, riding the merry-go-round or renting a pair of roller blades. Here’s a list of more fun kid stuff available in Rome’s pulsating green heart.
Casina di Raffaello ~ Ludoteca Recreation Center | “Ludoteca” in Italian means playroom, a place where you can hang out and read in a toy library, play in the rooms and draw, paint or take part in workshops and classes. All activities – both free of charge and not – are open to families, groups of friends and school classes.
The stunning Casina di Raffaello sits perched on a small hill in the splendid Piazza di Siena racetrack setting, and across the street from the Globe Theater and the Lake Garden. Intended for children 3 to 10 years, it comprises two floors wall to wall with creativity-peaking rooms and activities. The first playroom just inside the entrance hosts small circular chalkboard tables with stools where children can color and draw – all encased in floor to ceiling glass. Next to it is a small padded library with books kids can browse through, or just relax while mom and dad read the morning paper.
Just down a small hallway from the reading area, past the gift/book shop, is another room decorated with refined furnishings, including a small gold leaf gilded piano – every item in pristine condition. The chests you see conceal regal costumes replete with crowns and robes worthy of your prince and/or princess–attendants will help dress the children and engage them in group role play. Photos are not permitted except parents photographing exclusively their own children. The Ludoteca shop provides an exceptional choice of Italian books and games.
There are also free 45-minute workshops (laboratori) for kids aged 3 to 6, from Tuesday to Friday at 3.30 pm, 4.30 pm and 5.30 pm, and on Saturday and Sunday at 10.30, noon, 3.30 pm, 4.30 pm and 5.30 pm. You have to book in person on the day that you want your child to attend a workshop. Parents accompany children in the play areas and oversee when the trained personnel is busy with a group or a class upstairs.
Bathrooms come equipped with changing tables, low wash basins and miniature toilets. Shoes get stored in cubby holes, and strollers stay parked out front.
Outside, in the shady side of the Ludoteca playroom, fun wood climbing activities include a small wooden village with walk-in toy houses, a giant multi-level see-saw and a fun musical instrument on which children need to jump to create the sounds of a wind flute. Animal farm sculptures and a large tractor also decorate the wooden village.
On weekends, the Ludoteca also organizes pony rides just down the road, next to the Cinema dei Piccoli (see below).
Casina di Raffaello
Address: Viale della Casina di Raffaello (Piazza di Siena)
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday 9am to 7pm
Closed on: Monday
Help desk: 9am to 7:30pm Tel. +39 06 82059127
Tickets and reservations: For all workshop activities €3,00
Mandatory reservations: Tel. +39 06 82059127
Services: Educational workshops for children ages 3-12
Interactive group readings, Temporary Exhibitions, Bookshop, Gift shop
Cinema dei Piccoli: a small wonder | There’s a little green house in the heart of Villa Borghese that shows afternoon movie screenings for children. Cinema dei Piccoli, which turned 75 years old in 2009, is the smallest movie house in Rome. As noted in the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest cinema in the world, Cinema dei Piccoli seats 63 and runs morning screenings for schools and large groups. In the afternoon the movie theater plays children’s films; in the evening boring grown up stuff. Fully air-conditioned, the films are however dubbed in Italian, with alas no subtitles.
Trivia: Look up at the decorations up high, just below the roofline and on the façade, can you see Mickey eyes?
Cinema dei Piccoli
Address: Viale della Pineta, 15
Help desk: Tel. +39 06 8553485
Showtime: Wednesday to Friday 5pm and 6:30pm;
Saturday and Sunday 3:30pm, 5pm and 6:30pm
Closed on: Monday and Tuesday.
Services: Wheelchair access
Snacks and beverages sold during intermission
Teatro Marionette San Carlino | Pulcinella is being clubbed over the head by his girlfriend Colombina for having secretly eaten her master’s supper. His Neapolitan accent and his squeaky voice are the sound of my childhood in Villa Borghese, where the puppet show was held behind a raised booth, small green drapes outlined the stage and concealed the single puppeteer who acted out all the characters. We kids would either watch the performance standing, or sitting cross-legged on the gravel, focused on Pulcinella’s constant romantic and gastronomic misfortunes.
Now the San Carlino establishment – diminutive of Napoli’s native San Carlo Opera House – is a permanent local fixture. The show is performed in an actual covered structure with seats, props and painted backdrops. The Theater has a small café and offers the possibility of hosting private birthday parties.
Teatro San Carlino Marionette Theater
Address: Viale dei Bambini, Pincio (by the turn of the century hydraulic clock, which too is worth a visit)
Showtime: Depending on the program. Every Saturday and Sunday, and during the week on reservation. Puppet season runs from September to December and from February to July.
Help desk: +39 06 3335320 – 329 2967328
Mandatory reservations: +39 06 3335320
Bioparco di Roma ~ Rome Conservation Zoo | In 1908 the Zoo di Roma was founded. In 1911 it opened its gates and it was a huge success back then. Also due to the fact that innovative ‘Carl Hagenbeck’ standards were employed. That name probably doesn’t ring a bell if you’re not into zoo’s.
Carl Hagenbeck was a well-reputed animal trainer who had already opened a zoo in Hamburg Stellingen. The Rome park was built in the style of that in Hamburg: ditches and pits instead of bars and cages, generous green spaces, rocks and water and other more visually attractive enclosures. Visitors roared with fear and surprize upon first seeing the lions and the zebras in one paddock, obviously separated by a deep canal.
This first success did not hold. Soon the Rome zoo fell in decline. In 1933, the architect Raffaele De Vico began his work in the new areas, which were to hold two main attractions: the large dome-shaped aviary and the reptile house which opened in 1935.
After World War I the story repeats itself. The zoo began to deteriorate, although many areas were renovated and others fully rebuilt. The situation kept worsening, and in 1970, the reptile house had to be closed due to its ailing condition, its improvements took about nine years and it was finally reopened in 1983. Until a few years ago, in fact the moribund Rome zoo had a terrible reputation. Fortunately in 1999 new money was found and the Rome zoo changed its denomination to Bioparco di Roma and once again started a new life.
My son’s favorite exhibits are the raised Giraffe Terrace, where you can look the long-necked creatures in the eye, especially Esmeralda and Macchia, the 2005 and 2009 puppies. Another is the Lion enclosure, where if you’re lucky you can stand nose to nose with the King of the Jungle or his beloved Queen, separated by a sturdy sheet of shatterproof glass. Or the bear-compound fitted with a half-submerged pool where the teddies bathe and cool off in the Roman summer heat. My place is the Tiger paddock, where two exquisite Bengali specimens stand just a few feet away in an open space. The invisible ravine that prevents us Sapiens from being lunch for the felines creates an impressive (scary) effect. Another fun area is the Japanese Macaque colony. The playful and huge community of squawking primates can restore a smile on even the grumpiest kid’s sullen face.
Bioparco Conservation Zoo
Address: Viale del Giardino Zoologico, 20
Help desk: Tel. +39 06 360 8211
Open every day, tickets on sale until 1 hr before closing time. Kids under 3 feet are allowed free entrance. The Reptile House is an additional cost, and so is the Bioparco Train that departs every 20 minutes across from the Giraffe enclosure.
Tip: Keep an eye out for the free-roaming peacocks and their multicolored bohemian tails. They are not at all shy, to the contrary, quite vain. They love to have their picture taken, posing with flair.
Kiddie Rides & Mini-car Racetrack
Across from Cinema dei Piccoli, open every day from 10:30am to sunset.
On Viale J.W. Goethe, Saturdays and Sundays from 10:30am to sunset.
A Villa Borghese classic. The miniature diesel train (pity it’s not battery operated) provides Villa newbies a general park overview. Three stops: Casina delle Rose Café, Viale Goethe and Casino Nobile (Galleria Borghese) every day from 10:30am to sunset.
Tip: Bundle up in winter, the open air ride can be freezing, despite the tortoise-like speed.
Bicycles & Quadri-cycles
Bike rental with vast selection of models depending on your needs and number of passengers. Infant/toddler seats, children’s bikes with or without training wheels.
€20 per hour for a quadricycle seating 6
Rental & drop offs:
Piazzale M. Cervantes
Viale J. W. Goethe
Viale Medici (Pincio)
Viale dell’Orologio (Pincio)
Skates, Roller blades, 4-Wheelers & Golf Carts
1 hour or full day rental, Viale dell’Orologio across the street from the Merry-go-Round and the antique Casina dell’Orologio café (be sure to pop in here at least once and take in all the music paraphernalia on the walls while enjoying their homemade gelato).
Villa Borghese Main Entrances:
Via Raimondi (3 entrances)
Via Pinciana (2 entrances)
Piazzale San Paolo del Brasile
Pincio Hill access
Viale del Bioparco access
Trinità dei Monti access
Villa Borghese is always open, although some gated areas close at sundown.