What Is A Villa?

As language evolves, so does our understanding of certain words in context, which can lead to original meanings being lost to the ages. One such example arises from the question -- what is a villa? Today’s travelers often think of a villa as either a get-away from urban life, or a palatial estate that’s simply detached in some way from the neighborhood proper. These definitions of different types of villas are all right in some way, but the meaning of the word goes much deeper than that.

If you’ve wondered what is a villa, or what is the difference between a house and a villa, or what is a villa in real estate terms, you will find the answers to those questions and more below. Some may just be curious about this popular style of residence, while others may be interested in renting or purchasing a villa of their own. Enthusiast or potential buyer of a villa style home, you will find out how this common, everyday word did start out meaning, how it functions today, and how this evolution occurred.

Okay That’s All Well and Good, But Seriously -- What IS Villa?

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Credit: Flickr, Jeda Villa Bali

A villa is simply a sizable residence that is built either out in the country or, at least, somewhat set apart from the rest of a neighborhood. Villas can be large, luxurious homes. Other times villas are simple structures, such as “The Crooked House” on Nantucket where everyone’s favorite neighbor Mister Fred Rogers would spend his summers. All that matters today is that the residence is located in a somewhat rural setting not closely surrounded by other structures. This is somewhat ironic, especially since the word “villa” is Latin for “town,” and eventually referred to the domicile occupied by rich Romans’ servants. To dig into the history of villas, we need to go back to the days of the Roman Empire when everyone spoke Latin.

​​​​The History of Villas

The rich and elite of Rome and other major cities in the Empire where known as the “dormus,” while the hoi polloi occupied small homes or apartments known as “insulae.” Since these cities were often very crowded and space was at a premium, those who could afford it would leave the city for residences built on the countryside.

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Immanuel Giel

There were two types of “villae” known as the “villa urbana” and the “villa rustica.” The former served as a country residence that could easily be reached from the city, where rich Romans spent a few nights as a retreat from their daily lives. The latter villae acted as residences occupied year-round by servants in the employ of a rich Roman, who would tend to the farm on the property. The owners of these palatial estates would typically only occupy the residence seasonally. Still, these estates were often self-sufficient in ways that are enviable today. A villa would often feature both fields of crops and vineyards. Some of the more extravagant ones also featured quarries and facilities for the production of tile or textiles. Essentially small, self-contained towns, it’s no wonder that Romans began to refer to them this way.

The buildings themselves were opulent. They featured things like terraced gardens, sprawling colonnades with meticulously tiled floor mosaics, and intricate reliefs, both sculpted and painted. These reliefs were painstaking works of art, usually inspired by myths and legends. The magnificent structures were not just found in the Italian countryside, but were exported as far as Britain thanks to the wide influence of the Roman Empire. Thus, the “villa” would become the standard for luxury living for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. Later, the world saw a resurgence of interest in these properties through the Renaissance to Victorian times.

What makes a villa a “villa?”

While there are very specific descriptions of what constitutes a villa from antiquity, as time went on a villa simply means “a place to get away from it all.” The difference between a villa and a house or the difference between a bungalow and a hut are really just a matter of semantics. They don’t have a specific architectural style, but if the property evokes an idyllic sensibility. These spaces, whether sprawling estates or simple-but-stylish, offer a private, intimate place for people to be close to nature while still enjoying all the comfort that they are used to.

Once a very specific term, a villa allows both for a removal of one’s self from the rush and tumble of every day life, but in a place that prioritizes comfort. If one truly wanted to go back to nature, camping would be the way to do that. But if you want spectacular views, creature comforts, and a place with elegant style, than the modern-day villa experience is for you.

Who Owns or Visits Villas?

Artists, royalty, and titans of industry continued to be fascinated by the idea of a getaway to a villa, either out in the woods or by the sea. Unlike modern resorts, the occupants of a villa typically know each other.  Generally a single-group residence with only a few bedrooms, some villas offer as many 20 rooms. Inside there will be elegant furnishings and decorations, typically evoking the styles popular during the time of construction. Victorian-era villas will feature antique furniture and statuary in the gardens or courtyards nearby. Modern villas feature décor that matches the aesthetic inspired by the architect.

Today, modern hospitality companies will often build villa-style accommodations, fully-staffed and with all of the modern amenities. These, like the “villa urbana” that preceded them, exist for short stays for travelers of myriad budgets. They can be for a one-off visit or life event, like a wedding or anniversary. If you don’t want the hassle or expense of buying one of these properties, villas from companies like the Four Seasons Hotel Group are exactly what you’re looking for.

However, if you want a place where your family can go every year to make memories that will last a lifetime, then you’ll want to look for a place you can call your own. For the traveler who likes the idea of a place with its own history, an existing property is the obvious choice. You can find villas dating back to the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, some not too far from the ever-increasing expanse of modern cities, that could serve your purposes. If you prefer a more modernist or other recent style, you can find a recently constructed villa or even scout some land and build your own.

What Makes A Villa So Luxurious?

For many places that cater to people who enjoy the finer things in life, amenities and services offered attract people to a particular place. Yet, since the days of the Roman Empire, villas have been about more than simply that. Rather, these places are meant to reflect an inimitable style that one can’t find on beachfront resorts or the most sprawling penthouses in the hearts of the world’s cities. Thus, what makes one villa more or less luxurious than another comes down to individual taste.

For those who want to be pampered, surrounded by palm trees and people with brightly-colored drinks bearing umbrellas, a villa like those offered by the Four Seasons might be the height of luxury. You can go get lost in the natural wonder around the villa or simply sit by the pool, letting umbrellas and empty plates of room service stack up next to you.

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Credit: Flickr, Jeda Villa Bali

If you want to take in a remarkable vista or walk away the afternoon in meticulously maintained gardens or courtyards, search for villas similar to those found in European countries like Croatia, Greece, and Italy. These places may not have hot towels a phone call away, but their expansive views and pristine countryside can be as luxurious as any gilded palace run by a hotel company. Luxury is in the eye of the beholder, and you can find a villa catering to your specific tastes and interests.

Okay, Villas Sound Awesome, How Do I Book One?

While it may have taken some time to fully explain the definition of a villa, it doesn’t take nearly that long to find one that you can visit. Luckily, booking time at one of these idyllic retreats is as simple as booking accommodations anywhere else. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of calling up a company like the Four Seasons and making a reservation. However, if you’re looking for a more independent villa, that will take some more research.

First, you’ll have to figure out where it is you want to spend your time away from home. Most luxury travel destinations have a plethora of options to choose from. Sometimes you have to contact the owners of the villa directly, but that’s easier than ever before. Thanks to sites like AirBnB, many villa owners are offering them to travelers directly. In other cases, you’ll have to contact a management company and arrange your travel that way.

Villas Are All About Style and How That Makes You Feel

The first of these idyllic retreats dotting the Roman countryside functioned as small towns unto themselves. Though their beginnings sprout from Ancient Rome, the concept of villas have endured to the modern age. Everyone can understand the idea of getting away from society to relax and reflect. They offer the opportunity to take time with those you love the most in a setting where you want for nothing, but are faced with none of the distractions of modern life. That precious time, to be alone with those who matter most, is the most luxurious thing of all. No matter your perception when asked, "what is a villa?" it is likely that includes rest and relaxation away from the duties of day-to-day life.


Which villa is your favorite? Let us know in the comments!

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