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Italy is filled with historic cities, beautiful islands and small-town charms, but if you don’t have unlimited time to spend, you may want to consider putting some of the country’s very best on your must-visit list.
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Anyone and everyone traveling to Italy for the first time should not miss experiencing the top-rated attractions in Rome. Standing in front of magnificent ancient structures like the Colosseum, the largest amphitheater of the Roman Empire, you can almost see the gladiators fighting and hear the deafening roar of the crowd. From fascinating medieval churches and beautiful fountains to museums and Renaissance palaces, Rome is a city that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. Just a few of the other must-see sights in addition to the Colosseum include Trevi Fountain, Basilica San Clemente, Piazza Navona, the Roman Forum and the Vatican. As the capital of modern Italy, Rome also offers a fantastic nightlife and dining opportunities.
San Gimignano is like stepping into another time. This beautiful walled village in Tuscany is famed for its medieval architecture, with some referring to it as the country’s “Medieval Manhattan” due to its skyline of 14 stone towers that soar dramatically from the Tuscan countryside. At the height of its glory, there were some 72 towers as tall as 160 feet, each built by the town’s patriarch families in a competition as a display of their wealth. Today, 13 towers remain, providing impressive views of the city and surrounding valley.
Siena has changed very little over the past eight centuries, with a beautiful 13th-century main square, the Piazza del Campo, considered to be the heart of the city and famous for the twice each summer bareback horse race, Il Palio. Siena is less touristy and typically not as crowded as its neighbor to the north, Florence. If you feel up to it, climb the more than 500 steps of the civic palace for a spectacular view of Siena and its surroundings. While you’re here, don’t miss the Civic Museum, featuring outstanding Sienese works.
Lecce is one of Puglia’s largest cities, as well as one of the most beautiful. This southern Baroque city has a unique Adriatic culture and flavor as well as being filled with an abundance of fascinating sights, like a 2nd-century Roman amphitheater that once sat more than 25,000 people. You’ll also discover a 16th-century castle and one of the most important churches in Italy, the Church of the Holy Cross, which was started in 1353 but took more than three centuries to be completed. While you’re here, be sure to visit at least a few of the lavish Baroque churches Lecce is famous, sample the vibrant nightlife and enjoy a dish of orecchiette pasta.
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who isn’t at least familiar with one of Italy’s most beautiful and romantic cities, Venice. This unique city has plenty of things to do and see, built on water in the middle of the lagoon sits in the northeast of Italy. Lose yourself in its charm by exploring some of its famed landmarks like Saint Mark’s Basilica and the many museums, palaces and churches as well as viewing amazing works of art at the Gallerie dell’Accademia. Just wandering along its canals offers an unforgettable experience.
Verona is best known as the town of Romeo and Juliet, but also for its Roman Area, the third largest in the country, and the venue for a top opera festival. This charming town also houses Roman remains and an interesting castle complex along with a medieval center. One of the best ways to see it is to rent and bike and just ride throughout the city. Don’t miss stopping at Juliet’s house, which dates back to the 13th century. The family coat of arms can still be seen on the wall, though the balcony is a 20th-century addition.
In a country famous for its fantastic food, Bologna is known as the food capital and gastronomic giant. Spaghetti Bolognese doesn’t come from here, contrary to popular opinion, but Bologna is known for inventing a meaty ragu sauce, used in two tasty regional dishes: tagliatelle and lasagna. It’s also a very walkable city with a medieval museum as well as housing Cathedral Petronius with two towers offering some of the best views over the city. You also won’t want to miss the intriguing monastic center of Santo Stefano and the Archaeological Museum.
This Tuscan hidden gem is just a short train ride from Florence, featuring cobblestoned streets, elaborate palaces, churches and a ring of Renaissance-era fortification walls that were transformed into biking and walking paths. You’ll find Romanesque cathedrals as well as medieval and Renaissance architecture along with some of the region’s most beautiful villas and splendid gardens. Explore its ancient history by viewing the trace of the Roman amphitheater found in the shape of the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro and archeological remains under the 12th-century church of Saints Giovanni and Reparata.
Pompeii is one of the most visited tourist destinations in Italy, as the famous Roman city that was buried under several feet of volcanic ash for nearly 1,700 years following the cataclysmic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Located near the modern city of Naples, taking a tour of this fascinating city frozen in time provides insight into how people lived from day-to-day back in 79 AD, some 1,935 years ago. Stroll ancient streets to see the remains of bakeries, an amphitheater, forum, baths and even brothels.
Although it may be unfairly upstaged by Pompeii, visiting the Ruins of Herculaneum is really a must with its wealth of archaeological finds from ancient advertisements to stylish mosaics and even terror-struck skeletons. The fate of Herculaneum is parallel to that of Pompeii. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 62 AD, with Mt. Vesuvius eruption 17 years later submerging it in a thick sea of mud, essentially fossilizing the city, preserving even the most delicate items like clothing and furniture.
Florence is one of the most important Renaissance architectural and art centers as well as one of Italy’s most beautiful cities. Its museums, palaces and churches are home to some of the greatest artistic treasures on earth, with the churches of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce as veritable art galleries. The Accademia Gallery is one of Florence’s most visited museums, with the genius Michelangelo’s works housed here, including the imposing marble statue of David, standing over 13 feet tall. For one of the most enchanting views of Florence, climb the hill to the church of San Miniato al Monte.
Menaggio is a popular destination that sits along the picturesque shores of Lake Como in northern Italy. This destination is more for visitors who want to experience Italy’s natural beauty with the opportunity enjoy walks from easy strolls to challenging mountain hikes, take a refreshing swim or go mountain biking. One of the best ways to experience this beautiful town is to rent a boat and head out onto the lake, viewing the magnificent villas from the water.
This historic seaside town and port sits on the Adriatic coast of southern Italy, with a mix of history, architecture, seafront eateries, gorgeous views and white sandy beach that make it one of Puglia’s most charming, picturesque towns. The imposing Castello Aragonese, reinforced by Emperor Frederick II and rebuilt by Alphonso II of Naples in the latter part of the 15th century, features thick perimeter walls and robust towers, dominating much of the town. The leading attraction however, is the 12 century mosaic in Otranto’s Romanesque cathedral that dates back to 1088.
Riomaggiore, is one of the five Italian fishing villages that make up the Cinque Terre, its origins are said to date back to the 8th century, when residents of the Vara Valley were searching for a milder climate for raising grapevines and olive trees without the fear of being raided by pirates. It climbs up along the ridges overlooking the sea, characterized by stone houses with colorful facades and slate roofs. Sitting at the upper edge of Italy’s boot on the Gulf of Genoa, the water is the bluest of blues, unspoiled and serene. In addition to the stunning scenery, there are a number of cultural attractions, including the Church of San Giovanni Battista, a castle and local history museum.
Milan is the Italian center of finance, industry and commerce, as well as an international capital of fashion, industrial design and architecture. It’s also the home of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” found in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, and the Duomo, Milan’s spectacular Gothic cathedral, the third biggest church in Europe that took more than six centuries to complete. It contains 3,500 statues and 135 spires, dominating the great piazza on which it is located as well as the city, of which it’s long been Milan’s center.
Sicily has an undeniable allure, and visiting its capital and oldest city of Palermo offers the chance to feast on some of the best street food in Italy with its three main markets, Ballaro, Il Capo, and the famed Vucciria, lined with fragrant stands. You’ll also find works of art by 19th– and 20-century Italian masters mixed with high profile current artists like Francesco Simeti. As home of some of Sicily’s most notable historical, architectural and gastronomical highlights, it provides a perfect introduction to the island. While you’re here, don’t miss visiting Mondello, an idyllic seaside village just a 15-minute drive from the historic center with powdery white sand beaches dotted with umbrellas and gelato stands.
Belluno is a small town perched high above the Piave River on a narrow spit of land, the capital of the province with the same name and the southern gateway to the breathtaking Dolomites. It offers magnificent views as well as the charming atmosphere of an Alps mountain town, characterized by its Venetian style, with many buildings from the Gothic and Renaissance periods. Enjoy taking a stroll through picturesque squares, along walkways and past historic buildings to the Piazza Duomo, the crown jewel of the city with the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and the Palazzo dei Rettori. The highlight here is the wide variety of outdoor adventures, from mountain biking, hiking and climbing to sailing, canoeing and windsurfing. In the wintertime, dog sledding, snowboarding and skiing are popular activities.
Turin, the site of the 2006 winter games and the Shroud of Turin, is filled with Baroque architecture with the Alps providing a dramatically stunning backdrop. Few cities in the world, if any, can rival its number of historical cafes that provide the opportunity to soak up the revolutionary and literary atmosphere of the 19th century. Turin was a literary center for centuries, and it’s also the Italian capital of chocolate. Be sure to sample bicerin, a popular drink among Italian and European aristocracy, made of espresso coffee, chocolate and whipped cream. Of course, the Turin Cathedral, home to the Shroud of Turin, is also a must visit – though the museum is open daily, the shroud is only displayed once every decade. Fortunately, you won’t have to wait long to see it.
Urbino is a bit off the beaten path, but well worth the effort to get there. Located in the Marche region in central Italy, the hilltop town set around a Renaissance palace has historical significance as the birthplace of Raphael, and modern-day importance as a hub for international students through the University of Urbino. The city’s massive palace, Palazzo Ducale, is one of the most impressive in the country, built in the latter part of the 15th century. Housed inside the Ducal Palace, is the National Art Gallery of the Marche with one of the most important collections of Renaissance paintings anywhere on earth.
Siracusa, located near the southeastern corner of Sicily on the Ionian coast, was built on an ancient Greek Settled founded in 734 BC. It offers a glimpse into the ancient history of the Mediterranean and Europe. Siracusa, or Syracuse, is home to a vast archeological site sitting on the edge of the modern city, filled with a staggering number of well-preserved Greek and Roman remains, including a Greek theatre that dates back to at least the mid-5th-century BC. Its 59 rows could accommodate as many as 15,000 spectators.
Though some say the only reason to visit Pisa is to capture the most iconic photo in Italy, there is really more to this medieval city than the spectacular Leaning Tower. The Cathedral Square contains Pisa’s principal religious monuments, giving it the name, “Miracle’s square.” You’ll also find an elaborate Baptistry and graveyard offering an example of the artistic richness of the city as well as a number of beautiful palaces.
The remarkable city of Genoa is often overlooked, but as Europe’s largest historical center, it’s well worth a visit. The city boasts a large historical old town where architectural styles span more than 1,000 years. Wandering the narrow, maze-like streets, you’ll discover 13th century cathedrals, medieval squares and even the house where famed explorer Christopher Columbus was born. Be sure to sample pesto in this city where it was invented, made with crushed basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and a number of different cheeses. By visiting the local farmers’ markets you can even pick up a bottle of fresh pesto to take home.