Both for its history as the capital of much of Europe and for its present day role as one of Europe’s most vibrant cities, Rome heads the list for most tourists traveling to Italy. Relics of its ancient glories – the Colosseum, the Forum, the Pantheon, the Appian Way, and the Palatine Hill – vie with the vast riches of the Vatican as the top attractions.
Who could fail to love a city whose streets are made of water, whose buses are boats, and where the songs of gondoliers linger in the air? It is a magic city, and its major attraction to tourists is the city itself. The hub of the city is the broad Piazza San Marco, St. Mark’s Square, surrounded by several of its top tourist attractions.
The showcase of the Italian Renaissance, Florence can at times seem like one giant art museum. The Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, is a landmark of world architecture, topped by its gravity-defying massive dome. Together with its marble-inlaid bell tower by Giotto and its octagonal Baptistery with its incomparable bronze doors by Ghiberti, this is one of the world’s finest ensembles of Renaissance art.
Italy’s most beautiful lake, Como has been the favorite summer retreat of the rich and famous since ancient Romans fled Milan’s summer heat to cool off in villas along its steep shores. Later villas decorate its tightly clustered towns, especially pretty Bellagio, artfully set on a point where the three narrow arms of the lake meet.
The high, precipitous Amalfi Peninsula juts sharply into the Mediterranean just south of Naples, forming the southern rim of Naples Bay. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful – or unlikely setting for the towns that spill down its steep slopes. Streets in most are stairways, and houses seem glued to the cliffs behind them.
The five towns that cling to the steep, rocky Mediterranean coast north of La Spezia were almost impossible to reach by land until the railway connected them by tunneling through the headlands that separate them. Today, the trail along the cliffs that locals once used to travel from town to town is one of Italy’s great hikes; the shortest and widest of its sections, between Manarola and Riomaggiore is known as the Via dell’Amore.
The undulating landscape of Tuscany is crowned by stone towns whose foundations go back to the Etruscans. Each sits atop a hill, and many still have the castles and towers that once defended their commanding positions. It’s difficult to choose one above the others, as each has its own architecture, art, character, and story to tell. Fairly bristling with towers and enclosed in walls that are largely intact, San Gimignanolooks much as it did in the Middle Ages, when it was an important stop on the pilgrims’ route to Rome.
At its height in the 13th and 14th centuries, Siena rivaled Florence for its arts and culture, and it still has a wealth of art and architectural treasures. The highlight is the magnificent Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, whose inlaid marble facade and striped bell tower stand dramatically among Siena’s mostly red brick buildings. The cathedral interior is a museum of works by great artists and sculptors, including Donatello, Giovanni Pisano, Bernini, and Lorenzo Ghiberti.
These two nearby towns are worth visiting while you’re in Tuscany, the first for the exceptional Campo dei Miracoli complex and the other for its endearing charms. The Leaning Tower of Pisa, actually the campanile for the adjacent cathedral, is a well-known Italian icon and forms the centerpiece of a UNESCO World Heritage site that also includes the cathedral, baptistery, and Campo Santo.
The compact historic center of this former Roman stronghold is embraced by a deep curve in the Adige River. Dominating its heart is the remarkable well-preserved first-century Roman arena, scene of the world-renowned summer opera festival. Several Roman arches are mixed among the medieval and Renaissance buildings, many of which show Verona’s long history as part of the Venetian empire. Alongside the river stands the large Castelvecchio, a castle built in the 14th century, guarding a brick arched bridge, Ponte Scaligero.
In AD 79, Mt. Vesuvius erupted violently and suddenly, engulfing the thriving Roman city of Pompeii and encasing it for more than a millennium in six meters of ash and pumice-stone. The city remained frozen in time until excavations that began in the 18th century uncovered more than half of its buildings and public spaces.
The island of Sicily has earned seven places on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, three for its ancient sites, two for natural wonders, and two for architectural treasures. Some of the finest remaining examples of ancient structures are in Sicily: at Selinunte is one of the largest Greek temples; in Agrigento, at the Valley of Temples, is one of the three most perfect Greek temples anywhere; and the 3,500 square meters of mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale in Enna decorate
Unlike any other city in Italy, Ravenna’s artistic origins are almost entirely Byzantine, and here you’ll find Western Europe’s finest collection of Byzantine mosaics, all in nearly pristine condition. In the sixth century, Ravenna was the seat of the king Theodoric the Great, who was raised in Constantinople, and it became a center for mosaic artistry that reached its zenith here.
One of the great industrial cities of the north, Turin, unlike Milan, is relatively small and compact, its highlights easy to explore on foot. There is a grandeur to its architecture and its formal layout, designed by the Savoys to show that they were as regal as any of Europe’s royal families and could surround themselves with splendor that rivaled Paris. Its arcaded squares and avenues and royal palaces right in the center set the tone, but that is not all of Turin’s charm
This enigmatic Mediterranean island seems worlds apart from Italy, and is itself a land of stark contrasts. Best known for its glamorous Costa Smeralda, the jet-set paradise of luxury enclaves set against emerald waters of the northeast coast, Sardinia has a lot more to offer the adventurous tourist, or even the sun-loving beach seeker.
The entire south is ringed with mile after mile of white-sand beaches, and the rugged interior is prime territory for hikers; climbers; and those who want to explore remote mountain villages, where old traditions not only survive but are a way of life.