Italy is on of the most visited countries in the world and one of the most popular with tourists for several reasons. Rome is, of course, one of the world’s most important cities, because of its incredible history, architecture, and culture. Venice is perhaps the world’s most unique city. Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance. Vatican City is the home of the Roman Catholic pope and the center of this pervasive religion. And the accolades go on and on… So, relax and take a tour of this magnificent country through the eyes of a respectful traveler.
Italy’s most important sights are listed below. After reading the travelogue, check the upcoming photo album.
Rome has everything. It is romantic — outdoor cafes on elegant piazzas; narrow streets perfect for strolling; a beautiful, lyrical language which evokes amore. It is historic — remnants of perhaps the greatest and most powerful civilization of all time are everywhere; walking the streets provides a lesson in art and architecture. It is maddening — traffic is horrendous, and watch out for those scooters! It is charming — where else can you turn the corner onto a famous square, find a beautiful fountain, or practically bump into a 3,000 year old Egyptian obelisk?
Rome is packed with major attractions: the Colosseum is an image known throughout the world; walk the streets that Caesar and Augustus walked as you stroll through the Roman Forum; Vatican City (see below), with all its religious significance and priceless Art, is within the city limits.
The Colosseum seems to represent all the glory that was Rome. It was built in 79 AD and held deadly gladiatorial fights as well as bouts involving wild animals for the crowds of up to 55,000. What’s left is much of the oval exterior and many of the bleachers. The floor of the arena is only partly restored, which allows the visitor to see into the basement where the combatants and animals were housed and where equipment necessary to stage the programs was kept prior to the event. Visitors are treated to a miniature model of the Colosseum as was in its prime. The white travertine marble which covered the structure has long since been pillaged and carted away, but the mystique still remains. It even had a retractable awning to shade spectators from the sun. It is a particularly moving experience to walk around inside where so many gave their lives for sport.
The Roman Forum was the political and social center of Ancient Rome and the seat of power at that time in the history of civilization. Here one can walk the streets where Julius Caesar, Cato, Augustus, and other great Romans may have strolled and conversed. It’s a bit eerie, and it certainly takes some imagination to have an idea of what this area looked like in 50 BC, because it is now in ruins. However, excavations and restorations provide some semblance of the past, and labels and models of the area help.
Pick up an audio guide in the Forum which will direct the visitor to major sights and also provide some background. There are other Fora which are still being excavated, most notably Trajan’s Forum, which boasts what was probably the first shopping mall in the history of the world.
Piazza Navona is one of Rome’s largest and most beautiful squares. Built on the site of a 1st century stadium, it is oval in shape and is lined with sidewalk cafes and palaces. However, it is the three gorgeous, Baroque fountains which make it a Mecca of both tourists and locals.
Directly in front of the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone is Bernini’s famous Fountain of the Four Rivers. The rivers symbolized include the Nile, the Ganges, the Plata, and the Danube.
At one end of the square is the Fountain of the Moor (which was also designed by Bernini), another beautiful Baroque fountain.
The piazza is one of the major gathering places in the inner city and is often crowded with people, especially at night.
The Pantheon of Rome is the Eternal City’s best preserved ancient building. It dates to approximately 100 AD and is a testament to its Roman builders. Pantheon means “temple of all gods” but it became a Christian church in the 7th century. Although services still take place, it is more a tomb than a church, now. The interior is a circular hall with an incredibly high (as high as the radius of the dome, which gives it an elegant proportionality) scalloped dome with an “oculus” (circular opening) at its top that allows the only light into the building. The marble floors, vestibules and altars around the edges of the hall are harmonious and muted in color, but beautiful as well.
The Trevi Fountain is certainly one of the most elaborate and beautiful fountains in the world. It was, of course, made famous by the song, “Three Coins in the Fountain”. It has become a major gathering place, especially at night when the fountain is attractively lit, for people of all ages and, of course, tourists who perpetually throw coins into the fountain and wish to return to this “eternal city“. It is surprisingly large, half a city block, with numerous sculptures of sea creatures spewing water.
Rome’s Spanish Steps, located in the Piazza di Spagna, is one of the most popular gathering places in all of Rome. Crowds hang out here at all hours of the day and night. It is one of the places to see and be seen. The steps lead upward from the square and the “Fontana della Barcaccia”, designed by Bernini’s father. They are extremely crowded with people just sitting or taking pictures, and are often adorned with beautiful flowers. At the top of the stairs is the lovely Trinita del Monti Church and one of Rome’s many obelisks.
In the Piazza di Spagna, visitors should check out perhaps the most beautiful Mac Donald’s restaurant in the world — it is decorated in typical, classic Roman style, and is at least worth a peek.
Other sights of the city which deserve mention are the Victor Emmanuel Monument, which commemorates Italy’s first monarch and beginning of Italy’s unification. Italians call this the “wedding cake” for obvious reasons, and it was considered an unworthy addition to the city when constructed in the late 19th century, but it is more accepted today and certainly impressive to the tourist, anchoring the busy Piazza Venezia. Nearby are steps leading to the Campidoglio, the beautiful square, designed by Michelangelo, which now allows access to the Capitoline Museum.
Another important Roman museum is the Galleria Borghese, in the Villa Borghese, a large park north of the city center. This huge complex is the former estate of Cardinal Scipione Borghese and showcases his art collection.
The Campo de Fiori (literally, “field of flowers“) can be an interesting change of pace for the visitor to Rome. Here, every morning, there is stall after stall of fresh fruit and produce, as well as crafts and trinkets, and, of course, flowers. It is a voyage back in time to an earlier and slower-paced Rome.
A visit to the small, Santa Maria sopra Minerva Church, near the back of the Pantheon, is rewarded with an up close examination of Michelangelo’s Risen Christ along with some frescoes by Lippi, Botticelli’s teacher. In front of the church is a statue of an elephant, done by Bernini, on top of which is an Egyptian obelisk.
For a quieter side of Rome, stroll through the Trastevere section of the city, across the Tiber River from the main tourist area.
One of Michelangelo’s celebrated sculptures, Moses, can be seen in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, near the Colosseum, but go in the morning or late in the afternoon since the church is closed from 12:30 P.M. to 3:00 P.M.
One of several possible excursions from Rome is to the famous Abbey at Montecassino, south of the city. It was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. The Abbey was considered a high priority target since its location at the top of a mountain was a German observation post and headquarters. Although almost completely destroyed in the bombing and subsequent fighting, it has been lovingly restored and also contains a memorial cemetery to commemorate those who lost their lives in its liberation.
Venice is certainly one of the most unique places on earth. The entire city is composed of numerous islands within a huge lagoon. It is pedestrian-only, with transportation provided by boat along the many canals which separate the over 100 islands. Since Venice, in earlier times, was a major link in the trade route between East and West, it accumulated much wealth and cultural diversity which today is still on display.
Weaving its way through the center of the Old City is the Grand Canal, a wide thoroughfare which is perpetually busy with boat traffic. The major tourist transportation along this waterway is the Vaporetto or water taxi. There are numerous stops along the canal from which areas of the city can be accessed. At one end of the Grand Canal is the train station and primary automobile parking lots. At the other end is the major tourist area, which contains the Piazza San Marco and other sights. Beyond here is the lagoon and access to fringe areas of the city, such as the islands of Murano, Burano, and the Lido (beach).
From the Grand Canal, there are side canals which lead into the neighborhoods of the city. There are also several (3) bridges which cross the Grand Canal and also numerous bridges which connect the smaller islands of the city. Venice is great for walking because there are no cars to dodge or corners to wait at. Do expect to get lost, however, since there are so many tiny, narrow alleyways.
One bridge across the Grand Canal which is a must for any visitor is the Rialto Bridge, a beautiful white, stone bridge which is lined with vendors, selling their treasures.
Piazza San Marco, in Venice, is certainly one of the great city squares in Europe, even in the world. It is huge, attracts large numbers of pigeons, and is the major gathering place in Venice because it is surrounded by some of the most famous sights in the city, including the Basilica San Marco, the Doge’s Palace, and the Campanile. Because of Venice’s flooding problem, most noticeable after heavy rains, the piazza is sometimes under several feet of water, but the resourceful Italians drag out raised platforms to make walkways across the lowest part of the square, and restaurants take in their ubiquitous outdoor tables until the water recedes. Things usually get back to normal in a surprisingly short period of time.
St Mark’s Basilica is a blend of Eastern and Western architecture which coincides with Venice’s role, for many years, as the connection between those two worlds. The mosaics along the main facade are spectacular. Much of the church is reminiscent of Constantinople, which is where the Four Horses above the main entrance were brought from. The “booty” from voyages far and wide adorn the church. Much of the wealth is displayed in the Treasury (separate admission). The altarpiece (Pala d’Oro), which stands behind the main altar, is made of gold and inlaid with numerous precious gems (some were stolen by Napoleon). A visit to the Galleria and Museum reveals the original bronze horses, replicas of which now grace the church’s facade.
The Campanile or bell tower is also worth a visit, since the view of Venice and its lagoon from the observation level is spectacular.
Despite the cost, a gondola ride is a must when visiting Venice. Many of the gondoliers will serenade their passengers, and all will narrate the trip through some of Venice’s small canals. The effect of the gondola traveling through these tight places with an expert at the helm is both soothing and enchanting.
Also be sure to stop at Harry’s Bar, located near the San Marco Vaporetto stop, for a delicious, but overpriced, Bellini, a drink made from a sweet white Prosecco wine and peach juice.
The Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) was the home of the reigning duke or doge of Venice. The architecture, as is normal in Venice, is a mix of East and West. Entry through the Porta della Carta brings the visitor into the internal courtyard.
Upon arrival at the Hall of the Grand Council (Sala del Maggior Consiglio), note the huge Tintoretto oil painting Paradise (the largest oil painting in the world) behind the Doge’s throne. As you walk over the Bridge of Sighs, so-named since prisoners sighed and said goodbye to the world as they crossed from here into the prison, imagine being sentenced to a dank, dark prison with no hope of ever seeing Venice’s canals again. Exit is via the Giant’s Staircase, named for the large statues which straddle its doorway into the palace.
For an interesting change of pace, take the vaporetto to the island of Burano, noted for lace-making. This lovely little village is characterized by the brightly painted houses which line its canals and the main square. There are lots of shops selling a variety of merchandise, but the pace is much slower and less hectic than Venice itself.
3. Vatican City
St Peter’s Basilica, the central symbol of the Roman Catholic religion, is located within Vatican City, the world’s smallest state, which lies entirely within the city of Rome. The Basilica, with its impressive dome, designed by Michelangelo, is the largest church in the world, and probably also contains the most wealth.
As one enters the church, to the right is Michelangelo’s Pieta, his magnificent sculpture of Mary holding her dead son, Jesus. It is now behind bulletproof glass because of a previous attempt to vandalize it. The church can hold 95,000 worshipers. The main altar sits directly over St Peter’s tomb and has a canopy designed by Bernini. The dome is also the largest in the world.
Outside the church, the Piazza San Pietro is a huge area, enclosed by two semi-circles of colonnades topped with sculptures.
The Vatican Museum contains an immense collection of paintings, sculptures, and other art works, beginning with Egyptian and Mesopotamian art through Greek and Roman (see the Pio Clementino collection) and extending up to the modern era. Notable stops within the museum include the Raphael Rooms, Michelangelo’s Sistene Chapel and the Pinacoteca.
The Sistene Chapel, located next to St Peter’s Basilica, is one of the most significant works of art in the world. The ceiling and part of the walls were painted by the great Michelangelo. On the ceiling are scenes from Genesis, from the Creation to the Fall of Man, as well as many characters from the Old Testament. Be aware that the ceiling is so high, binoculars or opera glasses should be used to see detail. Besides that difficulty, attendants are busy rushing visitors through the room to make way for more people. The wall paintings are by various masters of the 15th and 16th centuries, and also include The Last Judgment by Michelangelo on the altar wall.
To avoid some of the crowds, make a reservation either through the Vatican’s website or several brokers who will do the leg work. Be aware that the Vatican will only confirm reservations a few days before the visit, so there is a certain risk involved.
Plan to see the Vatican Museum and Sistene Chapel first, then exit the Chapel on the right, to a stairway which leads directly to St Peter’s Basilica and avoids the line to get into the church.
Pompeii, Italy, is one of the world’s most complete and extensively excavated archaeological sites. Here visitors can experience an authentic slice of the Roman Empire, because, on August 23, 79 A.D., the world ended for Pompeii’s 15,000 or so inhabitants. Nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the city under tons of volcanic dust and debris. People were caught unawares, involved in their daily lives, and this is what is so special about Pompeii. It is a window to a lost world, a glimpse of a typical day in the life of a Roman citizen. As one walks through the streets of the city, it is not difficult to imagine people seated in the beer halls, cooking in their kitchens, etc.
Some of the major attractions in the city include the Forum, the business and commercial center, with its nearby government buildings, including the Basilica, and its religious center, the Templo di Giove (Temple of Jupiter). Some of the houses contain well-preserved murals and frescoes which indicate, in some cases, the affluence of the area. The Anfiteatri (Amphitheaters) indicate a strong commitment to the Arts, while the Baths and Brothels (Lupenare) indicate an underlying hedonism. There are even examples of graffiti which have been preserved beneath the ash.
The major street of the city Via dell’Abundanza provides access to all the various areas.
Rent an audio guide for extensive background information about life in Pompeii as well as an explanation of the various excavated sights.
For a truly moving, almost ghoulish, experience, walk to the Orto dei Fugiaschi (Garden of the Fugitives), where there are a number of casts displayed of people who were overcome by the eruption. Their expressions and body positions will haunt the visitor. These people, like the city, are frozen in time and provide a ghostly window showing the modern world the consequences of a lack of preparedness.
Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance and once one of the most powerful city-states in Italy, may have more Art per acre than any other city in the world. Ruled by the powerful Medici family, patrons of the arts, for hundreds of years, the city became the home base for icons of the art world such as, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Botticelli, etc. Much of their art remains on display in this wonderful city.
The Duomo of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore, has one of the most beautiful and most recognized exteriors in the world. Its Brunelleschi Dome was the largest, built without scaffolding, in the world when it was completed in 1463. It has become a symbol of the city with its red roof and distinctive shape. The outside of the church itself is covered in pink, green and white Tuscan marble. Many statues adorn the facade. Unfortunately, the Piazza in front of the Duomo is crowded and narrow, preventing visitors from getting a more distant perspective. Immediately across from the Duomo entrance is the Baptistry, with its beautiful, Ghiberti bronze doors (on the North and East sides of the building). The panels depict scriptural subjects, such as, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, etc. Inside are colorful mosaics.
The Piazza della Signoria is a spectacular example of the incorporation of great art into a public space to make it more than special. There are three notable statues in the square: 1. The Rape of the Sabine Women, by Giambologna, 2. Perseus, by Cellini, and 3. a copy of the David, by Michelangelo. Bordering the piazza is the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Florence, with its imposing bell tower, a landmark of the city’s famous skyline, and the Neptune Fountain. What a fantastic environment in which to have lunch or a beer al fresco!
Beside the palazzo is the famous Uffizi Gallery. The Degli Uffizi contains the greatest collection of Italian paintings in the world. The lines can be incredibly long and slow-moving, so make reservations ahead of time. Inside the Uffizi, marvel at the beautiful frescoed ceilings of the hallways, and enjoy the great art of Michelangelo, Botticelli, Giotti, Raphael, Titian, and others.
Must sees include the Botticelli room with his Birth of Venus, and Michelangelo’s Holy Family.
To the west of the Duomo is the church of Santa Maria Novella, with its distinctive, striped exterior. Also check out the interior of the Gothic structure which dates to around 1300 AD.
Continue on to the river for some shopping on the Ponte Vecchio, a covered bridge over the Arno which is lined with shops. It is the oldest (1345) surviving bridge in the city and another symbol of Florence.
Another of the must-sees of the city is housed in the Galleria dell’Accademia. Here visitors will experience the true impact of Michelangelo’s original David, one of the most important sculptures in the world. The David is extremely tall and imposing, on a large pedestal, and one marvels at the detail, such as the toenails, and the veins of the wrist. This statue stood in the Piazza della Signoria until 1873 when it was moved indoors to the museum for safe-keeping.
The third David sculpture is displayed at the Piazzale Michelangelo, across the River Arno, south of the city. Besides the presence of the sculpture, the spot provides a postcard view of Florence’s skyline and is a favorite stop for tour buses on their way into or out of the city.
Another famous house of worship is the church of Santa Croce which, besides another gorgeous marble façade, some beautiful artwork, such as frescoes by Giotto and a chapel dome by Brunelleschi, contains the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, and other notables.
6. Amalfi Coast
The Amalfi Coast Drive, located southwest of the city of Naples, is the most spectacular drive in the world. The road (SS 163) winds its way along cliffs which hover precipitously above the ocean. Nestled at various points along the drive are small, charming towns which cling to the cliffs of the Latari Mountains and tumble down to the Tyrrhenian Sea. The entire length is only about 48 kilometers (30 miles) but beautiful views are found throughout. The road is extremely narrow and is especially hazardous when large tour buses approach from the opposite direction. However, it is all worth the effort as long as there is no urgency. Plan to stop at several of the Villages, such as Positano, Amalfi, or Maiori to enjoy the ambience and to experience the slow pace and charm.
Among the villages, Positano is one of the most popular. Its main street is lined with shops and restaurants and must be appreciated by walking. Parking in all these villages is a potential problem; however, there are several parking lots available as well as some on-street parking. There is much to do at any time of the day in Positano, which adds to its popularity. Admire the Santa Maria Assunta Church with its gold and green ceramic dome, on the Piazza Flavio Gioia. Stroll along the flower-festooned Via Mulini and linger at its little squares. Find your way to the Spraggia Grande, the main beach, then to the stone pier at one end, and climb the staircase to the Via Positanesi d‘ America, a walkway which provides excellent views.
Amalfi, at the opposite end of the drive, is the largest community on this section of coast, so also affords visitors a wealth of activities and makes a good base of operations for those staying on the coast. Its Duomo, with its Paradise Cloister, is one of the sights worth mentioning.
Above Amalfi is the charming little village of Ravello, which has perhaps the best views along the entire coast. The main square is adorable, with its cute little Duomo, shops, and restaurants. Take a walk from the square to either the Villa Rufolo or the Villa Cimbrone for unforgettable views of the coastline.
Probably the best place to stay in the area is the city of Sorrento, several miles north of Positano and about 30 km (20 miles) south of Naples (see # 115 below). Sorrento has many more lodging and restaurant choices than other locations in the area, and offers ferry service to places like Capri or Naples.
Isle of Capri is a beautiful spot and probably the most popular excursion from Naples or Sorrento or the Amalfi Coast. It is only a 20-25 minute ferry ride from Sorrento. The ferry deposits visitors at the Marina Grande from which tourist can either catch a bus or funicular to Capri Town, the largest and most popular town on the island, or pick up a smaller boat to the famous Blue Grotto, a cave system on the southeast coast of the island which is notable for its bluish glow. To see the grotto, visitors must actually take one boat from the marina, then change to a smaller boat at the entrance to the cave and wait in line for the opportunity to enter. The experience is actually quite kitschy and is may not be worth the expense, although many who have been there are still mesmerized by the experience.
Capri Town is a white-washed village which sits high above the marina, on the southern coast of the island. Its labyrinthine alleys are a delight to explore and there is shopping galore for those so inclined. Wander down to the Certosa di San Giacomo or to the nearby estate of the Krupp family for incredible views of the coastline at Punta Tragara and of the I Faraglioni, three huge offshore rocks which make a spectacular photograph.
Other places on the island which are worthy of a visit are Anacapri, a smaller village which is even higher above the water, Villa Jovis, constructed by the Roman Emperor Tiberius, and Villa San Michele, which provides access to the Sphinx Parapet.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa and its Piazza dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) is another spectacular religious sight. Three buildings, the Baptistry, the Duomo, and the Campanile (Leaning Tower) occupy a broad grassy plain. Each building would be a centerpiece in its own right, but to have them all together in one location is wonderful. Despite the commercialism across the street, this spot is awe-inspiring.
The Baptistry is best known for its pulpit and its acoustics. Check out the panels on the door of the Duomo, facing the tower, depicting the life of Christ and also its pulpit, inside. The Leaning Tower has been aslant since its construction began in 1174. Finally, engineers have halted the settling and it is once more possible to climb the tower. Reservations are essential in the high season.
Cinqueterra refers to five villages on the Italian Riviera (the Levante coast) in the province of Liguria. The villages all have in common the fact that they are precipitously situated on cliffs that seem to topple into the sea. They are also not very accessible — there are few roads leading in and out and only paths connect the villages. From north to south the names of the villages are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The largest of the towns is Monterosso and, along with Riomaggiore, the most accessible, are the most popular bases of operation for visitors.
Plan on plenty of time to visit each village because each one has its own particular charm and individuality. Monterosso al Mare’s Centro Historico (Historic Center) contains a Medieval tower, the Aurora, and a beautiful, black-striped church, the Chiesa di San Francisco. Vernazza is perhaps the most charming of the villages, with its pink-slate roofs, narrow streets linked by steep steps, and ruins of a Medieval fort and castle. Corniglia is the most remote of the five villages, and has no direct access to the sea. The church of San Pietro, with its pink, Carrara marble, is worth a visit. Manarola has a lively harbor and pretty pastel-colored houses and is linked to Riomaggiore by the famous Via dell’Amore (Lover’s Lane), a 15 minute walk.
Walk the well-marked trails between the villages for glorious views of the towns and the coastline. The entire distance between Monterosso and Riomaggiore is about 11 km (7 miles) and can easily be accomplished in one day, even with the obligatory stops for pictures, picnics, etc.
9. Tuscany Hill Towns
The Tuscany Region of Italy is one of the country’s most popular tourist regions for a number of reasons. First of all, the tourist capital of Tuscany, Florence (see # 15 above) is perhaps Italy’s most important center for the Arts. Secondly, Pisa (see # 31 above), with its Leaning Tower and Campo dei Miracoli, is one of the most recognized travel images in the world. Thirdly, Tuscany has numerous, picturesque, Hill Towns, many of which are world-famous for their wines and their olive oil.
San Gimignano is one of the most popular of the Hill Towns and is particularly noted for its many towers. As a matter of fact, it is known as the “Manhattan of Italy” because its skyline is distinctly noticeable from afar. The many towers are relics from the Middle Ages, when power and wealth were displayed and characterized by the size of a family’s tower. From a peak of 70 towers, only fourteen are left.
The town’s narrow, cobbled streets and quaint squares are fun to walk, although the hills and stairways can be somewhat disconcerting. For fantastic views of the surrounding Tuscan landscape, with its vineyards and olive orchards, climb the Torre Grosse (almost 300 stairs).
Lucca is another of Tuscany’s gems. It began as a Roman colony in 180 B.C. and elements of the Roman presence are still evident. However, the charm of the town is in its walls, which can be walked and provide spectacular views, and its Medieval streets and piazzas. The Cathedral, San Martino, which dates to the 11th century was done in the Romanesque style and is extremely imposing. Also significant is the Church of San Michele in Foro, whose square is over the site of the original Roman Forum (hence the name) and which is still the major gathering place in town. There are many other pleasures which await the visitor in this very walkable town.
Montepulciano is another Hill Town, south of Siena, which, in this case, is famous for its local wine, “Vino Nobile di Montepulciano”. The town is a delight, especially the Piazza Grande, the main square, which is lined with beautiful Medieval mansions and the Duomo.
Other notable Tuscan Hill Towns include Arezzo, with magnificent frescoes in its Basilica di San Francisco, Cortona, with its well-preserved walls and charming cobbled streets, Montalcino, which also has a world-renowned wine named for it, and Pienza, which is more noted for its pecorino cheese.
Siena was a powerful state in its heyday, the 13th and 14th centuries. Although it no longer rivals Florence as it once did, it is still a remarkably well-preserved, Medieval city. All activity centers around the Piazza del Campo, which is a huge, semi-circular square. Twice a year, the square becomes a horse-racing park for the Palio, a winner-take-all competition between the local “contrada” (roughly, parishes). At other times of the year, the Piazza is simply the major gathering place for residents and tourists alike. Dominating the square is the Palazzo Pubblico, the Gothic Town Hall, which dates back to 1342.
Not far from the Piazza del Campo is the Duomo of Siena, a magnificent church with a striped marble exterior decorated with numerous statues and a black and white marbled interior which houses several major works of art by artists like Michelangelo, Bernini, and Donatello.
The maze of hilly, Medieval streets gives Siena a charm which many old cities have lost. It is, technically, a Tuscan Hill Town, but because of its size and wealth of attractions is listed separately.
Portofino, nestled between Genoa and the Cinqueterra, is probably the most exclusive seaside resort in all of Italy. It obviously caters to the rich and famous, its harbor crammed with expensive yachts and its streets filled with shoppers throughout the summer. For the average tourist, consider staying in a town nearby, such as Rapallo or Santa Margherita Ligure, which offer more reasonable accommodations, and then visit Portofino as a day trip. The well-maintained homes and clean streets with many shops and restaurants make for a pleasant stroll. Also take in the Castello di San Giorgio (St George’s Castle) which has beautiful gardens and tremendous views.
12. Umbria Hill Towns
Umbria is another region which contains some of Italy’s famous Hill Towns. Probably the most significant and most visited is Assisi. This was the venue of St Francis of Assisi, forever associated with and seen surrounded by animals, and who was also the founder of the Dominican Order of monks, now found throughout the world. The town of Assisi is charming and a joy to walk, despite the hills, but its crowning feature is the Basilica di San Francesco, one of the world’s most beautiful and important Catholic churches. It is really two churches in one, the Lower Church, built in the Romanesque style in the early 1200’s and the Gothic Upper Church. The frescoes in both are beautiful and memorable.
Other Umbrian Hill Towns include Spoleto, famous for its summer music festival, its Ponte della Torri, a bridge which resembles a Roman aqueduct, La Rocca, the fortress-like castle, and its Duomo, Orvieto, with its glorious Duomo, and Perugia, perhaps the best-preserved hill town of its size in all of Italy.
13. San Marino
San Marino is the oldest and smallest Republic in the world. It is located to the northeast of Rome, near the Adriatic coast, and is entirely surrounded by Italy. The town of San Marino is a Medieval gem of a city, heavily fortified by its Tre Castelli (Three castles) and made more impregnable because of its setting, at the very top of Mount Titiano. The narrow, cobblestone streets and incredibly well-preserved and well-maintained buildings make it an utter pleasure to experience. It is almost “Disney-esque” in its perfection. The only drawbacks are the steep streets and stairs which seem to head only upward. There are numerous shops and restaurants in this principality totally geared for tourism. Walk the walls from castle to castle for stupendous views of the surrounding countryside. Spend the night, if possible, to totally enjoy the ambience, since the majority of visitors are day-trippers who leave when the sun begins to go down.
Milan, Italy is a very large city in northern Italy, noted today as a fashion center. However, it is of great interest to the tourist because of its Duomo, one of the largest and most beautiful churches in the world, its opera house, La Scala, perhaps the premier venue of its kind in the world, and for Da Vinci’s Last Supper, his famous painting housed in the Santa Maria delle Grazie church.
The Duomo is located in a huge piazza, opposite La Scala. It is impressive because of it size, but, more importantly, for its glorious exterior decoration. It has 135 spires and numerous statues and gargoyles. The interior is equally imposing with huge supporting columns and beautiful stained glass windows.
Just 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of the city is the enchanting and lovely Medieval, hilltop village of Bergamo Alta. It is accessible via funicular from its modern sister, Bergamo Basso. Wander the avenues stopping especially at the splendid Piazza Vecchia which is ringed by elegant and interesting architecture, such as the Torre Civico and the Palazzo della Ragione, and the Piazza del Duomo. In the latter, notice the 15th century marble façade of the Cappella Colleoni which is flanked by the Duomo (its fairly drab exterior belies the Baroque interior) and the octagonal Baptistry.
Sicily is the large island off the tip of Italy’s boot, in the far southwest of the country. Because of its strategic location, protruding into a fairly narrow stretch of the Mediterranean Sea, it has been inhabited for thousands of years. Visitors will find remnants of Greek colonization as well as numerous Roman ruins, besides the typical Italian villages of today.
Dominating the island is Mount Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Despite its unpredictability, many tourists and locals routinely climb the immense shield volcano (not a particularly difficult climb) to peer into its steaming crater. Much of the island’s history has been fashioned by the whims of this geological monster.
In addition, Sicily was heavily bombed in World War II since it was a major embarkation point for Allied troops in the attempt to liberate Italy. Some areas have never been restored or rebuilt.
Thirdly, Sicily is the birthplace of the “mafia” and the corruption and violence associated with this criminal enterprise has hindered the development of the island, for instance, funneling much needed post-war money into illegal operations and away from reconstruction. The center of the capital of Palermo, dingy and crumbling, is an excellent example.
Notwithstanding these problems, Sicily is alive and well, and a major player in Italy’s and Europe’s travel scene. Despite its internal problems, Palermo is still a must-see city, with its beautiful churches, such as San Cataldo, La Martorana, which possesses some exceptional mosaics, and the famous Cattedrale, a hodgepodge of architectural styles, and its palaces, especially the Royal Palace (Palazzo Reale). Don’t miss the controversial fountain, the focal point of the Piazza Pretoria.
Just a few miles southwest of the capital is one the most important tourist attractions on the island. The Duomo of the town of Monreale has some of the most extensive mosaics in the world and should not be missed.
On the southern shore of the island lies the Greek colony of Agrigento, whose Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) has some of the most extensive and best preserved remnants of Greek civilization in the world. Spend several hours wandering through the ruins and pay special attention to the Temple of Concord, considered by many the best preserved of all the Greek temples in the world.
Siracusa (the ancient Greek settlement of Syracuse) sits on the southeastern coast of the island and also contains numerous Greek and Roman ruins. The Duomo beautifully incorporates the columns of an ancient Greek temple.
Finally, the Medieval town of Taormina clings to a cliff east of Mount Etna and is perhaps the most touristy of Sicily’s villages, but it definitely must be seen, if just for the views of the coast and the volcano. Be sure to check out the Greek amphitheater and the Parco Duca di Cesaro, the lovely public gardens.
Just southwest of Taormina, along the coast is the town of Noto, an example of failed architecture. The town’s architects had the opportunity to construct a city from scratch, to replace the old city, destroyed by an earthquake. They resolved to make this city the showplace of the entire country. And they did. However, the buildings were made with a local limestone which, unfortunately, does not weather well, and the city has been crumbling ever since. It is still worth a visit, if just to see the good intentions.
Verona, Italy, has Roman ruins, a beautiful town center, and connections to Shakespeare. Together, they explain its popularity on the tourist scene. Sights include the Arena, Verona’s Roman amphitheater, completed in 30 A.D. and still in use as an entertainment venue, Castelvecchio, the Old Castle, which dates to 1354, San Zeno Maggiore, a magnificent church built in the 12th century in the Romanesque style, Piazza Erbe, which occupies the site of the ancient Roman forum, Piazza dei Signori, with its very famous statue of Dante, numerous Palazzi (palaces), constructed using “rosso di Verona”, a pink-tinged limestone characteristic of the area, and several other churches. For the Shakespeare aficionados, there is Juliet’s House, with its famous balcony, and Juliet’s Tomb.
Naples, Italy, considered an example of the authentic essence of Italy, is a sprawling city on the southwestern coast. Naples is world-famous as the origin of pizza, one of the world’s most popular foods so be sure to sample some here. The city also contains some major tourist sights. Many of the artifacts recovered from Pompeii and Herculaneum are displayed in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, and a visit here provides a good preparation for a visit to either archaeological site. Other worthwhile attractions include Pio Monte della Misericordia, with its famous altar painting, Seven Acts of Mercy, by Caravaggio, Certosa di San Martino, a Baroque monastery, the Castel dell’Ovo, the city’s 12th century fortress, and the Palazzo Reale, the Royal Palace.
A worthwhile day trip from Naples involves traveling north on the Autostrada 1 to the town of Caserta to check out the Royal Palace, Reggia Caserta. Here is Italy’s answer to Versailles, a huge, sprawling edifice with 1,200 rooms and extensive gardens. Be sure to view the incredibly opulent Royal Apartments.
18. Lakes Region
Italy’s Lakes Region, with its idyllic setting at the base of the mountains and Mediterranean climate, has long been a major tourist destination. The names, Lake Garda, Lake Como, and Lake Maggiore conjure up images of palatial villas overlooking scenic lakefront. Even the hordes of tourists who descend on these places in the summertime cannot spoil the glorious scenery.
Lake Garda is the easternmost and largest of the lakes. Driving along the lakeshore allows access to a number of small, interesting villages, such as, Malcesine, Riva del Garda, Garda, Sirmione, Salo, and Gardone, to name a few.
Lake Maggiore and nearby Lake Orta are the westernmost lakes. Maggiore, famous as the setting for Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, is also noted for the picturesque Borromean Islands, with their elegant palazzos and beautiful gardens, that are most frequently accessed from the town of Stresa, the typical base for most tourists.
Lake Como is in the middle and almost due north of Milan. The most important towns in this popular vacation area include Como, on the southwestern tip of the lake, and the lovely, flower-bedecked town of Bellagio, located where the lake forks.