When people think of visiting Italy, the first question is usually, what cities will I visit? There are so many worth stopping in, and many of them could eat up weeks of time, so prioritizing your “must-see” list is imperative. Here are just a few of the cities and regions most people visit in Italy, and why they are so popular.
>> Also, don’t miss this list of all 20 Italian regions – there’s a full page on each one, with details about what to see and do there.
Italy’s capital and the one-time capital of an ancient and enormous empire, Rome is easily one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. It is a massive city, has the country’s busiest airport (and is therefore where most airline tickets to Italy from overseas will get you) and you will marvel at Roman ruins built right into or standing alongside modern buildings – this is really the charm of Rome. It is historically extraordinarily important and interesting, but modern-day Romans have not let that stop them from continuing to live in their city.
In Rome, the city itself could be considered a living museum – but there are also actual museums in the city, too, which house some of the most famous art on earth. The Roman ruins of the Forum and Colosseum are probably the most obvious and most visited of ancient Rome, but there are tidbits of history everywhere you look in The Eternal City.
Many of Italy’s great masters lived and worked in Rome at one time or another, so the city is also dotted with their work. From fountains to church facades to statues, there is history all around you.
Rome is also the city that completely surrounds the city-state of the Holy See, or Vatican City. Even for non-Catholics, a visit to the Vatican can be something akin to a holy experience – the sheer volume of stunning art in the Vatican Museum is breathtaking, and St. Peter’s Basilica is really something you have to see to believe.
Depending on how focused you are on art or history, Rome is worth at least three days – one of which should be spent touring the Vatican. If you have more time to afford to Rome, you will not be disappointed.
Florence is often called the “birthplace of the Renaissance,” and when you think of the art and scholarship which was produced here you can understand why. The city is still brimming with art, and some people say they have spent more than a week straight in Florence and still felt like they had not seen it all.
The famous Michelangelo “David” is in Florence – actually, David appears twice in the city. The original now lives in the Accademia and a copy is in the place where the original once stood. The Uffizi Gallery contains a room full of giant Botticelli masterpieces. The Bargello has Donatello’s “David.” And the list goes on. Outside museums, there are the remnants of the time when the Medici family ruled Florence – from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Pitti Palace and the bridge over the Ponte Vecchio in between.
But Florence is about more than art. It is famous for its leather market (this is the place to buy a new purse or belt, ladies and gentlemen) and its food. Vegetarians will run frightened from the size of the typical steak here, and Florentines will tell you theirs is the best gelato in Italy. Who are we to argue?
Depending on who you talk to, Venice is either a captivating and maze-like wonderland where getting lost is the best thing you can do, or it is a smelly and crowded tourist trap with bad (not to mention expensive) food. As with most things, there is a bit of truth to both sides of the coin. The floating city of Venice is certainly going to attract hordes of tourists, especially in the summer, and space is limited – so obviously there will be crowds. The food is not the best you will have in Italy, but there are ways to avoid the worst of it. As for the odor, there are those who say during the summers the canals are always a little on the smelly side and those who swear they have never smelled a thing during July and August visits. All Venice asks is this – come with an open mind.
There are sights to see in Venice, of course – the Byzantine masterpiece St. Mark’s Basilica, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man,” a great collection of modern art in the Peggy Guggenheim Museum – but the real sight in Venice is the city itself. It would behoove you to get thoroughly lost as often as possible (you can always find your way “home” again by asking for directions to St. Mark’s Square), getting away from the crowds which tend to congregate in a few areas and seeing what is left of Venice’s population. You may find yourself stumbling upon a gondola workshop, vegetable market (on a boat, naturally) or a friendly game of bocce. Whatever you do, just do not assume that you know Venice until you have tried it on for size.
To those looking for an idyllic Italian experience, Milan is going to feel all wrong. It is Italy’s financial capital, and it is about as far away from those medieval Tuscan towns you read about as you can get. Still, for all its modernity and focus on fashion, Milan is home to a few things which are well worth seeing if you are in the neighborhood. (And since Milan is often the airport which most people use to get to Italy, it is easy to take a day on either end of your trip and see a few things.)
Opera lovers will want to try to get tickets to a performance at La Scala, Milan’s famous opera house. Failing that, a tour of the building will do nicely. The Milan Duomo is known as “the wedding cake” for its multi-layered ornamentation on its facade, and the view from the roof is pretty cool. And if you plan enough in advance to get a reservation, Milan is where you will need to go in order to see Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”
Of course, if you are into fashion, the window shopping in Milan is second-to-none – so even if you cannot afford to buy anything, it never costs a thing to look.
Believe it or not, there’s more to this city than a crooked tower. No, really. It does seem to be most popular to visit Pisa as a break in a longer train ride from one city to another, and it’s good to know that you can easily have a leisurely visit to the city’s famous leaning tower of Pisa in a couple hours or less. And, should you decide to stay longer, you’ll find that once the day-trippers leave that even a city of this size can seem downright peaceful, especially as compared with the nonstop noise and activity in Rome.
Think of Naples as “the real Italy,” or as real as most tourists are likely to get. It is more than a little rough around the edges, and may be a shock to the system, but its gritty charm can be addictive. Naples is the birthplace of pizza, so the food here is excellent, and it is also a great jumping-off point for visits to Pompeii or the Amalfi Coast. It is likely to be less expensive than the more touristy cities in Italy, but it also has a reputation for more than its share of pickpockets and petty crime. An alert traveler should be fine, but be on your guard just in case.
The five villages which make up the Cinque Terre are intensely popular, so these tiny towns are often stuffed to the gills in the summer. Still, there is no place quite like them, and with a little advance planning a visit can be just fine. The hike between the five villages is one of the big draws, as are the beaches along that part of the Ligurian Coast, but do not miss the other reasons to visit. The Cinque Terre is famous for its dessert wine, called sciacchetrà, and its anchovies. If you like, you can have anchovies in just about anything – including spaghetti sauce – and they are often whole. These are not the tiny salty fish you are used to, so give them a try.
Even before Frances Mayes wrote her best-seller, Tuscany was a hugely popular tourist destination in Italy, and it only grows more so every year. The big destinations of Florence, Pisa and Siena might get all the press, but there are plenty more glorious hill towns throughout Tuscany. It is a good thing, too, because if everyone tried to squeeze into just a few cities they would burst at the seams.
Some of the more popular towns to visit in Tuscany are Florence, Siena, Pisa, Lucca, San Gimignano, Livorno, Volterra and Cortona. But the list does not end there. In Tuscany you can see the famous Carrara marble fields (where Michelangelo’s “David” began his life), acres upon acres of vineyards which produce the one and only Chianti wine and more Etruscan history than you can shake a stick at. In short, if you are looking for the quintessential Italian experience, the one everyone you have talked to oohs and aahs about, Tuscany is where you will find it.
The Amalfi might be just a short stretch of Italy’s coastline, but it attracts visitors by the boatloads. It is easy to see why the rich and famous love it here, and sometimes can be hard to understand how anyone else could afford to love it. But if you can afford it or learn the tricks to visiting without spending your life savings, the Amalfi Coast is everything that Mediterranean living is supposed to be – crystal water, gorgeous beaches, equally gorgeous people, and life in full-color. Positano in particular is one of the more popular cities to visit along this coastline.
Italy’s lakes region in the north can be crowded and expensive, and chances are good you might run into more Germans than Italians, but the area is still home to some of the most beautiful scenery Italy has to offer – and that is saying something. The lakes can be a nice day-trip from Milan, or a spot to relax for a few days if you have the kind of cash required for a proper visit.
Though not technically part of the Amalfi Coast, the city of Sorrento is a popular base from which to explore both the famous coastline and the nearby city of Naples. In fact, as it lies between these two destinations and is well-connected by both rail and bus, one could argue it offers the best of both worlds. You won’t get as remote as you can if you get further along the coast, and you won’t get the gritty reality of Naples here, but Sorrento remains an incredibly popular spot for vacationers.
The setting for Shakespeare’s famous “Romeo & Juliet,” Verona offers many more sights and activities than those related to the ill-fated couple (and, in fact, the Romeo & Juliet attractions in the city are, to my mind anyway, skippable). The impressive Roman arena is a must-see sight year-round, and especially so during the summer when the city’s opera performances take place inside. Verona is a beautiful and walkable city with a scattering of interesting churches to visit, and along the way there are several lovely piazzas that almost beg you to stop and have a coffee.
Bologna is a major draw for foodies, and since it’s a major rail and highway hub the chances are good you’d pass close by even if you’re headed somewhere else – so why not stop for awhile and eat some of the best food you’ll eat anywhere on the planet? In addition to its famous food traditions, Bologna is also home to the world’s oldest university, and car-makers Ferrari and Lamborghini have their factories nearby. In other words, there are plenty of reasons to find Bologna appealing well beyond your taste buds.