When it comes to travel, I’m not one of those people who says stuff like, “You can’t visit Italy without seeing [fill in the blank].” I know that everyone’s “must-see” lists are going to be a little different depending on their personal preferences, and trying to impose my idea of what they can’t miss is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Yes, I’ve told you what I think the perfect 2-week itinerary in Italy is for a first-time visitor, but even there I couldn’t just come out and declare what you should do for your two-week trip. I built in all kinds of alternatives along the way so you could tailor it to your own personal whims.
Which is why it’s hard for me to sit down and write a list of the 20 things that everyone should do in Italy without some kind of disclaimer. And the disclaimer is twofold. First of all, I’m not saying you should try to cram all of these things into one visit to Italy. If you want to give it a try, then knock yourself out – and in bocca al lupo (good luck) – but this list isn’t meant to form some kind of crazy itinerary. Second, if something on this list doesn’t appeal to you, don’t do it just because it’s on someone else’s list of what you have to do. And that goes for any other “must-do” list you ever see. Ever. Take what you like and leave the rest. And tell them I said you could.
>> Also, for first-time visitors to Italy especially, be sure to read through my Italy first-time visitor’s guide – it’s a must-read for those who’ve never been to Italy before, but all Italy travelers can find something helpful in there!
Now that we’ve got that out of the way and you’re all independent and free-thinking travelers, here’s my list of the 20 things everyone should do in Italy!
- Take a night ride on the #1 vaporetto in Venice – I know plenty of these lists include a Venice gondola ride on them, but if you’ve been paying attention to this site for awhile you know how much I think they’re unnecessarily expensive and not the romantic experience they’re made out to be. Instead, one evening before or after dinner, hop on the slow-moving #1 vaporetto at one end of its run and ride it to the other end. This is preferably done with a serving of gelato in hand and someone to cuddle with in the dark. And be sure you can snag a spot with a view, so you can see the moonlit sights of Venice as you glide past.
- Spend 15 minutes with “The Last Supper” in Milan – Most tourists skip Milan, and that’s probably fine, but this is the only city where you can see Leonardo’s masterpiece of “The Last Supper.” It’s a heavily regulated 15-minute time limit, and you’ll need to get your tickets well in advance, but it’s worth it.
- Overdose on Renaissance art at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence – The Uffizi Gallery is on just about every must-do list for Italy, and there’s a good reason for it. Nowhere else on earth will you see such an amazing collection of Italian Renaissance art, all contained in gorgeous buildings once roamed by Medicis. The artists on display here are like the rock stars of Florence.
- Get a guided tour of the Vatican Museums – You could walk yourself through the Vatican Museums, but for everyone but the hardcore art historian it’s probably better to follow a guide who’ll point out the truly important pieces and keep you from spending too much time on the rest of it. And as a bonus, with most tours you’ll get a guided visit to St. Peter’s Basilica as well.
- Climb Florence’s Duomo – This is perhaps not for those with fear of heights or small spaces, but for a spectacular view of Florence’s historic center and an interesting lesson in architecture and engineering, you could do worse than to climb to the top of the dome of Florence’s Duomo. If you’d prefer to have the dome itself in your rooftop view, then climb Giotto’s bell tower instead.
- Eat pizza in Naples – There’s nothing like eating something as universally well-known as pizza in the place where it was born, and for that, you’ve got to go to Naples. I’ve heard that the pizzeria which claims to actually be the very place which invented pizza is turning out less-than-lovely pies these days, but you’ll find plenty of great restaurants ready to take its place.
- Visit the Greek ruins in Sicily – When you think of Italy, you probably think mostly of Roman ruins. But on Sicily, you can branch out a bit by touring both Roman and Greek ruins, and the stuff the Greeks left behind is even older than the stuff from ancient Rome. A walk through the Valley of the Temples is highly recommended.
- Tempt fate driving along the Amalfi Coast – Whether you decide to do the driving or not, the road that snakes along this stretch of Italian coastline is well worth the trip. It’s precarious at best and dangerous at worst, but the Italians seem to make it work – and the views are simply stunning. On second thought, perhaps you should let someone else do the driving so you can just stare out the window at the Amalfi Coast and pretend you’re not scared out of your mind. Oh, and for a truly heart-stopping ride, hop on the back of a local’s motorbike for the journey.
- Sunbathe on Sardinia – Yes, lots of places in the South of Italy get loads of sun, but the Costa Smeralda boasts some of the most beautiful beaches anywhere on earth, let alone in Italy. Plus, while it’s wildly popular with Italians on vacation from the mainland, you’re less likely to see hordes of other foreign tourists on Sardinia.
- See an opera in Verona – Opera fan or no, there’s nothing quite like sitting in a Roman amphitheater, just as people have done for thousands of years, watching a show. Okay, so you’re not watching chariot races or lions fight gladiators, but Verona’s famous opera company, which fills the night air with music every summer, is still a grand spectacle.
- Find all the “David” statues in Florence – Don’t be one of the people who think the “David” in the Piazza Signoria is the real one, but likewise, don’t be one of the people who’s satisfied with just seeing the real one in the Galleria dell’Accademia. “David” is all over Florence, and seeing him pop up here and there (including overlooking the historic center from the Piazzale Michelangelo) is one of the charming games you can play as you wander the city.
- Wander the Trastevere neighborhood in Rome – When Rome wears you out, or you’re tired of overpriced meals around all the tourist attractions, look no further than the Trastevere. This old neighborhood is full of twisting cobbled streets, peace, and quiet during most days, cheap eats, and boisterous groups of young people at night.
- Go back in time at Pompeii – While the residents of Pompeii in 79 A.D. probably were none too pleased with nearby Mount Vesuvius blowing its top and covering everything in sight, what it gives us today is a unique look at a Roman city frozen in time. Both Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum are well worth a visit but don’t forget that much of what archaeologists have discovered is in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.
- See an Italian soccer game – It matters not one bit if you’re a soccer fan, or even a sports fan, for that matter; going to a game of calcio makes for an unforgettable trip. Italian soccer can be considered a second religion in this country, and experiencing a game first-hand lets you witness the passion Italians feel for their clubs. Whatever you do, however, just don’t make the mistake of cheering for the visiting team.
- Hike the Cinque Terre trail – I’ve said before that I think the Cinque Terre trail is overcrowded and posited that people should be let in on a permit system, but the fact remains that as long as there’s room on the path, the hike between these five picturesque villages is a great way to spend half a day. If you plan well (here’s a Cinque Terre hiking guide) and go when it’s not quite as overrun, all the better.
- Eat two scoops of gelato daily – This is easy to do no matter where you are in Italy, so I don’t want to hear any excuses for not accomplishing this task. Remember, Italian gelato is made with milk, not cream, so it’s a lot less fattening than you think. And you’re walking everywhere, anyway, so it’s a well-deserved treat.
- Get lost in Venice – Some places require a map. Some places require that you forget the map. Venice is in the latter category. It’s an island, people, so you’re not going to get too far off track. With that in mind, leave your map in your hotel (maps are all but useless in this city anyway) and get yourself good and lost in Venice. It’s by far the best way to spend a day in the canal city.
- Take shelter from the rain (or sun) inside the Pantheon in Rome – No matter the season or the weather, there’s always a good excuse to duck into the Pantheon in Rome. For one thing, it’s free. And for another, although it’s got a giant hole in the ceiling to let in the light, it’s always cool in summer and dry when it’s raining outside. Plus, just setting foot on stones that have been walked on for 2,000 years is, in my book, pretty incredible.
- Go for a drive in Tuscany – The roads that connect the famous hill towns of Tuscany might get short shrift with all the gushing people to do about the towns themselves, but the views out of a car window when you’re cruising along windy country roads are enough to make anyone understand why someone might drop everything and buy a rundown Italian farmhouse. And if you’re beyond the Tuscany thing, you’ll get the same kinds of views (with somewhat smaller crowds) in nearby Umbria, too.
- Walk in Caesar’s footsteps in Rome – History buff or no, it’s impossible not to marvel at a structure like the Colosseum, or stand in awe on the cobblestones of the Roman Forum and think about who walked there before you. An afternoon spent surrounded by the ruins that once made up the center of the Roman empire is an afternoon very well spent in my book.
And there’s my list of 20 things to do in Italy. It was actually harder than I’d anticipated limiting myself to 20 – partly because I wanted to include enough variety on there so that everyone who reads the list will find something they want to make sure they put on their itinerary, but also because there are just too many amazing experiences one can have in Italy. And I didn’t even include one of the most popular attractions in the entire country, the leaning tower of Pisa!
Perhaps I’ll take up the challenge again someday and make another list. Until then, I welcome your thoughts – what do you think of my list? What did I leave out that you would have put in? What did I list that you would take off? And finally, if you had to list your top 5 things everyone should do in Italy, what would they be?