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, for most tourists traveling to Italy, Rome heads the list of places to visit. 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.
But between the important sights like the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s Pieta, take time to enjoy the city itself. Relax in the Borghese gardens; eat gelato on the Spanish Steps; explore the narrow streets of Trastevere; window-shop on the Via Veneto; and toss a coin in Trevi Fountain, so you can return again and again. It will take several trips to see it all.
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.
Half a dozen art museums brim with paintings and sculpture, while more masterpieces decorate its churches. Before you overdose on art in the Uffizi Gallery and Pitti Palace, stroll through the Boboli Gardens and explore the artisans’ studios and workshops of the Oltrarno, or shop for leather in Santa Croce.
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 great Basilica of St. Mark stands beside the Doge’s Palace, and overlooking both is the tall Campanile.
Gondolas congregate at the end of the plaza in the Grand Canal, and in the other direction, a gate under the clock tower leads into a warren of narrow, winding passageways, where you’re sure to get lost on the way to Rialto Bridge. But getting lost is one of the greatest pleasures of Venice, where a postcard scene awaits around each corner.
4. Tuscan Hill Towns
Tuscan Hill Towns
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 Gimignano looks much as it did in the Middle Ages, when it was an important stop on the pilgrims’ route to Rome. Volterra was an important Etruscan center before the Romans came and still has remains of both civilizations today. The tourist attractions of Arezzo are the legacy of the many artists, architects, and poets who lived there.
Like Volterra, walled Cortona was an Etruscan settlement and later a Roman one, but adds reminders of its Florentine past as well. Cortona is one of Italy’s oldest towns. The proximity of these hill towns to the cities of Florence, Siena, Pisa, and Luca fills Tuscany with a concentration of many of the best places to visit in Italy.
Although Milan is a major entry point for tourists because of its airport, it’s often overlooked as a destination of its own. That’s a shame, because Milan has one of the highest concentration of artistic and architectural attractions in all Italy, and for those interested in design and fashion (not to mention shopping), it’s a must. Milan has been the home and work place for luminaries in all these fields: Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Verdi, Enrico Caruso, Toscanini, and designer Giorgio Armani.
Il Duomo, Milan’s massive cathedral, is among the world’s most magnificent churches, and finest example of the Flamboyant Gothic style. La Scala is the world’s most prestigious opera house, Da Vinci’s The Last Supper fills the wall at a monastery, and throughout the city are museums and palaces filled with some of the world’s finest art. And no fashionista can resist a stroll through the famed Quadrilatero.
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