Italy is home to the greatest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world. High art and monuments are to be found everywhere around the country. Its great cities of art, like Rome, Venice and Florence are world famous and have been attracting visitors for centuries. Besides its art treasures Italy also features beautiful coasts, alpine lakes and mountains. No wonder it is often nicknamed the Bel Paese (beautiful country).
With so many amazing sights, putting together a compilation of top tourist attractions in Italy is no easy task. The following list however should give a good indication of why over 40 million foreign tourists visit Italy ever year.
The city of Verona is largely known for its role in the play Romeo and Juliet, but dating back even further is the Verona Arena. This incredible arena is actually a Roman amphitheater constructed 2,000 years ago. Despite its age, the Verona Arena is remarkably well preserved, and at its peak it hosted performances for more than 30,000 people. Today, visitors are still able to attend musical performances at the arena, bringing Italian culture and history to life.
At the base of Mount Vesuvius is the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum. Nearly 2,000 years ago, a volcanic eruption destroyed Herculaneum. However, just like its larger rival Pompeii, the eruption and resulting layer of mud preserved and fossilized much of the architecture. Visitors to Herculaneum can see original homes, refurbished to appear as they did 2,000 years ago, as well as fossilized skeletons, ancient advertisements and beautiful mosaics that showcase art from millennia past.
The island of Elba has a long history, and it was previously inhabited by Ligures Ilvates, Greeks, Etruscans and Romans. Elba’s most famous resident, however, was Napoleon, who was banished to Elba in 1814. Napoleon’s winter and summer homes still stand, and they are available for the public to tour. Italy’s third largest island boasts more than 150 beaches too, from wide stretches of sand to sheltered coves.
Nestled in the Graian Alps is Gran Paradiso National Park, a gorgeous destination with stunning mountain views and incredible hiking opportunities. The Gran Paradiso National Park was first established as a way to protect the local ibex population, and wildlife today includes those ibex as well as badgers, wolves, lynx, ermine and more than 100 bird species. Seasonal activities include summer hiking, spotting the foliage in autumn, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing in winter and photographing flowers come spring.
Palazzo Ducale, or the Ducal Palace, is a Renaissance building located in the city of Urbino. Built in the 15th century, the palace is enormous, housing an average of 600 residents at its peak. The Palazzo Ducale is now open to the public, with many of the rooms refinished to look like they did in the 15th century. The palace is also home to the National Gallery of the Marche, which displays an enormous collection of Renaissance paintings.
One of the must-see attractions in the city of Rome is the Trevi Fountain. The fountain was constructed in 1762 by Nicola Salvi, and it depicts the god Neptune surrounded by underwater creatures in battle. Trevi Fountain is known as a place to throw in a coin to secure a return trip to Rome, and throwing two coins can secure a loving relationships with a Roman man or woman. At night, the fountain is illuminated, making it a magical and romantic place to visit.
The Holy Mary of Grace, or Santa Maria delle Grazie, is a convent and church located in Milan. The structure is a striking example of Renaissance architecture, boating details like a decorative nave and a bright, light-filled entrance. Most notably, the Santa maria delle Grazie is home to the famous mural The Last Supper, which was painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Many visitors come to the church specifically to see this iconic painting in person.
Off the western coast of the mainland, and in the heart of the Tyrrhenian Sea, is the island of Sardinia. While Sardinia boasts a number of stunning beaches, none is so picturesque or well-known as La Pelosa. The beach is so spectacular because of its sandy shores and shallow waters, making it easy to see right down to the ground through crystal-clear sea. La Pelosa is often compared to the Caribbean, bringing some of the tropics to Italy. Surfing, kayaking and even scuba diving are all possible at or near La Pelosa.
The city of Ravenna in Northern Italy was once the capital of the Western Roman Empire, and today it is best known for the Basilica of San Vitale. The basilica was constructed in the sixth century, and it is home to an extensive collection of mosaics. These mosaics depict stories from the bible, and they cover every inch of the available surface in certain rooms. Bold designs and a cacophony of color make these Ravenna mosaics a popular spot for religion, architecture and art enthusiasts in Italy.
The Dolomites are a mountain range located in Northern Italy, and they are a popular spot for winter sports like skiing and snowboarding. Whatever the season, the Dolomites beckon thanks to incredible scenery. At sunset, the peaks can look a pink or purple hue that is almost otherworldly. Visitors can hike in the region or shop at Trento, a charming town in the Dolomites with a spectacular castle.
The Basilica di San Francesco, or Basilica of Saint Francis, is one of the most significant religious pilgrimage sites in Italy. Located in Assisi, the basilica was constructed in the 13th century to honor Saint Francis himself. Although Saint Francis was a man of simplicity and poverty, the basilica is anything but. The Romanesque structure was built with two levels as well as a crypt, ornate windows and thousands of pieces of art.
In the town of Matera, there are a collection of ancient cave dwellings known collectively as the Sassi di Matera. These dwellings are thought of as the very first human settlement in all of Italy, and they may be as many as 9,000 years old. The dwellings are carved right out of the rock, and many of these caves still house homes, businesses and cafes today. It is an incredible experience to tour ancient caves from early humans and then sip local wines from a similar cave just a short walk away.
On the island of Sicily, one landmark towers over everything: Mount Etna. The volcano is one of the highest peaks in Italy, and it erupts frequently. Surrounding Mount Etna is a national park called the Parco dell’Etna. Visitors to Mount Etna can walk along the craters and fissures, often getting close enough to see the lava or steam. The volcanic soil is renowned for growing grapes, which means the visitors to Mount Etna will have access to an array of fantastic local wine.
A shining example of Italian Gothic architecture is the Duomo of Orvieto. The 14th century Roman Catholic cathedral was commissioned by Pope Urban IV, but it took nearly three centuries to complete the structure. Today, visitors remark upon the staggering seven stories, the detailed facade and the horizontal stripes of marble used in the construction. Much of the artwork in the Duomo of Orvieto, which depicts apocalyptic stories and tales from Revelation, were done by Luca Signorelli.
While you’ll find excellent pizza all over Italy, there’s one place that’s absolutely the best: Naples. This is where pizza was born and where it’s still king. Unlike pizza in places like the United States, Neapolitan pizza is generally very thin-crusted and saucy and is expected to be eaten as a whole pie while sitting down. Although every pizzeria in Naples makes a decent pizza, some places display the label “Vera Pizza Napoletana” which indicates that the pizzeria follows the standards of The Naples Pizza Association.
With its picture-perfect harbor, verdant scenery and haphazard rows of hilltop and waterfront homes, Portofino is one of the prettiest towns on the Italian Riviera. Located just a short drive south of Genoa, the little fishing village has been a popular day-trip destination for centuries. Portofino is home to landmarks like the 16th century fort called Castello Brown and the 11th century church called St. Martin, but the real attraction in Portofino is the relaxed way of life. Visitors come to stroll along the Ligurian coastline, shop for souvenir glass jewelry and dine on Italian cuisine paired with the local Pinot Grigios.
St. Mark’s Basilica, known to locals as the Basilica di San Marco, is the crowning jewel of the Piazza San Marco in Venice. The enormous church was completed in the 11th century, and it boasts more than 500 columns, several stunning domes and countless Byzantine mosaics that use gold extensively. Also of note are the bronze Horses of Saint Mark, which date back to antiquity and watch over the basilica’s entrances. Be sure not to miss the treasury or the Museo Marciano, both of which contain a staggering collection of early gifts like jewels, sculpture and tapestries.
The island of Capri is just three miles from Naples, but it is a unique destination with its own culture and atmosphere. After arriving by boat, visitors often flock to the Blue Grotto, a spectacular cave that has been appreciated since Roman times. In addition to beautiful beaches and wonderful hikes, Capri boasts some historic architecture. Not to be missed is the Baroque Church of San Michele Arcangelo and the Villa Jovis, the former residence of the Emperor Tiberius.
The star attraction of the Vatican in Rome is St. Peter’s Basilica. The magnificent basilica is topped with a dramatic dome, on whose ceiling Michelangelo himself painted. Built in the early 16th century, St. Peter’s Basilica is now a huge church with an interior that could fit a space shuttle together with its booster rockets. While the facade and the proximity to the Pope are reasons to visit St. Peter’s Basilica, it is the art that is so memorable. Expect paintings and sculptures by the likes of Bernini and Michelangelo.
Valle dei Templi, or the Valley of the Temples, is an archeological site located in Sicily. The destination is home to several Greek temples, all constructed in the Doric style, and most of which date back more than 2,400 years. While it is worth touring the entire site, the most popular of the temples is the Temple of Concordia, which was restored in the 18th century and is now the best preserved of the structures.
Nicknamed the medieval Manhatten, San Gimignano is a village in Tuscany famous for its 14 stone towers. At the height of San Gimignano’s wealth and power, more than 70 towers were built to defend the town against enemy attacks. After the plague devastated the city in 1348, San Gimignano’s power faded, which kept enemies away and preserved many of the city’s medieval towers.
Mestled in the Italian Riviera, Manarola is one of the oldest towns in Cinque Terre. The “Five Lands” comprises of five villages noted for their beauty. Part of Cinque Terre charm is the lack of visible modern development. Paths, trains and boats connect the villages, and cars cannot reach it from the outside. The towns sprout out of the mountainside to provide a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean sea.
The world famous Pisa Tower was built over a period of about 177 years. Soon after the construction started in 1173 the tower began to sink due to a poorly laid foundation and was left alone for almost a century. When the construction resumed the engineers built higher floors with one side taller than the other to compensate for the tilt and the tower was finally finished in the 2nd half of the 14th century. Since 2001, the famous tower in Pisa is again open to those wishing to climb it’s 296 steps.
Lake Como is part of the Italian Lake District an area popular with visitors for well over 100 years for its combination of fresh air, water, mountains and good weather. The lake is shaped much like an inverted ‘Y’, with two branches starting at Como in the south-west and Lecco in the south-east, which join together half way up and the lake continues up to Colico in the north. The lake is famous for the attractive villas which have been built here since Roman times. Many have admirable gardens which benefit from the mild climate and are able to include tropical as well as temperate plants.
Positano is a small town located on the Amalfi Coast, a stretch of coastline renowned for its rugged terrain, scenic beauty, picturesque towns and diversity. The city seems to be scattered from top to bottom down a hillside leading to the coast. Though Positano grew and prospered in medieval times, by the mid 19th more than half of the population was gone. In the 20th century it went from being a poor fishing village to a very popular tourist attraction with the help of author John Steinbeck who wrote about its beauty.
On August 24, 79 AD, the volcano Vesuvius erupted, covering the nearby town Pompeii with ash and soil, and subsequently preserving the city in its state from that fateful day. Everything from jars and tables to paintings and people were frozen in time. Its excavation has provided an extraordinarily detailed insight into the life of people living two thousand years ago. Today Pompeii is one of the most popular tourist attractions of Italy, with approximately 2,500,000 visitors every year.
One of Europe’s greatest medieval squares, the Piazza del Campo is the principal public space of the historic center of Siena, Tuscany. It is renowned worldwide for its beauty and architectural integrity. The Palazzo Pubblico and its famous tower, as well as various palazzi signorili belonging to the wealthiest of Siena families surround the shell-shaped piazza. The twice-per-year horse-race, Palio di Siena, involves circling the Piazza del Campo, on which a thick layer of dirt has been laid, three times and usually lasts no more than 90 seconds.
Begun in 1296 in the Gothic style and completed in 1436, The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore is Florence’s beautiful cathedral and symbol of the city. The exterior of the basilica is faced with polychrome marble panels in various shades of green and pink bordered by white. The basilica is one of Italy’s largest churches, and until the modern era, the dome was the largest in the world. It remains the largest brick dome ever constructed.
Referred to as “The City of Water”, Venice is the crown jewel of water cities. Though, Venice has decayed since its heyday and has more tourists than residents, with its romantic charm it remains one of the top tourist attractions in Italy. The central waterway in the city is the Grand Canal, and it snakes its way through the city between the lagoon and the Saint Mark Basin. While strolling through Venice offers plenty of opportunities to see the Grand Canal, the best way to experience it is on the water. Locals get around via the water buses called vaporetti, but many travelers prefer the private water taxis or even the romantic gondola.
The Colosseum in Rome is the largest and most famous amphitheater in the Roman world. Its construction was started by emperor Vespasian of the Flavian dynasty in 72 AD and was finished by his son Titus in 80 AD. The Colosseum was capable of holding some 50,000 spectators who could enter the building through no less than 80 entrances. Spectators were protected from the rain and heat of the sun by sails called the “velarium”, that was attached around the top of the attic.