An overview of Italy’s best destinations for tourists
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Italy has endless wonders: miles of sandy coastline, world-renowned gastronomy and some of the most famous monuments on the planet. It’s no wonder you’ve decided to visit! But choosing exactly where to go can be complicated. With so many incredible Italian destinations, where do you even begin?
It’s best to begin with some of the most popular cities and spots that tourists love — spots like Rome, Florence, the Amalfi Coast and beyond. This post is apt for beginner travelers or first-time visitors to Italy looking to enjoy some of the most popular attractions and destinations the country is known for.
If you’d prefer to get off-the-beaten-path or have already seen Italy’s more famous sites, check out these articles:
- Underrated regions in Italy for food and wine
- 19 of the most beautiful villages in Italy
- Beat the crowd at these secret Italian spots
- Italy’s best hidden gem cities
Rome is one of Italy’s most famous (and most visited) cities. Home to two airports and one massive train station, Rome is in the middle of Italy, but typically considered to be part of northern Italy.
What to do and see: The capital of the country, highlights include Vatican City, home to St Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums and the famous Sistine Chapel. There’s also the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, ancient monuments that date back as far as 70 A.D.
You should also pay a visit to the Pantheon, a Roman temple with tombs, and of course, throw some change over your shoulder for good luck at the Trevi Fountain. Make sure to see the Spanish Steps (just don’t sit on them — you could be fined!) and stroll along the Tiber river. Visiting the circular St Angelo Castle and the Borghese Park is slightly less touristy than the other attractions.
What to eat: Cacio e Pepe (pasta drenched in sheep cheese topped with black pepper), Roman pizza and Saltimbocca a la Romana (veal wrapped in prosciutto sprinkled with sage and olive oil) are some of Rome’s most beloved gastronomic delights.
Tip: If you’re worried about being scammed by unscrupulous taxi drivers, Uber operates in Rome.
Milan (and the nearby northern lakes)
Milan often gets a bad rap for being a more industrial city, but it actually has some incredible attractions. Plus, it’s northern location makes it easy to get to some of the country’s most famous lakes, like Como, Garda, Maggiore and Iseo by car or train.
What to do and see: Milan’s duomo is one of the most iconic cathedrals in Italy. You also shouldn’t leave the city without seeing the famous Leonardo Da Vinci painting “The Last Supper,” located inside the Santa Maria delle Grazie church. Nearby, check out the Sforza castle and the Sempione Park.
Many don’t realize that Venice isn’t the only Italian city with canals. Milan also has a canal district, ideal for dining and drinking, called Navigli. And of course, fashion is thriving in this northern Italian hub, so make sure to schedule some time in for shopping.
What to eat: Make sure to order some risotto in Milan, or a cotoletta alla Milanese (a veal schnitzel). A hearty plate of Osso Bucco (a meat and vegetable stew) on a chilly winter day also hits the spot.
Tip: Milan’s tram system is a fun way to take public transport but also see the city above-ground. You can buy passes for the tram and metro system inside metro stations or at local giornali (kiosks) or tabacchi (tobacco shops marked with a large T).
This Tuscan gem is one of Italy’s most charming cities. Split by the famed Arno River, the city has no shortage of attractions to see. Plus, wine lovers or those wanting a more rural escape can head off into the Tuscan countryside after exploring Florence.
What to do and see: Florence’s star attraction is its colorful and massive Duomo, which marks the center of this magical city. Art lovers can swoon over the famous David statue at the Accademia Gallery and other famous Italian masterpieces at the Uffizi Gallery.
Fashion lovers can visit both the Gucci Museum and the Ferragamo Museum. Various bridges cross the River Arno, but make sure to see Ponte Vecchio, one of the most famous. For a panoramic view of Florence and beyond, head to the Piazzale Michelangelo, set atop a hill that overlooks the city down below.
What to eat: Florentine cuisine isn’t for the faint of heart. Indulge in wild-boar pasta, tripe and bilberry steak, which is filet mignon topped with hot bilberry sauce (bilberries are similar to blueberries).
Tip: Don’t forget to check out the Mercato Centrale for lunch, the perfect spot to sample some Florentine cuisine and shop for local products afterward.
One of Italy’s most coveted destinations, there’s nothing more romantic than a gondola ride along the city’s iconic canals.
What to do and see: Besides the aforementioned gondola ride, a stroll through the famous St. Mark’s Square and Basilica is a must. Walking along some of the canals is a wonderful way to admire the architecture and water traffic and don’t forget to cross the Rialto bridge, which spans the Grand Canal.
Venice is made up of a number of islands, so consider visiting some of the other ones. Burano is known for its colorful buildings and iconic glass blowing and Torcello boasts the beautiful Santa Maria Assunta church. Venice also has beaches if you’d like some sand and sun. If it’s a rainy day, pay a visit to the Gallerie dell’Accademia to check out some Italian Renaissance art.
What to eat: For a quick bite (or if you’re on a budget), grab a tramezzino, a sandwich on crustless bread with various fillings. For something more substantial, consider a seafood dish like sepia risotto or baccalà mantecato, a blend of codfish and olive oil spread on toast.
Tip: Utilise Venice’s overwater public transport system, the vaporetti. These are “bus boats” that get you from A to B (and affordably) on the water.
Naples & Amalfi
Naples often gets a bad rap for being dirty or unsafe but that couldn’t be further from the truth. This magical southern Italian hub is not just the gateway to the Almafi Coast and the home of pizza. It’s also full of art, culture and not just one or two, but seven castles.
What to do and see: Naples sits at the base of volcano Mount Vesuvius, so those wanting to hike or wine taste can head up the mountain. Down below in the city center, visit the massive Piazza del Plebiscito, then wander through the “Neopolitan Rivieria,” the fancy Chiaia district along the water. The bustling Spanish quarter is also a must-see and don’t miss the incredibly detailed Veiled Christ sculpture located in the Cappella Sansevero.
You may not have time to see all seven castles, but you should definitely take the cable car up to the Castel Sant’Elmo, which offers breathtaking views of Naples, Mount Vesuvius and beyond.
From Naples, Sorrento is just a short train ride away. From there, you can decide which of the many Amalfi Coast villages to check out. Some of the most famous are Positano, Ravello, Praiano and Amalfi itself. Be ready to walk and climb, though, as these villages all rise above the sea on cliffs.
What to eat: While pizza is the most obvious choice in Naples (it won’t disappoint), ragu, a meaty sauce poured on pasta is just as delicious. For breakfast or dessert, enjoy pastries like the shell-shaped sfogliatella, or booze-infused Babá, a rum-filled treat. While on the Amalfi Coast, make sure to enjoy anything and everything lemon, as these citrus fruits abound in the region.
Tip: While Naples is an affordable city, Amalfi can be pricey. Consider visiting in the off-season or doing additional research to find the best deals on transport, accommodation and dining.
A note on the islands
Italy has hundreds of islands. If you’re looking for just the right one, refer to this article for help:
Otherwise, we’ll give you a brief breakdown of the most popular islands for tourists.
The second-largest island in the Mediterranean, Sardinia is ideal for beach lovers and those wanting to travel during the summer months. Luxury travelers should head to Porto Cervo and the Costa Smeralda — this is where the cosmopolitan yachters holiday. If you’re looking for a dose of culture, consider Alghero, a medieval town near many popular beaches. And true beach bums will love the Maddalena Archipelago. You may actually think you’re in the Caribbean when you see the turquoise-hued waters and fine white sands.
Whether you want beach, hiking or culture, Sicily has got it — and its own particular, unique vibe that’s distinct from anywhere else in Italy. Whether it’s volcano hiking on Mount Etna, visiting the beautiful Baroque villages of the Val di Noto or sampling local wine varieties like Marsala and Nero D’Avola, there’s plenty to keep travelers occupied on the island. Don’t forget about charming beaches in beautiful towns like Celfalú, or the gorgeous Mediterranean views from hilltop town Taormina.
A quick hydrofoil ride away from Naples, Capri is an island for luxury travelers. The white villages, chic restaurants and the general cosmopolitan vibe make this island an ideal escape for both tourists and locals alike. Once there, visit the Blue Grotto, a cave system that’s one of the most popular tourist pastimes.
It may be difficult to choose where to visit in Italy with so many epic spots. Depending on your interests, you may prefer some destinations to others, and using a map to determine how close certain cities are may also be helpful when planning your trip. But with so many beautiful destinations in Italy, you really can’t make a wrong choice for your visit.
Featured image courtesy of Pablo Charlón/Getty
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