Italy Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

Located in Southern Europe, Italy is one of the most popular travel destinations in the world, drawing 40 million tourists each year to its spectacular sites, stunning landscapes, exquisite cuisine, and artistic and historical wonders.
Italy Travel Guide
Table of Contents

Not many destinations boast a history as rich and artistic as Italy’s. From antiquity to the modern day, Italy has continued to draw travelers to its heritage of ancient attractions that date back millennia.

A favorite with travelers the world over, Tuscany is Italy’s most famous region, characterized by beautiful rolling hills, vineyards, olive groves and cypress trees. Indulge in the many pleasures of Tuscany by taking the Chianti wine route, exploring Renaissance art in Florence, marveling at the forts of San Gimignano or touring the historic center of Siena.

It’s simply impossible to go on a tour of Italy without visiting its capital Rome. There’s a lot to admire in Rome, from the ancient ruins of the Colosseum and Roman Forum, to the lavish Trevi fountains, piazzas and modern museums.

Visitors to Rome cannot afford to miss out on Vatican City. Albeit the world’s smallest country, the Vatican is home to the most important church in Christianity – Saint Peter’s Basilica, as well as some of the most significant art treasures of the world, such as the Sistine Chapel.

If you love to shop, you will love the fashion city of Milan, which is also an art lover’s paradise. Visitors can marvel at da Vinci’s famous fresco, The Last Supper; admire the Duomo, the world’s largest Gothic cathedral and be entertained at La Scala, the top opera house in Italy.

Venice is one of Italy’s most romantic destinations in the world and filled with one-of-a-kind attractions. Sail its Canal Grande on a gondola or stroll through the intriguing Piazza di San Marco. Art lovers will be spoilt for choice in Venice. While in Bologna, food connoisseurs will be satisfied by the supply of great Italian cuisine in a truly unique setting where ancient meets modern.

In addition to its artistic treasures, Italy offers a kaleidoscope of breathtaking vistas with its beautiful coasts, alpine lakes and mountains. The Amalfi Coast belongs on everyone’s list of beautiful places to visit in Italy. It comprises a stretch of coastline famous for its diverse scenic beauty, rugged terrain, and picturesque towns that make it an unforgettable stop on your Italian tour.

Cinque Terre is another Italian coastal destination with lots to offer visitors. Its five villages are a showcase of some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe, which makes for a must-visit place in Italy. Sicily is yet another Italian paradise for holiday-makers ideally to be stayed in for as long as possible.

With ancient monuments spread throughout the country, and great cities of art such as Rome, Florence and Venice, Italy is a unique country that may well be studied forever, but still not fully mastered. In fact, with so much to see in Italy, it would take you a lifetime to explore.

1. Tuscany

Since time immemorial, the hills of Tuscany have drawn visitors to marvel at the region’s beautiful scenery, and sample its incredible food and wine. Popular among food lovers, Tuscany is also famous for its artistic heritage, specifically in Florence, its capital. Once the epicenter of the European Renaissance, Florence is home to some of the most famous masterpieces of the western world.

A living testament to the role of Florence in the Renaissance, the Galleria degli Uffizi is a must-see. It houses one of the greatest painting collections in the world, along with numerous antique sculptures, tapestries and illuminations. Among the artists from medieval to modern times whose works you can expect to see here are Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli and Raphael.

It’s a good idea to buy your tickets to the Galleria in advance to avoid the long ticket lines in Italy’s most crowded museum. Pitti Palace is another world famous museum worth visiting. The largest palazzo in Florence, the Palace hosts 8 different galleries featuring the art, jewelry, costumes and apartments of the Medici family.

Go take a peek at the exquisite Statue of David by Michelangelo, one of the most famous sculptures in the world. The statue is held in Florence’s Galleria dell’ Academia, along with other sculptures by Michelangelo. You can also browse through an interesting collection of musical instruments owned by the Medici family. The Galleria also has important paintings dating back from the 13th to 16th centuries.

Don’t miss out on the Basilica di Santa Maria Del Fiore, a beautiful gothic cathedral noted for its expressive colors, distinctive dome, elaborate doors and interesting statues. With its façade of polychrome marble panels in shades of pink and green, with white borders, the basilica is the largest brick dome ever built. It was begun in 1296, and can hold 20,000 people.

To best capture the grandeur of this cathedral, walk to the top, while moving farther away from the structure. The architectural masterpiece dominates the Florentine skyline and serves as an exquisite example of harmony in decoration. More than just an extraordinary work of art, it is a source of pride and a symbol dear to Florentines.

While in Florence, also visit the Ponte Vecchio or “Old Bridge” which is one of the town’s most famous landmarks. Another highlight is Giardino di Boboli, a beautiful expanse of rich, extravagant pleasure set in peaceful gardens that boast some of the most photogenic views of Florence.

Another popular Florentine attraction is San Gimignano, a well-preserved medieval village famous for its stone towers. At the height of the wealth and power of San Gimignano, over 70 stone towers were built to defend the village from invasion, but only 14 remain today. While here, you can enjoy a stroll through the tiny streets of this village to get a glimpse into its life during the Middle Ages.

At the Santa Croce church, you can admire the vast interiors that display exceptional stained glass windows and frescoes. The largest Franciscan church in Italy, Santa Croce also holds the Cappella dei Pazzi, one of Brunelleschi’s most important works.

Siena is another must-visit when touring Tuscany. Try to attend the interesting Il Palio horse races that circle the Piazza del Campo, at the heart of Sienna. You can also go on a tour of Siena’s well-preserved beautiful center that will take you back into time to the Middle Ages. For breathtaking views of the town and surrounding countryside, climb up the Torre del Mangia, a tall bell tower in the town center.

Wine lovers visiting Tuscany can also enjoy Chianti wine right in its home region, which rests between Florence and Siena and is very interesting to visit. The Chianti wine route snakes through rolling hills, medieval castles, flowery towns and picturesque villages, while stopping at many vineyards. The Barone Ricasoli Winery and Brolio Castle is a great spot to begin your wine tasting. You can also learn the delicious secrets of making some of the best Italian wines.

Located in northern Tuscany, the town of Pisa is famous for its Leaning Tower. But there’s more to Pisa than this architectural wonder. Visitors to the town can also admire its medieval center, beautiful Duomo and Baptistery, statues, parks and a scenic walk along the river.

Visit Cortona, a Tuscan hill town surrounded by Etruscan walls dating back 3000 years. The town has retained much of its architecture through history, with layers of more recent history built upon its Etruscan core. There are stately buildings, interesting medieval architecture and amazing views to take in at Cortona.

Lucca is a walled city in Tuscany with one of the best-preserved walls in Italy. On top of the walls are walking and bicycling paths and gardens that allow you to walk around the city’s historic center. The city also has a number of well-preserved towers which you may climb to enjoy fantastic views of the city.

2. Rome

Formerly the capital of the Roman Empire, Rome is today the capital city of Italy. Located in Italy’s central region of Lazio, Rome is a vast and complex city that’s both modern and historic all at once. Best known for its ancient Roman structures and Vatican City, Rome has for millennia endured as a key European center for religion and power.

For over two thousand years, Rome has continued to attract visitors and is today a must for any traveler to Italy. A city rich in history, Rome is also one of the best open-air museums in the world with ancient streets you can wander while taking in the medieval architecture that will leave you mesmerized.

There are many sights to enjoy in Rome, the most famous being the Colosseum, the largest and most famous amphitheater during Roman times. Constructed between 72 -80 AD, the Colosseum is one of the great architectural remnants of antiquity. Designed to hold 50,000 spectators eager to watch a bloody spectacle, today it attracts millions of tourists who catch their breath in awe of its magnificence.

The Roman Forum is another of the most frequented tourist sites in Italy. Resting in a valley between the Capitoline and Palatine hills, the Roman Forum will give you an incredible feeling as you stumble upon it during your stroll around Rome.

Every year, millions of visitors arrive at this ancient heart of the Roman empire for a thrilling trip back into time. You too can stand among the imposing ruins and imagine how it was during Roman times. You are bound to enjoy consciously placing yourself into world history, if only for a moment. For an awe-inspiring panoramic view of the entire Forum complex, head to the terrace of Campidoglio.

Another Roman attraction is the stunning Trevi Fountain, a triumphant example of Baroque finesse. Situated in a maze of narrow, meandering streets, the Trevi Fountain is a work of art in marble, which draws many visitors to see its play of light, shade and wind that makes it move in a mesmerizing rhythm.

Rome offers an unparalleled view into ancient Europe and the inner workings of an empire that once had the city as its capital. The great thing about Rome is that most of its highlights are situated so close to each other that you can see them all during a stroll around the city.

In addition to the numerous archaeological treasures, Rome is also a cosmopolitan city with flair. Rome’s café culture is another good reason to visit. For a truly Roman experience, choose from one of the many piazzas and sit down for an espresso or ice-cream. For the best food in town, your best bet is to do as the Romans do and head over to Trastevere.

3. Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre, which translates to “Five Lands”, is one of Italy’s most beautiful regions. Sprouting out of a mountainside that offers breathtaking views of the Mediterranean Sea, the area is famous for its five villages which are noted for their beauty. The five villages nestled on the rugged cliffs of the Italian Riviera are Manarola, Corniglia, Monterosso, Vernazza and Riomaggiore.

Dubbed the “cleanest region in Italy”, Cinque Terre is located in the coastal Liguria region of northwestern Italy, overlooking the sparkling Mediterranean. Its villages are home to some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes, an azure coastline and wine terraces that date back hundreds of years.

With origins that go back to the 14th century, Manarola is one of the oldest villages in Cinque Terre. With its colorful houses that make it look like a painting, the main draws to this village are its wineries and the famous “Lover’s Trail.” Monterosso al Mare is best known for its glittering white beaches on which you can experience a wonderful sea storm.

Riomaggiore is famous for its wine which you can sip while taking in the colorful fishing boats, kayaks, dolphins and whales. Vernazza produces some of Italy’s best olive oils, and is home to the interesting Santa Margherita d’Antichia church.

Part of the charm of Cinque Terre is the lack of visible modern development, mainly due to the fact that cars are not allowed in the area. The villages are instead connected by hiking trails, boats and trains.

Spend some time walking from one village to another among colorful houses and cobble-stone streets. You will enjoy the quaint orchards, vineyards, olive groves, and tranquil coves that offer a relaxing ambiance. The charming seaside villages of Cinque Terre are also where pesto originated.

4. Venice

Situated in northeast Italy, Venice comprises an archipelago of 118 islands all connected by a network of more than 150 scenic canals and hundreds of beautiful bridges. Dubbed the “City of Water” Venice is a unique city built on a lagoon surrounded by the Adriatic Sea, which makes for a crown jewel among the water cities of the world.

Visitors to Venice can glide through the canals in a gondola, taking in the picturesque waterways and historic architecture. A gondola ride is not only quintessential Venice, but also a great way to explore some of the city’s famous bridges and architecture.

The most famous of Venice’s canals is the Canal Grande or “Grand Canal” which splits the city into two parts. Go on a journey back into time, through centuries of history on the water bus along the Canal Grande. This famous Venetian waterway meanders over 3.5 km through all 6 districts of the historic center to reveal architectural gems strung along both banks.

Prepare to be impressed by the beautiful facades of Renaissance palaces, which rub shoulders with richly embroidered Gothic arches, and extensive frescoes adorning tenements of gold and marble. Along the way, numerous landmarks including the impressive Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute will leave you sighing in admiration.

Consecrated in 832 AD, the Basilica is a beautiful church that blends architectural influences from the East and the West. A great example of Byzantine architecture, the church holds many treasures including glistening mosaics and paintings by famous Venetian artists.

Rialto Bridge is one of Venice’s most famous bridges and an icon of the city. More than 400 years old, the ornamental stone bridge crosses the Canal Grande in the heart of the city. Nearby is the Rialto Market, a lively and interesting food market with many small shops which you can stroll through.

Galleria del’Accademia is one of the best art museums in Italy, and home to lovely Venetian art from the 14th to 18th centuries. To avoid the crowds, go early to the Galleria del’Accademia. Visit the Palazzo Ducale on Piazza San Marco, which is the most impressive building in Venice that is well worth a tour. This was the political and judicial hub of the government of Venice until its Republic fell in 1797.

Try to make it to Venice for “Carnevale”, one of the most lively and colorful festivals in Italy. Held forty days before Easter, the festival is a spectacle of food, entertainment and thousand of costumed revelers in period dress, festive masks and other finery. The festival typically occurs in February and features a street party and mask parades that last 10 days. On the last day of the carnival a brilliant fireworks show is held to end the celebration.

While Venice has many fine attractions, one of the best things to do here is to simply spend some time wandering along the canals off the main tourist track. You can stroll through the small streets and stop for a cappuccino on one of the charming terraces of the Piazza di San Marco, the main sidewalk of Venice. Here you can enjoy a glimpse into the glorious architecture of Venice and the beauty of the Sea.

You could also visit some of the Venetian islands on a day trip. Go to Murano which is famous for glass making or explore Burano which is filled with colorful houses and best-known for its lace. At Torcello, you can watch the craftsmen create their famous glass works or head out to Venice Lido which has a beautiful strip of beaches.

Famous for its artists, singing gondoliers, exquisite food and numerous artistic masterpieces per square kilometer, Venice is a favorite for travelers from all corners of the earth. With all these delights, it’s no wonder that so many honeymooners pick Venice as their romantic destination of choice.

5. Milan

Travelers seeking a fast-paced, glamour-filled, thriving scene to their Italian vacation should look no further than Milan. Widely regarded as a fashion center, Milan teems with boutique shops and up-market restaurants. In fact, almost every major fashion house in the world is represented on the cobble-stone streets of Milan.

Situated in the northern region of Lombardy, the city of Milan is home to numerous architectural buildings that impress, from the old Neo-Classical palaces to the ultra-modern commercial buildings and towers.

The Duomo di Milan is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and the third largest church in Europe. Construction of the Duomo began in 1386 and only ended 500 years later. Boasting 135 spires, 3,400 statues and an incredible marble façade, the cathedral houses a crucifix that is said to contain a nail from the very cross of Christ.

For a breathtaking view that stretches over the city, go up to the roof of the Duomo by stair or elevator. While there, you can also see the Italian Alps and even begin planning your next skiing trip.

The Piazza Duomo is the square at the front of the Duomo which is the hub of Milan. It is surrounded by stunning architecture which has made it a popular hangout for tourists. You can also take a peek at the San Lorenzo Columns. These are remnants of a 2nd century BC Roman building which are today situated at the front of the Duomo and beautiful lit during the evening.

Visit the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a beautiful glass-roofed area that connects the Piazza Duomo and the Piazza della Scala. You will be impressed by the floors of this breathtaking galleria, which are decorated with intricate mosaics in the signs of the Zodiac. Some Italians consider it good luck to stand on the testicles of the Bull of Turin.

Milan attracts many to its artistic treasures which include Leonardo Da Vinci’s 15th century mural The Last Supper. You will need to book in advance to set your eyes on this artistic wonder that adorns the back wall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie dining hall.

For more da Vinci, head over to the Science Museum. Housed in a 16th century monastery is the National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo da Vinci. Here you can marvel at a vast collection showing the history of science and technology from the time of da Vinci’s inventions.

Opera fans visiting Milan can enjoy a live performance at the Teatro Alla Scala, which is one of the most famous opera houses in the world. Also known as “La Scala”, the opera house features a very opulent interior that can seat over 2000 people. Milan’s famous opera house also has a bookshop, bar and history museum that tourists can visit.

The original opera house was designed by Giuseppe Permarini, a neoclassical architect and opened in 1778. Many world famous operas were first performed at La Scala before it was badly damaged by the Second World War bombing. It underwent extensive renovation and was opened once again in 1946, after which it regained its reputation as the leading opera house in Italy.

While opera season is generally from October to March or April, there are outdoor performances typically held in the summer. Whenever you visit Milan, you are likely to find an entertaining event to attend, as opera houses also hold dance and theater performances at different times of the year.

Other highlights of Milan include the Castillo Sforzesco, a museum complex which is also one of the major landmarks of Milan. Originally began by Napoleon, the Pinacoteca di Brera is the most prestigious art gallery in Milan which houses a vast collection of more than 600 art works. Sant’Ambrogio is a 4th century church of the patron saint of Milan which features some interesting mosaics, carvings and relics.

Football fans should feel right at home in Italy, a country whose favorite sport is football. You can visit the San Siro Museum inside the San Siro Stadium or Stadio Meazza, which is the pride of Italy and regarded as one of the greatest stadiums in the world.

6. Vatican City

While in Rome, be sure to also visit Vatican City, the spiritual hub of the Catholic faith. For centuries, the Vatican has been one of the most popular places to visit in Rome. While the Vatican is an entirely separate state, you will nevertheless have to go through Rome to access its magnificent collections.

Although it occupies a relatively small land area, the size of the Vatican does not equal its global influence. In fact, Vatican City is widely regarded as one of the most powerful nations in the world, almost on an equal footing with the United States, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia, in regards to economic importance.

The Vatican is home to the world-famous St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the largest churches in the world. St. Peter’s basilica has for centuries operated as the epicenter of Catholicism. Although the Basilica retains its religious function today, it has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy, along with the Vatican Museums.

Inside the Basilica, visitors can admire the beautiful interiors, a wealth of Renaissance art, and view the tombs of some of the most influential Pope’s in history. The Vatican Museums house artistic masterpieces from notable artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, as well as Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel. They also hold art and artifacts from ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and Imperial Rome.

The best masters were called upon by various Popes to decorate and enhance the Catholic capital, transforming it into a work of art both on the inside and outside. Every day, droves of visitors take a peek into the impressive Vatican Palace, while musing over The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, and delighting in the artistic riches of the various pontifical galleries.

7. Sicily

A popular holiday spot for Italians, Sicily is a beautiful island situated just off the eastern coast of Italy. The largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily is rustic and traditional, with a great mix of art, architecture, literature, music and wonderful pastries for which the island is famous.

An island abundant in archaeological sites, Sicily was once home to all the former Mediterranean civilizations. This history contributed to its rich art heritage which features monuments such as the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, a town whose medieval center with Arab and Norman influences is worth exploring.

The Valley of the Temples is an extensive archaeological site that contains the well-preserved remains of several Doric temples dating back to the 5th century BC. Nestled on a ridge overlooking the town, the view of the temples beautifully captures the vastness and grandeur of the area. Tourists to the area can also visit the Selinunte, an ancient building that contains 5 temples centered on an acropolis.

Baroque churches and many other historic monuments can also be found in Palermo, Sicily’s lively capital city which has a fascinating central market. At its Archaeological museum, you can enjoy a good collection of Greek relics.

Sicily is also home to lovely towns like Catania, which has a Benedictine Monastery housing an interesting the Roman house, a contemporary art museum and a church with Baroque frescoes.

Sicily is perfect for travelers seeking a more laid-back feel to their Italian vacation. Visitors to Sicily don’t have to go very far for clear waters and breathtaking beaches. At Cefalu town, you can enjoy your time lazing about on the beach, while sampling delicious fresh fish. At the top of La Rocca in Cefalu, visitors can also enjoy great views of the island.

For more fantastic views of the island panoramas, go to Enna, a fortress town with ruins of a 13th century castle. Here you can also enjoy views of Mount Etna, whose lower slopes also offer walking paths with great views. Mount Etna is the tallest active volcano in Europe.

If you are in the mood for a little more adventure, do some island-hopping and visit the Aeolian Islands, the Aegadian Islands and the Pantelleria Lampedusa which are all close by and easily accessible. Mostly quiet and relaxing, the islands can get very busy during the summer months. It is therefore advisable to book early to secure the best spots.

8. The Amalfi Coast

Stretching 30 miles along the southern side of the Sorrento Peninsula, the Amalfi Coast is famous for its extraordinary beauty. The region boasts a picturesque coastline with craggy cliffs, shimmering bays, lemon tree groves and multicolored villas, nestled in Mediterranean greenery.

Rich in history and folklore, this part of Italy may require several days to fully explore, as you enjoy the cuisine and soak up the sun. That said, it is possible to do your “Amalfi in one day” tour if you book a private boat with an experienced captain who can take you on a cruise from one amazing spot to another.

Steer away from the coast and go deep into the sea until you arrive at the Isle of Capri. Roam the beautiful island and dive off the boat into the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean. You can also visit the gorgeous Blue Grotto on Capri, which is a sea cave flooded with brilliant blue and emerald light.

This region offers one of the best coastal drives in the world so be sure to hire a car if possible. Take a scenic drive from the Bay of Naples to the Gulf of Salerno and enjoy green valleys, picturesque villages and the dramatic coastline. While driving, you will see waves crashing against giant boulders, as you maneuver past a succession of cars sweeping around countless hairpin bends.

The Amalfi Coast is the perfect base to explore sights in the surrounding areas. From here you can visit Pompeii, the town that was buried in 79 AD when the Mount Vesuvius volcano erupted. Tourists can also head further along the rugged coast to the picturesque town of Positano.

9. Umbria

Situated in the center of Italy, Umbria is home to numerous Etruscan sites and fortified medieval hill towns. Dubbed the “Green Heart of Italy” Umbria boasts several nature parks, one of the largest lakes in Italy, and spectacular waterfalls and landscapes.

In Umbria you can visit Assisi, the town famous for being home to San Francesco or “Saint Francis”, whose tomb resides in the Basilica of Saint Francis. The tomb is a popular pilgrimage and tourist destination. Assisi town also has a number of interesting churches, Roman ruins and museums.

Visitors can also take a long enjoyable walk from Assisi town to the nearby countryside and visit Orvieto, a hill town nestled on top of massive cliffs that make for an impressive sight. The monuments and museums of Orvieto hold millennia of history.

You can also admire the town’s cathedral, the Duomo di Orvieto with its stunning mosaic façade that makes for one of the best medieval monuments in Italy. The region surrounding Orvieto is also dotted with Etruscan tombs and vineyards worth visiting.

10. Bologna

The Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy boasts some of the best cuisine in Italy, and its capital Bologna is a city famous for its beauty and great cuisine. Most people visit Bologna to discover its world-famous culinary delights, which include lasagna, fried gnocchi, tagliatelle al ragu and tortellini served in broth. Be sure to also sample Bologna salami and ham for which the city is well known.

But there’s more to this city than just mouth-watering food. Bologna has lavish porticoed squares and walkways that make for pleasant strolls around the city. You can wander around the backstreets until you stumble upon the many beautiful squares where you can stop for a gelato or café.

The Piazza Maggiore, one of the central squares in Bologna, is lined with many arcades that will allow you to explore the city even in the rain. Sit at an outdoor café and take in the architectural splendor of the Gothic Basilica of San Petronio, the Palazzo dei Notai and the Archaeological Museum within the surroundings.

Next to the Piazza Maggiore is Piazza del Nettuno, another of the main squares in Bologna. Here you can admire the ornately decorated 16th century fountain in the center and the nearby civic buildings from medieval times. Also visit the library to admire its splendid interiors.

Head in the direction east of the squares to Via Clavatura where you will find several small, interesting food stalls. At Torre degli Asineli in Piazza Porta Ravegnana, you may climb the steep staircase for breathtaking views of Bologna. Visit the Pinacoteca Nazionale, one of the best galleries in Italy, which holds several important art works.

In Piazza Santo Stefano, you will stumble upon an intriguing cluster of 4 interlocking Romanesque churches. The SS. Vitale e Agricola is the oldest church which features parts of Roman temples and columns. Take a stroll through the fascinating courtyard with its maze of tiny chapels.

The city is also famous for being home to the oldest university in Europe which is also worth a visit. The Palazzo Poggi hosts two interesting museums and is also the site of lively student demonstrations.

If you arrive at Bologna by train, walk some distance away from the station to take in the beautiful panoramas of the well-preserved historic center which houses red-roofed antique buildings, churches, towers and monuments.

Should you visit Bologna during the summer, be sure to check out the daily open-air disco held in Parco Cavaioni on the city outskirts, as well as the city-sponsored Bologna Sogna series which features concerts at museums and other buildings around town.