1.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 the oldest towns in Italy.
2.Pisa and Lucca
These two nearby towns are worth visiting while you’re in Tuscany, the first for the exceptional Campo dei Miracoli complex and the other for its endearing charms. The Leaning Tower of Pisa, actually the campanile for the adjacent cathedral, is a well-known Italian icon and forms the centerpiece of a UNESCO World Heritage site that also includes the cathedral, baptistery, and Campo Santo. The highlight of the impressive baptistery is Nicola Pisano’s intricately carved free-standing pulpit, a masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture. Nearby, Lucca is one of Italy’s most charming towns to explore and enjoy, surrounded by wide walls whose top is a tree-lined park. Inside are beautiful Romanesque and Tuscan Gothic churches, tower houses (one of which you can climb to the top), and a Roman arena that has been “fossilized” into an oval piazza.
At its height in the 13th and 14th centuries, Siena rivaled Florence for its arts and culture, and it still has a wealth of art and architectural treasures. The highlight is the magnificent Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, whose inlaid marble facade and striped bell tower stand dramatically among Siena’s mostly red brick buildings. The cathedral interior is a museum of works by great artists and sculptors, including Donatello, Giovanni Pisano, Bernini, and Lorenzo Ghiberti. But art treasures are not its only attractions. The winding medieval streets and broad plazas are inviting places to wander. Twice each summer, the gigantic, sloping main square is the scene of a chaotic horse race known as the Palio.
4.The Cinque Terre
The five towns that cling to the steep, rocky Mediterranean coast north of La Spezia were almost impossible to reach by land until the railway connected them by tunneling through the headlands that separate them. Today, the trail along the cliffs that locals once used to travel from town to town is one of Italy’s great hikes; the shortest and widest of its sections, between Manarola and Riomaggiore is known as the Via dell’Amore. Riomaggiore and Vernazza, with their narrow streets dropping down to tiny rock-bound harbors are the most filled with character, and despite its recent popularity with tourists, the Cinque Terre remains one of Italy’s most appealing attractions.
5.Amalfi Coast and Capri
The high, precipitous Amalfi Peninsula juts sharply into the Mediterranean just south of Naples, forming the southern rim of Naples Bay. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful – or unlikely setting for the towns that spill down its steep slopes. Streets in most are stairways, and houses seem glued to the cliffs behind them. Flowers bloom everywhere, and below the towns are beaches caught in coves of emerald water. The Amalfi Drive, along the southern coast, is one of the world’s great scenic routes. Off the end of the peninsula, and easy to reach by regular ferries, is the fabled island of Capri, with its Blue Grotto sea cave, lavish villas, and lush gardens.
Italy’s most beautiful lake, Como has been the favorite summer retreat of the rich and famous since ancient Romans fled Milan’s summer heat to cool off in villas along its steep shores. Later villas decorate its tightly clustered towns, especially pretty Bellagio, artfully set on a point where the three narrow arms of the lake meet. A microclimate makes Como’s western shore temperate even in winter, so the white peaks of the Alps just to the north can be viewed between palm trees and camellias. Don’t overlook the town of Como, on the southern shore, well worth a stop before boarding a steamer to explore the lake.
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.
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, Rome heads the list for most tourists traveling to Italy. 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 compact historic center of this former Roman stronghold is embraced by a deep curve in the Adige River. Dominating its heart is the remarkable well-preserved first-century Roman arena, scene of the world-renowned summer opera festival. Several Roman arches are mixed among the medieval and Renaissance buildings, many of which show Verona’s long history as part of the Venetian empire. Alongside the river stands the large Castelvecchio, a castle built in the 14th century, guarding a brick arched bridge, Ponte Scaligero. For all its rich treasury of architecture and art, Verona’s biggest claim to tourist fame is based on pure fiction. It was the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and over the past century, locals have obliged by creating homes, a balcony, and even a tomb for the fictional characters.