When traveling to Italy, there are many great cities to choose from. Everyone knows about Rome, and many have seen its splendors through the eyes of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Fashion lovers will find the catwalks and shops of Milan to be inspiring. Those who love romance often head for Venice. The architecture lovers head for Florence.
But there is much more to Italy than these four famous Italian cities. Countryside lovers should try the cities in Tuscany or Umbria, to see vineyards and rolling hills. Those who like the beach can go to one of the many Mediterranean coastal cities.
Because Italy has almost three millennia of documented history, there are ancient ruins, examples of art from many different periods, and beautiful examples of architecture throughout the country. For those looking for a more authentic cultural experience, it can be an added benefit to spend an additional few days in some of the nation’s other great tourist cities.
Depending on the interests be it religious, archaeological, cultural, or culinary, there are many great choices of cities to experience in Italy. Here is a look at some of the favorite cities this country has to offer:
A large city of about one million inhabitants, Turin is located in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy, a one-hour drive from the French border and slightly more than that from the Mediterranean. Turin was the first capital of modern Italy, and was the host of the 2006 Winter Olympic Games. While it’s not a famous tourist destination like other Italian cities such as Venice or Rome, the setting is pleasant, with the Po River flowing through the city and surrounded by the Italian Alps off in the distance. The center is filled with posh 19th century cafes, arcaded mansions, debonair glittering restaurants, and grand churches.
This town in the Alps is an interesting combination of an upper and lower city that are nestled together into a picturesque mountain region. The lower city, Citta Bassa, is the modern day portion of Bergamo, while the upper Citta Alta is known for art, history, and beautiful architecture. The heart of Old town is a vibrant Piazza with a white marble fountain and a number of shops. Other highlights include the Campanone, a tower that allows views of all the spectacular sites, and the stronghold museum known as the Rocca.
Milan and Paris vie for the title of fashion capital of Europe. This makes it the most economically important city in modern-day Italy. The largest tourist attraction is the twice-annual fashion week that fills the city with famous designers, models, glitterati and paparazzi. However, Milan is a great place to visit any time of year, with several famous sights like Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, the La Scala Opera House, the Castello Sforzesco and one of the world’s largest Gothic cathedral.
Mantua (Mantova) is a city in Lombardy, situated between Milan and Venice. Because of the power and influence of Gonzaga’s dynasty, which used to own the city for over 400 years, Mantua was one of the most important cultural cities in the Renaissance and it still maintains a lot of the buildings that made it famous during that period. It was also the city where the composer Claudio Monteverdi premiered his opera L’Orfeo in 1607, the earliest surviving opera that is still regularly performed today.
This port city is the capital of the Northern Province of Ligura. It has a long history as an important seaport and trade center, and boasts famous residents like Christopher Columbus. Though Genoa is often overlooked as a tourist destination, it is a wonderful Italian city, and definitely worth visiting. Its old town is a dense and fascinating maze of medieval alleyways, home to large 16th and 17th century palazzi now transformed into museums and art galleries. Docked with cruise liners, yachts and fishing boats, Genoa’s seaport today sports a bustling marina, waterfront bars, a maritime museum and one of Europa’s second largest aquarium.
One of Italy’s most prosperous cities, Parma has given its name to a ham and cheese and a number of world-famous culinary dishes. The term Parmesan is synonymous with excellent food. Though tourists may come to eat, they will stay for the sights as well. Highlights include the Museo Glauco Lombardi, Piazza Duomo, and world famous opera house, Teatro Regio. An annual Verdi festival celebrates the operas created by one of Parma’s most famous residents. The Palazzo Della Pallota is one of the region’s finest, and is named after the sixteenth-century game of Pelota. The city is easy to reach, and is only an hour ride from Bologna.
Located on the Adriatic and almost entirely surrounded by Slovenia, Trieste is a city that is both geographically and historically isolated from the rest of the Italian peninsula. From the 1300s, Trieste has faced east, becoming a free port under Austrian rule and became prosperous under the 18th- and 19th-century Habsburgs. Today, Trieste is often forgotten by tourists coming to Italy but it is a very charming city, with a quiet, almost Eastern European atmosphere, several cafes, some stunning architecture and a beautiful sea view.
Verona serves as the backdrop for several of Shakespeare’s plays, most notably Romeo and Juliet. Verona is a pleasant city with sights like Juliset’s balcony and tomb, two castles, a roman amphitheater, Lamberti’s clock tower, the Roman gate Porta Borsari, and a Roman theater. It is located near Venice, and though it is a less popular location, many tourists who travel to both find the quieter, more laid back atmosphere of Verona to be charming and worthwhile. Of course, if basilicas, cathedrals, piazzas and museums are preferred, there are dozens to choose from.
This Northeastern provincial capital is known in Italy as Padova. It is located halfway between Venice and Verona. This large city has a vibrant modern component and an old town with narrow streets and lots of easily walkable regions. Public transportation is excellent, as it is the main way that many Paduans travel. This city has many of the same kinds of attractions that many Italian cities boast, like Palazzos, cathedrals, and basilicas. However, Padua is also home to a few more unique sights like the Giotto frescoes, and an Astronomic Observatory.
Built upon a lagoon surrounded by the Adriatic Sea, Venice is an archipelago of 118 islands all connected by hundreds of beautiful bridges and scenic canals. Of the canals, the Grand Canal is most famous and divides the city into two sections. Traditional boats, known as gondolas, are a common form of public transportation here. This is also a common cruise port city, and is the gateway for many Mediterranean cruise lines. Venice is one of the few cities in the world that has no car travel. Instead, everything is either by foot or by boat, and the city can be walked from end to end in just a few hours. Sights like the Rialto Market and bridge, the clock tower, and Doge’s palace are must-see locations. It is additionally famous for spectacular large homes and glass artistry.
This city is not as commonly visited by foreigners, but remains a very important city in Italian history. Because of this, guests may have to work harder to find English speakers, however, they will often feel as if they received a more authentic Italian experience. Bologna is famed for having the oldest university in the West, and a world-renowned style of cuisine (la cucina Bolognese). In addition to the university, piazzas, churches and museums that Bologna boasts by the dozens, the city is also home to the huge Due Torri, the city’s own “leaning towers”.
Though today one of the smaller cities in Italy, Ravenna has an important history. It was the capital of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th Century. it holds a set of mosaics generally acknowledged to be the crowning achievement of Byzantine art. No fewer than eight of Ravenna’s buildings are listed on the World Heritage List, including the amazing Basilica of San Vitale. It is mainly a walking and shopping city today, and a very popular choice for those whose favorite tourist activities involve shops and sightseeing on foot.
Though most people come to Rimini to enjoy the modern beach resort town, this is one of Italy’s oldest settlements, with confirmed evidence of prehistoric inhabitants. Besides the beaches Rimini also offers fabulous food. Roman Emperors share the name with many of the sightseeing highlights here, such as the Tiberius bridge and Augustus Arch. Most people miss an old town here, however, and spend their days on the sand beaches along the coast.
Visitors come here to see the world famous leaning tower that was used to prove certain physical laws of gravity. This Tuscan city boasts a number of other architectural marvels as well, and is an easily walkable city that is beautiful to explore. The tower is located in the Field of Miracles, which also contains other landmarks like the Baptistry, Monumental Cemetery, Museo Della Sinope, and Museo Del Opera Del Duomo. Pisa also has a university, which makes it a young, hip, culture-filled town.
This beautiful Medieval city was a major power during the fourteenth century before its defeat by Florence. Because it was so poor following its defeat, its medieval architecture was never torn down to be replaced with Renaissance style buildings. Today, this has become a major selling point for tourists as it is one of the best-preserved examples of Medieval architecture in Italy. A few exceptions to this, like the Florentine-style Piccolomini palace, exist. Siena has an annual horse race, called Palio, that is a centuries-old tradition that not only is about the horses, but a special kind of old taunting that dates back to medieval times.
This Tuscan city has an ancient history that dates back to Etruscan and Roman times. The architecture is mostly gothic, which pre-dates Renaissance times. Lucca is a walled city, with the distinct honor of having defensive walls designed by the great inventor, Leonardo Da Vinci. They include a ring park that sits atop the wall and can be walked by tourists. Highlights include an elliptical-shaped square built on the remains of a Roman amphitheater, an old Roman homestead, and the store-lined street of Via Fillungo.
The Tuscan Capital is a world center for art and architecture. It is best known as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance movement. From the 1300s to the 1500s, Florence was the most economically important city in Europe. The prosperity of this region not only helped redefine the identity of Italy after the fall of the Roman Empire, but it also provided a home for great artists and thinkers like Dante and Leon Batist D’Alberti. Dozens of museums, cathedrals, and bridges are proof of Florence’s architectural prowess, and make this city a destination for art and architecture buffs worldwide.
This fortress city in Umbria was meant to be a protective village. It is filled with lovely Gothic architecture like the Duomo cathedral, which influenced Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel with its stunning mosaics and frescoes. It would also certainly be well worth the time to explore Orvieto’s labyrinth of underground tunnels. Carved 3,000 years ago from volcanic rock by the Etruscans to provide escape routes for the nobility, these elaborate tunnels contain grandiose rooms, stairs, cisterns and quarries. Perched atop a volcanic hill, there are spectacular countryside views to be seen from the town’s high points.
This Umbrian city is known for many things, including a prestigious university, chocolate-making, medieval art, and a jazz festival. An underground tour in the old town offers a chance to explore tunnels that were once a part of Perugia’s fortress walls. Architecture buffs can marvel at the 3rd Century BC Etruscan gate, called Porta Marzia. The Medieval Fontana Maggiore, created as a piece to celebrate the town’s independence, has an interesting combination of art images including biblical scenes, the zodiac, prophets and saints.
This famous home of 13th century friar St Francis is a small medieval town perched on a hill in Umbria. Assisi has retained much of its Medieval architecture, and though many of its tourists are religious pilgrims looking to retrace the footsteps of the famed saint, the historical beauty and culture that the town has to offer is worth seeing for the non-religious as well. Highlights include shopping on Corso Mazzini, the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva with its Roman columns, and the Basilica of St Francis.
Rome is the capital of Italy, the ancient Capital of the Roman Empire, and the home of the Catholic Church’s world headquarters in Vatican City. This large city is so full of sights that an entire vacation can be spent exploring the many basilicas, cathedrals, Roman architectural sites and museums. This city boasts world-renowned food and twenty-five hundred years of history. It is a world center of architecture, art, culture and design. Major landmarks include the Coliseum and Vatican city, though there are thousands of other options.
For those who want to see real-live Cinderella castles, this is a must-see city in the region of Le Marche. The Duke of Urbino, a scholar and military man of the fifteenth century, was the commissioner of the Palazzo Ducale, one of the largest examples of renaissance-style castles in Italy. It was changed into a palace later on. Urbino is mainly known for this landmark, but the narrow, hilly medieval streets lead to a picturesque town that is worth seeing in its own right.
Naples, or Napoli, is the third largest city in Italy. To some it is huge, filthy, crime-ridden and falling apart, to others it is edgy and atmospheric. This coastal Southern town definitely has its own personality, and visitors will find that things are not always preserved, but have been instead graffiti-covered as an artistic statement. Highlights include a huge Medieval castle, Castel Nuovo, as well as the seaside fortress of Castel del’Ovo. The city is also next to the Vesuvius, the only active volcano on the European continent. The Amalfi Coast and the islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida in the Bay of Naples are possible day trips from Naples.
Syracuse is located on the Eastern coast of Sicily. It had an important role in Ancient Greece and then Rome as a coastal town and port location. The oldest part of Syracuse is situated offshore on the island of Ortiga and is filled with historic temples, churches and important archeological sites. Theatrical productions are still staged at the 5th-centry Greek Theatre on the mainland, which boasts one of the largest seating areas ever built by the ancient Greeks. Syracuse is also a great central location for seeing smaller tourist locations like Ragusa and Noto.
This was a single city until a large earthquake in the late seventeenth century destroyed most of the town. When it came time to rebuild, the two main socioeconomic groups split, with the nobles staying in the old town location, known as Ragusa Ibla and the working class moved to a new place, known as Ragusa Superior. A beautiful arched bridge, known as Ponte Vecchio, spans the river dividing these two portions of Ragusa. Today Ragusa Ibla is a spectacular mix of narrow streets, steep winding steps, old churches, and fantastic views.
This Sicilian capital has a long-running history. Ancient Phoenicians referred to it as the city of Ziz, and it has been an important city under Greek, Roman and Arab rule at different points in time. This has created a mixture of influences in architecture, though the Normans destroyed many of the mosques in the eleventh century. Its location near so many different nations and cultural influences continues to make it a diverse port city. The essential sights in Palermo are pretty central and easy to cover on foot. Favorite locations include a Catalan influenced Cathedral, catacombs, Palazzo dei Normanni (Royal Palace), and Gesu Church.