Italy is truly a country like no other. Beginning with the Roman Empire and flourishing throughout the Renaissance, modern-day Italy is rich with history.
When I visited Italy for the first time in 2014, I traveled to Rome, Florence, Assisi, Sorrento, Pompeii, and Capri. These places all have something special to offer and are definitely worth visiting. When I was living and studying in Italy this past fall, I was lucky to visit its acclaimed vineyards and charming towns from coast to coast. Listed below are 10 must-see cities in Italy.
1. Venice, Italy
A trip to Italy isn’t complete without a visit to Venice. Despite what is commonly heard, Venice does have roads. And many lovely squares. However, the roads are extremely narrow and for pedestrians only. I visited during the off-season and still found myself getting frustrated with the crowds, so keep this in mind if you choose to visit during the warmer months when the city is in its peak.
The main form of transportation around Venice is water taxi. If you opt to walk around Venice instead, be sure to carry a map with you as Venice is EXTREMELY easy to get lost in. As for gondola rides, they cost around 80 euro and last about 20-30 minutes long. Since they are a famous tourist attraction, they are indeed overpriced, but still worth the experience. I found the canals and the city itself to be quite clean and the seafood dishes that I tried were incredible.
I only spent one day in Venice, but I recommend staying for 2-3 days. You can see the city of Venice in only a day, but the surrounding islands need more time. The beautiful, colorful islands of Burano and Murano are accessible via ferry from the city and are renowned for their long-lasting tradition of glass-making.
2. Positano, Italy
When you picture the Amalfi coast, full of cliffside, colorful homes and teal-blue water, this is the town you are thinking of. Positano is part of the Amalfi coastline located in Southern Italy and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. This well-known vacation destination is known for its beach and steep, narrow streets lined with seafood restaurants and boutiques. If you are studying abroad in Europe and want to visit the Amalfi coast, the easiest way to do this is through a weekend tour. Linked below are some examples:
3. Capri, Italy
The gateway to the island of Capri is from the Amalfi coast, specifically Sorrento, where I visited in 2014. Capri is a luxurious vacation destination located in the Bay of Naples famous for its perfume, lemons, Blue Grotto, and Caprese salads! The island has an upper level with a main square that can be accessed by a gondola. This island is also characterized by unique rock formations scattered along the coastline, which I recommend seeing from a boat tour.
4. Cinque Terre, Italy
Another jaw-dropping place to visit in Italy is Cinque Terre in the north. Cinque Terre is a string of five seaside villages located on the rocky Italian Rivera coastline. Cars are not allowed in this UNESCO World Heritage site, but there is a train that will bring you from La Spezia Centrale station (entrance into the park) to each of the villages.
If you want to experience Cinque Terre in its full glory, I recommend hiking between the villages. The trails are well-marked and will bring you alongside the turquoise coastline. When I visited in August, my friends and I hiked from the fourth village, Vernazza, to the last village, Monterosso al Mare. The hike was difficult and took about two hours, but the reward of swimming in warm ocean water and eating gelato made it all worth it.
5. Viareggio, Italy
Viareggio is a seaside city located about an hour from Florence. This city comes alive in the summertime, making it a popular vacation destination among locals. This city has amazing shopping, delicious restaurants, and a boardwalk on the beach.
Viareggio is famous for Carnevale, which takes place from January through March of each year. The highlight of the parades are the papier-mâché floats. Although I didn’t attend Carnevale myself, I was able to visit the warehouses where the ginormous floats are created as part of a class trip!
6. Taormina, Sicily, Italy
During my semester abroad, I spent a weekend in Sicily for my art history class. We hiked Mt. Etna- an active volcano, toured Catania, and spent a day wandering Taormina. This city quickly became one of my favorite Italian cities, and is worth the flight or train ride if you can get to it! Taormina is a hilltop town on the east coast of Sicily known for its ancient Greco-Roman theater that is still used today.
There are many quaint shops, specializing in pottery and unique jewelry in Taormina, along with restaurants that serve authentic Sicilian cuisine. While visiting Sicily, be sure to try a traditional Sicilian cannoli… the one (or five) I ate during my visit were a highlight for sure.
7. Vatican City, Italy
Vatican City is located within Rome and is the smallest country in the world, both in area and population. Within Vatican City are religious and cultural sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican museums. There are also several gift shops located within Vatican City where you can have your purchases blessed by the Pope… for free! You can also purchase tickets in advance to get blessed by the Pope or attend a Papal Mass on Wednesdays and Sundays. You should plan on arriving here in the morning to allow yourself enough time to clear security and avoid crowds.
8. Verona, Italy
Verona is located in Northern Italy, about an hour train ride away from Florence. It is the historical setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and where the movie Letters to Juliet was filmed. Verona has a medieval old town that surrounds the Adige river. I recommend visiting Casa di Giulietta, a gothic-style home from the 1300s that was the inspiration for Shakespeare and is said to be Juliet’s home. Just like the movie, hundreds of people visit seeking love advice from Juliet and leave notes behind.
For a small fee, you can go onto the balcony that overlooks Juliet’s courtyard and visit the museum. Verona also has the Verona Arena, which is an ancient Roman amphitheater that still hosts concerts.
9. Siena, Italy
Siena is located within Tuscany and is characterized by its seashell-shaped main square, Piazza del Campo. Surrounding this square are hilly streets of shops and restaurants. I visited Siena for a field trip during my semester abroad and quickly fell in love.
The city is organized into 17 neighborhoods, characterized by an animal or symbol. For example, I ate lunch (famous Pici pasta) in the goose neighborhood. Every year during the summer, Palio horse races are held. Each neighborhood elects a jockey and a horse to represent them in the race, and compete against each other in the main square. The city itself, along with the races, are dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
10. Lucca, Italy
Lucca is a well-preserved city located about an hour train ride from Florence in Tuscany. The city is known for its Renaissance walls which now make up a park that encircles the city. Lucca has cobblestone streets, a round main square, and countless cathedrals. I was told to visit this city before returning to the US, and ending up doing so spontaneously and alone.
Taking a solo trip is something I’ve always wanted to do, and I figured a day trip would be a great start. I bought my train tickets the night before and when I arrived in Lucca, I allowed myself to get lost, wandering the narrow cobblestone streets and going inside the churches and shops. I took myself out to lunch and forced myself to sit there alone and get served, enjoying my food without feeling the need to be on my phone. This was really hard to do, but a good experience and something I’m glad I took advantage of.
Lucca is the perfect place to just wander and enjoy Italian culture for what it is- there are very few tourists and no plans are needed!
Ciao for now!