You've booked your flights, your accommodation is sorted - you're off to beautiful Italy! Now all that's needed is a fantastic itinerary to see the very best sights and attractions the country has to offer. And it certainly has a lot to offer. From idyllic beaches and quaint rural towns to ancient Roman sites and vibrant cities, it can be hard to know where to begin. Well, fear not! We've put together this useful guide to Italy's best attractions. Whether you like to spend your holidays exploring the local culture, getting out and about in nature, or simply strolling around pretty historic villages, we have something for you to do.
Of course, many of the best things to do in Italy aren't exactly hidden gems - after all, this corner of Europe welcomes around 50 million tourists every year - but there's a reason that the most popular attractions are so beloved! However, it never hurts to be armed with a bit of insider knowledge, and with this in mind, we've added some of our own ideas for alternative, lesser-known things to do, perfect for those looking for more budget-friendly options or just something a little more off-the-beaten-path.
From the macabre sight of bodies frozen in time by pyroclastic flows from Mount Vesuvius to the stone buildings in which they lived, as well as the numerous frescoes and artefacts entirely covered by ash for over 1500 years, Pompeii is a truly enlightening experience. Having been rediscovered in the 18th century, visitors are able to gain a fascinating insight into the way people lived here before that fateful day in October 79 AD, with villas, bath houses, shops and roads all visible - there are even a number of exquisite mosaics that have been preserved. With so much to see, it's easy to spend a whole day here, and if you'd like to see more of the artefacts and mosaics recovered from the site, a visit to Naples' National Archaeological Museum is a worthwhile addition to your trip.
The town of Herculaneum was also destroyed in the disastrous eruption of 79 AD. The site has many of the attractions of Pompeii, including preserved private homes, shops, etc., as well as skeletons, but is much smaller and generally sees fewer visitors.
When it comes to things to do in Venice, Italy's 'City of Bridges' offers plenty of options. Snap photos of the famous Rialto Bridge, see the stunning Palazzo Ducale, or simply try not to get lost as you wander through the city's winding narrow streets. Perhaps the most iconic attraction, however, is the chance to see the city from the water. What better way to view the historic landmarks and magnificent architecture than relaxing in a gondola while you are gently steered by a local gondolier? There is a downside, though - today, a 30-minute ride will set you back €80 (£70), increasing to €100 (£87) after 7pm.
Alternative: a Traghetto ride
While not quite as glamorous as the gondolas we're used to seeing - these boats were originally designed solely to transport workers across the Grand Canal - the traghetti (ferries) are now used by both locals and tourists, and offer a much cheaper way to see the city from the water, at just €2 a pop.
What's a visit to Pisa without the obligatory photo 'holding up' its famous leaning tower? Built in the 12th century, the Leaning Tower of Pisa has long been a tourist hotspot thanks to its strange tilt. It was first noted back in the 1170s, just a few years after construction began, thanks to the structure's uneven foundations. While it was feared to be in danger of collapsing in the 1990s, today it stands strong thanks to years of structural support work. After snapping your photo outside, you can go inside the tower, and the nearly 300 steps to the top reward you with a great view of the city.
Alternative: Garisenda Tower
If you're planning to visit Bologna, there's another, lesser-known leaning tower you can visit. Torre Garisenda (Garisenda Tower) dates back to the 12th century and has been worrying city officials for decades thanks to its prominent tilt - only slightly less than that of Pisa. It sits next to Torre Asinelli (Asinelli Tower) - which also has a slight, less notable lean - and together they form the city's 'Two Towers' attraction.
Located in the Sassi area of the city of Materia in Italy's southern Puglia region, lies one of the most unique things to do in Italy. Here, you'll find an ancient maze of cave houses built into the mountainside. One of the world's longest inhabited human settlements, it is said that humans were living here some 7,000 years ago. People still lived here as late as the 1950s, until the area was evacuated due to the lack of proper infrastructure - no electricity, no running water and no sewage system. Today, the dwellings play host to various museums that provide a fascinating glimpse at what life was like for those who lived in the caves.
For a taste of ancient life just one hour away from Matera, you can visit the town of Ginosa. Here you can see a few cave houses, albeit on a much less impressive scale.
The Cinque Terre is certainly one of the most popular places to visit in Italy. Comprising five stunningly pretty fishing towns - Vernazza, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Monterosso and Corniglia - the region has ancient roots and boasts colourful houses perched on coastal cliffs. Visitors from far and wide come to wine, dine, and savour the famously spectacular views, made more enjoyable by a car ban in each of the towns. There's plenty for history lovers, too, with sites dating back to mediaeval times to explore.
Alternative: Porto Venere
For a somewhat less crowded dose of cliffs, coast, and coloured houses, the village of Porto Venere is just a few miles from the Cinque Terre, but is arguably as charming, with the addition of a 12th century castle and a Gothic church.
A delightfully photogenic hub of art, culture, and cuisine, it's hard not to fall in love with Florence. As the birthplace of the Renaissance, you'll find a wealth of incredible art in the city's galleries, as well as enchanting architecture. Its most familiar sight is the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore - the third-largest church in the world - with its terracotta dome that looks proudly over the city. There's also the chance to see Michelangelo’s “David” sculpture, alongside other masterpieces, in the Galleria dell'Accademia.
While you'll find no shortage of things to do in Florence, Italy has another historic city packed with culture and its Renaissance past. The walled city of Urbino lies around three hours from Florence, in the Umbria region, and is home to the 15th-century Palazzo Ducale and National Gallery of the Marche, which plays host to artworks by the likes of Raphael and Laurana.
The volcanic island of Ischia sits in the Gulf of Naples. The island is home to several attractions, including a castle and beautiful botanical gardens, but its biggest draw for many tourists is its famed thermal pools. The largest thermal park, Giardini Poseidon Terme (Poseidon Thermal Gardens), is home to more than 20 pools as well as a beach, restaurants and beauty spa. Taking a dip in the warm waters here is said to have curative effects, but, if nothing else, it is definitely a relaxing way to spend a day.
Alternative: Pantelleria hot springs
If you plan to spend some time in Sicily, why not hop over to the island of Pantelleria to soak up the benefits of the thermal waters here? Less crowded than Ischia, there are several thermal baths here, and the best part - you can enjoy your open-air spa day free of charge, since they're all public.
If you love outdoor pursuits and being at one with nature, a visit to the Dolomites is one of the best things to do in Italy. Easily accessible and awe-inspiringly beautiful, the area is a must for anyone looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and spend a few days walking, eating fresh, hearty food, bird watching, as well as just taking in the splendid scenery, which includes lakes, forests, and mountains. Given the popularity of the region, you'll find plenty of amenities, including restaurants and hotels.
Alternative: Gran Paradiso
Gran Paradiso National Park, located west of the Dolomites, offers a more off-the-beaten-path for travellers really looking to get away from it all. It's not for the faint hearted, though - its high altitude and limited access and infrastructure make it one for the more seasoned hiker.
Long hailed as one of the most chic Italian attractions, Lake Como is the most popular of the country's great lakes. There are a number of towns and villages to explore, or one can simply while away the hours sipping a glass of wine with a good book at a lakefront eatery. Tour elegant villas and palaces, visit perfectly manicured gardens, or enjoy a boat ride on the lake - this stylish playground has plenty to keep you busy (or not).
Alternative: Lake Maggiore
A little less touristy and a little more rugged, Lake Maggiore makes a great alternative for those in search of a bit more solitude. A visit here gives you the chance to explore the Borromean Islands - tiny islands and islets with villas, palaces and water gardens to explore.
While the capital city of the Emilia-Romagna region has no shortage of sights and attractions, it's delving into the city's food scene that ranks as one of the very best things to do in Bologna. Italy is famed worldwide for its mouthwatering cuisine, and there is nowhere better than the country's 'food capital' to see what all the fuss is about. The birthplace of familiar delicacies like ragu alla bolognese, lasagne and tortellini, its restaurants serve up famously fresh and high-quality dishes using local ingredients such as parmesan cheese and parma ham. To get an especially authentic taste of the city's culinary scene, head to Mercato delle Erbe, a bustling indoor market selling a wide variety of local produce.
While exploring the culinary arts is probably not what you had on your list of things to do in Milan, Italy's fashion capital has a burgeoning food scene that offers almost every type of Italian cuisine - allowing you to embark on a food tour of Italy during your time here. From hole in the wall eateries to Michelin-starred restaurants, you'll find everything from authentic Neapolitan pizza to hearty Tuscan cuisine. The city is also the capital of the aperitivo, making it the perfect place to enjoy a pre-dinner Aperol spritz.
Set south of Florence in the Tuscany region, San Gimignano is a hill town that offers the chance to step back in time. The walled town, dating back to mediaeval times, boasts centuries-old architecture, including a number of towers that were built by distinguished residents as a display of their wealth. The town's 12th-century church, the Duomo di San Gimignano, is a must see thanks to its colourful frescoes.
If you're staying in southern Italy, there's another, equally captivating hilltop town you can visit. Located in the Puglia region, Ostuni is a gem of the south, with whitewashed houses, cobbled lanes and beautiful views. Wander around the maze-like town then stop in the square for a bite to refuel - perfect!
Italy's third-largest city is famously spirited and full of energy. When it comes to things to do in Naples, this lively city certainly doesn't disappoint. Here you'll find museums, and excellent food - it's the birthplace of pizza, after all. Tour mediaeval Castel Nuovo, explore the fascinating museum at the Royal Palace of Naples, or visit San Gregorio Armeno, the short street famous for its plethora of shops selling figurines for nativity scenes. Alternatively, simply soak up the local atmosphere with a stroll around its narrow winding streets or the Piazza del Plebiscito.
To get a taste of southern Italian life without the crowds, pop over to Pozzuoli, just 30 minutes from Naples. This slightly lower-octane city has plenty to offer as well, including colourful houses, a Greek fortress and a Roman amphitheatre.
An easy day trip from lively Rome, the Vatican is a highlight of many tours of Italy. It is home to the Vatican Museums, one of which houses the enchanting Sistine Chapel. Here you'll find two of Michelangelo's most iconic works - the ceiling frescoes, which took four years to complete, and the Giudizio Universale (Last Judgment), which the artist painted in his later years, finally finishing at the age of 67. The latter proved controversial for its time due to the amount of nudity it depicted, which was later painted over.
Alternative: Orvieto Cathedral.
As one of the most famous Italian attractions, the Sistine Chapel can often get extremely crowded. For the chance to see something different, head to Umbria's pretty, historic city of Orvieto. In the Chapel of Saint Brizio, set within the city's cathedral, are the colourful works of Luca Signorelli, Beato Angelico and Benzolo Bozzoli. While undeniably less impressive than their Vatican counterpart, the frescoes are nonetheless beautiful and fascinating for their depiction of the Antichrist, the Apocalypse and the Resurrection.
No Italy tour would be complete without a visit to Rome, set between the prosperous north and the rugged, largely agrarian south. The Italian capital's 3,000-year history is reflected in its awe-inspiring ruins and monuments, the most iconic of which has to be the Colosseum. Completed in 80 CE, the impressive amphitheatre once staged gladiator games and animal shows for a crowd of some 50,000 spectators. After admiring the grand structure from the outside, you can venture inside and explore the arena to get a taste of how it once looked. Be sure to book your tickets in advance and ideally visit in the morning for the best chance of beating the queues.
Alternative: Amphitheatre of Capua
While the Colosseum is one of the best things to do in Rome, Italy's gladiator history can also be explored further south. The Anfiteatro Campano (Amphitheatre of Capua) is a worthwhile visit and is rarely crowded. Located in the city of Capua in the Campania region, this Roman amphitheatre was second only in size to Rome's Colosseum, and was the location of the very first gladiator school. While today's structure is less preserved and smaller than the Colosseum, both the arena and the underground tunnels are open to the public.
Home to some of Italy’s most revered cities, relaxed verdant countryside and a number of the world’s finest vineyards, Tuscany has an unmatched personality. If you're looking to unwind and enjoy a slower-paced holiday, this could just be the destination for you. There are a plethora of pretty towns and villages to choose from, although our favourites include Barga, Pienza and Lucca. Given the region's reputation as one of the best wine producers in Europe, you'll also have plenty of opportunities for vineyard and winery visits.
If you're longing for rolling countryside, ancient towns and hearty food, Umbria is another great option. The region has much of its neighbour's charm, but fewer crowds and cheaper prices.
Whether you're planning to visit the country's north, south or centre, we hope this guide has helped you decide what to do in Italy. Needless to say, a country as beautiful as Italy has too many excellent sights and attractions to squeeze into one article, and there are plenty of other destinations that are worthy of mention - Sardinia, Lake Garda and the Amalfi Coast to name just a few - but these gems have hopefully inspired you to make a start on your itinerary - maybe with the addition of some potential alternatives that you may not have previously considered.
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