Trips to Italy are the ones that really stay with you. Although you have doubtlessly seen the country’s grand cathedrals on postcards, eaten its food in all manner of establishments, and felt a sense of its culture and conviviality, nothing compares to the real deal.
From north to south, islands to mainlands, Italy has an embarrassment of riches – when you think one city is the most beautiful you’ll ever see, another one will always come along and take your breath away all over again. Here are seven essential cities that you simply cannot ignore. Book them as surprise city breaks one-by-one, or take the summer off and visit all seven. Your life will be better for doing so.
Venice may seem like an obvious choice, but as Italy’s most arguably Disneyfied city it needs to be seen to be believed. With its network of narrow canals, its constant procession of gondolas, and its corner cafés for sitting, smoking and sipping an espresso, Venice is exactly what you’d expect, but dialled up to levels you never thought possible. Caught between the Po and Piave Rivers, this borderline-aquatic city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its entirety – although this doesn’t make it one big historical exhibit. Venice is full of life, and never sparkles as much as when its streets are alive with revellers, as it does in the city’s famous carnival, when Venetians and visitors don colourful costumes and intricate masks, and cavort in the final celebration before Lent.
Known for, amongst other things, being the setting for Romeo and Juliet, Verona is a city of romance, wearing its ancient heritage as well as anywhere in Italy. Just like Venice, it is found in the region of Veneto – in the northeast of Italy – and is itself a World Heritage Site. Besides having the huge Arena di Verona and the famous Piazza Erbe, Verona is most famous for its romantic medieval Casa di Giulietta, where lovers of literature and romance go to appreciate the history of the star-crossed lovers, and the story that has captivated many for so long. A trip to Verona is definitely not one to be missed, especially with someone special.
Rome was once the epicentre of the Western world, the heart of the Roman Empire, and one of the most advanced and powerful cities that the world has ever seen. Today, the Italian capital remains the Eternal City, overflowing with history, culture, and a sensibility unparalleled within Europe. Italy’s palaces, government departments, and seats of religious power can all be found within Rome, and as such, the city has been the site of millions of pilgrimages, from the rest of the country and abroad, for centuries. The city centre is a cacophony of architectural styles merging into one unmatched destination: from classical and imperial Roman, to romanesque, to Renaissance, to baroque, and now even to modern. The Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Forum, and the Trevi Fountain are all iconic symbols of the city, known the world over, but to walk around them and catch a sense of their history and heritage is to truly understand what all the fuss has been about.
Milan is the home of finance, fashion and design in Italy; the capital of the region of Lombardy, and the third largest economy of all EU cities. First and foremost, it is a city of art – the city’s most famous gallery, the Santa Maria della Grazie, attracts eight million visitors a year, most of which arriving to see one of the most legendary paintings in all of human history, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. It is also resolutely a city of football, housing two bitter rivals, the former European Champions, Internazionale and A.C. Milan, whose rivalry spans generations. But its buildings are no less beautiful than those of Rome or Venice, even if Milan leans more towards modernity: the Piazza del Duomo and the breathtaking Milan Cathedral are astonishing architectural marvels, but, equally, so are recent builds like the Bosco Verticale, two towers lined with 800 trees to absorb carbon dioxide.
Founded in antiquity by the Pelasgians, Greeks, Etruscans and Ligures, Pisa is strategically located on the Arno River, just before it opens up on to the Tyrrhenian Sea. The city is known globally for its leaning tower, but there’s more to Pisa than its most famous monument. Be it the bridges across the Arno River, the 12th century University of Pisa, or the incredible ancient architecture within the city, there’s more than enough in the city to keep you occupied. There are around eight main museums here, but the most intriguing one would be the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti per il Calcolo, which houses a collection of equipment used by scientists like Van Musschenbroek, and the city’s most famous son, Galileo Galilei.
The Campania capital has the largest Old Town in Europe, and one of the most ancient, with 27 centuries of history, wear and tear in its streets. Within it, or at the very least a stone’s throw from it, you can chart the heritage of Italy from Empire to Risorgimento. Go from the Roman ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, through to the ancient theatre of Neapolis, to the medieval Castel Nuovo, the renaissance Royal Palace, and to the dazzlingly baroque Palace of Capodimonte, and you will understand Italy’s history all the better. There is, however, more to Naples than buildings: the city is associated with twinkly Neapolitan guitars, football, and of course, pizza, which originated in, and was perfected in, the city. Some would say that Naples is the only place in the world you can have proper pizza – it’s certainly worth going just to see for yourself.