Things to Do in Italy
Though the giant, craggy La Rocca may dominate the Cefalù skyline, the Cefalù Cathedral (Duomo di Cefalù) competes for that attention. The Norman-style church was constructed starting in 1131, prompted — according to legend — by Roger II, who, during a shipwreck at sea, promised God that if he survived, that he’d construct a church right in this very place. Today’s cathedral is noted for its fortress-like exterior, and for its interior mosaics, particularly the lavish Christ Pantokrator mosaic.
The grand mosaic is complemented by a relatively humble interior, which makes the contrast all the more striking. Almost just as important as seeing the inside of the church is experiencing it from the outside from the palm tree-filled plaza. It’s the perfect place to grab pizza, coffee or an ice cream — you might pay a premium for it, but the splendid views and free cathedral-entry more than make up for it.
For deserted lagoons, turquoise waves, and fabulous beaches, set sail for the Maddalena Archipelago (Arcipelago della Maddalena), just off the Costa Smeralda. The group of seven islands and dozens of islets between Sardinia and Corsica is a national park, with crystalline waters for diving and unspoiled coastlines.
Taking prize place beside the Town Hall on Piazza Duomo, the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta (Duomo di San Gimignano) ranks among most impressive monuments of San Gimignano’s UNESCO-listed historic center.
Behind its comparatively reserved façade, the church’s main claim to fame is its exquisite frescos, which date back to the 14th and 15th centuries, and remain remarkably unrestored. The bold colors and painstaking detail bring to life iconic biblical scenes including Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark, the Garden of Eden and dramatic depictions of Heaven and Hell, with highlights including works by Bartolo di Fredi, Lippo Memmi, Benozzo Gozzoli and Taddeo di Bartolo.
Adjoining the church, the small Museum of Sacred Art includes more works taken from the Duomo and other San Gimignano churches, including a Crucifix by Benedetto di Maiano and the ‘Madonna of the Rose’ by Bartolo di Fredi.
The Natural Reserve on the Sicilian coast from Trapani to Marsala is set aside for multiple uses, from collecting sea salt to preserving wildlife. The salt pans are still used to harvest sea salt, using the same methods that have been used for centuries, which include the use of some historic windmills. There is also a museum, set in a former salt mill, that is dedicated to the salt harvesting history in the area.
As a haven for wildlife, the Trapani and Paceco Salt Pans Natural Reserve (Riserva Naturale Integrale Saline di Trapani e Paceco) has been under the direction of WWF Italy since 1995, and visitors can often see more than 150 species of birds here. Among them, look for flamingoes, cranes, storks and osprey.
A European Capital of Culture, the UNESCO-listed Sassi di Matera are one of Basilicata’s most fascinating destinations. The cave dwellings and caverns carved into the hillside of Matera date from prehistoric times and were inhabited until the 1950s. Today, they host unique hotels, restaurants, churches, and museums.
Orvieto’s magnificent cathedral (Duomo di Orvieto) can be seen from miles around, its soaring facade and spires towering high above the rooftops of the clifftop town. Once you get closer, you can take in its intricate external mosaics and stonework, rose window, bronze doors, and sumptuous Signorelli frescoes inside.
The extravagant 19th-century Miramare Castle (Castello di Miramare) is set on the Grignano promontory above the Gulf of Trieste and has beautiful interiors and 54 acres of grounds and botanical gardens. Home to the Habsburg family until the 20th century, this sumptuous noble residence offers a fascinating glimpse into royal life.
The Colosseum has been a symbol of Rome since 80 AD, and today it’s a top monument in Italy. Some 50,000 spectators once gathered in the amphitheater’s tiered seats to watch gladiatorial games, and though parts of its original marble facade were pilfered over the years to build the likes of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Colosseum remains remarkably intact 2,000 years later.
The powerful figure of Neptune appears in many fountains around Italy, including the Fountain of Neptune (Fontana di Nettuno) in Messina. The Messina version was completed in 1557 by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli.
Montorsoli designed the Neptune figure to face the city of Messina from its original position near the harbor. The fountain was moved to its currently location in Piazza dell’Unità after it was damaged.
Neptune stands above a tiered fountain in the Messina square, holding his signature trident over the sculpted figures of two sea monsters representing two particularly treacherous rocks near Messina’s harbor. Neptune’s hand originally reached toward the city in a gesture of protection, though in the fountain’s current location his arm reaches toward the sea. Many tours of Messina’s city center include a stop at the fountain.
Birthplace of St. Francis and one of Italy’s most atmospheric hill towns, Assisi is best known for its glorious Basilica of St. Francis. The UNESCO-listed pilgrimage site is a treasure trove of medieval art. Visit the soaring upper church, the somber lower church, and Francis’ tomb in the crypt.
More Things to Do in Italy
Perhaps one of the world's most beloved architectural mistakes, the Leaning Tower of Pisa's inimitable tilt has made the UNESCO World Heritage site an Italian icon. Travelers flock to snap photos of themselves “holding up” the tilted tower—originally intended as a bell tower for Pisa Cathedral—although you can also ascend the 294-step spiral staircase for stunning views over Pisa.
The Italian name of Isola Bella contains both a truth and a misnomer: though worthy of being called beautiful, this tiny rocky outcrop along Sicily’s coast near Taormina is not actually an island. Located off the Lido Mazzaro beach on the Mediterranean Sea, Isola Bella is connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of sand that is often covered with water at high tide. The picturesque point was gifted to Taormina in 1806 by the King of Sicily and later purchased by the Scottish Lady Florence Trevelyan—her villa still sits on the highest point—until being taken over by the region of Sicily and made a nature reserve in 1990.
Each day, Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper (Il Cenacolo) draws hundreds of art-loving visitors to the unassuming refectory of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie for just 15 minutes with the painting. Arguably Milan's most famous 15th-century wall mural, you must book entrance tickets in advance or sign up for a guided Milan city tour to see it up close.
Over the centuries, Sicily was ruled by successive waves of conquerors, each one leaving their mark on the island’s architecture, culture, and cuisine. A perfect example of this blend of cultures is the Palermo Cathedral (Cattedrale di Palermo), a fascinating patchwork of Norman, Arabic, Gothic, Baroque, and Neoclassical architectural styles.
Once one of Europe’s oldest drawing schools, Florence’s Accademia Gallery (Galleria dell’Accademia) is now one of the city’s most visited museums, home to one of the world’s most impressive works of Renaissance art—Michelangelo’s 17-foot-tall (5.2-meter-tall) David. Other works on display include 15th- and 16th-century paintings by the likes of Botticelli and Lippi, unfinished Michelangelo sculptures, and a museum of musical instruments.
There is a distinctive rock formation on a promontory near Cagliari that, because of its shape, is known as Devil’s Saddle, or Sella di Diavolo in Italian. The promontory overlooks the city’s popular Poetto Beach.
The easiest way to see Devil’s Saddle is simply by visiting the beach, but there are also hiking trails along the promontory for a more close-up look. Hikers can walk along what began as an ancient Roman road and can climb up to one of the points on Devil’s Saddle.
Among the sights to see near Devil’s Saddle are the remains of a Roman cistern, an 11th-century monastery, and fortifications from World War II. There are even Punic ruins to see that date from the 6th century BC, before the ancient Roman era. A Punic temple was built on the promontory, dedicated to the Goddess Astarte. For many visitors, though, the main draw is the panoramic view from the top of the hill.
The crown jewel of Venice, St. Mark's Basilica (Basilica di San Marco) is an ornate cathedral which blends elements of Gothic, Byzantine, Romanesque, and Renaissance architecture. Topped by soaring domes and replete with astonishing golden mosaics, the church is so opulent it is known as the Chiesa d’Oro, or the Golden Church.
The powerful Doges ruled the Venetian Empire from the Gothic fantasy palace that is Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale) until 1797. The site was one of the first things those arriving in Venice saw as their ships sailed through the lagoon and landed at St Mark's Square, and the doges ruled with an iron fist—justice was often meted out here. Today, the site is one of the most well-known attractions in Italy.
The Ligurian town of Portofino is popular with visitors for its pastel-colored buildings, but it's also home to an important protected marine area – the Portofino Marine Reserve (Area Marina Protetta di Portofino). The site covers just under 350 hectares of the sea off the coast around the whole promontory (not just the town), and was established in 1999. It is known for its diverse sealife, and its protected status helps ensure those populations remain.
Different parts of the protected area include Zone A, where everything from boating and anchoring to diving is prohibited, and Zone C, where there are far fewer restrictions on activities. In some places, visitors are more than welcome to swim and even kayak, stand-up paddleboard or dive.
A cluster of the island’s unique limestone edifices dating from between the Bronze and Iron ages, this 3,500-year-old Nuragic village is one of the most captivating megalithic sites in Sardinia. Tour the main towers and meeting hut to learn about the enigmatic Nuragic culture and its striking architecture.
Just outside the old city wall of Montepulciano, on a Tuscan hill surrounded by trees, is the stately Temple of San Biagio (Tempio di San Biagio), a 16th-century Renaissance church. Admired for its beauty, the church's picturesque, cream-colored travertine exterior gives way to an elegant and airy interior, with pastel-colored walls and a legendary, 14th-century fresco, said to have been the site of a miracle when the Madonna in the painting was witnessed moving her eyes in the 16th century. The church was then rebuilt in Renaissance Greek style.
For many, the main appeal of the Temple of San Biagio is the view of the church from afar, when its marble facade catches the sunlight, setting the church aglow amid the surrounding forests and fields. For others, the view is even better with wine. Visit the church on a full-day, wine country tour from Florence, to pair your cultural experience with included wine-tastings and lunch.
Pompeii is perhaps the most important archaeological site in the world, and among Italy's most-visited attractions. The sixth-century-BC Temple of Apollo (Tempio di Apollo) overlooking the forum is one of the oldest religious buildings in this ancient Roman city and a highlight of any tour of these enormous ruins.
UNESCO-listed Pienza was little more than a sleepy hamlet until the reign of Pope Pius II in the first half of the fifteenth century. Pienza, then called Corsignano, was the pope’s home town, and he enlisted the help of architect Bernardo Rossellino to transform the village into an ideal Renaissance town. The reconstruction began in 1459 and only lasted four years, but the result has put Pienza on the radar of many a traveler to Tuscany.
The town’s historic center offers excellent examples of Renaissance architecture, particularly the cathedral, Palazzo Piccolomimi and Palazzo Borgia, all flanking charming Piazza Pio II. While it’s easy to breeze through the tiny town — it only takes five minutes to walk from one side to the other — it’s also an inviting place to savor a local specialty, sheep’s milk pecorino cheese with a bit of honey drizzled over the top.
The most exuberant example of Northern Gothic architecture in Italy, the spiky spires and towers of Milan's Duomo (Duomo di Milano) dominate Piazza del Duomo, the city's beating heart. One of the highlights of a visit to the cathedral is the view from the roof, where you can scope out Milan from the highest terrace surrounded by statues. On a clear day, it’s possible to see the Italian Alps.
- Things to do in Rome
- Things to do in Naples
- Things to do in Florence
- Things to do in Venice
- Things to do in Sorrento
- Things to do in Pompeii
- Things to do in Salerno
- Things to do in Messina
- Things to do in Positano
- Things to do in Lake Bracciano
- Things to do in Croatia
- Things to do in Slovenia
- Things to do in Umbria
- Things to do in Tuscany
- Things to do in Lazio