If you’re lucky enough to visit Italy at least once, it pays to do it right. Rich in history and culture, the best places in Italy each have their own charm, with delicious regional dishes to try and landmarks with unique stories to tell. But where to visit first?
We’ve put together 20 of our favourites, from historical heavyweights like Rome and Venice, to the hidden gems of Lake Como, Lecce, and Sardinia. You’ll never guess which seaside Italian city is the birthplace of focaccia bread…
They say all roads lead to Rome, so it seems fitting to start in Italy’s ancient capital city. The Colosseum will be the top attraction for many, especially now its new retractable floor will allow visitors to walk on the actual arena, where gladiators fought thousands of years ago.
Hit up one of the dessert cafes on Piazza del Popolo to buy gelato, then sashay your way over to the Spanish Steps to catch a view with your creamy snack. If you’re superstitious, chuck your change into Trevi Fountain – it’s said to ensure your return to Rome someday! The money is collected and used to fund a market for people who live in the poorest areas of Rome.
Other must-visit spots include the Pantheon, the Roman Forum, and of course, the Pope’s house i.e the Vatican. This religious and historical timetrip is also where you can get lost in Michelangelo’s stunning, age-defining work, the Sistine Chapel.
Locals often refer to Tuscany as the most romantic and cultural area of their country. This central region of Italy is filled with olive groves, vineyards, mountains, and beaches.
With nature’s undiluted vibrancy all around, it’s no wonder that so many famous artists found their form here: Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Michelangelo. Maybe you’ll discover your own artistic inspiration on the rolling hills and meadows by Lake Chiusi.
At the very least, you’ll be fed well… ask for tagliatelle al tartufo (truffle pasta) and panzanella salad at one of the many lakeside restaurants – they’re Tuscan favourites!
Venice has been sinking for centuries, but experts reckon this city of canals could be gone in 80 years if global warming continues at the current pace. While we hope this doesn’t happen, it’s all the more reason to visit Venice while you can… offsetting your carbon footprint with Contiki while you’re at it!
Venice is so charming and historic, almost like a Disney film. The Beauty, you’ll find on a moonlit gondola ride on Canal Grande. And the Beast?
Try on a volto in Rialto Market and you’ll see it in the mirror! You know, those traditional Venetian masks with distinct, long noses? Popularised through masquerade balls across the world, a volto is the perfect souvenir to buy when in Venice – though you’ll want to remove it later on to allow for long sips of Aperol Spritz. You’d be hard pressed to a Venetian bar that doesn’t have these sparkling orange tipples on the menu.
4. Cinque Terre
Bolster your insta feed with cuteness at Cinque Terre, a coastal community of five fishing villages in Northern Italy. Evening boat rides from Cinque Terre harbour will provide plenty of photo-ops, you won’t want to crop a thing. Not least the colourful houses skirting the sea as you sail.
Foodies travel to Cinque Terre every year just to try the seafood, so be sure to sample a plate of fresh fish or two while you’re here. It’s one of the best places to visit in Italy for local cuisine, especially Frito misto (deep-fried seafood with lemon). But veggies need not be disappointed. Crisp, fragrant focaccia originated here, plus pesto made from the best basil will make for a bowl of pasta that packs a punch.
5. Lake Como
Lake Como in Lombardy is a popular holiday spot for Italians and travellers alike. Serene mountainside views of the Alps combine with beaches and deep blue waters here, at Europe’s deepest lake outside of Norway.
The surrounding towns, such as Bellagio, Como, and Varenna, are reachable by boat service and perfect for day trips, with markets, pastel-coloured villas, and plenty of scrummy food options. Long days at the beach offer the opportunity for sailing, swimming, and windsurfing on Lake Como’s cooling waters.
Though Rome is the nation’s capital, Milan is affectionately known to many locals as ‘second city’ of Italy, partly due to its contributions to art, architecture, fashion, and business.
Duomo Cathedral is just one example of this, taking hundreds of years to complete since construction started in the 14th century! Take a trip to the top for peerless views of Milan’s skyline from the heavens.
Though Milan is one of the four fashion capitals of the world, it’s not just designer brands here – head to Corso di Porta Ticinese to shop for vintage and retro clothes. For a proper Milanese day out, grab some dinner and an aperitivo (pre-dinner drink) before a trip to one of the city’s many theatres: Teatro Allo Scala is the city’s biggest.
How can one visit Italy and miss getting a selfie with the Leaning Tower of Pisa? But then again, the dozen or so medieval churches and palaces mean this wacky tower isn’t the only thing worth seeing in the Tuscan city. Pisa can get busy in parts, so take an evening walk down the River Arno to soak up some solitude and to catch the sunset.
Heaven for art lovers, Florence is the jewel in Tuscany’s crown when it comes to culture, romance, and The Renaissance. Duomo Cathedral, with it’s big red dome, and Michelangelo’s David, are top sights to see in the city. But there are 72 museums and galleries across Florence, meaning it’s almost impossible to fit everything in one visit… ready for the challenge?
Land of volcanoes, mountains, and ancient temples, Sicily is one of the most unique places to go in Italy for sightseeing. It’s also the largest island on the Mediterranean, situated near the ‘heel’ of southern Italy. Catch otherworldly views from the cable cars on Mt Etna, the active volcano that has been spewing lava and smoke for the past 2.6 million years!
The city of Palermo is another must-visit spot, with a superb range of street markets and a cathedral that will take your breath away. The golden, sandy walls and turquoise dome of this 14th century build mimics the sea you’ll be swimming in!
This one is for history nuts and thespians alike. Verona is the site of one of the world’s most spectacular venues, Arena di Verona, the amphitheatre preserved since the 1st century. It’s also the setting of Romeo & Juliet, William Shakespeares’s best known play.
You can visit Juliet’s balcony, where the famous romance began to bud between ‘two star-crossed lovers’. Though the story is fictional, the walls are covered in love messages left by scores of visitors over the years, keeping the fantasy alive.
One of Italy’s more off-beat and perhaps under-appreciated holiday destinations, Sardinia is full of weird and wonderful things to do. Like Barbagia Carnival, a celebration with ghoulish masks and street performances that is said to scare away winter demons. Or casu marzu, the regional cheese cultured with maggots – think you’d be brave enough to give it a try?
Don’t worry if not – the beauty of Sardinia is less complex than its cheese, with a range of stunning white beaches and clear waters.
12. Amalfi Coast
The coast of Amalfi, just south of Naples, has long been a popular getaway spot for the world’s rich and famous. But don’t let the celebs have all the fun!
Head to Capri, Positano, and Sorrento for dramatic cliffside views, sweet-smelling lemon trees and unlimited fun in the deep, blue sea. The resort town of Ravello hosts an annual music and arts festival in the summer, the perfect place to rub shoulders with famous composers and fledgling artists alike.
13. San Gimignano
Fancy a bit of time travel? The walled, hillside town of Tuscany’s San Gimignano has been preserved since medieval times, with a range of historic tower houses dating back to the 13th century. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, San Gimignano’s unique architecture has captured the imagination of many art-makers, featuring in films and even Assassins Creed 2.
Head to Fattoria Poggio Alloro for a taste of local cuisine and terrific view while you eat. Ask for San Gimignano risotto, a classic dish made from Vernaccia white wine and saffron, both of which are produced in the area.
Pompeii is best known for the Mt Vesuvius tragedy in 79 AD, where around 2,000 people lost their lives at the hands of molten lava and poisonous volcanic gases. Despite the natural disaster coating the town in metres of ash for centuries, there are loads of historic buildings still intact, including the 2nd century amphitheatre and the Temple of Isis.
For a more light-hearted excursion, head to the ancient brothel, with graffiti and wall drawings sketching a rather raunchy, yet riveting story of life and attitudes of the town’s residents hundreds of years ago.
15. Lake Garda
Roman villas, coastal castles, Alpine mountains, and a harbour filled with colourful boats surround Garda, Italy’s largest lake. Cable cars and bicycle tours offer superb views of this picturesque lakeside town and the abundance of lemon trees that trace the hillside. Out of all the best places to visit in Italy, perhaps Lake Garda is the one that offers the most serenity and calm.
Could we make a list of the best places to visit in Italy without Naples, the birthplace of Neapolitan pizza? Queen Margherita, according to legend, helped to popularise this regional speciality when she sampled pizzas cooked by local pizzaiolo, Raffaele Esposito.
Her favourite? That would be the one with white mozzarella, green basil, and red tomatoes reminiscent of the Italian flag – named after the queen herself because she couldn’t get enough of it! Needless to say, Neapolitan pizza is a must-try when in Naples! Bustling piazzas and narrow streets filled with quirky art shops make this city an entertaining urban escape on your trip around Italy.
Southern Italy holds an unmistakable charm that sets it apart from other regions and Lecce is no exception. The locals are welcoming and slightly eccentric, the fried street food is comforting and the pace of life is idyllically slow. After dinner, grab a few glasses of local wine with friends at a sleepy local trattoria before heading to the beach to catch the Lecce sunset in all its glory.
Situated on the edge of the Amalfi coast, Salerno offers a peaceful escape for the larger resort towns of Capri and Positano. Head to Minerva’s Garden for the abundance of flowers and therapeutic plants, while Parco Naturale Diecimare offers nature trails shrouded in lush greenery. To catch a view of the Salerno Gulf and the glittering Amalfi Coast, take a picnic of Italian meats and cheeses up to Arechi Castle – the medieval building sits almost 1,000 ft above sea level.
19. The Dolomites
Hikers, skiers, and cyclists head to the Dolomites every year to experience the relaxed charm of northern Italy, punctuated by beautiful mountainside views. Situated near Austria’s Tyrol (where Contiki’s famed gasthof resides) the Dolomites offers a warmer climate, but still much chillier than the South of Italy. There is a bounty of natural lakes in the mountains that make for a refreshing swim – if you can brave the initial shock of cold!
Siena might come last on our list of the best places to visit in Italy, but that’s not to say it’s the least favourite! In truth, many travellers prefer the gentle pace of life in Siena compared to popular Florence, its Tuscan sister city.
Head to Duomo di Siena to catch a glimpse of the colourful mosaic floor and decorated spires, before hitting up Piazza del Campo for a cheeky aperitivo in the lively city square. Soldier up 400 steps and you’ll reach the top of Torre del Mangia, with a birds-eye view of Siena’s abundance of greenery and clay-coloured medieval buildings.
Now that you have a list of 20 of the best places to visit in Italy, what’s next? Check out Contiki’s trips to Italy, and find answers to some of your questions here:
What time of year is best to visit Italy?
The best time to visit Italy is when you have the time, as it’s beautiful all year long. If you’re looking for the warmest and driest weather, visiting Italy between May and October is ideal. While the summer months are the hottest and the busiest, avoid August if you’re not a fan of extreme heat and peak tourism season.
Where should I go in Italy for two weeks?
Two weeks is a realistic amount of time to see Italy’s best sites. We recommend making sure you don’t miss these favourites: Rome, Florence, Venice, Tuscany, Cinque Terre, and the Amalfi Coast. Plus, there are a ton of beautiful smaller towns in between these that you can easily visit as well.