25 Best things to see and do in Italy | Rough Guides

updated 1/7/2022
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The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Italy

, your essential guide for visiting Italy .

What are the best things to in Italy? From browsing Renaissance art to visiting beaches, the variety is huge. Discover which Italian mountain ranges are best for hiking and what cities to see with our pick of 25 top things to do in Italy year round.

1. Wander the centro storico in Rome

Rome

has so much to see you can just aimlessly wander around and be constantly surprised. But don't miss the Colosseum and the Forum Romanum, keep your eyes peeled for ancient statuary and legendary Baroque fountains.

When you need to take a breath, find yourself a bustling piazza, there are plenty to choose from. And if you like a more structured plan to your day, think about taking a Colosseum tour with local guides.

Where to stay in Rome:

When planning a trip to Rome, have a look at our in-depth guide to the best places to stay in Rome

.

Wandering Rome is one of the best things to do in Italy © Belenos/Shutterstock

2. See the 'white city' of Lecce in Puglia

The white city of Lecce

in Puglia might be off the tourist track, but it's an exuberant place you should definitely make time for on a tour of Italy. Visit for the Baroque architecture and opulent churches in particular.

Taking in Lecce is also the best excuse to explore the entire incredible south eastern region of Puglia

. A favourite holiday destination with Italians, Puglia is also one of Rough Guides' most beautiful places in Italy .

Where to stay in Puglia:

Explore the city of Lecce and make time for Puglia region too © Mi.Ti./Shutterstock

3. Admire Ancient Greek ruins on Sicily

Sicily

is proud of its Ancient Greek roots and has some magnificent ruins to prove it. Pay homage to the history at Siracusa and Taormina theatre, they're glorious monuments in their own right and as an added bonus both still stage Greek dramas. To be really amazed by Sicily's Greek heritage, discover Agrigento, considered to be one of the best archaeological sites outside Greece.

Scruffy Agrigento, sited on a ridge high above the coast, is rarely visited for the town itself. The interest instead focuses on the substantial remains of Pindar’s “most beautiful city of mortals”, a couple of kilometres below. Here, strung out along a ridge facing the sea, is a series of Doric temples – the most captivating of Sicilian Greek remains and a grouping unique outside Greece.

Where to stay in Agrigento:

UNAHOTELS Capotaormina.

Sicily has some of the finest Ancient Greek ruins outside of Greece © IgorZh/Shutterstock

4. Drinking local wine is one of the best things to do in Italy

When in Italy make a point of drinking in local wine bars known as enoteca. They're authentic and by far the best places to try the country's incredible variety of regional wines, not to mention excellent antipasti

.

For wine tasting we suggest you to visit Barolo, which gives its name to an Italian wine. It’s a small village with peach- and ochrewashed houses set among extensive vineyards. A steady stream of wealthy gastronomes and wine connoisseurs come here for the Enoteca Regionale del Barolo and the WiMu Wine Museum housed in a turreted castle on Piazza Falletti.

For a more quirky take on the wine industry, there’s the original Museo dei Cavatappi, or Corkscrew Museum, at Piazza Castello.

Where to stay in Barolo:

Drink local wine in local bars with plates of antipasti on the side © Yulia Grigoryeva/Shutterstock

continued below

5. Head to Urbino in Le Marche

Make time for the remarkable provincial city of Urbino

in Le Marche . Once described as the 'ideal city' and known as a Renaissance art capital, it was originally created by Federico da Montefeltro in the 15th century.

Walled, austere and mostly built of pale, golden brick, Urbino is a jumble of Renaissance and medieval houses, churches and palazzi atop a hill, dominated by its stellar attraction, the Palazzo Ducale.

During the second half of the fifteenth century, it was one of the most prestigious courts in Europe, ruled by the remarkable Federico da Montefeltro, who employed some of the greatest artists and architects of the time to build and decorate his palace.

The lengthy and complex history of the Renaissance is endlessly fascinating and occasionally bewildering. Sort out fact from fiction and get under the skin of Urbino on a private walking tour of the city with local guides.

Where to stay in Le Marche:

The grand provincial city of Urbino in Le Marche © Stefano_Valeri/Shutterstock

6. Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, Emilia Romagna

Ravenna

was Europe's capital 1500 years ago and is one of the best places in the world to see Byzantine mosaics. Unmissable examples are to be found at Sant'Apollinare Basilica and also in San Vitale.

Th e main reason to visit Ravenna, a few kilometres inland of the Adriatic coast, is simple – it holds a set of mosaics generally acknowledged to be the crowning achievement of Byzantine art. No fewer than eight of Ravenna’s buildings have been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.

They date from a strange interlude in the city’s history during the late Roman–early Byzantine period when this otherwise unremarkable provincial centre briefly became one of the most important cities in all of Europe.

Where to stay in Ravenna:

Casa Masoli

The remarkable Byzantine mosaics seen in Ravenna © Jaunting Jen/Shutterstock

7. The Amalfi Coast, Campania

Go south west in Italy to Campania

and see the Amalfi Coast . It is spectacularly beautiful, despite the heavy tourist numbers in summer - spring and autumn are quieter.

The Amalfi Coast (Costiera Amalfitana) lays claim to being Europe’s most beautiful stretch of coast, its corniche road winding around the towering cliffs that slip almost sheer into the sea. By car or bus it’s an incredible ride (though it can get mighty congested in summer), with some of the most spectacular stretches between Salerno and Amalfi.

The coast as a whole has become rather developed, and these days it’s one of Italy’s ritzier bits of shoreline, villas atop its precarious slopes fetching a bomb in both cash and kudos. While it’s home to some stunning hotels, budget travellers should be aware that you certainly get what you pay for here.

Where to stay at the Amalfi Coast:

Positano on the Amalfi Coast in south west Italy © iacomino FRiMAGES/Shutterstock

8. Walk across Piazza San Marco in Venice

Piazza San Marco is always crowded but it's the most famous square in Venice

, one of Europe’s great urban spaces and a cultural icon you simply cannot afford to miss in Italy.

Home to St Mark's Basilica and the legendary Campanile, the square is so famous it's mostly just known as La Piazza. Once you've visited Venice, you may want to avoid tourists for a while, so try some of the lesser known places to see in Italy

instead.

And of course the best thing to do in Italy while in Venice is to take a ride on the gondola.

The gondola is no longer a form of transport but rather an adjunct of the tourist industry. But however much the gondola’s image has become tarnished, it is an astonishingly graceful craft, perfectly designed for negotiating the tortuous and shallow waterways: a gondola displaces so little water, and the gondoliers are so dexterous, that there’s hardly a canal in the city they can’t negotiate.

Where to stay in Venice:

Strolling Piazza San Marco is one of the best things to do in Venice © Shutterstock

9. Gaze on the frescoes at Duomo of Orvieto

Duomo of Orvieto

in Umbria is one of Italy's finest cathedrals and you'll find it between Florence and Rome.

Burckhardt described Orvieto’s Duomo as “the greatest and richest polychrome monument in the world”, while Pope Leo XIII called it “the Golden Lily of Italian cathedrals”, adding that on the Day of Judgement it would float up to heaven carried by its own beauty. According to a tradition fostered by the Church, it was built to celebrate the so-called Miracle of Bolsena of 1263.

It was miraculous that the Duomo was built at all. Medieval Orvieto was so violent that at times the population thought about giving up on it altogether. Yet though construction dragged on for three centuries and exhausted 33 architects, 152 sculptors, 68 painters and 90 mosaicists, the final product is a surprisingly unified example of the transitional Romanesque-Gothic style.

Discover the stunning Luca Signorelli frescoes and much more on an in-depth cathedral tour in Orvieto.

Where to stay in Orvieto:

The magnificent Duomo of Orvieto in Umbria © Yasochka/Shutterstock

10. See the Duomo of Florence in Tuscany

The most iconic Duomo in Italy dominates Florence

and every step to the top is worth it for the spectacular views of the city and beyond.

It was sometime in the seventh century when the seat of the Bishop of Florence was transferred from San Lorenzo to the ancient church that stood on the site of the Duomo. In the thirteenth century, it was decided that a new cathedral was required, to better reflect the wealth of the city and to put the Pisans and Sienese in their place.

To avoid queues to see Duomo, book a guided tour and then discover more unforgettable Tuscany experiences

.

The instantly recognisable Duomo in the heart of Florence © artem evdokimov/Shutterstock

11. Try the real Neapolitan pizza

Pizza is ubiquitous all over Italy. But Naples

lays claim to the original and best, something that's hard to argue with in the city's legendary pizzeria.

The flavour of Naples dominates the whole of Campania. It’s the true home of the pizza, rapidly baked in searingly hot wood-fired ovens and running with olive oil, as well as fantastic street food, served in numerous outlets known as friggitorie – sample delicacies such as fried pizzas (pizzette or panzarotti), heavenly crocchè (potato croquettes), arancini (rice balls) and fiorilli (courgette flowers in batter).

Where to stay in Naples:

Le Corti del Re

Eat real Neapolitan pizza in Naples © V. Matthiesen/Shutterstock

12. Find a quiet spot on the Italian Lakes

Go north in Italy for the country's most famous lakes

and one of its most stunning regions.

The Italian Lakes are a little slice of paradise. Generations of travellers from the north, descending wearily from the chilly Alpine passes, have come into this Mediterranean vision of figs and palms, bougainvillea and lemon blossom, and been lost for words.

Elegant ribbons of blue water stretch out ahead, folded into the sun-baked foothills; after the rigours of the high Alps, the abundance of fine food and wine must have been a revelation. Warming, awe-inspiring and graced with natural beauty, the lakes are still a place to draw breath and wonder.

Apart from admiring the scenery there are plenty of other activities to enjoy here, so start with a Lake Como cruise from Milan.

Where to stay at Italian lakes:

Lake Orta one of the lesser known of Italy's famous lakes © Restuccia Giancarlo/Shutterstock

13. Hike the island of Elba in Tuscany

Find the mountainous island of Elba in Tuscany

and visit for beautiful beaches, great hiking and rich history.

Nearly 30km long by some 20km wide, Elba is Italy’s third-largest island, after Sicily and Sardinia. It has exceptionally clear water, fine white sand beaches, and a lush, wooded interior, superb for walking; almost everyone, including a surge of package tourists in July and August, comes for the beach resorts, so the inland villages remain largely quiet even in high season.

Elba’s principal town, Portoferraio, makes an easy and worthwhile day-trip destination from the mainland. If you head straight off to the beaches and resorts, however, you’ll hardly see it; the long, unattractive, modern quayside used by the island ferries is well away from the town’s atmospheric old quarter, with its stepped alleys and ancient churches.

Where to stay in Portoferraio:

View of Portoferraio on Elba Island, Italy © Shutterstock

14. Escape to Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo

The majestic Abruzzo mountains

are set in Parco Nazionale d'Abruzzo, Italy’s third-largest national park. Untamed and refreshingly wild, they're wonderful for hiking trips and an excellent place to spot wildlife.

The central village, Pescassèroli, is the main hub for visitors, surrounded by campsites, holiday apartments and hotels. The best way to strike out from here is to hike. Take advantage of the comprehensive information service, and get your boots on as quickly as you can: the wild beauty of the Apennine range is only really appreciated as you get further away from the tourist villages.

Where to stay near the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo:

The Abruzzo Mountains in one of Italy's largest national parks © ValerioMei/Shutterstock

15. Browse the Uffizi in Florence

The Uffizi is one of the finest art galleries in the world and one of the most famous in Italy.

Attracting well over two million visitors a year, the Galleria degli Uffizi is the finest picture gallery in Italy, housed in what were once government offices (uffizi) built by Vasari for Cosimo I in 1560. After Vasari’s death, work on the building was continued by Buontalenti, who was asked by Francesco I to glaze the upper storey so that it could house his art collection.

Each of the succeeding Medici added to the family’s trove of art treasures, which was preserved for public inspection by the last member of the family, Anna Maria Lodovica, whose will specified that it should be left to the people of Florence and never be allowed to leave the city.

Where to stay in Florence:

The incomparable Uffizi in Florence one of Italy's best art collections © Shutterstock

16. Explore Agriturismi on a farm stay

Try a farm stay in Italy

and not only do you support local Agriturismi, you get to discover the countryside in some spectacular locations.

The agriturismo scheme, which allows the owners of country estates, vineyards and farms to rent out converted barns and farm buildings to tourists, has boomed in recent years. Usually these comprise a self-contained flat or building, though a few places just rent rooms on a bedand-breakfast basis.

While some rooms are still annexed to working farms or vineyards, many are smart, self-contained rural holiday properties; attractions may include home-grown food, swimming pools and a range of outdoor activities. Many agriturismi have a minimum-stay requirement of one week in busy periods.

Find more information about places for a farmstay in Italy.

Discover rural Italy on peaceful and productive farm stays © Dmytro Balkhovitin/Shutterstock

17. Compare Pompeii and Herculaneum

Visit Pompeii

first and then go on to see Herculaneum. Both settlements were destroyed by Vesuvius in 79AD and today they are considered to be Italy's best preserved archaeological sites.

The site of Herculaneum was discovered in 1709, when a well-digger accidentally struck the stage of the buried theatre. Excavations were undertaken throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during which period much of the marble and bronze from the site was carted off to Naples to decorate the city’s palaces, and it wasn’t until 1927 that digging and preservation began in earnest.

The other Roman town to be destroyed by Vesuvius – Pompeii – was a much larger affair than Herculaneum and one of Campania’s most important commercial centres. The site covers a wide area, and seeing it properly takes half a day at the very least. Unlike Herculaneum there’s little shade, and the distances involved are quite large: breaks along the way: flat, comfortable shoes are a must.

Since there is so much to see here, it is worth studying the site map, which you’ll find at every entrance – pins on the map indicate which areas are currently closed, as the site is in continuous restoration.

You'll find these World Heritage legends just outside Naples

, but don't try to do both in one day. Give each one plenty of time, or alternatively book a small group tour of the sites with archaeologists.

Where to stay near Pompeii and Herculaneum:

The poignantly preserved remains of Pompeii from 79AD © BlackMac/Shutterstock

18. Find Italy's best beaches in Sardinia

Italy

has incredible beaches ranging from glamorous lido and chic coves to deserted island beaches with nothing but sand and sea. Most experts agree the loveliest are on Sardinia . Make up your own mind with a look at the best beaches in Italy .

The north coast is lined with beaches, the most alluring of them lying around the port and resort of Stintino, on Sardinia’s northwestern tip. Until recently nothing more than a remote jumble of fishermen’s cottages jammed between two narrow harbours, Stintino remains a small, laidback village for most of the year, but is transformed into a busy holiday centre in the tourist season.

With no beaches to speak of in the resort itself, most of the sunning and swimming takes place to either side – 4km south at the beach of Le Saline or the same distance north at La Pelosa – though most of the area’s bars, restaurants and reasonably priced accommodation lie in Stintino.

Where to stay in Stintino:

The stunning coast of Sardinia has some the best beaches in Italy © Luca Moi/Shutterstock

20. See The Last Supper and Milan Cathedral

When you visit Milan

don't miss Santa Maria delle Grazie. This unassuming convent in the historic centre, is home to Leonardo Da Vinci's The Last Supper.

Leonardo’s The Last Supper – signposted Cenacolo Vinciano – is one of the world’s great paintings and most resonant images. Henry James likened the painting to an “illustrious invalid” that people visited with “leave-taking sighs and almost death-bed or tip-toe precautions”; certainly it’s hard, when you visit the fragile painting, not to feel that it’s the last time you’ll see it.

Milan’s vast Duomo was begun in 1386 under the Viscontis, but not completed until the finishing touches to the facade were added in 1938. It is characterized by a hotchpotch of styles that range from Gothic to Neoclassical. From the outside at least it’s incredible, notable as much for its strange confection of Baroque and Gothic decoration as its sheer size.

The marble, chosen by the Viscontis in preference to the usual material of brick, was brought on specially built canals from the quarries of Candoglia, near Lake Maggiore, and continues to be used in renovation today.

In case you've chosen Milan as your destination in Italy, check out our guide to the best things to do in Milan.

Where to stay in Milan:

The rooftop of the Duomo in Milan © Shutterstock

21. Visit Giotto’s frescoes in Padua

Head to Padua

and visit Cappella degli Scrovegni, the small chapel which contains the world famous frescoes by Giotto.

The Cappella degli Scrovegni was commissioned in 1303 by Enrico Scrovegni in atonement for his father’s usury, which was so vicious that he was denied a Christian burial.

Giotto covered the walls with illustrations of the life of Mary, the life of Jesus and the story of the Passion, and the finished fresco cycle is one of the high points in the development of European art – a marvellous demonstration of Giotto’s innovative attention to the inner nature of his subjects.

In terms of sheer physical presence and the relationships between the figures and their environment, Giotto’s work takes the first important strides towards realism and humanism.

Get to know the rest of the fascinating city of Padua on a walking tour with expert local guides.

Where to stay in Padua:

See Giotto's famous frescoes at the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua © vvoe/Shutterstock

22. Go hiking in the Dolomites

The Dolomites

are hiking territory and whether you take short walks or long distance trails, dramatic views are guaranteed every step of the way.

This section of the Italian Alps offers some exhilarating hiking, often subject to snow, ice and scorching sun in the same day. There are plenty of opportunities for day-walks in stunning scenery that are within average capabilities, and routes are well established and well signposted.

Alternatively, consider tackling one of the longer trails known as alte vie (literally “high ways”), almost all of which run north–south, including the most popular pair: the Alta Via 1, perhaps the easiest route; and the tougher Alta Via 2. Along the way there are plenty of mountain huts for meals and overnight accommodation.

If you're short on time book a best of the Dolomites

day tour. Or when you have longer to explore, think about getting to know the local Alpe di Siusi region better. Hiking not your thing? The Dolomites are also famous for fairly extreme mountain biking routes.

Where to stay near the Dolomites:

Hiking in the Dolomites is a popular outdoor activity in Italy © Creative Travel Projects/Shutterstock

23. Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, Umbria

The Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi

is one of Italy’s greatest churches, the burial place of St. Francis and home to astonishing frescoes by Giotto and Simone Martini.

Pilgrims and art lovers alike usually make straight for the Basilica di San Francesco, justifiably famed as Umbria’s single greatest glory, and one of the most overwhelming collections of art outside a gallery anywhere in the world.

Started in 1228, two years after the saint’s death, and financed by donations that flooded in from all over Europe, it’s not as grandiose as some religious shrines, though it still strikes you as being a long way from the embodiment of Franciscan principles. If you don’t mind compromised ideals, the two churches making up the basilica – one built on top of the other – are a treat.

Where to stay in Assisi:

Hotel Sorella Luna

Assisi, the most famous of all Italy's medieval hill towns © Shutterstock

24. Do the Vatican Museums in Rome

The Vatican

is an autonomous state in Rome and also the world's smallest country, yet it has the largest art collection on earth.

As its name suggests, the Vatican Museums complex actually holds a series of museums on very diverse subjects – displays of classical statuary, Renaissance painting, Etruscan relics, Egyptian artefacts, not to mention the furnishings and decoration of the building itself.

There’s no point in trying to see everything, at least not on one visit, and the only features you really shouldn’t miss are the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel. Above all, decide how long you want to spend here, and what you want to see, before you start; you could spend anything from an hour to a whole day here, and it’s easy to collapse from museum fatigue before you’ve even got to your target.

Also, bear in mind that the collections are in a constant state of restoration, and are often closed and shifted around with little or no notice.

Where to stay in Rome:

Touring the Sistine Chapel is one of the best things to do in Rome © byggarn.se/Shutterstock

Take a picture of the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Th e Leaning Tower (Torre Pendente) has always tilted. Begun in 1173, it started to subside when it had reached just three of its eight storeys, but it leaned in the opposite direction to the present one. Odd-shaped stones were inserted to correct this deficiency, whereupon the tower lurched the other way.

The ascent to the bell chamber takes you up a narrow spiral staircase of 294 steps, at a fairly disorientating five-degree angle. It’s not for the claustrophobic or those afraid of heights, but you might think the steep admission fee is worth it for the privilege of getting inside one of the world’s most famous and uncanny buildings.

Where to stay in Pisa:

If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Italy

without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.

Ready for a trip to Italy

? Check out the snapshot The Rough Guide to Italy . If you travel further in Italy, read more about the best time to go , the best places to visit and best things to do in Italy. For inspiration use the Italian itineraries and our local travel experts . A bit more hands on, learn about getting there , getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.

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updated 1/7/2022
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