35+ Historic Landmarks in Italy, For Your Italian Bucket List
Updated: Feb 5
Planning a trip to Italy? Bell'Italia! Italy is show stoppingly beautiful -- a heady mix of world famous landmarks, stunning cathedrals, and masterpieces of Roman and Renaissance art. There are so many amazing things to see and do in Italy. How to choose between the myriad options?
In this Italy travel guide, I aim to give you some Italy destination inspiration. I take you on a tour of 35 of the best historic landmarks and destinations in Italy, for your Italy bucket list or itinerary. From the crumbling ruins in Rome to the ancient treasures of medieval villages, you'll travel through Italy soaking up its rich culture along the way.
These iconic Italian landmarks could be mini vacations in and of themselves. They can also be combined for a regional road trip. To further this cause, I’ve grouped these unmissable Italian landmarks by region. As you’d expect, there’s a high concentration in and around Rome and Florence.
The 35 Best Historic Landmarks and Destinations in Italy
So let's get down to business and discover the best and most famous landmarks in Italy.
Rome & Environs
1. Roman Forum
The ancient Roman Forum is a rectangular valley running from the Arch of Titus to Capitoline Hill. The main road is the Via Sacre. The forum was the beating heart of Rome, the seat of political power, and its stunning central showpiece.
Today, the Roman Forum is mostly a rock strewn ruin that you'll need to have interpreted by a good guide. Stroll by the Basilica of Constantine, the Temple and House of the Vestal Virgins, the Temple of Venus and Rome, the Basilica of Constantine, and the 3 columns of the Temple of Castor and Pollux.
You'll also find the ruins of the Temple of Caesar. It was built by Rome's first emperor, Augustus, after Julius Caesar's assassination. Inside, in a small apse area, is a mound of stone and dirt covered with coins and flowers. This is the altar holding Caesar's ashes and marks his grave.
If you've purchased Rome's special S.U.P.E.R. Pass, you'll also have access to two restricted Roman Forum sites via tour -- the Temple of Romulus and the Santa Maria Antiqua Church. Both sites have some rare ancient frescos.
Without a doubt, the Pantheon is the best preserved building from ancient Rome. The Pantheon was a temple dedicated to all of the gods. It was originally built by Augustus' right hand man, Marcus Agrippa, in 27 BC. The pediment still proclaims that "Marcus Agrippa, three times consul made this." But Agrippa's version was destroyed by fire.
In 120 AD, the Pantheon was rebuilt by Hadrian. The well-traveled emperor, a true Grecophile, reimagined it as an oversized Greek temple -- with 40 foot tall Corinthian granite columns from Egypt, a pediment, and portico. It was considered a masterpiece of engineering and mathematical precision.
The Pantheon's most emblematic feature is its perfect unsupported spherical dome. At the time, it was a major architectural breakthrough. The dome became the model for Michelangelo's dome for St. Peter's Basilica and for Brunelleschi's dome for Florence Cathedral. At the top is the oculus, or eye, which is the Pantheon's only source of natural light.
After the fall of Rome, the Pantheon became a Christian church, which helped save it from looting at first. But eventually the interior, marble, and gold were all looted in the 7th century, although the marble floor is now lovingly recreated. The Pantheon is filled with tombs of important Romans, including famed Renaissance artist Raphael.
READ: 5 Day Itinerary for Rome
3. St. Peter's Basilica
St. Peter's Basilica is the most famous church in Christendom. It's a magnificent church in a city that does churches like no other. Designed by Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo, it’s a true Renaissance masterpiece. The dome of St. Peters, designed by Michelangelo, is the tallest in the world.
The basilica is the burial place of St. Peter and past popes and houses the famous Bernini Baldachine altar. The basilica is just packed with statues of popes, saints, and cherubs. The most famous is behind stained glass, Michelangelo's tragically beautiful Pieta. St. Peter’s also has one of the greatest collections of the work of Bernini, the greatest artist of the Baroque.
For just € 6, you can climb up a narrow flight of stairs to inspect the dome at close range. There's also an elevator for € 8. From there, you’ll have a bird’s eye view of the nave below. Continue higher to stand on the outside of the dome. This is where you have the iconic view of St. Peter's Square and a panoramic view of Rome.
4. Vatican City
The Vatican isn't just a walled city. It holds one of the world's greatest art collections, housed in former wings of the Vatican Palace. The Vatican Museums are one of the world's most visited sites, attracting millions of visitors annually. The works in the Vatican are invaluable crowning glories of Western art.
A museum path leads you through the long corridors and wings of the Vatican Museums. Most of the fine art, as opposed to decorative art, is in the Vatican Pinacoteca (painting gallery), the Pio-Clementine Museum (sculpture gallery), the Raphael Rooms, the Borgia Apartments, and the Sistine Chapel.
Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescos are the undisputed highlight of a visit to the Vatican. They're among the most famous paintings in the history of art. 20,000 people visit daily to cast their eyes upward to the glorious ceiling. Michelangelo spent 4 years toiling away on the 9 ceiling panels, which depict scenes from Genesis and seem to open up the chapel to heaven.
When the Sistine Chapel ceiling was unveiled in 1512, it was somewhat shocking. The frescos were revolutionary in their execution. Instead of staid figures, Michelangelo painted figures that looked like sculptures in almost acrobatic poses. They wear flowing brightly colored garments.
In 1533, Michelangelo made a return visit to the Sistine Chapel. Pope Julius II summoned him to paint The Last Judgment on the altar wall. This time, Michelangelo worked entirely alone, taking 5 years to complete the project.
This fresco is rendered in a different style than Michelangelo's prior ceiling frescos. The figures are more monumental and the colors are largely monochromatic -- essentially sky and flesh tones. In the middle, Christ is excessively youthful and floats on clouds. He's depicted more like Apollo than the suffering bearded savior one expects.
Formally named the Flavian Amphitheater, the Colosseum has stood in Rome for almost 2,000 years. It's the most instantly recognizable monument from the classical world. Despite the ravages of time, the Colosseum is an incredibly well-preserved piece of Rome’s fascinating history.
Emperor Vespasian began constructing the Colosseum in 72 AD. It was finished by his son Titus in 80 AD. Domitian subsequently added the hypogeum, or basement.
In its glory days, the Colosseum was a vivid white with painted trim and frescoed hallways. There were monumental statues of the Greek and Roman gods in the arches of the middle two stories. The top story had a retractable canvas awning to shade spectators.
The Colosseum hosted the popular "games," a form of ancient theater re-creating far flung lands and mythological themes for the masses. There were many variations. The spectacles pitted men against men, men against beasts, and beasts against beasts.
6. Castle Sant'Angelo
Castle Sant'Angelo is a 2,000 year old landmark in Rome. As a national museum, it's official name is the Museo Nazionale di Castle Sant'Angelo. You might consider the distinctive round bulwark a sign that you've arrived at the Vatican.
Castle Sant'Angelo is the perfect reflection of Rome's history. Though Castle Sant'Angelo owes its name to a medieval legend, its history dates back to ancient Rome. Visiting the Castle Sant'Angelo is a walk through the entire history of Rome in one go.
In 139, Emperor Hadrian commissioned the castle's construction as a mausoleum. Unlike Rome's other famous archaeological sites, Castle Sant'Angelo never fell into ruins. Instead, it continued to thrive and was repurposed. Castle Sant'Angelo was transformed from a tomb, to an impregnable fortress, to a prison, to a magnificent Renaissance papal residence, and finally to a museum.
7. Ruins of Pompeii
Pompeii is Rome's most famous archaeological site, a living museum. In 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the city in 60 feet of ash. The city was entombed and preserved for many centuries. Beginning in 1748, archaeologists began painstakingly excavating the ruins.
The ruins are a remarkable evocation of everyday Roman life. You can get a vicarious thrill sharing living space with ancient Romans. In the complex, you'll find roman baths, a roman forum, brothels, basilicas, a grand theater, and the oldest Roman amphitheater in the world.
Pompeii is the gift that keeps on giving. New finds are made all the time, including recently unveiled frescos. When you're done exploring the ruins, head to a vineyard or restaurant on the nearby Mount Vesuvius.
8. Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli
Hadrian's Villa (Villa Adriana) in Tivoli lies just 20 miles east of Rome on the edge of the Sabine Hills. Tivoli is the perfect day trip from Rome, especially for archeology lovers and history buffs.
Hadrian's Villa is an important archeological complex. It's the largest and most spectacular villa of ancient Rome, three times the size of Pompeii. The villa is a testament to the power and glory of ancient Rome and the world's most important leader, Emperor Hadrian. And it was designed by Hadrian himself, complete with its magnificent edifices, beautiful mosaics, and ancient statuary.
Hadrian's sprawling complex is called a "villa." But it's more accurately a miniature Rome that covers nearly 300 acres. It's dotted with 30 large structures -- palaces, libraries, baths, living quarters, dining pavilions, and sculpture gardens. Hadrian incorporated foreign landmarks and marvels of the classical world into Villa Adriana, making it a diorama of sorts of his vast empire.
Hadrian’s Villa is now an evocative ruin, the opulent accoutrements long gone. Hadrian's Villa became a UNESCO site in 1999. Archaeologists, architects, and historians have been working at Hadrian’s Villa for decades. It's still only half excavated. So new discoveries are made all the time.
9. Villa d'Este, Tivoli
The UNESCO-listed Villa d'Este in Tivoli is the lush and watery country estate and gardens of a Catholic cardinal. It makes the perfect day trip escape from Rome, just a half hour away. You can also combine it with a visit to Hadrian's Villa.
The sumptuous late Renaissance estate is a playground of whimsy, topped with a frescoed villa. Built into a cliff, Villa d'Este's terraced gardens are one of Europe's most beautiful green spaces -- with waterfall fountains, ornate staircases, spiky cypress trees, and the gentle murmur of water everywhere.
The villa itself is a bit of an empty shell, with the furnishings and decor long gone. But most of the vibrant frescos and painted ceilings remain. Off the Central Room, a small loggia offer the first dramatic views of the main event -- one of the world's most beautiful landscaped gardens. A double stairway leads you down to this bucolic retreat.
Set over 35,000 square meters, the verdant gardens will blow you away. You’ll see thundering fountains, placid pools, grottos, waterfalls, and natural beauty. The 50 large fountains and 250 water jets are all gravity powered, a miracle of Renaissance plumbing. Statues of ancient deities complete the enchanting ensemble.
10. Necropolis of Tarquinia
The UNESCO-listed Necropolis of Tarquinia is one of Italy's most magnificent Etruscan sites. The "city of the dead" dates back to the 7th century B.C. Since 1489, nearly 6,000 tombs have been excavated. The most important tombs are the Tomb of the Shields, the Tomb of the Lioness, and the Tomb of the Warrior.
There are 140 fantastic large scale wall frescos behind plexiglass. Press a button to light them up. The necropolis was popular with Roman artists. Raphael and Michelangelo ventured there to study the frescos.
11. Milan Cathedral, Milan
The Duomo is the nickname for Milan Cathedral, a world renowned edifice. Built over 600 years beginning in 1368, the Duomo is a flamboyant Gothic masterpiece with 135 marble spires. It's the fourth largest church in the Europe, second in size in Italy only to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
Begun in 1386, the cathedral was constructed with a white-pink marble from the Lake Maggiore region. Cleaned in 2002, the stunning triangular facade was added only in the Napoleonic period. There's a golden Madonna statue on the tip top. By law since 1930, no building can be taller than the symbol of Milan.
Five portals beckon you inside. The Duomo interior seems cavernous. There's plenty to admire -- ornate statues, paintings, and the sarcophagi of famous Milanese citizens. In the transept, you'll find the rather ghoulish statue of St. Bartholomew Skinned by Marco d'Agrate, a Leonardo student.
The Duomo's truly spectacular and unmissable feature is its rooftop terrace. It can be reached either via a staircase or elevator. From the rooftop, you have an excellent view of the details of the intricate stonemasonry, especially the fanciful gargoyles that serve as drains. You can see the panorama of the entire city before you. It's especially nice at sunset.
READ: Must See Sites in Milan
12. Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper at Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan
Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper is found on the back wall of the refectory in the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. It was commissioned by Leonardo's patron, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan.
No painting is so familiar, save for the Mona Lisa. Previous Last Supper artists focused on the moment when Judas is identified. Leonardo instead focused on the moment before, when Jesus has just announced he will be betrayed and doubt is in the air. In a swoosh of emotion, Leonardo captures each apostle's unique reaction to his declaration -- horror, astonishment, anger, anxiety, grief, shock, etc.
A mad-scientist experimenter with materials and techniques, Leonardo loved blending colors, playing with shading (chiaroscuro) and smoky space (sfumato). For this showpiece, rather than employing stable true fresco, he used oil and tempera paint over coats of gesso and white lead.
By the time Leonardo finished in 1498, the painting was already deteriorating. 20 years later, it was flaking off the wall. There have been seven documented attempts to repair The Last Supper, the most recent effort in the last 21 years.
You've got to be organized and reserve in advance to see this Leonardo masterpiece. It's kept in a special microclimate with restricted access. Advance reservations are mandatory. Click here for an analysis of the painting, practical information, and must know tips on how to see Leonardo's The Last Supper.
13. Rocca Scaligera Castle, Sirmione
The beautiful town of Sirmione sits at the end of a narrow peninsula jutting into Lake Garda, the largest lake in northern Italy. Oleander, cypress, and palm trees mix into the foliage. And, rising against the town's medieval skyline, is the enormous Rocca Scaligera, Sirmione's unforgettable fortress.
Built in the 13th century by the Scaligera family of Verona, the square cut castle is completely surrounded by a navigable moat. Impregnable walls and turrets rise from pale rustic stone. Crenellated battlements wrapped in red top the fortress. The poet Dante is said to have stayed in the castle.
From the sweeping cobbled courtyard, steel staircases lead to the first turret and your first glimpse of panoramic views of the town. But you get the best views from scrambling up the 146 steps to the tallest tower.
Tuscany & Umbria
14. Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence
The symbol of Florence is the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, nicknamed the Duomo. I recommend purchasing a 72 hour combination pass that allows you to see all the sites within the Piazza del Duomo complex -- the Duomo, the Baptistry, the Giotto Bell Tower, and the stunning Duomo museum. They're all eminently worth seeing.
Florence’s Duomo is Gothic in style, but not in the light and elegant way you think of Paris' Notre Dame. It's made of brown sandstone and beautifully faced with pink, green, and white marble.
Filippo Brunelleschi's magnificent terra cotta colored dome, built from 1420-36, is the highlight. The burnt orange Duomo cupola is the very symbol of Florence. It’s decorated with high Renaissance frescos by Giorgio Vasari, a Florentine artist and the world’s first art historian.
For panoramic views, climb up Brunelleschi's dome. You can admire the Vasari frescos up close and have stunning views over Florence. Alternatively, you can take in the superb views from Giotto's Bell Tower, which might be the best viewpoint in Florence.
15. Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence
Although a bit out of the way, the Basilica of Santa Croce is a must visit site for lovers of Renaissance art. It dates from 1280. The ancient basilica has one of the greatest assemblages of frescos, painting, sculptures, and funeral tombs in the entire world.
The Santa Croce highlights are the frescos by Giotto in the Bardi Chapel and the Peruzzi Chapel. There are also frescos by his students Taddeo and Agnolo Gaddi. The ones by Agnolo are well preserved and have been recently renovated.
Santa Croce is also the resting place of storied Renaissance luminaries. You can find funeral tombs for Michelangelo, Ghiberti, Galileo, Dante, and Machiavelli. Santa Croce also houses the famous Cimabue Crucifix. The artifact was damaged in a devastating flood in 1966, but has been somewhat restored.
16. Ponte Vecchio, Florence
Dating from 1345, the Ponte Vecchio, or "old bridge," is Florence's only bridge to survive WWII. The Nazis destroyed all Florence's other bridges. The only reason Ponte Vecchio escaped unscathed is that Hitler had a soft spot for the bridge. Instead of destroying it, he destroyed the buildings at both ends.
The iconic Ponte Vecchio looks like houses suspended over the Arno River. It has three arches topped with a jumble of charming shops. In an urban setting, space was at a premium, so the bridge became a sort of mall.
Originally, the Ponte Vecchio housed unglamorous butcher shops. But the Medici family didn't like escorting their aristocratic guests and diplomats over the bridge with the wafting stench. So they swamped the butchers for goldsmiths. Now, you can buy expensive jewelry on the storied Ponte Vecchio.
17. Uffizi Gallery
Florence is synonymous with the Renaissance period of art history. The Uffizi is its premiere gallery, and the third most visited site in all of Italy. For art lovers, the Uffizi is a place of pilgrimage.
Built by art historian and architect Giorgio Vasari, the Uffizi houses the collection of the Medici, a wealthy family of art patrons that ruled Florence for three centuries. The museum has seminal works from the 13th to 18th centuries.
Some of the world's most famous paintings are in the Uffizi -- Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Primavera, Titian's Venus of Urbino, Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation, Caravaggio's Medusa and Bacchus, Piero della Francesca's unflattering portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, and Raphael's Goldfinch Madonna.
The Uffizi consists of 45 halls of art spread over two floors of the palace. If you have limited time, you should focus your efforts. The must see halls include the Hall 2 (Giotto), Hall 8 (Lippi), Hall 10-14 (Botticelli), Hall 15 (Leonardo), Hall 35 (Michelangelo), Hall 66 (Raphael), Hall 83 (Titian), and Hall 90 (Caravaggio).
READ: Who Were the Medici?
18. Pitti Palace
The magnificent Palazzo Pitti is located across the Arno River, in the off the beaten path Oltrarno district that's now Florence's trendiest neighborhood. The palace is one of Florence's most stunning architecture gems. It was built in 1457 for the Florentine banker Luca Pitti, a Medici rival.
But, like everything else it seems, the palace soon became Medici property. In 1549, Cosimo I's wife purchased the Pitti Palace. It became the Medici's principal private residence, the family's third palace in Florence. The Medici expanded it and placed 8 art galleries in its interior.
The most important museum is certainly the Palatine Gallery. It occupies the left wing of the first floor. The gallery houses an impressive collection of over 500 paintings, chock a block on top of each other amid lavish furnishings. There are works by Raphael, Titian, Botticelli, Rubens, Caravaggio, Gentileschi, and other European and Italian painters. The ceilings are beautifully frescoed by Pietro da Cortona.
The Royal Apartments showcase styles from three different eras of ownership. You'll find Baroque frescoed ceilings, gilded inlaid work, Rococo stucco, and red damask decorations. Amid the cacophony, there's a beautiful Caravaggio painting, Knight of Malta.
READ: Best Museums in Florence
19. Palazzo Vecchio
Dating from the 13th century and steeped in history, the Palazzo Vecchio was Florence's seat of power. It was the home of the City Council that governed the Republic of Florence and a residence of the Medici dynasty. On the first floor of the palace is the stunning Michelozzo-designed courtyard, decorated with fresco-filled loggias designed by Giorgio Vasari.
The magnificent Hall of the Five Hundred is awash with more frescos by Vasari. On the second floor are the sumptuously decorated private rooms of the Medici, with recently restored frescos in the beautiful Apartment of the Elements.
The Palazzo Vecchio was the site of key moments in Florentine history — the Pazzi conspiracy (attempted coup), the sermons of the “mad monk” Girolamo Savonarola, the site of the “bonfires of the vanities” when Savonarola set fire to precious Renaissance art, and finally the spot of his execution.
If you're up for a climb of 400 steps, the Tower of Arnolfo offers 360 views. You enter via the Museum of Palazzo Vecchio, with a combined ticket for Palazzo Vecchio or for an additional small fee.
The Palazzo Vecchio sits in the famous Piazza della Signoria, which is studded with many famous sculptures (or copies thereof), including Michelangelo's David. In the Loggia dei Lanza (the covered arcade), you’ll find works by Cellini and Giambologna.
20. Palazzo Pubblico in the Piazza del Campo, Siena
The magnificent Palazzo Pubblico sits proudly in one of Europe's most beautiful medieval squares, the Piazza del Campo. The herringbone brick pavement is divided by white marble lines into nine sections. They fan out like a claim shell, representing the Council of the Nine. A 19th century replica of Jacopo della Quercia's Fonte Gaia fountain is on one side.
The palace was built in 1297-1308 for the Council of Nine, the governing body of the Republic of Siena. The facade is a harmonious example of early Renaissance architecture, an elegant and symmetrical backdrop to the famed piazza.
Palazzo Pubblico has triforate windows, a Sienese architectural specialty, in which a single window aperture or opening is divided into three arches resting on small columns. Above the portals and the window arches is the black and white coat of arms of the Town Council of Siena, called the balzana.
Inside, in the Hall of the Grand Council, you’ll one of Italy’s most precious paintings, Simone Martini’s Maesta. The Hall of Peace has an amazing cycle fresco, Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Allegory of Good and Bad Government. This is one of the most marvelous, poignant, and timeless fresco cycles in Italy. It's the only secular painting of everyday urban and rural life that exists from the middle ages.
Beside the Gothic palace soars the slender Tower of Mangia, which you can climb for panoramic views. Click here for my complete guide to visiting the magnificent Palazzo Pubblico.
READ: 24 Hours in Siena Italy
21. Siena Cathedral, Siena
One of Italy's most beautiful Gothic complexes, Siena Cathedral is also known as the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption and the Duomo. It might as well be nicknamed the Siena Art Museum, it's so stuffed with Italian masterpieces. For a church, it's shockingly interesting.
Siena Cathedral is one of Europe's most beautiful churches. It's the symbol of medieval Siena, clad all over in Siena's trademark white and dark green marble. Consistent with the Gothic ethos that "more is always better," every inch is decorated with marble, mosaics, sculptures, and frescos.
Visiting Siena's Duomo complex is akin to going to an art museum. It's filled with mind blowing art from some of the greatest artists of the Gothic and early Renaissance periods, including Donatello, Pisano, Pinturicchio, and Michelangelo.
The Duomo complex consists of six must see structures: the cathedral itself, the Piccolomini Library, the Baptistry, the cathedral museum (Museo dell'Opera del Duomo), the Crypt, and the Facciatone viewing terrace. To visit the amazing Siena Duomo complex properly, you need to pre-purchase the Opa Si Pass.
22. Towers of San Gimignano
Nicknamed the "Medieval Manhattan," the turreted hill town of San Gimignano boasts a startling cityscape with 13 spiky towers poking the sky. The most famous tower is the Torre Grossa. Climbing to the top is a must do in San Gimignano.
Not surprisingly, San Gimignano's historic center is a UNESCO site. Park outside the city walls and walk into the tiny town. The central square is the Piazza del Duomo. There, you'll find the Collegiate Church of Saint Mary of the Assumption. Consecrated in 1148, it's a beautiful (mostly) Romanesque church, austere on the outside with a feast of frescos on the inside.
In the Chapel of Saint Fina, there are paintings by early Renaissance master Ghirlandaio. There's also a violent fresco cycle of Black Death paintings, possibly by the mysterious artist Barna Da Siena, who allegedly fell to his death from scaffolding while painting the frescos.
23. Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi
Located in Umbria, the saintly and stunning hill town of Assisi is a destination for art lovers. Because Assisi was the home and final resting place of St. Francis, it's also a pilgrimage destination. In fact, the 13th century Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi is one of Italy's best known churches and a UNESCO site.
There are two parts to the church -- the lower church (for pilgrims) and the upper church (for clergy). The frescos in the lower church mark the pivotal transition in art history from the Gothic period to the early Renaissance era. The highlight are Giotto's frescos in the Chapel of Santa Maria Maddalena. That chapel also has a fresco cycle by Pietro Lorenzetti, with a haunting Depostion.
The upper church houses paintings by Cimabue, the greatest Italian painter of the 13th century International Gothic style. Giotto, who was Cimabue's protege, also painted a 28 panel cycle called The Life of St. Francis, between 1297 and 1300. It's worth noting, however, that some scholars dispute the Giotto attribution.
24. Field of Miracles, Pisa
The UNESCO-listed Field of Miracles is a true spectacle -- a simply splendid assemblage of Romanesque, Gothic, and Early Renaissance art and architecture. When you clap eyes on its marble sheathed buildings, you'll likely gasp and conclude that it deserves the hype. Here are the six must see sites on the splendid square:
✔ The Leaning Tower
✔ The Duomo di Pisa
✔ The Baptistery
✔ The Monumental Cemetery
✔ Duomo Museum
✔ Museum of Sinopie
Although a tourist-fly draw, the Leaning Tower is the least interesting of the monuments. The Duomo's facade is decorated with alternating black and white marble stripes, quarried from Carrara. Inside, you’ll find a beautiful mosaic in the apse attributed to Cimabue and an ornate pulpit carved by Giovani Pisano.
The Baptistery is so ornate it appears to be dripping with lace. It houses another ornate pulpit carved by Nicola Pisano. The stunning Monumental Cemetery houses beautiful sculptures and important frescos. Click here for my comprehensive guide to Pisa's must see sites.
25. Orvieto Cathedral, Orvieto
Medieval Orvieto is a popular day trip from Rome. The hilltop town's piece de resistance is its magnificent cathedral, a marvel of theatricality. Orvieto Cathedral is one of the most beautiful and ancient churches in Italy.
Begun in 1290, Orvieto Cathedral is a riveting ensemble of spires, spikes, golden mosaics, statuary, stained glass, and black and white striped marble. And that's just the facade.
Inside, the Chapel of San Brizio boasts one of the Renaissance's greatest fresco cycles by Luca Signorelli. The frescos depict the usual religious themes -- temptation, damnation, and salvation. But they're a searing vision of the end of the world, executed with fiendish exuberance. Michelangelo came to inspect the chapel before beginning his own master work, the Sistine Chapel.
In the cathedral museum around the corner, you can inspect 2,000 works of art preserved from the church. The best works are by Andrea Pisano and Francesco Mocchi.
26. Rialto Bridge, Venice
The iconic Rialto Bridge is one of the world's most famous bridges. It connects the sestieres (neighborhoods) of San Marco and San Polo. There was first a bridge located here in 1181. There's been a bridge here for most of Venice's history.
Space was an important urban commodity. So the Venetians didn't leave the bridge space unexploited. In 15th century, shops were added to the bridge, inspired by the Ponte Vecchio in Florence.
The present Rialto Bridge was built between 1588-91 by an obscure architect named Antonio de Ponte. He even beat out Michelangelo, who also submitted a design for the competition.
27. St. Mark's Basilica, Venice
St. Mark's is an astonishing tour de force of Italo-Byzantine architecture. Consecrated in 1093, it's one of the world's most famous churches. St. Mark's was built to house the relics of the evangelist St. Mark. It also served as the private chapel of the doge, the constitutional monarch at the head of the Republic of Venice.
The church has a unique and eclectic mix of styles and materials. Venice imported the art and architectural style from the Byzantine world. The primary building material was brick, like everything else in Venice. Once the structure went up, it was covered by marble slabs and relief sculptures to make it richly decorative.
The church's footprint is a Greek cross plan, with a giant dome above the crossing point. Each of the four arms is also surmounted with a dome. Inside, is a golden extravaganza of mosaics, 90,000 square feet in total. The oldest mosaics in St. Mark's date back to 1070, telling Old Testament stories.
The basilica's uneven floor is decorated as well. There are two pulpits connected by a rare surviving rood screen, separating the clergy and the laity. The baldachin, or architectural shelter, marks the spot where the body of St. Mark rests in the crypt below. Behind the baldachin is the Palla d'Oro, a golden altarpiece. It's a massive bejeweled screen.
28. Grand Canal, Venice
Venice is truly unique. It's one of the world's most beautiful and captivating cities, a natural movie set. No other place looks quite like it. Venice is a city built on water that shouldn't exist in real life.
Cruising the historic Grand Canal in Venice is a classic, unmissable thing to do in Italy. As you sail, you can admire Venice's must see sites and dreamy palazzos. The Grand Canal isn't man made. It follows the path of an ancient river bed underneath.
During Venice's heyday, the Grand Canal was used by traders, making their way to the Rialto Bridge. Today, it's flanked with over 170 buildings -- including pastel mansions, gleaming Byzantine palazzi, and Venice's finest museums.
The most important buildings on the Grand Canal were residences of Venice's powerful patrician families. Because of these sumptuous palaces, the Grand Canal has been described "as the most beautiful street in the world.”
29. Roman Arena, Verona
Verona is a beautiful peach colored town in northern Italy, an easy day trip from Venice. Its key landmark is the majestic Roman Arena, the Arena di Verona, in the Piazza Bra. It's the third largest classical arena in Italy, after Rome's Colosseum and Capua's Colosseum. And one of Italy's best preserved Roman monuments.
Built in A.D. 30, the open air amphitheater first served as a stage for brutal gladiatorial games, jousts, circuses, and tournaments. It originally seated 30,000 people. The arena is made of pink and white stone from Valpolicella. It originally had 3 tiers of arches, but only 2 tiers survived.
The arena is still in use today. But instead of gory fight, you can watch large scale opera performances, benefitting from the wonderful acoustics of its elliptical shape. Verona's opera tradition dates to 1913. Today, half a million people flock to Verona in the summer for its 3 month long Opera Season.
30. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
Padua is a pretty university town just an hour from Venice. It boasts one of the greatest treasures in Western art, the Scrovegni Chapel, also known as the Arena chapel. Honestly, it's worth a trip to Padua just to see this one vastly underrated and under-touristed site.
Wallpapered with exquisite frescos by Giotto, the Scrovegni Chapel is a precious masterpiece of Italian art. Giotto painted a cycle of 39 frescos depicting the lives of Mary and Jesus in 1303-05. It's definitely as stunning in person as the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums.
Giotto was the greatest painter of the 14th century. His Scrovegni frescos were a watershed moment in art history. With their naturalism, the chapel is considered one of the first examples of "modern art" and profoundly influenced subsequent Renaissance painters.
31. Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
Ravenna is a glittering jewel box of 5th and 6th century mosaic art. Ravenna was once the epicenter of the Western World, when the Byzantine Empire made Ravenna its capitol. The Byzantine rulers decorated Ravenna's churches with gorgeous mosaics. This artistic legacy rivals, or even surpasses, that of Venice and Istanbul. Ravenna has a whopping 8 UNESCO sites to explore.
Finished in 547 and almost 1500 years old, the Basilica of San Vitale is Ravenna's masterpiece. It boasts dazzling Byzantine mosaics in the presbytery and choir, meant to evoke a heavenly realm. In the apse above the altar, there’s a mosaic depicting Christ the Redeemer.
Just below is Ravenna's pièce de résistance -- two famous panels dedicated to the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora. They show the pair making offerings to Jesus against a field of gold. They are both resplendent in fine capes and jewels, proving to the world that they're back in charge.
The other San Vitale mosaics illustrate scenes from the Old Testament. They depict images of the 12 apostles and 4 evangelists, with the Lamb of God overseeing everything from atop the vaulted ceiling. He represents Jesus as the sacrificial lamb. A divine offering, in contrast with the earthly riches held by the imperial couple.
32. Royal Place of Caserta, Naples
The incredible Palace of Caserta is a UNESCO site in Naples. Built by King Charles VII of the House of Bourbon, it was used as the main residence of the kings of Naples. With over 1200 rooms, the palace was one of the largest palaces in 18th century Europe.
The sprawling palace complex was built on a grid with four outer wings. You enter via the Grand Staircase of Honor, surrounded by marble. The palace is lavish inside, especially the gold filled throne room. Caserta Palace comes complete with stunningly beautiful gardens, with long reflecting pools and statuary.
Interestingly, the palace was a filming location for Mission Impossible III. You can take a virtual tour of the palace here.
33. Trulli of Alberobello, Puglia
The Trulli district in Alberobello looks like a fairytale stage set. It's an icon of the Puglia region. You can get a real feel for old time-y Italy.
Trulli are whitewashed dry stone huts with conical roofs. They're sprinkled over the farms and fields in Puglia. In Alberobello, there are over 1600 tiny trulli, earning UNESCO status for their hobbit-like uniqueness.
Most of the the trulli date from the 14th to 19th centuries. They proliferated in this area because they were easy to build, with stones stacked in place without mortar in prehistoric fashion. There are two main trulli zones in Alberobello -- Rione Monte (well known) and Rione Ria Piccola (less touristy). The most celebrated trulli in town is the Trullo Sovrano in Piazza Sacramento.
34. Valley of the Temples, Agrigento Sicily
The Valley of Temples is one of the more memorable sites from the ancient world. It's an Italian archaeological park where eight Greek temples of honey colored stone are arranged along a ridge. The city was founded in the 7th century B.C.
The citizens used their wealth to erect temples overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. They were originally covered with marble and painted in bright colors. Now, only limestone remains. The park was only discovered in the 19th century.
In the eastern zone, you'll find the best preserved temples -- the Temple of Hercules, Temple of Concord, and the Temple of Juno. The Temple of Hercules is the oldest. It dates from the 6th century B.C. and once housed a celebrated statue of Hercules. The Temple of Concord is the best preserved, only missing its roof. Romantically scattered ruins and pieces of sculpture complete the tableaux.
The western zone was the intended locale for the largest temple of the Greek world. But it was never completed. What was built was toppled by an earthquake. One remaining treasure, a 26 foot statue of a telamon (man with his arms raised) is the prize possession of the Museum of Archaeology.
35. Greek Theater, Taormina Sicily
Sicily's Taormina is an over-the-top beautiful town with a surfeit of star quality. It's premiere attraction is the impossibly romantic ancient Greek Theater (Teatro Greco). It's carved out of a rock and perched on a hilltop. Building began ages ago, in the 3rd century B.C.
With the backdrop of Mount Etna and the Ionian Sea, the theater has one of Italy's most theatrical settings. The view is unbeatable. After the Greeks plied their trade, Romans did some rebuilding, adding the finishing touches to the 2nd century edifice. Like the arenas in Rome and Verona, the Taormina theater was used for gladiatorial escapades.
Nowadays, though in picturesque ruin, the theater is used for performances, opera, and film screenings. Follow the Corso Umberto, Taormina's main pedestrianized lane, until you see signs for the site. It's a beguiling snapshot of ancient history.
36. Castle del Monte, Puglia
Looking straight out of an Arthurian legend, the Castel del Monte is a symbol of Puglia. It's an octagonal shaped castle built by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century. Frederick was a maverick, a versatile statesman, diplomat, and builder. For his efforts, he was nicknamed the "Wonder of the World."
His Puglia creation is a mysteriously looking fortress-like building set high, like a crown, on a middle-of-nowhere plateau in Puglia. In 1996, it became a designated UNESCO site, for its architectural harmony and mathematical and astronomical features. The original function of the structure is still unclear. It's not exactly a castle, not exactly a fortress, not exactly a palace.
Each of the castle's eight corners sports a tower. The castle has a blend of architectural elements --medieval, Islamic, classical antiquity. Inside, two floors overlook an internal courtyard and trapezoidal rooms, with spiral staircases linking the floors.
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