Italy dips down out of Europe and into the Mediterranean like a lady’s leg firmly planted in a sleek stiletto, so it’s hardly surprising that Italians are known for their impeccable style and fashionable dress sense. They’re also known for once having an empire that stretched across the globe, and for having the most spectacular churches, frescos, sculptures and Renaissance paintings in all of Europe.
The Italy of today is littered with the relics of more than 3,000 years of history, and an atmosphere that ranges from the Armani-wearing, scooter-driving, espresso-drinking buzz of its cities to the quiet, pastoral existence of its hillside olive farms and seaside fishing villages. Italy is also home to more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other country on earth, with an incredible 47 sites of global historical significance dotted around the country.
- 1 The Basics
- 2 Florence
- 3 Italian Alps
- 4 Milan
- 5 Attractions in Milan
- 6 Naples
- 7 Rome
- 8 Attractions in Rome
- 9 Sardinia
- 10 Sicily
- 11 Tuscany
- 12 Attractions in Tuscany
- 13 Venice
- 14 Attractions in Venice
Electrical current in Italy is 230 volts, 50Hz. A variety of plugs are in use including the European-style two-pin plug.
The official language of Italy is Italian. English is understood in the larger cities but not in the more remote parts of the country.
There are no specific health risks associated with travel to Italy. EU citizens can make use of Italy’s health services provided they have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Cases of the deadly bird flu were found in swans in southern Italy and Sicily, but there is a low risk of human infection; as a precaution all close contact with wild, caged and domestic birds should be avoided, and poultry and egg dishes should be cooked thoroughly.
Tipping is customary in Italy and 10-15% of the bill is acceptable in restaurants (unless, as is increasingly the case, a 15% service charge has already been added to the bill). Hotels add a service charge of 15-18%, but it is customary to tip the service staff extra. Italians rarely tip taxi drivers, but a 5-10% tip is always appreciated.Safety Information
Tourists in Italy should be vigilant to ensure their safety in public places and tourist sites as the Italian Government has warned that the risk of international terrorist attacks has increased. Domestic terrorism continues, but targets are usually Italian authorities, however there is a possibility of being caught up in attacks. Tourists are vulnerable to pick-pocketing and muggings in the bigger cities, particularly on public transport, in crowded areas and around tourist sites, and should exercise caution when carrying large amounts of cash and valuables. Be particularly careful on bus 64 to St Peter’s Square and around the main train station, Termini. Visitors should be wary of groups of children, some of whom will distract attention while the others try to steal what they can. Strikes by transport workers take place regularly throughout Italy and delays are possible.
In Italy, it is an offence to sit on steps and in courtyards near public buildings, including the main churches, in Florence; eating and drinking in the vicinity should also be avoided. Shorts, vests or any other immodest clothing should not be worn inside churches.
Italians can be very formal and old fashioned, but are also warm and welcoming. Face to face communication is best, and often a third party introduction can speed initial negotiations. Business attire is formal and very stylish, and handshakes are the norm. First impressions count for a lot in Italy. Expect plenty of gesticulating and interruptions, or people talking over each other. Business cards are used. Unfortunately the bureaucracy in Italy can slow down deal-making. Business hours are usually 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday, but can vary according to season and region.
The international access code for Italy is +39. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the United Kingdom). All numbers must be preceded by 0, whether originating in Italy or out, unless calling a mobile phone. City/area codes are in use, e.g. 02 for Milan and 06 for Rome. There can be high surcharges on calls made from hotels and it is generally cheaper to use a calling card. Public telephone boxes take phone cards for local and international calls, which can be bought from newsagents. The local mobile phone operators use GSM networks and have roaming agreements with most international operators. Internet cafes are available in the main towns and resorts.
Travellers over 17 years from non-EU countries do not have to pay duty on Travellers from EU countries travelling within the EU are limited to 110 litres of beer, 90 litres of wine (of which 60 litres may be sparkling), 20 litres of fortified wine, 10 litres of spirits, 1kg of tobacco, 800 cigarettes, 200 cigars, 1kg of tobacco and 400 cigarellos, perfume up to 50g or 250ml eau de toilette, and other goods for personal consumption to the value of €175 per adult or €90 for children under 15 years. EU citizens are also able to claim tax back if the VAT rates in Italy are higher than those in their country of residence. Prohibited items include narcotic drugs, medicinal products, arms and weapons, explosives and protected animal and plant species.
Italy has a largely temperate climate with regional variations. In summer the Northern parts of Italy are warm with occasional rainfall, the central region is somewhat stifled by humidity and the south scorches under the dry heat. In winter, conditions in Milan, Turin and Venice are dominated by cold, damp and fog and Tuscany’s winter temperatures approach freezing, while temperatures in the south of the country are more favourable averaging 50-60ºF (10-20ºC). Most people visit Italy between June and August, however the best time to visit is in Spring (April-May) and Autumn (September-October) when the weather is good and the tourists are few. The sea is warm enough for swimming between June and September. Most Italians take their vacation in August and many shops and restaurants are closed during this period. The ski season runs between December and April and the best time to walk in the Alps is between June and September.
The borderless region known as the Schengen Area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. All these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entry option, and which allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all the aforementioned countries. Furthermore, all foreign passengers to Italy must hold visible proof of financial means to support themselves while in the country, return/onward tickets, and the necessary travel documentation for their next destination. Note that visitors may be refused entry, either for public security, tranquillity, order or health reasons. Extensions of stay in Italy are possible, by applying to local authorities. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
The Euro (EUR) is the official currency, which is divided into 100 cents. Those arriving in Italy with foreign currency can obtain Euros through any bank, ATM or bureaux de change. ATMs are widespread. Travellers cheques can be exchanged with ease in the large cities, not so in the smaller towns. Credit cards are accepted in upmarket establishments and shops around the cities. Banks are closed on weekends, but tend to have better rates than casas de cambios.
Attractions in Florence
The Uffizi (Gallerie degli Uffizi)
The Accademia Gallery
Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square)
The Bargello (Museo Nazionale del Bargello)
Sophistication reaches new levels in Milan. The financial and commercial centre of Italy, Milan attracts fashion fundis, opera lovers, the young, the beautiful and the bold. Shopping, eating and clubbing is serious business here – and it is no surprise that the city boasts the world’s ‘most beautiful shopping mall’, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.
Equally vying for admiration are the Milanese icons of La Scala Theatre (Teatro della Scala) and the Gothic Duomo, one of the world’s largest churches. Milan’s frenetic pace surges ahead in its drive towards progress, forsaking the lengthy siestas enjoyed in other parts of the country.
The city’s urban tentacles stretch for miles, although the significant historical attractions are contained between the two landmark sites – the Duomo and the Sforzesco Castle. These reside within the inner loop of the city’s concentric design, which is split into four squares: Piazza Duomo, Piazza Cairoli, Piazza Cordusio and Piazza San Babila. The modern civic centre lies to the northwest, around Mussolini’s colossal train station built in 1931. The skyline around here is dominated by skyscrapersm from which the sleek Pirelli Tower emerges. The Fiera district that stretches around Porta Genova station is the hub for trade and fashion fairs.
Attractions in Milan
Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral)
The looming Duomo, the world’s largest Gothic cathedral, presides over the Milanese Piazza that bears its name. Its construction began in 1386 and continued sporadically until Napoleon ordered its completion in 1809. Its lengthy creation bestowed on it 3,400 statues, 135 spires and 96 gargoyles. It is best visited in full sunshine when the interior is illuminated by the colourful mosaic of its stained glass windows. The church is a five-aisled cruciform seating 40,000 worshippers. The 16th-century marble tomb of Giacomo de Medici lies in the southern transept, and lying buried at its heart is St Charles Borromeo, the cathedral’s most important benefactor. Every year in May and September a nail from the cross of Christ is displayed to worshippers, retrieved from its resting-place by the bishop who is hoisted to the nivola to reach it. Across the piazza, in the Palazzo Reale, is the Museo del Duomo that displays the treasures from the cathedral. It also houses the Museo d’Arte Contomporanea, showcasing a collection of Italian Futurist art.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
This four-storey glass-domed arcade is entered from the Piazza in front of the Cathedral, and extends to the Piazza della Scala. It was originally built as a link to the opera house but has become a fashionable place to hang out, sip coffee or camparis, or take a stroll through its many exclusive shops. Milanese gather in this conservatory to escape the winter rains or to socialise after a busy working day.
Theatre Museum at La Scala (Museo Teatrale alla Scala)
This world-famous opera house rests on the site of the Church of Santa Maria alla Scala, its namesake. The Museum provides a wealth of mementos from the opera house dedicated to the nation’s beloved composers and performers. These include Rossini, Puccini and Toscanini. Two halls are devoted to Verdi alone, and contain memorabilia such as the spinet on which he learned to play, hand-written scores and the baton given to him after the momentous reception of his best-loved work, Aida.
Santa Maria delle Grazie
Located next to the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in the former monastery’s refectory, is Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting The Last Supper (Cenacolo Vinciano). The fresco depicts the moment of Christ’s revelation of the betrayal. Judas hovers to the right of the painting, with his hand placed protectively on the bag of silver. Scaffolding covers the bottom of the painting (an ongoing restoration project), leaving the rest in full view. Controversy has erupted over the removal of layers of corrective over-painting completed in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The painting has endured more than hot debate, however, as it managed to escape the bombing during WWII that destroyed the roof of the refectory.
The Museo Poldi-Pezzoli contains a spectacular private collection that was bequeathed by its namesake Poldi Pezzoli to the city in 1879. Numerous masterpieces hang from the walls of the Golden Room, with its vista onto a picturesque garden. Antonio Pollaiolo’s Portrait of a Lady, depicting the profile of an elegant woman, has become nothing less than a symbol for Milan’s own style and elegance. Other famous paintings include Virgin and Child by Andrea Mantegna, Bellini’s Ecce Homo, Piero della Francesca’s St Nicholas and Guardi’s Grey Lagoon.
Italy’s third-largest city thrives on the chaos that prevails amid its busy streets. This is the place where pizza was invented, and its restaurants continue to serve some of Italy’s finest cuisine.
Sheltered by the Bay of Naples and dominated by the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, Naples is imbued with the best of nature’s bounty. The city is somewhat schizophrenic in its juxtaposition of superb museums, Renaissance and Baroque churches alongside crumbling tenement blocks and squalor. Noisy markets sell a collection of items, from high-quality fresh produce to fake designer goods. Roads are characteristically hectic with gung-ho moped drivers weaving wildly through the streets and frustrating traffic jams clogging the city’s arteries. Despite these less refined elements, Naples is a fascinating destination and a great base from which to explore the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The city’s transport hub is located around the immense Piazza Garibaldi, on the east side of Naples. The area’s growing African population has imbued the streets with the flavours of its immigrants. Southwest from here is the Piazza Bovio, and branching to the left of it, the Piazza Municipio and nearby Piazza del Plebiscito. On the watery edges are the Molo Beverollo and the Stazione Marittima, the point of departure for ferries. From the reaches of Spaccanapoli one can explore the historic part of Naples with its numerous palaces and churches.
Attractions in Naples
Museo Archeologico Nazionale
This world-class museum houses the Farnese collection of antiquities from Lazio and Campania and the incredible treasures of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Notable among these collections are the Farnese Hercules and the Farnese Bull, the largest known ancient sculpture. On the mezzanine level is the Alexander Mosaic and at the furthest end of the mezzanine floor is the Secret Room (Gabinetto Segreto). The fascinating collection contained here showcases erotic material found in the brothels, baths, houses and taverns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The top section of the museum houses the Campanian wall paintings, well-preserved creations attesting to a mysterious past world. These are supported by a range of artefacts, in the form of glass, silver, ceramics, rope and even foodstuffs surviving from the Campanian cities of yesteryear.
Duomo San Gennaro
The Chapel of San Gennaro is accessed from the south aisle of the Cathedral of Naples. This 13th-century Gothic building is dedicated to the patron saint of the city. Tradition tells the story of how two phials of San Gennaro’s congealed blood liquefied in the bishop’s hand after his martyred body was transported to the church. Legend has it that disaster will strike if the blood fails to liquefy on specific festival days – the first Saturday in May, on September 19 and December 16. The liquefaction ceremony, known as the Miracle of the Blood, takes place during a special Mass in full view of the congregation. The first chapel on the right upon entry into the cathedral is dedicated to San Gennaro (also known as Saint Januarius) and holds the famous phials of blood and a silver reliquary containing his skull. Beneath the Duomo are the excavations of well-preserved Greek and Roman roads that stretch beneath the modern city. Special tours of the excavations can be arranged.
Museo e Gallerie di Capodimonte
This museum occupies a restored 18th-century palace perched on the city’s hills, and its artworks are arranged by collections and not chronology. The Farnese and Bourbon rulers amassed impressive collections of Renaissance paintings and Flemish masterpieces that can be viewed along with other great works. Notable amongst these are Masaccio’s Crucifixion, Filipino Lippi’s Annunciation and Saints, Raphael’s Leo X, Bellini’s Transfiguration, Michelangelo’s Three Soldiers and Breughel’s The Allegory of the Blind.
In the year 79 AD Mount Vesuvius’ fiery temper erupted in volcanic lava, burying the Roman city of Pompeii. The most evocative testimony to its victims is the ‘frozen people’, plaster casts of the victims whose anguished contortions and facial expressions reveal the horror of their untimely deaths. The excavation of Pompeii, which started after its accidental rediscovery in 1749, is an ongoing process and every decade has brought to light new finds that provide insight into daily Roman life. A comprehensive tour of Pompeii’s attractions will take approximately five hours. Guided tours are available but are pricier alternatives to doing it alone. There is an informative ‘How to Visit Pompeii’ guidebook for sale outside all the site entrances. Pompeii is Italy’s most popular tourist attraction, seeing nearly 2.5 million visitors every year.
The well-preserved Greek temples of Paestum are arguably the best of their kind in the world, easily rivalling those of Sicily and Athens. The city was founded by its Greek colonists in the 7th Century BC, and later fell under Roman rule (until it was no longer commercially successful and its inhabitants fled for greener pastures). The north-south axis of the city is marked by the paved Via Sacra and most guided tours begin at its southern end. A guide to the excavations and Archaeological Museum can be bought at any of the roadside shops. Notable amongst the remains are three Doric temples, the best-preserved of their kind in the world. Built without the use of cement or mortar, these remarkable structures comprise the Basilica, the Temple of Poseidon and the Temple of Ceres. Heading north along Via Sacra will take one to the Roman Forum gymnasium and amphitheatre. Finally, Paestum’s Museum contains a fascinating collection of pottery and paintings found in the tombs of the area.
The eternal city of Rome, constructed of ruins and in whose name the Caesars sought to claim the world, opens for the visitor like a living museum. The centuries peel back with each new vista in this great city of gladiators, lunatic drivers and sumptuous pasta dishes.
Vespas, nippy little Fiats and red sports cars speed past trendy sidewalk bistros and nightclubs, revealing the Rome of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita; while the chillingly stark facades of the Stadio Olimpico complex bring back Mussolini’s attempts to reinvent the architecture of the Caesars.
For a taste of the Baroque, visitors need only climb the famous Spanish Steps, walk through the Piazza Navona or toss a coin into the beautiful Trevi Fountain. Renaissance splendour is perhaps best revealed in the Pope’s residence, the Vatican Palace, or in Michelangelo’s efforts on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. From early Christian Basilicas to the Roman Forum, the Colosseum and the Pantheon, the sequence of history trails back to the height of the Roman Empire.
It may sound like a city of contrasts, but Rome’s timeless magic lies in its ability to blend the old with the new. Empires have risen and fallen, old gods have been replaced with new ones, but Rome remains.
Attractions in Rome
Separated from central Rome by the Tiber River, Trastevere is a picturesque medieval neighbourhood characterised by a quirky Bohemian atmosphere. Its narrow cobblestone streets are lined with overhanging flower boxes and washing lines and are home to numerous cafes, boutiques, pubs and restaurants. The area has long attracted artists, famous people and expats, and is a charming place to explore, having escaped the grand developments of central Rome.
Capitoline Hill was the original capitol of Ancient Rome and continues to serve as the seat of the city’s government. The main feature of the area is Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio, a testimony to the superiority of Renaissance town planning. The piazza is bordered by three palaces: the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the twin structures of the Palazzo dei Senatori and Palazzo Nuovo, which house the Musei Capitolini, containing the largest collection of Classical statues in the world. Among the notable statues found here are the Dying Gaul and the Satyr, the Capitoline Wolf with Romulus and Remus and the Spinario. Paths cut along the side of the hill from the Campidoglio giving way to panoramic views of the ancient sites of the Forum and Colosseum.
Roman Forum (Foro Romano)
The site of Ancient Rome’s commercial, political and religious centre rests in the valley between the Capitoline and Palatine hills. The Forum’s main thoroughfare, Via Sacra, slices through the old market square and former civic centre. To make sense of the ruins and relics of the old Republic, it is helpful to consult a map of the area. Some of the best-preserved and most notable monuments include the impressive Arch of Septimus Severus – a construction designed to celebrate Roman victory over the Parthinians – and the former atrium of the House of the Vestal Virgins, and the Temple of Vesta. Also of note are the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, and the Arch of Titus, built to celebrate Titus’ destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. To the right of the arch are stairs snaking up the Palatine Hill, through a series of terraces to the Farnese gardens. The scented avenue, festooned with roses and orange trees, gives way to a magnificent vista over the Forum.
This enduring symbol of ancient Rome tenaciously clings to its foundations as the site of former gladiatorial conquests. Its architecture boasts an impressive array of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns and an underground network of cells, corridors, ramps and elevators that were used to transport animals from their cages to the arena. The magnificence of the original structure has been eroded through the years by pillaging and earthquakes so that only a skeletal framework remains; however, the sense of history the Colosseum is still able to evoke is truly awe-inspiring.
The stately Pantheon is one of the world’s most inspiring architectural designs. Fittingly built as a temple to the Gods by Hadrian in 120 AD, its perfectly proportioned floating dome rests seductively on sturdy marble columns. The only light source flowing through the central oculus was used by the Romans to measure time (with the aid of a sundial) and the dates of equinoxes and solstices. The south transept houses the Carafa Chapel and the tomb of Fra Angelico rests under the left side of the altar.
DH Lawrence passed through Sardinia in 1921, remarking on its geographic location as a place ‘lost between Europe and Africa and belonging nowhere’. It is off the beaten track, but therein perhaps lies its appeal. The island’s beaches are some of the cleanest and least crowded in Italy. The capital is Cagliari, a good base from which to explore other parts of the island. The National Archaeological Museum of Cagliari contains prehistoric tombs and other significant artefacts from the Punic and Roman periods. The resort of Costa Smeralda is a place of luxury and opulence, not suited to budget tourists, although interesting as a short stop.
The Spanish-tinted port of Alghero is the favoured package destination, especially among British holidaymakers. The inland town of Nuoro is a good station from which to explore the Gennargentu mountain range and enjoy the traditional village festivals. The Sardinian landscape is peppered with constructions from the ancient Nuragic civilisation. These stone structures are unique to Sardinia and are must-see sites. They are, however, not easily accessible as they lie in isolated spots throughout the island.
Attractions in Sardinia
The Citadel of Museums
Sardinia’s history and culture is conveniently packaged in the Citadel of Museums complex in the centre of the capital, Cagliari. Here is sited the National Archaeological Museum, the National Picture Gallery, the Cardu Siamese Museum and a collection of anatomical waxes by Florentine sculptor Clemente Susini, all administered by the University. The Archaeological Museum houses artefacts from all the ancient cultures of the island, including ceramics from Phoenician tombs, Punic jewellery and Nuragic bronzes. The Picture Gallery contains a collection of contemporary art and sculpture, while the Siamese museum exhibits fascinating items from the east. The unique Collection of Waxes consists of 23 models of parts of the human body, created by Clemente Susini from waxes, resin, tallow, pitch and balsam.
The mysterious Nuragic people, who arrived in Sardinia around 1500 BC, festooned the island with about 30,000 circular fortified structures. Today about 7,000 of these remain standing to be marvelled at by tourists. The complex of Nuraghe in Barumini has been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List and is the finest and most complete example of this prehistoric architecture. The Barumini site can be reached from Oristano or Cagliari on route 131, turning off onto route 197. Other well-preserved Nuraghe can be seen at Sant Antine. At Nora, on the very southern tip of the island, are the remains of an extensive Nuragic village including an amphitheatre, forum, baths, temple and Kasbah. Other good Nuragic sites are near Villanovaforru, Alghero and Abbasanta.
Sardinia has an unforgettable coastline, but the interior of the island is equally as beautiful. A fun way to explore it is aboard the Trenino Verde (Little Green Train), a vintage steam locomotive that puffs its way through forests, over bridges and through tunnels into some of the island’s most scenic mountain areas. The narrow-gauge train tracks were laid in 1888 to serve the more isolated areas of Sardinia, and the picturesque restored train and locomotive is just as old. The train runs on scheduled routes, connecting Nuoro and Bosa, Sassari and Alghero, Sassari and Palau, and Cagliari and Arbatax. Most popular is the Cagliari to Arbatax route, which departs each morning at 6.45am.
Neptune’s Grotto (Grotta di Nettuno)
A popular sightseeing expedition from Alghero is a boat ride to Neptune’s Grotto, an impressive deep marine cave at the bottom of the sheer cliffs of Capo Caccia. The boat ride takes 45 minutes, and goes past the pretty Bay of Porto Conte. At the cave visitors can take a 45-minute tour entering through the long snaking passage that delves into the rock, to view dramatically-lit and fantastic stalagmites and stalactites. The cave can also be reached by bus from the main terminal in Alghero, or by car, which on arrival necessitates climbing down 650 steps to the cave entrance.
Famous revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi lived the last third of his life on the woody, undeveloped island of Caprera, a short ferry-ride from Palau on Sardinia. The trip to view Garibaldi’s house and museum is very popular in season, with visitors queuing to catch one of the regular ferries to Caprera. Garibaldi came to live in Caprera in 1855 after a 20-year exile from Italy. He famously led 1,000 Red Shirts on his campaign to conquer Sicily and Naples from here in 1861. The elegant homestead has been preserved as he left it. Tours of the property end with his tomb in the garden.
The great northern lakes stretch like sparkling, glass-topped vistas within a sequence of long, cavernous valleys descending from the Alps. Lake Como, Lake Maggiore and Lake Garda emit their unique sparkle onto the magnificent surrounding landscape, and in turn, attract diverse tourists to their banks. Younger travellers enjoy the sailboarding and nightlife experience of Lake Garda, while sophisticates from Milan are drawn to the magnetism of Lake Como. Maggiore provides a tranquil, relaxed respite and can be enjoyed from the comforts of its surrounding luxury hotels.
Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, may be just a short hop from the Italian mainland, across the narrow strait of Messina, but it is a world apart in atmosphere and attitude. Everything Italian seems a little more appetising here – not only the food, but the history and culture as well.
For a long time, Sicily was ignored as a holiday destination, largely because of the Mafia stranglehold and because of the poverty of the people. Today, however, the island is experiencing a tourism boom and a surge in development as the destructive influences of the Mafia wane. Visitors discover that the Sicilian people are gracious, noble and welcoming, and that the island itself offers natural and historic attractions of great beauty and enormous interest.
The main cities of Palermo and Catania feature some of the most exquisite architecture in the world, a legacy of the many great civilisations that have vied for control of this strategically-situated island over the centuries, from the Greeks and Romans, to the Arabs and Normans, to (more recently) the French, Spanish and Italians. There are massive Romanesque cathedrals, the best-preserved Greek temples in the world, Roman amphitheatres and magnificent Baroque palaces. The continuous blue skies and temperate climate, lush vegetation and rich marine life all add to the island’s appeal. Nature has given Sicily Mount Etna, Europe’s tallest active volcano, a dramatic coastline and a fertile soil that gives forth much of the bounty on which the island’s unique and delicious cuisine is based.
Attractions in Sicily
Palermo’s largest art museum, devoted to medieval works, is housed within the gothic-styled Palazzo Abbatellis (built in 1488). The collection includes several particularly interesting works. The Bust of Eleanor of Aragon by Francesco Laurana, for example, dates from 1471 and is considered to be the epitome of Renaissance Sicilian sculpture; while the beautiful masterpiece painting Our Lady of the Annunciation is considered Antonello da Messina’s greatest work. Also renowned is the chilling Triumph of Death fresco by an unknown 15th-century artist that covers an entire wall.
One of Palermo’s most unique attractions is the engaging Museo Internazionale delle Marionette, a museum dedicated to the art of puppetry, an age-old Sicilian form of entertainment. Free shows are often put on in summer, but the museum collection itself, the greatest of its kind in the world, is entertainment enough. Most of the antique puppets on display evoke Norman Sicily, representing chivalrous heroes and Saracen pirates, knights, ladies and troubadours. The collection includes puppets from the Far East and even some English ‘Punch and Judy’ dolls.
Of all the many architecturally beautiful and fascinating places of worship in Palermo, probably the most renowned is the 12th-century cathedral in the suburb of Monreale, high on the mountain slope about five miles (8km) from the city centre. The dazzling cathedral is a mixture of Arab, Byzantine and Norman artistic styles, a blend of medieval Christian and Muslim architecture. The magnificent mosaics that cover 68,243 square feet (6,340 sq metres) of the cathedral’s dome and all of the walls on the interior are unsurpassed. The adjacent Benedictine abbey features a cloister with 228 carved stone columns, many inlaid with mosaics depicting scenes from Sicily’s Norman history.
The subterranean catacombs that contain the mummified remains of about 8,000 ancient inhabitants of Palermo may be macabre, but are fascinating to visit. The Capuchin friars began mummifying and embalming the bodies of the city’s nobles back in 1533, and the tradition continued for centuries with the last body (a seven-year-old girl named Rosalia) being embalmed in 1920. After embalming, the corpses were hung along the walls of the catacombs dressed in their best, which they still wear proudly, like the military officer in an 18th-century uniform complete with tricorn hat.
The excessive opulence of the Baroque period is nowhere better demonstrated than in the magnificent Palazzo Mirto, one of the few aristocratic homes of Palermo that is open to the public, offering visitors a glimpse into the lifestyle of Sicily’s noble 19th-century families. The Palace was the residence of the Lanza Filangeri family, whose last heir left the estate to the Ministry of Cultural Assets in 1982. Most of the princely rooms and salons are furnished with original items that once belonged to the family.
Tuscany’s rolling hills are garlanded with cypress trees, lush vines and olive groves, that make way here and there for sleepy villages and medieval hill-towns. The area rests languidly in the middle of the Italian peninsula, with parts stretching to the coastline of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Snaking through the Tuscan landscape from Florence to Pisa and soaking its thirsty banks is the Arno River.
Akin to the gentle flow of a river is the ebb of life in the region. People work in the fields in much the same way AS their ancestors did before them, producing some of Italy’s finest wines and olive oils. From this same landscape emerges a profusion of art and architecture that has grafted Italy onto the world’s cultural map. Tuscany was the birthplace of the Renaissance, a period of unprecedented innovation in art, architecture and humanist scholarship. The grandeur of the High Renaissance was enjoyed during the Medici family’s reign, when they commissioned the art and architecture that lives on within the elegant precincts of Florence.
Attractions in Tuscany
Attracted by the mineral wealth found in the regions of Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria, the Etruscans made their way to Italy around 900 BC. Traces of Etruscan civilisation can be found in their burial sites and in the artefacts found in their tombs. They were preoccupied with the afterlife and dedicated much effort to building burial sites carved into rock, or constructed from stone slab and reached by purpose-built rock-cut roads.
For an exploration of Etruscan artefacts start at Grosseto. The Museo Civico Archeologico in Grosseto contains a selection of Etruscan artefacts that were found in tombs nearby. Head north from here to Roselle, the most important excavated Etruscan and Roman remains in Tuscany. From here, follow the road leading east for 34 miles (54km) to the Etruscan village of Saturnia to explore its rock-cut tombs and then on to Sovanato to see the famous Ildebranda Tomb.
The town of Pitigliano is peppered with Etruscan tombs and tunnels. The town itself is a spectacular vista of houses jutting out over soft limestone cliffs and caves bordering the River Lente. The cliffs contain numerous caves that have been used to store local wines and olive oils and the town itself is a labyrinth of medieval streets that have carried the passage of many a traveller. From this quaint town, head west to the extensive necropolis on the outskirts of Marsiliana. Complete the trip with a stop at Talamone and Maremma, for a visit to the Etruscan temple, Roman villa and baths.
A circular route from Siena through the Chianti hills provides visitors to the region with a wonderfully scenic and sensory travel experience. The route covers the villages of the Chianti Classico wine region, garnished with ancient castles and rambling farmhouses. The vineyards and wooded hills of the Chianti are best explored along its winding back roads or from within its sleepy hamlets. By car, visitors would keep a lookout for signs marked ‘vendita diretta’ (‘direct sales’). The first stop is at Castello di Brolio, a magnificent vineyard owned by the Ricasoli family since 1167. The SS484 will take you south of Brolio and north past the hamlets of San Gusme, Campi and Linari before rejoining the road for a diversion to the Meleto castle. Another worthwhile stop is at Badia a Coltibuono for its restaurant and Romanesque church. The winding road west to Radda in Chianti is especially picturesque. A further nine miles (15km) from here north to the hamlet of Volapia is a delightful way to feel as though you’ve traveled back in time; as is a visit to sleepy Castellina in Chianti. Within the ramparts of this walled village is the Bottega del Vino Galla Nero at Via della Rocca 13, showcasing the region’s delectable wines and olive oils.
Montepulciano is Tuscany’s highest hilltop town, built along a narrow limestone ridge at 1,950ft (605m) above sea level. Sheltered within the town’s fortified walls are charming streets packed with Renaissance-style palaces and churches. Its most celebrated achievement is its Vino Nobile wines. Also of interest is the Madonna di San Biagio, a delightful pilgrimage church on the outskirts of the town. For a dip into Etruscan reliefs and funerary urns collected by Pietro Bucelli, visit his Palazzo on Via di Gracciano del Corso 73. For splendid views, take a stroll to the Palazzo Communale and climb the tower.
Leaning Tower of Pisa
The world-famous Leaning Tower of Pisa was built as a freestanding bell tower (campanile) behind the city cathedral. Constructed during the 11th and 12th Centuries, the tower is the third-oldest building in Pisa’s Cathedral Square. Originally intended to stand vertically, the tower now leans towards the south-west due to uneven foundations in the loose earth. At its highest point the tower reaches 186 feet (57m) above ground level, and has 296 steps leading to the top floor. It is not certain who the original architect was but it was most likely designed by Diotisalvi.
Cortona is a richly historic city that enjoys a scenic position above Lake Trasimeno and the plain of Valdichiana, dotted with olive groves and vineyards. It is one of Tuscany’s oldest cities, and home to some of its best-preserved Etruscan buildings. Cortona also has a strong artistic pedigree, reflected in its status as a ‘City of Art’, and was home to Luca Signorelli and Pietra da Cortona.
A good place to begin a tour of the city is at its oldest part, the base of Porta Colonia, where the original walls from the 4th century BC are still visible. Other highlights of the city include a ramble along the cobbled streets and clambering up cut-stone staircases to gaze over a city-scape little changed since the Renaissance and in many cases, the Middle Ages. Via Janelli, in particular, has some of the oldest houses in Italy, many with their original timber supporting the overhanging upper stories.
Other key sights in Cortona include the church of San Francesco (notable as the first Franciscan church outside Assisi), Palazzo Comunale, and Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca (which houses a number of major Etruscan artefacts).
Elegant Venetian buildings and palaces peer over the ancient maze of narrow streets and labyrinth of canals that make up this unique city. Tourists naturally flock to Venice to experience its inimitable charm. The downside of this can be felt in the narrow streets and cramped piazzas of its sought-after areas. A good way to get to know a more personal side of Venice is to saunter through its romantic back streets and residential quarters.
Venice rests on one of a series of 117 islands distributed throughout the Venetian lagoon, at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea. This strategic position conferred on Venice economic and defensive advantages over its trading rivals. As the wealth of the city increased and its population grew, the composition of the city grew ever more dense and today only a handful of the islets that constitute the historic centre are not entirely developed.
The historic centre is divided into six quarters (sestieri). These are: San Marco, Dorsoduro, San Polo, Santa Croce, Cannaregio and Castello. The city’s main thoroughfare is the Grand Canal that intersects each district as it meanders through the length of Venice, from the railway station to San Marco. An alternative to walking the bewildering streets of Venice is to cruise the waterways onboard the motorboat buses known as vaporetti. These are the less romantic but also less expensive substitutes for the famous gondolas.
Venice extends beyond its six sestieri to the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello. These are known for glass and lace-making respectively, and Torcello is noted for the magnificent Byzantine Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta that rests on its soil. Trips by boat to the islands provide a pleasant diversion from the busier historic quarters.
Attractions in Venice
The Grand Canal (Canalazzo)
Venice’s main waterway splits the city in half, with sestieri in equal parts to the west and east of it. It is the hub around which much activity in Venice is concentrated and is encircled with elegant facades of the palazzi, which testify to the city’s past opulence.
The best way to explore the architectural splendour of these Renaissance buildings is on board a vaporetta. Pedestrian access across the canal is only provided along three bridges situated at the station, Rialto and Academia. Gondolas cross the canal at regular intervals and provide a romantic interlude to the sightseeing itinerary.
Grand Canal palaces and buildings to look out for include the Ca da Mosto, with its rounded arches in low relief. The ‘House of Gold’ (Ca d’Ora) is a beautiful Gothic building constructed between 1424 and 1430. Palazzo Corner-Spinelli and Palazzo Vendramin Calergi combine classical and Byzantine elements designed by Mauro Codussi. Architect Jacopo Sansovino was inspired by Codussi’s style and infused this in his creation of the Palazzo Corner (Ca Granda). Another notable Palazzo is the Grimani di San Luca, designed by Michele Sanmicheli.
St Mark’s Square
St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) has always been the nucleus of Venice. The city’s first citadel and church were erected on its stony foundations, the Palazzo Ducale and the Basilica di San Marco, respectively. The Basilica di San Marco is a unique juxtaposition of Byzantine, western European and Islamic architectural styles. The Basilica’s most precious relic is the Pala d’Or, a Venetian-Byzantine gold relief adorned with precious gems. Travellers and pigeons flock to the Piazza with equal zeal. It is the tourists, however, who pay dearly to eat or drink at the elegant cafes that spill onto the pavements. Designer shops line the streets that radiate from the square. There are worthwhile places of interest to explore beyond the square that include the Museo Correr, the Archaeological Museum and the Museo del Risorgimento, which are housed within the Procuratie Nuova. Attached to the Procuratie Vecchie is the triumphal Torre dell’Orologio. The adjoining archway guides one through to the Mercerie, Venice’s main commercial street that stretches to the Rialto.
The Rialto has long been the commercial core of Venice, and is famed as the place where the first bridge over the Grand Canal was built. The original wooden bridge collapsed under the strain of the crowds gathered here to admire a wedding procession. It was replaced by the (sturdier) single stone arch design of Antonio da Ponte, and built in 1588. Today the area still resembles the bustling fruit and vegetable market of former times, but is additionally swamped with tourists and accompanying souvenir shops and gift kiosks.
Basilica dei Frari
This great gothic Franciscan church was constructed in the 14th century, and is primarily known as the burial place of Titian and the Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova. Titian’s tomb in the south aisle watches over large marble pyramid created for Canova. The interior of the church is adorned with the works of famous artists. These include Donatello’s St John the Baptist, Giovanni Bellini’s triptych of the Madonna and Saints, Titian’s famous Assumption of the Virgin and his Madonna of Case Pesaro.
School of St Roch (Scuola di San Rocco)
A ‘scuola’ in Venice was a mixture of guild and religious fraternity, where members paid annual fees to support fellow members and to decorate the school’s premises. The School of St Roch is known for the canvasses of Jacopo Tintoretto that adorn its interior. Tintoretto was commissioned to decorate the School in 1564, and dedicated 23 years to this task. The paintings are arranged in chronological order that can be followed by beginning on the second floor in the Sala dell’Albergo. Notable amongst his works are the scenes from the Life of the Virgin and the Crucifixion.