Italy is a vibrant and alive country that incorporates elements from all of history. From the modern Fiats zooming past sleek buildings to the ancient Roman ruins looking like imposing historical sentinels, this country will make every wayward visitor fall in love with it. The beginning of the Italian mainland as a powerful political entity started with the founding of Rome in 753 B.C.E by Romulus, the man who ultimately killed his twin brother, Remus, for power. Rome endured (in one way or another) until 476 C.E., when the western empire collapsed with the removal of Romulus Augustulus from the throne. Enter the “Dark” or “Middle Ages.”
In Italy, the Church and religion pervaded all aspects of daily life, as monasteries flourished and the achievements of the wondrous Romans were forgotten. Then, after centuries of being in the dark, large city-states such as Venice and Florence rose to power, ushering in the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
In today’s world, Italy is known for its sumptuous fashion designers, delectable foods, and tourism (who hasn’t heard of the Colosseum?). A whopping 3.4 million live in Rome alone (2.9 million live in Milan). Although the world power Italy has today is only a former shell of what it once was, there is something undoubtedly charming about country as a whole. With history and culture as rich as a Ghirardelli triple-chocolate brownie, what vibrant cities should a traveler visit? We would suggest Florence, Milan, La Spezia, Pisa, Pompeii, and of course, Rome. Read more for a crash-course of what attractions to see while in these cities.
Destination to See: Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence
This Italian Gothic edifice was designed mostly by the renowned early-Renaissance architect, Filippo Brunelleschi. The marble encrustacean, low timbered roof, and geometric proportions are absolutely stunning. Interestingly, this church contains the graves of Michelangelo (16th century High Renaissance sculptor and painter) and Galileo.
The cloisters in this building also contain the Pazzi Chapel, another genius creation by Brunelleschi. Modeled after a triumphal arch, this smaller chapel was meant to glorify the church and the power of the Pazzi family (rivals of the Medici). One of the neatest details about this building is the marble graves embedded into the floor the church. One can literally “walk” on the weathered tomb of another soul who probably died centuries ago.
The tickets to see this amazing structure cost 6 euro, although children are admitted at a lower price. It is also advised that women “cover up”; this means no exposed shoulders, midriffs, or cleavage. Special gowns that look like hospital uniforms can be purchased, but it is probably better to arrive properly dressed in your own clothes than to wear a sketchy Italian jumpsuit. According to Tripadvisor, this structure was rated #12 out of 218 attractions in Florence; the spot is well earned because this place is absolutely beautiful.
Destination to See: Cinque Terre cliffs in La Spezia
Stunning. Gorgeous. Surreal. Completely enchanting. These adjectives perfectly describe the seaside towns of Cinque Terre (literally “five lands”). Dubbed the “Italian Riviera,” this stretch of idyllic coast features typical bright houses (looking like spots of sunlight on the high cliffs), Italian men playing the violin and singings in the streets, and little vendors that sell everything from leather bracelets to cheap Michelangelo reproductions.
Although reaching this coast by car is a trip through hell, using a tour bus or similar mode of transportation is less stressful and more efficient. Buses to Cinque Terre can be found here. Stated perfectly on Lonely Planet, “As a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1997, Cinque Terre isn’t the undiscovered Eden it once was but, frankly, who cares?” Yes, this place is often busy and touristy during the scorching summer months, but during the fall and winter, the number of visitors declines.
Besides the view, what makes this particular place so special? For one, the rough boulders that lie on the seashore are great for sunbathing and soaking in the hot Italian sun. The waters are also disturbingly clear—the azure of the water was so brilliant that the picture I took with my camera didn’t even come close to doing it justice.
It’s as if all the pollution problems have simply melted away here, giving Cinque Terre an untouched, unscathed feeling. Hotels (at least not exorbitantly expensive ones) can be found on the outskirts of Cinque Terre in the nearby city of La Spezia, another seaside town with great views of the Mediterranean Sea. Stroll through the busy markets that often adorn the sidewalks by the sea, and don’t forget to greedily consume gelato….
Destination to See: The Colosseum in Rome
Although the image and name of the Colosseum is trite, the building itself is a marvel that every eye should behold at least once. Standing in the heart of the Eternal City, the Colosseum is the symbol of Rome, its glorious Empire, and its often barbaric ways. Construction began under the Flavian Emperor Vespasian (hence the Flavian Amphitheatre), and the building was completed by his son, Titus, in 80 C.E.
Surprisingly, the funds for this monumental structure came from Titus’ Jewish wars in Judea. Jewish revolts had been occurring sporadically for a while, but the Romans finally crushed the rebellious Jews and looted their Holy Temple in 70 C.E. The Colosseum was a place for brutal gladiator fights, although most fighters did not actually die in combat (they were an expensive commodity like anything else, so their lives were often spared).
However, instead of thinking of the millions of gallons of blood that were spilled right below my feet, I was still in shock by the sheer monumentality of this building when I visited it a few years ago. Admission is 15.50 eur0 for adults and only 4.5 euro for children under 18 and adults over 65. Imagine thinking that one can explore the ruins of an extensive imperial building for less than $20—amazing.
Be sure to peek inside the large gift shop as well; during the summer months, Rome is extremely toasty, so taking refuge inside the air conditioned gift shop is not a terrible idea. After the Colosseum, stroll across the street the Forum, the ground zero of Ancient Roman politics and corruption. Marvel at the Temple of Venus and Roma, the Temple of Jupiter, the Arch of Titus, and countless other monuments.
To reach this historical complex, it is advised to take the metro because it drops weary visitors off right in front of the Colosseum. The metro line is “Colosseo.” Finally, one fond memory I have of Rome was when I was strolling through the Piazza Navona (formerly the Circus of Domitian) with my family. I happened to see an old man singing karaoke to Andrea Bocelli!
Destination to See: Pisa Cathedral Complex
I would recommend staying in Pisa only for a day because besides the Leaning Tower of Pisa, there isn’t much else to see in this sleepy, medieval-feeling town. Be sure to look at the Pisa Cathedral and imposing Baptistery, not just the obviously tilting Tower. The Cathedral complex is also in the Italian Gothic style just like Santa Croce (see the pointed arches, tracery decoration, and marble encrustacean?)
By contrast, the Tower is in the heavy Romanesque styles (round arches and thick walls). Snapping a picture of yourself “holding up” the Tower is essential, but completely superficial because 500 other people are doing the exact same thing. Entry to the Tower costs 18 euro, and additional fees apply to the Cathedral and Baptistery as well.
Although the city itself is somewhat seedy, the food is delicious. Stop by any small café, and it can be guaranteed that the pasta and pizza are simply divine. The particular café I dined at was Caffe Bei and Nannini (order the Spaghetti Bolognese or Lasagna). Pisahas approximately 86,000 permanent residents; however, the tower itself receives approximately 1,000,000 visitors a year!
The Hotels in this city are numerous, and nearly all the owners are friendly and inviting. The Hotel I stayed at was Hotel Moderno, a quaint apartment-style building that offers complimentary breakfast.