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Things to Do in Italy - page 2

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Catacombs of Rome (Catacombe di Roma)
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The Catacombs of the early Christians are underground crypts filled with literally thousands of bones. These morbid wonders date back to the second century, a time when Christianity was considered a cult and whose members were executed as pagans and buried as martyrs. These tours invite you to descend into the Eternal City's subterranean burial chambers, winding catacombs and ancient crypts to discover the dark secrets of imperial and early Christian Rome.
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Palatine Hill (Palatino)
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Rome is famously built on seven hills, but it’s the Palatine Hill that is the most legendary - it is said that it was on the Palatine Hill that Romulus originally founded the city. Because of this, many of Rome’s most famous archaeological sites are on or right around the Palatine Hill. Some of the structures you can still see in some form on the Palatine Hill include the Flavian Palace, a palace thought to be the residence of Emperor Augustus’ wife, and the Hippodrome of Domitian. Archaeologists are still hard at work excavating on the Palatine, and in recent years they’ve found a palace believed to be the birthplace of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, as well as a cave beneath the hill that they believe was the site of the legendary Lupercalia celebrations. These supposedly took place in the cave where the she-wolf nursed Rome’s founder Romulus and his twin brother Remus, so it’s an incredibly significant discovery.
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Faraglioni
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A trio of rocky spurs looming out from the ocean off the southeast coast of Capri island, the natural landmark known as ‘I Faraglioni’ has become one of the island’s most memorable postcard images. The distinctive rocks, formed over years of coastal erosion, lie just a few meters off land, and tower up to 100 meters above the waters of the Mediterranean, making for a dramatic sight. The rocks are so famous they even have their own names - ‘Stella’ is the closest to shore; ‘Faraglione di Mezzo’ is the central and smallest rock; while ‘Faraglione di Fuori’ or ‘Scopolo’ is the largest and furthest from shore.

The best way to view the Faraglioni is on a boat tour of the coast, but the rock stacks can also be seen from shore, with great views from La Fontelina and da Luigi beaches. If you do opt for a boat cruise, you’ll have the chance to not only circle the rocks, but sail right through the middle – passing beneath the natural arch of Faraglione di Mezzo.

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Piazza del Campo
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Every Italian city has its central piazza where the city's political, social and cultural business took place, and Siena's is pretty magnificent. The Piazza del Campo was developed in the mid-14th century by the ruling Council of Nine who, naturally, divided the space into nine sectors, each representing one of them. Never be in any doubt that a lot of self-aggrandizement existed during this period.

At one end of the square is the magnificent Palazzo Pubblico, or town hall (now also housing the Museo Civico) and from here the shell-shaped space radiates out. The bell tower of 1297, Torre del Mangia, rises from the palazzo and from up here there are great views. Enclosing the remainder of the square are the Late Gothic palaces of the grand medieval families of Siena. The Fonte Gaia, or fountain of life, is a white marble focal point and meeting place at the top end of the piazza. Twice a year, in July and August, the madness of the traditional bareback horse race.

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Piazzale Michelangelo
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If you want to catch those iconic, sweeping views of Florence you've seen in postcards, head to Piazzale Michelangelo. From an elevated position overlooking the city, the fabulous views take in the city's fortified walls, the River Arno, the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and, of course, the round red dome of the Duomo.

During the day, drink in the views as you stroll along the Renaissance promenade, overlooked by yet another copy of Michelangelo's David. Return in the evening for magical views of Florence floodlit at night.

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Piazza dei Miracoli
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Some of the finest gems of Western architecture are clustered on Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli, known locally as Piazza del Duomo.

Your first sight of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Duomo and the Baptistery is literally breathtaking, their white marble shining in the sunshine on a bed of emerald green lawn against a summer’s blue sky.

Apart from the glorious architecture – white, red and green marble, Romanesque curves, Tuscan arches and Gothic points – it’s the almost surreal spatial quality of the buildings that creates a sensation.

Come here during the day to see the buildings’ white marble shine in the sunlight, and return again at night when visitors are fewer and the buildings are beautifully floodlit.

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Florence Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria dei Fiori)
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You'll catch glimpses of the red-tiled dome of the Duomo, or Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori, peeping over the rooftops as soon as you arrive in Florence.

The 13th-century Sienese architect Arnolfo di Cambio was responsible for building many landmarks in Florence but this is his showstopper. The beautiful ribbed dome was creatively added by Brunelleschi in the 1420s.

The building took 170 years to complete, and the facade was remodeled to reflect Cambio’s design in the 19th century.

Inside the Duomo, your eyes are inevitably drawn upwards to that soaring painted dome and lovely stained-glass windows by such masters as Donatello. Visit the crypt, where Brunelleschi's tomb lies, or to the top of the enormous dome itself for stupendous views over Florence.

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Pienza
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UNESCO-listed Pienza was little more than a sleepy hamlet until the reign of Pope Pius II in the first half of the fifteenth century. Pienza, then called Corsignano, was the pope’s home town, and he enlisted the help of architect Bernardo Rossellino to transform the village into an ideal Renaissance town. The reconstruction began in 1459 and only lasted four years, but the result has put Pienza on the radar of many a traveler to Tuscany.

The town’s historic center offers excellent examples of Renaissance architecture, particularly the cathedral, Palazzo Piccolomimi and Palazzo Borgia, all flanking charming Piazza Pio II. While it’s easy to breeze through the tiny town — it only takes five minutes to walk from one side to the other — it’s also an inviting place to savor a local specialty, sheep’s milk pecorino cheese with a bit of honey drizzled over the top.

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Piazza Farnese
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The Piazza Farnese in the historic center of Rome is named for the huge Palazzo Farnese on one side of it, and is one of the nicest public spaces in this busy city. The Palazzo Farnese was begun in the early 16th century by a cardinal in the Farnese family who would eventually become Pope Paul III in 1534. No expense was spared – in fact, when he became the pope, the size of his still-under-construction palace actually grew. It remains the city's largest Renaissance palace, today serving as the French Embassy, and the dominant building on the eponymous piazza.

Other attractions on the Piazza Farnese include the Chiesa di Santa Brigida, a former house of the Swedish saint that was converted into a church upon her death in the 1370s, and two fountains that look like bathtubs – because they are. Each has as its base a bathtub from the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla.

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Marco Polo's Home (Casa di Marco Polo)
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The Venetian building that was once the supposed home of famous explorer Marco Polo and his family is now easily missable to passers-by. The nearby square is known as the Corte Seconda del Milion, pointing to the title of Marco Polo's travel memoirs—Il Milione.

Located near the San Giovanni Crisostomo Church and just behind the Teatro Malibran, the building is not open to the public, but there is a small marble plaque on the wall commemorating the site's significance.

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More Things to Do in Italy

Capuchin Crypt (Cripta dei Frati Cappuccini)

Capuchin Crypt (Cripta dei Frati Cappuccini)

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The Capuchin Crypt was once thought of as one of Rome's more offbeat attractions, but it has become increasingly popular and is now on many a must-see list. Underneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, there is a series of six small chapels that serve as the burial chambers for Capuchin friars. These are no ordinary graves, however. There were more friars to be buried in the crypt's sacred soil – brought directly from Jerusalem – than there was space, so older graves were dug up and the bones of the dead monks were used to decorate the chapel walls. Today, visitors can still see the incredibly intricate designs adorning the walls and curved ceilings of the chapels. A sign in the last chapel reminds us that we are just as the occupants of these chapels once were – and we will eventually be just like them, too. It's a slightly macabre stop, not necessarily recommended for children or the squeamish, but it's also not meant to be like a haunted house.

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Brunelleschi's Dome (Cupola del Brunelleschi)

Brunelleschi's Dome (Cupola del Brunelleschi)

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Standing tall over the city of Florence, Brunelleschi’s Dome is an architectural feat, the most prominent part of the Florence Cathedral, and a symbol of Florence itself. Located in the city's historic center, the cathedral complex that holds the dome is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The whole area is known to locals as the “Duomo” or dome, after the structure. Designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and completed in 1436, it took sixteen years to build. And at 45 meters wide, it is the single largest masonry dome in the world.

Brunelleschi came to the rescue when, after over 100 years of cathedral construction, there were plans for to add a dome but no idea how to erect one. He went against existing construction norms and resolved to build a dome without wooden scaffolding — one that would support itself as it was built. It was an engineering and design marvel at the time, and the fact that it still stands tall more than 600 years later is a testament to its masterpiece.

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Sant'Ambrogio Market (Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio)

Sant'Ambrogio Market (Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio)

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Florence's most famous and popular market is the aptly named Mercato Centrale – but it's by no means the only market in the city. Another ideal spot to pick up picnic supplies, see what's fresh before you browse local menus or simply enjoy the colors of an Italian food market is the Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio (Mercato Alimentare Sant'Ambrogio).

Also known as the Sant'Ambrogio Market, the site is home to stalls that sell many of the same sorts of items seen at the Mercato Centrale – fruits, vegetables, bread, meat, fish, cheese, spices and other sundry pantry essentials. In a couple areas of the market, you'll also find vendors selling clothing and household items.

Because the Mercato Centrale is the more famous market, the Mercato Alimentare Sant'Ambrogio offers a slightly less touristy experience. It's in the historic center, so it's unlikely to be tourist-free, but you may find more locals than visitors browsing here.

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Venice Jewish Ghetto (Ghetto di Venezia)

Venice Jewish Ghetto (Ghetto di Venezia)

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A designated Jewish Quarter from the 16th to the 18th century, Venice’s Campo del Ghetto gave us the word ‘ghetto.’ ‘Gheto’ in Venetian translates to ‘foundry,’ referring to an island of Venice that Jewish citizens were once confined to. The Venetian Republic decreed that Jews could enter Venice during the day, but on Christian holidays and during the evenings had to stay within the ghetto.

Interestingly, the area is divided into the Ghetto Nuovo (New Ghetto), and the adjacent Ghetto Vecchio (Old Ghetto), though the Ghetto Nuovo is actually the older of the two. Jews from all over Europe lived in the neighborhood — in fact, each of the different synagogues was historically designated by origin (German, Italian, Spanish, etc.) Today the Campo del Ghetto is still the center of Venetian Jewish life. There is a Jewish museum, cemetery, two Kosher restaurants and five synagogues which remain mostly in their original form.

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Piazza Venezia

Piazza Venezia

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The Piazza Venezia defies many assumptions one might make from the name. It’s an open space, so it can be called a piazza, but it’s really a gigantic intersection and not a public square. And it’s in central Rome, not Venice. The name comes from the nearby Palazzo Venezia, in which ambassadors from the Venetian republic once lived.

The enormous Vittorio Emmanuele Monument faces one side of Piazza Venezia, and the interchange is also at the base of the Capitoline Hill and next to Trajan’s Forum. In short, although this piazza isn’t one in which you’re likely to spend lots of leisure time, you’ll certainly pass through it on your way to and from other major attractions in central Rome.

Those of you taking the bus around Rome will find Piazza Venezia to be a major transportation hub, which is useful for getting around the city. And if you’re ambitious enough to be driving in Rome, you’ll probably pass through the intersection a number of times.

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Siena Historic Center (Siena Centro Storico)

Siena Historic Center (Siena Centro Storico)

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With its lively piazzas, striking Gothic monuments and remarkably preserved city walls, the historic centre of Siena is one of Italy’s most impressive medieval sites and it remains the nucleus of the modern-day city. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995, the old town is a veritable open-air museum, crammed with architectural gems, historic buildings and museums, as well as one of Europe’s oldest universities.

The historic centre of Siena is best explored on foot and the obvious starting point is the enormous Piazza del Campo. Located at the heart of the city, the piazza hosts Siena’s famous Palio horse races, as well as being home to landmarks like the medieval Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall), the Fontana Gaia fountain and the 90-meter high Torre del Mangia. Nearby, the marble-fronted Duomo cathedral is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture and one of Siena’s most impressive sights.

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Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio

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The ancient Ponte Vecchio bridge is as much a symbol of Florence as the red dome of the Duomo. Ponte Vecchio means old bridge, and indeed it dates back to the 14th century. The three-arched bridge is picturesquely lined with several stories of jewelry shops and market stalls. It’s one of the most popular places in Florence for taking a stroll or just hanging out, and the decorative central arches are picture-perfect spots for snapping photos of Florence. Running across the top of the Ponte Vecchio is part of the famous Vasari Corridor, built for the ruling Medicis by the Renaissance painter and designer Vasari. The private enclosed walkway leads from the Palazzo Vecchio and Uffizi Museum, across the top of the bridge to the Pitti Palace on the other side of the river.
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Piazza della Signoria

Piazza della Signoria

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Florence’s spacious Piazza della Signoria has long been one of the city’s main meeting points. The Palazzo Vecchio, which anchors one side of the square, was once home to the rulers of the Florentine Republic, and today still serves as the city’s town hall. This square, then, was often used by those seeking favor (or protesting) their government.

Today, the Palazzo Vecchio houses a museum along with the town hall, and the Piazza della Signoria is lined with other major attractions. In front of the Palazzo Vecchio you’ll find a copy of Michelangelo’s famous “David” statue (in the place where the original once stood). The open-air gallery that is the Loggia dei Lanzi contains a collection of sculptures. And to one side of the Palazzo Vecchio is a fountain with a huge statue of Neptune.

The Piazza della Signoria was the site of the 14th century “Burning of the Vanities” led by the monk Savonarola, and it’s also where Savonarola was later hanged.

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Spanish Steps (Piazza di Spagna)

Spanish Steps (Piazza di Spagna)

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The famous Spanish Steps lead from the Piazza di Spagna up to the Trinita Church. The staircase was constructed between 1723 and 1725 in the Roman Baroque style and is the longest and widest in Europe. The design is an elegant series of ramps with 138 steps in a fan or butterfly wing shape. In May, they are particularly beautiful when the ramps of the staircase are covered in spring flowers.

Architecture aside, what makes the Spanish Steps a favorite spot to hang out is the people watching. It's a place for tourists and locals to sit and enjoy the spectacle of Rome life.

The adjacent Piazza di Spagna is surrounded by wonderful tea rooms and cafes as well as being adjacent to some of the best shopping streets in Rome.

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Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano (Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano)

Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano (Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano)

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Visitors to the Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano can see not only the present-day church, but also an older church and even older excavations underneath. Evidence suggests that the oldest building on this site likely dates from at least the 1st century B.C.E. It was the home of a wealthy Roman that was probably destroyed during a fire in 64 C.E., but even that structure is thought to have been built on the foundation of an even older building.

Other lower levels of the church have been excavated to reveal a room used in the 2nd century for worship of the cult of Mithras, as well as a 4th century basilica. The church you see at street level today was begun in the late 11th century and features an ornately decorated interior. A visit to the Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano is a fascinating step back in time.

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Siena Civic Museum (Museo Civico di Siena)

Siena Civic Museum (Museo Civico di Siena)

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The Palazzo Pubblico is hard to miss. A magnificent stone and red brick building begun in 1297, with excellent towers and crenellations, it is everything one could hope for from a Gothic town hall. Situated on the lower side of the Piazza Campo, the building is shaped to fit the design of the civic square and has a subtle curve to it.

These days it retains its government functions and also houses the city museum, Museo Civico, which is well worth a visit for its frescoes, paintings and sculptures. The Sienese school was artistically significant and the late medieval frescoes were some of the first to depict non-religious themes. Instead they made statements about government, justice and patriotic devotion. The most significant is the huge fresco cycle of 1337 by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, entitled Allegory of Good and Bad Government; it’s not difficult to get the painting’s message.

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Cannaregio

Cannaregio

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Cannaregio is the northernmost of the six districts of central Venice. It is also the largest and most populated of all the districts. This district is home to the Venetian Ghetto, the world's oldest Jewish Ghetto, established in 1516. Since the people in this area were forbidden to expand outwards, they were forced to expand upwards. As a result, you'll find uncharacteristically tall buildings in this part of Venice. Remains of old buildings and memorials stand as a remembrance of the struggle the Jewish people in Venice once had to endure.

Cannaregio Canal, where water buses called vaporetto run, cuts through the district, and the Santa Lucia train station is also located here. You'll also find many historic churches in Cannaregio. On the busy main street, Strada Nuova, you'll find plenty of souvenir shops and tourists. But it doesn't take long to find a quiet piazza in this neighborhood.

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Capitoline Hill and Museums (Campidoglio e Musei Capitolini)

Capitoline Hill and Museums (Campidoglio e Musei Capitolini)

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One of the seven hills of Rome, the Capitoline was the first capitol of the Roman world. It was from this hill that we derive the word "capitol". Presently, this hill is the site of the oldest public museum collection in the world. Founded by Pope Sixtus IV in 1471, the Capitoline Museums house famous pieces of art such as the Dying Gaul, Capitoline Venus, the colossal bronze sculpture of Marcus Aurelius, the Capitoline She-Wolf, Bernini's Medusa, and the statue remains of Constantine.
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Opera del Duomo Museum (Museo dell'Opera del Duomo)

Opera del Duomo Museum (Museo dell'Opera del Duomo)

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Despite the name, Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo has nothing to do with opera music - “opera” also being the Italian word for creative works, in this case the artwork that was once inside the cathedral.

The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo is located conveniently right behind the Duomo, for which most of its collection was originally created. Inside you’ll see an unfinished Michelangelo pieta that he had apparently started as a piece to decorate his own tomb. He was later so unhappy with it that he broke it, but it was later put back together by a new owner. The face of Nicodemus is said to be a self-portrait of the sculptor.

Other highlights of the museum collection are Ghiberti’s original bronze panels from Florence’s Baptistery. The doors you see on the Baptistery today are excellent reproductions, but the originals are kept in air-tight containers to prevent further damage.

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