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Things to Do in Italy - page 5

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Val d'Orcia
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81 Tours and Activities

The Renaissance period was born in the hills of Italy, and nowhere is this more evident than at Val D’Orcia, an architectural wonderland and UNESCO World Heritage Site in the countryside of Tuscany. Here, the low-lying chalk planes and rolling hills have inspired many an artist to cover canvases with depictions of rural Italian life.

Travelers can explore the quiet tons, like Pienza and Radicofani, and sip incredible wines in the cafes of Montalcino. Whether it’s wandering the hills in search of a true taste of Italy, or traversing the planes with a camera in search of the perfect iconic image of Italy, visitors will find exactly what they’re looking for in Val D’Orcia.

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Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore)
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There are many churches in Rome - and throughout the world - dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The largest one is the Basilica Papale (or Papal Basilica) of Santa Maria Maggiore near the Termini Train Station in central Rome.

As you might guess from the name, Santa Maria Maggiore is technically part of the Vatican - just as a foreign embassy might be. As part of Vatican City, the Basilica is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes all extraterritorial properties of the Holy See in Rome.

Although the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore has been expanded upon and redecorated over the centuries, it was originally built in the mid-5th century and much of the original structure is still in place. In the years after the papacy was moved back to Rome from Avignon, part of the church was used as the papal residence until renovations to the Vatican Palace was completed.

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Piazza Barberini
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Atop the Quirinal Hill is the Piazza Barberini, one of Rome’s public squares that also serves as a bit of a traffic intersection. The piazza itself is pedestrian-only, making it at least possible to enjoy yet another of Rome’s public spaces, although the cars zipping around it make it slightly less than peaceful.

In the middle of the piazza is the Triton Fountain, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 1640s. The piazza itself takes its name from the Palazzo Barberini, former home to a noble Roman family, one of whom eventually became Pope Urban VIII. That palace is now home to the Museum of Ancient Art.

Another fountain by Bernini - the Fountain of Bees - once occupied a corner of the Piazza Barberini, but it was moved to another spot on the nearby Via Vittorio Veneto. One of Rome’s two Metro lines (Line A) has a stop at the Piazza Barberini.

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Pietro Micca Museum (Museo Pietro Micca)
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In a country as storied as Italy, it comes as no surprise that there are important historic sites buried beneath its modern metropolises. Almost every major Italian city has hidden underground attractions; Turin’s is the Pietro Micca Museum (Museo Pietro Micca), with a network of tunnels that ultimately saved the city from the French in 1706.
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Piazza Duomo
20 Tours and Activities

The city’s most memorable architectural and navigational landmark, Piazza Duomo is the buzzing center of downtown Catania and a strategic starting point for walking tours of the city. The UNESCO-listed square is encircled with grand buildings, the creative vision of local architect Vaccarini and a prime example of the acclaimed Sicilian Baroque style.

Dominating the northern edge of the piazza is the ornate Palazzo Degli Elefanti, now housing the City Hall, while the palatial Cathedral of Sant’Agata looms to the east, flanked by the elegant Bishop’s Palace and the arched walkway of the Porta Uzeda. At the center of the square is Duomo’s star attraction - Giovanni Battista’s Fontana dell'Elefante, a monumental fountain crowned by the city’s emblem - a statue of an elephant carrying an obelisk, sculpted from volcanic rock and dating back to 1736.

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Gesú Nuovo Church (Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo)
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Originally built as a palace, the Gesú Nuovo Church was converted into a place of worship by the Jesuits. It stands in a square by the same name in Naples historic city center.

Built in 1470, the original palace façade was left intact when construction began to convert it into a church. The bugnato style exterior is characterized by pyramid-shaped stones on the façade, however, its outward appearance can lead to confusion, sometimes causing unknowing visitors to walk right by, not realizing what’s tucked inside. The Church’s Baroque interior is ornate with 11 Chapels and frescos throughout that represent bible scenes and the stories of Saints. The church’s construction was a lengthy process, started in 1584 but not completed until 1601.

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San Miniato al Monte
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There are so many churches worth visiting right in the streets of central Florence that you might think it’s no big deal to skip San Miniato al Monte, sitting as it does high above the city in the hills. But couple the fact that it’s an incredibly beautiful church with the fact that you’re rewarded for your uphill efforts with some of the finest views of Florence and you’ll see why it’s such a highly recommended stop. The church of San Miniato al Monte was started in the early 11th century on the site where Saint Miniato is said to have died. The interior of the church features beautiful multi-colored marble and a sparkling 13th century mosaic over the altar. The remains of Saint Miniato are said to be in the church’s crypt, but there is only one tomb in the church itself - that of Cardinal James of Lusitania, who was the Portuguese ambassador in Florence in the 15th century. There is a monastery next to San Miniato al Monte, where the monks produce the sought-after honey and liqueur
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Piazza del Campidoglio
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The Capitoline Hill is one of Rome’s famous seven hills, and in Italian it’s called the Campidoglio. The Piazza del Campidoglio is the trapezoidal space atop the hill, with buildings on three sides and a grand staircase on the fourth. The piazza and surrounding buildings were designed by Michelangelo in the mid-1500s.

Michelangelo employed several visual tricks to give the space a balanced feel, despite its lack of literal symmetry. He designed facades for the existing buildings, made the staircase more of a gradual ramp, and crafted a pattern to be inlaid in the piazza that deceives the eye into thinking it’s a perfect oval (it’s actually egg-shaped). The buildings once served as government buildings, but they now house the Capitoline Museums. At the center of the Piazza del Campidoglio is a replica of an Ancient Roman bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback. The original bronze is nearby in the Capitoline Museums.

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More Things to Do in Italy

Rome Leonardo da Vinci Museum (Museo Leonardo da Vinci)

Rome Leonardo da Vinci Museum (Museo Leonardo da Vinci)

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Inside the Galleria Agostiniana, part of the must-see Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, is the small Leonardo da Vinci Museum, dedicated entirely to the great inventor and artist. What started out as a temporary exhibition is now permanently housed in a church on the busy Piazza del Popolo. Larger museums dedicated to the life and work of Leonardo are in Milan, Florence, or even the artist’s hometown of Vinci, but the Museo Leonardo da Vinci in Rome is a great comprehensive look at his Renaissance works.

The museum’s collection features more than 60 inventions modeled after Leonardo’s machines. There are more than 120 pieces on display throughout the museum, including artistic studies of famous pieces like “The Last Supper” and “Vitruvian Man.” Some of the models are interactive, making this a good option for families traveling with children.

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Florence Baptistery (Battistero di San Giovanni)

Florence Baptistery (Battistero di San Giovanni)

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One of the oldest buildings in Florence, it's thought that the octagonal Baptistery stands on the site of an ancient Roman temple. It may even have been built as early as the 5th century. The striking Romanesque cladding of white and green marble was added in the early 12th century.

Inside, the Baptistery features gold mosaics, marble columns and tombs. Look up to catch the best views of the gilded mosaics covering the cupola.

Perhaps the Baptistery's most famous attraction is its trio of gilded bronze doors, decorated with panels. Examine the panels up close to admire their incredible details.

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Correr Museum (Museo Correr)

Correr Museum (Museo Correr)

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The Correr Civic Museum, or Museo Civico Correr, is dedicated to the art and history of Venice. Located in the beautiful buildings surrounding the Piazza San Marco, it includes neo-classical sculptures, books, medallions, documents, paintings, musical instruments, and Greek and Roman statues.

The Civilta Veneziana rooms hold objects from the history of Venice including model ships, maps and navigational instruments. Also weaponry. There is also a 16th century library decorated by Titian's handpicked artists including Veronese. Titian himself painted the ceiling in the vestibule.

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Ortygia (Ortigia)

Ortygia (Ortigia)

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The city of Syracuse on the eastern coast of Sicily is partly located on an island called Ortygia, where much of the city’s history can be found. The island figures into Greek mythology as the place where the Greek goddess Leto gave birth to Artemis, and its name comes from the ancient Greek word for quail; Leto's sister is said to have turned into a quail and become the island when she fell into the sea.

There are two islands that connect the island with mainland Sicily, and most of the city of Syracuse is on the mainland. Among the sights in the historic city on Ortygia are its seventh-century cathedral and the Fountain of Arethuse.

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Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie (Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie)

Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie (Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie)

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Most visitors seek out the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie to pay their respects to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. The famous mural is housed in the refectory of the adjoining Dominican convent.

Visitors who take the time to explore the convent’s church, however, will be rewarded with a stroll through an impressive Renaissance building.

The church was built in Gothic and Romanesque styles by Sforza duke in 1490, and is believed to have been partially designed by Bramante.

The exterior is decorated in a restrained pattern of pilasters and circles, and the design features a lovely, tranquil cloister. Inside, the Gothic nave is decorated with beautifully restrained patterned details.

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Bargello Museum (Museo Nazionale del Bargello)

Bargello Museum (Museo Nazionale del Bargello)

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Housed in the medieval splendor of Florence’s Palazzo della Podestà – once a barracks and subsequently the city’s courts of justice – the National Museum opened in 1865 and showcases an abundance of glorious Renaissance artworks. As befits the oldest public building in the city, it has a fortified façade and a maze-like interior with fine halls, balconies and loggias overlooking an arcaded courtyard with walls smothered by the coats of arms of medieval aristocracy. Displayed in a series of vast apartments are collections of medieval gold work, 16th-century weaponry, a series of bronze animals made for the Medici family and hand-crafted tapestries, but the undoubted star of the Bargello’s collection is the statuary from big names of the Italian Renaissance, which has its birth in Florence. On display are the bronze relief panels created by Brunelleschi and Ghiberti when they were competing for the commission of the baptistery doors in Florence duomo (cathedral) in 1401.

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Historic Center of Rome (Centro Storico di Roma)

Historic Center of Rome (Centro Storico di Roma)

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The area of Rome known as the “centro storico,” or “historic center,” is sometimes referred to as whatever lies inside the ancient Aurelian Walls, but the border the walls created aren't exactly the same as what many people refer to as the Centro Storico today.

UNESCO designated the “Historic Center of Rome” a World Heritage Site in 1980, declaring the area inside the Aurelian Walls plus Vatican City (which was outside the walls) to be the city's Centro Storico. To most visitors, however, the Centro Storico is much smaller, and where many of the main attractions are located. In the Centro Storico, you can visit sights such as the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, and the Capitoline Hill. The Forum and Colosseum are just outside the smallest interpretation of the Centro Storico, as are Vatican City and the Trastevere neighborhood.

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Piazza della Repubblica

Piazza della Repubblica

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Piazza della Repubblica is a square in Rome not far from Termini train station. The square was the original site of the Baths of Diocletian. It was known as Piazza Esedra until the 1950s, and many older locals still refer to it by its old name. In the center of the square is the large Fountain of the Naiads, or water nymphs. Figures of the four water nymphs adorn the sides of the fountain representing oceans, rivers, lakes, and underground water. When the fountain was unveiled in 1901, it was considered too provocative due to the nudity of the statues.

One of Rome's most well known streets, Via Nazionale, starts at Piazza della Repubblica. On this street and in the surrounding area you'll find upscale hotels, shops, restaurants, and cafes. Near the piazza is the Teatro Dell'Opera Di Roma, a lavish 19th century opera house. There are also several churches and ornate buildings in the area.

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Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli (Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli)

Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli (Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli)

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With its gleaming marble-coated façade and eye-catching spirograph-inspired windows, the Santa Maria dei Miracoli is a striking sight, perched on the banks of the Miracoli canal. The early Renaissance church dates back to the late 15th century, when it was built in honor of a sacred icon of the Virgin Mary that stood on the plot. The icon was famed for performing a number of miracles (including allegedly reviving a man who had drowned in the Giudecca Canal) and the Santa Maria dei Miracoli was erected to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims who flocked to the site.

Today, the masterful design of acclaimed Renaissance architect Pietro Lombardo is the church’s main draw, with its polychrome marble, sculpted pilasters and ornate reliefs giving an impression of grandeur that belies its small size. The most enchanting viewpoint is from the waterfront, but be sure to explore the interiors too, where the legendary icon, known as ‘I Miracoli.

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Isola Bella

Isola Bella

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You don’t have to understand much Italian to guess that the Isola Bella attraction near Taormina in Sicily is a “pretty island” - but what you can’t guess from the name is that it’s not actually an island at all.

Isola Bella is a tiny, rocky outcropping just off the popular Lido Mazzarò beach in a small bay near Taormina. It looks like an island, but is connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of sand. It’s sometimes covered by the sea, so there are times when it looks like an island. This islet was given to the town of Taormina as a gift in 1806 by the then-king of the region, and later purchased by Lady Florence Trevelyan - a Scottish woman who lived in Taormina in the late 1800s.

Lady Trevelyan built a house atop Isola Bella, which still stands today. Ownership of the islet changed hands several times over the years, until 1990 when Isola Bella went up for auction. It is now owned by Sicily and serves as a nature reserve.

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Piazza & Fontana Pretoria

Piazza & Fontana Pretoria

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Palermo’s most famous piazza, the Piazza Pretoria, is just a few steps from the busy Quattro Canti - but a world away in terms of the kind of piazza experience it delivers.

The centerpiece of the Piazza Pretoria is the fountain, known as the Fontana Pretoria. It’s huge, designed in the 1550s by a sculptor from Florence named Camilliani. The fountain was originally commissioned for a private villa in Tuscany, but was gifted to the city of Palermo in 1574. City officials had razed several homes to make way for a grand fountain, meant to show off Palermo’s impressive city plumbing, but locals weren’t quite prepared for the fountain’s decorations when it was unveiled.

There are 16 figures on the Fontana Pretoria, all of which are entirely or partially nude, that circle the fountain. There is no side from which you can simply enjoy the water itself without seeing a nude statue - which many Palermitans in the late 16th century found scandalous.

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