Italy has likely captivated your poetic imagination at least once in your life, with the country’s storied history, delicious regional foods, and renowned museums like the Accademia Gallery in Florence—featuring Michelangelo’s David—or the Vatican Museums.
With long stretches of glorious Mediterranean coastline, seaside villages in gelato shades, distinctive islands, and gloriously sunny weather, no one would ever fault you for daydreaming of Italy.
Learn for yourself what Italy is best known for. Here are 13 unforgettable sights and tastes that will soon have you dreaming of la dolce vita.
Rome’s rich history and larger-than-life monuments loom large in western civilization’s collective memory. Three days in Rome is enough to see the city in all its elegant beauty.
The Colosseum, synonymous with the city, was inaugurated in A.D. 80 by emperor Titus Vespasianus Augustus, and is infamous for hosting elaborate and bloody gladiator battles. Even today, this European landmark is the largest amphitheater in the world.
You can also visit the graceful columns of the Roman Forum, once the social and economic center of the city, an area of temples and marketplaces. There’s been a structure on this site since the 7th century BC.
Rome’s enormous Pantheon was once the largest dome on earth, serving as a temple, and then a church over the millennia, and still impresses with its spectacular interior dome and design today.
Of course, you don’t want to miss the gorgeous baroque Trevi Fountain, a dramatic Roman landmark of chariots, horses, and mythical figures looming over a turquoise pool. Toss a coin into the fountain, legend says, and you’ll return to Rome.
Gelato is synonymous with Italy, and Italy is where its modern incarnation originated. Ice has been used for millennia to cool drinks, but Arabs are believed to have invented flavored sorbet in the 11th century, importing it to Sicily, and using ice from Mt. Etna.
Modern gelato appeared during the Renaissance, but was the preserve of the rich, as ice was expensive. The delicacy became more widespread from the early 20th century onwards.
Now, gelato is everywhere in Italy, in dozens of flavors, and is absolutely irresistible on a hot day, for dessert, or even breakfast. It’s a matter of personal taste, but don’t miss a homemade pistachio or hazelnut flavor, or a decadent tiramisu gelato.
Read: What to Eat in Rome
Venice’s greeny-blue canals, grand palazzi and elaborate St. Mark’s Cathedral put this former independent republic on the map.
As one of the most beautiful cities in Italy, there are so many symbols and icons associated with this enchanting place, you’ll soon lose yourself among its sleepy waterways.
The scenic Grand Canal, a little over two miles long, is a main focal point of the city, bustling with gondolas, vaporetti (water buses), and all manner of commercial craft.
Stand on the Rialto Bridge, or take a gondola ride along here and through the smaller canals, and feel the city’s deep connection to the water on which it’s built.
St. Mark’s Square is Venice’s main piazza, an expansive and elegant meeting place in front of St. Mark’s Basilica. One of the most beautiful churches in the world, the basilica’s current incarnation (rebuilding began in 1071 after a fire), with its five domes, is a showcase of Byzantine design.
Make sure you try to spot the four bronze Horses of Saint Mark statues on the façade – and take a tour inside, to see the jaw-droppingly intricate mosaics.
While you’re exploring the square, visit the ornate Doges’ Palace, where the dukes of Venice once resided, and where the city-state was governed from. The palace is a beautiful example of how Venetian, Gothic and Moorish architectural influences were able to align. It’s also famous as the place in which Casanova was incarcerated.
The town of Pompeii in southern Italy was completely buried under volcanic ash in 79 AD during a cataclysmic eruption of nearby Vesuvius. It was then rediscovered in the 18th century, almost perfectly preserved.
A tour of this active dig site (much is still hidden by debris) will give you the chance to see the city’s amphitheater, forum, villas and even the poignant figures of some of Pompeii’s residents, who were covered in fiery ash, and are now preserved in plaster casts.
Today, Pompeii is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visit with a specialist guide, who will bring the ancient city to life. You can complete your picture of this tragic place by visiting the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, which houses many of the artifacts excavated from the site.
It’s also possible to take a tour up Vesuvius, ending in a short hike, for views of the whole city and the glittering Mediterranean spread out below.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa
No trip to Italy is complete without a visit to Pisa’s celebrated tower, which leans at an alarming angle.
This fetching Tuscan town is on the global destinations map thanks to this iconic 183-foot-high tower, a freestanding bell tower next to the Cathedral. Due to subsoil irregularities, the tower now has an approximately four-degree slant—and has had some kind of tilt since the late 1100s.
Pisa is also home to many other striking buildings that you’ll want to investigate, centered around the Piazza Duomo, also known as the Piazza dei Miracoli, or “Square of Miracles” due to the beauty of the marble monuments surrounding it, including the tower.
The octagonal Baptistery of San Giovanni, with its huge mosaic-covered dome, is one of these impressive edifices. While you take in San Giovanni’s white marble and green Prato marble outside, keep in mind that this is the largest baptistery on the planet. The Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was baptized here as well.
Pasta & Pizza
What is Italy known for? Pasta, of course. And pizza.
A comprehensive list of Italian pasta dishes would go on forever, but some of the high points include spaghetti Bolognaise, the Neapolitan spaghetti alle Vongole, ravioli, fettuccine Alfredo, stuffed tortellini, and lasagne alla Bolognese—one of the most popular dishes in Bologna.
Every family has its own recipes, handed down through the generations, and every region has its own specialties.
If you’re accustomed to American-style pizzas, you should know that Italy, the birthplace of this world-famous pie, builds them slightly differently.
Pay attention to how Italian pizza crusts are made with fine Italian 00 flour (which involves less kneading), and how the pies tend to use a different amalgamation of herbs, olive oil and spices compared to their American cousins.
Recipes are simpler, too, and no self-respecting Italian would ever put pineapple on a pizza.
Naples is the home of pizza, and its long street, Spaccanapoli, which bisects the center, is the place to go for the real thing.
Vatican City’s art and architecture, along with its significance to Roman Catholicism, one of the largest religions on the planet, make this tiny city-state, encircled by Rome, one of Italy’s best-known destinations.
St. Peter’s Basilica and its prominent spherical piazza dominate the outdoor space here. Step inside and you’ll be awe-struck by the sheer grandeur of the cathedral.
The 26 Vatican Museums inside the Vatican Palaces, accommodating the enormous art collection of the Holy See, boast tens of thousands of artistic masterpieces, from early Roman times until the Renaissance.
The Sistine Chapel’s heartbreakingly beautiful ceiling, painted by Michelangelo, is also part of the collection.
There’s art everywhere in Italy, although the country’s epicenter is Florence, capital of Tuscany.
Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia houses the original David, one of the images Italy is best known for, along with other sculptures by Michelangelo, including his Slaves, as well as Giambologna’s plaster Rape of the Sabines, plus works by other notable artists.
The city’s other great gallery, the Uffizi, is where you’ll see The Birth of Venus by Botticelli, and Caravaggio’s startling Medusa.
For more art in Florence, the Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore, the city’s cathedral, will catch your eye with Brunelleschi’s colossal Renaissance dome.
Multi-colored marble adorning the outside only adds to the cathedral’s splendor. The marble mosaic floors inside, with their beautiful, intricate patterns, are a work of art.
The Amalfi Coast
The dreamy Amalfi Coast will offer you a slice of Italian Mediterranean perfection. The steep, rugged coast seemingly clings to the Lattari Mountains, next to the Tyrrhenian Sea, dotted with lemon groves, picturesque villages, vineyards, and olive cultivation.
If sand and sun appeal, spend some time at Maiori, the Amalfi Coast’s longest beach. Or give the adorable village of Minori a try, with its cluster of pastel-colored houses, neat beach, and quintessential Italian glamor.
Nearby is Sorrento, the clifftop beauty of which really is unparalleled. Located at the southern end of the Gulf of Naples, this colorful littoral town almost looks as though it’s cascading down the abrupt incline it was built upon.
The town is surrounded by lemon groves, the products of which are the basis of the fabulous Limoncello, a sweet lemon liqueur served as a digestive – or in a decadent sorbet.
The Cinque Terre
The Italian Riviera’s Cinque Terre is a string of five lovely villages (Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore), next to the Ligurian Sea.
While the rocky and precipitous terrain here squeezes in some small-to-midsize Italian beaches, like Monterosso’s enchanting Fegina Beach, Cinque Terre’s real charm lies in its vibrant and relatively unblemished character.
Another great feature of Cinque Terre is that this UNESCO World Heritage Site’s terraced villages can’t be accessed by car. You can only get there by boat, train, or along different hiking trails and footpaths.
The seaside village of Monterosso al Mare, lying to the west, is enclosed by olive and lemon groves, and vineyards full of white grapes. At the eastern end of this collection of villages, you’ll find Riomaggiore, founded in the thirteenth century.
Riomaggiore’s streets—and hence access to its cafés, shops and restaurants—are rather steep, although worth it for views of the stone houses, and the fishing boats below.
If you prefer a slightly slower pace of life, the Italian Riviera town of Manarola is more relaxed. Manarola is also where you can imbibe the region’s sweet and rare Sciacchetrà wine.
Two of the largest islands of the Mediterranean, Sicily and Sardinia, belong to Italy, and each has its own distinctive culture.
Sardinia is a summer spot renowned for its white sand beaches, aquamarine water that rivals the Caribbean, glamorous yachting scene, and idiosyncratic island culture. Many locals even refer to mainland Italy as “the continent”.
When it comes to Sardinia’s beaches, you can’t go wrong with the soft sand on the long and narrow Poetto Beach, next to the island’s capital, Cagliari.
If you don’t mind a bit of a trek, the remote Cala Goloritzé beach, surrounded by limestone cliffs, is another reach of Sardinian sand ripe for a visit. You can only get to this sublime beach by boat, or by trekking down a steep, snaking footpath.
In Cagliari, head up to the hilltop citadel, which features two imposing watchtowers. The city’s Roman amphitheater was carved out of stone in the 2nd century AD and is also worth the trip when you visit Sardinia.
Meanwhile, the ancient town of Nora is an archaeological site that predates Roman times. Nora was founded by the Phoenicians, then fell under Carthaginian rule, before it finally came into Roman hands.
Sicily has a culture all of its own, not to mention distinctive cuisine and wine. Sicily’s magical towns are dominated by the imposing mass of Mount Etna, well known for putting on explosive, lava-filled displays. When the huge mountain is quiet, you can visit the inactive Silvestri Craters at Rifugio Sapienza.
Sicily is home to some magnificent antiquities, too. The Roman amphitheater in Catania, on the island’s eastern coast, is an outdoor museum and dates back to 300 BC.
Also, check out Catania’s opera house, the Teatro Massimo Bellini, with its gorgeous neo-baroque façade. You can take a tour of the opera in the morning, or attend an event in the evening, and revel in the building’s remarkable acoustic design.
As you travel, note the differences in Italy’s numerous regional cuisines, all coming with varied takes on meat, fish, seafood, aromatic herbs, pasta, fresh vegetables, and more.
Venice is famed for its cicchetti, tiny snacks of bread served with prosciutto, or creamy salt cod. In Naples, try spaghetti alle vongole, spaghetti with clams.
Romans eat their spaghetti alla carbonara, with eggs, cheese, and cured pork. In Liguria, try warm focaccia, and homemade pesto.
Sicily is the place to feast on arancini, fried risotto balls, or if you have a sweet tooth, ricotta-filled cannoli. Tuscany, meanwhile, offers a hearty cuisine, featuring game, chestnuts, and truffles.
Sunny Italy is one of the world’s greatest wine producers. Officially, you’ll discover that there are more than 600 wine grape varieties used in Italy, each with its own distinctive flavor profile.
So, if you’re a true oenophile, explore Italy’s wines and taste as you travel. Enjoy a light Prosecco before lunch, or a crisp pinot grigio with seafood. Sample the powerful super-Tuscan red, Sassicaia and Ornellaia, or in Sicily, a Malvasia, or a powerful chardonnay.
Dreaming of Italy? Browse our Italy cruises and plan a culinary, beach-filled, history and architectural tour of this alluring country, and learn for yourself what Italy is best known for.