Being the homeland that gave rise to one of the world’s greatest civilizations, one of the world’s best loved cuisines, and a landscape that exudes beauty from its snowy Alp mountaintops, through the rolling farmland of Tuscany down to the rugged sea coast of places like Cinque Terre, it is no wonder that Italy is one of the top destinations for travelers in the world on an annual basis.
While prices are a tad on the high side of an international basis of comparison, just about every Euro spent here will be well worth it for the experience that is given to you in return. Long sumptuous, multi-course meals of pure, unadulterated decadence. Oceanside and mountain treks that will shift your perspective on life, in between pieces of tiramisu and coffee at a charming alpine hut. Touching the weathered stones of the Colosseum, the smooth marble of the Trevi Fountains, and the holy walls of St. Peter’s Basilica – all in the same day.
These are but a few of the countless experiences that will sprout memories that will last a lifetime and forever set the bar high for what a peak travel experience truly is. Italy really does have that effect on people, as you will soon find out.
What To Do
After getting safely into your accommodation in Rome (do ensure that you have your directions written down somewhere, as this city can be disorientating for the newcomer), you know you want to see it, so get it checked off your list first, and head down to the Roman Colosseum, which was home to numerous gladiator battles in the golden age of the Roman Empire.
Taking ten years to build and completed, this massive monument to Roman entertainment opened to the masses in the year 80 BCE, and at its peak, it held upwards of 80,000 spectators that watched spectacles as innocuous as classical plays, and as brutally violent as massacres of Christians by way of lions and other wild creatures.
While half of the complex was wrecked by earthquakes and stone scavengers over the past two millennia, the fact that the remainder stands as well as it has is testament to the skill of Roman engineers all those years ago.
After the Roman Empire crumbled in the face of rapidly emerging Byzantine Empire to the East, ineffective rule at home, and raids by Germanic tribes from the north, the Holy Roman Empire soon filled the void. Over time, the seat of this new government was ruled from a place known as The Vatican, which exists today as a microstate and the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
Within this compound, there are a multitude of buildings and attractions, so give yourself a full day, and be prepared to dedicate part of a second day if you are really into religious buildings and lore, as this place certain qualifies as a mother lode in the same vein as Angkor Wat is to Buddhism and Hinduism.
While a later article will go into greater detail on the Vatican’s treasures, ensure that St. Peter’s Basilica has a priority spot on your list, where the Pope gives masses occasionally inside the largest church on Earth, sculpted and adorned with a level of extravagance not often seen elsewhere in the world. Everyday, beams of sunlight descend from a skylight into the church’s interior in dramatic fashion for a brief period of time, so be sure to check locally when this is scheduled to occur during your visit to the Vatican.
There are countless smaller towns and cities through Italy that you could explore and get lost in for many months on end, but if you have a limited amount of time in-country like most people, take time to see the town of Assisi. Dating back to the medieval period, its present day population of 25,000 will be a breath of fresh air compared the chaos of Rome, but its religious monuments, plazas, and fine wines are no less impressive than the ones you’ll experience in more densely populated parts of the country.
St. Francis of Assisi Basilica is a favoured place of pilgrimage for many Christians, and its beauty is a draw for those of less faith, while the restaurants and bars that line the charming cobblestoned streets of Assisi, serving the best food and drink of the surrounding countryside of Umbria, will be the highlight of those not as impressed by religious monuments.
Centuries after a miscalculation by its architect caused the Tower of Pisa to take on a list in the overly soft soil that it sits in, it is still standing, capturing the imagination of many tourists in the present day. Lead counterweights are part of a strategy to keep it upright for the foreseeable future, allowing those that wish to scale the tower to do so again, years after it was shut over safety concerns.
Hopeless romantics will not want to miss taking a gondola ride through the canals of Venice, a timeless rite of passage for couples that take a trip to Italy. While this is a highlight you’ll want to fit into your itinerary, Venice is also home to countless museums, plazas and cathedrals (the highlight of which is St. Mark’s Basilica), so take some time to wander and just soak in a place that doesn’t have much time left, given the ravages that climate change is expected to exact on low-lying places like Venice in this century.
A destination famous due to a disaster that ravaged it long ago, the ruins of Pompeii have drawn fascinated hobby anthropologists and ordinary travelers for years. In 79 BCE, Mount Vesuvius let loose with one of the most devastating eruptions in his history, sending a smothering cloud of ground-hugging ash flooding towards the bustling city of Pompeii.
There was nowhere to run, with countless victims and the implements of their daily lives being entombed and mummified for well over a thousand years, before being unearthed by the King of Naples when workers were digging the foundation for his new palace uncovered houses, courtyards and mummified people, frozen in time from 1,500 years ago.
If learning about the art and history of Italy via the organized experience of displays, panels, and well-preserved artifacts, then the museums of Florence will be something you’ll want to take in during your travels. The Galleria Uffizi holds some of the best Renaissance era art that can be found in Italy, while the Gucci Museum is a must for any self-respecting fashionista. Those into math and the sciences will also want to drop by the Institute and Museum of the History of Science, which contains many exhibits from fellow countryperson Galileo Galilei, who pioneered some of the Renaissance’s biggest discoveries, all to the protestations of the Catholic Church at the time.
With all this culture, don’t forget to check out Italy’s outstanding nature. Start with the Amalfi Coast or Cinque Terre, which are both coastal regions that feature cliffs that fall dramatically to the sea. Some are not as steep, which just allow some villages to exist on their slopes, making for some of the most memorable travel experience that you’ll likely have in this country, given the culinary and cultural pedigree that these places have in addition to its natural surroundings.
If high country is more appealing to you then hanging by the sea, the Italian Alps will provide you with plentiful opportunities to trek, ski, or just admire the soothing vistas provided by regions such as the Dolomites or Lake Como. Turin, where the 2006 Winter Olympics were held, are also in the area, allowing sports fans to explore the facilities where athletes skated, skied, and slid in the pursuit of gold.
Finally, Sicily, represented by a large island off the southern tip of the Italian peninsula, reminiscent of a boot kicking a football (soccer ball for any Americans out there), is a region that has a culture and natural aspects that are worth seeing on their own merits.
Mount Etna is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, putting on a show on a fairly frequent basis, while the beaches and restaurants scattered throughout this large isle will remind you of how diverse this country is, as it is palatable from region to region, particularly when you compare Sicily to anywhere on the mainland.
What To Eat
While this guide is getting long, it isn’t ending anytime soon, as the food of Italy has proven to be one of the world’s most influential cuisines. In popular culture today, pizza seems to have been Italy’s biggest gift to the culinary world, but the type of pizza that most people in North America and other regions know is not the type that emerged from the stone ovens of this country.
One of the most classic pies that you can try in Italy will be the pizza margherita, a thin-crust creation topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and little else. The crust melts in your mouth, and the local ingredients conspire to create a simple, yet dignified dining experience.
Another food inextricably linked with Italy is pasta – and how! There are seemingly endless combinations of pasta dishes that can trace their origins to Italy, all of which will be infinitely better than any similar dish that you can find outside of the country. It emerged in Sicily in the 12th century, and from there, each region seems to have developed its own twist on the seemingly simple, yet endless variable dish.
From spaghetti bolognese to alla carbonara, rigatoni to lasagne, you’ll end up fat but happy after a long trip spent devouring these regional specialities of this deeply satisfying dish.
Another simple but oh-so-good class of dish that Italy has to its credit is risotto, a rice dish that is cooked in a broth until it takes on a creamy consistency. Broths can be meat, seafood or vegetable based, and often contain wine, butter and onions, but like pasta, the variations are many as you travel throughout the country, with the seafood risotto on Burano Island near Venice being particularly legendary.
When the time comes for dessert, the Italians don’t let their foot off the culinary gas pedal. Tiramisu is one of their crowning sweet achievements, as it is an addictive mix of ladyfingers dipped in coffee, which are covered by whipped coating made from egg whites and yolks, sugar and mascarpone cheese.
Gelato is also popular among those that like to cool off rather than wilt in the intense Mediterranean sun, as this frozen treat is ice cream, but it is done in the Italian style, with little air and far more intense flavours.
Cannoli also has an inspired following, as it consists of tube shaped pastries that are fried and are filled with a creme filling that often contain ricotta cheese.
Finally, the coffee in Italy is often cited as an example of how this caffeinated beverage should be, as there are several variants like cappuccino are well loved throughout the world. The Naples founded beverage of espresso is perhaps the most famous, as this super strong elixir is formulated by pushing a small amount of boiling water through coffee beans during the brewing process.
Properly made, this drink will kick your tastebud’s collective butts, so take it slow and enjoy as per the small size of your cup. Besides, you’ll look classier that way!