It’s spring in Italy, and that always makes us think of… where to find Italy’s most beautiful gardens! From Renaissance gardens to ancient valleys to seaside villas, verdant green spaces are scattered across Italy. And this, of course, is the time of year to see them!
Here are 5 of our favorite gardens in Italy… in pictures!
Isola Bella (Lake Maggiore)
Tiny Isola Bella, on Lake Maggiore, wasn’t always what its name means—”beautiful island.” In fact, it was originally tiny and rocky! But in the 17th century, Carlo III Borromeo built up the island with a palazzo and gardens. (All to dedicate to his wife, Isabella D’Adda… we know, awww!). Soil was shipped in and every inch carefully landscaped. Today, Isola Bella is nothing so much as a floating, elaborate villa and garden… all surrounded by the blue waters of Lake Maggiore and the snow-capped mountains beyond.
Villa Rufolo (Amalfi coast)
The 14th-century Villa Rufolo, in the small town of Ravello, is one of the Amalfi coast’s finest gems. (Here are 5 of our must-see sights on the Amalfi coast!). Dating back to the 14th century, the palazzo’s medieval towers and walls are only made more stunning by the beautiful flowers that bloom, well, everywhere! Top it off with the view of the Mediterranean from 1 kilometer up, and, well, this is one of the prettiest gardens in Italy… hands down.
Vittoriale degli Italiani (Lake Garda)
The Vittoriale is one of the most interesting gardens, and villas, you’ll see in Italy. The estate was built on Lake Garda in the 1920s and 1930s by Gabriele d’Annunzio, one of Italy’s most beloved—and certainly most eccentric—poets. The gardens are gorgeous (and include courtyards and a theater). If you have time, though, make sure you also pay a visit to the villa itself; the rooms are left as they were during d’Annunzio’s life, and they’re filled with art and oddities.
Giardino della Kolymbetra (Valley of the Temples, Sicily)
The gardens of Kolymbetra, located in Sicily’s Valle dei Templi, date back to ancient times. Even Virgil was a fan of this gorgeous, verdant valley! For centuries, though, the area was abandoned and left to choke with weeds. In 1999, FAI (Italy’s version of the National Trust) took over the garden, replanting it and restoring it to its former glory. Now, it’s filled with lemon and orange trees, olive groves, and more. Between its ancient origins, location under Agrigento’s ancient Greek temples, and its verdant beauty, this has to be one of the most beautiful gardens in Italy. (Find out more about Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples in our post on the 7 most stunning ancient sights in Sicily!).
Villa d’Este (Tivoli)
One of the finest Renaissance villas and gardens in Italy, the Villa d’Este in Tivoli also makes a great day trip from Rome. Built by the grandson of Pope Alexander VI in the 16th century, it’s filled with formal gardens, frescoed rooms, and gorgeous fountains. And, of course, you can combine a visit to the gardens here with a visit to Hadrian’s villa, also at Tivoli, which is an estate filled with trees, ponds… and ancient ruins! (Find out more about Lazio’s hidden gems!).
6 Beautiful Places to Celebrate Spring in Italy
byWalks of Italy
Italy in spring? Stunning! But while that’s true no matter where you are (in fact, here are 6 reasons we love Italy in springtime), we tend to think that nothing shouts spring!… more than blooming flowers. And gorgeous views. And verdant landscapes. Especially in a country as full of natural beauty as this one.
You agree? Then make sure you check out our list of places you especially won’t want to miss in Italy in springtime.
Here are 6 of our favorites.
The Dolomites are great for skiing in winter, and hiking in summer… but when it comes to the combination of vibrant greenery, beautiful flowers, and just a trace of snow on the mountains, we love the spring! Above, wildflowers grow in the Brenta Pass, a popular place for hikers.
Ravello, on the Amalfi coast
Sure, all of the Amalfi coast is pretty beautiful in spring. The terraced hills are bright-green and spotted with flowers, the temperature’s balmy… and yet, because it’s not high high season, towns like Amalfi and Positano aren’t yet shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists.
That said, Ravello is our favorite springtime spot on the Amalfi coast. Why? Its villas… and their gardens. The 13th-century Villa Rufolo has enchanting, flower-filled gardens and views of the seaside. Oh, and so does the Villa Cimbrone. And just exploring the tiny town, you’ll probably find other villas and vistas that couldn’t make you happier to be in Italy in springtime.
The Umbrian countryside
The countryside of Umbria, the region next to Tuscany that’s often dubbed the “green heart of Italy,” is beautiful year-round. But in the springtime, when the weather is balmy (but not too hot) and, yes, the flowers are blooming, it’s particularly pretty. Seek out a medieval hilltop town like Spoleto, shown above, to get gorgeous views of the rolling, verdant countryside.
Abruzzo’s Campo Imperatore
Although people often pass it by for Tuscany or Umbria, the countryside of Abruzzo is stunning. One of our favorite spots is Campo Imperatore, an alpine meadow not far from L’Aquila, which happens to be the largest plateau in the Apennine Mountains. In the springtime, shepherds emerge from neighboring hill towns to graze sheep, cattle, and horses here. Wildflowers are everywhere, like those above. And for real flower enthusiasts, there’s the Alpine Botanical Garden, which includes about 300 species of plants and flowers indigenous to the mountains region.
Tuscany’s Val d’Orcia
Is there a reason to visit the Val d’Orcia, the picture-perfect area of Tuscany that’s even a World Heritage site , any time of year? Absolutely. But one of our favorite times has to be the spring—if for no other reason than the way the grasses turn electric green this time of year. Oh, and the baby animals at the farms are nice to see, too. (You can explore the Val d’Orcia with us on our day-long Tuscany excursion).
Italy’s lake district, including Lago Maggiore, Como, and Garda
The lakes of northern Italy are a perfect destination in April or May. As with the Amalfi coast, the weather’s much better than it would be over the winter, and the restaurants and hotels are open—but the real crowds haven’t yet arrived. Better yet? The lakes are famous for their opulent villas… and villa gardens. And if there’s anything prettier than a beautiful, flower-filled landscape, it’s a beautiful, flower-filled landscape that’s perched on a sparkling-blue lake. (Don’t miss our post on how to choose between Lake Como or Lake Garda!).
Italy's 5 Most Beautiful Islands... You May Not Have Heard Of
byWalks of Italy
When it comes to Italy’s beautiful islands, Capri is just one of many! Here are five other spectacular islands off the Italian coast—all boasting gorgeous scenery, beautiful beaches, fresh seafood, and local character—that you probably haven’t heard of. Of course, we share them all with you… through photos! Which one is your favorite?
Procida (Bay of Naples)
Forget Capri. Colorful Procida is also an easy ferry ride from Naples, and with everyone else flocking to Capri (or, secondarily, Ischia), it’s easily Bay of Naples’ least-touristy island. With its colorful fishing village, fresh seafood, and authentic character, it’s one of our favorite spots for a day trip from the coast.
Levanzo (Aegadian Islands, Sicily)
Want to get away from it all? Then head to lovely Levanzo. Off of the northwestern coast of Sicily, in a chain of three islands called the Aegadian Islands (or Isole Egadi), Levanzo is easily reached as a day trip from Trapani or Marsala. The island has just one tiny, peaceful village (Calla Dogana), tranquil beaches, dramatic cliffs, and lovely nature walks. For history-seekers, there’s also the Grotta del Genovese (visitable by boat), with Paleolithic graffiti dating back to 9,680 B.C.
Ponza (Pontine islands, off Rome)
Many Romans make the trek to Ponza at least once over the summer, driving the hour to Anzio and then taking a 2-hour ferry ride to Ponza from there. That’s because the volcanic island is, quite simply, stunning. Its villages are quaint and its water incredibly blue, while ancient cave pools, called Pilate’s Grottoes, are scattered everywhere. The island is so beautiful, even the legendary Circe chose it as her home; this is where she seduced and lived with Odysseus for more than a year.
Island of Elba (Tuscan archipelago)
Okay, you might have heard of Elba—as the famed location of Napoleon’s exile. But it’s also an island well worth visiting for its own sake. The geography here includes mountains, hills and beaches, the wine is renowned, and the history is fascinating, especially since Elba was French right up until the Italian reunification of 1860. Elba is easily reached by ferry from Piombino, a port town located a 2-hour drive from Florence or a 1-hour drive from Livorno.
Panarea (Aeolian Islands, Sicily)
In the summer, Italians flock to the Aeolian Islands, a chain of eight spectacular isole off the coast of Italy. The inactive volcano of Panarea—at 1.3 square miles, the second-smallest island— is also one of the most lovely. Although it’s become a favorite celebrity hangout in recent years, Panarea is an especially great destination for scuba divers, who particularly like diving the shipwreck just offshore.
The Best Day Trips from Rome—by Train
byWalks of Italy
Looking for a great day trip from Rome? You have lots of options… including places that you can get to easily by train, no renting a car necessary! Here are five of our favorites.
Nota bene: Of course, remember that, even though there are lots of wonderful sights and towns around Rome, you could just as easily spend one week or two in Rome itself and still not see everything in the city! So, in general, we don’t recommend that you consider doing a day trip from Rome unless you have a minimum of four days planned there.
It takes just one hour and costs 3 euros to take the train from Rome to Tivoli, a small town in Lazio with a lot to offer! One major sight here is Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli; this is where Emperor Hadrian came when he wanted to escape the capital. Much of the sprawling, luxurious ancient villa remains intact today, with columns, marble pavement, and ancient statues, and gives a tantalizing glimpse into the opulence of ancient Rome! Another major sight here is the Villa d’Este, built by the grandson of Pope Alexander VI in the 16th century. One of the most splendid villas in Italy, it’s filled with formal gardens, frescoed rooms, and gorgeous fountains.
If you take the train, just remember that you’ll then have to take one of the city buses from the center of Tivoli to Hadrian’s Villa, which is located outside of the town. You can look up train times at www.trenitalia.com. (Want to explore both Hadrian’s Villa and the Villa d’Este with the help of a private guide, and get your transportation in Tivoli taken care of? Check out our half-day excursion to Tivoli!).
Day trip to Naples
No matter what you’ve heard about Naples, make no mistake: This is one of the most fascinating, and definitely the liveliest, cities in Italy. It also happens to boast one of the world’s best archaeological museums (if you’re wondering where the mosaics, sculptures, and frescoes from the villas in Pompeii wound up, it’s here) and one of Europe’s finest art museums (including pieces by Caravaggio, Raphael, Michelangelo, and more)… plus fantastic food, gorgeous churches, and a fascinating underground. (Don’t miss our piece on 9 reasons not to skip Naples!).
The fastest train from Rome to Naples takes just 1 hour, 10 minutes and costs 29 euros… meaning there’s little excuse to skip this incredible city! You can look up train times at www.trenitalia.com.
Day trip to Pompeii or Herculaneum
Yes, you can do Pompeii in a day from Rome. It’s a long day, but a rewarding one!
This world-famous sight is a city “frozen in time” by the volcanic eruption of 79 A.D., and it’s as atmospheric—and spine-tingling—as it is historic. To get to Pompeii from Rome, you’d have to take the train to Naples (see above), then follow signs for the “Circumvesuviana”; you can check Circumvesuviana train times in advance, but they run every half hour or so. It’s a 35-minute ride from Naples to the Pompeii Scavi. If you take the fast train to Naples, you can get to the scavi in as little as 2 hours.
Pompeii, though, is a huge sight—and not one you want to wander around aimlessly, especially if you’re short on time! (To see the very best of Pompeii, and hear the fascinating stories that bring the site to life, check out our “Best of Pompeii” experience!). If you want to visit a site that’s a little more manageable on your own, check out Herculaneum. The “Ercolano” stop on the Circumvesuviana, it’s closer to Naples, so you save 15 or 20 minutes each way. And the site itself is smaller than Pompeii, although it offers the same going-back-in-time experience.
Another plus: The geological process of the eruption was different here, so carbon survived—meaning while you don’t have the famous plaster body casts at Herculaneum, you do have preserved wood furniture, bed frames, and skeletons!
Day trip to Orvieto
Umbria, a region with a lot in common with Tuscany, is an easy day trip from Rome… and Orvieto is one of our favorite towns there! (Here’s help in deciding whether to visit Umbria versus Tuscany!). On the train, getting to Orvieto from Rome takes an hour and costs less than 10 euros from the station, you have to take the funicular up to the top of the hill, where the town is located. (You can look up train times at www.trenitalia.com).
For the price of a metro ticket, and in just a half an hour, be transported into another world from Rome! Ostia Antica, ancient Rome’s port city, is a remarkably well-preserved, ancient town, complete with forum, bars, restaurants, even a brothel. If getting all the way to Pompeii seems a little too ambitious, Ostia Antica is a fantastic alternative!
To get there, don’t check times on trenitalia.com, as this is a different train from the national system. Instead, take metro line B to the Piramide metro stop and follow signs to the Roma Porta San Paolo train station; take any of the trains, since they all go in the right direction, and get off at Ostia Antica.
What’s your favorite day trip by train from Rome? Tell us in the comments!
6 Surprising Facts About St. Peter's Basilica
byWalks of Italy
St. Peter’s Basilica, the ultimate symbol of the Vatican, is one of the most beautiful buildings in Rome. But with a history stretching back 2,000 years, it’s also simply fascinating! Here are 6 surprising facts you might not have known about the “cathedral” of St. Peter.
1) This isn’t the original St. Peter’s Basilica
The imposing church you see today isn’t the original basilica of St. Peter. It’s actually… number two! The reason? The original church was built in the 4th century by Emperor Constantine, the Roman empire’s first Christian emperor, on the spot where St. Peter was thought to be buried. By the early Renaissance, though, the (literally) ancient church was in serious disrepair. But it took a guy like Pope Julius II (someone with a strong enough personality to go head-to-head with curmudgeonly Michelangelo!) to make the decision to tear down the entire thing… and build a new one.
The result? Thousands of pieces of priceless, ancient art, from mosaics to statues, were destroyed. But the “new” basilica, built from 1506-1626, is a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture.
2) St. Peter’s Basilica isn’t a cathedral—or the official seat of the Pope
True story: For all its importance, St. Peter’s Basilica isn’t the official seat of the Pope. Nor is it first in rank among Rome’s basilicas. Both of those accolades go, instead, to San Giovanni in Laterano (St. John Lateran), the mother church of the Roman Catholic church. But because of the size of St. Peter’s, and its location next to the residence of the Pope, most of the Church’s most crucial ceremonies are held here instead.
3) Bernini’s baldacchino is 96 feet tall
The four-poster, solid-bronze canopy over the main altar, or the baldacchino of St. Peter’s,appears almost dwarfed by the dome towering right above it. So you might think it’s not that tall. But it is. It’s almost 10 stories tall—it’s just that the dome, above it, is even bigger: 452 feet. (The baldacchino, by the way, also uses no less than 100,000 pounds of bronze).
4) None of the paintings inside the basilica are actually paintings
Huh? No, really. Although, at first glance, the basilica’s interior appears to be elaborately decorated with paintings—from frescoes in the dome to the huge paintings hanging on the walls—it’s not. Every single one of those “paintings” is actually a mosaic, done with such painstaking detail, and such tiny tesserae (the little pieces of glass making the mosaic up), that they only appear to be paintings.
5) Michelangelo’s Pietàis shielded by bullet-proof glass
St. Peter’s Basilica is the home to one of Michelangelo’s most famous masterpieces, the Pietà (which, by the way, he carved when he was only 24 years old). But not everyone’s been a fan of the stunning sculpture. In 1972, a mentally-disturbed man named Laszlo Toth attacked the sculpture with a hammer; he cracked off Mary’s nose and broke off her arm at the elbow. The sculpture was painstakingly restored and returned to St. Peter’s, but now, it’s protected by bullet-proof glass—even as other priceless sculptures in St. Peter’s remain out in the open.
6) Yes, St. Peter might be buried beneath the basilica
The reason why Emperor Constantine built the first St. Peter’s Basilica where he did—and why the “new” St. Peter’s was arranged with its altar directly over the same spot—was because this is where St. Peter’s bones were thought to lie.
Of course, this was hard to prove. But in the 1940s, excavations were done on the rumored spot. And, in 1953, a set of bones were found. Testing revealed they belonged to a man in his 60s, the same age that Peter would have been. Earth was encrusted on the bones, and Peter originally was buried directly in the dirt. And the bones had remnants of purple thread, a color of cloth that only would have been used in ancient times to wrap the body of someone who was seen as royal (or holy). For these reasons, Italian archaeologist Margherita Guarducci, among others, argued that the bones belonged to St. Peter. (You can read her argument here).
Of course, others disagree—and it’s certainly not solid proof that the bones are St. Peter’s. But the findings don’t prove that the bones don’t belong to St. Peter, either.
What’s your favorite fact—or mystery—about St. Peter’s Basilica? Tell us in the comments!
Coming to Italy in August? 5 Things to Expect
byWalks of Italy
If you’re experiencing August in Italy, you’re not alone! Since it’s when kids are out of school and the idea of vacation is on everyone’s mind, lots of travelers visit Italy in August. But there are some things you have to be prepared for.
Here are five things to keep in mind before you head to Italy in August.
The weather in Italy in August
In short: dry, sunny, and hot. On average, August is a little cooler than July—but not by much. The monthly average temperature for Rome is a high of 87° F, a low of 62° F. Although Rome is in southern Italy, the temperatures are remarkably similar in those other two famous destinations, Florence and Venice: In August, Florence has the exact same range, while Venice has a high of 80° F and low of 63° F. For the past couple of summers, it’s been even hotter than that.
In the cities, stores and restaurants close during ferragosto—and before ferragosto, and after ferragosto
Ferragosto, the traditional holiday dating back to the time of Emperor Augustus, technically runs from Aug. 15 to Sep. 1. That’s when Italian families tend to take their holidays, and when stores and restaurants (particularly the smaller, family-run establishments) often are closed.
But while Aug. 15 is a national holiday, the rest of the vacation is up to interpretation. Result? Some establishments close as early as mid-July. Others stay open through the entire summer. Some close for a week; others for a month.
In other words? If you’re coming to Italy in late July, August, or early September, be prepared to be flexible, particularly if you’re headed to one of Italy’s big cities. And plan ahead. If there’s a restaurant you want to try, have your hotel call in advance to make sure it’s actually open. Likewise for small shops you’ve been wanting to try.
Even though many Italians leave the cities, you won’t have them to yourself
Lots of international tourists come to Italy in August. So even though many local neighborhoods, particularly those out of the center, will be very tranquil, the trodden tourist path won’t be. In fact, it’s when sites like the Vatican museums and Uffizi gallery will be at their most crowded.
We’re proponents of seeking out off-the-beaten-path gems, or of trying to see famous sights in a “new” way, year-round (check out our new VIP Access: Vatican Behind the Scenes experience as just one example!). But that’s even more worth considering in August’s crowds.
Tourist sites (and tourist traps) will be open in August
Although having many of the small shops and restaurants closed in Italy’s cities might throw a cramp in your plans, you don’t have to worry about major museums and tourist sites closing. While some (like the Vatican museums) might close on Aug. 15 and possibly Aug. 16, many others don’t. And they certainly don’t close for all of August. Rome’s Colosseum and forum, for example, are open every day in August.
Touristy establishments also tend to be open in August. You know what we mean: the restaurants right on Piazza Navona, the cafes on St. Mark’s Square, the souvenir shops outside of Florence’s Duomo. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should eat at them.
Coastal towns and the islands won’t just be open—they’ll be hopping
If you’re heading to, say, Sardinia, Sicily, Capri, or the coast of Puglia, instead of mainland, land-locked Italy, then you’ll be in luck: Italians come here on their August vacations, so stores and restaurants will be open. But that also means that some of those islands and towns will be packed. And their beaches will be, too!
Hiking in Italy—Beyond the Cinque Terre
byWalks of Italy
We’ve found that walking in Italy is one of the best ways to get off the beaten path—and experience the country’s charms! Luckily, Italy’s most beautiful parks, mountain ranges and nature reserves are criss-crossed with hiking paths and trails. And you don’t have to be an athlete to enjoy them; Italy’s paths include everything from strenuous trekking in the Alps and Dolomites, to tranquil countryside walks in Tuscany and Umbria.
One favorite, of course, is the Cinque Terre. But it’s not the only great region for hiking (and in fact, in the high season, the paths are so crowded they can be risky and unpleasant). Here are four of our other favorites!
Bocca di Brenta Pass (Dolomites)
The Dolomites—named a UNESCO World Heritage site—are absolutely stunning, reachable from Venice, Verona or Milan, and just happen to boast some of the best hiking in Italy! Perks include paths for every ability (from wheelchair-accessible paths to routes aided by iron cables), public transportation to trailheads, lots of day hike options, and no dangerous wildlife. Vistas include everything from sweeping alpine meadows to funky-looking rock spires.
The Bocca di Brenta pass, one of our favorite areas here, has both a tough-hike option (some 8 hours, and requiring helmets, crampons and equipment) and an easy-hike option (just 2 miles long and about an hour’s walk). It’s at some 8,330 feet, so make sure you’re prepared for the elevation.
If you go: Know that, for overnight hikes, you can’t pitch a tent. You have to book a rifugio (refuge), and it’s recommended to do so in advance. Popular trails can also get crowded in peak season.
Best time to go: mid-June to early October
Anello del Rinascimento, Tuscany (Florentine hills)
Did you know the area around Florence has some beautiful hiking? The paths in the Anello del Rinascimento, or “Renaissance Ring,” aren’t particularly tough. But they do head through Tuscany’s rolling hills and past little medieval towns, monasteries, castles, and churches. Talk about a different kind of day trip from Florence!
One of our favorite sections is the one from Calenzano to Vaglia. This section is 12.5 miles long, with both easy and medium sections, which makes a perfect day hike; it starts at the castle of Calenzano and heads past olive orchards, medieval churches, and inns. A gentle, upward climb, it also offers views of Tuscany, Florence itself, and even of the distant Appennines.
What to know: This is more of a gentle stroll than a strenuous hike. Much of it’s unshaded, so bring your SPF. A lot of it also follows the normal (but quiet) road.
When to go: March to November, unless you want to walk in your winter clothes!
Cervinia, Valle d’Aosta (Italian Alps)
Walk in the shadow of the Matterhorn at Cervinia, just over the border from Switzerland. A popular ski resort in the winter, in the summer, it’s tranquil and lovely, taken over by wildflowers, grazing cows, and the occasional hiker. Just don’t be surprised to still see some snow on the glacier (these photos were taken in August!).
There are lots of hiking options throughout the region, but one of our favorites, pictured here, starts at Breuil-Cervinia, heads to Plan Maison, and circles around aqua-blue Lago Goillet; it covers about 8,885 vertical feet and nearly 14 miles. (Plan Maison itself is at 8,350 feet, so be prepared for the elevation!). For an easier and shorter hike, take the gondola up to Plan Maison and start from there.
If you go: Remember that up here, it’s cold year-round, so dress accordingly! If you’re planning on hiking higher than the path here, bring appropriate equipment for snow and ice. Cable-cars and chair-lifts, many of which run in the summer, are a good way to make a tough hike easier.
Best time to go: mid-June to early October
Sentiero degli Dei, Amalfi coast
You don’t have to hike in the Cinque Terre for spectacular sea views. In fact, some of the prettiest seaside trails in Italy are actually along the Amalfi coast! Hiking the Amalfi coast is also a great way to get away from the crowds that tend to cluster in the towns, especially Positano and Amalfi, during high season.
The most famous trail, the Sentiero degli Dei, starts from Bomerano, a village at the foot of the mountains between Sorrento and Amalfi. It crosses an incredible gorge and passes vineyards and caves… not to mention takes in breathtaking views to as far as Capri! The whole path takes about 4.5 hours, and has easy and moderate sections.
If you go: Know that, if you don’t want to do the entire path, you can cut it short by taking a bus from Nocelle to Positano or Amalfi. You also don’t need a car to get to the trailhead at Bomerano, but can take a bus instead. The path can get a little crowded in high season.
Best time to go: March to November; to see the trail at its most tranquil, before Easter or after October
How to Dress Like an Italian: Spring Edition
byWalks of Italy
Everyone’s heard about Italian fashion—which means some travelers worry about what to wear in Italy.
Here’s the good news: You don’t have to dress exactly like an Italian, and no one will expect you to! The most important thing to keep in mind is to wear what makes you most comfortable. That’s not always (or even usually) what Italians will be wearing… and that’s perfectly okay.
That said, a lot of travelers do want to try to dress like the locals when they travel. They see it as a way to “blend in” a bit more (although, of course, keep in mind that you’ll still be given away by something, like your hand gestures or even makeup—before you even open your mouth!). Plus, we love the idea of cultural immersion while traveling. And since fashion is an important part of Italian culture, what could be a more fun kind of cultural immersion than dressing as the locals do?
Need some tips to get started on how to dress like the Italians?
Here’s your checklist of items to look out for—and that you’ll see lots of Italians wearing—in the spring!
A light jacket, or trench coat, for women
When the air’s still slightly crisp, but there’s already been the cambio di stagione (change of seasons) rendering winter coats unnecessary, Italians don’t reach for a parka or a sweatshirt. They layer—and top those layers off with an elegant exterior. For stylish Italian women, that means a chic jacket or trench coat (like on Nicoletta Reggio, left and at top!).
A well-tailored jacket, for men
Italian men prove that you don’t have to be going to work, or a fancy shindig, to pull off a jacket. Pair one with white or beige pants, or even jeans—and, of course, leather shoes—and you’re good to go to lunch… or a museum. Just don’t be surprised if you’re mistaken for an Italian while you’re there.
A great pair of sunglasses
Even if you don’t mind whether you dress like the locals do, you won’t want to forget these! The sun comes out in force in the spring, so protect those peepers with a pair of shades. Of course, Italians love their designer sunglasses—but any frame will help you blend in, as long as it’s not too tiny. And quirky’s okay, too. Just check out the amazing range of sunglasses worn by Eleonora Carisi, Italian fashion blogger and shop owner (and the sunglasses-wearer below), for inspiration!
Pants in fun colors—like green, red, or pink (yes, for men, too!)
Italians tend to wear basic blue jeans a lot less often than their counterparts elsewhere. It’s not that women are always in dresses, and men in suits; it’s that when they do throw on trousers, they’re rarely basic jeans or khakis. Instead, pants come in a rainbow of colors. And yes, that’s true for women and men. So in honor of spring, embrace some color and throw a pair of bright trousers into your suitcase.
When it comes to fit, remember that in Europe, baggy has never been in—and again, that’s true for both sexes.
Leather or suede shoes
Although the kind of shoe changes with the season, the basics don’t. Year-round, the stereotype is true: Italians, especially those out of university and older, tend to wear leather shoes. For women in the spring, that can mean heels or ballet flats.
Jewelry, for women
Italian women accessorize. So if you’re keen to be mistaken for one, remember the little details: in the past year, chunky bracelets and bib necklaces have been trendy, but so are delicate necklaces and drop earrings. Wear whatever jewelry you like… but if you want to look like an Italian, do wear something!
Scarves, for both genders
Again, when it comes to both fashion and comfort, spring in Italy is all about layering. Scarves are especially great for travelers: They can spice up an outfit that you’ve already worn three days in a row and can be thrown into a bag or purse to pull out when the sun sets and the weather gets chilly.
Plus, in Italy, scarves can be even more useful, since it’s disrespectful (and often downright forbidden) to go into a church without your shoulders covered. It’s unlikely you’ll be wearing sleeveless tops in the spring, but if you do, then you’ll definitely want to have a scarf with you so you don’t miss out on ducking into any churches.
And yes, scarves are “in” for both men and women. Nothing looks more European than a man in a scarf!
A chic handbag, for women—or a “man bag,” for men
The biggest giveaway of being a traveler is a bulky backpack (or a fanny pack!). Trade yours in for a handbag; a big one can hold just as much as a small backpack (we carry a DSLR camera with two lenses, a wallet, and a sunglasses case in ours). For safety, make sure that there’s a secure way to close it, preferably a zipper—while pickpocketing isn’t something you have to be anxious about all the time, it does happen in Italy’s major cities.
For men who really want to go local, they also have the option of a bag. Lots of Italians use messenger bags (what those in the States sometimes call a “man purse”!) or briefcases. It especially makes sense when you think about how hard it is to transport your stuff while, say, zooming around on a motorino. So if you’ve ever wanted to try one out, a trip to Italy is a good time—we promise, not a single local will bat an eyelash.
We recently wrote a post on 10 of the most beautiful castles in Italy—and while those castles were beautiful, there are many more in Italy! Here are five more of our favorite, most picturesque fortresses and castles across the country, from Trentino to Sicily.
Carpineti Castle, Emilia-Romagna
We’ve said before that one of our favorite things about Emilia-Romagna is the number of castles here… but the ruins of this 11th-century castle, which hosted none other than Pope Gregory VII in 1077, is one of our favorites! Already in ruins by the 17th century, it’s a haunting reminder of what once was.
Castle of Sabbionara, Trentino
This gorgeous castle, located in Trentino in northern Italy, dates back as early as the 12th century; it was conquered by Maximilian I of Austria in 1509, but returned to the Castelbarco family in the 17th century. For switching hands so much, we have to say it looks pretty good!
Castle of Serravalle, Mineo, Sicily
While much more humble than the other castles here, we don’t think you could find a prettier castle view in Italy! This medieval tower overlooks the plain of Catania, an important strategic point for the eastern part of Sicily.
Castle Estense in Ferrara, Emilia-Romagna
This castle in Ferrara, Emilia-Romagna was built in the 14th century, after the ruling d’Este family—having just put down a popular revolt—became worried that their current fortress wasn’t quite enough to keep the people at bay! Today, you can explore the castle and its elaborate rooms, courtyards, and even dungeons.
Castle in Sarzana, Liguria
The town of Sarzana, located in Liguria, switched hands often throughout the Middle Age, belonging to Pisa, then Florence, Genoa, and even (in 1814) the Kingdom of Sardinia. So it’s no surprise that a fortress was buit here!
Which castle is your favorite? Let us know in the comments!
The Ten Top Towns of Tuscany
byWalks of Italy
Much more than the home of Florence or of rolling countryside, Tuscany is also the home of some of Italy’s most beautiful, and fascinating, towns. Whether you’re considering a day trip from Florence, or just hoping to make your base in Italy somewhere off the beaten path, here’s our list of Tuscany’s top ten towns. (And believe us… narrowing it down to ten was really hard!).
Because there’s just so much to say about these places, we’re going to break this post into two parts. Stay tuned for round two!
In a word, Lucca, located just an hour’s drive west from Florence, is lovely. Graced with medieval streets and a ring of Renaissance-era fortification walls — today, a bike and walking path — Lucca’s architecture is some of the most exquisite in Tuscany. If you think Florence’s Duomo is elaborate, just wait till you see Lucca’s Duomo or its Church of San Michele in Foro, which look like they were created out of icing! Don’t miss the Piazza Anfiteatro, a ring of medieval buildings on the site of an ancient Roman amphitheatre (some of it still remaining). Here, too, is where the composer Giacomo Puccini was born.
Located in the gorgeous Val d’Orcia (a hilly region renowned for its hiking), Pienza itself is such a gem, it’s been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It’s also where Zeffirelli filmed Rome and Juliet. Pienza’s history is a little odd: Pope Pius II was born here, and after becoming pope, he in 1458, he had the town completely rebuilt as an ideal Renaissance town. Vain? Yes. But also the reason for Pienza’s stunning architecture and harmonious layout. Only 2,500 people live here today, giving it a little bit of a wistful, forgotten air.
Pitigliano is one of those towns that makes you wonder: “What on earth were these people thinking?” Built into tufa cliffs high in the sky, the village looks like it’s actually hovering above you as you approach. Tiny and tranquil, the town doesn’t boast just spectacular views. Thanks to its ties to the Jewish community, it’s also called “Little Jerusalem.” Jews started moving here from Rome in the 13th century, and by 1860, one-third of the town was Jewish. Tragically, during World War II, most Jewish residents fled for safer hiding places, and today, there are hardly any Jewish inhabitants. But the old Jewish quarter, synagogue, and Jewish Museum remain, testaments to this once-thriving culture.
It’s hard not to fall in love with Siena. This thoroughly-medieval city has so much to offer, it’s not surprising that more and more people are choosing it as a Tuscan base, even over Florence (it’s an hour’s drive south). In a way, that’s appropriate: From the 13th to 15th centuries, Siena was Florence’s main rival. That explains the medieval, 320-foot-tall tower built on top of the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s town hall: It’s just 12 feet taller than the tower of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio… and you can bet that was done on purpose! Most of Siena revolves around its 13th-century main piazza, Il Campo, which is unlike any other public space in Italy. (It is also where the world-famous Palio horse races are held twice yearly). Don’t miss the Palazzo Pubblico and its gorgeous frescoes, or the incredible Duomo, one of Italy’s most jaw-dropping churches. Here, too, is where the famous St. Catherine was born, and you can still visit her family home and even see her head in the Church of San Domenico (eek!).
Thanks to the Twilight series, Volterra’s been put on the tourism map. But, a handful of American teenagers dragging along their parents aside, it remains a quiet, off-the-beaten-path town… that happens to boast medieval, winding streets and gorgeous views from its hilltop perch. Volterra’s roots date back to an 8th century B.C. Etruscan settlement; big parts of the defensive wall they built in the 4th century B.C. are still standing, as is the 3rd century B.C. gate into the city! But that’s not all for the ancient side of Volterra. Here, too, are remains of an ancient Roman amphitheatre and bathhouse, as well as the renowned Museo Etrusco Guarnacci, boasting numerous Etruscan finds from the area.
The Best Day Trips from Florence
byWalks of Italy
Looking for a fantastic day trip from Florence? Luckily, you’ve got lots of options. Whether you’re looking for a day in the Tuscan countryside or the chance to explore a medieval town, it’s all reachable from Florence.
Here are just a few of our favorite Tuscany day trips. You can easily spend the entire day exploring any of these day trip options. Or, if you want to see as much as you can, you can combine them for a full, rewarding day in Tuscany. (Just don’t forget to schedule yourself time to relax over a glass of local wine!).
Lucca, Florence’s graceful neighbor
Lovely Lucca offers up cobblestoned streets and elegant palaces, elaborate churches and a ring of Renaissance-era fortification walls that have been turned into biking and walking paths. For music aficionados, it also happens to be where the composer Giacomo Puccini was born.
To get to Lucca from Florence: The train takes 1 hour 20 minutes, and since the station is located right outside the city center and easily walkable, this is a very convenient option. By car, Lucca is located 1 hour 10 minutes west of Florence.
Pisa, home to much more than the Leaning Tower
If you want to get what must be the most iconic photo in Italy, Pisa’s your place. But there’s much more to Pisa than that. Yes, the Leaning Tower is spectacular—even more so in person than in pictures. But the medieval city also boasts an 11th-century Duomo chock-full of gorgeous art, the elaborate Baptistery, and beautiful palaces. The downside, of course, is all the crowds around the Leaning Tower here—which is why we recommend the below schedule. (And if you want to really experience the best of Pisa, our private Pisa tour explores the Square of Miracles and includes skip-the-line access to the Leaning Tower).
To get to Pisa from Florence: The direct, high-speed train to Pisa takes just 50 minutes from Florence. It’s then a 20-minute walk from the train station to the Leaning Tower, or a 10-minute bus ride. Driving, Pisa is located 1 hour 20 minutes from Florence.
How to visit Lucca + Pisa in one day trip from Florence
You want to avoid the tour-bus crush of crowds that take over Pisa during the day. To do this, leave Florence on the train by 9am, putting you in Lucca around 10:30am. Enjoy a relaxing walk on the city walls, explore the churches, and have a late lunch around 1:30.
From there, Pisa’s just a 25-minute train ride from Lucca, so if you leave Lucca around 3:45, you’ll be standing at the Leaning Tower by 4:30… just as the tour buses are all leaving. (Be aware that the tower closes at 5pm from November to February and has differing closing times throughout the year, so if you want to climb the tower, adjust your schedule accordingly!). Take as much time as you need to marvel at Pisa’s beauty by dusk. Then grab the direct, high-speed train back to Florence, which takes just one hour.
The Chianti wine country
If you want to enjoy wine tastings and the Tuscan countryside, but without going too far from Florence, then the region of Chianti, just a 30 minutes’ drive south of Florence, is your best bet. (Of course, this convenience also makes it more crowded and touristy than, say, the Val d’Orcia, below). Small towns like San Casciano, Montespertoli, Gaiole, and Panzano, are lovely, and you’ll see signs for one vineyard after another.
To get to Chianti from Florence: This is definitely a day trip best done with a car! The SS22 heads south of Florence right through the heart of the Chianti region.
Siena, gem of a medieval city
Florence’s longtime rival, Siena is a gem of a medieval city. Just take its 13th-century duomo alone: One of the most stunning cathedrals in all of Italy, it boasts pieces by Michelangelo, Donatello, Pisano, and Bernini, not to mention an incredible, frescoed library that you have to see if you love the Sistine Chapel! But that’s not to mention the city’s unique, scallop-shaped main piazza, dominated by the 14th-century tower that’s taller even than the one in Florence. Or its important art, including Lorenzetti’s seminal frescoes of “Good and Bad Goverment.” Or its being the birthplace of St. Catherine of Siena, and the resting place of her head alone (which is on display!). Or its being the location of the famous, twice-yearly Palio horse races. And the list goes on! Here’s our guest post for Art Trav on more of what to see in Siena, and here’s information on our 3-hour experience of Siena with a local guide.
To get to Siena from Florence: By car, Siena is 1 hour 15 minutes south of Florence. The direct SITA bus from Florence takes 1 hour 15 minutes; you can look up the timetables here. By train, Siena is located 1 hour 30 minutes from Florence, but be aware that the train station is almost 1.5 miles outside the city center and requires either a half-hour walk or taking the local bus).
How to visit the Chianti countryside + Siena in one day trip from Florence
To do this, you need to rent a car. And be aware that you could also easily spend a whole day exploring Chianti’s vineyards and small towns or a whole day exploring Siena, so this should be a combined day trip only for the energetic!
We’d recommend leaving Florence by 9 or 9:30am, making it to Chianti’s small towns and vineyards just as they “wake up” (and open), generally between 10am and noon. Enjoy wine and food tastings, and a relaxing lunch, before heading onto Siena by about 1:30pm. You’ll be there by mid-afternoon, which will give you time for two or three of Siena’s main sites (don’t miss the Duomo!), and perhaps dinner, before taking the 1 hour 15 minute drive back to Florence.
The Val d’Orcia, where all of those postcards of the Tuscan countryside come from
Dreaming of cypress-lined roads, rolling hills, and rambling farms and vineyards? Then make your day trip from Florence one to the Val d’Orcia. Possibly the most stunning countryside in Italy (…if not the world!), it’s even been added to UNESCO’s list of World Cultural Landscapes. You could easily spend the day just rambling around here, exploring back streets and perhaps paying a visit to Montalcino, Pienza, or, just outside the valley, Montepulciano. But what we love doing in this region is visiting local farms and vineyards, getting home-cooked meals and enjoying wine, cheese and meat tastings (all included on our day-long “Tuscany in a Day” experience of the region!).
To get to the Val d’Orcia from Florence: Public transport is tough: There’s no train station right near the Val d’Orcia, and while the bus goes from Florence to Montalcino (with a switch at Siena), you can’t then explore the rest of the countryside. So the best way to visit the Val d’Orcia is either to rent a car (the area is located a 2-hour drive south of Florence) or hire a private driver, included in our “Tuscany in a Day” experience.
Montepulciano or Montalcino, perfect for wine lovers
Both sleepy, medieval towns (Montalcino being smaller, less touristy, and more tranquil than Montepulciano), these are two places to check out if you’re a big wine lover. Montalcino produces Brunello di Montalcino, often considered to be Italy’s best wine, while Montepulciano makes Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a DOCG-rated wine that’s been consumed since the Middle Ages and is considered one of Italy’s best. At either town, you can easily spend two or three hours wandering the medieval streets, gazing at the scenery, and, of course, sampling wines, meats, and cheeses.
To get to Montalcino or Montepulciano from Florence: Don’t be fooled by the “Montepulciano” listing on the Trenitalia site, as the train station of Montepulciano is actually a 20-minute drive from the medieval town itself! Instead, for either town, you can take the bus from Florence (switching at Siena). Or, especially if you want to explore both towns or other areas around, the best option is to rent a car or use a private driver, as on our “Medieval Towns and Tuscan Countryside” day trip.
How to visit the Val d’Orcia + Montepulciano or Montalcino in one day trip from Florence
You might have gathered this by now, but in all honesty… we’d say the best way is by enjoying one of our day-long Tuscany excursions, like “Tuscany in a Day”. That’s because finding truly authentic experiences—i.e. vineyard tours or home-cooked lunches at a farm that aren’t visited by the tour buses—takes a lot of local know-how and digging. And the places can be tough to find on your own in more ways than one: Assuming you can find out where to go that’s really off-the-beaten-path, that very fact means that actually navigating your way to your destination can be pretty tough (and no, Google maps or a GPS alone won’t solve the problem!). This way, you have a local, English-speaking driver who picks you up right from Florence and helps you shape the day around what you want to do.
If that’s not a possibility for you, you can still enjoy a fantastic day in the Val d’Orcia! We’d recommend renting a car, leaving Florence by 9am at the latest, and driving the 2 hours straight down to the valley. Have lunch at Pienza, Montepulciano, or Montalcino, and spend the afternoon exploring the towns and roads and tasting the local wines. Just make sure that you bring a lot of patience (along with your GPS), as you will probably get lost. But, of course, that’s half the fun!
Visiting the Amalfi coast of Italy? It’s quite a long and spectacular stretch of Mediterranean coastline, so figuring out where to go and what to see can be a little overwhelming.
Everyone has favorite towns along the Amalfi coast (whether Amalfi or Positano, Ravello or Salerno). Where you choose to stay and spend your time depends on what you’re looking for. But as far as specific sights and attractions go, here are five of our favorites!
Villa Cimbrone, Ravello
We consider the tiny town of Ravello, perched more than a kilometer above the Mediterranean, an Amalfi coast must-see. The views are spectacular, and a summer concert series makes the town unmissable for any music lover.
But within Ravello, one of our favorite attractions is the Villa Cimbrone; dating back to the 11th century, the villa, now a hotel, has gorgeous gardens that are open to the public. We promise, you haven’t seen views like this before.
Duomo, Amalfi Town
Most visitors to Amalfi Town pay a visit to the town’s towering Duomo—and with reason. The cathedral purportedly has the remains of St. Andrew the Apostle, which were brought to Amalfi from Constantinople during the Crusades. Regardless of whether you believe in the relics’ origins, the cathedral is a must-see. Don’t miss its elaborate bronze doors, cast in Constantinople in the 11th century, or the 9th-century Basilica of the Crucifix next door.
Spiaggia di Laurito, Positano
Forget what you’ve heard about the Amalfi coast’s beautiful beaches: Because the coastline here is steep and rocky, the town beaches tend to be tiny, packed, and not that nice. Enter Spiaggia di Laurito, a hidden gem located 2 miles from the center of Positano. Yes, the beach is still tiny, and rocky. But it’s a cove, so well-protected, and much less crowded than the central town beaches. Plus, it’s beautiful. And Da Adolfo, the restaurant here, is excellent.
You can get to the beach by boat or by bus. The shuttle boat leaves from Positano’s main port. Be warned that by bus, it’s a steep hike down, and therefore also back up, from the stop to the beach.
Castello di Arechi, Salerno
We’ve sung the praises of Salerno before. But one of our favorite sights in the city, located at the opposite end of the SITA bus line from Sorrento (or an easy train ride from Rome or Naples), is Arechi Castle. Perched up on a hill, this 8th-century fortification boasts gorgeous views of Salerno and the Mediterranean. There’s also a museum inside with finds from the castle, like medieval coins and ceramics. And the summer sometimes sees concerts hosted here. (Here’s more information on Salerno’s Castello di Arechi).
Sentiero degli Dei, Amalfi coast
Up for some hiking? Then the Sentiero degli Dei, or “Trail of the Gods,” is a must-see! This path starts in Bomerano, a village in the mountains between Sorrento and Amalfi. Over the 4.5 or so hours of hiking, you’ll see vineyards, caves, a gorge, and breathtaking views. It’s also a great way to get away from the tourist crowds in the towns (although, of course, the path does get crowded in high season).
It’s not just the countryside that’s beautiful in Italy—so are many of the cities! As well as stunning, Italy’s cities are incredibly fascinating, full of art, history, ancient ruins, and more.
Although it was hard for us to keep it to only 10, here are 10 of the most beautiful (and interesting!) cities in Italy. (Nota bene: For this post, we’ve considered only cities with a population of 75,000 or more!). Trust us: a visit to any one of them can make your trip spectacular!
Verona isn’t just where William Shakespeare set Romeo and Juliet—it’s also a beautiful city that offers a lot to do and see! From ancient Roman ruins (including an incredibly well-preserved arena) to a medieval castle, from stunning piazzas to historic churches, Verona is bursting with sightseeing opportunities. And, oh yes, it’s one of the most beautiful cities in Italy… and every bit as romantic as you’d expect!
What makes Venice one of the most beautiful cities in, well, the world? Let us count the ways… There’s Venice’s unique, lovely architecture (find out how to “decode” Venice’s palaces!), its beautiful churches, and its show-stopping St. Mark’s Square. But what really makes Venice beautiful is the fact that it’s built entirely on canals—so there’s no traffic or bus exhaust, and along many canals, all you can hear is the lapping of the water! (To make the most of Venice’s tranquil side, consider going in the off-season, or even in the winter, when a lovely mist lays over the entire city).
The largest city in the region of Emilia-Romagna (and the region’s capital), Bologna is also, well, beautiful! And there’s a ton to do here. From soaking in the academic ambience (Bologna is home to Europe’s oldest university), to enjoying the region’s excellent cuisine in local trattorie, to climbing the leaning tower of Bologna (it’s not just in Pisa!), there’s something in this buzzing city for everyone.
The largest city in Italy, Rome, with its 2,500 years of history and innumerable archaeological sites, art museums, churches, and ruins, might just be the most fascinating! Despite Rome’s relatively compact (and beautiful!) historic center, you could easily spend a month exploring the city and not see everything. And, yes, there are a lot of places to see in Italy. But to come to Italy in search of its most beautiful spots and cities… and not visit Rome? Well, that would be a crime!
Naples often gets a bad rap—and, yes, the city is a little “grittier,” and much more chaotic, than Italy’s other cities. But there’s a reason why people call it bella Napoli. There’s something about the decay of Naples’ elegant palaces and medieval castles that’s both bittersweet and beautiful. And there is a ton to do and see here, from enjoying the city’s world-famous food to exploring its eerie underground to seeing some of the most important art and archaeology in Italy at Naples’ top-notch museums. (Here are 9 reasons not to skip Naples!). The energy here, though, is the true core of Naples’ bellezza—and something everyone has to experience at least once in a lifetime.
Visit Florence once, and you’ll see why it inspired so many artists and writers! With its graceful buildings, cobblestoned streets, and showstoppers like the Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio, Florence is a feast for the eyes. And that’s just if you’re walking around outside! Inside those buildings, even more beauty awaits, from Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia to masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, and more in the Uffizi. (Find out more about the 10 unmissable sights of Florence!).
With about 100,000 residents, Lecce is one of the biggest cities in the region of Puglia. It’s also one of the prettiest! With its ornate, Baroque architecture, Lecce couldn’t look more different than Florence or Venice or Bologna. And exploring the city yields one interesting sight after another, like a 16th-century castle, one of the most important churches in Italy, and ancient Roman amphitheater—just to name a few. (Find out more about why Puglia is one of our favorite regions in Italy!).
Located a short train ride outside of Florence, lovely Lucca, home to about 85,000 residents, offers up cobblestoned streets and elegant palaces, elaborate churches and a ring of Renaissance-era fortification walls that have been turned into biking and walking paths. For music aficionados, it also happens to be where the composer Giacomo Puccini was born. (Find out more about other great day trips from Florence!).
If you want to get what must be the most iconic photo in Italy, Pisa’s your place. But there’s much more to Pisa than that. Yes, the Leaning Tower is spectacular—even more so in person than in pictures. But the medieval city also boasts an 11th-century Duomo chock-full of gorgeous art, the elaborate Baptistery, and beautiful palaces.
The largest city in Umbria (and the region’s capital), Perugia dates back to the time of the Umbrii and the Etruscans. You can still visit an Etruscan chamber tomb, well, and arch even today, or check out the National Museum of Umbrian Archaeology, with lots of amazing ancient finds. There also are artistic masterpieces in the National Gallery of Umbria, important churches, beautiful buildings, elegant piazzas, and much more! (It’s all part of why we named it one of 6 spots we love in Umbria!).
St. Mark’s Basilica is one of the most-visited sights in Venice, and a must-see on any traveler’s Italy itinerary! But with a history that stretches all the way back to the 9th century A.D., it’s also a church with a lot of interesting stories and legends behind it.
Here are six of the most fascinating facts about St. Mark’s Basilica!
The basilica began with a swashbuckling tale of kidnapping
The first St. Mark’s Basilica was built on this spot in the 9th century to house very sacred relics—relics that had been stolen! In 828, merchants from Venice stole the body of St. Mark the Evangelist, one of the four Apostles, from Alexandria, Egypt. According to the legend, they snuck them past the (Muslim) guards by hiding them under layers of pork in barrels!
While at sea, a storm almost drowned the graverobbers and their precious cargo, it’s said that St. Mark himself appeared to the captain and told him to lower the sails. The ship was saved, and the merchants said they owed their safety to the miracle.
The entire story is pictured on the 13th-century mosaic above the left door as you enter the basilica.
There’s enough mosaic here to cover 1.5 American football fields…
There are more than 85,000 square feet (or 8,000 square meters) of mosaic in St. Mark’s Basilica… or enough mosaic to cover over 1.5 American football fields! The mosaics were done over 8 centuries, mostly in gold, and the result is astonishing. Enter the basilica at different times of day to see how the light makes the colors, and scenes, look different.
…and there are more than 500 columns
Just another example of the sheer size, and amount of amazing stuff, in St. Mark’s is the number of columns. There are more than 500 columns and capitals in the basilica, and most are Byzantine, dating between the 6th and 11th centuries. Some classical, 3rd-century capitals are mixed in, too!
A lot of the basilica’s treasures came from the Crusades—and from Constantinople
The Fourth Crusade, in particular, gave St. Mark’s Basilica a windfall. After all, this was the Crusade that ended, in 1204, with the conquest of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).
The result? A lot of treasure was shipped to Venice, and installed in St. Mark’s Basilica—including the four bronze horses, icon of the Madonna Nicopeia, enamels of the Golden Altar-piece, relics, crosses, chalices, and patens!
The Pala d’Oro puts the Crown Jewels to shame
Forget the glittering gems at the Tower of London: The Royal Family has nothing on St. Mark’s Basilica! The Pala d’Oro, a Byzantine altar screen of gold, is studded with hundreds of gems—literally. They include 1,300 pearls, 300 emeralds, 300 sapphires, 400 garnets, 100 amethysts, plus rubies and topazes.
That bell tower? It collapsed once… not so long ago
The 323-foot (98.6-meter) campanile of St. Mark’s dates back to the 9th century… but it had to be rebuilt in 1903. The reason? It collapsed! It had been reworked in the 16th century, and apparently not that well: It collapsed on July 14, 1902. (To be fair, it had survived several earthquakes before that!). Although it buried the Basilica’s balcony in rubble, fortunately, the church itself was saved. But the incident was embarrassing enough!
From 1903 to 1912, the belltower was rebuilt exactly as it had been… except with better, safer techniques.
Want to find out more about St. Mark’s Basilica? While in Venice, check out our Legendary Venice experience of both St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace—or, for a really VIP visit, access St. Mark’s Basilica after hours, when it’s closed to the public!
7 Top Attractions in Verona, Italy... Beyond Romeo and Juliet
byWalks of Italy
Although it’s most famous as the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Verona has much more to offer than its connections to the star-crossed lovers! In fact, there’s little evidence that anything like the Romeo and Juliet story actually took place here… but it is indisputable that you won’t be short of sights in this beautiful city, even if you ignore Juliet’s “balcony” and “tomb.” (The city’s rich culture and history, in fact, even have landed it on the World Heritage list!).
So if you’re traveling in northern Italy or heading to Venice, you simply can’t miss Verona. Located just a half hour away from Venice by train, it makes an excellent day trip!
Still not convinced? Here are 7 of our favorite sights in Verona.
Piazza delle Erbe
By day, Piazza delle Erbe is home to a market (if one that sells mostly souvenirs and trinkets); in the evening, it fills with locals and tourists sipping Campari and enjoying aperitivi at the outdoor cafes. But no matter when you’re passing through the square, look around you! With its Renaissance-era palaces and lovely central fountain, this might just be the prettiest piazza in all of Italy.
Arena of Verona
Built in the 1st century A.D., this amphitheater was Verona’s answer to Rome’s Colosseum (although actually, it predates the Colosseum by almost 50 years!). Still remarkably well preserved, today it’s home to Verona’s summer opera festival. (Check out our earlier post on attending opera in the arena of Verona!).
Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore
This beautiful church dates back to the 4th century, although most of the current building was constructed between the 10th and 12th centuries. Other churches in Verona drew much of their inspiration from its early Romanesque style. Don’t miss the bronze door, with 48 elaborately-carved panels of scenes from the Bible, dating back to the 11th century.
With seven towers, a castle keep, and four separate buildings, Verona’s 14th-century fortress, Castelvecchio, is the city’s most imposing building. Today, it’s also home to a museum of art, sculpture, coins, and other artifacts, with a collection of paintings that includes pieces by northern Italian masters Mantegna, Bellini and Pisanello.
This ancient Roman gate, which once marked the southern entrance into Verona, is a great—and beautiful—example of the way in which ancient ruins are layered into the modern city of Verona. Walking down
Duomo of Verona
Verona’s main cathedral, or Duomo, is stunning. But don’t just see it from the outside: The interior of this 12th-century church is incredibly elaborate and filled with gems, including a painting by the Italian master Titian.
Tombs don’t get much more elaborate than these! Just around the corner from Piazza delle Erbe, these five Gothic funerary monuments, considered some of the best examples of Gothic art, are hard to miss. They belong to members of the Scaligeri, who ruled Verona in the 13th and 14th centuries. Make sure you duck into the tiny, lovely church of Santa Maria Antica behind them.
7 Tips You Need to Know
byWalks of Italy
Famous for its sassi and stunning landscapes, Matera, located on the border of Basilicata and Puglia, is one of our favorite cities in Italy. It’s not only breathtaking, but fascinating: Its history goes back more than 30,000 years.
And? It’s much easier to get to than people think.
Here are 7 things you need to know about Matera. Read on to find why you should add this scenic spot to your next Italy trip!
1.Matera’s famous sassi aren’t what you think they are
Many people think that Matera’s cave dwellings are called “sassi.” They’re not. The sassi (literally meaning “stones”) actually refer to the two neighborhoods of stone dwellings in the ancient town.
These dwellings, by the way, don’t always look like caves from the outside. (The caves you see in some pictures, like this one to the right, are Palaeolithic caves located across the ravine from Matera’s ancient center).
Instead, these dwellings, carved into the rock, look like homes piled one on top of the other. (Their interiors, though, often feel cave-like). It’s an ingenious, and space-saving, design: Step onto one of the narrow lanes between houses, and you’re actually standing on the roof of the house below. It’s also smart when it comes to sharing water, since water would be gathered on the plateau above the town and then come down so that the entire community could share it.
Two main quarters sprung up in Matera that were built this way… and these are the two sassi.
2. Aside from Petra, Jordan, Matera is the oldest continuously-inhabited settlement in history
We call the oldest period in human history the “Palaeolithic period,” a time when woolly mammoths roamed the earth and the last Ice Age was just winding down. And guess what? This is when people first settled in Matera. (We’re talking at around about 15,000 B.C.).
What makes Matera different from other Palaeolithic settlements, though, is that those inhabitants, and their ancestors, never left. Instead, they dug in—quite literally. In the Iron and Bronze Ages, newly-equipped with metal tools, settlers dug underground caverns, cisterns, and tombs in the landscape’s soft volcanic stone (called tufa).Famously, they also dug dwellings.
Those dwellings, and those people, remained throughout the later waves of rulers and empires, from Greeks to Romans to Byzantines. They (and their descendants) are still there today… even though some things are a little different.
3. Matera is where The Passion of the Christ was filmed
Because of Matera’s unearthly, ancient beauty, Mel Gibson chose it as the setting for his 2004 The Passion of the Christ. He’s not the first director to have set a Biblical film here: Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), Beresford’s King David (1985), and Hardwicke’s The Nativity Story (2006) were all filmed here, as well.
4. In Matera, the living wasn’t always easy
Today, Matera seems incredibly romantic. But it wasn’t always this way. Even now, you can imagine the difficulties of living in the town’s ancient sassi: Homes, stores and churches are connected via narrow paths or stairs, so forget driving from your house to the grocery store. For those used to modern conveniences, living in a stone dwelling in Matera would be challenging!
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, poverty also was rife in Matera, as for so much of southern Italy. People lived in one-room stone homes—or, yes, caves—without heat or plumbing, often with donkeys or other animals sharing the same space. (For the curious, the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario shows what living in the 1950s would have been like). Malaria was rife. Conditions were so bad that, in 1952, the government of Italy passed a law forcing Matera’s dwellers out of their old quarters and into new, modern buildings. This “new Matera” still exists, up the hill from the ancient sassi, and it’s where the vast majority of Matera’s residents live today.
But in 1993, the area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. And as Matera has gotten more popular, people have started moving back into the sassi, restoring the stone homes and even opening them as luxury hotels. If Matera’s 19th- and early-20th century inhabitants could see their town now, they’d be astonished!
5. Now’s the time to see Matera’s stone churches… but please, don’t touch the frescoes
The churches of Matera, like the homes, are carved into stone. (These types of churches are called “rupestrian churches”). They date back to the Middle Ages; many have their interiors covered in vibrant frescoes.
Fascinating and eerie, these churches are also, unfortunately, in not-so-hot shape. While some restorations have taken place, the frescoes remain extremely delicate. And something that’s making them worse? Damage caused by tourists—particularly from touching them. (Frescoes are especially sensitive to moisture, so the natural oils from your skin damage the artwork). In one church after another, you can see where the frescoes have all but completely disappeared in the parts where people have grabbed onto them, such as around doorframes.
So please, go see the frescoes now, before they disappear. Contribute to their future restoration with your admission ticket price. And never, ever touch them.
6. If you don’t like stairs, you might not like Matera…
…or at least might not want to stay in its sassi. To get around, even just from your hotel to a church, you will be climbing stairs. Lots of them. And forget about handicap accessibility.
So bring your walking shoes, and prepare to work up a sweat… especially if you’re visiting in the summer. (Because this is Italy’s south, it can be relatively hot even through the end of September).
You have been warned!
7. Even though no train to Matera comes up on the Trenitalia website, you don’t need a car or bus to get there
This is something that even seasoned Italy travelers don’t realize: Matera is connected by train to Italy’s other towns!
Confusion comes in because if you go to the Trenitalia website and plug in, say, “Rome” to “Matera,” no solutions come up. But that’s not because there isn’t a train station here. (There is!). It’s because it’s not on the national rail system.
Instead, if you want to travel by train, the easiest way is to first get to Bari (which is connected to the national system, so you can look up times and prices on the Trenitalia site; it’s a 4-hour train ride from Rome to Bari). Then go to the regional train site, Ferrovie Appulo Lucane, putting in “Bari Centrale” as your starting point and “Matera Centrale” as your endpoint. A number of solutions pop up; the ride takes between 1 hour and 15 minutes and 1.5 hours, and the price is nominal (something like 2 euros). From the train station, it’s about a 15-minute walk to the sassi of Matera.
Note that the trains to Matera do not leave from the main part of the Bari Centrale station, but from a smaller station just outside the main one. When you walk outside onto the piazza outside the station, just look to your left, and you should see a building with the words ”Ferrovie Appulo Lucane.” That’s where you want to go.
Because this is a smaller train service, on holidays and Sundays, it might not run. In that case, there’s a bus from Bari to Matera; just ask at the station.
There are also buses to Matera from Rome, Ancona, Florence, and Milan—but in general, we’ve found the train is the fastest, cheapest way to get there.
Have you ever been to Matera? What did you think? Let us know in the comments!
Where to Find the Best Views of Italy
byWalks of Italy
If you’ve ever wondered where photographers go to get those stunning views of Italy — you know, the ones that wind up on all of those postcards of Rome, Venice, and the Cinque Terre — look no further.
The best part? From these spots, you don’t need a fancy-schmancy camera to get a gorgeous shot. Just keep in mind that to get the most out of these views, head there either first thing in the morning, or at dusk, when the light tends to be best. (The worst time is around noon, when the light is flat). And, of course, bright and early also happens to be when you’ll run into the least interference from tourists and crowds.
Then again, with spots this spectacular, you could also just come to enjoy the beauty… and leave your camera at home. But then how could you prove to anybody else how gorgeous Italy really was?
Cinque Terre: Corniglia-Vernazza hiking trail
The main hiking trail between Vernazza and Corniglia boasts gorgeous views, particularly of Vernazza and the seaside. But be warned: While spectacular, it’s not an easy stroll! Much of the path is narrow and steep, with sheer drops to the sea below, and it’s made particularly perilous by hundreds of tourists in the summertime. Your other option? From Vernazza, start on the number 2 trail toward Corniglia. Near the path’s beginning, stop and look back — and you’ll see the beautiful view of Vernazza repeated on so many postcards and posters of the Cinque Terre. (Try to do this in the morning: Later in the day, the sun will be setting right in your lens).
Milan: La Torre Branca
The tower itself is a modern monstrosity — erected in 1933, it’s made entirely of steel pipes. But it’s also 108 meters high and perfectly situated for prime views of Milan’s skyline, including the Duomo. Another bonus? It’s open every day but Monday (when it’s closed all day) from 9:30pm-midnight — meaning a great chance for shots of the city’s sparkling lights.
Florence: Piazzale Michelangelo
Here’s where to get your sweeping panorama of Florence, including the Ponte Vecchio and the Duomo. It’s a pleasant walk uphill, if a bit long, or you can take the number 12 bus from the Santa Maria Novella train station. The number 13 goes here, too.
Check out our Walks Traveler video on Piazzale Michelangelo, below!
Florence: San Miniato al Monte
Walk up a bit further from Piazzale Michelangelo and you come to the Church of San Miniato al Monte. Not going in would be a crime — one of Tuscany’s most gorgeous churches, its construction began in the 11th century, and the interior is unlike any other in Florence — but the views from the piazza just outside, leading down the hill to the Arno and beyond to the Florence center, are incredible, too.
Rome: Janiculum Hill
When you’ve gotten all the close-ups of ancient ruins and Renaissance churches you can handle, head to the one place where you can take all of Rome in in one shot: the Janiculum hill. Located just across the river from the centro storico, the Janiculum boasts gorgeous panoramic views of the city, including the Pantheon, Spanish Steps, and St. Peter’s Basilica. To get there, take the 115 or the 970 buses. (You can walk, but it’s a bit of a hike up the hill).
Bay of Naples: Mt. Vesuvius
Hiking up Mt. Vesuvius, one of the world’s deadliest volcanoes, might seem daunting. But the daring (and physically fit!) are rewarded with two extraordinary sights: a close look at the enormous, 2,000-foot-wide crater, and sweeping views of the Bay of Naples.
Amalfi: Positano’s Sentieri degli Dei
Put on your hiking shoes for some of the best views in the Amalfi coast. From this trail, you can see down the coast all the way to the tip of the peninsula. On a clear day, you can even see Capri. With all that spectacular beauty, you can see where the trail got its name: “Pathway of the Gods.”
Amalfi: Villa Rufolo, Ravello
Ravello is one of the best-kept secrets in the Amalfi coast — and its Villa Rufolo, originally constructed in the 13th century, is a gem. The views from the villa take in the stunning coastline and the sea. Access to the villa and its garden is 5 euros.
Venice: Bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore
Right across the water from St. Mark’s lies the church and monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore. It’s worth visiting in its own right, but the bell tower is where you can get one of the best, and least-known, views of Venice. As a bonus, the tower costs just 3 euros (the St. Mark’s Basilica bell tower costs 8 euros).
Venice: Grand Canal, from a traghetto
You don’t have to shell out on a gondola or water taxi to get those great from-the-water views. Instead, take a traghetto (cost: 3 euros). To avoid having your shots blocked by all of the other passengers, though, you’ll need to grab one of the limited outside seats. To make sure you get one, just start your traghetto tour at the end of Line 1, which cruises the Grand Canal — so either at Piazzale Roma, just beyond the train station, or Lido. Snap away!
How to Get from Your Cruise Port in Italy to Your Destination
byWalks of Italy
Taking a cruise into the port of Civitavecchia, Livorno, or Naples… and wondering how to get to Rome, Florence, or Pompeii? We’ve done the research and figured out the best transfer options from Italy’s cruise ports, so you don’t have to!
Getting from the Civitavecchia cruise port to Rome
While it’s the closest cruise port to Rome, Civitavecchia is still 50 miles from the city center. So know ahead of time how to get from Point A to Point B! Your options are:
Civitavecchia to Rome by train
Cost: €4.50 (2nd class) or €7 (1st class), per person, each way
Trip duration: About 65 minutes
How to: Regional trains from Civitavecchia to Rome, and vice versa, run every half hour; you can check specific times at www.trenitalia.it. It’s about a 10-minute walk from the port to the train station; with the port behind you, turn right onto Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, the main road running parallel to the water. (You’ll see a McDonald’s, which tells you you’re on the right road!). Continue, keeping the water on your right, until the road changes names to Via della Repubblica. You’ll see the station in front of you.
Your other option is to grab one of the free shuttle buses that run from the cruise terminal to the train station.
The train takes you to Termini, which is Rome’s main station. From there, you can easily hop onto buses heading in every direction, or on either of Rome’s metro lines.
Civitavecchia to Rome by private transfer
Cost: €140 (up to four people and two large bags) or €160 (five to eight people and twelve bags), each way
Trip duration: About 1.5 hours, depending on traffic
When comparing prices to the train, keep in mind that if you’re planning on taking a taxi from Termini to get to your hotel, there’s a €2 surcharge, plus a charge of €1 per piece of luggage. So that taxi ride can wind up costing €15 or €20… and that’s if your driver doesn’t try to “take you on a ride” in other ways!
Cost: €160, approximately (depends on traffic and exact route), each way
Trip duration: About 1.5 hours, depending on traffic
How to: This option requires the least forethought, but is the priciest. As soon as you leave the port, you’ll see taxis at a stand outside the arrivals terminal. You can also book a taxi by calling Radio Taxi Civitavecchia at +39 076626121, or, once in Rome, by calling Radio Taxi Roma at +39 066645, but the meter will start running from the moment the taxi is sent out.
Getting from the Livorno cruise port to Florence
The cruise port at Livorno (known, bizarrely, as “Leghorn” in English) is some 75 miles from Florence. Here’s how to make the distance go by quickly!
Livorno to Florence by train
Cost: €6.80 (2nd class) or €10.20 (1st class), per person, each way
Trip duration: About 1 hour 20 minutes
How to: Regional trains from Livorno to Florence, and vice versa, run every hour; you can check specific times at www.trenitalia.it. From the port, walk about 10 minutes to Piazza Giuseppe Micheli, located at the end of Via Grande. Take bus number 1 or number 1R from the “V. Grande/Porto Mediceo” stop at the piazza to the Livorno train station. Both the station in Livorno, and the one in Florence (Santa Maria Novella), are centrally located.
Livorno to Florence by private transfer
Cost: €460 (up to four people and two large bags) or €520 (up to eight people and twelve bags), round-trip
Trip duration: Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes, depending on traffic, each way
Cost: €180, approximately, for up to six people (depends on traffic and exact route taken), each way
Trip duration: Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes, depending on traffic, each way
How to: Either grab a cab at the Livorno port, or call the Consorzio Taxi Livorno at +39 0586578050. In Florence, you can rab a cab or call Taxi Firenze at +39 0554390. If you call a cab, be aware that the meter starts running from the moment the taxi is sent out.
Getting from the Naples cruise port to Pompeii
Luckily, the Naples cruise port isn’t too far from Pompeii… but you will have to know how to get through those 15 miles!
Naples port to Pompeii by train
Cost: €2.80, per person, each way
Trip duration: About 35 minutes
How to: Take the Circumvesuviana from Naples’ Garibaldi station, the main station of Naples, to the “Pompeii Scavi-Villa Misteri” stop. The train runs every half hour to and from Naples. You can check exact times at the Circumvesuviana website. Both stations are centrally located.
From the port of Naples, walk about 10 minutes to Piazza Municipio, then take tram number 1 or bus R2 to the Naples train station at Piazza Garibaldi. You could also grab a taxi from the port to the station, which should be about a 10-minute ride.
Naples port to Pompeii by taxi
Cost: €90 for up to four people, round-trip
Trip duration: About 40 minutes, depending on traffic
How to: Either get a cab at the cruise port or call Consorzio Taxi Napoli at +39 0818888 (be aware that the meter starts as soon as the cab is sent out). As part of an agreement with the Naples city council, the taxi will wait for you at Pompeii to take you back to the port (or to the train station)
How to Save on Flights to Italy
byWalks of Italy
Finding a cheap flight to Italy isn’t easy—especially these days. But before you cough up your savings to fly to Italy, or, worse, cancel your vacation altogether, try out some of our best methods for saving on your airfare.
(Nota bene: Although airfares are expensive right now, do keep in mind that the dollar is very strong against the euro. At the time of this blog post, 1 euro cost just $1.21. Euros haven’t been that cheap for Americans since 2006! So even if a flight winds up costing you $50 or $100 more, you will make that money “back,” plus some, when you’re spending euros on your hotels, sightseeing, and transportation within Italy).
Play with the dates of your Italy trip
Coming in the summer will, of course, be your priciest option. If you have to travel then because of children in school, consider going over a holiday break instead. What about the first week of January, or February or Thanksgiving break? Even Easter, while an expensive week to fly, could be cheaper than June or July. Bonus: If you go in the off-season, you’ll also be saving on hotels.
Fly to Italy on a Monday through Thursday
Flying on a weekend is pricier… and, really, there’s often little reason for weekend travel. If you’re taking a week off work, you’re taking a week off work—does it really matter whether you leave on Wednesday and return next Thursday, or if your last day is Friday and you return on a Monday?
Book as far in advance as possible
The “sweet spot” for finding cheap domestic flights might be 6 weeks in advance, but for flights to Europe, it’s more like 21 or 22 weeks. (Yow!).
Get on social media
Sometimes, airlines have coupon codes or promotions that they only advertise online, like on their Facebook page or Twitter. It’s also a good idea to follow airfare experts like @traveldeals, @dealsonairfare and @airfarewatchdog on Twitter, because they’re always tweeting what new deals are out there.
Look at consolidator websites other than Expedia
Every consolidator website searches different airlines, so cover your bases and look at as many as possible. We like Priceline, Hotwire and Kayak. Don’t forget the Italian sites, too—we’ve had especially good luck with Vayama and Mobissimo. (Yes, there’s an option to switch the pages to English!).
…and check some airline websites directly
Because certain airlines won’t even submit their data to consolidator websites, it also pays to go directly to airline websites that might offer good fares. Also, remember that even if you find a great fare on a site like Vayama, there’s a surcharge for booking it through them—so you should find the same flight on the airline’s site and book it there, anyway.
Look at getting two one-way fares, rather than a round-trip
Although this is often a more expensive option, you’d be surprised. Sometimes, it actually turns out a lot cheaper.
Sign up for airfare tracking
On Bing, for example, you can just put in your departure city, arrival city, and dates—and not only will the site scan the best prices for you, but, on the most common routes, it will offer a “price predictor” telling you how likely it is the fares will rise or fall.
Consider flying to a European hub, then getting to Italy
If flights directly to Italy are just too expensive, check flights to another European hub, particularly London or Dublin. They’re often less expensive, and flights from those cities to Italy can be very cheap. Airlines like British Airways and Alitalia, in particular, often have good fares between London and Rome.
Just remember to calculate in all of your extra costs. You might get a free checked bag on your transatlantic flight, for example, but not on that intra-Europe flight. And budget carriers are especially strict; Ryanair, for example, charges up to €40 for the first checked bag in high season. So always read the fine print and do the math.
At the end of the day? Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to save $50
You could spend hours and hours searching for the perfect flight to Italy. But after a certain point, it’s just worth booking the best flight you’ve found—especially because the longer you wait, the more fares go up. Plus, remember that, if you’re flying from abroad, you’ll be tired, jet-lagged, and ready to start your vacation. By the time you arrive in Italy, you might regret having chosen that flight with its 6am departure, or three stops, or long layover.
And once you’ve landed? You won’t remember that you could have gone with a flight that was $75 less. Instead, you’ll be enjoying your trip to Italy!