30 things not to miss on your first trip to Italy

Lina Branter | 12/07/2019
Saint Mark's Square
Piazza San Marco, also known as Saint Mark's Square during high tide.

You’re finally going to cross Italy off your bucket list, but you’ve got limited vacation time. What are the most important things to do in Italy? Where do you even start? With a history that goes back to prehistoric times, the first-time traveller to Italy can be forgiven for feeling a bit overwhelmed.

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. We’ve gathered Italy’s not-to-miss attractions all in one place — from museums to fountains, cathedrals to cuisine. 

If you’ve got limited time, best to stick to the big three cities: Rome, Florence and that grand, enigmatic dame herself, Venice. Because of Italy’s high-speed trains, you won’t waste much time traveling between cities: the trip from Rome to Florence is only 90 minutes, while Rome to Venice is just under four hours. Build your itinerary and book train tickets all in one place on ItaliaRail.

Don’t say we didn’t warn you — you’ll love Italy so much you’ll be back for seconds and thirds… and we’re not just talking about the food.

 

Rome

Rome wasn’t built in a day. So you shouldn’t expect to see all the best places in Rome in just one day. With a history spanning more than 28 centuries, Rome is a living history book. You’ll want to devote at least three days to exploring the Eternal City.

First stop: the Colosseum, the largest amphitheatre ever built and one of the most essential Italy destinations. Dating back to 80 AD., it is arguably the most famous attraction in Rome. Just a hop, skip and a jump away is the Roman Forum, Rome’s ancient marketplace with ruins dating back to the 6th century BC. While you’re there, don’t miss the ancient Roman ruins on Palatine hill — excavations on the Hill have uncovered artifacts dating back to the 10th century BC.

Just a half hour’s walk away, near the Piazza Navona, is the Pantheon, or Temple of the Gods, one of the best-preserved buildings of ancient Rome. Still in use today, the temple was built around 113-125 AD and boasts the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.

Don’t forget to take a break after all that history! Walk a few blocks from the Pantheon to the Piazza Navona and enjoy a drink in one of the cafés lining the square while gazing at one of Bernini’s beautiful fountains. Then head to the Trevi fountain, where you can throw a coin over your left shoulder to guarantee your return to the Eternal City!

You can’t go to Rome without visiting the Vatican, the city state and headquarters of the Catholic church. Some of the essential places to visit in Italy are within the Vatican’s borders. St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world, is a must-see Italy destination — and not only because it’s the official church of the Pope. St. Peter’s is an awe-inspiring feat of architecture containing famous works from big-name Renaissance and Baroque artists such as Bernini and Michelangelo. A tour of the Vatican museum is a must: you’ll see 54 galleries of exquisite art collected by the Popes over the centuries, not to mention the famous Sistine Chapel with its ceiling painted by Michelangelo.

Busy or not, a body’s got to eat. Don’t forget to pause when you feel peckish for some of Rome’s famous foods. Stop for a supplí, a fried rice ball mixed with ragú and mozzarella. Or sit down for a classic plate of carbonara or cacio e pepe. And of course, a cone or bowl of gelato per day is a must while in Rome.

Have more than just a few days to explore Rome? Go deeper, guided by our Italy experts with When in Rome: 30 Things to Do in the Eternal City.

 

Florence

Fasten your seatbelts. Florence, known as the Cradle of the Renaissance, packs a lot into a tiny package. Widely known as one of the best places to visit in Italy, not only does Florence contain more masterpieces of art and architecture than arguably any other city, it also happens to be in the middle of one of the most famous wine regions of the world.

You haven’t been to Florence if you haven’t visited the Duomo, the Brunelleschi cathedral with an egg-shaped dome that dominates Florence’s skyline. Climb the 463 steps to the top and gaze out at a city that has changed very little since the Renaissance. While you’re there, don’t forget to explore the rest of this remarkable cathedral.. and then treat yourself to some amazing gelato in the Piazza del Duomo.

A trip to the Uffizi, which holds one of the world’s most important collections of renaissance art, is one of the essential things to do in Florence, Italy. Here you’ll find Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Leonardo da Vinci’s Birth of the Magi among other many, many treasures. Plan ahead and book a skip-the-line tour of the Uffizi to breeze past the potentially long lineups to enter the museum.

While you’re on the art track, head over to the Galleria dell'Accademia to see Michelangelo’s famous sculpture, David as well the sculptor’s marble Prisoners. 

Renowned for its fine leather craftsmanship, you can’t leave Florence without visiting the Mercato Nuovo. Step beneath its 16th century arcades to browse the market’s many stalls filled with cheap leather goods. If you want a more quality souvenir, be sure to check out our Shopping Guide to the Florentine Leather Market. Still shopping? Cross the Ponte Vecchio, one of the world’s most iconic bridges, to visit the many shops that sit atop its arched back.

When you’re done, grab some lampredetto, a delicious Florentine street food featuring seasoned tripe topped with a red or green sauce. Or pick up some vegetables from the Mercato Centrale or San’Ambrogio market and head to the Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens for a picnic.

Last but not least, book a wine tasting tour in the surrounding Tuscan countryside. If you don’t have the time, at least reserve a chianti wine tasting inside the city walls.

Have more time to explore Florence? Get insider tips from our experts here: The 30 Things You Must Do in Florence.

 

Venice

Ah, La Serenissima! Unabashedly decadent, eternally mysterious, Venice is one of the most beautiful places in Italy. And because the sheer miracle of its existence is threatened with each passing day as the water gets higher and the city gets lower, everyone wants to experience this gold-encrusted lady before they can’t anymore.

The first and foremost thing to do in Venice is to get lost. Yes, that’s right. Get lost. Spend some of your precious time wandering away from the crowded tourist areas. Meander over bridges and through narrow, winding streets lined with crumbling palazzos. Get a feel for the magic and mystery of the City of Masks before you brave the crowds.

Once you’ve soaked in the magic, head back to Saint Mark’s Square, which has been on the list of what to see in Italy since the 19th century. Visit the majestic Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs, where prisoners on their way to their cells were said to stop for a moment and sigh at the view and their lost freedom. 

Climb the bell tower for a view of Venice and the surrounding area and watch the renaissance clock, the Torre dell’Orologio chime the hour. Then head over to the famous Rialto bridge, built in the 16th century and the first bridge to span the Grand Canal. Walk along the edges of the canal or get some of your souvenir shopping done by browsing the shops that line the square’s elegant arch. With all this packed into one square, it’s no wonder the Piazza San Marco is one of the best places to visit in Venice.

Once you have a taste of Venice proper, take a gondola ride or a vaporetto and visit some of the nearby islands. Head to Murano, famous for its glassworks, or Burano, a colourful fishing village also known for its exquisite lace.

Don’t forget to stop during the day for a Venetian spritz, a popular local aperitif, accompanied by Venetian-style tapas called cicchettis.

Have more time to explore Venice? Read our expert tips in: When in Venice: 30 Things Not to Miss in the Floating City

 

And if you don’t have to rush… see as much as you can!

Although these are the top must-see cities to visit in Italy, the country has so much more to offer. If you like pizza and ocean views (really, who doesn’t?), consider heading to the Amalfi coast and Naples. Take a day to visit Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. Travel by boat to Capri or relax at one of the beaches on one of the most beautiful coasts in the world. If you like fashion and mountains and lakes, head to Milan and Lake Como. Are you a foodie? Why not visit the Piedmont region, the birthplace of the slow food movement and renowned for its truffles and its wine. Whichever direction you decide to go, Italy has something for everyone.