Being a person who is well-traveled means that one of the most frequently asked questions I get is “Which destination from your travels is your favorite?” My answer, which comes as a shock to no one, is that I cannot possibly answer. Every time I think I might be able to pin the answer down, I go somewhere new or think of an incredible memory from somewhere I have been, and the answer changes. However, if pressed to just pick one, I often think of Italy. There is something about Italy that is so magical to me. The country is so diverse, both in landscape and culture. The cuisine is incomparable. The people are without a doubt, the very friendliest (although the Irish are a close second) and are so much fun. The language is beautiful. The art is extensive. The history is deep and fascinating.
Fortunately for me, I am extremely lucky and have travelled to Italy three times. The first time I visited was my very first trip to Europe on a large tour with my high school when I was 16. We visited Florence, Venice, Rome, and Pisa as part of a whirlwind month-long tour of eight countries. I immediately fell in love with Italy and dreamed of returning for years. Three years later, I returned to Italy with one of my best friends from college, Amelia, when we were studying abroad. We decided to spend five days in Rome, soaking up the culture, and had the time of our lives. Four years later, I was very lucky to be invited to the wedding of another of my best friends from college, Ashley, when she and her husband decided to get married in Positano. With the rest of our college roommates, we traveled to Florence, Siena, Rome, Pompeii, Positano, and Perugia. Again, I had an amazing experience filled with unforgettable moments, delicious food, and learned about some new-to-me destinations in Italy.
Since I’ve been to Italy a few times, and the last was almost seven years ago, I decided the best way to share my favorite memories from Italy is in one list of my Top ten things to do in Italy. For friends and family who have never been to Europe, I always suggest Italy as one of the top options because the country has so much to offer everyone: history, art, food, wine, outdoors. You name it, Italy has it. I hope this post helps anyone planning a trip to Italy, but it is also specifically dedicated to my family who is planning a trip to Italy this summer. Sadly, I am unable to join them due to my own travel schedule, but I hope they have a wonderful time. Without further ado, here is my list! (And please excuse the camera quality in some of these pictures.)
- Soak up every bit of history in Rome. Rome is amazing and is one of my favorite cities in the world. There is so much history to see. Wander around, or better yet, meet an Italian to give you a tour and visit all of the must-sees like the Coloseum, Il Forum, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Basilica, Circus Maximus, and the Pantheon. I also enjoyed visiting a less frequently visited destination, the Castel Sant’ Angelo (or Hadrian’s Mausoleum). It is a circular castle on the Tiber River that was originally constructed as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian and was later used as a fortress, prison, and castle. It has great views of Rome from the adorable café at the top of the castle. (Much of Rome is featured in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. The book may be a fun read if you have been to Rome or are going).
- Visit Siena during Il Palio. Il Palio is kind of like the Kentucky Derby of Italy, except without the hats, in Italy, and with a much longer history (it has been going on for over 350 years)! Ten jockeys race horses on a dirt track around the Piazza del Campo annually on July 2 and August 16. Like the Derby, the race is less than two minutes. Each rider represents one of ten of the 17 contrade, or neighborhoods of Siena. I didn’t actually see Il Palio, but traveled there about a week before the race. We learned that each neighborhood has a festival and parade leading up to the big race and each has its own mascot and unique history. While you’re there, don’t forget to go up in the Torre de Mangia for beautiful views of the city and enjoy lunch at one of the cafes in the Piazza del Campo.
- Go to the sovereign state of the Holy See, to see the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. On most people’s must see list while in Rome is a visit to Vatican city. While always full of tourists, it is well worth a visit to see the vast collection of art at the Vatican Museums, Michelangelo’s incredible work at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the papal tombs, and the beautiful architecture of St. Peter’s Basilica. This is one activity for which I recommend a private tour. It can definitely save you from large crowds and long lines!
- Attend a wedding in Positano. Ok, so I realize that not everyone has a friend who will get married in Positano, Italy. Nevertheless, the Amalfi Coast is a must-see destination. The beach is beautiful, hotels are luxurious, there are museums and churches, and it is a great place to stock up on unique, handmade gifts. Two of my favorite local specialties were the hand painted ceramics and the sandals. I bought some bowls that I treasure to this day. And the sandals are custom-made right in front of you! Other local delicacies to enjoy while in Positano are lemons, limoncello, and red pepper. From Positano, you can also easily take a day trip to Capri to see the famous Blue Grotto.
- Explore Pompeii and see the damage caused by Mount Vesuvius and the preservation of the town. As you most likely know, Pompeii was destroyed and buried under nearly 20 feet of ash and pumice after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Although it was a terrible tragedy, the volcanic explosion immaculately preserved the entire city, allowing for an unparalleled look back into the history of the time. You can see just how advanced Roman civilization was at the time.
- Bike the Via Appia Antica in Rome: I would definitely check out Via Appia Antica (or the Appian Way) if you have time. It is somewhat out of the way, but it is amazing and well worth the extra walk or bike. It is a road that emperors took thousands of years ago that has some really old homes and churches. There is a lot to see and it is a bit more off the beaten path so it can be a nice break from the heavy crowds in Rome. I actually walked it, but I would highly recommend renting a bike so you can cover more ground. It is also worth noting that most of the sites are within the first few miles if you don’t have time to explore the whole road.
- Wander the narrow paths of Sam Gimignano and visit a winery in nearby Monteriggioni. Monteriggioni is a small medieval town just 25 minutes from Siena that was built in the 1200s as a defense fortification by the Sienese. My college roommates and I made a friend in Siena and went to visit his friend’s family’s winery. It is one of my favorite travel experiences to date. Being able to go to a small, local winery with locals is incomparable. San Gimignano is just 30 minutes beyond Monteriggioni and is another quaint little town. It is known for its 14 towers that have remained intact since the Middle Ages.
- Take a cooking class in Tuscany. Another of my favorite travel experiences to date was taking a cooking class in Siena with my friends. The chef hardly spoke any English and the recipe wasn’t exactly translated perfectly, but we managed to make an incredible meal, including goat cheese, pear, and honey toast, handmade pasta with arugula pesto and marinara, rabbit with olives,and panna cotta. The best part was, after making the entire meal ourselves, the chef served it to us with wine on a balcony overlooking the Tuscan sunset. I try to recreate the meal from time to time, but of course nothing quite compares to having it in Italy.
- Climb the Duomo before you take in the David in Florence. I have been to Florence twice, but have not spent more than a day or two there either time. Many people would say their favorite memories from Florence are seeing the many enormously famous works of art. I enjoy the art of course, but my favorite memory is that first glimpse of the view from the top of the Duomo. It is amazing to see the entire, beautiful city before you get started with your sightseeing.
- Hike along the cliffs in Cinque Terre. I have to admit that I actually have not been to Cinque Terre myself, but I know at least five friends who have and who highly recommend going so I would be remiss not to include Cinque Terre in my list. I recently did some research for a friend and learned that it is a great place for hiking. It has a similar look to Positano and Amalfi, but it seems a bit more rustic, while Amalfi is more luxurious. I would recommend visiting in the off season if you can, as I have heard that it can get quite crowded during the high season.
Obviously this list is not at all-inclusive. It merely includes my favorite memories (and one frequent recommendation from friends) from my trips to Italy. Also, if you are wondering why I didn’t include Venice, the short answer is that it can feel a bit touristy. I highly recommend going to Venice if you haven’t already been because it is such a unique destination and I think it is so interesting to see the canals, but I just don’t think it belongs in my top 10 list. I guess it can unofficially be number 11!
I remember all three of my Italy trips in such vivid detail, which just exemplifies what I mean when I say that I feel that I am truly living when traveling. I’m not sure if that makes sense to anyone else, but I feel most alive when I am exploring another culture. I hope my top ten list helps you plan a future trip to Italy or inspires you to take a trip to Italy.
Have you been to Italy? If so, do you think I missed anything on my list? Please share your top things to do in Italy in the comments! I always love to hear about other’s travels!