More than sunshine and siestas, Italy has a long and fascinating history with historical sites to match. Among the places you can visit to get more than a taste for pizza and wine are The Doge’s Palace, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Saint Mark’s Basilica, all telling the story of medieval city-states and a powerful Church that built upon the remains of Ancient Roman paganism in the Middle Ages.
From a wealth of possible locations, we’ve put together a handful of Italian cultural places, landmarks and monuments which cannot be ignored if you have the time, each providing a glimpse into what makes Italy, Italy.
1. The Doge’s Palace
The Doge’s Palace of Venice is a gothic style structure in St. Mark’s Square which served as the residence of each successive ‘Doge’ or leader of the Venetian Republic until its fall in 1797.
The Doge’s Palace housed the Republic’s administrative centre, hall of justice, prison, public archive and senate house. Whilst the current Doge’s Palace was probably constructed from 1309 to 1424, it is thought that the original palace dated back to the 10th or 11th century and was probably a fortified structure protected by thick walls and guard towers, of which traces have survived.
However, when Napoleon Bonaparte occupied the city – prompting the fall of the Venetian Republic – the role of the Doge’s Palace inevitably changed, and today it is a museum managed by the Venice Museum Authority.
2. Hadrian’s Villa
Hadrian’s Villa, or Villa Adriana, is perhaps the best-preserved Roman villa complex in the world. Built in the early 2nd century, the villa was the central hub of power in the Roman world for the latter years of Emperor Hadrian’s reign.
Hadrian’s Villa covers almost 250 acres and consists of over 30 buildings and a number of other points of interest. The site includes the remains of a large colonnaded swimming pool, libraries, the Palestra, barracks, gardens, fountains, nymphaeums, and the famous Maritime Theatre.
Most intriguing of all are the remains of Hadrian’s small island retreat – including his personal toilet – which served as the Emperor’s private escape from the stress of Imperial life.
3. Palazzo Vecchio
Palazzo Vecchio, translated as “Old Palace” and also known as Palazzo della Signoria, is an iconic 14th century palace in Florence most famous for its association with the Medici family.
Completed in 1322, it served as the seat of the city’s governing body – a function it still fulfils today. In 1540, Palazzo Vecchio underwent a renovation campaign under the remit of Duke Cosimo I, who employed the artist Vasari to add a series of frescos depicting important Florentine events.
Many of these frescos can still be seen at Palazzo Vecchio, notably in the Salone del Cinquecento which also contains a beautiful statue by Michelangelo entitled “Victory”.
4. Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Leaning Tower of Pisa, also known as the Tower of Pisa or ‘Torre pendente di Pisa’ in Italian, is one of the world’s most famous buildings due to its leaning stance, which leaves it forever appearing to be toppling over.
Originally construction of the Leaning Tower of Pisa was begun in 1174, with the intention of it being a freestanding bell tower for Pisa’s cathedral. Located in the Field of Miracles or ‘Campo del Miracoli’, the tower began to lean very early on in its construction, apparently around the time of the construction of its third floor.
Today, visitors can admire the ornate white marble structure that stands 60 metres tall and climb to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa up a staggering 300 steps. Be aware, if you want to get up close to the tower you will need to book tickets in advance as this is undoubtedly the city’s most popular tourist destination.
Paestum is a Greco-Roman site located south of Naples which contains the stunning remains of 3 ancient Greek temples which still stand tall today. Visitors to Paestum can still see the spectacular temples – the Temple of Hera, the Temple of Neptune and the Temple of Ceres.
The site also contains impressive defensive walls, a Roman forum, the basic remains of a Roman amphitheatre and a number of ancient tombs. Paestum also boasts an early Christian church and Paestum Museum, which has a wealth of information about the local sites.
6. Saint Mark’s Basilica
Saint Mark’s Basilica is a world famous Byzantine cathedral in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square, sometimes known as Chiesa d’Oro or “Church of Gold”. Every aspect of the basilica is on a grand scale, from its three-part façade with ornate theological carvings to its Greek cross-shaped interior with its ceilings covered in golden mosaics. In fact, the basilica is so elaborate that its entrance or “narthex” is intended to prepare visitors for what they are about to see.
Located in the heart of Venice, St Mark’s is found in St Mark’s Square and you’ll walk past the basilica multiple times on any trip there, even if you’re not trying to.
7. Florence Cathedral
Florence Cathedral, often called the “Duomo”, is an iconic site built from September 1296 and consecrated by Pope Eugenius IV on 25 March 1436. From its lavish use of marble to its status as the fourth largest church in Europe, Florence Cathedral was always intended to be vast and impressive. One of the most famous aspects is its dome and visitors who climb the 463 steps of the “Duomo” are rewarded with incredible views of Florence.
Inside Florence Cathedral, the dome is decorated with a fresco known as “The Last Judgement”, initially painted by Vasari, who also contributed to the Palazzo Vecchio, and later finished by Zuccari. Michelangelo’s and Donatello’s works are also represented inside as are copies of Pisano’s works. Guided tours are available.
8. Civita di Bagnoregio
Civita di Bagnoregio in Italy is a stunning example of a medieval city left relatively untouched by modernity. Known as ‘Il paese che muore’ – the dying town – Civita di Bagnoregio sits atop a rocky outcrop that stands between two valleys.
Today the city’s unique history, location and architecture has seen it become a tourist attraction and efforts have been made to try to preserve this historic location. Visitors can see a number of interesting sites as well as the exceptional architecture on display. The fascinating ‘Eutruscan Corridor’ is a Eutruscan tunnel that completely crosses the town.
Also worth a visit is the Cave Of Saint Bonaventure, the ancient olive-press and Saint Donato’s Church. There is a tourist information centre at the site which provides a good starting point for visitors.
9. Capua Gladiator Museum
The Gladiator Museum of Santa Maria Capua Vetere is a small museum which explores the history of the adjacent Campania Amphitheatre. The museum includes exhibitions of dioramas which demonstrate how the amphitheatre would have looked at the peak of its power and popularity, and boasts original artefacts found at the site itself such as gladiatorial weapons.
Much of the amphitheatre has been destroyed over the years, being variously ravaged by Visigoths, the Vandals, and the Saracens. It is therefore of utmost importance that museums such as the Capua Gladiator Museum exist to document the surviving artefacts that give an insight into the once mighty structure.
10. Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani) house some of the most impressive and important historical artefacts and works of art in the world. Originally the site of the Vatican Museums was used for papal palaces, but they are now a series of galleries in Vatican City.
The Vatican Museums date back to 1506, following the purchase of a sculpture of Laocoön and His Sons, which Pope Julius II put on public display at the Vatican a month after purchasing. Since then, the Vatican Museums have grown massively: the lavish museums now comprise of over 70,000 works of art, around 20,000 of which are on display to the public.
However, the star attraction of the Vatican Museums is the Sistine Chapel. Probably the last of the exhibitions one sees at the Vatican Museums (it is quite a walk from the entrance), the Sistine Chapel is the magnificent creation of Michelangelo from 1508 to 1512.