Things to Do in Italy
Taking prize place beside the Town Hall on Piazza Duomo, the Collegiate Church of San Gimignano, or the Duomo of San Gimignano, ranks among most impressive monuments of San Gimignano’s UNESCO-listed historic center. Behind its comparatively reserved façade, the church’s main claim to fame is its exquisite frescos, which date back to the 14th and 15th centuries, and remain remarkably unrestored. The bold colors and painstaking detail bring to life iconic biblical scenes including Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark, the Garden of Eden and dramatic depictions of Heaven and Hell, with highlights including works by Bartolo di Fredi, Lippo Memmi, Benozzo Gozzoli and Taddeo di Bartolo.
Adjoining the church, the small Museum of Sacred Art includes more works taken from the Collegiata and other San Gimignano churches, including a Crucifix by Benedetto di Maiano and the ‘Madonna of the Rose’ by Bartolo di Fredi.
A warren of cave dwellings and caverns carved into the hillside of Matera’s old town, the Sassi di Matera are one of Italy’s most unique, yet still off-the-beaten-track sights. The labyrinth of troglodyte dwellings date back to prehistoric times and were lived in until the 1950s when the new city was built. Today, the site is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has served as a backdrop for a number of films, including Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
The Sassi di Matera are divided into two distinct districts – Sasso Caveoso, where the older dwellings give an authentic taste of cave life, and Sasso Barisano, where many of the caves have been repurposed as hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. The best way to explore is on foot, weaving your way through the narrow alleyways, and highlights include a series of cave churches with beautiful preserved frescos; the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitaro, an 18th-century house museum; and the MUSMA art museum.
The world’s famous Colosseum was built in 80 AD for the Roman emperors to stage fight to-the-death gladiator battles and hunt and kill wild animals, whilst members of the general public watched the violent spectaculars. Entry was free, although you were seated according to your social rank and wealth. Gladiatorial games were banned in 438 AD; the wild beast hunting continued until 523.
The Colosseum is amazing for its complex and advanced architecture and building technique. Despite being used as a quarry for building materials at various points in history, it is still largely intact. You can see the tiered seating, corridors and the underground rooms where the animals and gladiators awaited their fate. Today the Colosseum has set the model for all modern-day stadiums, the only difference being today's teams survive their games.
Behind the high altar in the Cathedral of San Giovanni Battista, also known as the Duomo di Torino is the Chapel of the Holy Shroud, containing one of most famous and controversial religious relics in world history.
The Shroud of Turin, as the Holy Shroud is popularly known, or Sacra Sindone, is a piece of linen cloth said to have been laid over the body of Jesus Christ following his crucifixion. It bears the faded image of a bearded, longhaired man who appears to have wounds consistent with Bibilical traditions of those suffered by Christ at his execution.
Whatever the shroud's authenticity, it is certainly old, and its existence has inspired and renewed the faith of innumerable Christians throughout history. Given its importance, the Church has gone to great lengths to preserve it; currently, it is housed in a climate-controlled case filled with a special atmosphere comprised of argon and a little bit of oxygen, and it is rarely displayed.
Bologna’s beating heart is Piazza Maggiore, in the city’s old center. A classic example of Renaissance town planning, it is one of the most graceful public squares in Italy.
The pedestrianised square is surrounded by the Basilica di San Petronio, the Palazzo Communale (city hall), palatial public buildings and Bologna’s trademark covered walkways ringed by arches.
Sit at an outdoor cafe to enjoy people watching in the sunshine during the day, and visit in the early evening to see the beautifully floodlit Fountain of Neptune, sculpted in 1566.
Basilica di San Marco (St Mark's Cathedral) is magnificent. It is both a wonderful architectural flurry of Gothic, Byzantine, Romanesque and Renaissance styles declaring the wealth of Venice over centuries, and a spiritual place of worship. Its domes and turrets, and gold mosaic stand out over the square and over Venice, and four ancient classical horses top the entrance, taken from Constantinople (Istanbul) when Venice sacked that city around 1200. Inside the church is dazzling.
The church was begun in 828 when the body of St Mark was returned to Venice, smuggled by merchants from its resting place in Alexandria, Egypt. An angel had told St Mark his final resting place would be Venice (which did not even exist at the time) and the Venetian leaders were keen to make it happen. Over the years, churches were built, burnt, rebuilt and expanded resulting in the incredible building we see today.
More Things to Do in Italy
Tucked away in the northeastern corner of Italy and snuggled up against the Austrian border is a collection of rock formations called Cinque Torri. These five tower-like rocks each have their own name, along with a collection of smaller peaks and boulders that skirt around their base. The captivating crags are part of the Dolomites mountain range, and sit not far from the alpine town of Cortina d’Ampezzo.
They’re not just pretty to look at, either. During wintertime, this area becomes quite the ski destination. Meanwhile, during summertime, it’s an outdoor playground for hikers, bikers and rock climbers. While visiting, explore the different trails, many of which connect and circle back; visit the various refugios, or refuges, where you can grab a bite to eat or even stay the night; and take in a bit of history while exploring the outdoor museum composed of restored war trenches from World War I (indeed, this was the site of major battle).
The 13th-century Fontana Maggiore is undoubtedly the main attraction in Piazza IV Novembre and not only because of its size. The huge area was built in the late 1270s and sits in a prominent location between Perugia's cathedral and the Palazzo dei Priori. It was sculpted by a father-son team from pink and white marble. They depicted scenes from the Old Testament, legends about the founding of Perugia, as well as symbols of the city.
The construction of the fountain was part of a host of city-wide renovations marking Perugia's becoming autonomous, which is why many of the symbols on the fountain promote civic pride. The piazza itself is named for the day World War I ended in Italy.
You may have heard about the various cultures that have ruled Sicily over the centuries, right? When you look at the Palermo Cathedral, you can see the evidence of each one of them in the crazy assortment of architectural styles on the building.
The Palermo Cathedral (officially called Santa Maria Assunta, and sometimes known simply as the Duomo) dates from the late 12th century, built on the site of a temple dating from Ancient Rome. As later conquerors took over from the original Norman builders, they imprinted their own styles on the still-growing building. The exterior includes examples of Norman, Byzantine, Renaissance, and Baroque architectural elements, and they seem to be slapped on top of one another rather than incorporated as parts of a whole. In other words, the cathedral has a somewhat strange patchwork appearance that makes it look like the designers couldn’t make up their minds.
The Sicilian town of Taormina has long been known as a popular beach resort destination, but it’s more than sparkling water and long stretches of sand that draw visitors. Taormina is also home to a spectacular ancient ruin - the Greek Theatre.
Despite its name, the Greek Theatre - or Teatro Greco in Italian - is actually an ancient Roman structure. The design is more akin to how the ancient Greeks designed their theaters, so it is believed the Roman theater was built over an existing Greek theater. The ruins you see today date primarily from the 2nd century A.D., although the theater was started in the 7th century B.C.E. Taormina’s Greek Theatre sits high above the town’s famous beaches, so visitors who climb uphill to see the ruin are rewarded with more than just an up close look at an ancient monument - the views can be fantastic. From the theater, you can see the town of Taormina, the beaches far below, and the Mt. Etna volcano. It’s one of the best views in Sicily.
The city of Syracuse on the eastern coast of Sicily is partly located on an island called Ortygia, where much of the city’s history can be found. The island figures into Greek mythology as the place where the Greek goddess Leto gave birth to Artemis, and its name comes from the ancient Greek word for quail; Leto's sister is said to have turned into a quail and become the island when she fell into the sea.
There are two islands that connect the island with mainland Sicily, and most of the city of Syracuse is on the mainland. Among the sights in the historic city on Ortygia are its seventh-century cathedral and the Fountain of Arethuse.
The exterior of the basilica is notable for its horizontal stripes of pink and white stone and its campanile, which is the tallest in Assisi. Inside, the walls of the dimly lit nave are now white, although they were covered in frescoes until the 17th century. Elsewhere in the church, frescoes dating to the 13th and 14th centuries still remain. To the south of the nave is a small chapel that holds the 12th century crucifix that is said to have spoken to Saint Francis of Assisi.
There's nothing quite like sitting where you know others have sat and watched performances for two thousand years. The lovely pink marble Roman amphitheatre built in 1AD still proudly dominates the piazza in the middle of Verona, and people still travel from miles around to witness a spectacle; these days it's opera rather than sports, games and gladiatorial battles. The third largest amphitheatre in Italy, Arena di Verona could once seat 30,000, these days its capacity is 15,000.
With the decline of the Roman Empire, the outer walls were ripped down and used for building materials. In the twelfth century, an earthquake damaged the place and it wasn't really until the nineteenth century that there was an interest in using it once more to stage performances. The current incarnation as a major outdoor opera venue began in 1913 with a celebratory mounting of Verdi's Aida to mark 100 years since his birth.
Until 1797, the Doges ruled the Venetian Empire and the Palazzo Ducale was where they ruled from. It was one of the first things those arriving in Venice saw as their ships sailed through the lagoon and landed at Saint Mark's Square. The Doges lived here and the government offices were also in this building. Justice was meted out here and the Golden Book, listing all the important families of Venice, was housed here. No one whose family was not in the Golden Book would ever be made Doge. It was an extremely political process ruling Venice and residents could accuse others of wrong doing by anonymously slipping a note into the Mouth of Truth.
Inside the palace is wonderful art (paintings by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese), majestic staircases, the Doge's apartments, the government chambers, the prison cells and the Bridge of Sighs. Outside, along the piazzetta, each column is different.
The main church in Lucca is its cathedral, the Duomo di Lucca, built in the 11th century. The structure stands at one side of the Piazza San Martino, and inside, visitors will find the most revered relic in town: the Holy Face of Lucca (Volto Santo). This wooden cross is said to have been carved by Nicodemus, and although the one on display is a 13th-century copy, it's no less important to the church or town. There are two times each year when the Volto Santo is celebrated, dressed in special vestments in the cathedral. The church was rebuilt in the 14th century, although the campanile (bell tower) from the original structure remains, which is why one arch is quite a bit smaller than the other.
Other points of interest inside the Duomo are paintings by Ghirlandaio and Tintoretto, as well as the 15th-century tomb of Ilaria del Carretto of the Guinigi family. There is a museum in the cathedral as well.
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