There's a corner of Italy for every type of traveler. If you want art- and history-filled cities, Italy has them by the dozens. Small towns where you can slow down and absorb local culture? Italy has thousands, each prettier than the last. Beaches? Whether you want endless sands or pebbly shores set under windswept cliffs, you'll find them in Italy. Alpine lakes, UNESCO-listed archaeological parks, thermal springs, glacier-carved valleys, pristine islands, and even volcanos—Italy has them.
To help you choose from Italy's embarrassment of riches, we've created a list of the top 15 destinations in Italy, with a little information about why each one deserves a visit. But remember, no list of the best places to see in Italy could ever be exhaustive or complete, so use this as a stepping off point for creating your own ideal itinerary for a vacation in Italy.
Much of the history of Europe was shaped in Rome, and the past is still palpable here at every turn. From the ancient relics of the Colosseum, Forum, and Palatine Hill to medieval Trastevere, Baroque churches and fountains, and the glories of Vatican City, there's a reason so many Italian vacations start or finish here. There's enough to see in Rome to fill a lifetime, but you can make a pretty good dent in four or five days. Reserve in advance for must-see places like the Colosseum and the Vatican Museums, and make time to slow down, sit in a piazza or sidewalk café, and watch Roman life go by.
Florence, the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance and the largest city in Tuscany, offers art museums, historic landmarks, narrow cobblestone streets, and a feel altogether different from Rome. In a few busy days here, you can see the major museums, including the Uffizi and the Accademia (reserve ahead for both), explore Florence's bustling markets, walk its many bridges, and discover the Oltrarno (its Left Bank). That will still leave you time for sampling Florentine cuisine, paired with some nice wine from the Tuscan countryside. Florence is also reputed to have some of the best gelato in Italy, but you'll have to decide that for yourself.
Despite its bad press of late—overcrowding and record flooding—Venice is still Venice, and it's simply intoxicatingly magical. Base yourself several days in a hotel in one of the city's sestieri (quarters) and set off on foot or by vaporetto (water bus) to explore this water-soaked land of Byzantine architecture and glorious decay. Marvel at the interior and exterior of St. Mark's Basilica and the Doge's Palace, have an overpriced drink on St. Mark's square, eat cheap cicchetti (tapas-like snacks) in an authentic Venetian wine bar, get lost in the Dorsoduro or Cannaregio districts, and go ahead and spring for that pricey gondola ride—because there's only one Venice, after all.
With its Greek ruins, North African-influenced cuisine, Spanish Baroque architecture and all those blond Italians—the lingering effects of Norman rule—you might be excused for thinking Sicily is an entirely different country from Italy. This fascinating island—Italy's largest—has a rich history in its earthy cities like Palermo and Catania and UNESCO-listed archaeological sites at Agrigento and Syracuse. Plus, with gorgeous beaches all around the island and an active volcano where you can ski in the winter, Sicily is full of surprises. A week or more here is just scratching the surface.
Beautiful, chaotic, vibrant, and intensely historic, Naples feels like Italy's most lived-in city. A few days here could be quickly filled up. See the city's archaeological museum—which is perhaps the finest in Italy—and tour its hundreds of churches and religious complexes. Visit castles and palaces where Norman, Spanish, and French kings held court, or dive into the Centro Storico, where you'll be met with delicious street food. Go underground to discover Greek and Roman ruins, and eat seafood fresh off the fishing boat at a seaside trattoria. Naples is simply enchanting, if not for the faint of heart.
A refuge for Roman Emperor Tiberius and the booty of countless wars, Capri has always had a certain cache. The crowds have dimmed that aura of exclusivity a bit, but Capri still has that something special. Spend a couple of days here shopping, wandering down narrow covered alleyways, hiking up to Tiberius's villa, and taking a boat ride into the ethereal Blue Grotto.
Part heartland, part industrial powerhouse, the Emilia-Romagna region of north-central Italy often gets passed over in favor of Venice, Milan, or Tuscany—but this varied, prosperous land has a lot to offer. Bologna has history, wide-open squares, and youth-infused nightlife. Parma has its culinary traditions that go well beyond ham and cheese, while Modena is known for its balsamic vinegar and sports car industry. On the Adriatic, Ravenna is the city of mosaics, while Rimini is one of the biggest beach resorts in Europe. Each of these cities warrants a day or more of your time.
Beyond its charming trulli, or conically shaped traditional homes, Puglia has great red and white wines, rich food traditions based on olive oil (the region is Italy's number one producer), burrata mozzarella, and local fish and grains. The area's gentle rolling hills are ideal for biking, and its glorious coastline—the longest in Italy—is dotted with beautiful beaches and dramatically sited towns.
For yet another region of Italy that feels apart from the rest of the country, head to the Dolomite Mountains, within the Alto Adige (Sud Tirol) region. A UNESCO World Heritage Region, the Dolomites are comprised of numerous peaks above 3,000 meters (9,800 feet), great for skiing, hiking, and challenging climbing. Their valleys hold cute Tirolean mountain towns that seem more Austrian than Italian, harkening to the region's past as part of Austro-Hungary. You'll also find chic ski resorts like Merano and Cortina d'Ampezzo, as well as the regional capital of Bolzano. Home to Otzi the Iceman—the Copper Age mummy found decades ago in a receding glacier—Bolanzo's museum dedicated to him and related finds is one of the finest in Europe.
Tuscany is sort of archetypally etched in the minds of travelers and would-be travelers, whether they've ever visited it or not. The rolling hills covered in lush grapevines, medieval hamlets, elegant hill towns, and fields of cheerful sunflowers—it's all here. Base yourself in Siena, home of the Palio horse race; the walled city of Lucca; or Pisa, with its leaning tower. Or sample life in a smaller hill town like Montepulciano, Pienza or Montalcino, and explore wineries, thermal springs, and the bucolic countryside.
The Tuscan islands of Giglio and Elba are a worthy side trip for anyone who wants to experience Mediterranean Italy without taking a plane or a long ferry ride. Elba is just 40 minutes from the mainland and is known for its dozens of family-friendly beaches, clear waters, seaside towns with waterfront promenades, and a rugged interior suited to hiking and mountain biking. Tiny Giglio, an hour from the mainland, has three small towns. Here, you'll find a pretty port, a few decent beaches, and a wild landscape carpeted in grapevines and untamed Mediterranean scrub. Both are idyllic places to spend a few days.
The cities of the Veneto often get overlooked in favor of their more famous cousin, Venice. But a trio of lovely, storied cities make for great day trips from Venice or destinations in their own right. North of Venice, Treviso is also an elegant city of canals, though on a much more subdued scale than Venice. Padua has art-filled churches and a UNESCO-listed botanical garden, plus a thermal spa area just to its south. Posh Verona, the fictional home of Romeo and Juliet, rests heavily on that romantic legacy, but also has a spectacular Roman arena, regal piazzas, and high-end shopping.
If you're already in Venice, extend your stay long enough to explore some of the islands of the Venetian Lagoon. The less-visited islands of Burano, Chioggia, Torcello, and Murano reveal a great deal about the history of how Venice developed. Even more, it shows visitors a quieter, more authentic side of life on the lagoon, where the day moves according to the tides, fisherman still go out at night and come back at dawn with their catch, and women still tat lace by hand. If you have the time, try to arrange an overnight on one of the islands to really get a taste for lagoon life.
Italy's Lakes Region has long been a summertime playground for European and Hollywood jet-setters, but it offers plenty of diversions for mere mortals as well. Lake Garda, the largest of the lakes, has a dramatic alpine backdrop, family-friendly lakeside towns, and one of Italy's largest theme parks—Gardaland. Lake Como has a celebrity cache and achingly beautiful waterfront areas. Lakes Lugano and Maggiore both share waters and shorelines with Switzerland. All of the lakes compete for the most stunning scenery. In the summer, boat rides, swimming, and lakeside dining are top activities.
Milan is well known as the fashion capital of Europe and the home of Leonardo DaVinci's masterpiece, "The Last Supper." But there's more to Milan than fashionistas and a fragile fresco. The busy, modern northern Italian city holds several excellent art museums, Roman ruins, a medieval fortress, and a young, upwardly mobile population that helps create a buzzy nightlife scene. Reserve your tickets in advance for "The Last Supper," tour the lace-like Duomo, sample Milan's café culture, then head to the Navigli neighborhood for an evening out on the town.