When I decided I wanted to study abroad for a semester, I immediately knew it was going to be Italy and the many unique and picturesque cities and towns I could visit while there. Traveling around Italy was very convenient and budget-friendly and I visited many cities while abroad.
Some of these cities were on my bucket list for years, others I just discovered while in Italy. Each of them offers a charming mix of scenery, historic and ancient sites, museums and of course, great cuisine. Here are my picks for the top ten Italian cities (in no particular order), each with its own special character and appeal.
1. If you ever want to escape to a fantasy city, go to Siena. A hill town in Tuscany, just an hour and a half south of Florence, it is a great place to visit even for one day, a compact city with just a few big sites. You can sunbathe in its famous large square, Il Campo, visit the Duomo, get one of the best views in Italy from the Torre del Mangia, and wander the historic old town.
What’s so special about Siena is how it is disposed on 17 contrade (districts), whose representatives race on horseback in the Palio di Siena, run twice every year. Each is named after an animal or symbol, and each has a long history and complicated heraldic and semi-mythological associations. You can learn a lot about their history from a tour guide, which I highly recommend getting.
Best Experiences: Torre del Mangia, Siena Cathedral
Personal favs: Wander the cobblestoned streets and learn about the districts’ history, hang out in Il Campo square
2. After reading Romeo and Juliet and watching Letters to Juliet, I put Verona on my bucket list, so of course I couldn’t miss it when in Italy.
You can spend a magical day in Verona. You can visit Juliet’s balcony in the morning, when it’s less crowded and head over to the main piazza for lunch and some market stall shopping. Then, visit the Piazzale Castel San Pietro and take in the beautiful view of the city. Lastly, visit Verona Arena, a first-century Roman amphitheater that is still in use and is the third largest in Italy.
Best Experiences: Juliet’s house, Ponte Scaligero, Piazza delle Erbe
Personal favs: Walking across Ponte Scaligero at dusk, strolling through the town in the evening
3. Rome (Roma) – a city that’s been around for almost three thousand years. It carries the weight of history with a dolce vita lightness of heart. It’s a city that combines ancient monuments, beautiful fountains and art-filled museums. A city where classical ruins and early Christian places of worship stand next to Renaissance palaces.
Rome is an enchanting place where you'll discover a romantic blend of culture and history spiced up with a vibrant street and nightlife. Cobblestones-paved alleyways and neighborhood trattorias, delicious gastronomy and excellent Italian wines. Add in some pizza al taglio, street-singers who play cello in the piazzas and the mild Mediterranean climate, and you have an amazing destination where life seems to be lived as a form of theater.
Top Experiences: The Colosseum, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, the Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Borghese Museum and Gardens, Piazza Navona, the Roman Forum
Personal favs: spending the evening in dreamy Trastevere (the neighborhood where I lived); Piazza di Spagna at sunset, live Jazz at Charity Café, BEST pizza at Passetto Ristorante Pizzeria
4. Lucca is one of Tuscany’s small cute cities, but unlike many of them, it is flat rather than on a hill. The city is known for the well-preserved Renaissance walls encircling its historic city center. The top of the walls has been made into tree-lined pathways so you can walk or ride a bike on top of the walls.
Lucca has medieval towers, nearly 100 churches and a long shopping street and an oval-shaped piazza that used to be a Roman amphitheater. Back in the 1300s, wealthy families were building bell towers as status symbols. One of the few remaining towers within the walls is
Torre Guinigi, with a height of 45 meters and a holm oak. It is open to visitors and the view from the top is gorgeous, with mountains seen in the distance, behind the orange roofs.
Best Experiences: Piazza dell' Anfiteatro, St Martin Cathedral
Personal favs: taking in the view from Torre Guinigi, eating at Buca di Sant'Antonio
5. The canals, the gondolas, the architecture, the colorful towns of Murano and Burano… what is not to love about Venice (Venezia)? Romantic, historic, and unlike any place else in the world, Venice is a unique city built on water in the middle of a lagoon. Historically, Venice was a bridge between the East and the West, so its architecture retains a Byzantine feel not really found elsewhere in Italy.
As Venice is one of the most popular cities for visitors in Italy, there are days when walking the narrow streets or riding a ferry could be a battle. But despite this, wandering along Venice's canals and getting lost in its maze of narrow streets is always enchanting. And even at peak visitor periods, you're never more than a bridge away from quiet campi (squares), churches or handsome Gothic palazzi.
Best Experiences: St. Mark’s Square, Rialto Bridge, Bridge of Sighs, Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo
Personal favs: gondola ride, Libreria Alta Aqua (hidden gem), taking in the view from Saint Mark’s Basilica, Sestiere Castello neighborhood
6. For me, Porto Santo Stefano looked like a northern Amalfi. A cute, colorful seaport town on the west coast of Italy, it is situated in the Province of Grosseto, Tuscany.
A perfect sunny getaway, Santo Stefano is a place you can stroll around for an entire day, getting lost on its narrow streets, eating gelato while walking alongside the water. If you visit in the summer, you can also enjoy the many beaches surrounding the town.
Best Experiences: Piazza dei Rioni, Spanish fortress
Personal favs: Going through the picturesque alleys and stairways of the historic center, until reaching the old Spanish fortress from which you can admire a magnificent panorama; eating in the main piazza at a restaurant overlooking the harbor
7. If you want to really experience the real Italian countryside life go to Tuscania, a small town in Lazio region, just 1 hour and a half away from Rome. Unspoiled by tourism and vastly green and lush, Tuscania enjoys a mild climate all year round, and offers a peaceful retreat from the action-packed cities of Italy.
Rich in Etruscan history and remains, Tuscania has a culture of its own. The historic quarter is beautiful, with its colorful houses and shops ornated with hanging vine plants, completely surrounded by the medieval city walls that offer excellent views over the countryside and the church of St Peter.
Best Experiences: Church of San Pietro, Fontana delle Sette Cannelle
Personal favs: Enjoying the sun in the terrace garden of Tuscania overlooking the spectacular valley below
8. It is often called the art capital of the world. A gorgeous city and one of Italy's most important Renaissance architectural and art centers, Florence (Firenze) is a must-see. Its Duomo and Baptistery are magnificent, but crowded with tourists, as is the large piazza. Florence has several museums with many famous paintings and sculptures, including Michelangelo's "David" and Botticelli's "Birth of Venus."
There is so much exquisite art and architecture within the city’s ancient walls, but there is more to Florence than just museums and monuments. The city is bursting with quirky shops and quality crafts; a living city with a diverse cultural life that embraces opera, classical music and contemporary art. The restaurant and nightlife scene are also very much thriving.
Top Experiences: Uffizi Gallery, Center Market Leather Shop Firenze
Personal favs: Watch the sunset over Ponte Vecchio, enjoy live music and a carousel ride in Piazza della Repubblica at night, have dinner at Ristorante Il Gatto e La Volpe
9. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is world famous. But is it really worth the trip? I’d say yes, if you’re in the area, only because there’s not much to do in the city except for the tower. Pisa is worth a quick stop if you are traveling around Florence or Lucca for example. Take two hours to pose for photos (along with tons of other travelers) and maybe even climb the tower.
Best Experiences: Piazza del Duomo, Cattedrale di Pisa
Personal favs: enjoying fresh pastry and a cappuccino at a near-by pastry shop, away from the crowds in the main piazza
10. Five old seaside villages on the Italian Riviera. Cinque Terre (meaning “five lands”) was on my bucket list for so long and it definitely did not disappoint. It was pretty much everything I expected it to be. The lovely weather, the beautiful seaside, the soft wind bringing a scent of flowers and lemon and salt. People enjoying the views of the riviera or walking deep in conversation through the narrow streets, gesticulating as if there was no tomorrow.
In each of the 5 towns, you can stroll around on the paved alleyways between colorful houses and admire the vineyards that cling to steep terraces and harbors filled with fishing boats. Trattorias at every corner, so are the fresh fruit and vegetable little shops. You can explore Cinque Terre by hopping from town to town by train or, if you have more time and the weather allows, you can hike the trail that links the villages and offers gorgeous views of the sea.
Best Experiences: Exploring the five towns – Riomaggiore, Vernazza, Monterosso al Mare, Manarola, and Corniglia
Personal favs: watching the sunset from the rocks surrounding Riomaggiore, brunch in Monterosso al Mare
These are just some of the cities I visited and fell in love with. I definitely need to go back because there are many others I want to see. So much Italy, so little time, right?