Central and Southern Italy are home to some of the world’s most famous touristic attractions, breathtaking scenery, and outstanding food and wine! There’s no shortage of places to blog about, so I consider this to be a living post that will be frequently updated!
Rome earns its name as the eternal city and rightfully earns its place as one of the world’s top tourist destinations. There are so many ancient ruins, cathedrals, museums restaurants, cafes, and other points of interest, that a person could spend a lifetime blogging about this city. I will just underscore a few of my favorite sights — and not-to-be-missed destinations!
Arguably the most famous thing to see in Rome is the Colosseum and the surrounding ruins. It is truly impressive to walk through the massive ringed amphitheater and imagine the history and gladiatorial games that took place there. Nearby is the Roman Forum– an incredible array of 2,000 year old Roman ruins sprawling across a large swath of the city center. With several temples, government buildings, and other structures, this formed the administrative heart of the Roman Empire. Also nearby is the Palatine Hill, with ruins of imperial palaces, including the home of famed Emperor Augustus. These ruins are extensive, so it’s best to budget plenty of time to explore them.
While Rome is replete with grandiose, impressive courtyards, perhaps the most famous one is the Piazza Navona, which dates to the 1st Century AD, and hosts street vendors, restaurants, cafes, and a fountain of Neptune, as well as the Sant’Agnese in Agone Cathedral.
On the opposite side of eastern face of Piazza Navona is Pasticceria 5 Lune — my favorite pastry shop in Rome, which makes outstanding cannoli! If you need to wash it down with espresso, I recommend heading a block further east to Sant’ Eustachio – a famous, classic espresso bar, which makes the best Espresso I’ve had (and that’s coming from a coffee snob). Some say it’s the beans while others claim its the high quality of water in Rome — but whatever the reason, it’s great coffee! The prices increase if you get the sit-down patio service, so I usually prefer to stand by the machines and drink it there. (But the patio service is nice too : )
After getting re-charged with espresso, head east to the Pantheon, another world-famous monument. It’s a Roman temple commissioned by Marcus Agrippa (Emperor Augustus’ famous general) around 125 AD, which subsequently became a Catholic church. Further east is the Altar of the Fatherland, a massive marble monument honoring Italy’s soldiers. Heading north, don’t miss the famous Trevi Fountain, dating back to the mid 1700’s, with its exceptional marble statues.
Further north are the uniquely-designed Spanish Steps, which draws an insane number of tourists. The nearby Caffe Greco is an ornately-decorated (and expensive) coffee shop famous for being the hang-out for 18th century authors. Nearby here is the office of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM), which stands as a technically sovereign entity that performs aid and assistance work worldwide. It’s possible to go to their visitors center during certain times and learn more about their work. As with a visit to San Marino or the Vatican, stamp-collectors and country counters might also find this of interest. (Note- for the record, I have visited SMOM but I don’t include it in my country count : )
In the southern end of the city is the Circus Maximus, the ruins of the massive Roman arena / parade ground that held major events such as chariot races, triumphal celebrations, and other large assemblies. Also nearby is the famous Bocca della Verità (mouth of truth) sculpture, which was believed to bite the hand of anyone who told a lie with its hand in the mouth. (Bring some hand sanitizer, as lots of hands have been inside that mouth!) Further southeast are the Baths of Caracalla — an enormous Roman bathhouse complex that served as a popular social gathering place. The Romans loved a good bath!
Crossing the Tiber River, a top sight is the Castel Sant’Angelo, a well-preserved 2nd-century castle with a large collection of artwork and artifacts. It offers great views over the city, as well. Further south, the Trastevere neighborhood is a great spot for soaking up the feel of Rome and features some of the city’s best restaurants. I especially liked La Fraschetta— a cozy, traditional restaurant that makes wonderful home-made gnocchi on Thursdays. (Note– go early, as the gnocchi sells out quickly!) We also enjoyed Trattoria da Augusto — a simple restaurant with delicious, traditional dishes. I took Mom Yakpacker here for Mother’s Day and she enjoyed it! It doesn’t take reservations though, so it’s best to get here a bit before they open to avoid waiting in a longer queue later on.
Vatican — Of course, one of the most important parts of a visit to Rome is a trip to the Vatican — a tiny, Catholic city state led by the Pope. I don’t cover it here, however, as it will be addressed separately in my Vatican page.
Florence is the capital of the Tuscany region. It is a beautiful, world-class city packed with history, culture– and souvenir shops : ) Every time I’ve visited Florence, I’ve always arrived by train. It’s easy enough to follow the crowd from the central station to the city center, but I’ve always gotten turned around in the city center when later heading back to the train station. This has caused me to almost miss my onward train on more than one occasion! The lesson here is to budget plenty of time for this city and use Google Maps!
The quintessential sight of Florence is the Cathedral of Santa Maria, which dates back to the 1200s and features ornate stonework and a gorgeous interior. Connected to the cathedral complex is the ornately decorated Baptistry of St. John (with its beautiful mosaic ceiling) and the Giotto’s Bell Tower, which offers great views over the city.
From the city’s famous plaza, Piazza della Signoria, be sure to visit the ornately decorated Palazzo Vecchio, as well as the Bargello National Museum (featuring incredible sculptures). In this area, as well, is Dante’s birthplace. Another great spot for feeling the culture and energy of the city is the nearby Piazza della Repubblica.
Don’t miss the Accademia Gallery, which features outstanding renaissance-era sculptures, including the famous Michelangelo’s statue of David. I also enjoyed walking along the river in Florence and stopping by the famous Ponte Vecchio, a scenic Roman-era arched bridge lined with homes and– you guessed it– more souvenir shops.
Markets abound in Florence, and each has its own focus and feel. My favorite is the Mercato Centrale — a large, covered market with a fabulous food selection. It’s a great place for sampling the local fare, shopping for souvenirs, and eating! The Sant’Ambrogio Market offers a good selection of food, as well.
The Mercato del Porcellino offers plenty of leather products– as Florence is famous for its leather industry. I got a leather jacket from there and the vendor swore it was a “Gucci.” When I looked at the (non-Gucci) tag, he added, “well, maybe Gucci’s cousin.”
I’ve never explored the south side of the river, but I hope to get there on my next visit. In particular, I’d like to see the panoramic views of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo, and visit the Boboli Gardens.
Siena is an incredible city and one that should be on everyone’s Italy bucket list! Its medieval, stone-brick architecture is well preserved and most buildings are still operational — giving it an ancient, authentic feeling. At the center of town is the large plaza, Piazza del Campo, which is the site of the Palio horse race (held in July and August each year). I didn’t make it for the Palio, but I understand it’s a raucous, crowded event, in which spectators pack in the middle of the plaza and horses race wildly around the outside ring. (Read more about it here.) Even if you don’t go for the Palio, it’s worth visiting the castle-like gothic town hall– the Pubblico Palace — with its famous thin, tall tower, frescos, paintings, and museum.
Siena has no shortage of incredible cathedrals and basilicas, including the Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico (which apparently contains St. Catherine’s head), Basilica of San Francesco, which is located in a pleasant area away from the buzz of the city center, and the famous striped Duomo / Cathedral of Siena.
Other sights include palaces and well-appointed homes such as the Palazzo Chigi-Saracini, a torture museum, and a working 13th century fountain (Fontebranda). The Medicea Fortress is situated near a large public garden, with hiking trails, picnic grounds, and a small summertime carnival (where I decisively beat Yakpacker Senior in a high-stakes game of bumper cars).
While there are plenty of places to visit in Siena, avoid the trap of checking sights off your list. Be sure to take some time to just wander the streets and enjoy the picturesque medieval cobblestone streets, buildings, and viewpoints that emerge around every corner. Needless to say, the food is great pretty much everywhere, and this region is known for hearty fare, such as thick noodles and wild boar pasta — something I highly recommend getting while in town!
Ravenna is a beautiful, fairly compact city renowned for its Byzantine-era mosaics. At the top of the list is the Basilica di San Vitale, with the famous mosaic of Emperor Justinian and his attendants. Nearby is the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, a 5th Century cross-shaped church with more mosaics. The Baptistery of Neon is an octogonal structure also dating back to the 5th Century, with a spectacular Byzantine mosaic ceiling. Another great octagonal baptistry (they were clearly popular in this period) is the Battistero degli Ariani, built for the Ostrogothic leader Theodoric. If you haven’t had your fill of mosaics yet, you can see more at the Chiesa di Sant’Eufemia, Archiepiscopal Chapel of Saint Andrew, and the numerous museums scattered across town. It’s worth stopping by a tourist info booth and buying a Ravenna museum card to get an economies of scale discount.
I took a trip to the island of Elba with the Yakpacker parents a few years back and I highly recommend it as an off-the-beaten path destination in Italy. We took a train to Piombino and a short ferry to Portoferraio. On the island, we took taxis to get around, but it’s possible to take buses or rent a car if you’re planning on staying longer.
As this is island where Napoleon was first exiled in 1814, we prioritized a visit to the two residences (now museums) where he stayed while here. The San Martino Villa Napoleonica is located in a green, scenic spot in the middle of the island, surrounded by rolling hills. It is truly an impressive villa, with rooms dedicated to different periods of Napoleonic history, as well as artwork and artifacts from that era. The second residence — the Napoleonic Mills House — is in the northern part of Portoferraio and is more modest, but still impressive and worth a visit. The nearby Forte Falcone is the city’s main fort and offers good views over the water.
After we got our fill of history, we walked through the pleasant old town but didn’t have enough time to do it justice, as we had to catch the last ferry back to Piombino in time to get the last train back to Sienna — which we just barely did! Next time I get back there, I hope to visit the western part of the island, which boasts rugged nature, hiking trails, a mountain cable car, and pleasant mini-island beaches.
I flew into Pisa and took a short taxi from the airport to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which dates back to the 14th Century, and has an impressive adjacent cathedral. If you aren’t able to climb to the top of the famed leaning tower, at least be sure to take the classic photo of yourself holding it up! The central plaza, Piazza dei Cavalieri is another focal point of town, with several museums and palaces along the Arno River. The lemonade here is delicious — especially in the hot summer sun!
I expected Rimini to be a sleepy seaside town, but it exceeded my expectations and turned out to be a wonderful vacation getaway. It has a huge number of hotels, so you won’t have trouble finding a place to stay! We stayed at the Hotel Plaza, which was clean, with a good breakfast and near the beach.
Entering the old city, you’ll pass under the Arch of Augustus — the oldest triumphal arch in Italy, dating back to 27 BC. Roman Amphitheater, a 15th Century castle (Sismondo), and archeological ruins.
Needless to say, great seafood is everywhere. The road along the beach is a buzz of activity in the evenings, with plenty of open-air restaurants and a fun, relaxed atmosphere. We ate at Zodiaco and really enjoyed it. One word of caution — go easy on the carafes of (very strong) limoncello and Unicum that they provide as a digestif after dinner!
Rimini also is a staging ground for travel to the tiny nation of San Marino (also covered in a separate page). We took a bus from the city center of Rimini up to San Marino, which was crowded, but scenic!
Arriving in Naples on the high speed train from Florence, it is immediately clear you’re in a very different city. The free-wheeling and chaotic traffic, noise, and frenetic buzz of the city is in stark contrast from the more relaxed pace in the north. So long as you know what to expect, it’s a great city and a lot of fun!
We only used Naples as a staging ground to get to Pompeii and the Almafi Coast, so I can’t really do this city justice– particularly as I have many friends who consider Naples their favorite Italian city. So– while it’s on my list of places to return to in Italy, I will flag a few places we enjoyed while passing through town.
As the place where the modern version of pizza originated, we had to try out the famous Pizzeria Sorbillo, one of the most famous spots in Naples, serving up thin-crust brick oven pizza. Other spots in the area include the gothic-styled Cloister of Santa Chiara and the adjacent monastery. The waterfront features castle Nuovo and Palace of the Immacolatella– both impressive structures.
I’ve heard the Naples Underground tour is also worth a visit, as it provides a glimpse into the ancient subterranean labyrinth below Naples, but I didn’t have the chance to visit myself.
From the Naples Central Train Station, we took a 45-minute commuter train to Pompeii, the city that was buried in the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. The ruins at the archeological site are very impressive — both in terms of how well preserved they are, but also in how expansive they are. It includes Roman dwellings, travel lodges, a brothel, amphitheater, temple, and a museum with specific items and excavated remains of Romans. If you’re even mildly into history, budget at least a day for this site — it’s incredible! If you have more time, it’s possible to hike to the top of Mount Vesuvius (alone or with a tour group).
Note— I’d been warned about crime in Naples, and took basic precautions: ie., keep an eye on your belongings, watch for pick-pockets, and don’t wander in unknown neighborhoods late night. On the train to Pompeii, a scruffy-looking guy hopped on the train and was side-eyeing our belongings. When I moved them to a more secure location and made eye contact with him, he moved down the aisle. Minutes later, he attempted to snatch a purse (or sunglasses) from a lady before jumping off the train as the doors closed.
The Amalfi Coast is another highlight of Italy, famous for its quaint towns, winding cliffs lined with rows of colorful houses, as well as the clear blue water, and massive lemons! Mrs. Yakpacker and I went here in 2016 and it has been a highlight of our Italy travels ever since!
Sorrento: We took a train to the town of Sorrento, which is a pleasant introduction to the region and a great base for visits further afield. It’s possible to get a boat to the island of Capri from here, including a visit to the Blue Grotto (a sea cave that reflects sunlight to amplify the blue water). The old city has plenty of shopping options and blends the modern shops with ancient ruins and parks with waterfront views. We ate at Pizzeria da Franco, which had a cozy atmosphere, plenty of dried hams (prosciutto) hanging from the ceiling, and delicious brick oven pizza. We stayed at B&B Giacomino, which I highly recommend for its spacious, clean rooms, central location, good breakfast, friendly service, and very reasonable prices.
Positano: This is perhaps the most picturesque city on the Amalfi Coast — or at least its the one you see in most of the advertisements for the region. It does not disappoint! We took a bus here from Sorrento as its very hard to find parking, and it can be challenging to wind your way through the narrow city streets on anything wider than a moped. We stayed at B&B Villa Maria Antonietta, which was a great combination of price and quality. We especially enjoyed the beautiful views over the city from the terrace while eating breakfast. The city is filled with windy streets, shops, cafes, and awesome seafood restaurants – all boasting spectacular views (especially at sunset) and great food. We stopped by the Church of Saint Mary, which has a Byzantine-era icon. Positano also has a pleasant beach at the base of the city, which is where everyone congregates sooner or later!
Amalfi: We also visited the town of Amalfi, which is the namesake of the coast. I really enjoyed the massive Duomo (cathedral), which dates back to the 13th Century, as well as the nearby Cloister del Paradiso, which has a Moorish design and well-appointed museum. Walking through the center of town, away from the coast, it’s worth stopping by the La Fontana De Cape E Ciucci, an outdoor nativity scene / fountain with miniature figurines– one of many in Italy — and quite interesting!