You'll never forget the moment you first set foot in Pompeii. This once-thriving Roman city was laid to ruin when volcanic Mt Vesuvius decided to blow its top back in 79 CE, burying streets and homes in a stream of molten lava, ash and rock. Now this time capsule of an archaeological site is both compelling and haunting, winging you back almost 2000 years. Cobbled lanes riven with chariot tracks lead to bathhouses, frescoed villas, marketplaces, amphitheaters where gladiators did battle, and even a brothel (look for the graffiti of workers and their clients etched on the walls).
Naturally, most travelers want to see Pompeii, which receives a whopping 2.5 million visitors a year. If you want to sidestep those crowds and get more insight into the ruins, consider joining a guided tour that lets you jump the lines and sneak into the site in before or after most visitors arrive. Things also quieten down a lot in the low season (November through March).
See Pompei on this 7-day Adventures in Southern Italy itinerary.
Cinque Terre on the Ligurian coastline is a one-off. Here, houses in candy-bright colors cling on tightly to cliffs that plunge abruptly to a sea of brilliant blue. It's one of the most photogenic places in the whole of Italy. Five fishing villages (Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore) are perched along the coast.
You can’t really appreciate Cinque Terre from behind the wheel of a car. To get a true sense of the area, you’ll need to take a hike up and over the cliffs and through the terraced, stone-walled vineyards of this UNESCO World Heritage site. Among our favorites are the 7.5-mile village-to-village Sentierro Azzurro (Blue Trail), and the more challenging 24-mile Sentiero Rosso from Porto Venere to Levanto. The Cinque Terre Card covers trail entry and local transport.
Guided and self-guided walking holidays are a great way to slip under the skin of this area. Try going in the off-season—see this fun article about walking between all five villages in a single February day. For more, see our eight-day trip including Rome, Florence, and Cinque Terre.
Canals of Venice
Venice is way up there on every Italy wish list, and this canal-woven city of crumbling pastel-colored palazzi, Renaissance art, masked carnival parades and singing gondoliers is romantic Italy in a nutshell. That said, the city is fit to burst in summer (June to September), so you might want to consider coming in the shoulder seasons for a little more peace.
Venice becomes infinitely more enjoyable when you stop trying to relentlessly tick-off the blockbuster sights—we’re talking the Bridge of Sighs, the Grand Canal and St Mark’s Square. The key to getting the best out of the city is to allow time to get lost in less-explored neighborhoods, such as Cannaregio and its Jewish Ghetto. Or boat it over to more peaceful islands like Murano (famous for its glass artistry), Burano, with its brightly colored houses and lacemaking traditions, and medieval Torcello with its Venetian-Byzantine cathedral.
Sistine Chapel, Rome
Rome’s extravagantly frescoed, overwhelmingly ornate Sistine Chapel is the crowing glory of the Vatican. You might well gasp out loud when you first see the 800-sq-meter ceiling fresco painted by Michelangelo. A tour de force of his artistic genius, it took him four years to complete (from 1508 to 1512), with nine vividly depicted scenes from the Book of Genesis. These include the creation of Adam and Eve, the Sacrifice of Noah, and the Great Flood.
Other showstoppers include Michelangelo’s Il Giudizio Universale (The Last Judgement), whose writhing nudes caused a scandal when the fresco was completed in 1541 (some subsequently had their modesty ‘covered up’).
To dodge the Vatican crowds, be sure to book your visit in advance; tour operators can arrange reserved entry, giving you plenty of time to admire Michelangelo's masterpiece. For more on the Sistine Chapel, check out our five-day tour of Rome. See more tips in Getting Off the Beaten Path in Rome.
Leaning Tower of Pisa
Vertically challenged towers don’t get more iconic than this one-of-a-kind landmark in the Tuscan town of Pisa. Go on a busy summer day and you might well be cursing the selfie-sticks and crowds of people trying to prop up the Leaning Tower in their photos. But the tower—and indeed Pisa—merit more than just a quick snapshot.
Once a maritime superpower, there is much more to Pisa than the architectural ensemble of the Unesco-listed Piazza dei Miracoli, home to the much-visited tower, the baptistery and cathedral. Go for a wander in the less touristy backstreets and along the banks of the Arno River to see a quieter, more likable side to this medieval city.
And if you’re going to see the off-kilter tower, which took 200 years to (wrongly) build and was completed in 1372, be sure to book ahead or arrange a guided tour. Things quieten down later in the day, and between mid-June and August you can visit after dark.
See our five-day trip for more on Pisa and Tuscany travel ideas.
Few can resist the siren call of Amalfi, a swoon-worthy 31-mile stretch of dramatic coastline fringing Italy’s Sorrentine Peninsula in the Campania region. If the craggy peaks, sapphire-blue sea and cliffside villages in a fresco painter’s palette of pastels look like a film set, it’s no coincidence: many movies have been filmed here. Among them is the 2003 romantic comedy Under The Tuscan Sun, where chic Positano plays a starring role.
The Amalfi is beloved of jet-setters and honeymooners, who come to yacht over to islands like Capri, roam romantic villa gardens in Ravello, hang out on the sunny piazzas of Amalfi, and simply kick back and enjoy the endless views of sea and sky.
In summer, it is crowded and extortionately expensive, so you might want to visit in late spring or fall instead. Both are great seasons to come for hiking, for instance on the 7.5-mile Sentiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods), the steep trail between Positano and the low-key fishing village of Praiano. A guided walking holiday gives even greater insight into the area. Or see our five-day tour exploring Naples and Amalfi.
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
The artistic brilliance you'll find in Florence's magnificent Palazzo degli Uffizi is quite overwhelming. The collection was bequeathed to Florence by the prominent Medici family in 1743 on the condition that it never leave the city.
This is hands-down one of Italy’s foremost art galleries, taking you on a chronological romp from ancient Greek sculpture to Roman art, 13th-century Sienese altarpieces by Giotto, and Venetian masterpieces by Titian. Most of all, the Uffizi is justly celebrated for being the country’s best repository of Renaissance art, with a roll call of greats including Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and a Botticelli, to whom an entire room is devoted.
Snaking lines in summer are to be expected, so make sure you book your tickets and time slot in advance to cut down waiting time. The best option is to hook onto a private tour, such as the one included in our nine-day trip to Tuscany.