One of the top travel destinations in Europe, many are the experiences you can’t leave Italy without. Never lacking in tourist crowds, even those (like me) who prefer off-the-beaten-track places need to admit that this popularity must mean something. Lucky for me, though, I live in Italy, so a) I understand what’s all the fuss about, b) I have easier access to lesser-known towns and neighbourhoods that enshrine much of the hidden gems and local traditions.
Top experiences you can’t leave Italy without
Enjoy the Italian countryside
Florence, Rome, Venice. All beautiful cities steeped in history. The best experiences you can’t leave Italy without, however, don’t involve only urban moments. Pamper yourself with beautiful luxury houses in Italy and enjoy some quality relax far from the hustle of the big city and more in touch with the local traditions.
The most famous region for countryside vacations in Italy has been Tuscany for years, and if you’ve been, you’ll know why. Soft rolling hills covered with greenery and dotted with historical mansions and vineyards never fail to enchant its visitors. For as beautiful as it the Tuscan countryside, though, it’s not the only place you should consider for your Italian holiday. Regions like Umbria, the Amalfi Coast in Campania, Sicily, Sardinia, and Puglia are perfect to let you immerse in the Italian lifestyle.
Explore Ancient Rome
Not only the Colosseum but also the Roman Forum, the Domitian Stadium, Caracalla’s Baths all concoct to give you the best ancient Roman experience you can have in Italy. See where gladiators fought their battles, where kings, emperors, and senators gave their sales pitch, where aristocratic and ordinary citizens went to enjoy their Spa and wellness time, all places within easy reach from each other.
From Rome, you can also take some day trips and get to Ostia Antica, beautifully preserved ancient Roman town, or Veio, the last Latin city to resist Rome’s conquest, today a huge green park where you can still see Roman vestiges.
More visible or a little hidden, there are many places in Rome where you can still sense and experience the city’s glorious past. Wear comfortable shoes and resume the historian in you to unearth Ancient Rome.
READ MORE: Find out where to eat in Rome with our comprehensive list of 50+ Rome restaurants.
Climb Giotto’s bell tower
One of Florence highlights, climbing Giotto’s bell tower is not for those who suffer from dizziness. A magnificent work of art 85 meters tall initiated by Tuscan artist Giotto di Bondone in 1334, the wonderful bell tower stands out in the crowd of masterpieces that populate Piazza del Duomo.
Climbing Giotto’s bell tower will give you an unprecedented view of the cathedral and its dome, alongside the stretch of Florence rooftops. The experience, however, can be considered complete if you climb also the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral from where you can have a great view of the bell tower itself.
The complex of Santa Maria del Fiore and the artistic heritage of Florence are one of the highlights you can’t miss on your holiday in Italy.
–>> For a tour around Florence main attractions including the Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery, Ponte Vecchio and Michelangelo’s David, book the Florence in a Day Tour.
Click here for more information and current prices.
See the Venice Carnival
Far from being just a festive celebration, Venice Carnival is tightly intertwined with the city’s history and culture. Of very ancient origins, this Carnival was introduced by the Venetian rulers (the Doge) to allow the citizens belonging to the lower layers of the society to blend in with the higher class and even make fun of them. All this was possible thanks to the mask people could wear and hide behind.
Many are the events and celebrations during the days of the Carnival, but what you shouldn’t miss are the parade of the historical costumes in Piazza San Marco, the “Volo dell’Angelo” (Angel’s Flight), otherwise known as “Volo della Colombina” (Dove’s Flight), introduced in modern times, and obviously the countless, beautiful masks that swan around Venice lagoon and love to adopt the most mischievous and charming poses for the many cameras. If you are a photographer or like to travel with your camera, this is the kind of experience you want to have in Italy.
READ MORE: Check out my post on the Venice Carnival for more pictures.
If you are not going during Carnival time, don’t worry, Venice is magical all year round. Enjoy a gondola and walking tour of the main attractions including St. Mark’s Basilica, Rialto Bridge and Marco Polo’s house with Walks of Italy’s Welcome to Venice Tour or visit the most legendary spots in the city with a tour around Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs.
Click here for more info and prices for the Welcome to Venice and Gondola Tour and here for the Legendary Venice Tour.
READ MORE: Planning a trip to Italy? Check out our guide to the perfect Italy itinerary for first-timers.
Visit the world’s smallest country
That’s right, the heart of Rome enshrines the world’s smallest country, nonetheless. We are talking about the Vatican City. It might even be the world’s smallest nation, but it sure has plenty of artwork, huge museums, timeless masterpieces and a long, fascinating history you can delve into once you step over its threshold.
The Vatican City is the seat of the Holy See and, like every sovereign country, has its own Constitution, Chief of State (the Pope), passport, currency, police, etc.
If you are traveling to Rome for the first time, a visit to Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums is highly recommended, even though the Vatican has much more to show.
»»» If you are planning on visiting the Vatican City, check out our detailed guide.
Attend the Mamuthones ancient ritual in Sardinia
This is really ancient and one of the best things to do in Sardinia. We are talking about 2000 years. In fact, while today it’s celebrated in conjunction with the carnival, this is an ancient ritual thousands of years ago the people in Sardinia used to perform at the end of the winter to bode well for a good harvest. The ritual consists of the so-called Mamuthones, black wooden masks (the uglier, the better) wearing sheepskin and some 40 kg of copper bells that perform a propitiatory rhythmic dance the first time in January around the fires lit up for Saint Anthony’s festival and then in February during the Carnival.
With the takeover of the Christian religion in Italy, the new “rulers” of our faith couldn’t ban all former celebrations like this old pagan ritual, so they kept allowing them by giving them a more trivial meaning (the carnival) and assigning them right before Lent, the 40-day repentance period before Easter.
The Mamuthones come out the first of the year on January 17th for the festival devoted to Saint Anthony Abate, when they dance around the fire all afternoon through the evening, and for Carnival, both Sunday and Tuesday (Mardi Gras), when they parade all around the streets of their village, Mamoiada, in Nuoro’s province.
READ MORE: Planning a Sardinia holiday? Check out our detailed Sardinia guide.
Get to small towns
Similar to your countryside Italy vacations I mentioned above, I also suggest to get to know smaller towns and to not limit your trip to big cities. I’m aware that when you don’t have much time you have to prioritize, and traveling to Italy without visiting Rome is next to unthinkable. Smaller towns and villages, however, retain their own charm and much of Italian traditions and local cultures that are hard to grasp in the fast-paced life of big cities.
Some of these getaways can be day trips from your main destination, such as a day trip from Rome to Viterbo or a day trip from Florence to Siena to stroll the medieval alleys of these cities’ central neighborhoods, or small villages where people still live by old traditions, life is not so fast and traffic is hardly a problem.
Eat pizza in Naples
If you think you had pizza, wait until you try it in Naples. Birthplace of the famous dish, Naples is where you can have the original product, strictly cooked in a wood-fired oven. Created in 1889 by chef Raffaele Esposito in honor of Italy’s Queen Margherita di Savoia, the first pizza was named “Margherita” and had the colors of the Italian flag: red, white and green, translating, food-wise, into tomato, mozzarella cheese, and basil.
Still today, some of the most famous pizza places in Naples, such as “Da Michele” (via Cesare Sersale 1, in case you want to try), only make this and one other pizza, the “Marinara”, with tomato, garlic, and oregano, no mozzarella involved.
With an always bigger choice of flavors, from “4 Formaggi” (4 cheese) to “Capricciosa” (with ham, mushrooms, olives, and artichokes), you will be spoilt for choice.
Hiking the Cinque Terre
Enlisted by UNESCO in 1997, Cinque Terre is a cluster of villages set along Liguria’s coast on the border between Italy and France. I direct-quote the reason why UNESCO enlisted the Cinque Terre alongside Portovenere and the nearby islands: “The layout and disposition of the small towns and the shaping of the surrounding landscape, overcoming the disadvantages of a steep, uneven terrain, encapsulate the continuous history of human settlement in this region over the past millennium.”
While these settlements have been repeatedly under public scrutiny due to the fragility of the terrain they have been laid out, the landscape they create on their ragged coast is stunning. Not only are they perfect photography subjects, but they also make for fantastic hiking trails steeped in history and surrounded by greenery. Hiking along this scenic UNESCO coastline is absolutely one of the top experiences you shouldn’t miss on your trip to Italy.
READ MORE: If you are thinking about visiting the Italian Riviera, here is our guide on what to do and see in the Cinque Terre.
Eat cheese with worms in Sardinia
Honestly, this is not one of those “must-have” experiences you can’t leave Italy without, but if you are truly into delving deep into the local habits and blend in with locals, then in Sardinia you can show how brave you are and enjoy some cheese with worms.
In Sardinia, we call it “casu marzu” o “casu fattizzu“, depending on the area, and it features a handful of jumping white worms developed by the cheese fly Phiophila Casei and its army of other flies that drop their eggs on the cheese.
The casu marzu has been declared illegal and rehabilitated repeatedly over the years (I believe at the moment it’s illegal), and has also beat the record of the world’s most dangerous cheese. The truth is, however, that so far no sickness or disease has been directly linked to this cheese. One more true fact is that Sardinia has one of the highest percentages of longevity cases in the world, even though consuming casu marzu.
I’m Sardinian myself and I’ve never wanted to try it, I did once because I was tricked into it as I thought it was an innocent spreadable cheese. It has a very strong flavor, you won’t find it for sale in shops but I’m sure it’s still made privately. While you need to be quite brave to try this cheese, immersive in local traditions is one of the top experiences you can’t leave Italy without.
Explore Italy’s Greek past in Sicily
Strolling Agrigento’s Valle dei Templi and marvel at the majesty of our Greek past is definitely one of the experiences you can’t leave Italy without.
Very close to the city of Agrigento, Sicily, the Valley of the Temples is the UNESCO-listed archaeological park that was once a land devoted to worship, prayers and rituals when the city was the 6th-Century-BC Greek Akragas.
Today we can visit the huge park and, through its well-preserved vestiges, immerse in the Italian Greek past and rich civilization, an experience that will inevitably add to the charm of your holiday in Italy.
Hear stones sing in San Sperate, Sardinia
Didn’t you know stones can sing? In the small town of San Sperate, southern Sardinia, they also bleed. This is the legacy of artist and sculptor Pino Sciola. He used to say that stones are the spine of our planet, they’ve always been here and will always be. His particular way of cutting the stones and then rubbing them with other stones makes them produce a sound that varies depending on the stone.
Sciola’s beautiful creations can be seen in many places, sometimes at airports, like Rome’s Fiumicino, but most of all in his open-air museum in his town San Sperate. Pino Sciola died last year, May 2016, but his legacy lives on and his museum welcomes visitors every day. I have interviewed him and that was one fascinating day I spent around his sounding stones. Here is a little video I made while he was “playing” his stones.
Attend Easter Friday’s Via Crucis in Rome
Whether you are religious or not, the Easter Friday Via Crucis in Rome is the most important and scenic Easter event in Italy. The religious in you will know that this particular celebration symbolizes the route Jesus Christ walked towards his crucifixion, the procession known as Passion or Calvary.
In Rome, this is celebrated by the Pope and takes place from the Colosseum to the Temple of Venus in the Roman Forum, the biggest temple of Ancient Rome.
Organized in every detail, pilgrims will both attend the religious celebrations and enjoy a magical atmosphere with a background of the ancient Roman vestiges on the Palatine Hill. Usually, the Pope personally carries the Cross along each station of the Cross or chairs the procession from a stage on the Palatine while others carry it. The event is broadcast worldwide and each station is translated into seven languages.
Get dirty at the Battle of the Oranges at Ivrea
So Italians know a thing or two about food. So much that they also use it when fighting. If you happen in northern Italy during Carnival, you might want to get dirty at the Battle of the Oranges in the town of Ivrea. Not before making sure you are covering your face with a medieval armor.
Tradition wants that this battle stems from the popular fury against a tyrant who tried to assault a young girl and the latter, instead of succumbing, killed him, seemingly by beheading him. This resulted in a popular uprising against the tyrant, today reproduced by teams on foot representing the population throwing oranges against the teams riding a cart representing the tyrant and his squads.
Get dusty at the reckless Ardia of Sedilo
Arguably one of the most reckless horse races you will witness in Italy, S’Ardia takes place every year on July 6th and 7th in Sedilo, a small village in central Sardinia, Oristano province. A seemingly tranquil hamlet with a beautiful view of the artificial Omodeo Lake, Sedilo becomes a big party venue with music, carousel for kids, and market stalls all over the town streets all the way to the sanctuary where the race takes place.
The race recalls the battle between Constantine the Great and Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge that took place between the 27th and the 28th of October 312 AD. The first three horse riders are the Emperor and his generals and the following three their guards carrying a wooden stick to chase away the rest of the riders who embody the enemies.
»»» Check out our post if you want to see a video of the race.
Attend a “sagra” food festival
Italy is famous for its food, and for many good reasons that often involve truffles, ravioli dumplings, asparagus, fresh handmade pasta, and all the regional delicacies that make Italian cuisine so delicious and diverse.
As different regions boast different specialties, it goes without saying that different regions, cities, and provinces will organize different “sagre” focused on different products. So in Tonara, Sardinia, you will the Sagra del Torrone (festival of the traditional nougat), in Cisternino, Puglia region, we will have the Sagra delle Orecchiette (it’s a typical local fresh pasta), sagra and festival of the artichoke (carciofo in Italian) in the Lazio region, Ladispoli and Cerveteri, close to Rome, and countless more.
Try to attend at least one to see how it takes place and enjoy lots of free sampling and tasting. Here it’s also the best place to buy regional specialties directly from the local producer.
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