“Italy is still very much the same place it was 2,000 years ago. Italians are still the same … there’s a sense of beauty and a sense of dignity and a sense of living life to the full that infects everyone.”
~Bruno Heller, English screenwriter
There are few places on earth that are as steeped in culture as the ancient nation of Italy. For history enthusiasts, Italy is widely regarded as the birthplace of Western civilization. Throughout the country, visitors can thrill to art, opera, and architecture that can only be palely imitated elsewhere. The roots of democracy and parliamentary law can be traced here. It is no wonder that over 1000 years ago, it was already being said that “all roads to Rome”.
At the same time, those more concerned with carnal pursuits also feel a special affinity with Italy. Pristine beaches, idyllic hillside villages, magnificent mountains—all of Nature’s Glory is abundantly represented. By any opinion, the country has the finest cuisine in the world, and is second only to France in total wine production. The country is the very quintessence of romance, a symphony for the senses. Italy really is for lovers.
With so much to see and do and experience, it is quite clear why Italy has long been one of the most popular tourist destinations on earth. Each year, over 46 million international travelers arrive in Italy to experience firsthand la dolce vita. Most of those visitors travel to Rome or Milan, Italy’s two largest cities.
Unfortunately, that popularity comes with a price. Many of the top sites and points of interest draw maddening crowds. This traveler overpopulation can be very frustrating, and can significantly detract from the enjoyment that would normally be felt. For example, the Sistine Chapel is an incredible masterpiece by the Renaissance artist Michelangelo. However, this is what it is like to try to experience this wonder for yourself:
Obviously, this wasn’t how these tourists had pictured this stop on their trip– hours of interminable waiting just to get in, only for a rushed, cramped, and highly impersonal disappointment. In fact, experiences like this are the very antithesis of what a vacation is supposed to be.
This is not to say that the most well-known and popular places need to be avoided altogether. But what it does mean is that sometimes alternatives are preferable. When time is at a premium and more intimate and leisurely experiences are desired, intrepid travelers seek out those magical little destinations that are largely ignored by the teeming multitudes. This is also a great traveling strategy for return visitors who want to savor different local flavors than those offered to first-timers.
Tourism in Italy always begins with Rome. Rome is the third-most visited city in Europe, trailing only London and Paris. From fascinating museums, to ancient archaeological points of interest, to iconic architecture, to revered religious sites, there is something for every interest.
For those who are interested in history or classical architecture, the Colosseum and the Pantheon are popular attractions. For many visitors, posing for the obligatory picture while standing in front of the ruins is part and parcel of any trip to Rome. But if you’ve already taken that tour, or if you don’t want to fight the crowds on a particular day, what is an entertaining viable alternative?
Go here: Ostia Antica
Located a mere 30 kilometers (19 miles) west of Rome, is a vast archaeological site with well-preserved ruins dating from the third century BC. The founding of the town can possibly be traced back to the seventh century BC, according to inscriptions that credit the legendary Ancus Marcius, the fourth king of Rome. If true, that would make Ostia Antica the oldest Roman colony.
Visitors can easily spend an entire day getting an excellent feel for what life was like for the inhabitants of Rome’s original commercial harbor. For example, the various offices of merchants and trade guild members from around the Empire were identifiable by their mosaic tile floors, as can be seen in the Piazza of the Corporation. Still standing are the famous ancient apartments that housed the city’s dockworkers.
Fun fact: In the movie Gladiator, the armies of General Maximus camp at Ostia and await his orders.
As mentioned above, the Sistine Chapel is the most popular religious church attraction in the Eternal City. Luckily though, Rome is abundantly overflowing with ornate churches with incredible architecture befitting their historical significance.
Many churches have art collections featuring work by Italian masters such as Raphael, Michelangelo, or Caravaggio. What most people do not realize, however, is that these works are not typically near the altars of these main churches, and are instead usually kept in smaller side chapels. With a little due diligence and often a lot of footwork, aficionados of religious art and architecture can experience some amazing finds.
Go here: The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
Translated into English as the Basilica of St. Mary Major, the present church was built under the auspices of Pope Sixtus III, during his papacy, 432-440. To this day, the church still possesses much of its original structure at its core. It is the largest church in Rome dedicated to honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary, and indeed, it is one of the first Christian churches built for this purpose.
The mosaics found in the church are more than just beautiful works of religious art, they are also historically important. Dating from the fifth century, the tale told by these mosaics uses images from both the Old and New Testaments serves to highlight the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Scriptures.
Among the many, many highlights is the crystal Reliquary of the Holy Crib, which is supposed to contain actual word from the nativity crib of Jesus Christ.
Fun fact: in 2013, Pope Francis began his papacy with a visit to this Basilica.
Milan is the second largest city in Italy, and is the economic center of the country. A full one-fifth of the country’s Gross Domestic Product is generated in this region. In addition, Milan is one of the fashion capitals of the world, with internationally-recognized brands such as Valentino, Versace, and Armani all headquartered here.
Approximately six million visitors a year come to Milan for business or leisure purposes. Popular attractions include the Milan Cathedral, the fifth-largest cathedral in the world, and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the world’s oldest shopping malls and home to luxury retailers. Many travelers opt for a jaunt to the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, to see personally Leonardo da Vinci’s the Last Supper.
Whatever the reason for traveling to Milan, it is well worth a visitor’s time to get out and about to see not only the most popular tourist attractions, but some of the lesser-known sites a bit off the beaten path.
Go here: The Cimitero Monumentale
At first, the choice of visiting a cemetery on a tourist excursion may not seem like an obvious one, but the “Monumental Cemetery”, originally established in 1866 definitely should not be missed. Occupying a quarter of a million square meters, the cemetery is well-known for an abundance of tombs also serving as works of art.
Fun fact: Unlike many Italian Catholic cemeteries, the Cimitero Monumentale has accommodated individuals who do not share the Catholic faith, and even has a complete Jewish section.
In every nation, clothing cognoscenti recognize Milan as one of, and possibly the, fashion capital of the world. The hottest haute couture can be found on the runways of any of the city’s constant fashion shows, and in the high-end boutique stores that line the streets.
First-time visitors and return guests alike all head to the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II Shopping Mall. This four-story, double-arcade mall specializes in premium goods, clothing, and jewelry, and its name is synonymous with luxury and elegance.
As expected, shopping in Milan is not cheap, and in fact can be prodigiously expensive. Without a sound strategy, visiting consumers should be prepared to surrender their wallets to a city that has made shopping a local art form.
Do this: Book a Fashion Tour
There are several companies in Milan that host shopping tours of the city, taking passengers to the best outlet shops, retail streets, and sales events that are currently happening. This is very advantageous or savvy shoppers in search of the bargain, because they are taken to stores that they may have never visited on their own. The organizers of the tours keep track of ongoing and upcoming sales and events and adjust the itinerary accordingly. For this reason, most companies only offer the tours once a week. Therefore, hopeful attendees are advised to purchase their tickets well in advance.
Fun fact: Often, the clothes worn by models go directly to outlet stores after the fashion shows. Diligent shoppers are able to purchase these items for a fraction of what they would normally pay.
Best of the Rest
Go here: Bologna
Food lovers of the world, rejoice! In a recent CNN poll, Italy as a whole was deemed to be the country that offered the best cuisine in the entire world. Ask almost any Italian you meet on the street what city in Italy is the most famous for its food, and the answer that you will hear again and again is the city of Bologna. What else could you expect from a city that is nicknamed “la grassa”–“the fat”?
Although the city has lent its name to the classic pasta sauce, ragu alla Bolognese, the true local specialties have to be the cured pork meats – prosciutto, salami, and mortadella.
A fascinating local legend credits an unnamed Bolognese innkeeper as the inventor of tortellini. According to the tale, the gods Venus and Jupiter were weary and stopped for the night. Captivated by Venus’s beauty, the innkeeper attempted to spy on her through the keyhole of the door to her room, but the only thing he could see was her navel. That was enough. Inspired by the sight, he created the shape of the tortellini pasta in honor of Venus’s navel.
While you’re in town, make sure to stop by the University of Bologna. Founded in 1088, this institution is recognized as the oldest university in the world. This is only fitting, because the city itself was home to civilization as early as 1000 BC.
Do this: An absolute “must do” when in Bologna is a trip to any of the local food markets. There for display, perusal, and purchase is a vast array of fresh local produce, hand-produced artisan breads, and an incredible variety of meats and cheeses. The best time to go is between April and June, because during the hot summer months of July and August, many local markets shut down for vacation.
Go here: Lake Braies
With all the focus on the achievements and accomplishments of human civilization in Italy – the art, architecture, churches, cuisine history, et cetera – it is easy for some to lose sight of the fact that Italy is one of the most singularly beautiful countries on the planet. For nature lovers and outdoor sports enthusiasts, Italy provides some of the most awe-inspiring natural wonders that could ever be hoped for.
The Dolomites, part of the Alps mountain range in northeastern Italy, have long been a favorite destination for outdoor sports and activities. Winter means spectacular skiing, and summer is for hiking, mountain climbing, bicycle racing, and even more extreme sports such as base jumping and paragliding.
What many people do not realize is that interspersed here and there amongst the Dolomites are a number of high mountainous lakes of such clarity and serenity as to invoke contemplations of the Infinite.
Lake Braies, located in southern Tyrol, is just such a place. Known as the Pearl of the Dolomite Lakes, this is a quiet slice of Heaven that is simply perfect for boating, picnicking, and recharging the batteries of a weary soul.
Fun fact: The circuit around the lake is perfect for novice hikers, with an easy elevation and a short duration of only ninety minutes.
Go here: Cala Goloritze
Because it is a nation completely surrounded by water, it should come as no surprise that Italy has some of the most beautiful beaches in all of Europe, and even the entire world. The popularity enjoyed by that beauty is not without a price, however. For many beachgoers, their seaside trek can be spoiled by overcrowding, especially by other tourists. For others, disappointment is a result of over commercialization – where bars, restaurants, and cafés stray too close to the water and encroach upon the natural beauty.
That does not seem to be the case at Cala Goloritze, located on the northeastern coast of Sardinia. With incredible blue-green crystal water, stunning natural rock formations, and brilliant white pebbled beaches, it is easy to see why this little slice of heaven has been designated as a National Heritage Site. The remote nature of the beach helps ensure that Paradise does not become corrupted.
The beach is absolutely not reachable by car. Most visitors reached the beach by chartered boat, but it must be noted that motorboats are not allowed within 300 yards of the shore. Reaching the beach on foot can be a bit tricky, but it is easily achievable by reasonably fit individuals. The walk/climb in and takes a little over an hour on foot, and a bit longer on the return, but it is well worth the time and effort.
Fun fact: Towering “only” 143 meters into the air, is Aguglia di Goloritze, an imposing natural limestone tower that offers an irresistible challenge to free climbers. The pinnacle is a relatively new conquest, first reached in the 1980’s. Amazingly, the first ascent took place during a windstorm. The successful route was thereby christened “The Symphony of the Windmills”.
These “hidden gems” barely scratch the surface of all that Italy has to offer. As with any beloved destination, dedicated travelers are encouraged to boldly go where they have never gone before and seek out their own new experiences. Until that time, the suggestions offered herein can serve as excellent starting points from which to begin exploring the roads less traveled.