11 Best Things to Do in Italy
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11 Best Things to Do in Italy

For many travel enthusiasts, visiting Italy is a lifelong dream. There is nothing more alluring than experiencing Renaissance art in person, wandering the streets of Rome and discovering the hidden treasures of the Eternal City.

For our Italy Country Director, Nicholas Pompa, each trip to Italy strengthens his connection to his Italian heritage.

“My great-grandfather came to the United States from Bari, Italy, in the late 1800s, and I grew up in a family with strong Italian roots. As I started to spend more and more time in Italy as I grew up, I realized that our family dinners and traditions were only one tiny piece of the amazing diversity and variety that truly makes Italy such a unique place.”

When you land in Italy, start by taking in the coastal scenery. As you mentally go over your Italy bucket list, get ready to form your own personal connection with everything Italian. Here is a deep dive into the 11 best things to do in Italy.

Venice

Find Out the 11 Best Things to Do in Italy

  1. Stay in Historic Italian Buildings
  2. Check Out an Ancient Amphitheater
  3. Hang out in a Piazza
  4. Take a Gondola Ride
  5. Learn about Art
  6. Peruse Works by Local Artisans
  7. Make Pasta & Enjoy Italian Cuisine
  8. Explore Italian Lakes and the Amalfi Coast
  9. Go Hiking
  10. Speak Some Italian
  11. Take a Day Trip to Vatican City

1. Stay in Historic Italian buildings

Rustic Pathways students stay in a renovated castle in northern Italy.

While you’re in Italy, staying in a chain hotel seems downright boring. There are a number of historical sites and centuries-old accommodations in the country that have been renovated to add modern comforts. Try staying in a castle, a historic B&B or a Albergo Diffuso, also known as a “scattered hotel.”

Albergo Diffuso is a form of hotel where guest rooms are spread out in various historical buildings in small Italian borghi, or villages. The idea was born in the 1980s to bring tourists to Italy’s smaller yet picturesque towns and destinations without the need to build a brand new hotel. The rooms are designed to minimize environmental impact in both construction and operation, while preserving the original building’s style.

Try this authentic and sustainable accommodation to fully immerse yourself in Italy’s forgotten and ancient history.

2. Check Out an Ancient Amphitheater

An amphitheater is an open-air venue for outdoor entertainment, performances and sports. There are a number of impressive amphitheaters in Italy starting with Rome’s Colosseum.

When you visit Rome, head to the historic center to see the largest amphitheater in the ancient world. The Colosseum, completed in 80 AD, was the first freestanding amphitheater not built into a hill. For hundreds of years, it was the site of gladiator fights and other violent events. The exact number of people who died within its walls remains unknown.

The remains of the four-story high structure and its underground tunnels are an impressive sight, but Rome’s Colosseum is certainly not the only amphitheater of note.

If you’re traveling in Northern Italy, one of the best places to visit is the Arena di Verona, which is still an active performance site. The Arena di Verona is the world’s largest opera theater and one of the best-preserved Roman ruins. Built in 30 AD, it has stood the test of time thanks to its strong foundation, created by digging the hill known as Pastello and using a concrete base.

The Verona Arena in northern Italy is one of best preserved amphitheaters.

3. Hang out in a Piazza

Town squares or piazzas are the heartbeat of Italian cities and villages across the country and make a good starting point to delve into each city’s history. The Romans tended to create roads in grids, and the piazzas were constructed where the two main roads crossed. Piazzas were central hubs for religion, government, and commerce, serving as key gathering spots for local residents.

Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican is the largest Italian piazza, even though it’s not technically in Italy. Outside of the Vatican, one of the most famous town squares is Piazza San Marco in Venice. It’s home to Saint Mark’s Basilica, its bell tower Campanile di San Marco, the museum Museo Correr, and Doge’s Palace, which was the residence and seat of power in Venice for around 900 years.

Another popular piazza is the Piazza del Duomo, home to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This 56m tower took nearly 200 years to build and first started to lean in the late 1170s due to its soft and unstable foundation.

Rustic Pathways students check out Piazza San Marco in Venice.

Elsewhere in Italy other piazzas of note include Florence’s Piazza della Signoria and Verona’s Piazza Brà and Piazza delle Erbe. In many of the larger towns in Italy you’ll see the generic terms Piazza della Signoria, a “political plaza,” and Piazza delle Erbe, a “plaza of herbs.”

Verona’s Piazza delle Erbe was the ancient Roman forum, bordered by the town hall. It’s adorned with captivating frescoes and a fountain with a statue called Madonna Verona. As an added bonus, a balcony that inspired William Shakespeare is nearby, marking the spot where Romeo is said to have declared his love for Juliet.

4. Take a Gondola Ride

Nothing screams “I’m in Italy” more than taking a gondola ride in Venice. Today water buses are a more common means of transportation in the city. But taking a gondola boat ride transports you back in time and is an Italian bucket list experience for a reason.

Rustic Pathways students enjoy their gondola ride in Venice.

Hundreds of years ago there were about 10,000 gondolas in the city. Today there are several hundred. A boat tour is a popular way to view the Grand Canal, but riding a gondola outside of the busiest areas gives you a different perspective of Venice. There are about 150 canals to choose from.

Did you know that gondolas are custom-built to order, costing as much as 50,000 euros? Typically, gondoliers, people who steer the gondola, don picturesque outfits consisting of black pants and a striped shirt. And yes, there are some gondoliers who sing, but don’t expect that.

5. Learn about Art

Italy is literally bursting at the seams with opportunities to see art. Among the country’s most famous artists were Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Sandro Botticelli and Giovanni Bellini. Some of the best known pieces like Michelangelo’s Pieta and his Sistine Chapel frescoes are found at Vatican City. But you’ll find artwork everywhere in Italy.

You have to look in every direction in Italy to see all the artwork.

In Northern Italy, you can see works like da Vinci’s The Last Supper in Milan at the Santa Maria delle Grazie. As you head south, you can see works like David by Michelangelo on display at the Accademia Gallery in Florence.

Wherever you end up, there are frescoes, sculptures and architectural wonders throughout the country. It’s one of the key reasons the country has 58 UNESCO World Heritage sites.

6. Peruse Works by Local Artisans

While you’re learning about art, don’t forget there are many centuries-old practices in the country that artisans can showcase for you. In Venice you can see how glass blowing works and view exquisite glass pieces. The Venice island of Burano is also known for its lace making.

In the Emilia-Romagna region, you may see leathermaking, and in Milan there are goldsmiths and silversmiths. In several other regions you can see the work of wood workers. Wherever you are in the country, witnessing the handiwork of local artisans is a cultural wonder.

7. Make Pasta & Enjoy Italian Cuisine

Italy is sometimes ranked as the best nation in the world for cuisine, and the nation is known for inventing several foods, including the ice cream cone and pizza. Italians also love espressos, wine tasting, gelato and of course, pasta, which has been a mainstay in the country for centuries.

For our Italy Country Director, Nicholas Pompa, his favorite type of pasta is Pasta Alla Nerano. However, according to him, it’s hard to find, even in Italy.

“My favorite pasta dish, Pasta Alla Nerano? I’ve never seen it on a menu in the U.S. Even in Italy, you’ll only find it in a small region of the Amalfi Coast.”

Rustic Pathways students learn how to make pasta in Italy.

Italians are also serious about coffee. As a local tip, don’t order a cappuccino or milk based coffee drink after 11am since it’s typically reserved only for breakfasts. Café’s will always make it for you later in the day if you want, but you just flagged yourself as a tourist if you order one!

Regardless of the time of day, diving into these delectable dishes and drinks is a must. On top of that, you can’t beat the experience of making authentic Italian pasta and sauce from scratch. Consider joining cooking classes using regionally-grown ingredients to make dough, cut it in different shapes and create an unforgettable sauce. Buon appetito!

8. Explore Italian Lakes and the Amalfi Coast

The canals in Venice certainly aren’t the only scenic waterways in Italy. Many travelers journey down to see the emerald coast of Amalfi. The Amalfi coast is a stretch of coastline in Southern Italy overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Gulf of Salerno.

Closer to hotspots like Venice are the beautiful and often less-crowded lakes in the northwest corner of Italy.

There are many beautiful lakes and waterways in Italy where you can swim or take a break.

North of Milan is the celebrity-favorite Lake Como. Closer to Verona is Italy’s largest lake, Lake Garda. The lake was created by glacial action and is bordered by sweeping mountainscapes and olive groves and features several islands. Bonus tip, visit the medieval castles and fortresses overlooking Lake Como.

9. Go Hiking

While exploring the lakes, take some time for outdoor adventures. Italy offers thousands of trails. In the Dolomite Mountains, trails like the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, or Three Peaks of Lavaredo, showcase jagged rocky peaks and rugged landscapes. The characteristic white color of these mountains makes them unique in the world.

For less challenging hikes, you can trek through sites like the Euganean Hills in Southern Italy that are visible from Venice. This area includes a park and hot springs and is a great place for an afternoon hike. Try out hiking tours of hill towns along the Amalfi Coast to escape the summer crowds near the coast.

The Gargano National Park is a national park in the province of Foggia. The park also includes the Tremiti Islands archipelago and the wetlands Lago Salso. Fun fact: If you look at the boot shape of Italy on a map, the Puglia region, specifically in Foggia, is known as the “spur” of Italy’s “boot.”

While staying in Naples, make sure to visit the ancient city of Pompeii and hike up the crater of Mount Vesuvius. What’s notable is that Mount Vesuvius was actually formed by two volcanoes, Vesuvius and Monte Somma.

The Euganean Hills provide a backdrop for a nice easy hike in northern Italy.

10. Speak Some Italian

Amidst your Italian food tour and exploration of Italy’s wonders, you don’t want to forget to interact with the warm local residents. And you’ll get more immersed in their culture if you try to speak some Italian. This Romance language evolved from Latin and is spoken by about 85 million people.

The good news is that Italian is considered one of the easiest languages for English-speakers to learn. In the language, most words are pronounced the same way they’re written and nearly every letter is pronounced, except for “h.”

Also, since English has borrowed many words from Latin, you’ll see many Italian words that may seem familiar but just have a different suffix. So enjoy some divertimento (fun!) and learn a bit of Italian!

11. Take a Day Trip to Vatican City

"The School of Athens" by Raphael in the Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican City

“The School of Athens” by Raphael in the Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican City

An Italian vacation is not complete without visiting Vatican City. The Vatican is the heart of the Catholic Church and serves as a pilgrimage spot for Catholics and Christians. If you visit on a Wednesday, you can see the Pope give his General Audience to the public.

St Peter’s Square symbolizes the gathering of Christianity, and is home to Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. Must-see parts of the Vatican museums include the Gallery of the Maps which contains a series of 40 painted topographical maps of the world.

If you want to try all 11 of the best things to do in Italy, join Rustic Pathways today on your next Italian adventure! Check out our Italy programs for students ages 14-18 here.

About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Content Writer

Mary is a Content Writer at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.