Exploring Italy is like walking into a painting. The Gothic architecture, captivating waterways, and unforgettable food grab your attention at every turn. Italy’s history and charm have made it one of the most popular destinations in the world. Italy is also a top student travel location for Rustic Pathways.
Within Italy, the plethora of travel options can make it hard to choose where to go and what to do. No doubt cities like Venice are high on the list of priorities. But there are also other less visited locations you may want to add to the list. And regardless of the destination, there are certain activities you’ll likely want to try. Even if you don’t have time to see all the most famous spots in Italy, you’ll gain a deep appreciation for everything Italian if you dive into these 10 activities:
1.) Stay in a Historic Place
While you’re in Italy, staying in a chain hotel seems downright boring. There are a number of centuries-old accommodations in the country that have been renovated to add modern comforts. You can stay in a castle, historic B&B or a boutique hotel where you’ll be surrounded by reminders that you’re indeed in Italy.
Sure, throwing in a typical accommodation here or there may be necessary, but it helps to try something spectacular too.
2.) Check Out an Ancient Amphitheater
There are a number of impressive amphitheaters in Italy with Rome’s Colosseum being the most well-known one. It was the largest amphitheater in the ancient world and the first freestanding one not built into a hill. For hundreds of years the Colosseum, completed in 80 AD, was home to gladiator fights and other violence. It’s unknown how many people died within its walls.
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, check out Verona’s impressive Arena, which is still an active performance site. It’s the world’s largest opera theater and one of the best preserved ancient structures. It was built in 30 AD and has stood the test of time thanks to its strong foundation that was created by digging a depression into a hill.
3.) Hang out in a Piazza
Italy’s town squares or piazzas are the heartbeat of cities and villages across the country. The piazzas were often the center of religion, government and commerce and historically were key gathering spots for local residents. The Romans tended to create roads in grids, and the piazzas were constructed where the two main roads crossed.
St. 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 St. 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.
The plaza also has a number of cafes, including one of the oldest bars in the country. There are also lots of pigeons, which may make you think of Mary Poppins but – wrong country and feeding pigeons in Venice is not allowed!
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 a Piazza della Signoria and Piazza delle Erbe since they were generic terms for the “political plaza” and “plaza of herbs.” However, the ones in Venice and Verona are among the most memorable.
Verona’s Piazza Brà is among the largest plazas in Italy and is bordered by the Verona Arena.
Its Piazza delle Erbe is in the center of the city and was the ancient Roman forum, bordered by the town hall. It also has 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
Perhaps 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 transports you back in time and is a bucket list experience for a reason.
Hundreds of years ago there were about 10,000 gondolas in the city. Today there are several hundred. It’s 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.
Plus, being in the gondola itself is an experience. Many gondolas are ornate and are custom built to order, costing as much as 50,000 euros. They also usually have gondoliers who wear the official picturesque outfits that include 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.
If you are in northern Italy you can see works like da Vinci’s The Last Supper in Milan and the San Zaccaria Altarpiece by Bellini in Venice. Then as you head south, you can see works like David by Michelangelo in Florence.
Regardless of the stop, 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. And one of the best ways to get more information about the art and architecture is to have a tour leader or guide show you the way. With expert help, you’ll feel art history lessons come alive while you’re exploring the country.
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. That region is also known for lace making.
In the Emilia-Romagna region, you may see leather making and in Milan there are goldsmiths and silversmiths. And 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, gelato and of course pasta, which has been a mainstay in the country for centuries.
As a local tip, Italians don’t usually order a cappuccino or milk based coffee drink after 11am. It’s typically reserved only for breakfasts. They 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 pasta and sauce in such an inspirational setting. With the help of local farmers, you can attend a class using regionally-grown ingredients to make dough, cut it in different shapes and create an unforgettable sauce. Buon appetito!
8.) Explore Local Lakes
The canals in Venice certainly aren’t the only scenic waterways in Italy. Some travelers journey down to the Amalfi Coast in southwestern Italy for some scenery and sun, but that’s out of the way for many visitors. Closer to hotspots like Venice are the beautiful and often less crowded lakes in Northern Italy.
This includes the lakes north of Milan, like the celebrity-favorite Lake Como. Closer to Verona is Italy’s largest lake, Lake Garda. It was created by glacial action and is bordered by sweeping mountainscapes and olive groves. It also features several islands.
The lake is a popular spot for boaters and bikers and is a great place to take a dip to escape the heat. As an added bonus, there’s a medieval fortress on the shoreline. Plus, there are a couple of castles nearby, including the castle of Desenzano in the adjacent municipality of Desenzano del Garda.
9.) Go Hiking
While you’re checking out the lakes, you can take time for some exercise. There are thousands of trails throughout Italy, including many picture-perfect ones in Northern Italy. This includes trails in the Dolomite Mountains, like the Tre Cime di Lavaredo or Three Peaks of Lavaredo, which showcases three jagged rocky peaks.
For less challenging hikes, you can trek through the places like the Euganean Hills that are visible from Venice. This area includes a park and hot springs and is a great place for a stroll.
10.) Speak Some Italian
While you are looking at all the wonders in Italy, 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!
If you want to try all these things, you can join Rustic Pathways on a journey through Italy. Check out our Italy programs for students ages 14-18 here.
Mary is the Lead Editor 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.