I really hope that get a chance to visit Italy again because it is absolutely beautiful! I wanted to enjoy summer in Europe and have only met with chilly weather in Northern Europe. So for good luck, I sang Olaf’s “Summer Song” repeatedly on the train ride to Italy.
The moment we got off the train, I got scolded by my travel mates because apparently my singing came true. SUMMER TIME! Our first stop was Venice and the heat only gave us excuses to eat an unforgivable amount of Gelato, which we took to a habit for the rest of our time in Italy. I explored mostly the west of Italy and it is surprisingly easy and affordable to travel between cities. So even if you are short on time, you can still consider taking short 1-2 days trips to nearby cities for a visit (i.e. Rome to Naples).
My Top 10 Places to Visit in ITALY:
10. Leaning Tower of Pisa, Pisa
Many travel blogs I read while researching Italy suggested giving Pisa a miss since there isn’t much to do except to visit the Leaning Tower. However, I still visited the place as a stopover from Florence to Cinque Terre. Basically, I left Florence in the afternoon and arrived in Pisa around 4pm. We had quite a few of hours of daylight left (it was Summer and the sun sets late) and spent it visiting the Leaning Tower and just walked around the historic center after. I did this because I had a rail pass and so I didn’t pay extra for the journey there. Also accommodation was generally cheaper in Pisa and makes up for the cost of travelling.
The leaning tower may not seem like much (except that it looks like it might collapse) but if you consider the fact that its construction started in the early 12th century when technology was rudimentary, it becomes understandable as to why it is one of the 7 Wonders of the Medieval World. It took almost 200 years to be completed and you can only imagine the dismay of the engineers when it clear that the tower was slightly tilted northwest.
Luckily, modern technology has allowed us to stabilise the structure. Between 1990 – 2002, a team of engineers, mathematicians and historians came together to correct the 5.5 degrees tilt to a more structurally sound 3.97 degrees. This can help the tower to potentially last a few hundred more years.
9. Leonardo Da Vinci, Florence
Despite its relatively small size, Florence contains about 1/4 of the world’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This is not surprising as many renaissance masters have called Florence home (i.e. Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante…). There are many famous galleries to visit such as the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia Gallery which houses the famed “David” sculpture by Michelangelo.
If art is not your cup of tea, why not immerse yourself in the over-achieving mind of Da Vinci whose work also included inventions of all sorts. My Engineering Major travel mate thoroughly enjoyed himself at the Museum of Leonardo Da Vinci. The museum brings to life the ingenuity of some of Da Vinci’s inventions based on the detailed sketches he did over his lifetime. Some of them are workable, some just looks complicated but the bizarre mix of things on display is an entertaining way to spend your day in Florence. As usual, try to buy tickets in advance if possible. I was there in Summer and noticed snaking queues everywhere!
8. Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence
The Basilica was consecreted in the mid 15th century, having taken around 200 years to be built. It is the main Duomo of Florence and is built in a mix of Gothic, Renaissance and Neo-Gothic architectural styles. The pointed arch, a notable feature of the Gothic style, can be found on the cathedral section which was designed in the late 13th century. More than just aesthetics, the pointed arch is actually an engineering ingenuity as it actually helps to spread out the weight of the structure onto the strong columns, allowing for more flexibility in architectural form.
The dome was completed in the Renaissance style in the 15th century as architects then deemed the “flying buttresses” structure common in Gothic domes as ugly and reminiscent of Central Italy’s northern enemies. The Octagonal dome was constructed without external buttresses (usually a necessary feature to help keep the dome’s weight from spreading out) and was an engineering feat of its time. The method of construction of the dome was used a precursor for other italian renaissance style buildings. Note: The Pantheon employed a similar feature even earlier but the recipe to its structural success was lost over time so they basically found a solution again!
The basilica’s white, pink and green marble facade was only finished in the 18th-19th century and designed in the Neo-gothic style. Mesmerizing!
The Amalfi coast is a long stretch of coastal mountains and beaches which reaches from Sorrento all the way to Salerno. Amalfi town is one of the most famous stops along the route. To get there, you have to take a bus from Sorrento which is rather infrequent and if you miss the last bus from Amalfi back, well… good luck to you as your options are limited or expensive. Last trains from Sorrento to also end early (about 9pm) so do plan well ahead to make sure you do not get stuck (We did and had to take a 2 hr walk back to Piano Di Sorrento where we stayed).
Amalfi town is a beautiful town and on the way here, you will notice olive and lemon growths in the region. Even if you were not able to look out of the window because you were carsick on the way there (the route there is also known as the 1000 bends…blergh…), the streets full of lemon themed souvenir shops will remind you that you are in lemon county.
Aside from taking buses all the way, you can choose to stop mid-way and take one of the many well-marked trekking routes in the region and enjoy the breathtaking landscape. At the end of your trek, reward yourself with a hearty meal at one of the many restaurants in town. Try their “scialatielli ai frutti di mare” a seafood and pasta dish or switch it for a risotto if you prefer. Fish is one of the region’s specialties as you would expect in a coastal town. Try the Limoncello (Lemon Alchohol) which is produced from lemon grown in the region. I didn’t like the one I tried perhaps because I didn’t know what mixers go with it. But there has to be better ones since it is sold internationally I guess.
6. Trevi Fountain, Rome
My dad was on business in Rome almost 20 years back and when I told him I was going to Italy, he reminded me many times to remember to drop by the Trevi Fountain and to throw a coin in. Apparently you had to have your back faced against the fountain and toss the coin over your left shoulder.
I guess the gods did not want me to come back to Rome since the fountain was under maintenance (the whole of Europe is always on maintenance!) and had no water. I tried to throw in a coin backwards while closing my eyes but it ricocheted off the metal barricades and shocked another tourist when it hit her. In embarrassment, I just quickly picked up my coin and threw it face forward to make sure it will not pose a hazard to those around me. In addition, i’m not sure if throwing only a 10 cent Euro coin will affect my chances even more. Haha.
Anyway, the whole fountain itself is pretty elaborate and I can only hope to come back and see it in it full working glory.
5. Murano, Venice
(Picture from Local Venice Tours)
I didn’t get to go to Murano even though I visited Venice. However, my uncle recommended spending some time in Murano which is known for its glass making. Basically, there used to be glass makers in Venice mainland. However, the local authorities deemed the hot fires used for the trade to be a potential fire hazard, so he ordered that all glass makers move their businesses to Murano island. You can easily search online for a glass maker to visit without actually booking a tour as it gives you more freedom to explore the colourful island.
Even if you are unable to make it to Murano, there is no need to feel disappointed. Their famed glassware can be found all over Venice. Just be wary of what you are buying. Those made in Murano will have indications on its manufacture place on the product itself. Otherwise, it is highly likely that you are buying a mass market product from China.
4. Pompeii & Mt Vesuvius, Naples
Pompeii was an ancient Roman town/city which was flourishing up till its destruction in 79AD as a result of the violent eruption of Mt Vesuvius. The town was populated by 20,000 people and had many “modern” amenities such as a complex water system, amphitheater, gymnasium and was even served by a port. Because of the quick way volcanic ashed piled on it, much of its architecture and even peoples’ last moments were captured and preserved well over the centuries. Today, you can walk through the same streets that the Romans did and learn about how life was like in for a Roman the first century.
Some have suggested that you can spend a whole day at Pompeii, but lets face it, unless you are a history enthusiast, you may find it too boring after awhile. After visiting the ruins, you can considering taking a look at the culprit who created this mess. Mt Vesuvius is an hour bus ride way from Pompeii Scavi (Ruins of Pompeii) and you can catch a bus from Pompeii or Ercolano train station.
There will be many vendors located there asking you to take their transport, so do your homework to find out if which is worth taking (either bus, minibus, private transport). The buses run only till a certain time as they do close the entrance to the Volcanic Crater just before sunset for safety reasons (Sunset differs according to seasons).
The good thing is, even if you hate hiking or walking, you can still visit Mt Vesuvius. The buses actually take you pretty close to the peak, after which you just have to walk about 15 mins to the crater.
(Aerial Photo from Wikipedia)
3. Colosseum, Rome
The Colosseum was built in the 1st Century and is the largest amphitheater in the world. Its design is practical and consists of 80 arched entrances to facilitate the movement of the 50,000 to 80,000 spectators it could accommodate. It’s foundation is also made of concrete which is actually a Roman invention. The use of this strong material is key to the stability of the gigantic structure.
Also known as the Flavian Amphitheater, it was primarily a place for entertainment and was popular among Roman spectators who were seated according to rank. What constitutes entertainment is called into question here as its grounds was used to host macabre events such as gladiator fights and executions. The floor was lined with sand to absorb the blood spilled and beneath the grounds was a maze of rooms for the gladiators and cages for the animals they fought. The Romans must have had stronger stomachs than we do.
When purchasing tickets, do note that it also includes entrances to the Roman Forum and the Palatine which are less crowded and nice to take a walk in as well. I enjoy visiting such ruins because it is nice to think about how people lived in the past and to appreciate how far humanity has progressed on the whole.
2. Cinque Terre
This part on Cinque Terre gets so many photos because it is simply a STUNNING place!
Before heading to Cinque Terre, we left our backpacks at the Left Luggage at La Spezia station which is one of the cheapest that we have encountered so far. Cinque Terre means “Five Lands” in italian and the area encompasses five towns along a coast, west of La Spezia. We took a train from La Spezia and got off at the furthest station, Monterosso.
From there we took a 2-3hr scenic trek via a coastal route (you have to pay a fee to hike) and ended up at Vernazza. The trek was easy enough for someone who exercises irregularly but expect it to take longer if you are relatively unfit.
After which we headed to Riomaggiore where I finally got to wash off the perspiration I accumulated from my trek by jumping into the cold waters. While wading, I noticed lots of people jumping off a tall cliff into the sea for fun. I am not sure how one can get up there, but I saw someone actually free-climbing up the almost vertical side of the cliff to get up O.O (Video of an example of how high the cliff is here)
1. Capri Island, Naples
Capri Island is located off the coast of Italy in the Amalfi region. It is accessible by boat from Naples, Sorrento and Amalfi. Since I was staying in Sorrento, I took a boat from there which cost about 27Eur for 2-way. I didn’t charge my camera that day so my pictures are pretty limited (they are all on a friend’s DSLR). If I could do it again, I would choose to stay one night on the island instead of making it a day trip.
Capri is a pretty small island dominated by two peaks on each end of the island (Capri and Anacapri). Boats will dock and let you off at Marina Piccola, which is located between both peaks. There are barely any public transport on the island and you have to walk to most sight seeing places. We wanted to cover both sides of the island but quickly realized we did not have time to do so as the entire place is a series of up and down slopes *need to take a moment to catch my breath just thinking about it*.
I explored mainly on the Capri side of the island and just a little bit of Anacapri. The island also has a famous Blue Grotto, but we didn’t go as the reviews on it was pretty bad (overpriced, poor service, did not get to see much or enjoy it). 2 of the places I visited and liked was a 1st century ruins of a Roman Palace built by Emperor Tiberius and Arco Natural – a majestic rock formation which people have said that it is best seen while passing under it on a boat.
Capri Island is also the inspiration for Sonja de Lennart who invented the Capri Pants. The style was made popular on the island. Today, you can buy copies of original designs worn by Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy at La Parisienne, a boutique with more than a hundred years of history. But be warned, those pants won’t come cheap.