Exploring Italy

Many say the best way to explore Italy is to immerse yourself: to wander aimlessly down cobble-stoned alleyways, to lean against an old wall and linger in the sun, to walk among ancient ruins and experience the slow passing of time. All of this is certainly true, but at the end of the day, you may ask yourself “How do I get from one town to another, and what means should I use?” Traveling in Italy is simple and enjoyable when you know and understand your options. An extensive rail system, with both high speed and slower local trains, makes it easy to travel between the big cities as well as most small towns. Italy still has the lowest fares in Europe for train travel, and tickets can be bought in advance or on the day of your departure. Another get around is the bus. Each region has its own bus line that works within specific cities for local transport as well as connecting towns and big urban centers. In some regions, where lakes or mountains make train travel more difficult, the bus can be a great alternative to cut on time and costs. If you’re traveling great distances, you may want to consider low-cost flights. From Florence, for instance, planes leave for Sardinia, Apulia, and Sicily.


Although you will never be short of ideas or destinations, here are some of Italy’s most popular cities and a brief write-up of what to see.


“Ah, la città eterna”. They call it the eternal city—and rightly so. Rome, with its monuments and piazzas, has existed for thousands of years and will exist for thousands more. The nation’s capital is both deliciously languid and fabulously vivacious, housing over 60 percent of Italy’s art treasures and glimmering Vatican City, making it one of the most visited cities in the world. There is no off-season in Rome, but it is certainly more crowded in the summer. Worth seeing are the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi fountain, and, of course, the Vatican. With a good map, you can cover a lot in a day, but Rome is a world of its own and needs time to be enjoyed.


Venice is an all-time favorite of poets, bohemian travelers, lovers, and just about anyone who has ever set foot on a gondola. It never fails to please: it is a spectacular city in just about every season, with its narrow waterways and bustling markets—in winter, the fog rolls off the Adriatic Sea and Venice comes alive with partygoers in festive “Carnevale” masks, and in the hottest months the narrow streets swarm with tourists and various delights.


Imagine dramatic cliffs dotted with pink and orange houses and crashing blue waves below. This is the backdrop of Le Cinque Terre — the five lands.  Five cities on the northwestern shore of Italy have become a popular tourist destination, for foreigners and Italians alike. Nicknamed “Italian Riviera,” these delightful little towns on the Ligurian coast are better reached by train, as there are few passable roads: the villages literally cascade down the cliff faces, making it impossible to construct anything other than staircases and winding alleys. A terrific trail connects all five towns, offering spectacular vistas over the Mediterranean Sea, and there are possibilities for swimming, boating, and biking in the warmer months. During the high season, it can be difficult to find inexpensive accommodation — try the neighboring town of Levanto for a place to stay.


Orvieto sits on a hill made of volcanic tufa rock, offering marvelous views of the surrounding countryside, as well as an awe-inspiring duomo that gives Brunelleschi’s dome a run for its money. Orvieto is in the southwest corner of Umbria, situated on the main railway line between Rome and Florence. Try the great white wine and take the fascinating “hidden Orvieto” tour of the grottoes the Etruscans carved into the rock beneath the city. One of the coolest underground sites is an enormous well carved on the orders of a sixteenth-century pope: it has interlocking staircases so that a continuous line of donkeys could descend to get water and bring it back up without blocking each other.


You’ve heard of the dish “tagliatelle alla Bolognese” but what about the vibrant university town? Bologna is very close to Florence (approximately 30 minutes by train) and has been judged one of Italy’s most livable cities. Cradled amidst the plains of Emilia Romagna, Bologna is surrounded by picturesque hills and has much to offer in the way of medieval art and architecture, culture, and cuisine. But it is the thriving student scene that really brings this ancient city to life. The main university was founded over 900 years ago; this competitive academic center attracts students and scholars from all over the world. Many greats have taught here, from Dante Alighieri to Umberto Eco. Sights like the Piazza Maggiore and the Fountain of Neptune shimmer with great historic importance—and provide excellent photo ops!


Ravenna enjoyed its moment of glory between the fifth and seventh centuries when it briefly took the place of Rome as the capital of the vast Roman Empire in the west. It remained the capital of the Ostrogoths — the barbarians who caused the fall of Rome — and finally, the capital of the Byzantine protectorate under Justinian. Ravenna’s importance during the early Christian period explains the many churches full of famed gold leaf mosaics, the beauty, and antiquity of which continue to astound modern-day visitors. Students can visit workshops where restorers and mosaic craftsmen still perpetuate the ancient mosaic techniques. Eight monuments in Ravenna have been declared Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO, all dating from the fifth and sixth centuries. Today Ravenna is a charming small Italian city, capital of the Romagna region. In addition to the extraordinary wealth of ancient mosaics, Ravenna houses the tomb of Dante, who died here in 1321 while in exile from Florence. A fun tidbit from history: Ravenna still refuses to give his remains to his native city!


Also known as Paradise on Earth, the island of Capri is a long-time destination for the rich and famous. Perched on an island off the coast of Naples and peppered with lemon and orange trees, Capri is considered one of the most beautiful visitor destinations in Italy. In the distance, you can see Mount Vesuvius, dark and brooding, and the charming towns dotting the Amalfi Coast. The island is easy to get to by ferry from Naples, but in the summer months, tourists abound, which can detract from Capri’s charm and “small-town” feel. It also means that food and accommodations are exorbitantly more expensive than you would find on the mainland. For that reason, many find it convenient to combine a day trip to Capri with a weekend visit to Naples, Sorrento, or nearby Pompeii, using the mainland as a base to explore. Not to be missed on the island are the whitewashed towns of Capri, Anacapri, the famed Faraglioni rock formations, the Roman palace Villa Jovis, and the Seggovia Monte Solaro, the chairlift that takes you to the island’s peak where you can feast your eyes on the beauty below.


Also known as Paradise on Earth, the island of Capri is a long-time destination for the rich and famous. Perched on an island off the coast of Naples and peppered with lemon and orange trees, Capri is considered one of the most beautiful visitor destinations in Italy. In the distance, you can see Mount Vesuvius, dark and brooding, and the charming towns Italy’s trendy fashion capital is a bustling urban center in the north, not far from beautiful Lake Como, the Alps, and the French, Swiss, and Austrian borders. Apart from great shopping, there are noteworthy attractions in Milan such as the fifteenth century gothic Duomo, the impressive Sforza Castle, and the Pinacoteca di Brera Art gallery. It is also home to Leonardo Da Vinci’s famed “The Last Supper” mural, located in the Santa Maria delle Grazie church. Milan is a three-hour train trip from Florence and is not recommended as a day trip; it is better reserved for a weekend adventure.