The Ultimate Guide to the Best World Heritage Sites in Italy
From Venice, Rome and Florence to Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast, and the Dolomites, Italy has far more than its fair share of UNESCO World Heritage sites — 51 to be exact, more than any other country.
To visit all of them would take a lifetime or two, so here are 10 you can visit on a tour from north to south that will give you so much more than just a glimpse of the glory of Rome.
Are there peaks anywhere in the world as magnificent as the Dolomites in Italy's northeast? These 18 majestic peaks in a corner of the Alps are just waiting to be hiked, biked and photographed. Key locations include the three iconic jagged peaks of Tre Crime (set aside a day for the circular trail around them), small villages at high altitudes such as Cortina, and the incredible views from the 10,967-foot high Marmolada, the region's tallest peak. The latter is one of nine national parks areas covered by the UNESCO designation, whose exact borders are convoluted. Disregard the details and merely aim to visit this arresting Alpine area in late spring or early fall. Do that and you'll avoid the August crowds.
Wherefore art thou Verona? Nestled in northern Italy along the Adige River, the medieval part of City of Love is best known as the setting for Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet.” You can go see Casa di Giulietta (Juliet's House), the fictional home of the fictional Juliet and the fictional Capulet family. Go figure. However, the 14th-century house is an authentic an example of Gothic architecture (aside from the strictly-for-tourists fake balcony overlooking a courtyard for impromptu serenading). Elsewhere in a compact city center is the grand Piazza delle Erbe, which includes the Roman-era Madonna Verona statue. However, if you want first-century Roman architecture, take in the Arena Opera Festival (June-September) at the mighty Verona Arena amphitheatre in Piazza della Bra.
As popular as it is, Venice remains an absolute must-see. With St Mark’s Square, Rialto Bridge, Bridge of Sighs and gondolas attracting over 25 million tourists every year, this great capital of the medieval world has been on UNESCO's list since 1987. However, it's not just the “extraordinary architectural masterpiece” spread over 100 small islands that UNESCO recognizes.
Renaissance architecture and art is why tourists flock to the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region. It's bursting with masterpieces, from Michelangelo’s “David” sculpture in the city's Galleria dell'Accademia to da Vinci’s “Annunciation” and Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” in the Uffizi Gallery. Elsewhere is the almost untouched urban environment of the historic centre is the iconic orange-domed 13th-century cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore — known as the Duomo — the Church of Santa Croce, and the medieval Ponte Vecchio, a bridge over the Arno River lined with stores. If you accidentally overdose on culture, head to the Giardino delle rose, a garden offering stunning views of the city.
Etruscan Necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia
The Romans might get all the attention, but before them the Etruscans forged the first urban culture in Italy. Although these two large Etruscan cemeteries (necropolises) are in separate locations, UNESCO groups them together as one, but both are easily accessible from Rome. About 28 miles northwest on the coast is Banditaccia at Cerveteri, where thousands of rock-carved tombs are laid-out as a city with streets, squares and neighborhoods. Another 34 miles north up the coast at Tarquinia is Monterozzi, where 6,000 graves are dramatically cut into rock. However, it's best known for its 200 painted tombs, the earliest of which date from a hard-to-grasp 7th century B.C.
Where do you start with the Eternal City? With the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Forum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and Vatican all on the must-see list, UNESCO’s designation of the historic center of Rome as just one single World Heritage Site is close to being rude. Rome was first the centre of the Roman Republic, then of the Roman Empire, and in the fourth century, became the capital of the Christian world. Consequently, there’s more than enough here to fill a week-long itinerary (bring your most comfortable shoes/hiking boots). Just don't miss the papal enclave of the Vatican City. An independent state since 1929, a trip up to the roof of the Italian Renaissance masterpiece of St. Peter's Basilica is a must. Expect vertigo and an awesome view of St. Peter's Square and Rome beyond. Once you've looked down, go look up at Michelangelo's painted ceiling at the Sistine Chapel.
Villa d’Este & Villa Adriana, Tivoli
If Rome's antiquities overwhelm you, know that just 20 miles east of the center are the refined Renaissance retreat of Villa d'Este and the incredible remains of Villa Adriana, two separate UNESCO World Heritage Sites. At Villa d’Este you'll find fountains and basins, tall trees and statues in a palatial masterpiece, which UNESCO calls “the most outstanding example of Renaissance culture at its apogee.” However, don't expect to get too relaxed — its slopes make it a bit of a workout. Once you've strolled the gardens, the 16th-century Villa d'Este's Renaissance frescoes are also worth a look.
The Villa d’Este is usually visited on a day trip from Rome together with Villa Adriana, the latter a home to Roman Emperor Hadrian in the second century A.D. An excavated open-air water garden full of architecture from Egypt, Greece and Rome, it's a fantasy world that begs you to take just one more photograph.
They might be mind-blowing in their opulence, but the grand buildings of Rome, Florence and Verona don’t tell you much about how the Romans lived. For that, come to vast Pompeii, where the 1st century A.D. slowly comes alive in this sombre monument to sudden death. A city frozen in time when, on August 24 A.D. 79, the nearby Vesuvius volcano erupted and engulfed it, there’s nothing quite like wandering the now immaculate streets of Pompeii looking for clues.
About 150 miles south of Rome, in Pompeii you can marvel at colorful frescoes on the walls of the Villa of the Mysteries, which depict an initiation of a woman into a cult. There's even a brothel whose walls contain erotic images. However, the most captivating place is surely the Garden of the Fugitives, where lay plaster reproductions of 13 Pompeians — and even a dog — who were asphyxiated by gas and covered with ash, buried for 1,700 years. Like the very finest UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it’s hard to believe Pompeii exists at all.
If you want to experience a slice of a uniquely Mediterranean lifestyle, come to the Costiera Amalfitana. Designated a World Heritage Site 20 years ago, this 30 mile stretch of rugged coast on the south of the Sorrentine Peninsula is home to secluded beaches, fishing villages and vineyards. The designation covers 15 towns along the coast and inland, and is perfect for pairing with a visit to Pompeii. Stay a night if you can, though it's the drive between Sorrento and Salerno to the south that's the Amalfi Coast's main attraction for those in a hurry.
No visit to Italy would be complete without spending time on the stunning island of Sicily. It's home to the notorious Mount Etna, the most active stratovolcano on the planet. Formed about 15,000 years ago and part of the Parco dell’Etna Regional Nature Park on the northeastern side of the island, iconic Mount Enta spews-out an enormous amount of steam, sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide (so much that a volcanologist recently suggested that Etna behaves more like a giant hot spring than a volcano).
When it's relatively quiet, the bleak lava-scapes of the upper crater zones at 10,990ft. can be visited by cable car from Etna's southern slopes. If you just want a really good view (and an awesome photo if your camera has any kind of zoom) of the volcano's cone, head to the coastal town of Taormina to see its enormity rising up behind a Greek amphitheater dating back to the third century B.C. Either way, Etna has an up-side — its mineral-rich slopes help local vineyards produce excellent Etna Rosso red wines made from the indigenous nerello mascalese grape. Saluti!