Italy is one of the most celebrated destinations in Europe. The combination of Ancient and Renaissance history, coupled with beautiful Mediterranean weather, beaches, mountains, and quite possibly the best cuisine and wine in the world makes this an intoxicating destination. There are four major tourist cities in Italy: Rome, Florence, Venice, and Naples. If you only have a limited amount of time in Italy, which do you choose? I can’t answer that question for you, but I can give you an overview of each, as well as the pros and cons of visiting.
Ah, Rome. Encompassing the historical center of one of the greatest classical civilizations, and the heart of the Catholic Church in the Vatican City, all within the modern-day capital of Italy, Rome is one of the greatest cities in Europe. It competes only with Paris in its mystical historicism. Walking its cobblestone streets, one can easily be transported to Ancient Rome, or Renaissance Europe, or just soak in the atmosphere of present day Italy.
Highlights: The Colosseum and the Roman Forum, relics of a great Empire. St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the most impressive cathedrals worldwide. The Vatican Museums, including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. The Pantheon, a mix between ancient and Renaissance Rome. Spaghetti alla Carbonara, the local specialty, done right WITHOUT cream and with raw egg sauce. Getting lost in the city itself, following small alleys between beautiful houses with balconies overflowing with flowers next to old ornate churches.
Pros: You’d be hard-pressed to find a more historic city worldwide. The pace of modern day Rome, all hustle and bustle and honking cars, is invigorating and feels like a Fellini film, while eating gelato as you walk by the Spanish steps or the Trevi Fountain makes you feel like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.
Cons: Rome is a metropolis, not the place for a relaxing holiday. If you’re seeking an under-the-Tuscan-sun style rejuvenation, head somewhere else. Tourists are everywhere, although the size of the city dilutes their presence. Roman men can be pushy, especially with solo women. This doesn’t usually lead to violence of any type, but can be unnerving.
Florence was the center of the Renaissance in Italy, and you can still feel its presence today. The most famous Renaissance art is here, featured in world-class museums. Unlike Rome, Florence is a small city, with an easily walkable center and a more relaxed atmosphere.
Highlights: The Duomo, its white, pink, and green façade some of the most stunning architectural wok in Europe. The Uffizi, one of the best collections of Renaissance worldwide, which is home to the Birth of Venus among other famous works. Accademia Gallery, where you can see Michelangelo’s David. You can also rent a car and explore the old hilltop towns and famous wines of Tuscany.
Pros: The art, the art! Also, Florence’s small-city vibe and proximity to Tuscany make it an attractive relaxing alternative to the frenzy of Rome.
Cons: Florence is smaller than Rome, so there’s less to see. Also, Florence was a Renaissance town, which means if your interests lie more toward Ancient Rome or modern-day Italy, you might find more to love elsewhere.
Venice’s substitution of canals for streets has given it a mythic air worldwide. The experiences of taking a gondola down the Grand Canal or getting lost in the back alleyways cannot be replicated anywhere else in Europe. Historically, Venice was separate from the rest of Italy. The Republic of Venice was founded in the 7th century and lasted over 1000 years, expanded into nearby Slovenia and Croatia, before becoming a part of Austria-Hungary and subsequently Italy. As a result, the architecture and sights are different. The churches have domes in the Eastern Orthodox style, and buildings have a Byzantine flair rather than a Roman one.
Highlights: Taking a gondola or vaporetti down the Grand Canal and into the side canals. Crossing the historic Rialto bridge. Enjoying the domes and spectacular mosaics of San Marco Basilicia and posing with the pigeons in the piazza. Drinking a Bellini (a Venetian specialty of peach puree and champagne). Exploring the Doge’s palace and the Jewish ghetto for tastes of historical Venice.
Pros: There is no other city that physically resembles Venice. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage sight. Also, I hear it’s sinking, so best go sooner rather than later.
Cons: Venice is hot and muggy and swarmed with tourists. Most Venetians don’t live in the old city of Venice anymore and tourists seem to have the run of the place. You’ll hear more English than Italian.
Naples itself doesn’t have the beauty of the other cities featured here. It’s gritty and a bit dirty, with crumbling buildings and graffiti. Depending on how you look at it, the grit can be off-putting or part of the fun. Naples has some cool sights, like Castel Nuovo and some great museums, but those aren’t the sights that make Naples truly special. The true highlight of Naples is what’s nearby. Naples is a great jumping point for two of the most spectacular sights of Italy—the stunning Amalfi Coast, and the immaculately preserved Pompeii. Also, the pizza’s pretty fantastic.
Highlights: Exploring the ruins of Pompeii, preserved perfectly after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Driving along the Amalfi coast, exploring the tiny towns hugging the sides of the cliffs. Chowing down on pizza.
Pros: By basing yourself out of Naples, you get to enjoy Pompeii and the Amalfi coast, as well as get a taste for modern, non-touristy Italy.
Cons: Naples itself is a bit gritty and doesn’t capture the imagination the same way other cities do.
Each of these cities has something fantastic to offer anyone looking for a taste of Italy past and present. If you have a favorite, let me know in the comments below!