When you talk about a country that boasts 55 UNESCO World Heritage sites, it’s definitely not an easy task to come up with a short list of mere 26 sights that you can’t miss. To make things worse, you just have to include Italian landmarks like the Colosseum, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and St. Mark’s Square in Venice, which leaves little room for hidden gems.
We do believe you can have it both ways, though. So apart from the Italian landmarks everyone loves and knows at least a thing or two about, we’ll cover adorable towns, winemaking regions, and gorgeous beaches that you’ll need to put on your bucket list. Plus, to be a tad more thorough, we’ve added a few runners-up under each section.
Italian Landmarks in the Northwest
The richest area in Italy, where half of its six largest cities are, is not all about historic buildings. Quite the opposite! The Northwest is squeezed between the majestic Alps and the azure waters of the Ligurian Sea.
1. Milan Cathedral
The works on Sagrada Familia might seem like they’ve been going on forever, yet they can’t hold a candle to Milan Cathedral.
The city’s quintessential icon was an impressive 400 years in the making! The gothic masterpiece is worth visiting inside, sure, but the terraces provide the most emblematic views of Milan.
Oddly, the Madonnina, the golden statue of Mary sitting on top of it, was for centuries the tallest structure in town — by law. When Milan’s first high-rise opened in the 1950s, builders had to strike a deal with the Archdiocese and place a copy of it atop the new skyscraper.
Despite the law being later overturned, that ended up becoming full-on tradition, and the city now has four copycat Madonninas!
2. The Mole Antonelliana in Turin
Turin’s most imposing structure looks almost disproportionate to the city’s low-rise skyline. That, and the stark contrast with the Alps behind it, make up a great deal of its charm. The local Jewish community commissioned it in the late 19th century, but it never actually served as the synagogue they had intended.
Instead, it housed the National Museum of Italian Unification for a few decades, then remained underused for much of the 20th century. From 2000, though, the Mole is home to the (really cool) National Museum of Cinema.
3. Lake Como
While not the biggest of Italy’s alpine lakes (that would be Lake Garda), Lake Como is certainly the best-known.
No wonder: it’s been a summer resort for the wealthy since Roman times and is often voted the prettiest lake on the planet. Its quaint villages, lavish villas, and views of the mountains are hard to match.
4. Cinque Terre
Liguria, the Italian region bordering the French Riviera, is famous for its jagged coastline, where green cliffs overhang the sea.
Cinque Terre (i.e. “Five Lands”) is the point in which that stunning shore meets five tiny villages (Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore) with picturesquely colorful houses and a strong fishing culture.
This is hands-down the no. 1 spot for a summer vacay in northern Italy!
Only 4,000 lucky Italians live in Sabbioneta, not far from Mantua. Both are UNESCO World Heritage sites thanks to their well-preserved Renaissance architecture.
Sabbioneta, however, is even more striking: it was entirely commissioned by nobleman Vespasiano I Gonzaga in the late 1500s. Back then, the Italian elite were obsessed with building the “ideal” city. Can’t say they veered off course here!
Runners-up: Santa Maria delle Grazie and The Last Supper in Milan, the town of Bergamo, and the Certosa di Pavia in Lombardy; Genoa’s historic quarter in Liguria; the winemaking region of Langhe-Roero and Monferrato in Piedmont
Northeastern Italy: What Not to Miss
While it was challenging not to focus on the Italian landmarks located in Veneto, the marvelous region centered on Venice, we made sure to include at least a town in Emilia-Romagna (where you’ll find Bologna).
6. Piazza San Marco in Venice
If you’ve ever been to Venice, you know how narrow its streets are. Squares are normally modest in size too, which is why they’re called campi (meaning “fields”). The one exception, of course, is St. Mark’s Square.
The most visible legacy from a time when the Republic of Venice was a seafaring power in the Mediterranean, the square is where the city’s best-loved monuments are: the namesake basilica and its huge mismatched bell tower, the Doge’s Palace, and St. Mark’s Column.
Beware of the seagulls, though, or they’ll snatch your food like they did mine!
7. Prosecco vineyards
Prosecco has been protected by a designation of origin since 2009, but it’s been a thing in the area between Veneto and neighboring Friuli-Venezia Giulia from the mid-1700s. Not all Proseccos are sparkling, only the most celebrated ones.
To get a taste of it the way you deserve to, head to the hills between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene (province of Treviso) and you’ll forget about every other wine country you’ve been to.
8. The Dolomites
UNESCO listed the Dolomites as a World Heritage site in 2009 — they make actually have a point. This section of the Alps is 100% Italian and doesn’t seem to leave much to be desired in terms of beauty.
Whereas the Three Peaks of Lavaredo, pictured above, are the most monumental attraction in the Dolomites, but the whole mountain chain is simply otherworldly.
Rubbing the statue of Juliet’s right breast and visiting her balcony are just two of the countless things you can do in Verona. Wandering through its streets that are straight out of a fairytale and sipping at a Spritz while facing the city’s arena aren’t bad ideas either.
Verona is so fascinating that we decided to single it out as a landmark in its own right.
It’s not every day that you see a medieval castle with a moat that still works. Ferrara’s Castello Estense fits the description, though. The town and its reddish buildings, a feature of cities across Emilia-Romagna (i.e. Bologna, Modena, Ravenna), are a masterpiece in Italy’s heartland.
Runners-up: Rialto Bridge and Bridge of Sighs in Venice, Prato della Valle and the Botanical Garden of Padua, and Villa Capra in Vicenza, Veneto; Lake Garda; the historic quarter of Trieste in Friuli-Venezia Giulia; the porticoes of Bologna, the early Christian monuments in Ravenna, and the Piazza Grande of Modena in Emilia-Romagna
The Best of Central Italy
The area between Florence and Rome is home to some of the most popular Italian landmarks out there — after all, it’s been the global center of the Catholic church for 2,000 years and, before that, the capital of the Roman Empire.
11. The Sistine Chapel
Granted, the entire Vatican is awe-striking, yet the 360° frescoes by Michelangelo have long turned the Sistine Chapel into the city-state’s crowning jewel. The chapel is known for hosting the majority of the conclaves that elect popes.
The Creation of Adam, close to the ceiling’s centerpiece, is one of the most evocative images in western art history. But prepare your eyes to soak it all up — as you’ll be reminded every five seconds, no pictures!
12. Rome’s Colosseum
The Colosseum truly needs no introduction. Italy’s ultimate monument has been standing at the same spot since the year 70. Despite owing its fame to the bloody spectacles it hosted, the Colosseum was a standard amphitheater where tragedies and epic plays were staged.
In our age, the Colosseum looks like it’s missing a few pieces because it was systematically disassembled throughout history, so that its materials could be used elsewhere.
13. The Leaning Tower of Pisa
Imagine you were building something and early on it started to sink on one of the sides due to the instability of the soil underneath. Regular people like you and me would probably give up and move on. But thank God the engineers behind the bell tower of medieval Pisa Cathedral thought differently.
I can’t tell if they predicted the tower would keep sinking as it did until the early 1990s, yet, after stabilizing interventions, today it’s steady as a rock. Phew!
14. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence
Uffizi is where you’ll find the great geniuses of the Renaissance in one set of (long) corridors and rooms. Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and perhaps more importantly Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus are all here.
The queue time for walk-ins is usually shorter than that of David, which is precious when you have so much to see in Florence.
15. Piazza del Campo in Siena
Siena’s shell-shaped main square is where the city’s horse race (the Palio) takes place every six months. 17 contrade, or neighborhood factions vie for the title.
Yet that’s far from Piazza del Campo’s only attraction. Its predominantly medieval buildings scream central Italy like hardly anything else.
16. Val d’Orcia in Tuscany
The valley along the Orcia River is what everyone thinks of at the mention of the Tuscan countryside.
Between rolling hills, cypresses, a glass of Brunello di Montalcino, and a few slices of salami (or some local Pecorino cheese in case pork’s not your thing), you’ll feel like you’re living a rom-com.
17. San Gimignano
In the Middle Ages, rich country folks built castles, but city slickers had their own ways: they lived in towers instead. Bologna, for instance, once had circa 100 of them. (Now we know who exactly Manhattanites copied from).
For its small dimensions, San Gimignano is a unique model of city life back in the day. It managed to preserve around 15 of its towers.
The town is the third item within the Province of Siena on our list, so be sure to stop by this gorgeous region!
There must be something naturally sacred about Assisi’s hilltop location.
Both Saint Francis and Saint Clare, one of his first followers, were born here. Francis was canonized mere two years after his death in 1226. His basilica and tomb, with commanding views of the surrounding valley, opened in 1230.
Yet the whole town is a lovely medieval gem.
Runners-up: Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon in Rome; St. Peter’s Square and Basilica and the Vatican Museums; Florence Cathedral, Ponte Vecchio, the Boboli Gardens, and Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence, and the Renaissance town of Pienza in Tuscany; the historic quarter of Perugia and the town of Orvieto in Umbria; the town of Urbino in Marche
Italian Landmarks in the South
No trip to Italy can be complete without discovering the unspoiled beaches, ruins, and ancient towns of the country’s southernmost regions.
19. The Trulli in Alberobello
Trulli are a conical kind of construction native to Puglia (the heel of the boot). But nowhere else are they as well-preserved and numerous as in Alberobello. Though trulli might look ancient, the bulk of them dates back to the 1600s.
That’s when a local nobleman willing to detect a tax loophole issued an order by which only houses in dry stone (i.e. without any mortar) could be built.
Pompeii is possibly one of the most infamous Italian landmarks. Mount Vesuvius and its apocalyptical eruption in the year 79 are to blame.
In spite of the tragic death of 13% of Pompeii’s population — around 13,000 managed to escape — we were left with the preserved remnants (including some obscene graffiti) of this rich town.
21. Mount Vesuvius and the Gulf of Naples
By Gulf of Naples I mean you should see all of Naples. No kidding.
The city, founded by the Greeks over 2,700 years ago, has always been defined by its relationship with the sea and its almighty volcano, one of two active ones in continental Europe.
And have I mentioned the food? Naples is the birthplace of pizza, eggplant Parmesan, spaghetti alle vongole, to stick to the basics!
For a privileged vista like the one above, head to Castel Sant’Elmo, a former fortress turned into an art museum.
22. The Amalfi Coast
The bad thing about visiting Naples is that there’s so much to see in the region around it you can never stay for less than a week. Or is that the good thing about it?
Either way, this south-facing tract of the Gulf of Salerno, to which Amalfi serves as unofficial capital, is obviously one of the sights you ought not to miss in the area.
23. Costa Smeralda in Sardinia
There’s a nightclub in Sardinia’s Emerald Coast called Billionaire — apparently unironically. That speaks volumes about the exclusiveness of this section of coastline blessed with white sands and azure waters — even royals vacation here.
In case your pockets command otherwise — Costa Smeralda is basically the priciest location in Europe —, Sardinia is literally surrounded by pristine beaches.
Noto’s Sicilian Baroque earned its historic quarter the title of UNESCO Heritage site in 2002. Its yellowish buildings seem even brighter under the town’s sunny skies. You’ll also find nice beaches there, though.
25. Polignano a Mare
Polignano a Mare’s Blue Flag beaches would be dazzling enough if this were an unspoiled location. Yet the town’s ancient houses, which look almost like they’ve sprung out of the rock, make them a mesmerizing sight.
This is the hometown of Domenico Modugno, the singer-songwriter who wrote Nel blu dipinto di blu (aka Volare). It’s easy to figure out why he was so full of inspiration!
It’s not a coincidence the buildings in Matera are uniformly grayish. They were rock-cut some 9,000 years ago! While “seeing is believing” should be Italy’s motto, Matera doesn’t quite embody the saying — it needs a brand new category!
Runners-up: Capri, the Aragonese Castle of Ischia, the ruins of Herculaneum, and the Royal Palace of Caserta in Campania; Castle of Rocca Calascio in Abruzzo; Castel del Monte in Andria and the Baroque architecture of Lecce in Puglia; the Aragonese Castle of Le Castella in Calabria; the Ancient Greek ruins and the Scala dei Turchi cliffs in Agrigento, the Aeolian Islands, and the historic quarter of Palermo in Sicily
Now that you’ve discovered four or five trips’ worth of Italian landmarks, you’ll want to start getting ready for the first one.
And in case that includes planning the best ways to snatch as many likes as possible on Instagram, check out the list of inspirational quotes about Italy that we’ve put together!