15 Most Famous Cities in Italy That Are Absolutely Worth Visiting

Italy’s that rare kind of country that’ll never run out of striking landmarks for you to discover. Yet, while the nation boasts countless natural wonders from the Alps to the Ionian Sea, the most famous cities in Italy are millennia-old open-air museums virtually everybody on Earth is familiar with.

Downtown Bologna
The reddish palette of “Red” Bologna

A handful of the most famous cities in Italy are so well-known they’d hardly need to be listed here, but I wanted to come up with a comprehensive post that’ll help you plan your next trip like a pro.

Most famous cities in Italy: The big ones (500k+ population)

1. Rome

Spanish Steps in the morning, Rome, Italy at twilight

Where? Lazio (Center)

Rome’s unique grandeur is unmatched both abroad and within Italy. If you only have the time to visit one Italian city, this should definitely be it. 

From St. Peter’s Square to the Colosseum and from the Trevi Fountain to the Spanish Steps, Rome boasts dozens of world-famous attractions from different eras. 

In Rome, even what you don’t see is age-old. Buildings have been layered on top of each other throughout the centuries. So now you have marvels like the Basilica of Saint Clement, where a medieval basilica, an early Christian temple, and an ancient villa superseded one another. 

When in Rome, don’t forget to go for an evening stroll along the Tiber between, say, the historic core and the bohemian neighborhood of Trastevere to discover an entirely different (and absolutely magical) city.

2. Milan

Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral) and Piazza del Duomo in Milan

Where? Lombardy (Northwest)

Milan is notoriously the least stereotypically Italian of Italian cities. Its charm might be as discreet as that of the bourgeoisie, yet I challenge you to visit Milan and tell me you regret it afterward. 

Italy’s powerhouse is the country’s cultural capital as well. While Romans can’t seem to find a way out of their ruins, the Milanese have torn theirs down to make room for the future. 

This is a city of world-class museums, top-notch restaurants, high-end boutiques, and both Fashion Week and the Furniture Fair, which are the single most important events of each sector on the planet.

Milan may have more skyscrapers than any other Italian city, but there are several historic buildings spread out across town too. One of my personal favorites is 15th-century Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which is home to Leonardo’s The Last Supper.

3. Naples

Panoramic view of Naples city

Where? Campania (South)

It’s a shame how Naples and its dramatic cityscape, which surrounds the Gulf of Naples and is set against Mount Vesuvius in the background, apparently flies under a lot of folks’ radar.

Besides its majestically Baroque city center (where you’ll find masterpieces like Church of Gesù Nuovo), the city can take pride in its greatest invention: Neapolitans.

The citizens of Naples are loud, witty, warm, and — most importantly — have given the world the one dish that actually matters: pizza. They’re no pushovers either; in WWII, Neapolitans freaking kicked out the Nazis on their own after a four-day-long citywide uprising.

Naples is a sunny city where nature, architecture, and culture seem to have been simmering together for the city’s almost 2,500 years of age to make the tastiest sauce ever.

4. Turin

National Museum of Cinema Torino, Turino, Italy

Where? Piedmont (Northwest)

I enjoy thinking of Turin as Milan’s cooler sister. Locals are hard-working without being workaholics and elegant without being obsessed with fashion.

The first capital of Italy as a unified country is famous for the Mole Antonelliana, an oddly shaped dome that rises above Turin’s otherwise unassuming skyline. The Mole was conceived to house a synagogue that never was and is now home to the National Museum of Cinema.

In case you’re Catholic or simply a history buff like me, Turin is where you’ll find the Holy Shroud too. The entrepreneurial city is where both Fiat was founded and the espresso was created.

Turin is the classic big city with a small-town feel. You might stroll by its porticoed townhouses and the riverfront along the Po (Italy’s longest river), then walk up a hill to get commanding views of the Alps and run into few foreign tourists as you go.

5. Palermo

Mondello, Palermo, PA, Italy

Where? Sicily (South)

Sadly, the island of Sicily and its capital Palermo are better known abroad for the mafia that movies like The Godfather have weirdly glamorized.

Both are obviously about far more than that. Palermo has been inhabited from prehistorical times and boasts Arab-inspired palaces and churches that its Norman rulers built in the Middle Ages. These buildings have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 2015.

Like most of southern Italy, the city was also the birthplace of mouthwatering dishes like cannoli pastries and arancini (i.e. stuffed and deep-fried rice balls).

Palermo is home to Mondello (pictured above), arguably the most stunning urban beach in Italy and the hottest spot in town year-round.

6. Genoa

Amazing sunset aerial panoramic view of the Lanterna (lighthouse symbol of the city) and the port at dusk
Editorial credit: Luca Rei / Shutterstock.com

Where? Liguria (Northwest)

Genoa is one of the corners of Italy’s historic industrial triangle, the others being Turin and Milan. To make a long story short, Turin would ship its cars, typewriters, and espresso machines abroad through the port of Genoa; then the profits would eventually end up in a Milanese bank.

For about 700 years, the Republic of Genoa was a naval power in the Mediterranean, second only to Venice in terms of military and economic might. 

Emblematic of this past is the city’s main symbol: while the most famous cities in Italy are known for bridges, palaces, and cathedrals, Genoa developed around its 900-year-old lighthouse.

Genoa’s historic center is laid out as a maze of narrow alleys overhanging the sea. This authentic and laid-back place is where you can try the original focaccia and pesto sauce.

Most famous cities in Italy: The midsize ones (100k+ population)

7. Venice

Grand canal venice

Where? Veneto (Northeast)

The Floating City defies all logic: it’s made up of a group of 100+ islands in the middle of a lagoon. Even though over 400 bridges connect its blocks and neighborhoods to one another, the city’s main street — the Grand Canal — is spanned by a mere four bridges

That should encourage you to tour Venice aboard a gondola, yet wandering through its tiny squares and culs-de-sac feels almost as amazing. Italian cities seem to scramble for the title of most unique place on Earth. Venice is of course right up there with Rome.

One other thing you’ll only get to do in Venice is sit for a casual cup of coffee at the city’s main square with water reaching your ankles, thanks to the periodical flooding of St. Mark’s Square and many other parts of town.

8. Florence

Piazzale Michelangelo

Where? Tuscany (Center)

If Rome is where Italy was born, Florence is where it was reborn. The capital of Tuscany is the birthplace of the Renaissance and of the Italian language. A city whose ultimate symbol is Michelangelo’s David can’t be too shabby, right?

Florence is a sort of informal guardian of the country’s cultural heritage. It’s home to the Uffizi Gallery, which houses masterpieces by the likes of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, and Botticelli, as well as to Italy’s largest national library. It even served as the nation’s capital between 1865 and the annexation of Rome five years later.

The city has tons of instantly recognizable landmarks. Highlights include the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, once the biggest on the planet and a massive feat of engineering; shop-lined Ponte Vecchio spanning the Arno river; and the medieval Palazzo Pitti and Palazzo Vecchio.

9. Verona

Verona at dusk

Where? Veneto (Northeast)

It’s ironic how Verona was put on the map by someone who allegedly never had the chance to take a close look at it: William Shakespeare. Granted, the town was historically and culturally relevant way before then. Romeo and Juliet, however, eventually turned it into a major tourist destination.

While Verona may not be as monumental as other entries on our list, it’s definitely worth a day trip from either Venice or Milan, if only to touch the statue of Juliet’s right breast as you have somebody take your picture.

The town has extremely well-preserved landmarks, such as the early medieval Basilica of San Zeno, the Roman Arena at huge Bra Square, Ponte Pietra (aka the Stone Bridge), and the doors on its defensive walls.

10. Bologna

Bologna, Italy - Two Towers (Due Torri), Asinelli and Garisenda, symbols of medieval Bologna towers.

Where? Emilia-Romagna (Northeast)

Bologna is honestly my favorite midsize Italian city. It’s not as crowded as Florence yet just as intriguing and rich with history.

The town has three nicknames in Italian: la Dotta, la Grassa, and la Rossa, i.e., “the Learned”, “the Fat”, and “the Red” Bologna. No wonder: Bologna is where both the oldest university ever and lasagna are from!

“Red” Bologna has a double meaning; the majority of its iconic porticoed buildings are indeed reddish, but the city is known in Italy as a historic stronghold of the left as well. 

Oh, and do you see Garisenda and Asinelli towers above? It’s impressive enough these two and about 20 other towers across town have been standing for 900 years. What’s really astonishing, though, is that Bologna used to be packed with a hundred towers in the Middle Ages.


Runners-up: Bari, Bergamo, Cagliari, Ferrara, Modena, Padua, Parma, Perugia, Ravenna, Salerno, Syracuse, Trieste

Most famous towns and villages in Italy

11. Pisa

Cathedral and Tower of Pisa

Where? Tuscany (Center)

Tuscany deserves all the hype it gets; check out the kind of city you’ll find within its borders! Pisa is so old nobody knows for a fact when it was founded. It was first settled during the Iron Age, when nobody could write it down.

This former maritime republic near the mouth of the Arno is home to what’s possibly the best-known symbol of Italy: the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The unmistakable structure is actually the bell tower of the Pisa Cathedral. The unstable terrain it was built on is to blame for the tower’s inclination.

12. Pompeii

Pompeii, Italy. Temple Of Jupiter Or Capitolium Or Temple Of Capitoline Triad On Background Of Mount Vesuvius.

Where? Campania (South)

In the year 79, the floor was literally lava in and around Pompeii. That was of course tragic for its residents, but the whole town stayed intact underneath and is now the most-visited archeological site in Italy outside of Rome.

Back then, it was where many rich Romans spent their summer, which is why the city had its own arena and was dotted with villas. For superbly preserved interiors, though, you should also stop by the neighboring village of Herculaneum. 

13. Amalfi

Positano, Salerno, Italien

Where? Campania (South)

The area surrounding Naples is just as packed with incredible sights as central Tuscany. One of the must-sees in the region is Amalfi, the centerpiece of a jagged stretch of coastline that is marked by the fantastic contrast between the colorful villages and the azure sea.

You should need at least a few days along the Amalfi Coast to enjoy it to the fullest. Make sure you stop by the 10+ other villages as you go, especially Positano and Ravello.

14. Siena

Piazza Del Campo, Siena

Where? Tuscany (Center)

Piazza del Campo, Siena’s shell-shaped main square, with the ochre medieval ensemble around it, is reason enough to visit town if you happen to be in Florence. The tiny village of San Gimignano, with its 14 towers, a miniature Bologna of sorts within the province of Siena, is another awesome destination for a day trip.

Yet Siena is really famous for the Palio, a racehorse with medieval origins that takes place at Piazza del Campo twice a year. 17 riders wear the colors that represent their own district and vie for the title of best in town as some are thrown off their horses in the process.

15. Assisi

basilica of assisi at night

Where? Umbria (Center)

Beautiful Assisi is located on a hill overlooking the Umbrian Valley. Exploring it is the perfect way of discovering the Apennine Mountains, or Italy’s backbone.

The walled city and its stone houses are crowned by the two basilicas honoring the saints that were born and lived here in the Middle Ages: Francis, patron saint of Italy, and his follower Clare.


Runners-up: Arezzo, Agrigento, Belluno, Capri, Como, Cremona, Ischia, Lecce, Lucca, Mantova, Matera, Polignano a Mare, Treviso, Urbino

Conclusion

Tiber at dawn

Next time you visit Italy, you can try to include in your trip plan at least a couple of cities of each different size in the North, Center, and South.

The great diversity in terms of food, architecture, climate, and culture overall will impress you and give you a clearer picture of how amazingly vast Italy is.

Don’t forget to let me know in the comments which of these are on top of your bucket list already!

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