It’s hard to find a destination with a richer history than Italy. Taking its place at the very heart of antiquity, today there’s a rich array of ancient Italian tourist attractions often dating back thousands of years. But with literally hundreds of places to choose from, selecting the top ten tourist attractions in Italy is no simple task.
So if you're seeking inspiration for your trip – be it a city break in Rome, a journey to the Amalfi Coast or an exploration of the Tuscan countryside, then our selection of the top ten sights in Italy will get you started. We’ve included some of the most famous tourist attractions in the country as well as a few fantastic sights you may not know. And if that doesn’t sate your appetite for Italian attractions, our expanded list of historical sites in Italy will give you loads more to discover.
10. Palazzo Pitti
Home to one of the most notorious families of Italy, the Medici, Palazzo Pitti takes the idea of wealth, status and luxury to a new level. An ornate renaissance palatial home, today visitors can not only explore the palace itself but view the superb collection or artistic treasures - including Raphaels and Rubens - now displayed in one of several state museums contained within the building. And if the wonders inside the building aren’t enough to keep you enthralled, Palazzo Pitti has one more ace up its sleeve, the majestic Boboli Gardens. Providing the inspiration for many of Europe’s other great estates, the Boboli Gardens are stunning, vast and tranquil.
Ranking among the most picturesque sights in Italy is the Ancient Greek town of Paestum, which was originally founded as a Greek colony in the sixth century BC. With three beautifully preserved Greek temples and a wealth of other ancient ruins, Paestum is a wonder to explore. Today, this out-of-the-way little town combines a tranquil countryside setting with stunning Hellenic architecture and an interesting local museum to make for a great day out.
Perched high in the Apulian hills, the wonderfully symmetrical Castel del Monte dominates the skyline and offers great views of the surrounding countryside. Described by UNESCO as a “unique piece of medieval military architecture”, Castel del Monte is certainly a fascinating fortification with a history dating back to the thirteenth century. Architecturally unusual for its octagonal design, it is the very uniqueness of Castel del Monte which makes it such a pleasure to visit.
Venice is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy – best known for its labyrinth of canals, it also boasts a myriad of great attractions, of which Saint Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace rank highly. With beautiful Byzantine domed architecture Saint Mark’s Basilica is one of Italy’s most striking cathedrals, while the Doge’s Palace contains a wealth of fascinating exhibitions and even offers a more enigmatic ‘secret tour’. A hugely popular tourist attraction for visitors to this celebrated city, this joint complex is simply a must see.
What seems to be an attractive thirteenth century church in Naples in fact contains a startling secret – the amazing underground remains of the Greco-Roman city of Neapolis. Visitors can wander through the Greek Agora as well as the old Roman streets complete with ancient shop fronts. This truly remarkable place is also an informative museum, with exhibits and historical information covering the archaeological excavations at the site. Often ignored in lists of the top Italian tourist attractions, we think San Lorenzo Maggiore is unmissable.
For an experience which combines the macabre with the surreal, the Catacombs of the Capuchins in Palermo, Sicily, is one tourist attraction that is entirely unique. People were originally laid to rest here in the late 16th century and, when it was observed that these bodies remained in a remarkable state of preservation, the catacombs became utilised as a burial place for nobles, clerics and local families. By the time it closed in the early 20th century it contained thousands of burials – a huge number of which remain ominously well-preserved. Today visitors can wander through the complex and discover its grisly interior, but keep in mind that this is one experience which is not for the faint-hearted.
4. Ostia Antica
Curiously this is both one of the very best and yet least frequented tourist attractions in Italy. The truth is that Ostia Antica should be a staple part of anyone’s trip to this hugely popular travel destination. It contains the extremely well preserved remains of Rome’s ancient port, including intact high streets, temples, theatres and more. It’s truly astounding. Any yet as few people are prepared to take the short train trip from Rome to get there, it remains both one of the very best attractions in Italy and one of the most hidden.
The ruins of this doomed ancient town, buried by lava and ashes from the erupting Vesuvius volcano, are a marvel to explore. Indeed, there’s no doubt that Pompeii ranks among the most famous tourist attractions of Italy, and rightly so. With so much to see, it can take several hours to wander the old Roman streets and explore the amphitheatre and Forum, the shops and brothels and even view 2,000 year-old graffiti on the walls. Less well known, and certainly less crowded, nearby Herculaneum arguably contains better preserved ruins than its grander neighbour and is certainly worth making the time to visit.
One of the most recognisable buildings on the planet, St Peter’s Basilica is among the largest churches in the world and has operated at the very centre of the Catholic faith for centuries. Today it retains its religious role but, along with the Vatican Museums, St Peter’s has also become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy. Inside St Peter’s visitors can see the beautiful interiors, a wealth of renaissance art and even view the tombs of some of history’s most influential Popes. Likewise the museums contain artistic masterpieces from illustrious artists such as Raphael and Leonardo Da Vinci, as well as Michelangelo’s world renowned Sistine Chapel.
Let’s face it, there could only be one winner in the list of Italy’s top ten tourist attractions. Well, alright…two. The Roman Forum and the Colosseum are probably the most famous and most frequented tourist sights in Italy and with millions of visitors every year the ancient heart of the Roman world is a must-see for any tourist. While the Forum itself is far from its glorious best and requires a little imagination, the Colosseum remains as a magnificent ancient stadium which can still be explored top to bottom. Despite their popularity however, the truth is that the throngs of tourists and cheap-looking ‘legionaries’ take something away from the majesty of these ancient buildings – but then perhaps that adequately reflects what they would have actually been like in their prime - noisy, bustling and anarchic - the ironic beating heart of an Empire whose mission was to bring order from chaos.