Whether you’re new to Italy or visiting for the 10th time, you probably know its most famous sights. And they’re not famous without reason: from Michelangelo's David to the Duomo in Milan, the best known attractions are utterly worth seeing. But our insiders’ guide will help you take your trip to Italy to the next level – showing you these icons from a different perspective, then taking you off the beaten track to discover the side of Italy’s cities that locals love
From the Colosseum in Rome to the gondolas of Venice, Italy’s classic attractions simply have to be seen and experienced. But there is something to be said for going beyond the obvious when it comes to exploring a city. Whether you’re visiting Italy for the first, second or even 10th time, there is always something new to discover.
Whether you’re visiting Italy for the first, second or even 10th time, there is always something new to discover
The nation’s key cities are brimming with culture, and not just in the places you know about. From hole-in-the-wall eateries to historic artefacts you never knew were there, our insider guides to Rome, Milan, Florence and Venice will help you see them in a different light.
The Italian capital offers history at every turn, but did you know it is home to an Egyptian-style pyramid? Built in the first century BC, the Piramide Cestia (pyramid of Cestius) is one of Rome’s most intriguing sites. Another surprising structure is the Casina delle Civette (house of the owls); built in 1840, it is now a museum famous for its unrivalled collection of stained glass, as well as for the recurring owl motifs from which it gets its nickname, and is often compared to a fairytale castle.
The city is filled with beautiful religious buildings. The Jesuit church of Sant’Ignazio, for example, is notable for its stunning trompe l’oeil painted ceiling, which appears domed though it is actually flat and has to be seen to be believed. If modern art is more to your taste, visit the incredible Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo (museum of 21st-century art), better known as MAXXI, or even take a stroll through the vibrant Ostiense district, known for its array of street art. Once you’ve soaked in the sights, the area is home to some of the trendiest restaurants and bars in the city, making it the perfect place to spend the evening.
Milan’s cathedral is, of course, a must-visit attraction, but be sure not to miss a trip to the roof to view the whole city from above. Another fantastic vista of Milan can be seen from the modern Palazzo Lombardia. This complex of skyscrapers, home to the offices of the president and regional government of Lombardy, welcomes guests to enjoy the view from its 39th floor each Sunday.
Other intriguing attractions include the Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci (museum of science and technology), which is inspired by the artist’s passion for invention. Fashion fans will appreciate a tour of the Atelier Sangalli workshop, after which they can commission a bespoke garment; this is where Milan’s most stylish residents go for impeccably tailored pieces. After a hard day’s exploring, scout out one of the city’s many hole-in-the-wall bars for a tasty aperitivo (a local institution). For dinner, many of Milan’s best eateries are tucked down little side streets, so be sure to take a look. Or, for something out of the ordinary, book a meal on the historic Atmosfera tram, which will take you around central Milan while you eat delicious Italian food.
Florence is the city of Michelangelo, and you can’t leave without experiencing some of his world-famous creations first-hand at the Galleria dell’Accademia and the Medici chapels – arrive early to beat the crowds. From there, head to the Mercato Centrale (one of Europe’s biggest covered markets) for an authentic local breakfast or brunch. There are hundreds of options, all made with the freshest local ingredients. Adventurous eaters should try a lampredotto – a tripe sandwich found only in Florence. Another classic regional sandwich is made from a local bread called schiacciata, which is stuffed with pork, pecorino cheese and truffle sauce.
When it comes to museums, Florence has one for everyone. We love the Museo Opificio delle Pietre Dure, dedicated to the art of stone inlay, and La Specola, with its eclectic displays of natural history. Most museums in the city are open on Sundays but closed on Mondays, so be sure to check in advance.
Venice is built on an archipelago of 118 small islands linked by bridges, so make the most of them and explore on foot. You may get a little lost, but that’s part of the fun, and it’s often how you’ll end up discovering something new – perhaps a traditional trattoria in which to sample the local delicacy of bigoli pasta in a salsa flavoured with anchovies, or a charming bar serving cicchetti (snacks served with a drink).
Venture just a few paces from the popular San Marco district and the crowds will thin, giving you a little more room to explore the city. For a culture injection, try the Museo di Palazzo Mocenigo, which is dedicated to the fashions and fragrances of the 18th century. For a bite to eat, visit the Castello district, home to traditional delicatessens and cafés that you’ll struggle to resist. Or, for a truly luxurious experience, book a table at the acclaimed Da Fiore, housed in an old Venetian tavern in the San Polo area. The restaurant’s menu reinterprets classic Italian dishes and flavours with subtle hints of modern and international cuisines.