Most people visit Italy for the historical monuments, as well as for the food and gorgeous landscapes. Here are some practical tips on which historical monuments to visit and how to make the best of them – notably, how to avoid the crowds! If you’re an art buff, you can spend your days wandering through endless museums and frescoed chapels, while history fans will find joy imaging the lives that passed through the centuries-old churches and innovative buildings that tower above the piazzas. There is something appealing for everyone in the wonderland of Italy’s plentiful and diverse historical monuments. Whether you have a few days to explore or a few weeks, this list is sure to get you started on the adventure of a lifetime.
Historical Monuments in Rome
Kick off your trip in Rome with a stop at the Colosseum, an amphitheatre built in the first century to hold over 50,000 spectators. A testament to the greatness of Roman architecture, the Colosseum is famous for having hosted a variety of games, battle recreations and gladiator matches. Although partially destroyed over time by earthquakes and thieves, the Colosseum maintains a strange appeal, perhaps connected to the bloody games that took place here, made famous in films like Gladiator, so this remains Italy’s most visited monument. Because of this, book your ticket online ahead of time to avoid the long lines- scheduled entrance times and group tours are available online. If visiting in the summertime, beware – roofless buildings can get very hot and sunny!
Another popular attraction in Rome is the Vatican. Step between two countries on just one sidewalk as you visit St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums, which includes Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s Renaissance frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura. The Vatican Museum has hours-long lineups, so book a timed entry online, possibly first thing in the morning, and well in advance of your visit. Given the size and importance of the works here, taking a tour is actually a good idea. Be aware that photos aren’t permitted in the Sistine Chapel, though there are plenty of other important works of art and photo-worthy features in this “museum” that is really much more than that.
As for St. Peter’s Cathedral – which other than its pilgrimage cachè is an artistic destination for the architecture and the sculpture of the Pietà by Michelangelo – lines can stretch around the square. However, if you have been inside the museum, there’s a dedicated exit leading from the museum to the church, so you skip the main line and just have to pass through security.
While you’re in Rome, other popular sites include the Pantheon (an important ancient building) and the Trevi Fountain, both of which are free to visit. You’re going to experience crowds year-round, just about everywhere, but we suggest creating an itinerary that includes some of the lesser known churches. For example, Santa Prassede and Santa Maria Maggiore are both near the train station and full of riches spanning centuries, and the Chiesà del Gesù is a Baroque explosion. Don’t feel you have to “do it all” – if you don’t like visiting major tourist attractions, skip them in favour if these churches and some of the incredible museums in Rome.
Historical Monuments in Florence
Then, travel north to the Renaissance city of Florence, famous for its skyline dominated by the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Florence’s Duomo, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, was the largest in the world when construction was completed in 1436. One of the top activities in Florence is climbing the Duomo, which allows you to admire its architecture from the inside, but you must reserve a time slot at the Opera del Duomo ticket office. But if you brave the 500-step climb to the top, you can enjoy a breathtaking 360-degree view of the city (that is, if the stairs don’t take your breath away first!). Expert tip: if the line to walk up the Duomo is too long, try the Belltower – designed by Giotto and pre-dating the Cathedral, it’s almost as tall, and gives a view of the Dome and everything else in Florence.
Stroll down the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge that stretches across the Arno River to connect the two sides of the city. The Ponte Vecchio has been standing for almost 700 years and is the only bridge left in Florence with its original buildings on it – in the Middle Ages, they all looked like this. The bridge is a pedestrian highway, packed with tourists, especially at sunset. But when you cross to the south side of the river, you’ll be immediately surprised by the change in scenery. The Oltrarno is a medley of narrow side-streets filled with flower boxes, parked motorbikes, artisan shops and mom-and-pop bakeries.
In Florence as in Rome, it’s not easy to get away from the crowds. The Uffizi museum’s line up is quite famous (here are our tips for the best possible Uffizi experience), so if you’re not feeling up to it, visit the Bargello, the city’s sculpture museum, or the Opera del Duomo museum, which displays the works originally made for the Cathedral.
Historical Monuments in Pisa
A quick day-trip from Florence is the city of Pisa, known for its Leaning Tower. Construction on the tower began in 1173, but was halted several times due to military conflict, financial issues and mechanical obstacles. Shifting soil caused the tower to sink during construction, and although many attempts were made to correct the lean, the soft soil was no match for the weight of the tower.
Hoardes of tourists will be visiting the Tower and taking pictures supporting it (we locals call these #pisapushers). Feel free to do this just for fun… then get the combined ticket to visit the rest of the Cathedral complex and see the more obscure things like the Camposanto, a grisly depiction of medieval death in fresco. But don’t just take the train home right away – explore the more hidden gems in Pisa, you’ll be pleasantly surprised!
Historical Monuments in Venice
Venice is a historical monument in and of itself. The city built on water offers Instagram-worthy photographs around every corner and over every bridge, with the special way that light reflects off the water. You’ll find the biggest crowds in St. Mark’s Square; here, stay away from the pigeons (and don’t feed them!) and get yourself a ticket to enter the incredible Cathedral, with its interior entirely covered in shimmering mosaics. For an impressive view from above ride the elevator (no need to worry about braving the stairs here!) up to the top of the Campanile, the bell tower directly across from the church.
It’s not easy to get away from the crowds in Venice, unless visiting mid-February (super low season) is an option! So our tip is to just be prepared for it, and go with the flow. The residential areas still offer little trattorie that aren’t terribly expensive and family life that takes place in the wide open campos, so try to find these and have a seat and a spritz and just enjoy. But most of all: stay the night! Venice swells with daytime visitors, including from cruise ships, but at night it’s much less crowded, and then you can feel the magic.
If you want to spend time in a few Italian cities while exploring the most famous historical monuments the country has to offer, you’re sure to have an educational and life-changing experience. From the awe-inspiring Gothic architecture of Florence’s Duomo to the divine frescoes of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, marvel at the breathtaking monuments this historic country has preserved for centuries. Buon viaggio!
Words by Celita Summa