Capri – Capri is the most breathtaking tourist trap you will ever see. It is indeed as beautiful as everyone makes it out to be — the waters are the most dazzling, sparkling blue; the sun seems to shine brighter here than anywhere else; the flowers bloom from every crack and crevice in the earth and the shops are to die for. But everything – EVERYTHING – is ridiculously overpriced and designed to rip off the tourist. Do not stay on Capri if possible. It is worth a day trip, even including the requisite, seasickness-inducing boat ride to the Blue Grotto (and possibly to other, lesser known, equally as beautiful grottoes). You are better off staying in Sorrento on the Italian mainland from which the ruins of Pompeii, Naples, and the incredible beaches of the island of Ischia are just as easily accessible. Sorrento is also super-touristy but it is not quite as intense as Capri is.
Cagliari – Cagliari is Sardinia’s capital and definitely not the place to go if you’re hoping to practice Italian; Sardinians speak Sardo, which is a language all its own. This is the ideal city for shopping and clubbing, so you’ll probably spend time on Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Sights to see include Cagliari’s namesake high walled castle (Il Castello), ruins of a Roman amphitheater, and two remaining watchtowers Torre dell Elefante and Torre di San Pancrazio. Although Sardinia is an island, the region’s cuisine is meat based, including suckling pig, goat, and horse. Sardinian’s have strong traditions and a culture different from mainland Italy. Meet locals, indulge in Sardinian deserts, or listen to a traditional band playing in a piazza.
Cinque Terre – The five villages of the Cinque Terre on the Ligurian sea are incredible and enchanting. The water is warm and turquoise, the villages quaint and romantic, and the tranquility of the region’s natural beauty breathtaking. Cinque Terre is quickly becoming one of Italy’s hotspots because of the gorgeous beaches and lush setting. The five villages – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore – are linked by the cleverly named Via dell’Amore, a relatively intense hiking path that offers unbelievable views of the sea. The villages are also linked by train for the less adventurous and athletic. The best villages to stay in are Riomaggiore and Monterosso (which features the main beaches), but Vernazza is an adorable little town with a small port and a castle overlooking the water. Cinque Terre is also reachable by train from Florence (about a four-hour ride) and is close to Genoa, La Spezia (the home of Italy’s Navy) and Portofino. Eat pesto here because this region makes it best!
Chianti – Situated between Florence and Siena, this region of Tuscany is not only known for its red wine, but for its breathtaking views of the countryside. Visiting Chianti is a good day trip from Florence. Specific towns include Greve, Panzano, and Castellina. Go to a wine festival
Fiesole – Just a short trip on the #7 bus takes you into the heart of Fiesole. A hilly, picturesque little town that is so close to Florence it is a shame to miss. If you can brave the intense climb up a steep incline to get to the very top of the town, you will be rewarded with an unparalleled view of Florence that is even better than the view at Piazzale Michelangelo. Fiesole also has a large collection of Roman ruins, including an amphitheater and some Roman baths as well as Etruscan tombs, a museum and a lovely cloister filled with flowers and a bubbling fountain. It is the quintessential Tuscan experience and also really close to campus so go whenever you can!
Florence – a great place to visit for a weekend because it’s fairly small, very walk-able (with a good bus system) and just about all of its main historical and artistic attractions are located in the city center within a few blocks radius. If you have money to burn, try the bistecca alla fiorentina (steak) that Florence is known for or if you’re on a shoestring budget try some hearty ribollita soup made from Tuscan bread and fresh vegetables. Don’t miss the Uffizi gallery, the Pitti Palace and, of course, the famous Duomo and try as many gelato flavors as you can. Florence is also easily accessible by plane from other European cities on cheap airlines like RyanAir and EasyJet so if you get a free weekend (or longer) definitely check it out – you won’t regret it!
Lucca - Lucca is a charming Italian city that is very close to Florence. Definitely take a day trip there to see its many churches, including San Michele which many people believe looks like a birthday cake. You can take a horse and carriage around the city for a fairly low price and enjoy a relaxing ride through its peaceful streets laden with flowers. One of the most beautiful features of Lucca is that its city walls have remained intact since the Middle Ages and still surround the city. Many people rent bikes and ride around the grassy walls which has a real day at the park feel. There is not that much greenery in downtown Florence so escaping to the quiet, simple beauty of Lucca is a real treat.
Milano – Looking for the latest Italian fashions, visit Milan! In addition to the great shopping Milan has to offer, it is one of the largest cities in Italy known for its arts, nightlife, and architecture. Be sure not to miss Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
Palermo - Forget every stereotype Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino have ingrained into your head.. Sicilians call the mafia “cosa nostra” (our thing) for that exact reason: they don’t bother with tourists. Instead, focus on Palermo’s rich culture of Arabic and Normal influences. While some of Palermo’s dilapidated and war torn building areas may not seem welcoming, its citizens are warm and patient. Palermo is filled with churches, but Chiesa della Martorana dates back to the Middle Ages with colorful mosaics that remain as vivid as when they were created. Shop like a local at the main food market Vucciria; for clothes head to Capo Market and Corso Vittorio Emanuele. A must see neighborhood is La Kalsa, known for its architecture and palaces, while Piazza Marina is the site of an old port and is currently a garden at Villa Garibaldi.
Pienza – The home of Pecorino cheese and the best place to find a good-priced wheel of it. Built by Pope Pius II, who was born there, the town square and palace are architectural gems. The Pope’s original garden has been kept exactly as it was during his days with the same pomegranate trees still flowering. Pienza’s location in the Val d’Orcia – a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its farmland beauty – is like nothing else you will ever see. The Pope’s palace offers commanding views of the Val d’Orcia and the opportunity to take pictures that are nicer than any postcard. Pienza is also quite near Bagno Vignoni, a thermal-bath and spa town that dates back from Roman times right through the Renaissance to the present day where you can indulge and feel like a prince or princess in a gorgeous natural setting.
Pisa – Pisa is a definite day trip. Just an hour away from Florence by train, it is the home of the world-famous Leaning Tower located in its Miracle Square (Campo dei Miracoli). Pisa’s Baptistery and main cathedral are also architecturally lovely. There is not much else to see but some of its streets are picturesque and it definitely has some decent cafés and restaurants. Check the weather before you go because if it is raining the whole trip feels like more of a hassle than it should.
Rome – For centuries Rome has been known as “Caput Mundi,” “the capital of the world” and after one visit, it is hard to disagree. It is impossible to see all of Rome in a weekend; Romans themselves haven’t even experienced all that Rome offers. Explore whatever neighborhoods you find yourself in—you will always run into something stunning and historical. The Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica shouldn’t be missed, but don’t waste 6 hours on line! Go when the museum opens and avoid tour groups who usually arrive at 10:00. Take in Rome’s skyline of cupolas and bell towers from Gianicolo Hill or look through the bronze keyhole at Piazza of the Knights of Malta for a perfect view of a tree lined road leading to St. Peter’s Basilica. Via dei Condotti is the main drag for designer shops, while Via del Corso offers more affordable shopping. For lunch, taste pizza à taglio (by the slice) or simple and hearty Roman food like spaghetti alla carbonara, buucatini all’amatriciana, veal saltimbocca, or artichokes alla guida. You cannot leave Rome without: walking through the Imperial Forum or the (free!!) Roman Forum, seeing Bernini’s statues in Piazza Novona, placing your hand in the Mouth of Truth, walking around the Colosseum, enjoying a gelato on the Spanish Steps, marveling at the flawless Pantheon, and throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain to ensure your return. There is no shortage of museums in Rome, but for time’s sake, visit the Capitoline Museums in Piazza del Campidoglio which can be recognized by the piazza’s trapezoid pattern designed by Michelaneglo. Rome has over 900 churches, and while they each are works of art, consider Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Maria del Popolo to see works by Caravaggio. Campo de’ Firoi is a colorful market during the day, but at night, its pubs are packed with tourists. If you’re looking to meet locals (Romans are loud)—cross the Tiber to Trastevere, a hip neighborhood known for restaurants, bars, and shops. A unique bar is Libri, Cioccolata e Vino on Vicolo del Cinque: downstairs is a bookstore, while upstairs serves wine, coffee, and drinks served in dark chocolate shot glasses with names not suitable for print. For something different, head over to the Cemetery of the Capuchin Brothers on Via Vittorio Veneto 27 to view mosaics made from the bones of actual monks—macabre, yet fascinating. The sign on your way out reads “That which you are now, we once were. That which we are, you will become,” which reiterates a valuable truth about Rome: the city is eternal.
Siena- The city of Siena is an hour and a half train or bus ride from Florence. Its majestic duomo was constructed from pink and green marble with golden accents, setting it apart from every other city’s duomo. Next door to the duomo is St. Catherine of Siena’s house, where you can see the saint’s finger. Piazza del Campo is the main piazza where the Palio horse race occurs twice a year; the seashell shaped piazza is lined with restaurants and souvenir shops. Be sure to stop into specialty food shops for almond paste cookies called ricciarelli and panforte, a dense cake made from honey, candied fruit, almonds, and spices.The narrow streets are most easily accessible by foot; as a result, cars are restricted in the city center. Sienese people are among the proudest in Italy; they are members of a contrada first, citizens of Siena second, and Italians third. Siena is divided into 17 contrade (neighborhoods) that are named are an animal or symbol, such as Pantera (Panther), Selva (Forest), and Leocorno (Unicorn). The history of the contrade is long and complicated, including feuds and friendships among the neighborhoods but you will know exactly what neighborhood you’re in: every contrada has its own colors, symbol, museum, baptismal fountain, motto, and ally/enemy contrada. Walking through Siena is like playing a game—everywhere you look, a contrada’s symbol is hidden, whether on window hinges and electrical outlets or doorknobs and manholes.
San Gimignano - The home of Italy’s medieval skyscrapers, is one of the few places where formidable tower-houses still remain intact. About an hour and a half from Florence, San Gimignano is fairly close to Siena and the two can be done in one day. Aside from its impressive towers, San Gimignano is a touristy little village where you can get some delicious gelato, the ubiquitous pottery found all over Tuscany, and a variety of other kitschy souvenirs for the folks back home. It also has the very interesting Museum of Torture which displays some of the Middle Ages’ finest instruments of pain including the infamous Rack and an assortment of frightening spiked collars. The cobblestone streets give it a lot of charm and the winding hills dotted with tower-houses that overlook the Val d’Orcia make it one of the prettiest towns in Tuscany.
Trapani - Trapani is an hour bus ride from Palermo and is famous for it’s salt marshes! I know, no one cares BUT Trapani is where most budget airlines fly into and there are fun things to do there. If you’d prefer to escape from the hustle and bustle of Palermo, Trapani is a calm port city with friendly inhabitants. The city is small, so it is recommended that you spend a day or two island hopping on the nearby Egadi Islands. Part of Sicily’s mainland 600,000 years ago, the Egadi Islands are: Marettimo, Levanzo, and Favignana. Marettino has no roads or hotels, but is home to rare plant species. Levanzo is the smallest of the islands and has one village called Cala Dogana; a quick boat ride from the port will lead you to Grotta del Genovese, home to carved Paleolithic drawings. Favignana is the largest and most populated island; one side is flat farmland, while the other is jagged and hilly. The best way to experience both aspects of Favignana is to rent bikes and pack a picnic lunch for relaxing in the sun while surrounded by sparkling sapphire colored water.
Verona - If you are thinking of spending a weekend in Venice, consider also exploring nearby Verona and Vicenza for a few hours. Walk through Piazza dei Signori and Piazza Erbe’s markets to admire the city’s Romanesque churches and buildings. Piazza Brà is the main square where the third largest arena built in AD 30 is located; the amphitheatre is still used today for musical performances. Of course, Verona is home to Romeo and Juliet; although William Shakespeare is most frequently associated with the tragic couple, the story was first written in the 1520s by Luigi da Porto. La Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s House) is located on Via Cappello 23; here you can stand on what would have been the balcony on which Romeo professed his love for Juliet. Be sure to rub the statue of Juliet for luck in love and admire the graffitied walls leading to the courtyard.
Vicenza - An hour from Venice by train, Vicenza was home to architect Andrea Palladio. His most famous 16th century building is found on Via della Rotonda 25 but Palladio’s work is literally everywhere. His final and most valued creation is the Teatro Olimpico in Piazza Matteoti 11. Made of wood and plaster painted to look like marble, the theatre was first used in 1585 for a performance of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. For this reason, the scenery is permanent trompe l’oeil painted by Scamozzi: he portrayed the city of Thebes with streets painted in perspective to give an illusion of length and depth. The auditorium was designed to resemble an ancient Roman theater: the half moon seating area is under a ceiling painted to look like the sky. Toga-wearing sculptures of the theater’s benefactors are placed throughout the façade. Teatro Olimpico is famous for its flawless acoustics and is still used today for plays and concerts; the theater is awe-inspiring and worth visiting, even if you cannot make a performance.
Villasimius - An hour and a half bus ride from Cagliari is the popular beach town Villasimius. There are few tourists during the winter months, but this quaint fishing village comes to life during the summer, with luxury hotels (rooms are half price during off-season) and Sardinia’s famous Peyote nightclub. Villasimius offers 10 different white sand beaches that give way to clear jewel-toned waters. If the water’s not yet fit for swimming, explore the town’s wildlife (including flamingoes!) while horseback riding through the region’s tree lined mountains or take in some sun while lying on a smooth beach-front boulder.
Venice - A three hour Eurostar ride from Florence, Venice is best explored over a whole weekend. The streets are narrow and winding; you’ll probably spend half of your time figuring out where you are and where you need to go. Remember that in Venice maps lie and directions are given in terms of how many bridges and canals you have to pass. While trying to navigate the city’s 400 bridges and 150 rios (canals), you’re sure to feel like you’ve traveled back to the 1700s as you stumble upon old palace after old palace. The city is damp and cold, unlike most of Italy; also, prices in Venice are among the highest: literally everything is imported and don’t be surprised if you pay €9 for a soda at a café in Piazza San Marco. A great way to save money is to forego an €80 gondola ride; instead, take a traghetto (a retired gondola which requires passengers to stand rather than sit) across the Grand Canal for €0.25 (yes, less than a Euro). If you look carefully you’ll find cheap hotels or hostels, many of which were once home to royals; hotels cost considerably less on the mainland, near the train station, and on Venice’s smaller islands. Be sure to visit: Venice’s only piazza Piazza San Marco and its Basilica, the Rialto bridge, Doge’s Palace, and the Grand Canal. Modern art fans should check out the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, while opera lovers should pay a visit to the newly renovated La Fenice opera house. Sample fresh fish from the Adriatic and taste a bellini (white peach nectar and champagne) at its birthplace, Harry’s Bar. If time permits, visit some of Venice’s islands. See how blown glass is made in Murano or how lace is made in Burano, where every house is mandated to be painted a different color.