All Articles 7 can’t-miss cities in Italy for your next European vacation

7 can’t-miss cities in Italy for your next European vacation

Find la dolce vita from Turin to Palermo

Nicholas DeRenzo
By Nicholas DeRenzo25 Apr 2023 5 minutes read
View from St. Mark's Square in Venice, Italy
View from St. Mark's Square in Venice, Italy
Image: Jorg Greuel/Getty Images

There’s a tendency to treat Italy as a monolith of good food and wine, but the country is really more of a patchwork quilt, with diverse traditions, architectural styles, dialects, and personalities. Palermo feels as distinct from Turin as it does from, say, Munich or Barcelona.

One of the many benefits of Italy’s diversity: Within a country that’s roughly the size of California, there’s a wide-ranging assortment of world-class cities. From historic Rome and fashionable Milan to art-filled Venice and beyond, you’re guaranteed to find at least one that suits your taste. Below, our guide to seven of the most popular cities for an Italian getaway, plus the best places to see (and be seen), eat, drink, and sleep in each one.

Florence

The beloved Tuscan capital of Florence was the cradle of the Italian Renaissance, and centuries of some of the Western world’s greatest artists and architects have left their mark here. Michelangelo’s miraculously lifelike David (Those hands! That stare!) stands 17 feet tall in the Galleria dell’Accademia; Filippo Brunelleschi’s cupola, a feat of engineering, tops the Duomo Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore; and the Galleria degli Uffizi is brimming with Botticellis, Titians, and Caravaggios.

An equally impressive work of art is Florence’s signature steak dish, the bone-in bistecca alla fiorentina, which is best ordered at classic institutions like Buca Lapi, the city’s oldest restaurant, opened in 1880 in the cellars of the Palazzo Antinori. You’ll find a bit of history in even the newest and trendiest spots around town, like 25Hours Hotel Florence Piazza San Paolino, which is brimming with design references to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

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Naples

Famous for its grit and charisma, Naples is a city of high drama, from the expressive local dialect to the operas performed at the Teatro San Carlo. Mainland Europe’s only active volcano, Mount Vesuvius sits right next door, looming over the horizon and the nearby archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. You can see it from nearly everywhere in town, including the rooftop pool at the Romeo Hotel, where an Andy Warhol print of the historic eruption can be found in the lobby.

While many of the buildings here skew toward Baroque excess (like the Museo Cappella Sansevero and the Museo di Capodimonte), the most famous Neapolitan product is something decidedly simpler: pizza. You can sample the almost-alchemical blend of tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, and dough all over the city at spots like the Michelin-recommended Pizzeria da Concettina ai Tre Santi and esteemed street-food stand Pizza A Portafoglio Di Gennaro Salvo.

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Milan

There may be no city in Europe as effortlessly chic as Milan, which is home to such legendary fashion houses as Armani, Prada, and Versace. The Lombard capital also boasts several stylish new hotels, like the Portrait Milano, which the Ferragamo family opened last year in Europe’s oldest seminary.

Sure, you could go casual as you take in the Gothic splendor of the Duomo di Milano or Leonardo da Vinci’s masterful "Last Supper" at Il Cenacolo, but we’d suggest donning your finery for a night on the town at the Teatro alla Scala, where Verdi and Puccini premiered many of their most famous operas. Milan’s sartorial spirit even pervades its restaurant scene, thanks to spots like the Armani Ristorante and the Wes Anderson–designed Bar Luce at the Fondazione Prada.

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Turin

Parco del Valentino, Borgo Medievale in Turin, Italy
Parco del Valentino, Borgo Medievale in Turin, Italy
Image: Massimo Borchi/Atlantide Phototravel/Getty Images

There’s an air of regal elegance to the Piedmontese capital, which is often said to feel more like France than Italy thanks to its wide boulevards, Art Nouveau cafes, and the Versailles-like royal residences of the House of Savoy, a UNESCO World Heritage site. But, in fact, there would be no “Italy” without Turin: It was here, in the first national capital, where the various kingdoms and duchies were officially unified in 1861.

In modern times, the city is a whiz-bang industrial hub, churning out products like Fiats and Lavazza coffee. Visitors will find a wonderfully approachable urban landscape, filled with aperitivo bars (like Caffè Mulassano), smart hotels (like the Turin Palace Hotel), and grand restaurants like Il Ristorante del Cambio, which opened in 1757 and has served everyone from Mozart to Nietzsche. These days, the host city of the 2006 Winter Olympics is also a museum-lover’s dream, with standouts like the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile, the Museo Nazionale del Cinema, and the Museo Egizio, one of the world’s largest collections of Egyptian antiquities.

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Palermo

Sicily’s thrumming capital of Palermo has changed hands so many times over the centuries that it’s hard to keep track of all the “ingredients” in its melting pot: Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Jewish, and more recently, West African. These contrasting influences play out in dazzling ways in the city’s architecture (the Arab-Norman Cattedrale di Palermo) and especially its street food, with standouts like pani câ meusa (cow spleen sandwich) and panelle (chickpea fritters).

On the other end of the spectrum, Palermo is home to some wildly creative fine-dining spots, like the Michelin-starred MEC Restaurant and Gagini Restaurant, set in the former workshop of Renaissance sculptor Antonello Gagini. If you were wowed by Sicilian luxury on The White Lotus's second season, book a stay at the seaside Villa Igiea, a 19th-century palazzo-turned-hotel that recently reopened after a $35 million refresh.

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Rome

Pantheon in Rome, Italy
Pantheon in Rome, Italy
Image: Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

It’s hard to overstate the grandeur of a city that has considered itself the center of the world for millennia. Around nearly every corner in Rome is some monumental construction designed to inspire awe, from the ancient icons of the Colosseum and the Pantheon, to the Renaissance-era splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, to the Baroque exuberance of the Trevi Fountain.

Imposing, palatial architecture also defines the hotel scene here. The recently opened Anantara Palazzo Naiadi Rome Hotel, for instance, occupies a 19th-century marble palace overlooking the Baths of Diocletian, while the Albergo del Sole al Pantheon dates back to 1467 and is right across from the Pantheon.

One of the best ways to experience this high-energy metropolis is to let the experts guide the way on a Vespa sidecar tour. Be sure to ask your driver for their favorite spot to try Rome’s four classic pastas: amatriciana, carbonara, cacio e pepe, and gricia.

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Venice

Few cities in the world conjure as immediate a mental image as Venice, where the waters of the lagoon define every aspect of daily life. Gondolas glide down aquatic thoroughfares, bridges (like the Ponte di Rialto) dominate the landscape, and the local cuisine is heavy on the spoils of the sea, including sarde in saor (sweet-and-sour sardines), baccalà mantecato (whipped dried cod), and risotto al nero di seppia (squid ink risotto).

After taking in the tourist sites, like the 15th-century Doge’s Palace and public square Piazza San Marco, follow the crowds to Harry’s Bar, a favorite of Ernest Hemingway. The watering hole also happens to be the birthplace of both the bellini and carpaccio; try each of them. For a hotel that’s dripping with history, check into the stylish Ca di’ Dio, which opened in 2021 in a 750-year-old building that used to serve as a hostel for medieval pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.

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Nicholas DeRenzo
Nicholas DeRenzo is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Brooklyn. A graduate of NYU's Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, he worked as an editor at Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel and, most recently, as executive editor at Hemispheres, the in-flight magazine of United Airlines. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York, Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, Afar, BBC Travel, Wine Enthusiast, and more. Follow him on Instagram at @nderenzo to see his many, many pictures of birds.