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Florence’s beauty extends beyond its world-class canvases, sculptures and frescos to the city itself. Its stately palazzo and cobbled streets are a model of Renaissance restraint. And with its lively crafts scene, shopping, and wining and dining fit for kings, Florence is a little town bursting with big-city energy.
See: In a city of countless museums, the crown jewel is the Galleria dell’Accademia, where Michelangelo’s David stands as an emblem of human perfection. Equally impressive is the Uffizi Gallery, home to one of the finest collections of Italian Renaissance masterpieces in the world. When the kids need a break from museums, take them to the Piazza della Repubblica to see the street performers and ride the antique carousel.
Do: Climb the 463 stairs to the top of the Duomo, Florence’s main cathedral, with its double domes and neo-Gothic facade striped with multihued marble. For a more leisurely thrill, stroll along the 675-year-old Ponte Vecchio, the only one of six bridges crossing the Arno River not destroyed by the Germans during World War II—because of its beauty, according to legend. (Listen to the Well-Traveled With AAA podcast to hear how AAA and Insight Vacations can take you off the beaten path in Florence.)
Day trip: Outside Florence, travelers love the surrounding Tuscany region for its renowned vineyards, olive groves and hilltop towns. Or, take a half day to tour Pisa’s famous Leaning Tower, along with its Baptistery and Duomo.
Gondolas, gracefully arching footbridges, waterways lined with palaces—Venice is consistently named one of the world’s most romantic destinations. An atmosphere of magic charms the senses in this labyrinth of medieval alleys and canals spread across 118 islands.
See: From the onion domes of St. Mark’s Basilica to Doge’s Palace with its lacy trim of Gothic arches, the architectural wonders ringing St. Mark’s Square will rouse the spirit. Those who venture into Venice’s back streets will find jewel-box churches, many of which, like the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, hold only-in-Italy surprises—you might even find a Bellini or Titian work.
Do: For an overview of the city’s delights, take a vaporetto (water bus) along the Grand Canal, then cross the Rialto Bridge into market stalls filled with merchants offering everything from fresh squid to carnival masks. If you’re a seafaring type, consider a jaunt into the Venetian lagoon to one of the outlying isles such as Murano, the center of Venetian glassmaking since the Middle Ages. (Listen to the Well-Traveled With AAA podcast to hear how AAA and Insight Vacations put travelers in touch with Venetian life.)
Day trip: Verona, the second-largest city in the Veneto region, boasts Roman ruins second only to Rome itself and the balcony that may have inspired a famous scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. For more delights, see an opera, ballet or concert at the Verona Arena, which has been home to large-scale performances since the first century A.D.
Want to take a deep dive into Italy’s rich cultural heritage? Going with an experienced, local guide can help you gain insights—and get VIP access—that you can’t get while exploring on your own. Here are four insider delights you can experience with AAA and travel partner Insight Vacations:
1. Go behind the scenes at the Vatican Museums
On your visit to Rome, you’ll enjoy skip-the-line access to the Vatican Museums—before they open to the public. Gaze in awe at Michelangelo’s renowned ceiling in the Sistine Chapel with only your travel group and get an exclusive look at the original 1505 Bramante Staircase, which is usually closed to the public.
2. Step inside the House of Machiavelli
While in Italy’s Tuscany region, your local guide will take you to the home of Italian Renaissance diplomat and writer, Niccolo Machiavelli. Considered the founder of modern political science, he lived at the home in the early 1500s, while he was exiled from Florence. Get an exclusive look inside his private office, where he wrote his political treatise The Prince.
3. Explore Florence with an art historian
The city of Florence may seem like one big open-air museum, with its stunning piazzas, cathedrals and palaces—many designed or decorated by famed Italian Renaissance artists. How better, then, to explore the city center than with a local art historian? The highlight: studying Michelangelo’s statue David inside the Accademia Gallery.
4. See glass artists in action in Venice
The time-honored art of glassmaking in Venice dates back some 1,500 years. Today, artists still make traditional art glass at factories and studios throughout the Venetian islands. On your trip there, visit the island of Giudecca and watch master craftsmen shape molten glass into vases, figurines and more.
Sure, you can eat Italian food just about anywhere. But there’s nothing like savoring traditional pastas and pizzas in the places where they were born. Since Italian cuisine varies from region to region, the dishes you’ll find on the menu depend on where you’re visiting. Use this guide as an overview to Italian tastes, from north to south.
In the colder, northern regions of Italy, the food tends to be richer and meatier. Think lots of butter and creamy cheeses made from cow’s milk (since the flatter landscape there is better for raising cattle). The Emilia-Romagna region is known for producing one of Italy’s most renowned cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano—the “king of cheeses.” You’re also more likely to find rice dishes like risottos and corn-based foods like polenta.
The warmer summers of central Italy mean more tomato-based dishes, and the mountainous regions that are home to goats and sheep bring ewe’s-milk cheeses, like sharp pecorino. You’ll find plenty of fresh fish in the coastal areas, along with hearty bean soups in Tuscany and rustic dishes like roasted artichokes in the region of Lazio, where Rome is the capital city.
The further south you travel, the more fresh, seasonal foods you’ll encounter. Southern Italian cuisine relies more heavily on olive oil than butter, and it’s stuffed with tomatoes and peppers, eggplant and zucchini, and even anchovies and sardines. In the town of Naples, it’s all about pizza. In fact, Neapolitan pizza has been recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage. This pizza style (the most famous of which is the Margherita pizza) uses locally sourced tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, and the dough must be formed by hand and cooked in a wood-fired oven.
Italy’s location amid the sparkling Mediterranean Sea makes its coastal locales prime stops for cruises—with amazing opportunities for shore excursions. Consider these five unique experiences you can have with AAA and travel partner Oceania:
1. Take a boat tour along the Amalfi Coast and go inside the Emerald Grotto, a seaside cavern filled with stalagmites, stalactites and stunning green water. Keep an eye out for the underwater nativity scene, placed there in 1956.
2. Venture into the Tuscan countryside to the recording studio of singer Andrea Bocelli, where you can record your own CD. Then, visit the Bocelli family farm and vineyards, enjoy a meal in the Bocelli family restaurant, and see the amphitheater where the singer performs once a year.
3. Combine your visit to Pompeii with a trek up the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. An alpine guide will lead you over narrow, winding paths to the rim of the volcano’s crater walls, where you’ll enjoy panoramic views of Naples and its bay.
4. During a walking tour of Venice, make the trek up the spiraling Scala Contarini del Bovolo staircase. Built in the 1400s on the exterior of Pietro Contarini’s home, the staircase has been restored many times over the centuries and offers awe-inspiring views of the city.
5. Top off a walking tour of Rome’s Villa Borghese, one of the city’s largest public parks, with a hatha yoga session. You’ll enhance your flexibility and mental concentration while enjoying the park’s scenery—secret gardens, statuary and temples in various architectural styles.
Campania, the region that includes Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, has been a source of escape throughout the centuries.
Do: The enchanting Amalfi Coast boasts a scenic seaside route atop high cliffs threading through the southern Sorrentine Peninsula. From Sorrento, the road winds to the village of Positano, which cascades colorfully down its slope to the Tyrrhenian Sea below. Dining on locally caught fish, sipping limoncello and relaxing beachside are popular pastimes.
See: Overlooking the Bay of Naples, Sorrento’s notable sites include Via San Cesareo, the main shopping street lined with Neapolitan Baroque facades, cafes, shops and crafts, and the Sorrento Cathedral featuring 11th-century doors from Constantinople (before it was renamed Istanbul). Traces of the region’s multilayered past can be found throughout Sorrento—visit the monastery, church and cloister of San Francesco, comprised of tranquil gardens, arch-covered walkways, and buildings dating from the 7th and 14th centuries. (Hear more about Amalfi on the Well-Traveled With AAA podcast.)
Day trip: Take in even more of Campania’s beauty by catching a hydrofoil to the island of Capri. A boat ride to the Blue Grotto enchants with glowing turquoise waters. Or stop and smell the roses in the Giardini di Augusto.
In Rome, ancient ruins vie for sidewalk space with designer boutiques, and the domed skyline features bell towers and cell towers alike. Out of this grab bag of contradictions comes a harmony that’s charming and wholly unforgettable.
See: The romance of this city enchants visitors—especially in the evening, when lighted fountains illuminate the winding walkways. Flip a coin into the Trevi Fountain, and legend has it that your return to Rome is assured. Other highlights include the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon (Rome’s most well-preserved ancient building) and the Colosseum. While there, wend your way through the Forum, a complex of ancient temples and arches that was once the beating heart of the Roman Empire.
Do: Don’t miss a visit to Vatican City—a sovereign country and the home of the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Piazza San Pietro welcomes the masses with its series of colonnades that outstretch from the Basilica of St. Peter, which houses St. Peter’s tomb and Michelangelo’s Pieta sculpture. But the highlight is Michelangelo’s fresco cycle on the Sistine Chapel’s lofty ceiling. (Listen to the Well-Traveled With AAA podcast to hear how you can take a private tour—and even dine—inside the Vatican Museums.)
Day trip: Head to the hill town of Tivoli, once a favored resort of the ancient Romans, nestled in the undulating countryside.
Click the 360 icon to experience every meticulous detail in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco cycle, painted between 1508 and 1512, in this 360-degree image.
Just off the tip of the “Boot” lies Italy’s largest island. Sicily makes a visual impact with its range of landscapes, from sandy beaches to the soaring mass of Mount Etna, the highest active volcano in Europe.
See: In the terraced, cliffside town of Taormina, take in stunning views of Mount Etna’s snowy peak from the town’s open-air, third-century B.C. Greek theater. Or ride a cable car up the volcano’s slopes for a hike amid solidified rivers of lava. In Sicily’s capital, Palermo, wander through the eclectic mix of Arab-style domes and Gothic palaces. The city is home to Italy’s largest opera house and the Palermo Cathedral, famed for its range of architectural styles introduced through years of additions and restorations.
Do: Spend a day exploring the historic city of Syracuse. Founded in the 700s B.C., it was once the largest city in the ancient world (bigger than Athens or Corinth). Today, the city’s ancient theater, one of the world’s biggest, still hosts live performances of Greek tragedies. Go inside Paradise Quarry, once used as a jail for prisoners of war, and experience the remarkable acoustics of the Ear of Dionysius. Legend has it that the tyrant Dionysius I used the cave to eavesdrop on prisoners.
Day trip: Take a boat to the Aeolian Islands, a seven-island archipelago off Sicily’s northeastern coast. Go swimming, kayaking or diving in the turquoise water; trek up the side of a steaming volcano; or relax in a warm mud bath in hot springs on the island of Vulcano.
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