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Things to Do in Italy

Well-known for its boot shape, Italy boasts a staggering number of renowned pieces of art and an abundance of UNESCO World Heritage sites, and welcomes visitors with a warm, friendly atmosphere. Let a private or small-group tour with an expert guide show you how to walk in Caesar’s footsteps through the Forum in Rome. Take a gondola tour of Venice to glide by the city’s classic architecture. Stare in awe at the colorful frescoes in the Vatican Museums’ Sistine Chapel one day, and hike the Path of the Gods along the Amalfi Coast on another. Italy is an art lover’s paradise, as masterpieces by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Raphael await. Learn about the birthplace of the Renaissance in Florence, and admire the Botticellis in the Uffizi Gallery. Then switch gears to explore hilltop villages in remote parts of Tuscany, or browse for the latest fashions in Milan. Foodies flock to Italy to taste pizza in its hometown of Naples. You can also take a cooking class to learn the secrets of Italian cuisine, like gnocchi and tiramisu in Sorrento, or risotto with prawns in Venice. And then there’s the vino: Book a wine tour to the Frascati region of Rome for reds and dessert wines; or to Florence for Chianti. Other tours let you take in a Venetian concert or drift in a boat on Lake Como. Your trip to Italy promises to excite all of your senses.
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Colosseum
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The world’s famous Colosseum was built in 80 AD for the Roman emperors to stage fight to-the-death gladiator battles and hunt and kill wild animals, whilst members of the general public watched the violent spectaculars. Entry was free, although you were seated according to your social rank and wealth. Gladiatorial games were banned in 438 AD; the wild beast hunting continued until 523.

The Colosseum is amazing for its complex and advanced architecture and building technique. Despite being used as a quarry for building materials at various points in history, it is still largely intact. You can see the tiered seating, corridors and the underground rooms where the animals and gladiators awaited their fate. Today the Colosseum has set the model for all modern-day stadiums, the only difference being today's teams survive their games.

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Roman Forum (Foro Romano)
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In Ancient Rome, the Forum was the centre of the Roman Empire. Until the 4th century AD, a thousand years of decisions affecting the future of Europe were made here. When Roman soldiers were out conquering the world in the name of the Emperors, temples, courts, markets, and government buildings were thriving in the Forum.

Located between two of Rome's famous hills, the Palatine and Capitoline Hills, it is now a collection of ruins having spent centuries as a quarry for marble and a cow paddock. The Forum became a very dense collection of buildings in its time but mostly all that remains today is columns, arches, and some scattered marbles so it can be difficult to make sense of it all. Ongoing archaeological work continues, and getting a map or a guide can really bring the bustle of the ancient site to life. You can get a great view over the Forum from the overlooking hills in the Farnese Gardens and from Michelangelo's Piazza del Campidoglio.

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St. Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco)
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St. Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco) is filled with centuries of history and is still the symbolic heart of Venice; it has even been referred to as the drawing room of Europe. With the grand St Mark's Church at one end, the Campanile bell tower rising in the middle and the elegant colonnaded arcade of famous cafes on three sides, it is a wonderful place to be - and the hundreds of pigeons think so too.

Sit and have coffee (you'll only be able to afford one) and watch the whole world pass by while a tuxedoed band plays. Then plunge north into the narrow streets full of shops leading towards the Rialto Bridge, or west into the city's pocket of high fashion designer stores finishing with an extremely expensive Bellini at Harry's Bar, the place that invented the peach/champagne drink. Alternately, head out of San Marco to the east and stroll the waterfront on the Riva.

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St. Mark's Basilica (Basilica di San Marco)
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Basilica di San Marco (St Mark's Cathedral) is magnificent. It is both a wonderful architectural flurry of Gothic, Byzantine, Romanesque and Renaissance styles declaring the wealth of Venice over centuries, and a spiritual place of worship. Its domes and turrets, and gold mosaic stand out over the square and over Venice, and four ancient classical horses top the entrance, taken from Constantinople (Istanbul) when Venice sacked that city around 1200. Inside the church is dazzling.

The church was begun in 828 when the body of St Mark was returned to Venice, smuggled by merchants from its resting place in Alexandria, Egypt. An angel had told St Mark his final resting place would be Venice (which did not even exist at the time) and the Venetian leaders were keen to make it happen. Over the years, churches were built, burnt, rebuilt and expanded resulting in the incredible building we see today.

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Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale)
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Until 1797, the Doges ruled the Venetian Empire and the Palazzo Ducale was where they ruled from. It was one of the first things those arriving in Venice saw as their ships sailed through the lagoon and landed at Saint Mark's Square. The Doges lived here and the government offices were also in this building. Justice was meted out here and the Golden Book, listing all the important families of Venice, was housed here. No one whose family was not in the Golden Book would ever be made Doge. It was an extremely political process ruling Venice and residents could accuse others of wrong doing by anonymously slipping a note into the Mouth of Truth.

Inside the palace is wonderful art (paintings by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese), majestic staircases, the Doge's apartments, the government chambers, the prison cells and the Bridge of Sighs. Outside, along the piazzetta, each column is different.

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Grand Canal
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The Grand Canal is the main street of Venice. Lined with beautiful, if aging, palazzo, you can hop aboard a gondola and imagine a time when these boats were the main means of transport (once there was 10,000 now there are 400). The impressive palazzo, homes to all the wealthy families, had highly decorated exteriors with colorful paintings and mosaics. These days they tend to have faded to one color but many still have the ornate, oriental facades influenced by the merchant trading with the East which made Venice rich.

Only a few bridges cross the Grand Canal: the Accademia Bridge, the Rialto Bridge and the bridge near the station at Ferrovia. Stand on these and watch boats pass by filled with fruit and vegetables, slabs of soft drink, building materials etc because Venice is still a city without cars and everything the city needs has to be transported by water or handcart.

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Campo de' Fiori
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Whereas most of us know the term “piazza” roughly equates to a public square, we may not immediately think the same thing when we see “campo” - especially if we know that means “field” in Italian. But Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori - literally, “field of flowers” - is a square in the historic center of the city. The name refers to a time when this was actually a field of flowers, but it also hints at one of the main attractions of the Campo de’ Fiori - the outdoor market. Each morning, the square fills with vendors selling fruit, vegetables, and flowers. It’s a genuine market for Romans to do their shopping, but it’s also a tourist attraction - so the prices have gone up accordingly over the years, driving many Romans to shop elsewhere. The scenery of an outdoor market in a pretty public square, however, is still lovely and worth getting up early.
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Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi)
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The Trevi Fountain is one of the most famous and most beloved sights in Rome. A huge Baroque flurry (85 by 65 feet or 25 by 20 meters) where water spills from rocks under the feet of Neptune, Triton and sea-horses into a large pool, it's always surrounded by coin-tossing tourists. Superstition has it that if you toss a coin into the fountain you will one day return to Rome. It shows how much people love this city that up to $3,500 a day is thrown in! The money is collected at night by the city and distributed to charity. The Trevi Fountain began as a humble water outlet, the end of the Aqua Virgo aqueduct built in 19 BC to bring water to Roman Baths. The name comes from its location at the junction of three roads ('tre vie'). Around 1735 Pope Clement XII commissioned Niccolo Salvi to design the fountain we still love today.
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Piazza Navona
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The term “piazza” is often translated as “square,” but when you arrive in Piazza Navona you’ll understand why that doesn’t always work. This oblong-shaped space was once a stadium, where citizens of Ancient Rome would come to watch games and races in the 1st century AD. The stadium may be gone, but the shape of the space remains. Today, the Piazza Navona is home to a selection of beautiful Baroque churches and fountains, some fabulously expensive outdoor cafes, and (often) vendors selling tourist trinkets. During the holidays, a Christmas market fills much of the piazza. At the center of the Piazza Navona is Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s famous Fountain of the Four Rivers, with an Egyptian obelisk sitting atop the sculpture. There are two other smaller fountains, one at each end of the piazza, both by Giacomo della Porta. The most prominent building lining the piazza is the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, at the center facing one side of Bernini’s fountain.
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Pantheon
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The Pantheon in Rome is a remarkable building architecturally. Basically a cylinder with the floating dome on top of columns, it is the largest masonry vault ever built. In the center of this dome is a hole bringing in a shaft of light to show the beauty of this building and its relatively simple, open interior. Being inside the Pantheon feels very special.

Originally built in 27 BC and rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in 120 AD, the temple has been damaged and plundered over time. In 609 AD it became a Christian church dedicated to the Madonna. In the 17th century some of its bronze ceiling was taken and melted down for use in St Peter's Basilica. Important figures such as King Victor Emmanuel II and the artist Raphael are buried in the Pantheon.

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More Things to Do in Italy

Piazzale Michelangelo

Piazzale Michelangelo

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If you want to catch those iconic, sweeping views of Florence you've seen in postcards, head to Piazzale Michelangelo. From an elevated position overlooking the city, the fabulous views take in the city's fortified walls, the River Arno, the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and, of course, the round red dome of the Duomo.

During the day, drink in the views as you stroll along the Renaissance promenade, overlooked by yet another copy of Michelangelo's David. Return in the evening for magical views of Florence floodlit at night.

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Catacombs of Rome (Catacombe di Roma)

Catacombs of Rome (Catacombe di Roma)

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The Catacombs of the early Christians are underground crypts filled with literally thousands of bones. These morbid wonders date back to the second century, a time when Christianity was considered a cult and whose members were executed as pagans and buried as martyrs. These tours invite you to descend into the Eternal City's subterranean burial chambers, winding catacombs and ancient crypts to discover the dark secrets of imperial and early Christian Rome.
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Cloister of San Francesco (Chiostro di San Francesco)

Cloister of San Francesco (Chiostro di San Francesco)

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Sorrento’s Cloister of San Francesco is an oasis of tranquility steps away from the historic town’s bustling central piazza of Sant’Antonino. The cloister unites a religious complex of seventh-century monastery and a late-medieval church, both dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, and is a showpiece of various architectural styles from pre-Roman through Arabic to medieval.

In the 14th century Franciscan friars from the monastery repurposed an ancient oratory into their church; it has some Baroque features and its simple white façade was rebuilt in 1926. Inside there are several richly decorated chapels adjoining the single nave and in 1992, a bronze statue of St Francis was placed outside the church; it is the work of Roman sculptor Alfiero Nena. But the cloister, built at the same time as the church, is the star turn here; its tranquil gardens are filled with bougainvillea and vines that climb over arched arcades.

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Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano (Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano)

Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano (Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano)

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Visitors to the Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano can see not only the present-day church, but also an older church and even older excavations underneath. Evidence suggests that the oldest building on this site likely dates from at least the 1st century B.C.E. It was the home of a wealthy Roman that was probably destroyed during a fire in 64 C.E., but even that structure is thought to have been built on the foundation of an even older building.

Other lower levels of the church have been excavated to reveal a room used in the 2nd century for worship of the cult of Mithras, as well as a 4th century basilica. The church you see at street level today was begun in the late 11th century and features an ornately decorated interior. A visit to the Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano is a fascinating step back in time.

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Spanish Steps (Piazza di Spagna)

Spanish Steps (Piazza di Spagna)

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The famous Spanish Steps lead from the Piazza di Spagna up to the Trinita Church. The staircase was constructed between 1723 and 1725 in the Roman Baroque style and is the longest and widest in Europe. The design is an elegant series of ramps with 138 steps in a fan or butterfly wing shape. In May, they are particularly beautiful when the ramps of the staircase are covered in spring flowers.

Architecture aside, what makes the Spanish Steps a favorite spot to hang out is the people watching. It's a place for tourists and locals to sit and enjoy the spectacle of Rome life.

The adjacent Piazza di Spagna is surrounded by wonderful tea rooms and cafes as well as being adjacent to some of the best shopping streets in Rome.

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Bridge of Sighs

Bridge of Sighs

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Built in 1602, the Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) connected the interrogation rooms in the Doges Palace with the prison cells. It got its name from the fact that prisoners passing across it sighed for their lost freedom and their final view of Venice through the barred windows. The prison cells were small, dank and often a final stop before death. You can see them on a tour of the Palazzo Ducale (Doges Palace).

Designed by Antoni Contino whose uncle designed the Rialto Bridge, the Bridge of Sighs is covered-in, with bars on the windows, made of white limestone. From the outside it is lovely, from the inside not so pretty.

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Piazza dei Miracoli

Piazza dei Miracoli

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Some of the finest gems of Western architecture are clustered on Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli, known locally as Piazza del Duomo.

Your first sight of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Duomo and the Baptistery is literally breathtaking, their white marble shining in the sunshine on a bed of emerald green lawn against a summer’s blue sky.

Apart from the glorious architecture – white, red and green marble, Romanesque curves, Tuscan arches and Gothic points – it’s the almost surreal spatial quality of the buildings that creates a sensation.

Come here during the day to see the buildings’ white marble shine in the sunlight, and return again at night when visitors are fewer and the buildings are beautifully floodlit.

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Palatine Hill (Palatino)

Palatine Hill (Palatino)

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Rome is famously built on seven hills, but it’s the Palatine Hill that is the most legendary - it is said that it was on the Palatine Hill that Romulus originally founded the city. Because of this, many of Rome’s most famous archaeological sites are on or right around the Palatine Hill. Some of the structures you can still see in some form on the Palatine Hill include the Flavian Palace, a palace thought to be the residence of Emperor Augustus’ wife, and the Hippodrome of Domitian. Archaeologists are still hard at work excavating on the Palatine, and in recent years they’ve found a palace believed to be the birthplace of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, as well as a cave beneath the hill that they believe was the site of the legendary Lupercalia celebrations. These supposedly took place in the cave where the she-wolf nursed Rome’s founder Romulus and his twin brother Remus, so it’s an incredibly significant discovery.
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Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo)

Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo)

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In Ancient Rome, a “circus” was an oblong arena where events like chariot races, games, and other performances were held. As you might guess, the Circus Maximus was - in a word - huge. It was the Roman Empire’s largest stadium, measuring more than 2,000 feet long by 387 feet wide and capable of holding an audience of 150,000.

First built in the 6th century B.C.E., the Circus Maximus was expanded over the next several centuries (and rebuilt occasionally after fire and flood damaged), until it was rebuilt by Emperor Trajan in the early 2nd century AD. In addition to chariot and horse races, the Circus Maximus also held religious ceremonies, and parades. The last recorded uses of the Circus Maximus are in the 6th century AD, and today there’s very little left of the structures. The site is now a public park, and you can see the overall oblong shape where the Circus used to be, as well as some of the starting gates.

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Siena Cathedral (Duomo)

Siena Cathedral (Duomo)

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Siena's magnificent Tuscan Gothic cathedral is not to be missed. And if you're in Siena you can't miss it because it dominates the place. Rising high with its magnificent white and greenish black stripes, it has a bit of red thrown in on the front facade and lots of detailing - including scrolls, biblical scenes and gargoyles. In the centre is the huge rose window designed by Duccio di Buoninsegna in 1288. Statues of prophets and philosophers by Giovanni Pisano which used to adorn the facade are now housed indoors at the nearby Museo Dell'Opera.

Inside the place is equally impressive with art by Donatello, Bernini and early Michelangelo. Some of the best pieces such as Duccio di Buoninsegni's Maesta have been moved next door to the Museo Dell'Opera. Unlike other cathedrals where you are craning your neck to see magnificent ceilings and frescoes, here you need to look down at the mosaic floor. The whole floor is tiled and is one of the most impressive in Italy.

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Capuchin Crypt (Cripta dei Frati Cappuccini)

Capuchin Crypt (Cripta dei Frati Cappuccini)

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The Capuchin Crypt was once thought of as one of Rome's more offbeat attractions, but it has become increasingly popular and is now on many a must-see list. Underneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, there is a series of six small chapels that serve as the burial chambers for Capuchin friars. These are no ordinary graves, however. There were more friars to be buried in the crypt's sacred soil – brought directly from Jerusalem – than there was space, so older graves were dug up and the bones of the dead monks were used to decorate the chapel walls. Today, visitors can still see the incredibly intricate designs adorning the walls and curved ceilings of the chapels. A sign in the last chapel reminds us that we are just as the occupants of these chapels once were – and we will eventually be just like them, too. It's a slightly macabre stop, not necessarily recommended for children or the squeamish, but it's also not meant to be like a haunted house.

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Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa

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The Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of the most famous structures in the world – not because of its gently rising series of arches, but because of its legendary tilt. Constructed as the bell tower to accompany the cathedral, the tower began to shift on its foundations in 1178, before the architect, Bonanno Pisano, had completed the first three tiers. Fortunately, the lean has now been halted, due to tricks with cables and counter-subsidence. The tower now leans on an angle of 4.1 meters (13 feet), rather than the previous 5 meters (16 feet). It’s well worth paying the extra to climb the spiral stairs leading to the top of the Leaning Tower for views across Pisa. Make sure you book ahead as reservations are compulsory and numbers are limited.
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Borghese Gallery (Galleria Borghese)

Borghese Gallery (Galleria Borghese)

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The Borghese Gallery boasts the most famous art of Baroque Rome. Among the collection are several paintings by Raphael, Titian & Caravaggio. The immense property holds the grand palace where Cardinal Scipione Borghese lived with his famed art collection as well as Rome's most beautiful park, the Borghese Gardens. Here see Bernini's famous statues of Apollo and Daphne, David, the Rape of Proserpine & Canova's reclining nude of Paulina Borghese. Also enjoy stunning views over Piazza del Popolo.
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Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto)

Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto)

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Rialto Bridge or Ponte di Rialto was the city's first bridge over the Grand Canal. Connecting the highest points on the lagoon islands settlement, the first bridge was built in 1180 and this more solid marble one in 1588-92. The bridge is an elegant arch with steps and shops, a mass of water traffic passing underneath, and huge numbers of tourists and Venetians heading across it.

The area around the bridge was, and still is, full of important city functions. Nearby are the city's markets: the fresh produce and the fish market. They have been there for 700 years. This area was also where the first banks were established, where the traders who made Venice rich set sail from and sold their goods on return, where courts met, prisoners were held and punished, and new laws were declared.

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