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11 Best Cities to Visit in Italy for the First Time

Of all the gorgeous places in Italy, its grand cities stand out.

If you’re visiting Italy for the first time, they’re must-visit destinations.

Packed with a treasure trove of marvelous museums, historic sites, striking architecture and mouth-watering cuisine, each city is unique and has its own allure.

From Rome to Ravenna, we’ve picked the 11 best cities to visit in Italy for the first time. These are the big hitters – Italy’s most popular main cities.

While exploring all of them on one trip would be a stretch (unless you’re planning a really long stay), we highly recommend including two or three in your travel plans.

Here’s where to start.

1) Venice: The city of canals

Venice is one of the most beautiful cities in Italy!
Beautiful Venice is built on more than 100 small islands in a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea

Ahhh! Venice! The “City of Canals” and one of the most beautiful cities in Italy!

Did you know there are more than 400 bridges in Venice? We’ve crossed oodles of them strolling about the spider’s web of streets – and have gotten lost countless times too!

And those gondolas. Taking a gondola ride with your honey is one of the most romantic things to do in Venice. (And, of course, there are some wonderfully romantic hotels in this city too.)

For a first visit to Venice, you must tour inside the Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica at Piazza San Marco. Skip the long lines with this top-rated guided tour of both of these stunning Italian attractions. (The tour includes terrace access at St. Mark’s Basilica.)

Also stroll about St. Mark’s Square and watch the pigeons being fed and fluttering about your feet.

Pigeons in St. Mark's Square feeding from a woman's hand
Want to feed the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square?

Perhaps go window shopping while enjoying a gelato.

And then just spend the rest of the time soaking up the sights of the old palazzos along the Grand Canal and the boats gliding through the Venice waterways.

Venice goes together perfectly with Rome and Florence (covered below) in this Rome, Florence and Venice itinerary.

Passengers view Venice from a small cruise ship
Passengers view Venice from a small cruise ship

If you’re arriving in Venice via a cruise ship, be sure to read our post on how to find your way on foot from the main Venice cruise terminal to the train station or into Venice itself.

2) Rome

As the capital city, Rome is one of the best places to visit in Italy for first-timers.
Rome is a captivating mix of ancient ruins, former noble residences, ornate piazzas – and tempting trattorias

Oh Rome! My country! City of the soul!” extolled Lord Byron.

City of the soul. Eternal City. The City of Seven Hills. Call it what you will – as Robert DeNiro said, Rome is Rome.

We say it’s the best city in Italy to visit, especially for a first trip to the country.

There’s a lot to see and do. It’s Italy’s capital and the largest city. You have to spend at least 2 days in Rome. More time is better.

Pot plant on an outdoor staircase in Rome
With more time in Rome, you can enjoy simply soaking up different city scenes

Among the wealth of historical sites, here are some Rome highlights:

Trevi Fountain

Take it from us – you’ll want to return to Rome. To ensure that happens, throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain.

Built in the 18th century, this gorgeous fountain is a Baroque masterpiece.

The Trevi Fountain is one of the best places to see in Rome.
Built of local travertine stone, the Trevi Fountain depicts the sea-god Neptune on a shell-shaped chariot pulled by two Tritons

Don’t just toss your coin in. The proper way to do it is with your right hand over your left shoulder.

The coins are gathered, washed and cleaned, then donated to a charity headquartered in Rome, called Caritas. The fountain generates almost $1.7 million Euros a year this way.

Note: The water from Trevi Fountain is recycled and not safe to drink. Also, when you visit, beware of pickpockets. (It’s one of the most common places to get pickpocketed.)

Vatican City

The number of visitors to the Vatican City, the world’s smallest sovereign country, can be as high as 20,000 in a day.

So your best bet is to go early.

The Vatican City is a must-see in Rome, Italy.
Vatican City is a city state (the smallest independent country in the world), surrounded by Rome

There’s no dearth of things to do in Vatican City.

One highlight? Visit the remains of an original 4th century church under The Basilica.

Also walk the Ponte Sant’Angelo (Aelian Bridge) across the Tiber River, which leads to Vatican City.

The bridge is flanked by five stone arches on each side, containing 10 different angel statues (five on each side). Each angel symbolizes a part of the story of Jesus’s crucifixion.

If you visit on a Wednesday, you can see the Pope as he makes his appearance in St. Peter’s Square.

Vatican Museums

A trip to Vatican City is not complete without visiting the Vatican Museums.

The Vatican Museums comprise more than two dozen attractions – one is the renowned Sistine Chapel (covered below).

It’s also home to over four miles of art galleries.

Don’t miss Raphael’s Transfiguration (a painting hanging in the Pinacoteca) and the Apollo Belvedere (one of the most magnificent ancient marble sculptures).

There are two amazing archaeological areas as well, including the Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis (an ancient Roman burial ground) and the Excavations of St. John Lateran.

Try to avoid visiting during peak periods (summer, Christmas and Easter). The Vatican is one of the best places to visit in Italy when there are fewer crowds.

Sistine Chapel

Who hasn’t heard of Michelangelo Buonarroti or the Sistine Chapel?

Michaelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which is enormous. This treasure of frescoes (which includes some 343 figures) is about 131 feet long and 43 feet wide.

It took Michelangelo four years to complete, and left him in agony.

Even though special scaffolding was designed for him to paint while standing up, working with his neck craned upwards took a toll on his health.

Michaelangelo's "Creation of Adam" fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
Michaelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” fresco is the most famous section on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

The best time to visit by yourself is around 1:00 pm. To avoid the worst crowds, don’t go on the last Sunday of the month, when entry is free.

For priority access, have a look at this small-group guided tour. Combining the Vatican Museums with the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica, it’s received thousands of 5-star reviews.

Anyway, to say that the Sistine Chapel is one of the most beautiful places in Italy is an understatement.

Spanish Steps

Need some exercise after all the gourmet Italian food you’re sure to devour?

Head to the Spanish Steps.

The Spanish Steps in Rome at dawn, before visitors have arrived
The Spanish Steps climb a steep slope up behind the Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Boat)

Connecting the Spanish Embassy at the top with the Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Square) below, this is a monumental stairway with 138 steps.

There’s a lift for those who cannot walk the stairs.

The stairs are accessible any time of the day and offer beautiful views, but they get crowded. Visit in the morning between 7:00 and 9:00 am, before visitors flock here.

Just remember not to sit or eat on the steps, as that has been banned as of 2019. (You might have to pay a fine if you get caught violating this ban.)

Roman Forum

Another of the city’s must-see historical sites is the Roman Forum.

The Roman Forum at sunrise
The Roman Forum at sunrise

It was once the key political and religious center in Rome (and indeed the Roman Empire) – where public meetings, religious ceremonies and legal proceedings took place.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, buried under debris, it became a livestock pasture, earning the name “Cow Field” during the Middle Ages. It was eventually excavated, and a feeling of the former sense of grandeur still lingers.

A good starting point is the Basilica, the largest building in the Forum.

A testament to good Roman architecture, it’s believed to have survived an earthquake in 847 AD. Even though only three vaulted arches remain, this place is a must-visit.

Also admire the Temple of Vesta. It housed The Sacred Fire, whose flame was guarded by six priestesses. These Virgins of Vesta were selected as children from the most respected families of Rome.

A trip to the Roman Forum is incomplete without a visit to the Temple of Saturn, worshipped as the supreme god by Romans. Eight towering columns of this iconic landmark still remain.

3) Bologna

Bologna is one of the most beautiful cities in Italy.
Bologna (home to 1 million people) is known for its delicious food as well as its elegant architecture

Love food? Head to the culinary paradise of Bologna!

The capital of Emilia Romagna in the northern part of the country, Bologna is one of the best cities in Italy to visit for foodies.

A food tour of Bologna is a great way to get a taste of the city. And there are many tours on offer.

Perhaps a guided walking food tour of the historic center – sipping wine, tasting authentic Mortadella Bologna and savoring homemade pasta in a classic Bolognese osteria?

Or maybe you’d like a secret food tour, stepping off the beaten path? This one has six stops, including at Bologna’s oldest tavern for a glass of wine and the city’s oldest salumeria.

You can even learn to cook like a local with a hands-on cooking class at a typical Bologna home.

When you’ve had your fill of delectable dishes, head out to explore the historic parts of Bologna. Bologna is a medieval maze, rough-at-the-edges yet beautiful in equal parts.

The taller golden-hued Asinella Tower (besides the leaning Garisenda Tower)
The taller Asinella Tower (beside the leaning Garisenda Tower) is a symbol of Bologna

Climb up the 11th century Asinelli Tower (498 steps) for a view of the rolling green hills surrounding the red-roofed city.

4) Turin

Villa in Turin
Many of Turin’s castles, churches and other monuments were built in the 16th century

Located in northern Italy, Turin was once the capital of Italy.

It’s often hailed as “the Paris of Italy” because of its royal palaces, grand boulevards and stately piazzas.

Take the 16th century Palazzo Reale (the Royal Palace of Turin). It’s one of the most sumptuous European palaces.

Tour the royal apartments, throne hall, ballroom and library, and you’ll see glorious tapestries, art works and furniture.

A landmark of the city is the Mole Antonelliana, a most distinctive building with its tall basilica. (A mole in Italian is a building of monumental size.)

It was originally designed to be a Jewish Synagogue. The city bought it, and today you can climb the 650+ stairs all the way to the panoramic viewing terrace up top (or you can be whisked up by elevator).

5) Florence

Florence is one of the most beautiful Italian cities!
There’s no question that Florence is one of the most beautiful Italian cities!

In the heart of the Tuscany region, Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance.

Ask Italians where to visit in Italy for the first time, and they’ll tell you to put Florence on your list. And while Romans might disagree, we think it’s the best Italian city to visit for art lovers.

(Bonus: Florence’s Il Salviatino, a beautiful Renaissance villa-turned-luxury-hotel, has some of the most delightful hotel bathrooms in the world!)

Whether strolling the banks of the Arno River at the “golden hour” when the setting sun paints the apricot-hued architecture a rich honey color, or taking in Michelangelo’s marble statue of David, you’ll agree that Florence is one of Italy’s most ravishing cities.

Marble sculptures in Florence
The streets of Florence are graced with dozens of sculptures – and the city has dozens of museums full of world-class art

Laced with narrow cobbled streets and overflowing with world-class museums, opulent churches and 15th and 16th century palaces, Florence has a whole treasure chest of wonderful sights.

Some of our top picks? We especially recommend the following:

Florence Cathedral

Completed in 1434, the Duomo (Cathedral of Florence) stands as a masterpiece of Italian Gothic architecture. Its massive red dome, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, dominates the city skyline.

Intricate pink, white and green marble patterns adorn its awe-inspiring exterior. Wander inside, and you’ll see amazing frescoes, sculptures and stained-glass windows.

Uffizi Gallery

Built between 1560 and 1581, the Uffizi Gallery boasts one of the most beautiful art collections in the world.

The number of gorgeous artworks is staggering.

Some of the main attractions include The Holy Family (the only surviving free-standing painting by Michelangelo), Annunciation by Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt’s self-portraits and The Birth of Venus by Botticelli.

The Uffizi Gallery is a world-class art museum.
In the heart of Florence, the Uffizi Gallery is a world-class art museum displaying works by great Italian artists

Not surprisingly, the Uffizi Gallery is extremely popular and usually crowded, with long waits to get in.

To skip the line – and learn the history behind the art – take a tour, like this small-group tour with an expert guide.

Boboli Gardens

Spread over almost 49,000 square feet, the Boboli Gardens are the most important gardens in Italy.

Initially commissioned in 1594 by the Medici family, it took four centuries to complete the structure of the garden.

Visit the grottos and admire their architecture and the beauty of the paintings and frescoes. Also take a look at the amphitheater – several statues adorn the steps that encircle it.

The Limonaia or “lemon house,” with its collection of rare and exotic citrus plants, is also interesting to see.

Citrus fruits are hard to cultivate in Florence, due to the cool winters. Their rarity makes them an exotic variety – hence the creation of this citrus greenhouse in the mid-1700s.

Ponte Vecchio

One of the city’s most famous landmarks, the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) is a stone-enclosed bridge that was built in 1345.

It’s notable for the shops built along the sides.

They were once occupied by butchers, tanners and farmers. But Duke Ferdinando I de Medici ordered them to leave because of the foul stench wafting from their shops.

Goldsmiths and jewelers moved in – and today some of Florence’s best jewelers sell their gems and jewelry from this medieval bridge.

6) Pisa

The Leaning Tower of Pisa
Yes, it’s the incredible Leaning Tower of Pisa!

Of course, there’s the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But that’s not all!

Walk along the shores of the Arno River as it flows out into the Tyrrhenian Sea.

The food scene in Pisa is pazzo too. You can sample cheeses, meats, focaccias – and pasta. You might want to book a food tour in Pisa too.

Enjoy getting creeped out? Head to The Museum of Human Anatomy. Check out the bones, skulls and mummies.

7) Verona

Colorful buildings of Verona by the Adige River
Verona doesn’t get as much ink as Rome or Venice, but it’s no less wonderful

It doesn’t get as much press as Venice. But nearby Verona is one of the best cities to visit in Italy for first-timers who like opera, food and romance.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was set in Verona.

Head to Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s house, supposedly) and see the balcony where Romeo is said to have declared his love for Juliet. Expect it to be crowded though.

Also visit the fabulous Arena di Verona, which dates back to 30 AD. One of the best-preserved Roman amphitheaters, it’s still used today for internationally famous operas.

Another one of the main sights in Verona is the 14th century Castelvecchio or “Old Castle” (now a museum) and the medieval Scaliger Bridge attached to it, spanning the Adige River.

Orange-hued Scaliger Bridge, Verona
Built in 1354, the vaulted arch Scaliger Bridge is a part of the Castelvecchio

The lovely stone bridge, Ponte Pietra, is also worth walking across.

Last but not least, the Basilica of St. Anastasia has some fine frescoes and paintings inside.

If you’re going to be doing a lot of sightseeing, check out the Verona Card, offered by the city. It includes admission to most of Verona’s main sights.

8) Palermo

Palermo's Fontana Pretoria is a monumental fountain encircled by marble statues of naked Olympian gods and goddesses.
Palermo is a bustling city of 850,000, with splendid mosaics, vibrant shopping streets and the mother of all fountains

A cultural melting pot since ancient times, Palermo is the capital of Sicily (the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea).

When wondering where to go in Italy for the first time, Palermo may not jump to mind.

It’s grittier than many of the other popular Italian cities covered here, with a rough-and-worn kind of charm.

But it has cleaned itself up in recent years and loosened itself from the Mafia’s grip. In 2018, it snagged the honor of “Italian Capital of Culture.”

It’s also the gateway to the island of Sicily – so if you plan to visit Sicily, you’d naturally want to base yourself in Palermo for at least two nights.

There’s no denying the beauty of Palermo’s grand palaces, chapels and perfect piazzas.

The Fontana Pretoria (a monumental fountain encircled by marble statues of naked Olympian gods and goddesses) and the 12th century Palermo Cathedral are a treat for architecture buffs.

The 1184 Cathedral of Palermo in Sicily
The Cathedral of Palermo was started in 1184 by the Normans

Even if you’re a complete novice in history and architecture, you’ll adore the richly decorated Capella Palatina (an 1140 chapel completely draped with gold and brightly colored Byzantine mosaics) and La Martorana (the Church of St. Mary, half of which is lined with original gold mosaics).

For more macabre sights, head down to the Capuchin Monastery and Catacombs.

The extensive network of catacombs beneath the Capuchin Monastery contain over 1,000 mummified bodies, some hung in a standing position against the walls.

9) Milan

Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade
For gorgeous architecture (and shopping!), Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is the place to check out

Calling all artists, fashion lovers, shopaholics and architecture buffs! Milan is a cool city to visit in Italy for you.

Located in northern Italy, modern Milan is the wealthiest, most chic Italian city. 

Exercise your credit card at the 19th century Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. You’ll find some of Milan’s most luxurious boutiques here in Italy’s oldest active shopping mall.

Milan also lays claim to some Leonardo da Vinci masterpieces. While the Renaissance genius was born in Florence, he spent 17 years in Milan.

You can see his Last Supper in the former Dominican convent Santa Maria delle Grazie.

Also visit the Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci (Italy’s largest science and technology museum) to see reconstructions of machinery designed by the man himself.

Of course, you can’t miss the elaborate Milan Cathedral (Duomo di Milano). The Gothic showstopper is covered with over 4,000 statues and has 135 spires.

Take in an opera too at the elegant Teatro alla Scala, one of the finest opera houses in the world.

10) Naples (and Pompeii)

Naples, with Mount Vesuvius in the background
Naples, with Mount Vesuvius in the background

It’s one of the most underrated cities in Italy. But Naples has its own brash beauty.

The historic city center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 – and for good reason. It has a plethora of aristocratic residences, catacombs, Baroque churches and convent gardens.

And have we mentioned the pizza? The Neapolitan-style pizza in Naples is famous for its tomatoey thin-crust deliciousness.

Be sure your Naples itinerary includes a fascinating day trip to the ancient city of Pompeii (a 35-minute train ride away).

Ancient ruins of Pompeii
Once a thriving Roman city, Pompeii was devastated by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius

Pompeii was all but wiped out by Mount Vesuvius and wasn’t rediscovered until 1748. (Mount Vesuvius is still an active volcano, but it’s been “sleeping” since 79 AD.)

Today at the archaeological site, you can see the preserved remains of temples, homes, frescoed villas, a brothel, amphitheater and bathhouses, along with plaster-covered victims who couldn’t escape the deadly ash.

11) Ravenna

The Basilica of San Vitale is part of the UNESCO-listed early Christian monuments in Ravenna.
The Basilica of San Vitale is part of the UNESCO-listed early Christian monuments in Ravenna

Home to a whopping eight UNESCO-inscribed monuments? The prestige of once being the capital of the Western Roman Empire and an important Byzantine city? Check and double check.

If you love history, Ravenna is another one of the top cities in Italy to visit.

With a population of about 160,000, it’s much smaller than other major Italian cities like Rome and Naples – making it easy to get around. It’s very flat and walkable, with a pedestrian-friendly city center.

Ravenna’s 5th and 6th century mosaics of religious scenes, along with its 1,500-year-old churches, are the highlight.

You’ll want to go on a guided tour of the mosaic masterpieces (like this tour) and learn all about their meaning and history from an expert.

Must-visit cities in Italy: FAQs

1) What’s the top must-visit city in Italy for first-time travelers to the country?

Rome should be your first stop.

It’s not just Italy’s capital but a sprawling museum of history under the open sky. It’s rich with historic sites like the Colosseum, Vatican City and the Trevi Fountain.

2) After Rome, which Italian city is a must-see?

Add Venice to your itinerary. Known for its beautiful canals and romantic gondola rides, Venice is like stepping into a living painting. Don’t miss experiencing the grandeur of Piazza San Marco – and feeding the pigeons!

3) Which Italian city offers both cultural richness and stunning scenery?

Head to Florence in the heart of Tuscany. Famous for its Renaissance art and surrounded by picturesque vineyards, Florence offers a blend of cultural treasures and beautiful scenery.

And it’s easy to do day trips to places like Siena, Montalcino and Montepulciano in the countryside to soak up the scenic Tuscan landscapes.

Now you know the best Italian cities to visit!

As we wrap up our list of the top cities to visit in Italy for first-timers, remember that each one offers a distinct flavor of Italian life.

Whether you’re gazing up at the grandeur of Rome’s Colosseum, savoring a perfect plate of pasta in Bologna or marveling at Florence’s David, Italy packs an unforgettable punch.

Of course, we repeat: Unless you have a year or so to spare, don’t go to all these cities on your first trip.

Remember the coin you tossed in Rome’s Trevi Fountain? It’ll bring you back to Italy!

See our other Italy travel guides

Our top travel tips and resources

Hotels: is great for scoring a “wow” hotel – or at least a decent one. (We especially like their flexible cancellation policy!)

Vacation homes, condos and rentals: We prefer and use Vrbo (Vacation Rentals by Owner).

Tours: For the best local food, walking and other guided tours, plus skip-the-line tickets to attractions, check out Viator (a TripAdvisor company) and GetYourGuide.

Car rental: Renting a car is often one of the best ways to explore off the beaten path. Discover Cars searches car rental companies so you get the best rates.

Travel insurance: SafetyWing is designed for frequent travelers, long-term adventurers and digital nomads. It covers medical expenses, lost checked luggage, trip interruption and more. We also have and recommend Medjet for global air medical transportation and travel security.

Travel gear: See our travel shop to find the best luggage, accessories and other travel gear. (We suggest these comfy travel sandals for city walking, the beach and kicking about.)

Need more help planning your trip? Check out our travel tips and resources guide for airline booking tips, ways to save money, how to find great hotels and other crazy useful trip planning info.

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Best cities to visit in Italy for the first time

Photo credits: 4, 5, 7 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase

About the authors

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George Mucalov are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents. See About.

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