Since modern tourism began in the 19th century, Italy has beguiled travelers with its unrivaled works of art and architecture, mouth-watering cuisine, and Mediterranean climate. For the backpacker, Italy is the chance to live la dolce vita. Excellent trains and bus services whisk you from the country’s deep south to the alpine north with ease; letting you take in the country’s plethora of regional cultures. In this article, we’re going to take a tour of the best cities in Italy.
In short, whether you are looking to dine in the world’s oldest pizzeria, marvel at spectacular alpine vistas, or simply explore romantic piazzas with obligatory gelato in hand, Italy has you covered. If you are starting planning your dream Italian backpacking tour, this guide to the country’s best backpacking cities has you covered.
Rome: Visit The World’s Most Historic City
As the capital of the ancient Roman Empire, the Catholic Church and the modern Italian state, it is no surprise that Rome is where any backpacking tour of Italy should begin. No visit to the city would be complete without visiting the city’s evocative Roman ruins; the Colosseum.
It is the ancient world’s greater gladiatorial arena; the stately Pantheon, which has inspired other iconic buildings across the globe; the sprawling Forum; and Palatine Hill, where legend has it that Romulus founded the city in 753 BC.
Similarly, a trip to the Vatican City, the world’s smallest country, is an unforgettable backpacking experience where you can explore Saint Peter’s Cathedral, the Italian Peninsula’s largest and most opulent basilica. Also, you can visit the Vatican Museums, which contain countless treasures. One famous treasure includes the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo.
Beyond the big-hitting attractions, Rome is a rebellious city with some of Europe’s best nightlife for backpackers to explore. In particular, the formerly rundown neighborhood of Pigneto is now alive with bohemian cafes and street art while Monti, which lies in the shadow of the Colosseum, buzzes with wine bars.
Venture Into Naples: Travel The Capital Of Italy’s Mezzogiorno
Nestled in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius on the sparkling Tyrrhenian Sea coast, Naples is Italy’s most underrated city. Long overlooked by tourists and derided by northern Italians, the capital of Italy’s Mezzogiorno is only now coming out of the shadows.
Central Naples is a tangle of atmospheric medieval streets. The highlights of which are the 13th century Duomo and the Capella Sansevero, a gilded baroque chapel that houses Giuseppe Sanmartino’s, Veiled Christ. Amongst the medieval lanes is also a gastronomic delight; L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, Italy’s original pizzeria and master of the Neapolitan style.
Outwith the evocative center is Pompei, perhaps the most iconic Roman ruin outside Rome, which was buried beneath lava flows in 79 AD, and the monumental baroque palace of Caserta. As the former home of the Bourbon monarchs of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, the palace is by many metrics the world’s largest and will leave you awestruck.
Visit Palermo & Catania: Sicily’s Feisty Double Act
Those backpackers who hop on a ferry from Naples or Reggio Calabria to Sicily will be rewarded with cultural riches evoking a fusion of the island’s Italian, Byzantine and Moorish history. The capital of the island’s eastern half is undoubtedly Catania, which is equal parts seedy port city and bohemian university town. However, while the entire historic core is UNESCO listed, its crown jewel is Piazza del Duomo. It had been dominated by a basilica constructed from lava stones and Egyptian obelisks imported to the city in Roman times. When backpacking the city, make sure to try the Sicilian classic pasta alla norma.
To the west is Palermo, Catania’s larger and brasher big brother. The city’s biggest draw is undoubtedly Cappella Palatina. It’s a 12th-century mosaicked chapel designed by the Norman King Roger II that clearly draws inspiration from Sicily’s Byzantine and Moorish past. Similarly, the city’s main cathedral unforgettably combines Italian baroque with oriental exoticism. Beyond the attractions, Palermo also has some of Europe’s best urban beaches.
Check Out Perugia: Italy’s Number One University Town
Perched high in the Umbrian hills just east of more touristy Tuscany is Perugia. Home to both the University of Perugia and the University for Foreigners. This small hilltop city is always packed with boisterous students looking for a party. However, the heart of the historic center is Piazza IV Novembre; a one-time Roman forum that is now flanked by the marble-clad Cattedrale. It has more often than not, crowds of bohemian students drinking beer on its graceful steps. Beyond this, the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria houses the works of hometown icons such as Perugino and Pinturicchio.
If you want to get away from the constant student buzz of Perugia, head east to the picture-perfect town of Assisi. It is the hometown of the eponymous Saint Francis. Here, you can marvel at the heavily frescoed and UNESCO listed Basilica di San Francesco.
Explore Florence: The Birthplace Of The Renaissance
There are few more iconic cities than Florence. Rising to prominence during the Renaissance as the domain of the prominent Uffizi family, the city today is so packed with extraordinary art and architecture. Many backpackers tend to spend weeks wandering through is atmospheric core.
Spreading out around the River Arno, is Florence’s historic core. This is dominated by the ever-impressive red cupola of the 15th century Duomo, and the castellated spires of Palazzo Vecchio; housing Michelangelo’s iconic Genius of Victory. Beyond this, the 14th century Ponte Vecchio, which gracefully spans the Arno, is one of Italy’s most romantic sites.
Once you have done the sightseeing, make sure to sample Florentine cooking, especially hearty ribollita soup and panino that is ubiquitous throughout the city.
Travel Bologna: La Grassa, La Dotta, La Rossa
Known variously as La Grassa (the fat one – owing to its rich culinary traditions), La Dotta (the learned one, thanks to Bologna University’s position as the world’s oldest) and La Rossa (the red one – due to city’s love of both terracotta-colored buildings and the Italian Communist Party), Bologna is Italy’s hidden gem.
The first thing backpackers will notice in Bologna is the Torre Degli Asinelli; the world’s tallest medieval leaning tower that looms over the historic core. Nearby, backpackers can pay a visit to Basilica di San Petroni; a hulking gothic church that provides the perfect backdrop for the city’s main square. The city’s open-air market Quadrilatero is also located in Bologna. It is where backpackers can sample Emilia Romagna’s finest produce from Parma ham to Parmesan cheese.
For any backpackers interested in sampling more of Bologna’s fine foods, every evening bars serve aperitivo; a buffet of the surrounding region’s iconic foods that you are free to taste after buying a drink.
Look Around Turin: Italy’s Industrious Heart
Most Italian cities are unmistakably Italian but not so Turin: its broad boulevards are reminiscent of Paris; its elegant café culture echoes that of Vienna and Budapest. Also, its views of the snow-capped Alps are more akin to Bern or Zurich. Northern Italy’s industrial and financial powerhouse is also one of Italy’s most contemporary cities; think less Roman Empire and more cutting-edge art and design.
As the capital city of the former Kingdom of Piedmont, which unified Italy in 1861, the city also has a host of historic attractions, including Basilica di Superga. It is the final resting place of members of the Savoy royal family. Also, the Museo Nazionale del Risorgimento, in Turin tells the story of Italy’s unification.
Have An Adventure In Milan: Europe’s Chicest City
There is no doubt about it], Milan is Europe’s most fashionable metropolis. The birthplace of Gucci and Prada. This northern Italian city is all about glamour. Its glamour is something that can be seen in its stunning architecture, art, and cuisine. No visit to Milan would be complete without heading to the diminutive Basilica di Santa Maria Delle Grazie. It is home to Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic The Last Supper. The painting depicting Christ and his disciples shortly before his crucifixion. Beyond this, make sure to explore the city center’s extraordinary gothic Duomo. this consists of over 3500 statues and the gilded 19th-century shopping mall that is the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle II.
To top it all off, Milan is known for Italy’s most decadent cuisine, which includes Risotto Alla Milanese – a rice dish cooked with plenty of saffron, known as the world’s most expensive spice.
Find Romance In Venice: A City Built On Water
Few cities in the world are as memorable as Venice. Built atop the waters of the Venetian Lagoon, the city developed into the capital of the Venetian Empire. It then became one of the world’s wealthiest cities in the process. While it may seem inundated with tourists, after you take a gondola ride and marvel at Piazza San Marco, no backpacker will fail to fall under Venice’s beguiling charm.
For the best experience, start by exploring the city’s biggest attractions; the oriental infused Basilica di San Marco and the similarly exotic Palazzo Ducale, respectively the Venetian Doge’s private chapel and residence. Additionally, if you want to escape the crowds, take the ferry to the neighboring island of Torcello. Here, you can marvel at the Byzantine Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta.
For a more contemporary experience, backpackers should visit Venice during the annual Biennale. Here, artists from across the globe exhibit groundbreaking work in the city’s historic buildings.
Explore Trieste: Gateway To The Balkans
For backpackers continuing on their journeys beyond Italy, the most romantic point of departure is Trieste. Entirely surrounded by Slovenia, this city is the only in Italy not on the Italian Peninsula. It has a distinctively Central European flair thanks to its centuries spent as the Austrian Empire’s main seaport.
While the city may lack blockbuster attractions, its seaside promenade is one of the world’s most elegant thoroughfares. Starting at Piazza dell’Unità D’Italia and continuing past the grandiose Borgo Teresiano, the Viennese architecture rivals any found in Central Europe. Also, the city’s art nouveau cafes are a great escape from the bora wind that sweeps up the Adriatic. From Trieste, you can easily hop across the border to Slovenia, Croatia and beyond to continue your backpacking adventure.