Not that anyone ever needs an excuse to talk about Italy, but October is Italian Heritage Month. Though Christopher Columbus sailed for Spain, he was Genoese by birth. And though he was wrong about where he was going and behaved badly when he arrived, he was the first Italian in the Americas and paved the way for many positive contributions by Italian-Americans. Parades in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and other U.S. cities on Columbus Day celebrate Italian heritage, but an even better way is to visit some of the best spots in Italy, which boasts the most UNESCO world heritage sites of any country.
The world’s first metropolis, celebrated as the caput mundi (“head of the world”) and La Citta Eterna (“the Eternal City”), Rome is so full of history it requires several days just to make a dent. The Colosseum and ancient city hearken back to the days of the Roman Empire. Vatican City contains priceless works of art and is a place of pilgrimage for Catholics worldwide. The city’s many fountains are a testament to the brilliance of Renaissance sculptors and architects. From classics such as cacio e pepe to new hits such as trapizzini (a sandwich-pizza hybrid perfect for eating on the go, the food is out of this world. No wonder as many as 10 million people visit annually.
A few hours to the south and pairing perfectly with Rome, the Amalfi Coast is a seaside oasis of stunning views from cliffside retreats. Limoncello flows like water and sunny days are never in short supply. The most popular towns are Positano, Ravello and Amalfi. Not technically on the Amalfi Coast, but on the northern edge of the peninsula, lies Sorrento, another popular resort town and gateway to the islands of Capri and Ischia. Just to the north, right on the way from Rome or Naples, are the Roman ruins at Pompeii and Herculaneum. The cities were destroyed by the A.D. 79 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius but today are well-preserved time capsules of ancient life.
What was to the ancient world, Florence was to the Renaissance. One of the best things about the city is how walkable it is given the concentration of historical sites. From its center around the Duomo, Brunelleschi’s architectural marvel of a dome over the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, attractions radiate out in a burst of genius. Steps away are the Uffizi Gallery with works by Botticelli and Caravaggio. Walk out the Uffizi and across the Ponte Vecchio and you’re at the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens, every bit as artfully crafted as any painting or sculpture. Back across the Arno River is the Palazzo Vecchio, home of the powerful Medici family before they moved to the Pitti Palace and currently Florence’s city hall. A bit down the road is the Basilica of Santa Croce, which houses the tombs Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. Sweeping back towards the Duomo, you’ll encounter Dante’s house before going past the Duomo to the Palazzo Medici (the family’s first mansion) and the Accademia, home to Michelangelo’s David. And it’s all within walking distance.
Long a playground for the rich and famous, Lake Como combines natural and man-made beauty to form one of the most beautiful spots in the world. It’s a shopping mecca, with excellent silk products in Bellagio, and a paradise for hikers and water sports enthusiasts. Lavish villas on the shores have priceless art and artifacts inside and lush gardens outside. It’s best seen from the water, where you can take in the majesty of the alpine foothills descending to picturesque lakeside towns. While it’s such a popular spot that it’s never uncrowded, avoid the height of summer if you can, and try to visit during the week, as large portions of the Milanese population arrive on weekends.
A city unlike any other, Venice is a fragile testament to human ingenuity. Refugees fleeing foreign invaders as the Roman Empire collapsed founded a city on the islands of the Venetian Lagoon, and their descendants built it into La Serenissima (“the most serene”) an unrivaled maritime power. Today, the city built on water inspires romantics and puzzles climate scientists trying to preserve it against ever-increasing water levels. The outer islands of the lagoon have made their mark on culture, as well, with Murano famous for its glass-blowing, Burano for its lace and brightly colored houses, painted so fishermen could distinguish their homes while returning from a day’s work. From gondolas to Carnival, Venice has made an indelible mark on culture that may well last beyond the city itself.