Italy is home to the largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the World – 58 to be precise – 53 are cultural and 5 natural, putting it just ahead of China. The country’s vast architectural and cultural heritage draws around 65 million visitors per year.
We’d need to write an encyclopedia to cover every famous Italian landmark, but here are 10 to get you started on your discovery of bella Italia.
The Colosseum in Rome
As every Roman emperor knew, what a populace needs to keep it happy are panem et circenses, or bread and games (food and fun!) And Rome’s Colosseum certainly took care of the latter. Home to gladiator fights, recreations of battles and exotic animals, construction on this almost 2000-year-old structure was began in A.D. 72 by Emperor Vespasian and completed around 6 years later under Emperor Titus.
Today, along with the Vatican City, it is one of Italy’s biggest tourist draws with 6 million visitors per year and this masterpiece of the Roman Empire is considered one of the wonders of the modern world.
Fun Facts About the Colosseum
- The Colosseum opened with 100 days of games (and it’s estimated that 2000 gladiators lost their lives!)
- The arena could hold around 50,000 spectators.
- The Colosseum’s real name is the Flavian Amphitheatre. The three emperors involved in building it – Vespasian, Titus and Domitian were part of the ‘Flavian Dynasty’. The name colosseum probably comes from the colossal statue of the previous Emperor Nero that stood outside.
- Every school kid loves the detail about the Roman’s vomitorium, but it’s not a place where Roman’s went to throw up after a rich meal – it’s just a passageway from a structure like the Colosseum (or an amphitheater) that people could enter and leave the building by. The vomitoria spewed the crowds out onto the street!
Nearby: Roman Forum and Palatine Hill; Spanish Steps
Also in the Eternal City, the Vatican is the spiritual heart of Rome and of the Catholic Church. It is a destination for pilgrims from all over the world, home to the Pope and a treasure trove of incredible art and architecture, especially in the Vatican Museums. One of the most famous buildings is the Sistine Chapel, with its frescoed ceilings by Michelangelo. The Vatican’s centerpiece is St. Peter’s Basilica, the imposing Renaissance-style church that is one of the largest buildings in the world.
Fun Facts about Vatican City
- The Vatican is an independent city state within Italy and it is the world’s smallest country. It covers less than 109 acres. However, no one is born there – there are no hospitals in the Vatican city. You become a citizen if you live in Vatican city because of your work or official role.
- The highly colorful Swiss guards protect the pope. Originally mercenaries, this ‘regiment’ has been in service for over 500 years. There are 135 of them, making it the world’s smallest army.
- Vatican City has its own ATM – complete with instructions in Latin.
- The Pope usually lives in the opulent Papal apartments and visits his Summer residence – Castel Gandolfo – outside of Rome, for 2 months of the year. However, the current Pope Francis decided to live in the far more modest suite 201 of the Domus Sanctae Marthae (St. Martha’s House) a guesthouse for visiting clergy.
Discover other Famous Italian Museums
The most surprising thing about Pompeii, which most of us read about in history books, is how enormous it is when you actually visit it. This vibrant city, about 15 miles south of Naples as the crow flies, was home to around 12,000 people in the city center and about the same number living in the surrounding region. It was a wealthy place, with grand public buildings and fine private homes.
Around 2.5 million visitors a year flock to see the remains of this city, destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD. 79.
Fun Facts about Pompeii
- Although further from the sea these days, Pompeii was actually a port on the mouth of the present-day Sarno River.
- What killed the inhabitants of Pompeii was not molten lava, but a giant cloud of ash and toxic gases.
- Rock group Pink Floyd played a legendary concert in Pompeii’s Roman amphitheater in 1972.
- Mount Vesuvius is one of only two active volcanos in continental Europe. It is constantly monitored as it could theoretically erupt again at any time (the last one was in 1944).
- When you visit Pompeii, you may be surprised to see lots of ancient graffiti (examples include “Secundus likes to screw boys” and “Phileros is a eunuch!”) and flying penises! The winged phallus was a protective amulet, a kind of lucky charm and once you’ve spotted one you’ll see them all over the place – on doorways and at street corners.
Nearby: Herculaneum; Amalfi Coast – Positano, Amalfi, Capri
The Leaning Tower of Pisa
Every visitor to Pisa attempts the classic photo holding up the tower at least once! The tower is the freestanding campanile (bell tower) of the cathedral. Designed to be perfectly vertical, it’s currently leaning 3.9 meters away.
Construction started in 1173. The tower is the work of several (and some unknown) architects. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that due to the ground underneath (a mixture of sand, clay and shells) the tower was beginning to tilt southwards. It’s located in Pisa’s Campo dei Miracoli or ‘Field of Miracles’ and is one of the most iconic symbols of Italy.
Fun Facts About the Leaning Tower of Pisa
- It took almost two hundred years to complete, because the marine Republic of Pisa was continually at war with either Genoa, Lucca or Florence.
- Galileo Galilei was baptized in the cathedral baptistery in 1565
- It’s not the only tower in Pisa that leans – as the subsoil is unsuitable for tall constructions, the bell tower of the church of San Nicola and the church of St. Michele dei Scalzi in the city are also leaning.
- It has managed to survive four earthquakes!
Nearby: Lucca; beaches
The Rialto Bridge in Venice
The entire city of Venice is a wonder in its own right, but one of its most famous constructions is the Rialto Bridge over its Grand Canal. It was built towards the end of the 16th century by Antonio da Ponte (or Anthony of the Bridge – yes really) and is a wonder of Renaissance architecture and engineering. This costly marble structure was created following a public competition for designs (in which even Michelangelo took part!)
Fun Facts About the Rialto Bridge
- The bridge over the Grand Canal was originally a wooden pontoon bridge, but it collapsed several times.
- One of the most famous collapses was in 1444 and was caused by a huge crowd who wanted to get a good view of the Marquis of Ferrara’s wedding procession.
- The bridge features as a meeting place in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”.
- “The Miracle of the Relic of the Cross”, painted by artist Vittore Carpaccio in 1496, is an incredible record of everyday life in Venice and is an excellent representation of the Rialto Bridge in its wooden form.
The Ponte Vecchio in Florence
Here’s another bridge that’s an iconic Italian landmark. The Ponte Vecchio, literally the ‘Old Bridge’, spans the Arno River in Florence at its narrowest point. It probably dates back to the year 966, although it has been destroyed by a couple of floods, the most dramatic in 1345. The architect is debated. The Renaissance art historian Vasari says Taddeo Gaddi, modern historians favor Neri di Fioravanti. Like the Rialto, the bridge is lined with shops – today jewelers, goldsmiths and antique stores.
Fun Facts About the Ponte Vecchio
- The Ponte Vecchio is mentioned in the famous aria ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ by Giuseppe Verdi (“And if my love were in vain, I would go to the Ponte Vecchio and throw myself in the Arno River”).
- The Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge across the Arno that the Germans did not destroy during WWII.
- The Ponte Vecchio survived a huge flood when the Arno broke its banks in 1966.
- The stores on the bridge haven’t always been so fancy: in the 1200s it was mainly fishmongers, tanners and butchers. They got kicked off due to the stench in the 16th century.
Nearby: Duomo (Florence Cathedral – Santa Maria del Fiore); Giotto’s Bell Tower; Boboli Gardens
Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan
This Dominican Convent and church and one of the biggest draws in Milan is principally famous for a painting on the wall of its ex-refectory: Il Cenacolo or the Last Supper. However, both the Convent and the Church itself are exquisite. They date back to the late 15th century.
But why was the Tuscan Leonardo in Milan in the first place? He was working at the court of the great Milanese ruler, Ludovico Sforza, but as a military engineer rather than artist. However, Sforza wanted to renovate the Convent and commissioned Leonardo to paint the mural.
Fun Facts About Santa Maria delle Grazie
- It’s not a fresco – fresco in Italian literally means ‘fresh’. A fresco is painted using water-based paints on freshly applied plaster. You have to be quick! The work needs to be completed before the plaster dries out. Leonardo was a slow and meticulous artist. He didn’t want to be constrained by time, so he used a tempera technique and took three years to finish the Last Supper.
- You need to book well in advance if you want to see The Last Supper – only around 25 people at a time are allowed to go into the room where it is on display.
- It is (luckily) impossible to move The Last Supper – it is too large and much too fragile. Other artworks in Santa Maria delle Grazia were not so fortunate. For example, the altarpiece was ‘requisitioned’ (stolen) by Napoleon and is now on display at the Louvre Museum.
Nearby: The Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral)
Capella degli Scrovegni in Padua
Now to a real fresco. The Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, northern Italy may not be on every tourist’s radar but it contains one of the most important works in the history of modern Western art: the fresco cycle by Giotto showing the History of Salvation. The chapel itself was commissioned by Enrico degli Scrovegni, son of a wealthy moneylender. Legend has it that it was to atone for the sins of his father (named by Dante Alighieri himself in the Divine Comedy and placed among the moneylenders in hell).
Fun Facts About Capella degli Scrovegni
- Florentine artist Giotto managed to complete the huge fresco cycle in 2 years (along with some 40 assistants) from 1303 – 1305.
- Giotto intended the fresco cycle as a kind of graphic story. Most people were illiterate and so could not read the bible for themselves. The cycle was designed so that viewers could ‘read’ the story from left to right and from top to bottom.
- Giotto’s frescos are a truly modern departure from Medieval art. There is 3-dimensional perspective and lots of attention to detail and real human emotion. Faces have real expressions, perhaps for the first time in art.
The Trevi Fountain in Rome
Back to Rome and to a masterpiece of 18th century Baroque Art. The Trevi Fountain is the place where tourists go to throw their coins, hoping that they will return to Rome some day (possibly with the love of their life). The fountain, designed by architect Nicola Salvi, depicts the god Oceanus taming the waters and is made from Travertine stone quarried in nearby Tivoli. It was made famous in the 1960 film La Dolce Vita when Swedish sex symbol Anita Ekberg took a romantic midnight dip in the fountain with Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni.
Fun Facts About the Trevi Fountain
- The fountain’s name – Trevi – comes from the Italian tre vie or three streets, as the fountain is located at the junction of three roads at the point of the Aqua Virgo, one of Rome’ most important aqueducts.
- The coins that get thrown into the Trevi Fountain for good luck (one for a return to Rome, two for love and a third for marriage) are donated to a charitable foundation that helps needy people in the city. It makes about 3,000 euros a day.
- Don’t try to do an Anita Ekberg for Insta-likes or it may end badly. Tourists who try to take a dip in the fountain are unceremoniously hauled out by the police and given a hefty fine.
The Verona Arena
This Roman amphitheater in Verona, northern Italy, was built in AD 30. It is so well preserved that it is famous as a modern-day opera, theatre and concert venue. It’s one of the largest in Italy and its shape ensures perfect acoustics. The arena is slap-bang in Verona’s center. At its height it could hold 20,000 people. Gladiatorial battles have been replaced with more modern forms of entertainment and watching a concert in the arena is a truly special event. Large-scale operas like Verdi’s Aida see lavish sets and sometimes hundreds of performers on stage.
Fun Facts about the Verona Arena
- It’s not all opera: Deep Purple, Adele and Paul McCartney have all performed at Verona’s Arena
- The word arena means ‘sand’. Sand would be spread on the floor of the amphitheater to mop up the blood spilled during the gory entertainment.
- Although the arena is in the center of Verona today, in the past it would have been outside the city walls. The stench of blood, dead bodies and wild animals precluded amphitheaters being built in city centers.
- The stone used to build the arena comes from nearby Valpolicella (an area also very famous for wine).
Nearby: Lake Garda
More Famous Italian Landmarks
If you’re looking for more famous Italian landmarks, check out:
- Pantheon (Rome)
- Doge’s Palace (Venice)
- Juliet’s Home (Verona)
- Valley of the Temples (Agrigento)
- Palazzo Vecchio (Florence)
- Greek Theater (Taormina)
- Uffizi Gallery (Florence)
Famous Italian Landmarks FAQ
Yes, the Colosseum is included in the UNESCO World Heritage site of ‘the historic center of Rome’ and St. Paul’s Basilica outside the historic center.
You’re thinking of Piazzale Michelangelo, which sits above Florence and has a replica of Michelangelo’s David in its center. It’s a prime spot for sunset in Florence!