An enchanting country full of beautiful landscapes, picturesque villages, great shopping, even better food, and amazing wine, Italy has something to offer all tastes. With 49 UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites, some of which are entire city centers, the country’s every inch – from the mountainous north to the balmy Mediterranean south – is permeated with history.
The list includes some massive cities – like Venice, Florence, and Rome – that are host to a multitude of historical attractions. However, if you look outside these city centers you will discover some UNESCO-listed towns and villages that, while not hosting the same magnitude of world-class attractions, museums and galleries, preserve a distinct Italian character and are deeply fascinating places to visit. So consider venturing out of the cities to absorb Italy by spending time in some of the following small towns and villages, taking advantage of the chance to slow down, wander through tiny alleyways, and sip on wine in the towns’ atmospheric streets. Remember to bring along a pair of astronomy binoculars for exceptional stargazing during those balmy Italian nights.
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An ancient walled city in the Marche region of Italy, Urbino is famous as the childhood home of Raphael and as an important center of culture during the Renaissance. A pedestrianised hill town of steep, narrow, winding alleys, weathered houses, and aging palaces surrounded by misty mountains, Urbino carries an enchantment all its own. One of the cultural capitals of the Renaissance during the 15th and 16th centuries, Urbino is home to some of the most important collections of Renaissance art in the world, and, although it is a small town, a walk through its tiny alleys will reveal an outstanding collection of architecture and museums. Don’t miss the fascinating Ducal Palace and the National Gallery of La Marche.
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Famous for its 14 beautifully preserved towers (of an original 72!), San Gimignano is a tiny medieval walled village near Florence. While you’re there, be sure to scale at least one of the towers – the Torre Grossa is the tallest – for a view over the city and the surrounding countryside. Thursday is market day, so head to the Piazza della Cisterna or the Piazza del Duomo to pick up some lunch supplies before heading outside the walls to find the perfect place for a picnic: circling the city is a trail that provides striking views of the surrounding Tuscan countryside. To tour some of the city’s gorgeous frescoes, visit the church of Sant’Agostino, which features a set of beautiful frescoes on the life of Saint Augustine, or the Collegiata. Those interested in literature should be sure to stop by the Museo Civico, which features the Sala di Dante where Dante Alighieri addressed the town council in 1299 to convince them to join the Guelph cause.
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The reputed home of Romeo and Juliet, Verona is an incredibly picturesque town home to a multitude of historical attractions dating from Roman times and all ages since. Although a firmly established tourist destination, it is not nearly as busy as nearby Venice, allowing you to adopt a slower pace and find a quiet corner of the city to tuck into your book in the sunshine. Drink coffee in the architecturally striking Piazza delle Erbe, go shopping on the Golden Mile, leave a note at Juliet’s House, wander through some of the ancient Roman ruins, and don’t miss the Castelvecchio, a 14th-century fortified castle that also houses the city art gallery, which is home to a rich collection of medieval sculpture and Renaissance art.
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A medieval Tuscan hill town near Florence, maze-like Siena is full of old medieval buildings and narrow pathways. With a culture that is quirky, independent, and proud, the city is famous for hosting the exciting horse race “Il Palio,” which is conducted two times each summer and features pageantry and festivities before 10 riders – representing 10 of the different city wards – race around the Piazza del Campo three times. Leave yourself plenty of time to wander through Siena’s entrancing, mystical alleyways, and keep an eye out for cafés serving delicious local Tuscan food. Don’t leave without having visited the Duomo, and, for a sampling of the local art tradition, head for the Palazzo Pubblico and the Palazzo Salimbeni, which both house outstanding collections.