I compiled a list of 50 once-in-a-lifetime experiences in Italy to help you plan your dream trip for when the right time comes.
The list is by no means exhaustive, as there are just too many things to see and do in Italy that would fit into the “once in a lifetime” category. I came up with at least one hundred more ideas while drafting this article, but then I thought it would become too much of a load and decided to cut it. In any case, I think I’ve come up with a good mix of art, nature, history, and culture.
So, here are my recommended once in a lifetime experiences in Italy, in no particular order:
1. Take an epic ride aboard Italy’s Trans-Siberian train
The Italian Trans-Siberian train refers to the historical line that travels through the incredible landscape of Abruzzo and Molise, where the scenery ut of the window is very similar to that of the legendary Moscow-Vladivostock train line. Think deep gorges, stunning aqueducts, verdant valleys, and ancient villages that you can admire from fully restored vintage carriages that climb as high as 1,268 meters! If you’re curious to know more, read my experience on the Italian Trans-Siberian train.
2. Enjoy Venice’s Grand Canal from aboard the #1 Vaporetto
The Vaporetto line 1 in Venice connects Piazzale Roma to Lido, offering a fabulous panoramic trip for a tiny fraction of the price of a water taxi or a gondola ride. Along the way, you’ll enjoy excellent views of such highlights as the Rialto Bridge, the glorious Church of Santa Maria della Salute, and the town’s finest palaces. If this trip is on your bucket list, make sure to read all my Venice tips here.
3. Discover the daily life of ancient Romans at Pompeii and Herculaneum
Pompeii and Herculaneum are two precious archeological sites in Italy that we all should visit at least once for their significant historical value. The devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD hit both Roman towns, literally bringing time to a standstill. Everything was buried under a thick layer of ash and lava and kept incredibly intact, thus providing a fascinating peek into what life was like back in the ancient Roman Empire.
4. Visit one of Italy’s top wine districts
Italian wine is renowned all over the world and a visit to some of our wine districts offers a precious sneak peek behind the country’s best blends. It’s also an excellent opportunity to learn more about the history of our territory directly from the winemakers – let’s be honest, no one knows this better than they do! To give you an idea, here are my articles about the Langhe wine region in Piedmont and a wine tasting tour in Oltrepò Pavese.
5. Take a road trip through the “green heart of Europe”
That’s how Abruzzo is often nicknamed because of its extraordinary natural treasures. These include the Gran Sasso and Laga Mountains National Park, one of the largest in Italy, and the endless pastures of Campo Imperatore, known as Italy’s Little Tibet. Another jewel in the park is Rocca Calascio, a fascinating fortress built by the Normans to protect something richer than any other treasure in the world at that time: herds of sheep producing wool, the only fiber able to keep people warm!
6. Enjoy a fabulous tour of the “Great Wall of the Alps”
The Fenestrelle Fortress in Piedmont is a huge fortification built by the Royal House of Savoy between the 18th and 19th centuries to protect the territory from foreign invaders. The site is enormous: it covers an area of 1350000 sqm and snakes up the mountain for over 3 km, making it the biggest fortification in Europe and the second-biggest walled construction in the world after the Great Wall of China!
7. Visit the extraordinary cave town of Matera
Matera is one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in the world and its ancient cave dwellings (what we call Sassi) are absolutely incredible. Some have been turned into quaint restaurants and beautiful B&Bs… spending the night in this magical world will be a precious memory, trust me. And if you’re still not convinced, in Matera there’s even an ancient cave with some extraordinary paintings dating from the 8th century that won it the nickname of “Sistine Chapel of Rupestrian Art”.
8. Go island-hopping in Lake Maggiore
Lake Maggiore is the second largest lake in Italy and is sprinkled with elegant towns, stunning villas, and breathtaking landscapes. Its main attraction is the archipelago of the Borromean Islands, three attractive islets that form an enchanting microcosm of exquisite gardens, baroque palaces, and quaint lakeside corners. Just hop on a boat at Stresa and enjoy the perfect day out at the lake.
9. Learn that there’s more to Liguria than pretty seaside resorts
Inland, Liguria has lots of quaint villages with intriguing stories. There’s Triora with the legend of a shocking witchcraft trial that took place in 1588; Bussana Vecchia, the hamlet that a group of international artists brought back to life in the 1950s after being damaged by a violent earthquake; and Seborga, the tiny village that thinks of itself as a micronation, complete with a crown council that claims independence from Italy. If you’d like to know more about the jewels of Liguria, check out these articles about exploring Liguria beyond the usual routes and the self-proclaimed state of Seborga.
10. Visit a museum of the Italian Association of Company Archives and Museums
Museimpresa is the association that gathers Italian corporate museums and archives, whose members narrate the history of companies through precious displays of documents, objects, and tools. Visiting these museums means learning about some of the greatest brands that significantly contributed to the growth of Made in Italy all over the world. Among its members are the Lavazza Museum in Turin, the Ducati Museum in Bologna, the Barilla Historic Archives in Parma, and the Branca Collection in Milan (by the way, if you are a fan of Fernet Branca, read about my visit to the Branca Museum in Milan).
11. Join Neapolitans evoking protection during San Gennaro’s blood miracle
The Miracle of San Gennaro is a fascinating religious spectacle that takes place three times a year in the Duomo of Naples: on the first Sunday of May, on 19 September, and 16 December (the day when Vesuvius erupted in 1631). On these days, devotees take part in a procession through the streets of the historic center, praying for the blood of the saint (which is kept in an ampoule) to liquify. If that doesn’t happen, something terrible is believed to occur. Whether you believe in it or not, this event is a fascinating insight into Neapolitan society.
12. Take a sunset tour of Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples
The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento is one of Sicily’s most precious historical sites. It’s a vast archeological park where you can admire the impressive remains of Greek temples and sanctuaries that speak volumes about the role that Sicily played in Magna Graecia. In the summer months, the site is best explored at sunset when temperatures are a bit more bearable and the magical colors of the sky are a fabulous backdrop to the archeological remains. While you are there, make a detour to Scala Dei Turchi, one of Italy’s most astonishing stretches of coast.
13. Take part in the Mysteries of Campobasso
There are many fascinating events taking place all year round in Italy and this is one in Molise is no exception. It takes place on Corpus Domini day in June and consists of groups of people parading through town while portraying episodes from the Bible. They are positioned on special machines that a local artist built back in 1748 and are carried on the shoulder by young locals. You’ll even see children suspended on ropes and metal wires!
14. Take a thrilling ride on the Skyway Monte Bianco cable car
Monte Bianco is the highest peak of the Alps (over 4800 mt) and is a true natural marvel of Italy. For some impressive close-up views, hop on the Skyway cable car that takes you to three panoramic terraces on the mountain where you can admire an extraordinarily scenic landscape. I let you imagine the thrill of standing at an altitude of 3,466 meters, with the sky so close you can almost touch it!
15. Stroll through the fascinating ruins of the ancient Roman Empire in Italy’s capital
Speaking of once-in-a-lifetime experiences in Italy, Rome is certainly a dream destination. It’s a grandiose open-air museum of that will make you feel as if you’re stepping inside a history book! There are countless treasures to explore, but a tour of the Colosseum, the place where emperors used to organize cruel gladiatorial games and grandiose events to increase their popularity, is an absolute must.
16. Explore Apulia in the footsteps of Frederick II
Frederick II, the famous Swabian emperor known as ‘stupor mundi’ (the wonder of the world), was in love with Apulia (how can we blame him?) and equipped the region with an incredible network of fortresses that represent a significant part of the local historic heritage. The most famous is Castel Del Monte, located in the Alta Murgia National Park and boasting a unique octagonal design particularly rich in symbolism. If you’re putting together an itinerary around Apulia, take a look at this article on how to spend a week in Puglia.
17. Lose yourself in the magnificent treasures of the Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums in Rome are one of the world’s most extensive art collections, with countless pieces spread across 7 kilometers of galleries. I strongly suggest forgetting your strict travel schedules for a day and just enjoy the magic of this place in no hurry. Oh, and don’t leave without climbing to the top of the St. Peter’s dome, where some truly amazing views await you.
18. Channel your inner Grand Tour traveler in Veneto’s Brenta Riviera
The Brenta Riviera corresponds to the stretch of the river Brenta that flows between Venice and Padua. The landscape here is dotted with the stunning villas that wealthy Venetian families once built for their summer holidays and reached with a traditional boat called Burchiello. The area attracted many young Europeans on their Grand Tour and while nowadays the traditional boat has been replaced with a modern version for obvious reasons, the itinerary retains all the enchantment of those times. Architectural marvels include Villa Foscari, created by the legendary Andrea Palladio, and Villa Pisani, which served ad the Doge’s Palace on the mainland.
19. Enjoy Italian opera in one of the country’s historic theatres
Ah, Italian opera! Works by Italian composers like Verdi, Puccini and Rossini are staged in the most prestigious theatres across the globe, but attending one of their famous operas right in Italy makes the experience all the more memorable. From the San Carlo Theatre in Naples (Europe’s oldest opera house) to Milan’s Teatro alla Scala and Parma’s Teatro Regio, the choices are endless.
20. Spend a wonderful weekend amid the magical landscape of Val D’Orcia
Val d’Orcia is a corner of tranquil villages, ancient abbeys, and countless shades of greens and yellows in southern Tuscany. This is Tuscan countryside at its best, one of those places that stay with you forever. Highlights include the picturesque town of Pienza, the grandiose Abbey of San Oliveto Maggiore and the ancient spa town of Bagno Vignoni. By the way, if you’re planning to visit Tuscany, here’s an itinerary for a 10-day road trip that I personally used.
21. Marvel at the sheer beauty of the Royal Palace of Caserta
The Royal Palace of Caserta is one of the finest examples of royal residences built in Europe during the 18th century. With over 1000 rooms and 11 acres of beautifully landscaped park, it’s a real architectural masterpiece and a real must-see place in Italy.
22. Delve into the astonishing mosaic artworks of Ravenna
Ravenna is a lovely town in Emilia Romagna with an extraordinary historical and artistic heritage. Once the capital of the Western Roman Empire, today it’s home to eight UNESCO World Heritage and countless other important cultural landmarks, including Dante’s tomb.
23. Spend Easter in Sicily
Italy celebrates Easter with many fascinating events, but those I saw in Sicily are a truly emotional experience. For example, the Holy Week’s rituals in Enna sees the participation of the entire community and the town’s 16 confraternities organise an epic procession on Good Friday, with locals parading through the streets from late afternoon until the early hours of the morning to the sound of funereal marches. Surely a once in a lifetime Italian experience!
24. Climb on top of Mount Etna, Europe’s highest (and most active) volcano
Sicilians have a unique relationship with the “Muncibeddu”, as they lovingly call Etna in the local dialect (literally, beautiful mountain). Its eruptions are greatly feared, but its volcanic soil allows excellent products to grow, including the grapes for the highly-regarded Etna DOC wine. An excursion to Mount Etna is sure to be a thrilling experience that will immerse you in splendid landscapes, among craters, nature trails, and quaint villages.
25. Witness all the power of Mother Nature in Castelluccio di Norcia
Castelluccio di Norcia is one of the villages badly damaged by the earthquake that hit Umbria in 2016. But among the ruins left by this tragic event, Mother Nature offers an extraordinary chromatic show that goes on stage every year between late June and early July, when the famous local lentils are in full bloom. Pure magic.
26. Become one of Juliet’s secretaries for a day
If you are a fan of the movie Letters to Juliet, then this one if for you. Juliet’s secretaries are real, you find them at Juliet’s Club in Verona. You can even become one of them for a day and experience the magic of handwritten letters from across the globe! Here’s a sneak peek of what to expect when visiting Juliet’s Club.
27. Celebrate Carnival in Italy
From Sardinia’s Mamuthones and Issohadores (people dressed with black sheepskins and grotesque wooden masks) to the world’s oldest carnival celebrations in Putignano, there are countless events that speak volumes about Italy’s unique local traditions. One of my favorite is the Battle of the Oranges in Piedmont, a truly crazy event! I wrote about it here.
28. Discover where most of the world’s bells come from
Venture off the beaten track in northern Molise and reach the town of Agnone: it’s here that the Marinelli family has been casting bells since the 11th century! Visiting their workshop means stepping into the fascinating world of Italy’s oldest family business, which received important recognitions throughout its history, including the privilege of using the Papal coat of arms on their bells. By the way, here are a few reasons why you should include Molise on your travel wishlist.
29. Cruise down the Po River Delta
The Po River Delta is Italy’s largest expanse of wetlands, It’s located between Veneto and Emilia Romagna, and a cruise there allows you to admire a unique ecosystem of rare birds, lush vegetation, lagoons, sand formations, fossil dunes, and coastal pine forests.
30. Discover a unique side of Tuscany with a visit to Pitigliano
Pitigliano is an ancient village carved out of tuff rocks in the heart of Maremma. Here, Tuscan customs perfectly blend with Jewish traditions, resulting in something truly unique to this part of the region. An example is the sfratto, a traditional biscuit that incorporates the ingredients of both cultures.
31. Visit Genoa, one of the protagonists of Mediterranean’s history
Genoa is a place full of charm that captures your heart with its many souls. It’s here that modern banking was born and the ancestors of modern hotel star rating (i.e., the Rolli) first appeared. The Ligurian capital also boasts a fascinating 76 mt lighthouse, which is believed to be the world’s third oldest lighthouse still in operation. Check out my guide on how to spend four days in Genoa and start organizing your visit.
Rimini is the birthplace of film director Federico Fellini and a favored seaside holiday destination in my country. Expect lots of colorful bagni (beach clubs), excellent food (try their piadina), a beautiful old town rich in history, and wild nightlife.
33. Learn about Naples’ mysterious Cult of the Dead
The Cult of the Dead in Naples refers to the tradition of adopting anonymous bones and skulls (the so-called anime pezzentelle) and praying for their souls. Hotspots of such devotion are the Fontanelle Cemetery in the Sanità district and the Church of Santa Maria della Anime ad Arco in the historic center, both filled with thousands of remains of these poor souls. This is one of the unique Neapolitan experiences I wrote about here.
34. Tour the incredible alpine region of South Tyrol
It may not be one of the first places that come to mind when thinking about Italy, but South Tyrol has many surprises for you, including 300 days of sunshine per year, 800 castles, and unique natural wonders like Lake Braies, the Three Peaks of Lavaredo, and some impressive earth pyramids. Oh, and it’s also a thriving wine-growing region – just saying!
35. Browse one of the world’s greatest art collections at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence
The Uffizi Gallery is the palace that Giorgio Vasari designed for Cosimo I de’ Medici in the 16th century. What was originally conceived as a space for the town’s legal and administrative offices now hosts masterpieces by leading Italian artists. Botticelli’s La Primavera and Birth of Venus, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Annunciation, Caravaggio’s Medusa, and Titian’s Venus of Urbino are not to miss.
36. Attend a Palio
The Palio is a century-old bareback horse race that sees the participation of the whole town. The most famous is the Palio di Siena, which takes place twice a year, but there’s one equally fascinating held in Asti in September.
37. Get a taste of la dolce vita with a scenic road trip through Apulia
From country roads brimming with Trulli and enchanting whitewashed hamlets to gorgeous natural swimming holes and delicious traditional food, Apulia is the perfect destination for a memorable Italian road trip. If you need some inspiration, read this post about my week-long trip to Apulia.
The Marmore is the highest waterfall in Europe (165 meters), and guess what? They are not the work of mother nature but rather the product of ancient Romans’ engineering genius! Definitely something to see in Italy at least once!
39. Climb to the top of Milan’s iconic Duomo at sunset
Mark Twain once called the Duomo of Milan “a poem wrought in marble” and he couldn’t find a better definition. This grandiose building boasts an incredibly elaborate façade brimming with all sorts of statues and figures. Its rooftop is the best place to fully appreciate the stunning architecture that has enchanted generations of travelers. The colors of sunset will do the rest.
40. Swim in the transparent waters of Tropea
Tropea is the pearl of Calabria’s “Coast of the Gods”, the stretch of the Tyrrhenian coast from Pizzo Calabro to Nicotera. The town is super cute and its sandy beach is bathed by seriously transparent waters where you can swim under the watchful eye of a monastery standing high above a rocky promontory. A must at the end of the day is admiring the sunset from one of the panoramic viewpoints scattered around town and join locals in their evening passeggiata. If you’d like to know more, take a look at the itinerary I used to explore Calabria’s Tyrrhenian coast.
41. Explore the Cinque Terre with a scenic hike through Sentiero Azzurro
The Sentiero Azzurro is a 12 km trail that connects all the five villages of the Cinque Terre. It’s a great alternative to packed trains and offers truly spectacular views all along. There’s also a longer, less touristy path called Alta Via delle Cinque Terre, from Levanto to Portovenere; it’s 40 km so better to do it only if you are in good shape.
42. Take a dip in Tuscany’s (free) natural hot springs
Did you know that Tuscany has a number of natural hot springs that you can visit any time you want and are completely free? Yep, there are quite a few spots that have been rejuvenating bodies and minds since ancient Roman times, including Bagni di San Filippo, Petriolo, and Saturnia.
43. Immerse yourself in Palermo’s unique atmosphere
Palermo, the capital city of Sicily, is a gorgeous place with an incredible cultural heritage. Expect precious Baroque buildings, vibrant street markets sellers singing the praise of their products out loud, and truly unique attractions like the Capuchin Catacombs, where hundreds of perfectly preserved corpses are exposed to the public, revealing a lot about the customs and traditions of the local society between the 17th and 19th centuries. These are just a few examples, you can find more in this post.
44. Treat yourself to a beach holiday in Sardinia
For the ultimate beach holiday in Italy, consider going to the island of Sardinia, where you will find many gorgeous beaches that have nothing to envy the Caribbeans! Some of the best spots include Cala Domestica, Mari Pintau, Cala Goloritzé, and Cala Spinosa.
45. Head south to admire the picture-postcard sights of the Amalfi Coast
Confession: the Amalfi Coast is not one of my favorite places in Italy, but I admit that the scenery is really enchanting, that’s why I’ve included it in this list of once-in-a-lifetime experiences in Italy. Expect lovely villages clinging to rugged mountains, scenic hiking trails, the cutest little beaches, plus some of the craziest driving you’ll ever experience! If you’re planning a trip there, I’ve written a free Amalfi Coast Guide here.
46. While touring the Amalfi Coast, please take some time to visit also Salerno
I’m deeply in love with Salerno, the buzzing port town bordering the Amalfi Coast. Its super attractive historic center features an ancient castle, Europe’s oldest botanical garden, and a lovely tree-lined seafront promenade. Oh, and the local Cathedral is home to the most beautiful crypt I’ve ever seen! Still not convinced? Read here.
Burano is one of the beautiful islands of the Venetian Lagoon. It’s a patchwork of brightly-colored houses that are a real playground for photography lovers. I often daydream of what life could be like in such a fairytale islet! Tip for you: after visiting Burano, leave the crowds behind and jump on a little boat to San Francesco del Deserto, a little island inhabited by Franciscan friars.
48. Take a deep dive into European prehistory in Val Camonica
Lombardy’s Val Camonica is home to the largest collections of prehistoric rock art in the world. You’ll find over 140,000 drawings realized during thousands of years, depicting agricultural scenes, hunters, warriors, and magic symbols. This was the first Italian site to enter the UNESCO World Heritage list.
49. Treat yourself to a royal weekend in Turin
Turin was long the seat of the Royal House of Savoy, which made it Italy’s first capital when the peninsula was unified in 1861. The local sightseeing agenda include anything from royal residencies, fabulous museums, historic cafés, and lots of chocolate. Check out my article about what to see and do in Turin in four days to plan a long weekend there.
50. Put your guide away and venture inside the first unpretentious trattoria you come across
And finally, let’s talk food! We have many Michelin-starred restaurants and highly-regarded eateries in Italy but I’m a huge fan of those quaint, unpretentious trattorias located in side alleys. Chances are you’ll have one of the most memorable dining experiences of your life! And remember, no sign of printed menus is often a great sign.
Pssst… Pin this article for future reference and get in touch if you have any questions in preparation for your Italian adventure!
Ciao for now,