History abounds around most corners of Italy – from Renaissance to Romanesque and Gothic architecture, this country combines it all with seemingly effortless chic. There are some famous unmissable sites to be seen, some lesser known but no less amazing to behold. This list outlines our favourite architectural Italian wonders. If you are going to see anything in this Bel paese, these are the ones you must.
14 must-see Italian monuments
The Pantheon, Rome
Despite an age of almost 2000 years, the Roman Pantheon is a sight you absolutely cannot miss. The most preserved, and still influential, building of ancient Rome, it was built by the emperor Hadrian and is a miraculous wonder of the Roman Empire’s architecture. Proportions and design are prioritised just as much as elegance and harmony – making it in Michelangelo’s words ‘the work of angels, not humans’.
When visiting, take time to appreciate its giant dome - still the largest unsupported dome in the world - with a hole right in its centre. If it is raining outside, see if you can be blessed by the occasional raindrop that makes it through the hole and to the church floor. Although strangely, despite the hole measuring almost 8 metres across, rain very rarely can be felt inside the building. Search out the final resting places of Raphael and Italian kings and poets to understand the greatness of its historic value.
The Sistine Chapel, Vatican City
High on every tourist’s visit list with good reason is The Sistine Chapel. Arrive as early as you can to see the magnificent building before the masses descend. Although from the outside the chapel seems almost menacing, this is not without purpose. Designed by Baccio Pontelli for Pope Sixtus IV in 1473, the building houses so much history and beauty. In itself an art treasure, its strong walls guard several masterpieces of artistic importance. Michaelangelo’s iconic ceiling was painted single-handedly between 1508 and 1512 and is one of the finest examples of high Renaissance art. Countless people have tried to imitate the famous scene within it of ‘The Creation of Adam’ but the original, majestically positioned in amazing surroundings, has to be seen to be believed.
Doge’s Palace, Venice
Once the focus of the Rialto Bridge area of Venice, the Doge’s Palace was moved to St Mark’s Square in the 10th century following a fire which partially destroyed it. Doge Ziani reconstructed the Palazzo Ducale with two new structures in St Mark’s Square – rebuilding Venice’s political and judicial hub in imposing and breathtaking Venetian Gothic style. While the Doge, the supreme authority within Venice, resided here, all decisions surrounding the governing of the province were made within these walls, making it the centre of the waterways of Venice. Since 1923, the buildings have been designated a public museum, testament to the great economic importance of Venice in previous years. Be sure to see the Bridge of Sighs from inside the stone walls and take a moment to breathe in the irrefutably romantic and renaissance atmosphere of Venice.
Famous for its complete burial by the eruption of Mount Versuvius in 79 AD, Pompeii still holds many treasures. One of the most striking architecturally is its amphitheatre. The oldest stone building of its kind that has ever been discovered and remains today, this is believed to date back to 80 BC. Used predominantly for gladiatorial competitions, the amphitheatre was the scene of a fatal battle between Pompeiians and people from Nuceria around 59AD, leading to a 10-year ban on such contests. Revered today by some modern crowd control specialists as having near optimal architecture, the theatre was used for a concert by Pink Floyd in 1971. Its washroom has also acted as inspiration for better bathroom design in modern stadiums. Feel the history when you visit this ancient monument.
Duomo, Amalfi Town
One of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, Amalfi is surrounded by cliffs and coasts at the base of Mount Cerreto. Here you will find a mix of architecture denoting Italy throughout the ages. The centerpiece 9th century Duomo cathedral mixes its heritage styles of Arab-Norman Romanesque, with Byzantine, Gothic and Baroque elements which were added throughout its lifetime. Renowned to be the resting place of the remains of the town’s patron saint, St Andrew the Apostle, the cathedral overlooks the Piazza Duomo and draws celebratory crowds on the feast days of Saint Andrew (25-27 June, and 30 November). Don’t miss its elaborate bronze doors, cast in Constantinople in the 11th century, or the 9th-century Basilica of the Crucifix next door.
Trulli, Alberobello, Puglia
Alberobello is the place to experience the trulli, or limestone dwellings, of Puglia, in the southern region of Italy. The examples in this town have made it one of the best concentrations of trulli architecture and it was designated a World Heritage site in 1996, housing over 1,500 structures. These homes are amazing examples of drywall construction, made from boulders taken from neighbouring fields and with characteristic pyramid or domed roofs. These ‘fairy-like’ abodes are unique examples of traditional Puglian architecture. Originally designed as a way of outwitting the tax inspectors, Alberobello was never able to be classed as an inhabited settlement. Its drystone walls simply could be quickly dismantled if necessary – meaning its residents could hold on to their lira for longer.
La Torre Arcobaleno (Rainbow Tower), Milan
An unusual sight in historic and cultural Italy, this 35-metre water tower does not blend in well with its architectural neighbours, but nor is it meant to. Transformed in 1990 by Studio Original Designers 6R5 Network at the time of the Football World Cup, this is now a colourful totem for the city of Milan. Taking a grey concrete tower housed in the Porta Garibaldi region of Milan as its main example, the city hoped to inspire care and pride in all of its urban heritage when the world’s eyes were upon it. The tower was revived in technicolour with a bright polychrome ceramic covering of 14 colours, making it an urban landmark and a tribute to Milanese creativity and design. This is a quirky, modern take on all the classic architecture which normally surrounds any Italian visit.
Torre del Mangia, Siena
An important landmark in the struggle for power between church and state, this secular tower was built to the same height as the Siena Cathedral to show parity of power. At 88 metres high, the tower has four distinct levels and has inspired many other buildings including the Pilgrim’s Tower in Massachusetts in the US and the Joseph Chamberlain Memorial clock in Birmingham. It was built in 1338-1348 and designed by Perugia-born architects, Muccio and Francesco di Rinaldo, with walls three metres thick on each side. Housing superb frescoes by Simone Martin, it affords mesmerising views over Siena and the surrounding countryside.
Guinigi tower, Lucca
Built in the 1300s by the Guinigi family of wealthy silk merchants, this fortified medieval tower house is now one of only nine remaining typical examples of Romanesque-Gothic architecture. These were built during the post-plague years of Italy to demonstrate wealth and help protect inhabitants from disease, raids and politically-charged violence. The Guinigi tower is symbolic of change in attitude with a roof terrace of Holm oaks planted around 1600, representing rebirth and renewal, as well as providing magnificent views of the surrounding city and mountains. Legend has it that these Holm oaks were so intrinsic to the Guinigi family and its fortune that when Paolo Guinigi was imprisoned and about to be executed, all the leaves fell off the rooftop trees.
Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence
When work finished on the Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence in the 15th century, it was the largest church in Europe. Today, it is the third largest in the world but there is far more to it than its gigantesque size. The main church in Florence is architecturally founded in Gothic roots but culminates in its fantastic dome designed and engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi. This was completed in 1436 and is the largest brick dome ever constructed. A feast for the eyes, it is rightly recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Site alongside its Florentine counterparts, the Baptistery and Giotto’s Campanile. Dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore, the Virgin of the Flower, Florence is eternally symbolised in this wonderful building.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa
A fun mystery to generations of tourists and locals alike, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is a world-famous, yet eminently quirky monument of Italy. Hailing from medieval European architecture, it started to lean during construction although it had been designed as a perfectly vertical tower. The campanile, as it is more accurately called, is one quarter of the cathedral complex of Pisa, commonly known as the Field of Miracles (Campo dei Miracoli). This is an amazing area of Romanesque architecture, famed for grey/white marble columns and arches. Although the architect of the Leaning Tower remains unknown, several have been involved throughout the years in trying to ‘right the lean’. This has involved injecting its foundations with cement grout which did work to stabilise it to some degree, although the top of the tower now sits around 17 feet off the vertical. This creates quirky, interesting picture opportunities. Take your time and get the perfect shot of you ‘pushing the tower over’ or, better still, ‘holding it up’. No one will believe you’ve been to Pisa if you’ve not tried to ‘stop the tilt’.
The Temple of Concordia, Sicily
Deemed by some ‘the best-preserved Doric temple in the world, after the Panthenon’, the Temple of Concordia is a beautiful, iconic site. Part of the UNESCO Valley of the Temples, it is dedicated to the Goddess of Harmony and is one of the best preserved Greek temples, especially considering it is believed to have been constructed in 430 BC. Overcoming the rocky terrain on which is it built, it was converted in the 6th century into a Christian basilica, dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul and appropriately altered to a more Christian architecture. This was removed during its restoration of the 1780s, allowing a return to its classical roots.
Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera is a feast for all the senses – a place where the sum of its parts creates a whole lot more than its whole. While there may be no standout building to visit, the UNESCO World Heritage Site dates back to the 11th century and showcases five villages filled with colourful cliffside buildings. All are linked by a trail between the fishing villages which previously was only accessible by mule tracks, rail or water. These villages of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore are home to vines and olive trees, medieval fortresses and gastronomic treats. Here, hiking and eating go hand in hand so enjoy an invigorating walk between beautiful landscapes, then settle in for some trofie and pesto with a glass of ‘Cinque Terre’ in your hand.
The arena, Verona
Dating back to the 1st century, the Verona Arena is famous globally for the large-scale operas it hosts to this day. Built in 30 AD, the amphitheatre attracted spectators from throughout Italy to the games and contests held there. Hosting around 30,000 guests, the arena was a popular operatic venue and it is no less popular now, although for preservation and security, tickets are limited to 15,000 at every show. Thanks to this approach, it continues to be one of the best preserved ancient structures of its kind. Now, at least four ballet and opera productions take place in the summer months by candlelight and famous names such as Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi and Tito Gobbi have graced its stage. But rock and pop has its place here also; Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, Alicia Keys, One Direction, Simple Minds, Duran Duran, Rod Stewart, Sting and Whitney Houston are just some of the modern names who have drawn crowds to this unique summer venue.
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