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Uncovering Venice, Florence & Rome

There’s an undeniable, universal allure to Italy. Its cities, ornate to the extreme, offer travelers an enchanting mix of history, culture, and cuisine. And when viewing Italian cities through the lens of culture and history, Venice, Florence, and Rome are some of its most important, conjuring images of empires long lost: Florence’s Republic and the Renaissance, the far-reaching Roman Empire, and the endlessly fascinating Venetian Republic. Three distinctly different moments in Italy’s long influential history, each captured in stunning architecture, breathtaking art, and delicious cuisine. Here are the top sites of Venice, Florence, and Rome for you to uncover.

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Venice

There are few places as captivating as Venice — arguably one of the most unique cities to visit in Italy. Those long emerald canals twist and turn under ornate bridges and brush along beautiful palazzi, soundtracked by the plunge of an oar and the echoes of ‘O sole mio’ sang by a Gondolier as he pushes a long black gondola towards the Grand Canal.

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St. Mark’s Square

Venice’s sights are plenty but lean heavily into canals, bridges, and religious buildings — most with a distinct Byzantine, Islamic, and gothic influence — with approximately 200 churches across the various islands. But the main event when speaking of religious eye candy is the sublime Saint Mark’s Basilica in St Mark’s Square, itself lined with attractive cafes and al fresco restaurants besieged by bowtied waiters. The cathedral is evocative, beset by archways and domes highlighted in gold, distinctly Byzantine, and yet in truth a busy amalgamation of various architectural styles from the classical period to the 19th century. 

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Ponte Rialto & The Grand Canal

Rialto Bridge — the oldest, at more than 400 years old, of the four bridges that cross the Grand Canal — remains one of Venice’s most popular photo spots. And when the sun begins to take cover beneath the horizon casting the sky in gradients of oranges and pinks, the glittering Grand Canal reflecting it all back, it’s easy to see why. From Rialto’s arches, look towards the point where the canal curves against the shores of San Marco and Dorsoduro for the best sunsets views. Serious walkers can easily walk the length of the Grand Canal from the relatively quiet backstreets of Canneregio through San Polo and San Marco for a Spritz, stopping to visit Castello and the vibrant Jewish Ghetto, before finishing on the shores of the lagoon.

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Venetian Island Hopping & Under-the-Radar Sights

The Vaporetto water bus is an invaluable tool for travelers serious about seeing more of Venice. Take it to Murano to visit the glass-making factories, or to Burano for an exquisitely quaint slice of Venice that’s all slim canals topped with tiny motor boats and lined with houses painted in greens, pinks, and yellows. Stop here for an afternoon lunch in a traditional trattoria or to enjoy the tranquillity of the homely canals. Sun seekers can take a break from the city and head to Lido, a long slither of land ideal for a beach day, or walk the surprisingly green neighborhood of Torcello. In the heart of Venice, pay a visit to Paolo Brandolisio’s workshop to see an artisan making Venetian rowlocks, climb the arched spiral staircase of the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo or visit the Librairie Acqua Alta, a labyrinthine bookshop where books are stacked in a gondola and against walls as a lookout point over the canal.

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Florence

Florence’s cobbled streets are some of Italy’s most charming, but as charming as they are, the stately palazzos, imposing churches, and the long river cutting through the city’s Renaissance core, are nothing short of awe-inspiring. 

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The Duomo

Perhaps one of Italy’s most impressive cathedrals (and the third largest in the world), the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is a whimsical block of pink and white marble culminating in Brunelleschi’s vast terracotta dome that, along with Giotto’s impressive Campanile, lends the Florentine skyline a unique Tuscan aesthetic. Visit the cathedral to see the interior of the Dome brought to life by Vasari’s frescoes, and conquer the 463 steps to its exterior for vertigo-inducing countryside vistas. Visit the nearby Baptistery, or the Battistero di San Giovanni, which, at almost 1000 years old is one of Florence’s oldest structures. It offers an intriguing look at the Romanesque style that led to the distinct architectural styles of the later Renaissance, but it’s also historically storied, as locals such as Dante Alighieri and several members of the Medici family were baptized here. 

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The Uffizi Gallery & Other Florentine Art

Florence’s museums offer so much for everybody, with the Medici Museum of particular interest to travelers hoping to gain historical insight into the political and social machinations of the Renaissance. But it’s the Uffizi Museum that draws the crowds, and rightly so. With its marvelous collections, including Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Caravaggio’s Sacrificio di Isacco, and Cimabue’s Santa Trinita Maestà, the museum is as breathtaking as it is of enormous historical importance. Close by, the Accademia Gallery houses Michelangelo’s David, while the Casa di Dante museum is a 14th-century house that tells the story of Dante, including the events leading to his exile.

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What to Eat in Florence

While much of the noise surrounding Italian food centers on the pasta of Rome and the Pizza of Napoli, Florentine cuisine is some of Italy’s best. Bistecca alla Fiorentina, the traditional T-bone with a filet on one side and sirloin on the other, is its most notable dish. Order it as the restaurant prepares it (tip: try the excellent Trattoria Sostanza): rare, and seared directly over the embers of a wood fire, with sides of spinach and artichoke, and wash it down with a bottle of local Chianti. An area where Florentine cuisine shines and is perhaps less appreciated is in its street food. To sample it, seek out a true Florentine lampredottai (usually a van with plastic chairs) while wandering a cobbled Florentine alley and order a sandwich stuffed with Lampredotto: the fourth stomach of a cow slow-cooked until it’s as deliciously tender as roast beef.

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Rome

Rome, the Eternal City is forever alluring, its topography of spires and domes, hills and fractured columns, a stunning echo of the Roman Empire, an explorable tapestry woven of stone, and 2000 years of Italian culture. 

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Classical Rome

The Colosseum’s instantly recognizable fractured limestone top is awe-inspiring to see up close for the first time but more beautiful are the redolent ruins of the Roman Forum at the foot of Palatine Hill. Take a tour of the Colosseum or view it from outside if the historical minutiae are of less importance. But a journey inside the Forum is a must, particularly if it’s your first trip to Italy. Stroll it all like a vast garden museum, paying particular attention to the Arch of Septimius Severus, the Temple of Saturn, and the mysterious marble remains of the House of the Vestal Virgins — a dozen (now headless) depictions of the high priestesses of the Vestal Cult. Climb the steps of Palatine Hill to view it from above and ruminate on the fact this was once the center of Roman politics, commerce, and religion.

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Vatican City

There’s a special kind of ambiance as dusk sets in Rome, with the dim ember-like glow bathing the city in a stirring autumnal palette, and one of the best places to take it in is on the banks of the River Tiber. Stand across from the imposing Castel Sant’Angelo and you’ll see the Vittorio Emanuele Bridge, and behind it, the staggering Dome of St Peter’s rising from the heart of Vatican City. Venture into St Peter’s and you’ll see Michelangelo’s Pietà, the tombs of popes, and, if you book a tour, the mysterious Pagan catacombs deep beneath Vatican Hill.

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The Spanish Steps to the Pantheon

Rome’s historic center is beguiling and best seen on foot. From the Spanish Steps, walk to Piazza Mignanell, home to the Column of the Immaculate, and stroll along Via Propaganda towards Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, a 17th-century church whose somewhat plain-looking interiors belie its stunning interiors. From here, it’s a short walk to the iconic Trevi Fountain, with its impressive portrayal of Neptune riding a chariot in the shape of a shell at its core. From the fountain, a picturesque walk down narrow alleys, past palatial palazzi, and vibrant Roman Trattorias serving up fragrant Cacio e Pepe leads to the Piazza della Rotonda, home to the Pantheon, the (almost) 2000-year-old Roman temple turned church.

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