Travel guide: Italy’s highlights in 14 days (Part I)

Summer holidays are surely the period everyone is looking forward the most. This means getting away from the daily routine to find some sun, discover new seaside or mountain landscapes, immerse into a new culture, admire some pieces of art, or taste delicious local food. However, two or three weeks are often too short to make the most of your visit to another country, especially if you know you won’t get the chance to go again soon enough.

This travel guide will help you seeing Italy’s best must-sees and dos in 14 days. Watch out, this trip in space and time is relatively intense! It will take you from the North to the South, and transport you from the Roman Antiquity, Middle Ages, Renaissance, to the present day.

Day 1: crossing Italy’s doorstep in Portofino (Liguria)

Portofino
Portofino

We arrived mid-afternoon in the province of Genoa where we explored the Ligurian Sea coast, or Italian Riviera. After visiting Rapallo’s city center, we headed to the chic town of Portofino. These rather small cities display typical reddish orange coloured houses and gorgeous villas. Portofino is known to be a fancy “to-be-seen” city; hence the many imposing yachts parked in the picturesque little harbour.

Day 2: driving through the Cinque Terre National Park (Liguria)

Manarola
Manarola

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cinque Terre National Park refers to five small colourful villages located on the Ligurian coast, accessible by boat (recommended), train or car (cars cannot access the villages and must park outside). They are known and protected for their colourful houses and terraces built on the steep cliffs, resulting in postcard sceneries. We drove the winding mountain road along the coast to 3 villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza and Manarola (see photo). Although similar, each village has its own particular atmosphere and architectural pattern: Monterosso al Mare is the biggest and has lots of crafts shops whereas Manarola, the most famous, has the most terraces and food places. As a very touristy destination, I was positively surprised to find rather calm villages where we enjoyed getting lost in tiny lovely paved streets.

Day 3: discovering medieval heritage in Siena (Tuscany)

Siena's cathedral and marbled floor
Siena’s cathedral and marbled floor

Siena is a beautiful medieval town located in Tuscany, which was – according to the legend – founded by the two sons of Remus after the foundation of Rome. The city is renowned for its horse race (Palio) taking place twice a year on the Piazza del Campo but its architectural highlight is the outstanding Romanesque-Gothic Duomo. The over-decorated interior bears traces of Siena’s history and development: byzantine colours and gold, frescoes, and a marble mosaic floor, a part of which shows the emblematic animal of each contrade (or neighbourhood) of Siena. The 17 neighbourhoods take the Palio seriously by competing fiercely against each other. The competition is also fierce with Florence, capital of the Tuscan region, as a result of the multiple battles in the 13th-15th century, especially after Florence’s defeat during the Battle of Montaperti (1260).

Walking around the fortified gates and fortresses feels like time has stopped, and this is what makes Siena a unique city deserving a visit.

Day 4: walking in Roman’s steps in Pompeii (Campania)

View from the top of the Vesuvius and the Roman forum in Pompeii
View from the top of the Vesuvius and the Roman forum in Pompeii

We are now arriving to the southernmost point of this itinerary, in the Campania region. It is convenient and significant to combine a visit to the Pompeii excavations and a hike to the Mount Vesuvius the same day, as the two sites are located nearby and easily reachable via bus shuttles. Both sites share an important historic event, since Pompeii was destroyed and buried in volcanic ashes after the Vesuvius eruption in AD 79. We started with hiking the Mount Vesuvius in the morning before it gets too hot, and this was a wise decision. The hike was steep but the view over the bay from the top was a real reward. As the crater is still active, we were expecting to at least see something proving it such as lava. The only visible proof was the steam. After hiking down, we headed to the Pompeii excavations early afternoon. We were extremely impressed by the huge size of the antique city, although many parts were not accessible due to on-going excavation works or restoration. We got to experience Roman life while wandering around the ruins and still standing monuments: the forum, baths, the arena, the theatre, the necropolis, and houses from rich Romans. Unless you are a Roman history freak, many competent guides offer highlight focused visits with all background information needed.

Day 5: living the Neapolitan life (Campania)

Castel Nuovo's Arch
Castel Nuovo’s Arch

Naples is a very singular city. It is noisy, crowded, messy, sometimes dirty. But as the Neapolitans say: “they call it chaos, we call it home”. When walking through the city, you experience different kind of neighbourhoods, ranging from ghettos, a new business district, to fancy areas. It is diverse and the gap between the several social classes is obvious. During our time in the birthplace of pizza, we visited the mysterious Napoli Sotterranea (Naples underground) below the historic district. Very well organised and somehow adventurous, the guided visit brought us 40 meters deep down – the temperature dropped to around 15 degrees – to learn about the ancient Greek installations (such as cisterns, theatres, tunnels) and how they have been smartly used more recently (Second World War) by the Neapolitans. Other must-sees in Naples include the Castel dell’Ovo and its breath-taking view, the Castel Nuovo and its impressing marble arch, the Royal Palace, the Theatre San Carlo (the oldest in Europe), and the Galleria Umberto, all located around the large Piazza del Plebiscito.

Day 6: holy day in Vatican City (enclave within Rome, Lazio)

View on the dome of St Peter's Basilica
View on the dome of St Peter’s Basilica

Although being the smallest state in the world, Vatican City State requires at least a full day of visit. It is advised to book the various entrance tickets in advance in order not to waste time queuing. The heart of the “city in the city” is St Peter’s square, from where you can admire St Peter’s Basilica. The Vatican Museums shelter true masterpieces of history which have been collected by the Popes through time: sculptures, busts, sarcophagi, paintings, frescoes, tapestries, maps, books; all existing kinds of art are on display. The Renaissance period is prominently represented with works from Raphael, Veronese, da Vinci. The visit ended with the eternal Sistine Chapel where we admired the ceiling frescoes depicting Christ’s life painted by Michelangelo. Enriching as well as exhausting the 5-hour visit left us with the sense that we accomplished one of our life’s duties. I can only agree with the following citation:

“Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”
Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 1787.

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