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Travel Tips

12 Surprising Things to do in Italy

Passionate and fully alive, traveling through Italy is a feast for the senses. The Colosseum, tossing a coin in the Trevi Fountain, the Parthenon, and the Vatican with its powerful secrets and sights… Then there is beautiful Florence, the true home of Michelangelo, museums, galleries, and marketplaces. Head to Venice and her mysterious islands, and you’re in a world you’ve seen countless times in films. The Lakes are breathtaking. Tuscany’s medieval villages and ancient vineyards are a step back in time.

Everywhere there is food, wine, love, and the time to enjoy them. Tick off the places on your bucket list but consider a few more. We invite you to imagine these thoroughly Italian experiences.

The Palazzo Spada’s Optical Illusion

The Palazzo Spada’s gardens face the Tiber river. In 1632, Cardinal Spada hired the Baroque architect, Borromini, to create a masterpiece of forced perspective. This optical illusion is in the courtyard. Diminishing row-upon-row of columns, plus a rising floor, give the illusion that the gallery is 40 yards long. In fact, it is only 8 yards. At the end of the columns is a life-sized sculpture. The sculpture, when seen close up, is barely 2 feet tall. Borromini engaged a mathematician to plan this. Today, it would be called installation art.

The Galleria Spada is a small and extraordinary collection of four galleries which includes 16th and 17th century paintings by Andrea del Sarto, Guido Reni, Titian, Rubens, Caravaggio, Parmigianino, and a host of others.

Caprarola, the First Pentagon

A village in Northern Lazio, about 50 miles north of Rome, Caprorola has a rich history that stretches back eons. Its center is a tight collection of medieval buildings, winding alleys, and a hodgepodge of shops and trattorias. It was founded by the Etruscans, taken over by the Romans, became a busy center of commerce, and then home to the papacy. Due to the marriage of a beautiful local woman into the Borgia clan, funds were acquired to build the Farnese Palace, the first pentagon. The Protestant religion was spreading in the north. Muslims were attacking in the west. The war between France and Spain led to the Sack of Rome.

Pope Paul III hired an architect to design this five-sided building as a fortress against enemies. At each of the five corners, towers were erected so soldiers could watch for approaching strangers. Visitors often overlook this Renaissance palace, but it is a wonder. There is a circular courtyard inside the palace walls, restored fountains, and a mind-boggling staircase. The frescoed rooms lead to lush gardens. And it’s not unusual to see goats wander by the walls.

Learn to Make Perfume

Imagine taking a perfume-making class in a perfumery that was founded in 1700 AD. Yes, you can do that! Using only natural, traditional ingredients, learn to design your personal scent. The teacher, who is a chemist and herbalist, trains your sense of smell. There are classes offered for the hobbyist and also for those who want to launch a professional career as a perfumer. Classes are given in small groups, and private lessons are also offered. Lessons are given in Italian, but translation services are available.

You will learn the history of perfume and study the various accords, or notes, of scent. You’ll discover how to use materials, compare preparations, about fixatives, and the preparation of a tincture. This class is just one more reason to believe that Florence is one of the most marvelous cities in the world.

Glassblowing in Murano

Murano, an island just outside the center of Venice, is world-renowned for its blown glass. Its history goes back to the time when Italy was part of the Roman Empire. The unique materials from this area have resulted in the creation of some of the most elegant, expert, and collectible glass available. You can tour a glass-making factory in Murano, but the real fun is getting into the process by taking a private or group class.

One of the glass schools, established in 1862, was founded so children and grandchildren of these artisans could keep their art alive. Today, all are welcome and at every skill level. They state that their goal is to “Pass on the love, the passion, and the unique artistic style and high standards in glass making.”

If you decide this is for you, you can choose to learn how to make Venetian goblets, plates and vases, and techniques such as filigree. Fusing, a modern technique is also taught. Fusing allows a glass sheet to be shaped. You can use fusing to make stained glass, jewelry, and sculptures. The only limit is your imagination!

E-Bike Through Wine Country Outside Siena

If you’ve never driven an e-bike, no worries. Familiarize yourself with it, and off you go. (Because you can set the difficulty level, it’s a comfortable way for people of various physical abilities.) Plan to spend about three hours on a 12-mile ride through vineyards, olive groves, cool forests, and medieval villages. Stop and look around. Breathe… This isn’t a dream; this is authentic wine country. An E-Bike makes no sound and has no odor, so you have an unspoiled countryside experience.

You can stop along the way at a restored building that once was a monastery. Enjoy strolling around the grounds of the 15th century building and sit down for a traditional Tuscan lunch. Before heading back to town, you may decide to make another stop, this one at a classic Chianti winery that is family owned and operated.

Dolphins and Snorkeling

Take a rubber boat tour of some of the most astonishing scenery in northeastern Sardinia. Your destination is Figarolo Island, a place that bottlenose dolphins seem to love. Of course, there are no guarantees, but local guides are pretty good at finding spots that will give you a good chance of meeting up with a dolphin. You’ll also be able to snorkel and swim in some of the most vibrant-blue coves of Sardinia. Jump in!

Chef’s Market Tour and Cooking Classes

Take a tour through Sicily’s well-known marketplaces. Look for catch-of-the-day fish, seasonal produce, herbs, and spices. Head back to the chef’s house for a hands-on cooking experience that showcases Sicilian specialties. Ricotta-stuffed zucchini flowers, fresh egg pasta, and rolled stuffed beef are particular favorites.

You may also decide to head into the country and see a goat or cow being milked, taste freshly pressed oil, smell fresh-milled flour, or oak barrels filled with heady wine. You can take private cooking lessons or learn the traditions of Sicilian cooking with a small group. Sicily is about food, family, friends, culture, and joy; and they’re all wrapped up together in cooking.

Go Underground

130 feet below the surface of rollicking Naples there is an underground world, the place where Naples was born. Known as “the womb of Naples,” you’ll travel 2,400 years into the past, from the ancient Greeks to today. Walking down 136 low steps, you’ll spot places excavated by the Greeks in the 4th century BC. These were used as cisterns for Naples’s water supply for twenty-three centuries. Each person carries a candle to light their path. (You will also see air raid shelters from World War II.)

115 feet underground are the Hypogeum Gardens. This area is growing vegetables, in what seems an impossible spot, but away from pollutants. Botanists continue their research here, as well as international scientists. You will also see the remains of a Roman Theater. Open a hatch and it is here that Emperor Nero had a private dressing room for those times when he performed in Naples. Recently discovered, there are channels for running water, decorated with beautiful blue tiles. These are sewer drains from the Bourbon period. You can go underground with a private or a small group tour.

Cinque Terre
San Fruttuoso

You can get to San Fruttuoso, usually from Portofino, by boat or hiking. The village of San Fruttuoso is in a hidden bay, surrounded by the hills and lush forests of Portofino Regional Park. There you find the Abbey of San Fruttuoso of Capodimonte, built by Benedictine monks in the 10th century. Today, the Abbey is part of the National Conservation Fund. The pretty stone building stands directly on the beach, along with a few fishing boats. There is a small fishing village near the Abbey, a few trattorias, and two of the most stunning crystalline beaches in the world.

Go there. Feel the peace and quiet.

I Bagni Misteriosi

©Bagini Misteriosi

The “Bagni Misteriosi” (the Mysterious Baths) is central to the artistic identity of Milan. Located in the city’s vital Porta Romana District, it was built in the art-deco era of the 1930’s. It has been restored with love and care. This complex was intended as a multi-purpose space with medical offices, a sports complex, a library, and a printer’s facility. It has two enormous swimming pools, lovely porticos, and it is a local favorite.

One of the pools, with a fountain and flamingos, is dedicated to children. The other is an Olympic pool for adults only. There is a strictly barefoot aperitivo time from 7pm to 11 pm. In the winter, the pool is turned into an ice-skating rink. This is a terrific place to experience authentic Milan.

The Lakes
The Kilometre of Knowledge and Beauty

If you’re visiting the Lakes of Italy, and you’re there on a Sunday, take this stroll. A promenade connects the Villa Olmo, Villa del Grumello, and the Villa Sucota; this is a short, easy walk, and it is gorgeous. You’ll have the breathtaking sights, scents, and glory of the villas plus exceptional views of Lake Como.

Trentino and South Tyrol
Meran (Merano)

Wide streets with broad-leafed trees, birds filling the air with song, flowering trees and bushes, and cacti that seem strangely out of place—this is Merano, sometimes called the Shangri-La of Northern Italy. It once was a favored spot for Austrian Royals. Then Freud, Kafka, and Ezra Pound fell in love with it. Art Nouveau villas and the riverside bustle all emanate from the medieval center of town. It is reputed to be therapeutic; Merano does feel healing. Besides having old-world charm, it is a perfect base for cyclists, hikers, and those who love to ski.

While there, go to Thermae Meran. These thermal baths include thirteen indoor pools inside a huge, glass cube. There are also twelve outdoor pools, perfect for a summer dip. You can swim through a sliding water gate and come out into gardens of sheltering palms and surreal views of snow-capped mountains.

Add a few surprising experiences to your Italy trip. These may be what you remember best, and they’ll give you stories to tell your friends and family around the dinner table. These stories hold a lifetime of memories.

Any Italian vacation is cause for celebration. Our Authentic Destination Experts will design the finest for you!