Italy is well known for being home to the largest cultural, historical, artistic and architectural heritage on this planet. The Italians inherited so much art by their ancestors and still they do produce so much that it is almost impossible to highlight what is definitely worth a visit and what might be overlooked, as there is actually nothing that one shouldn’t pay a visit to. From the Colosseum to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, from Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence to the “Trulli” in Val d’Itria, from the Cathedral of Milan to the to the Norman Palace (Royal Palace) of Palermo, there is no region of Italy that cannot offer outstanding masterpieces of all time architecture.
I decided to pick some less known places to make up my own personal list of the 10 wonders you shouldn’t escape on your next trip to Italy, spanning from the ancient Greek era to contemporary architecture. You may find dozens of lists like this, thus nothing make mine more special than others. I just pointed out the ones that, from my point of view, can make the difference and generate unexpected emotions.
10 – The Hadid Tower in Milan
Ordered by the largest insurance company of Italy, this self twisting skyscraper, designed by the Iraqi Archistar Zaha Hadid, who unfortunately left us too early, renovated the skyline of Milan, the trading heart and the Fashion capital of the Country, with an outstanding brand new landmark that shows the mastery of contemporary architecture and the innovative spirit of the city of Milan.
9 – Civita di Bagnoregio – Viterbo
Also known as the “dying city”, this little village hanged on the tuff rocks of the Tuscia area (between Tuscany, Lazio ad Umbria regions) is destined to collapse sooner or later. Until then. Civita di Bagnoregio is definitely worth a visit to walk along its very narrow alleys surrounded by medieval houses overlooking the “Calanchi”, rocky clay formations created by rain erosion that kept only the tips of the hills. Ideal also for sporty travellers who enjoy trekking.
8 – The Temple of Valadier – Genga
The Valadier temple is a church in Genga, in the Marche region, built by order of Pope Leo XII, in 1828, on the basis of a project drawn up by the architect Giuseppe Valadier. The church, built according to an octagon-shaped plan, has a domed roof covered with lead plates and is inserted in a cave. What make this little church extraordinary is not the architectural value of it, being similar to many others, but its location. Go there and let me know if I was right.
7 – Sacra di San Michele (Holy Abbey of St. Michel) – Torino
This amazing and unparalleled abbey is a mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Built on the tip of Mt. Pirchiariano at an altitude of 3280 feet (you can still see the tip of the mountain under the basement of a pillar inside the main church) the Abbey of St. Michel is an encyclopaedia of the middle ages, showing religious devotion, superstition, building abilities as well as decorative skills. It take some energy to climb the long “staircase of the dead” heading to the Zodiac portal but once above the view over the Alps is simply breathtaking. It is exactly the same view that inspire novelist Umberto Eco for the writing of his best selling book “The name of the Rose”.
6 – The Cloister of Bramante – Rome
Finding quiet and relaxing places in the very heart of Rome is almost impossible as everybody want to visit the eternal city at least once. However there is a place, right in the heart of the old town that allows you to escape the crowd that welcomes you with an astonishing sense of quiet and beauty. The building is a cloister, designed by the architect Bramante in 1500 for a powerful and rich Cardinal of Rome. Built on two overlapping storeys supported by pillars and slim columns, the cloister was conceived as a quiet deambulatory for the church of Santa Maria della Pace. Pay a visit here to see a masterpiece of the Renaissant architecture. It’s just round the corner from Piazza Navona.
5 – The Greek temples of Agrigento
When the Greek culture spanned across southern Italy, several temples were built to worship the several gods of their religion. Most of them were later on turned into temples worshipping the Roman gods and, incredibly enough they happened to survive until today, overtaking weather, wars, demolitions and sometimes even bad preserving strategies. My favourite Greek temples are in Sicily, just outside the city of Agrigento, (Akragas for the Greeks) that are well preserved. It’s a compound of 3 temples of which the major one is called “temple of harmony”.
4 – The Royal Palace of Caserta
Built between 1752 and 1850, this royal residence is one of the largest and impressive royal palaces on earth. The palace was designed by the 1700s archistar Louis Van Wittel (italianized into Vanvitelli) who couldn’t complete the construction himself, as he died in 1773 as construction works took several decades. The monumental staircase is simply a masterpiece of the baroque architecture. It is not a surprise the episode 2 of the Star Wars saga was partly filmed here as well as Mission Impossible 3 and Angels and Demons. Don’t miss a visit to the extraordinary gardens shaped as a Cello which is better visible from the sky especially when it very rarely gets covered by snow.
3 – Sassi di Matera (Cave houses) – Matera
Necessity is the mother of invention and Matera is the symbol of this principle. Being very difficult to quarry stones out the local mountains, decision was taken to carve the houses directly into the rocks. Matera is believed to be among the oldest city in world history. Signs of human settlements have been detected since the paleolithic era, in fact. The appearance of the city is that of a golden set of stones shining under a hot sunbath, thus making the city looking very similar to Jerusalem. It is not by chance that Mel Gibson shoot his famous movies “The passion of the Christ” right here. The assignment as European Capital of Culture in 2019 made a turning point for the city that is living a touristic resurrection and it nowadays as splendid as a city can be.
2 – The Olympic Theatre – Vicenza
The Olympic Theatre of Vicenza is a real wonder. It’ s a chest of beauty and marvels, equalled by no other theatre worldwide. Designed in 1580 by Andrea Palladio, one of the masters of Italian architecture who paved the way for the well known Neoclassic style, the Olympic Theatre is an ensemble of the Greek and Roman theater building tradition. The size and the shape of the scene as well as the scenography offer a unique gaze over the show business tradition of the 1600s in northern Italy, and is definitely worth a visit… or why not, a show.
1 – The Holy Shroud Chapel – Torino
The building topping my personal ranking is for sure the Holy Shroud Chapel of Turin. The most important relic of Christianity is the sheet that is supposed to have wrapped the body of Christ after the deposition from the cross. It is kept in Turin since 1578, however it was not until the late 1600s that the house of Savoy (the former Italian Royal family) ordered the construction of the Holy Shroud Chapel to the Architect Guarino Guarini. He designed an incredibly intricate net of ribbings that suggest a nest-looking ambience from the inside and a pagoda styled dome from the outside. If I had to pick any building as THE masterpiece of baroque architecture, I would undoubtedly choose the Holy Shroud Chapel. The chapel was recently reopened to public visits after a long restoration and it’s accessible from the Royal Palace of Turin.