Italy currently has more places designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites than any other country in the world (with 58 sites as of 2021). Browsing through the list of sites is a good way to find places you might want to go when you’re traveling in Italy as they are all worth a visit. Some of the sites are famous places while others are more off the tourist radar.
What is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?
Each year the UNESCO committee meets to review candidates for World Heritage status. Sites are chosen on the basis of artistic or historical merit, cultural importance or natural beauty and must have outstanding universal value. This status assists with renovation and upkeep and helps to protect sites from being destroyed or lost. Italy’s first site to be added to UNESCO’s list was the Ancient Rock Art of the Valcamonica, in 1979.
Italy’s sites include historic city centers and monuments, Roman and Greek remains, and places of artistic or cultural importance as well as a few natural sites. Some of them are the top places to go in Italy that would already be on a typical tourist itinerary such as the historic center of Florence, the Colosseum and ancient sites in Rome, Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast and the Cinque Terre. But others are places you may have never heard of.
My Top 10 Picks for Sites Not Always Found on the Usual Tourist Itinerary
- Matera, in Southern Italy’s Basilicata region, is one of my favorite towns. The sassi districts, with cave houses dug into the soft tufa rock, and the Park of Rupestrian Churches make up the first UNESCO site in southern Italy, inscribed in 1993. Matera is the European Capital of Culture for 2019 so there’s lots going on in this interesting town.
- Trulli of Alberobello are unique stone houses with conical roofs scattered throughout the countryside of in Puglia, the heel of the boot. The town of Alberobello has a very high concentration of trulli, about 1500 of them, and its trulli zone has World Heritage status.
- Valcamonica is a beautiful valley in the Alps of Lombardy, north of Brescia and Lago d’Iseo, that’s home to one of the world’s best collections of prehistoric petroglyphs. In addition to rock art sites, the valley is dotted with medieval villages and castles and is a great place for hiking. The train ride or drive from Brescia is very scenic.
- Painted Etruscan Tombs in Tarquinia are one of Italy’s top Etruscan sites. These tombs, some of them with elaborate frescoes, date from the 7th through the 2nd centuries BC. The painted tombs of Tarquinia and nearby Cerveteri were described by UNESCO as “the first chapter in the history of great Italian painting”.
- The foodie city of Bologna, in the Emilia-Romagna region, has 62 km of porticoes covering the city’s walkways built from the 12th century to the present. The porticoes of Bologna were inscribed on UNESCO’s list in 2021.
- The 12th century Romanesque cathedral in Modena, near Bologna, is a top example of Romanesque architecture. The cathedral, the adjacent Gothic bell tower, and Piazza Grande make up a World Heritage site. Modena’s historic center is a delight to explore, the food is great, and you can see Ferraris in the Enzo Ferrari House Museum.
- Between Modena and Verona is the beautiful Renaissance city of Mantova, in a pretty location with lakes on three sides. Its huge Ducal Palace has more than 500 rooms and is decorated with stunning frescoes.
- Verona was listed as a World Heritage Site because of its many historic monuments ranging from the Roman era through the Medieval and Renaissance periods. It has beautiful squares, a Romanesque cathedral, a big Roman arena used for opera performances, and of course, the house of Romeo and Juliet.
- In Padua, near Verona, fresco cycles painted between 1302 and 1397 in 8 buildings around the city make up a site on the World Heritage list. One of them is Giotto’s stunning fresco cycle inside the Scrovegni Chapel, consecrated in 1305, covering the interior walls of the chapel with frescoes.
- Piemonte’s Langhe wine region, inscribed for its vineyard landscape and preservation of historical wine-making methods, produces some of Italy’s top wines and truffles.
- The archeological area and Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia, in northeastern Italy, has Roman ruins and Paleo-Christian sites including stunning mosaics.
- Valley of the Temples, in Agrigento on the island of Sicily, has some of the best preserved temples outside of Greece.
- In addition to individual sites within Italy, Montecatini Terme is one of 11 places included in the Great Spa Towns of Europe, located in 7 different countries.
See the entire list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy
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