Photo credit: Mike Beales
Visitors to Italy are really spoiled for choice when it comes to amazing places to see. Faced with an overwhelming array of options, they usually focus on the “highlights,” taking in Grand Tour cities such as Rome, Florence, and Venice. But this means that many other Italian cities are largely ignored by tourists, particularly from overseas.
At Roman Candle Tours, we think that’s a real shame. So, in an effort to big up some of Italy’s less-heralded metropolises, here’s a list of five northern Italian cities you really should see.
Renowned for its café culture, Turin has a plethora of vaunted establishments in which to take an espresso, including the famous Caffè San Carlo and Caffè Torino along Via Roma, Turin’s main thoroughfare. At the end of Via Roma is the majestic Palazzo Madama, designed by 18th century master Filippo Juvarra for the then ruling Savoy family.
The world famous Turin Shroud, closely guarded by the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, is only displayed in certain years, but a dedicated Holy Shroud Museum will tell you all you need to know about the most enigmatic Christian relic in existence. Even more impressive is Turin’s amazing Egyptian Museum, considered the second-most important in the world after Cairo’s.
Not far from the Egyptian Museum, you’ll also find the stunning Sabauda Gallery with paintings by masters such as Van Eyck, Fra Angelico, Botticelli, and Titian. More interested in moving pictures? Then head to Italy’s fascinating National Cinema Museum, just off Via Po.
If you’re tired of all the culture, you can take in a game of one of Turin’s two great football teams – FC Torino and reigning Italian champions Juventus – and afterwards head down for a drink to the lively and alternative Murazzi district along the banks of the river Po.
Considered Italy’s financial and fashion capital, Milan has a reputation of being a business city first and foremost. Venture beyond the fabulous shops of the Via Montenapoleone district though and you’ll find a city brimming with artistic treasures.
The great gothic Duomo (cathedral) that dominates the city centre took a whopping 600 years to build and offers gorgeous views from its rooftop. Just beside the Duomo is the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, erected in the 1860s when shopping malls were seriously classy affairs… Well almost – a strange tradition still very much alive today involves spinning on the testicles of a bull mosaic in the Galleria’s floor! Passing through the Galleria, you’ll find Piazza della Scala, home to the most famous opera theatre in the world where greats such as Caruso, Pavarotti, and Callas once hit all the high notes.
Milan’s foremost museum complex is based around the Castello Sforzesco, named after the Sforza family who ruled Renaissance Milan along with the rival Visconti family. The Castello is situated in a beautiful public park and has the distinction of containing one of Michelangelo’s last great works, the moving yet incomplete Rondanini Pietà.
The most famous artwork in Milan is undoubtedly by another Renaissance genius, Leonardo da Vinci – his Last Supper has been copied and parodied on many occasions but there is only one original, which you can see in the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
For a spot of fun, the Navigli district along the canal is full of bars and restaurants and buzzing in the summer months. And just like Turin, Milan is home to two of Italy’s great football teams, FC Inter and AC Milan, who play their games in the Giuseppe Meazza Stadium in the San Siro area of the city – the race track here was famously portrayed in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
This bustling port city on the Italian Riviera, renowned for shipbuilding and heavy industry, also happens to be one of Italy’s most closely-guarded open secrets. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2006, thanks to its amazing architecture and cultural legacy, Genoa is a city that delivers so much more than visitors expect.
The magnificent Palazzi dei Rolli, centred around Via Garibaldi, are the 16th and 17th century palaces and mansions of the great families of the Republic of Genoa. This collection of remarkable buildings, including the Royal Palace on Via Balbi, is an absolute must-see.
If it’s churches you’re after, look no further than the 12th century St. Lawrence’s Cathedral and the 14th century Church of St. Stephen, both built in the beautiful Romanesque style. Not far from St. Stephen’s you can also visit the reconstructed house of Genoa’s most famous citizen, Christopher Columbus, symbol of the city’s rich maritime tradition.
Genoa’s old port has had a complete makeover in recent decades and now includes Europe’s largest Aquarium, where you’ll find dolphins, penguins, sharks, and a host of tropical fish. While you’re down at the port you can also eat some local delicacies such as sardines and clams; other famous culinary delights here include pesto alla genovese and focaccia alla genovese.
When you’re finished eating you’ll need a good walk, so why not take the Zecca-Righi funicular up to the Righi hill where you’ll get a spectacular view over Genoa’s old town and port area.
Still one of the largest walled cities in Europe, Bologna boasts among its vertiginous architecture a remarkable series of phallic-looking medieval towers. The two most famous, the “Due Torri”, both have distinctive leans that have made them truly iconic landmarks, often tattooed somewhere on the locals’ bodies. Afraid of heights? Stay firmly on the ground under the city’s 40 km of spectacular arcades.
The incredible thousand-year-old University of Bologna is the oldest university in the world, where the likes of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio all studied. And the university’s rich medieval tradition is also evident in the hallowed Basilica of St. Petronius, which overlooks Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s glorious main square.
Visitors who make it to Bologna often arrive hungry because they know they’ll leave well-fed. Nestled in Italy’s agricultural heartland, the city is famous for tortellini, meat, cheese, and rich sauces. What you won’t find is spaghetti alla bolognese – the Bolognese always use thicker pasta such as tagliatelle or lasagne to absorb heavy meat sauces. If you want to cook up your own creations, head to Quadrilatero market to pick out the freshest of ingredients.
Trieste, Friuli Venezia Giulia
The magnificent Piazza Unità d’Italia opens its arms to the Adriatic Sea in a way that the more-cluttered Venice could only dream of; a relaxing and pleasurable walk along the seafront is a must.
Some of the main sites in the city reflect Trieste’s eclectic influence, with a 1st century BC Roman amphitheatre, the revered medieval Cathedral of St. Justus, one of the largest synagogues in Europe, and the eye-catching Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Spyridon.
With so many different cultures represented, it’s no wonder the city was a major convergence point for the European intelligentsia of the early 20th century – residents included Sigmund Freud, Italo Svevo, and James Joyce. Indeed, Joyce wrote much of Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist in the city; a lovely bronze statue of him still proudly walks along Via Roma over the Grand Canal.
If you’re feeling energetic, there’s nothing more rewarding than a five-mile walk or cycle to the gorgeous Castello Miramare, which has beautiful gardens and spectacular sea-views.
Sometimes the most hidden treasures are the ones staring right at you! Visit any one of the five big name cities on our list and you won’t regret it.
Your favourite northern Italian city not on our list? Feel free to let us know in the comments section.
Planning on visiting the south of Italy as well?
Written by: Shane Harnett
If you liked this article, read also “FIVE SOUTHERN ITALIAN CITIES YOU REALLY SHOULD SEE”