Having been there several times for various reasons, Italy will always hold a special place in my heart. The food, the language, the history, the un-rushed vibes – all of it. Many times, friends and family members have come to me for recommendations on how to avoid the more touristy areas and experience Italy as the Italians do. So, I’ve composed a list of the most unforgettable and unique experiences in Italy, to fully experience the Bel Paese (that don’t involve the Colosseum or eating pizza in Naples).
Making the Most of Your Italy Trip
Many of these cities and towns are included in the numerous circuits of best Italian road trips – including Verona, Lago di Garda, Lago di Braies, Trastevere (Roma), Venezia, Vatican City, and the epic Dolomiti. Depending on your preference, an Italian road trip in itself is one of the most unforgettable and unique experiences in Italy!
1. Truffle Hunting in Orvieto
As someone who spent their formative years working in fine dining (specifically Italian) restaurants, Italian food has always been a weakness. Not the Americanized stuff back at home. You won’t find chicken parm over here, and your beloved carbonara will be much, much different. I mean true Italian food, the kind you experience with your soul. And truffles are an integral part of Italian food culture.
Truffle hunting is a unique and evocative ancient Umbrian tradition that has never left the region. And why should it? Truffles lend a taste and sensory experience like no other. Besides, truffle oil just can’t be compared to ripe truffles, freshly shaved over a dish of pasta or risotto.
Orvieto is located in the region of Umbria, green and full of hills, toward the center of the country, just north of Rome. Not many people here use wild boars (cinghiale) to truffle hunt anymore, as was the tradition. Now, specially trained dogs guide you through winding paths to the truffle fields.
Truffle Hunting in Other Umbrian Towns
There are other towns in Umbria where you can find truffle hunting opportunities (Montefalco, Bagnoregro, Sorano), but Orvieto has my heart. If you find yourself in town, head over to Zeppelin, in the medieval center of the city. Not only is it an acclaimed restaurant boasting mouth-watering dishes, but chef/farmer Lorenzo Polegri also offers authentic cooking classes. There are many tours that offer cooking classes, but take my word, heading to Zeppelin directly will give you a unique experience.
For the most authentic experience go to the cooking class at Zeppelin and make some friends. Then, you can come up with a way to organize a unique DIY truffle hunting experience together. If that’s not an option, you can find organized tours as well.
2. Climbing le Scalette in Vicenza
Vicenza is a rich city full of history and gorgeous architecture in the Veneto region of Italy. Piazzale della Vittoria offers arguably the most gorgeous view in the city. The square is located in front of the Basilica di S. Maria di Monte Berico.
The piazza offers sweeping views of the city, the foothills of the Alps, and the Venetian Lagoon. Sadly, the view comes with a price. The price of climbing 192 steps – ugh! But so worth it! Truly one of the most unique experiences in Italy.
The steps ascend to the Basilica, built in the early 15th century. Le Scalette (little steps) used to be the only point of access to the church. Now, they are used by the US Army 173rd Airborne Division as an exercise routine – Caserma Ederle is located in Vicenza.
In addition to a great (albeit exhausting) workout, the stairs lead up to Piazzale della Vittoria. Architect Andrea Palladio designed the entryway to the stairs as a gorgeous archway (Arco delle Scalette) in the late 1500’s.
Town of Vicenza
The town of Vicenza is essentially an outdoor museum displaying the works of Palladio. He designed 47 buildings that are registered in the UNESCO World Heritage List! “City of Vicenza and Palladian Villas of the Veneto” has been a World Heritage site to protect Palladian works in Vicenza since 1994.
If you need a bite to eat after all of those steps, Sette Santi pizza restaurant is right around the corner. It has outdoor seating, prosciutto e melone, and all the pizza you could ask for to refuel before your return journey.
Vicenza is connected by train to Venice, Padua, and Verona. But, I used to go back and forth between Rome and Vicenza at least a few times a month, and the ride wasn’t too bad. It takes a little over three hours and you have to switch trains in Verona. For information on how to get to Vicenza, click here.
3. Spend a Summer Day at Lago di Garda
Easily accessible from many regions, Lake Garda is a local favorite for outdoor activities, no matter the season. Three regions comprise Lago di Garda – the Veneto, Lombardy, and Trentino Alto-Adige. The northern vicinity has more Austrian influence whereas the south has more wine and more French/Italian visitors.
It is the largest lake in Italy on the edge of the Dolomites. Despite its location at the bottom of the Italian Alps, the climate is still particularly mild. Olive and citrus trees grow here, which is rare given the latitude.
There’s a ton to do at Lago di Garda. Le grotte (the caves) are fun to explore, Sirmione Castle is nearby, plus the water activities. If you have kiddos, there’s a theme park nearby (Gardaland). While many tourists are heading to the Amalfi Coast or Sicilian beaches, try Lago di Garda for one of the more unique experiences in Italy.
4. See an Opera in Verona’s Outdoor Ancient Roman Amphitheatre
If you’ve never seen an opera, you must do this. If you’ve seen an opera, you must do this. Verona’s outdoor ancient Roman amphitheater becomes a magical backdrop for the world’s greatest vocal performances in July and August. The arena seats up to 20,000 people. Yes, you read that right – 20,000 – not 2,000. For comparison, the Vienna State Opera has a capacity of up to 1,700 people.
In the center of the arena are modern seats, giving the ultimate combination of visual and acoustic experience. Surrounding the inner circumference of the amphitheater are stone steps, the traditional seats, where onlookers would watch the spectacles in ancient Roman times.
There are no microphones and no sound system, but hearing is not an issue. As the orchestra begins to sound, the conductor emerges and an enthusiastic chorus of ‘bravo maestro’ permeates the air.
Upon entrance, everyone is given a candle, and during the overture, they are lit. Imagine thousands and thousands of candles replacing the familiar glow of cell phones now prevalent at concerts and other big events. Sitting in such a setting, in what may be one of the purest sensory experiences that exist, you can imagine the enthusiasm of the audience.
When to go
Performances start at 9 pm, so there is plenty of time to get dinner and drinks beforehand. Piazza Bra is a square just outside the amphitheater, which is filled with opera-goers on their way in and out of the show, which generally ends after midnight.
Verona is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, filled with history, cafes, and Roman remains amid Renaissance buildings. The city where Romeo and Juliet loved and lost. The city is beautiful and enchanting as you’d imagine.
For schedule and ticket information, click here.
5. Leave Italy!
OK, I know what you’re thinking – how can this be an Italian experience if it’s not in Italy? But the journey is part of the experience in Italy. The relaxed way of travel parallels the Italian way of life – unrushed, to be experienced fully. There are trains (some with exceptional scenery!) leaving from most major cities that will take you to a different country.
If you find yourself in Puglia (particularly, Bari) you can catch a ferry to a number of the Balkan States! The ferry is long – the shortest is 7.5 hours. However, overnight ferries are also an option.
St. Moritz, Switzerland
For information on ferry schedule and tickets, click here
For detailed train information (and an invaluable resource for traveling within Europe) check out Seat 61.
6. Picnic at Lago di Braies
Lago di Braies (aka Pragser Wildsee in German) is an awe-inspiring turquoise lake nestled in the Prags Dolomites in South Tyrol, Italy. The lake, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, simply doesn’t look real. The clear, deep turquoise water has an almost mirror-like reflection on its surface. Its surroundings were supposedly once home to dwarves and elves! Click here to read more about The Kingdom of the Fanes.
What to do
You can rent a rowboat to relax and explore during the high season (June-September) every day. That’s not to say the lake is only worth visiting in the warmer months. The lake is just as breathtaking in the winter, and staying in a nearby hotel might be the perfect getaway.
If you’re a hiker, climber, photographer, nature-lover, mythology enthusiast, or just want a memorable sensory experience, do yourself a favor and pay this area a visit. South Tyrol in itself is one of the most beautiful places in Italy, and this lake is one of its most beautiful spots and to see it in person is certainly one of the most unforgettable and unique experiences in Italy.
insider tip –
If you’re looking for the ultimate IG shot, be sure to arrive early, before the tourists begin to arrive. Also, there aren’t many restaurants, which is why this is the ideal spot to pack a lunch. Definitely bring a snack, if, like me, you’re prone to getting hangry.
For information on getting to Lago di Braies as well as accommodation recommendations, click here.
7. Get lost in Trastevere
Get lost in Rome’s best neighborhood (my opinion may be biased, but Trastevere really is awesome). Rome can be so overwhelming with the sheer volume of people surrounding you at any given moment, Trastevere is a welcome break from the crowds, and one of the most instagrammable places in Rome. Whenever I was returning to my apartment after being across the river, as soon as I passed Piazza Trilussa, an almost-immediate hush came over the city. The volume and activity suddenly faded behind buildings and across the mighty Tiber.
All of a sudden, you are not in a major tourist city, but on a street where neighbors shout across their windows to each other, where you see parents walking their children to school. The buildings are more live- in, the people more authentic.
You’re in a world where people know each other at the market and ask about each other’s families. And, of course, being Rome, there’s no shortage of delicious food and wine at the small, family-run cafes and restaurants.
The streets of Trastevere are winding and interconnected, not to mention relatively safe, making it a fantastic place to spend a few hours getting lost.
8. Drink Bellinis & Eat Carpaccio in Venice
No Italian city embodies romance quite like Venice, and enjoying a Bellini or plate of fresh carpaccio is quintessential Venetian opulence. If you have the time, spend one or two days in Venice and be sure to include these culinary wonders.
Opened in 1931, Harry’s Bar is an iconic restaurant located at Calle Vallaresso in Venice. Long-time hangout of Ernest Hemingway, Harry’s was also a favorite locale of people like Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Truman Copote, and Orson Welles.
Its claim to fame (aside from its star-studded list of patrons) is that Harry’s Bar is where both the Bellini and Carpaccio were invented. The Bellini is a cocktail made of Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) and white peach nectar. Giuseppe Cipriani, the founder of Harry’s, invented the drink sometime between 1934 and 1948.
Giuseppe also invented Carpaccio, which is very thinly sliced or pounded thin raw meat or fish. Originally prepared with beef, and served with a drizzle of lemon juice and xvoo with shaved Parmesan cheese.
worth noting –
The Cipriani family pled guilty to tax evasion and the bar was sold to an investment group in 2012. I can’t attest to the caliber of food or service since the change in ownership, but below are two other places known for their Bellini’s and carpaccio, respectively
Bar Longhi at the Gritti Palace Hotel Venice for a Bellini
CoVino for the Carpaccio
9. Have breakfast at the Vatican
Fun Fact: Vatican City is not actually Italy.
While I’m not the biggest fan of organized tours, there’s no question that you learn a great deal more than if you were to go on your own. In terms of visiting the Vatican, tours are without a doubt the best option. Especially if you’re at all interested in art history and want to take in all there is to see and learn.
There are the typical highlights of the Vatican – the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica. Or, you get a big, lavish breakfast spread before spending hours exploring the Vatican wonders. Why not?
While the Vatican doesn’t have a ‘slow season’ per se, it’s somewhat quieter in winter months when tourism in Rome, in general, has died down a bit. But when you get breakfast, you get to skip the lines!
10. Get a Massage on Lido di Jesolo
Catered almost exclusively to tourism, Lido di Jesolo has a different vibe than the rest of Italy. The resort town stretches along ten miles of shore, yellow dolomite sand meeting salty Adriatic sea. This vibrant seaside resort town is one of the most underrated beach destinations in Europe.
There is an adjacent street of shops, restaurants, gelaterie, and the like. You can rent a bicycle or a smart car to cruise around in, but there’s not much to this town besides the sea. There is an aquarium and an arcade, but most of the activity is centered on the beach.
Lying out with the sun drying the super-salty Adriatic water on your skin, kids with pails full of fresh coconut will sell you some for a couple of euros. There are also little elderly Thai ladies walking the beach offering massages – GET ONE! They are legit. One of the most unforgettably unique experiences in Italy!
11. Ski the Italian Alps
Cortina D’Ampezzo has arguably the most breathtaking scenery of any of the Italian ski resorts. It was pretty unknown until the 1956 Winter Olympics, growing exponentially in popularity immediately following the games. Despite the town being relatively upscale, skiing is surprisingly affordable.
In Cortina there are more than 30 lifts. They bring you back into town or set you up for a day on the slopes. Roughly half of Cortina’s trails are doable for intermediate skiers. Not a skier? There’s a bobsled run and an Olympic rink for skating. There are also a number of Alpine towns between the Marmolada Glacier and the mountains known as Gruppo del Sella. The entire area is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Check out the Dolomiti Superski Pass for deals and discounts.
12. Experience Italy’s Liquid Gold – Vino
There are so many different wine regions in Italy, the tour or tasting you opt for will depend on your location. Fortunately, I’ve never met an Italian wine I didn’t like. Still, some wine regions in Italy are more popular than others.
Wine Regions of Italy
There’s Tuscany, where the Sangiovese grape is used to make Chianti and Chianti Classico DOCGs. Tuscany is the oldest of Italy’s wine regions. Despite the Sangiovese grape being the most popular and the most produced in Tuscany, you won’t get bored drinking it in its fermented form. Not a red wine drinker? Not to worry. Tuscany is also home to the Vernaccia grape, which is used to make Tuscany’s favorite white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano.
Barolo and Barbaresco both come out of Italy’s Piemonte region. If you’re in the mood for something sweet in Piemonte, try a glass of Moscato d’Asti as (or with) your dessert.
Need something bubbly? Head over to Veneto. Veneto is one of the most productive wine regions in the country, perhaps best known for prosecco, the Italian version of sparkling wine, and other non-sparkling whites. If you’re like me and you tend towards red, Valpolicella and Amarone are produced nearer to the warmer areas of the region – i.e., Lago di Garda and the Adriatic Sea.
Other noteworthy wine regions in Italy are Emilia-Romagna (come here for Lambrusco – sparkling red wine that is like nothing you’ll try anywhere else), Sicily (famous for its sweet Marsala wine), and Alto Aldige (white wine heaven). Head to Apulia for some unique wine tastings, taking in the breathtaking surroundings of Alberobello and the Trulli. Trust me, no matter where you wind up in Italy, the wine will be plentiful (and delicious).
Wine Tours in Italy
Check out Cellar Tours if you want to organize a wine tasting vacation. Cellar Tours works with wineries in all different regions to ensure you’re getting what you want.
More of a red wine drinker? This tour from Italy and Wine brings you to Chianti, in Tuscany, known for the versatile Sangiovese grape.
My personal favorite way to taste wine in Italy is to go to an enoteca (wine bar) and ask the bartender to hook me up. They know what they’re doing, you’ll be able to taste what you want (almost always local), and you can taste from different vineyards in one sitting.
Wine tasting may not be the most unique experience to have in Italy, but definitely unforgettable (unless, of course, you overindulge, haha!)
13. Follow the Coast
Whether it’s hiking the Cinque Terre or an Amalfi coast road trip, the scenery on Italy’s Western coastline will not disappoint!
Without hiring a car, you have two options as to how to traverse the Cinque Terre – you can walk or take the train between the five towns. The train is the faster option and only takes a few minutes in between each of the towns.
But if driving the roads along the crashing waves is on your list, head a little further south to the Amalfi coast. Be sure to check off these items from the Amalfi Coast road trip bucket list!
How to Experience Cinque Terre
The Cinque Terre Pass gives you access to trains and shuttle buses as well as to the hiking trails.
The Cinque Terre Trail that leads to Corniglia is the more scenic option, but definitely more time-consuming and more physically strenuous if you’re not a hiker. If you do decide to hike the Cinque Terre, check the routes before you set off so that you can make alternate plans for any maintenance or closed trails.
If you need a good cheat sheet, this site is also a good resource I’ve found for hiking the Cinque Terre Trail.
Regardless of your Italian itinerary, it’s almost impossible to have a bad time here. With the right mindset, every thing you do in the country will prove to be one of the most unforgettable and unique experiences in Italy, and life!