By Eben Diskin | Published on March 11, 2022

Italy is pretty spoiled when it comes to superlatives. With is being considered one of the best travel destinations, depending on who you talk to, it's typically noted as the best country in the world to visit for either food, art, architecture, scenery, history or all five at once. Italian architecture and art, in particular, have cemented their reputation as among the world's finest and most influential.

From the famed Colosseum of Rome to the masterpieces of Titian, Italy is defined by its stunning architectural marvels steeped in artistic tradition. Its major cities are home to some of the world's premier museums and monuments, while its smaller towns and villages are works of art in themselves. Many Italy tours are devoted entirely to illuminating the country's aesthetic wonders, and there's truly nothing like exploring Rome's ancient streets and Venice's labyrinthine waterways for yourself. But until then, it can't hurt to soak in a little pre-trip inspiration.

Read on for a guide to the cities with the must-see Italian architecture and art around the country.

Romain Architecture: All Roads Lead To Rome

All roads lead to Rome," the saying goes, and there's a reason for that. Images of Rome's ornate architectural wonders have been emblazoned in my imagination since my college art history course "Visualizing Ancient Rome." I've dreamed of wandering the ancient cobblestone streets of this unfamiliar city, with medieval ruins towering above me, feeling the palpable energy of Rome's long history.

It would be years before I actually visited the city myself, and that college course had set my expectations pretty high (impossibly high, I feared). Luckily, Rome is every bit as impressive in person as my dreams led me to believe.

Colosseum, Rome, Italy
Colosseum, Rome, Italy

The Colosseum

What is the most famous architecture in Italy? When you think of Rome, you think of the Colosseum. This massive oval amphitheater stands strong in the center of Rome, a hallmark and popular landmark at the center of the city's history. Built between 70 A.D. and 80 A.D., the Colosseum could hold around 65,000 attendees and was used for theatrical productions, gladiator fights, and recreations of famous battles. The horde of like-minded tourists might dissuade you from paying for a tour of the interior, but if there's one place that's actually worth enduring the crowds — this is it. Only 3,000 people are allowed inside at any given time, so get there early and embrace the exciting atmosphere. It'll feel like you've been transported back to Roman times.

Rome (Civitavecchia), Italy Pantheon
The Pantheon in Rome, Italy

The Pantheon

The Pantheon was built as a temple in 126 A.D. by Emperor Hadrian and has functioned as a church since the 7th century. Its defining characteristic is its massive domed ceiling with an oculus, or central opening, which sunlight pours through. Standing there under the ornate ceiling as the sun shines on your face, it truly feels like you're in the presence of the gods. Indeed, its name means "all the gods" in Greek, and it was originally built as a temple to all the gods, statues of whom can be found around the building.

The Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, Rome, Italy
The Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, Rome, Italy

The Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel in Vatican City is the official residence of the Pope, but it's also home to some of Michelangelo's most famous works. His ceiling frescoes were commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508, and depict various scenes from the Old Testament. His "The Last Judgment" fresco, showing the second coming of Christ, can be found on the west wall and was painted between 1534 and 1541. You're not allowed to take any photos, but that's OK as you'll be too busy craning your neck in awe of Michelangelo's masterpieces — you'll completely forget to reach for your camera in the first place.

The intricate architectural details throughout the Italian city — particularly on the columns and spires — is simply astonishing, and if you're like me, you'll spend the entire afternoon wandering the grounds finding new features to photograph.

Getting Lost In The Best Of Venice’s Architecture

Easy to explore on foot, Venice is one of those cities you could traverse a thousand times and still find new aesthetic charms to marvel at. I once lost myself (literally and figuratively) in Venice's labyrinthine canal system at night, which in any other city might have been a harrowing experience, but here felt like wandering through a painting.

The canals wind throughout the city, weaving between and connecting Venice's many islands. You can explore the canals via gondola, or you can walk alongside the water, below the bridges and the streets. It only takes one wrong turn to lose your way, and I likely took several after a night of bar crawling on the island of San Marco and had to navigate the cobblestone maze in the dark. Whether it's exploring the canals or paying homage to an Italian master painter during the day, Venice is not only a city of enchanting history but one of the best in Italy for architecture and art.

Palazzo Ducale Di Venezia

Palazzo Ducale also known as Doge's Palace. Venice, Italy.
Palazzo Ducale also known as Doge's Palace. Venice, Italy.
Also known as the Doge's Palace, the Palazzo Ducale di Venezia was built in 1340 as the official residence of the Doge of Venice. Its most notable room is the hall of the great council, which is full of artwork. Walking through the impossibly ornate halls, it's easy to lose yourself in the intricate details and feel like you're on the set of a period drama. Indeed, all it takes is one stroll up the dazzling Stairs of Gold (Scala d'Oro) to give you pretty serious delusions of grandeur.

Library Of San Marco

The Grand National Library of St Mark built in 1591, Italy
The Grand National Library of St Mark built in 1591, Italy
The Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, or the Library of San Marco, is Venice's premier example of classical architecture. Built in 1591 to house the manuscript collection of Cardinal Bessarion of Trebizond, the library features a sprawling 21-bay arcade lined with shops and faces the Grand Canal. If you're looking for some inspiration to finally put your head down and write that novel, visiting this repository of literary treasures is perfect. Be warned, though, that it'll put your local library to shame.

Ca' Pesaro

I hate to admit it, but I usually skip museums when traveling due to a less-than-stellar attention span. However, Ca' Pesaro manages to hold the attention of even the most impatient and restless, and that includes visitors who only have a passing interest in art. This 17th-century Baroque palace is home to an impressive collection of art from the 19th and 20th centuries. You'll find works by Venetian artists like Caffi, Ciardi, Favretto, and Fragiacomo, as well as other artists and sculptors from around the world like Chagall, Kandinsky, Klimt, and de Chirico. There are also rooms dedicated to post-World War II Italian art and more modern collections. If Ca' Pesaro wasn't top of your list before visiting Venice, you'll be talking about it long after you leave.

The Architectural Jewel Of Florence

Italy tours focusing on art can't skip Florence architecture, the Tuscan capital teeming with cultural history. What type of architecture is in Florence? Known as the primary setting for the Italian Renaissance, as well as its abundance of Italian museums, stunning buildings, and of course, wine and gelato, Florence is the ultimate city for indulgence. Sure, Tuscany's more rural towns and villages are beautiful, but no trip to Italy is complete without a visit to the birthplace of the Italian artistic tradition.

The Florence Cathedral

Florence - Pisa, Italy Duomo Close Up
Close up of the Duomo Santa Maria Del Fiore toweing over Florence, Italy
Also known as "The Duomo" the Florence Cathedral is the largest Duomo (cathedral). Architects began planning the cathedral in 1294, but it took 140 years to finish since the technology needed for the project hadn't yet been fully developed. The cathedral complex consists of the Piazza del Duomo, the Baptistery, and Giotto's Campanile — all of which are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site in the historic center of Florence. It might look daunting though take the nearly 500-step climb to the bell tower for a view of the city that resembles all those postcards that inspired your trip in the first place, and you'll be glad you did.

Galleria Degli Uffizi

When traveling to Florence be sure to stop at this gallery as it is known as one of the most impressive collections of Renaissance art in the world. It contains masterpieces by Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Donatello, and Botticelli, including Boticelli's "The Birth of Venus," Da Vinci's "Adoration of the Magi," and Michelangelo's "Holy Family." You don't have to be an art aficionado to appreciate this place, as even the least artistically inclined will probably say, "Wait, that painting looks familiar," more than once.

Galleria Dell'accademia

Even those who have never set foot in an art museum before have heard of Michelangelo's David. Some might say it's ill-advised to visit a museum solely for one statue, but those people clearly haven't seen David in person. The famous statue lives at the Galleria dell'Accademia in a gallery built for the sole purpose of housing it, and you don't have to be a sculpture expert to marvel at the sheer size and detail of the marble masterpiece. You'll also find works by Perugino, Giotto, and Giovanna de Milano here, and you could easily spend the entire day exploring its many masterpieces.

Milan Architecture: Not Just For Fashion!

Milan is known for its fashion scene — it's the home of the famous Milan Fashion Week — but nothing is more fashionable than a city steeped in art and architectural history. Don't let all those well-heeled international visitors carrying expensive Gucci handbags intimidate you. A rich experience can be had when traveling to Milan even if you're on a budget by visiting some of the city's most ancient and celebrated castles, churches, and museums.

Sforzesco Castle

Aerial Panoramic View of Sforza Castle also known as Castello Sforzesco. Milan, Italy.
Aerial Panoramic View of Sforza Castle also known as Castello Sforzesco. Milan, Italy.
When I first arrived at Sforzesco Castle, expecting something like the ancient stone castle architectures of England and Ireland, I was a little confused. Sforzesco Castle was built as a fortress in the 15th century, though it doesn't exactly look like a traditional castle due to the many attempts at its demolition throughout history and the tireless restoration efforts that followed. Despite my initial surprise, the castle is far more unique and intriguing thanks to its beleaguered past. It consists of a main gate, several courtyards, the 15th century Tower of Bona of Savoy, and medieval arcades. Although aesthetically pleasing in its own right, the castle also contains several museums that are open to the public, housing some of Milan's most impressive art collections.

Il Duomo Di Milano

If you have one image of Milan's architectural aesthetic in your head right now, it's probably Il Duomo di Milano. Construction on the Italian Gothic cathedral started in 1386 but the final touches weren't completed until 1986. It's composed of flying buttresses, spires, and pinnacles, making for an impressive and imposing sight defined by its intricate detail. The intricate detail throughout — particularly on the columns and spires — is simply astonishing, and if you're like me, you'll spend the entire afternoon wandering the grounds finding new features to photograph.

The Basilica Of Sant'ambrogio

The Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio. Milan, Italy.
The Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio. Milan, Italy.
This church is one of the most sacred spaces in Milan, dating all the way back to the 4th century. It incorporated several different architectural styles during the course of its many renovations, resulting in a somewhat blended aesthetic. Right now, it has a Romanesque design with semi-circular arches and arcades throughout. Even if you're not religious, I highly recommend attending a Sunday mass here. Spoken entirely in Italian, the service is incredibly moving and will give you an idea of what the place felt like way back in the 4th century.

Written By

Eben Diskin is a travel writer, amateur pizza connoisseur, avid Indoorsman, and the Senior Staff Writer at Matador Network. While traveling, he pretends to enjoy activities like hiking, camping, fine dining, and museums, when all he really wants to do is drink Jack and Cokes at the hotel bar. He has a degree in History from Wheaton College and a definitely-not-useless Master's in Fiction Writing from the University of Edinburgh. 

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Florence - Pisa, Italy Duomo
The Duomo Santa Maria Del Fiore towering over Florence, Italy

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