From the scenic beauty of the Italian Alps and the country's Mediterranean beaches to cities that look like open-air art galleries, Italy is an unmissable destination for any traveler through Europe. Getting a full taste of everything Italy has to offer -- and really getting a sense of just how sweet the "dolce vita" can be -- could take years, but in a few days you can get a good sense of the country and culture by heading to one of Italy's vibrant cities.
Italy's present-day capital was also the capital of the Roman Empire and the Papal States, and it contains sights and monuments worthy of the "Eternal City's" long history. For Roman architecture, take a guided tour of the ruins of the Roman Forum, the center of civic life in ancient Rome. You can also head to the Colosseum or the Roman Pantheon, today a Roman Catholic church but retaining its original ancient architecture. On a cloudy day, head indoors to the Galleria Borghese to view works of art by masters like Caravaggio and Raphael or to the huge Vatican Museum in Vatican City. When the weather is just right, get to know contemporary Rome by sipping a coffee, drink or gelato and doing some people-watching on the Spanish Steps or in the Piazza Navona.
The stylish streets of Milan are a perfect place to spend a few days in Italy. Start your trip in the central square, touring the recently restored Gothic central church and climbing up to the roof for a stunning panoramic view of the city. For a view of Milan's latest fashions, do some window shopping along the furniture shops on the Via Durini or walk through the boutiques around Via della Spiga and Via Manzoni. On the weekend, head to San Siro stadium to watch huge crowds cheer on the AC Milan or Inter Milan soccer clubs or enjoy some of the finest Italian opera at La Scala. Say goodbye to the city with a cocktail and finger food on the streets of the Brera District.
St. Mark's Square, the architectural and symbolic heart of Venice, is surrounded by sights like the Basilica San Marco, the Doge’s Palace, the clock tower and the bell tower -- all open to visitors. To see the rest of the city as it was meant to be seen, take a gondola tour through the canals. For art, head to the Accademia Gallery, which displays works by Bellini, Tintoretto and Titian. Don't forget to pick up some souvenirs at the Rialto Markets -- brimming with fresh food and specialty items for gourmands -- or on the island of Murano, famous for its glass-blowing demonstrations and hand-made glass jewelry.
Florence is arguably the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance and home to architectural and artistic masterpieces to prove it. Both the Uffizi Gallery and the Galleria dell’Accademia contain priceless pieces of Renaissance art, such as Michelangelo's "David" and Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus." Florence's central square is also the site of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, a huge church with works of art spanning the six centuries of its construction. When you've had your fill of art, you can always sit down to one of the four-hour meals that make Tuscany famous, complete with regional specialties, the freshest of olive oils and local Chianti wine.