Travel through the centuries by combining a visit to Italy's two superstar cities: Rome and Florence. The art and architecture of both cities cover an astonishing span of time, from the ancient era in Rome to the Renaissance in Florence. The bonus is that the two cities have taken great care to preserve these remarkable vestiges of the past, some of which date back more than two thousand years.
Kick off your architectural journey in Rome at the Roman Forum, the epicenter of the ancient city. Stroll the historic Via Sacra — Ancient Rome's most renowned street — visiting the Arch of Septimius Basilicia, from the 3rd century AD, and the Basilica of Maxentius, which was the Forum's largest structure. Continue to the Arch of Constantine, which looms over the end of Via Sacra and reveals magnificent marble reliefs.
You're now ready to behold the mighty Colosseum, the largest amphitheater of the Roman Empire — and the world. With a capacity of more than 50,000 spectators, the Colosseum featured everything from bloody gladiatorial contests to mock sea battles; water was pumped in to fill the stadium. (Learn more about the Colosseum in this excerpt from DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Rome.)
Other historical highlights in Rome include its many piazzas, like the handsome Piazza di Santa Maria in Tastevere. The piazza is presided over by the Basilica di Santa Maria in Tastevere, one of Rome's oldest churches, which has a beautiful façade that includes a 12th century mosaic of the Virgin Mary. Also noteworthy: the Piazza del Campidoglio, designed by Michelangelo, and the Piazza de Spagna, with the famed Barcaccia fountain and iconic Spanish Steps, which draws throngs of tourists.
For a spectacular overview of Rome artistic heritage, head to the Vatican City, which covers every period in Roman history. Here you can view everything from detailed Roman statues in the Vatican Museum's Galleria Chiaramonte to the ornate Baroque interior of St. Peter's Basilica to the crown jewel of the complex — the Sistine Chapel, built in 1481, topped with Michelangelo's stunning ceiling murals.
Photo courtesy of the Italian National Tourist Board
For more Baroque splendors, visit the Galleria Borghese, in the Piazza Scipione Borghese, which is set in an elegant villa that rivals the art displayed within. Built for Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1612, the Galleria showcases among the greatest collection of Baroque sculpture in the world, such as Antonio Canova's marble sculpture of Pauline Borghese (Napoleon's sister), who reclines seductively on a Roman sofa.
Rome offers a taste of the Renaissance, but for the full feast, make your way to Florence, the capital of Tuscany and the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. Embark on your explorations at the Duomo, constructed between the late 13th to mid-15th centuries. Check out the glowing stained glass and then ascend to view sweeping views of Florence.
Other Florence highlights include the Palazzo Vecchio, the towering town hall; the Church of San Lorenzo, the oldest church in the city; the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, splashed with Renaissance frescoes; and Accademia, the first drawing school in Europe and home to Michelangelo's David, carved out of a massive slab of marble.
Photo courtesy of Dreamstime.com Tupungato
But all of these sights are precursors to Florence's — if not Italy's — greatest art museum: the Uffizi Gallery. Among the museum's masterpieces are Botticelli's Birth of Venus; Filippo Lippi's Madonna and Child; and Michelangelo's Doni Tondo. The museum itself is a unique work of art: Built between 1560 and 1580 as the government offices (uffizi) of Florentine magistrates, the building encompasses two very long galleries and a sky-lit internal courtyard with views towards the Arno river.
It's not just the grand museums and churches that reveal Italy's history — so do the classic restaurants. La Campana, near Piazza Novana, is one of Rome's oldest restaurants — with the traditional Roman cuisine to match. Dine on ravioli stuffed with fresh mozzarella, tagliatelle with tangy artichoke and grilled sea bass, along with excellent Italian wines. In Florence, feast on innovative Tuscan cuisine at Alle Murate, near the Duomo, which is set in a medieval palazzo and surrounded by frescoes depicting the earliest known portraits of Dante and Boccaccio.