Cinque città: Italy the hub of activities and sights

Sarah John shares her favourite memories from a summer trip to five of Italy's most notable and astonishing cities.

Photo: Sarah John

Avrai tu l’universo, resti l’Italia a me. “You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” –from Attila by Giuseppe Verdi.

Italy is a country for all. Painters, merchants, craftsmen, fashion designers, models, musicians, and more; it welcomes creators and adventurers alike into its embrace. For an art history student and pseudo-wine enthusiast who spends much of her time binge-watching cheesy, glamorised Starz period dramas set in Italy, drunkenly booking this post-exam European getaway was a dream come true.

Looking back on our summertime fox-trot around Italy, the memories carry a mellow, dreamlike quality. With the hot Mediterranean sun beating down on us and enveloping us in a dazed lull (this was only exacerbated by the countless cocktails we consumed), we gallivanted around in sundresses, sandals, and straw hats, immersing ourselves in the rich culture of five great Italian cities.


Nestled against a sensuous backdrop of the Tuscany hills, it is as if time froze over Florence at the heyday of the Renaissance. It has been said that the entirety of Florence is like a museum, though this is a massive understatement, for this marble-clad, fresco-covered oasis evokes a thousand tales of times past. It is Italy’s bubble of heritage, a haven for those immortal, ageless masterpieces of yore.

The cradle of the Renaissance, you can feel Florence’s history like whispers down your spine. From the zenith of the Medici dynasty to the reign of Gucci and Pucci, these narrow, cobblestoned paths hold the secrets and stories of generations upon generations, giving it a fairy tale-like quality.

Michelangelo’s David should be the first thing on your Florence bucket list. Utterly breath-taking, there are no words or photos that will do the skill, precision, grandeur, and glory of Il David justice. It has been so well-preserved and perfectly presented that it feels as though you are in Michelangelo’s studio and he has stepped away for only a moment. Be prepared for a long line at the Galleria dell’Accademia.

After visiting the stunning David, stroll into one of the main three piazzas for a mouth-watering Florentine pizza. Stop by Ristorante Il David at the Piazza della Signoria for a tasty bite margherita. Bells of the campanile ring as you dine outside in the restaurants overlooking the cosy square.

Home to an astounding collection of Renaissance pieces, including Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, is the Uffizi Gallery. From the rooftop of the museum, you can see a beautiful view of both the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo.

The most marvellous view of Florence, however, requires a bit of sweat and exertion. Upon visiting the Duomo, you have the option of climbing either the bell tower or the dome itself. I strongly encourage climbing the bell tower, because the view features the dome of the cathedral itself, as well as the orange rooftops of the city below, and the rolling hills of the landscape beyond.

The Ponte Vecchio is the historic bridge lined with purveyors of the finest handmade gold and silver jewellery in Tuscany, as well as authentic Fiorentina Italian leather. As you shop, the Arno river drifts lazily below, and if you wait just until the sunset hits the horizon, the magic of Florence will unravel before your eyes.

Ponte Vecchio Photo: Sarah John







In the bustling capital of the country, your days here will be jam-packed with churches, artwork, architecture, and sightseeing, with little time for the carefree flânerie that Dean Martin crooned about in “On An Evening in Roma.”

On the first day, we made a beeline for the Colosseum, which is conveniently located next to the Arch of Constantine and the Roman Forum. The lines for the Colosseum move quickly enough to be able to check this amphitheatre off your list in an hour or so, and European Union students receive discounted tickets.

After the Colosseum, we took the metro to the historic Spanish Steps for a few shameless photo ops, and indulged in some luxury window shopping in the surrounding Piazza di Spagna. Because my friend and I were feeling cheeky, we entered Fendi for some princess treatment, where I was adorned in over €30,000 worth of silk and jewels, and offered drinks by the dutiful staff. I am now able to boast that I have the privilege of being connected to the wifi in Fendi Roma’s flagship store.

By the end of the first day, we were able to fit in the Pantheon, the famous baroque ceiling of the Church of Il Gesu, the Trevi Fountain (which is especially stunning at night), and an impromptu night out at the Yellow Bar, a 24 hour bar. But take note, the bar staff at the Yellow Bar mix their drinks remarkably strong.

The entirety of our second day was spent wandering the Vatican. The Vatican Museums are host to a plethora of ancient artwork and artefacts, and lead up to the main event: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

Though the chapel itself was awe-inspiring, I found the actual experience slightly annoying. The chapel was far too crowded and noisy to bask in the artist’s sheer genius and craftsmanship, despite the disallowance of noise and pictures. Visitors were hurriedly ushered along by the staff and were not able to stand still and be able to properly gaze at Michelangelo’s work. Nonetheless, the chapel was as breathtaking as pictures make it out to be.

The Villa Borghese and the surrounding park took up our third day in Rome. Multiple renowned works by Bernini, including David and The Rape of Proserpina, were on display at the Galleria Borghese, a charming converted villa full of marble sculptures and Renaissance paintings. We spent the day roaming the gardens and whizzing past neatly kept hedges, fountains, and outdoor sculptures on our pedalo bicycle. It was the perfect end to our little Roman holiday.


What the Medicis and their artistic patronage is to Florence, the Sforzas and their ambition is to Milan. Indeed, the mark of Milan’s politically suave, reigning 15th century family is immediately evident the moment that you step off the train into the polished Milano Centrale station. In striking contrast against the calm, provincial feel of Florence, Milan is a buzzing cosmopolitan hub of commerce. Teeming with enterprise, it is unclear whether the sheen of sweat on people’s brows is caused by the stagnant heat of the Lombardy plains, or the intrinsic, determined drive of the Milanese locals.

Photo: Sarah John








Every direction you look, men and women are dressed smartly, tapping their shoes briskly along the concrete to get where they need to be. I found the feel of Milan shockingly similar to that of Manhattan—and it did not leave me feeling too pleased. Much like New York City, to me, Milan felt void of the pure, unadulterated culture that one typically associates with Italy. It was a flat, urban jungle with a rich background but sadly, nothing much to show for it.

If the main reason that Milan is on your Italy checklist is because of Leonardo’s Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, I suggest the first thing you do is book a spot online—if you do not reserve a spot weeks, or even months in advance, it is unlikely that you will be able to see it.

For those interested in opera, the globally recognised Italian opera house Teatro alla Scala is located in Milan. If you are short on the necessary funds to sit in the velvet-lined theatre hall for a real show, the theatre museum is open in the daytime for a small price, and you will still be able to view the interior of the famed stage where Puccini’s Madam Butterfly was once performed.

The Duomo of Milan was simply the most striking cathedral I have encountered in my life. Statues, gargoyles, and biblical icons meticulously crafted from white marble make up its impressive exterior, and the structure has withstood time astoundingly well. Despite all the years that have passed since its initial construction, the Duomo remains the bright, radiant focal point of the city.

Adjacent to the Duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuel II, Milan’s premier luxury shopping centre. Upon entering, it feels as though everything is made of gold. Fancy shops beckon you left and right, as well as restaurants whose appetisers alone could amount to the same as one month’s rent for a Market Street flat in St Andrews.

Photo: Sarah John






All in all, Milan is a paradise for those whose primary goal when travelling is to shop. However, while I find a bit of window shopping enjoyable, at a certain point Milan started to bore me—Prada and Chanel are something you can find in any city, but authenticity is something I found lacking in Milan.


Our excursion to fair Verona was off to a promising and memorable start when on the train, we sat opposite a woman and her gigantic, bad-tempered cat, who kept escaping from its carrier and sneezing all over the seats.

Verona Cathedral was small and picturesque, harbouring many ancient frescoes and archaeological finds, which were excavated and left on display inside the cathedral.

After visiting the Cathedral, we lunched at a small, family-owned restaurant that served a savoury duck Bolognese.

Having thus far a relatively quiet excursion, I had wondered, slightly surprised, why the streets were so lacking in tourists. But when we arrived at Juliet’s Balcony, I realised that it was because they had all been congregating here in swarms.

A quick google search of Juliet’s Balcony in Verona will show you serene images of a garden with a statue and small balcony worthy of a Shakespearian heroine. In reality, it is noisy, the walls leading to the garden are covered in unsightly graffiti and millions of love letters scrawled to Juliet, and you can hardly hear the person standing next to you over the chatter of the tourists. Perhaps the only selling point of this landmark is that there is no charge to grope one of the Juliet statue’s breasts for good luck.

Verona was indeed beautiful; the Ponte Pietra has a gorgeous view of the Adige River rushing below. However, I must admit that overall, it did not excite. Much of the city was residential, giving it a provincial and traditionally Italian feel. A lovely place to live and relax, the city felt more like a town, and at several points we found ourselves out of ideas as to what to do and where to explore. If the rumour that the city is an inspiration for the setting of a fictional play is not enough to tempt you, I suggest replacing Verona with another Italian city that interests you, as it might not possess enough thrill for anything more than a day trip.


A city of colours, canals, and carnival masks, Venice is one of the most unique and alluring places I have ever visited. Every year, Venice invites thousands of visitors to its maze of narrow waterways and footbridges.

As you step off the waterbus at the Piazza San Marco, you will initially be overwhelmed by the sheer number of tourists and loud American families that hardly give you space to move. Beyond the piazza lies St Mark’s Basilica, the lavish Gothic cathedral decorated with gold mosaics. The basilica is a reminder of the wealth that old Venetian merchants seemed to have dripping from their coffers.

St Mark’s Basilica Photo: Sarah John





If the “Church of Gold” doesn’t exude enough luxury for you, then the juxtaposed Doge’s Palace certainly will. Tickets are a whopping €20, and while it is sure to make any student traveller’s wallet beg for mercy, if a Gothic Venetian palace is your cup of tea, then the bang is worth the buck.

For a beach escape, the nearby island of Lido is easily accessible by waterbus. When you dismount the bus at Lido, if you pay close attention to the sidewalk vendors on the way to the beach, you may notice a small cart selling freshly made frozen cocktails for only €4. It was here that I learned that there is such a thing as too many strawberry daiquiris (or any drink that so cleverly masks the presence of rum).

Under normal circumstances, I tend to shun pricey tourist bait, but cruising through Venice on a gondola was the exception I was willing to throw all my euros at! Though I laughed at how obviously the man in the striped black and white shirt (eerily reminiscent of the Hamburglar) jumped to fulfil my tourist fantasy as he propelled the boat forward, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The ride was scenic and spellbinding, and we got a glimpse of the hidden corners and crevices of Venice that one cannot explore on foot.

All of the mystery of Venice was heightened tenfold at night. The warm, reddish glow of lamps and lanterns cast glittering reflections on the pitch-black water. The city was bewitching.

After downing a few drinks, my friend and I rushed into the sea at midnight, giddy on cocktails and somehow energised by the day we had. The full moon illuminated the waves as we shrieked and thrashed around, and it was the perfect end to our holiday.


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