UNESCO Sites in Italy: Which Do We Visit?

There are many UNESCO sites in Italy. The country is widely regarded for its plethora of cultural delicacies and artistic/cultural sites. It is thus on our journey list for April 5-15, 2020, dates that we’re staying hopeful for given the state of the pandemic and travel closures in effect for many countries around the world.

The theme for our pilgrimage is la dolce vita, or, “the sweet life”; we’ll be focusing our time on what makes for a charming, mythic Italian journey: art, literature, fashion, crafts, and myth. We’ll be traveling with Phil Cousineau, bestselling author and veteran journey guide. An expert on the surrounding Italian mythologies and cultural delicacies, Phil proves an excellent guide for this journey. He’ll be taking us wine tasting in the Montepulciano historic cellars, olive oil tasting in the Chianti region, and inciting “Long Conversations” to illuminate the spiritual, cultural, and historical elements of the journey.

But a pilgrimage through one of the most artistic cultures in the world also requires thorough, insightful journeys through its many sacred and cultural sites. To that end, we will visit multiple UNESCO sites in Italy. We’ll begin with Rome, the vibrant Eternal City, and end in Venice, world-renowned for its outstanding architectural genius. 

Let’s explore what makes Rome, Venice, and other sites on our list worthy of being coined as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.


UNESCO sites in Italy
Rome, Lazio, Italy – September 10, 2017: Scene in Piazza Navona at sunset on a summer day with people strolling

Rome is among the lively UNESCO sites in Italy. It’s the capital and cultural powerhouse of Italy. Legend passed down through ancient and medieval historians and poets tell of the founding of Rome by twin brothers named Romulus and Remus in 753 B.C. From there, the city was the capital of the Roman Republic 510 BC to 27 BC, then the Roman Empire from 27 BC to 1453, and finally, the center of the Christian world (beginning in the 4th century before the empire’s dissolve). 

UNESCO established Rome as a Cultural Heritage Site in 1980 (and expanded it in 1990) for its “incomparable artistic value produced over almost three millennia of history: monuments of antiquity (like the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the complex of the Roman and the Imperial Forums), fortifications built over the centuries (like the city walls and Castel Sant’Angelo), urban developments from the Renaissance and Baroque periods up to modern times…”

As a second criterion, the organization goes on to describe Rome as having had a profound influence on urban planning, architecture, the arts, and technology over time. Rome, with its well-preserved archeological and artistic artifacts and sites, bears witness to the cultural and artistic fluctuations that occurred throughout different periods of artistic and political history. 

On our journey, we’ll visit several of Rome’s famous squares and fountains, including the Trevi Fountain, designed by Italian architect Nicola Salvi, and made famous in Jean Negulesco’s 1954 film Three Coins in the Fountain as well as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Thousands of euros are still tossed every day into the Trevi Fountain, the proceeds of which now help subsidize a food market for the city’s neediest citizens. To round out our tour we will visit the Piazza Navona, the site of an ancient Roman stadium and the Spanish Steps of Rome.

Assisi, the Basilica of San Francesco

UNESCO sites in Italy
Famous Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi (Basilica Papale di San Francesco) at sunset in Assisi, Umbria, Italy

This is one of the UNESCO sites in Italy that was founded to honor a saint. Francis of Assisi was born in 1181 or ‘82 and was a renowned Catholic friar, preacher, and philosopher. He’s considered one of the most venerated figures in Christianity, being closely connected with the founding of the Franciscan Order. 

The Basilica of San Francesco was built after the canonization (or, the official declaration of a deceased person as a saint) of Saint Francis Pope Gregory IX in 1228. According to UNESCO, the site “represents an ensemble of masterpieces of human creative genius, such as the Basilica of San Francesco, which have made it a fundamental reference for art history in Europe and in the world. The interchange of the artistic and spiritual message of the Franciscan Order has significantly contributed to developments in art and architecture in the world.”

We’ll make it to Assisi on day 3 of our journey (April 7). There, among other activities, we’ll climb the precipitous cobblestone streets of Assisi to the Basilica of St. Francis (1182–1226), the Patron Saint of Italy and one of the most beloved spiritual leaders in history, to spend some contemplative time. The spectacular two-level basilica is perched on the crescent-shaped mountain, and features frescoes by Cimabue and Giotto, and the saint’s tomb in a stone sarcophagus, in the crypt. We’ll continue to the saint’s birthplace and childhood home, then the bustling Piazza del Comune, or Townhall Square, and finally to one of Italy’s most important goddess sites, the Roman Temple devoted to Minerva, goddess of art, music, and commerce.

Historic Centre of Florence

UNESCO sites in Italy
Dome of Baptistery San Giovanni, Florence Italy

Forbes has ranked Florence as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s often called “the Athens of the Middle Ages” and is today, among scholars, considered the center starting-point of the Renaissance. Florence has hosted a remarkable number of influential artists, most notably Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet and author of the Divine Comedy. His work helped establish the Florentine dialect as a primary foundation for the modern Italian language. 

Florence stands as a chief example of the flourishing of Italian literature, yes, but of other arts as well. For example, in 1982, UNESCO declared Florence a Cultural Heritage Site for its “predominant influence on the development of architecture and the monumental arts – first in Italy, and throughout Europe: the artistic principles of the Renaissance were defined there from the beginning of the 15th century by Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Masaccio. It was in the Florentine milieu that two universal geniuses of the arts – Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo – were formed and asserted.”

On Day 6 of our Journey, we’ll take a walking tour of Florence to see the Duomo di Firenze, the Cathedral of Florence, designed by the famous Italian architects Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi, and constructed between 1296 and 1436, when the spectacular dome by Filippo Brunelleschi was completed. Afterward, we’ll follow in the footsteps of Dante Alighieri, the father of the modern Italian language and author of the Divine Comedy, by visiting his thirteenth-century home-museum, where he met the love of his life and his muse, Beatrice Portinari, who inspired his book Vita Nuova.

City of Verona

UNESCO sites in Italy
Panorama of Verona in the morning haze, Italy

Verona is an old, picturesque medieval city in northern Italy that’s widely regarded (and visited) for its many shows, operas, and other artistic and cultural delicacies. Verona is also known for its setting in two of Shakespeare’s plays, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Romeo and Juliet.

Though UNESCO declared Verona a Cultural Heritage Site primarily due to its architecture, the organization comments on its historical integrity as well: “Verona today contains elements representing its 2,000-year history: the Roman period, Romanesque, Middle Ages and Renaissance which have survived intact until the 19th century. The walls surrounding the city prevented 19th-century development such as industry and railroads within the historic city. The urban structure, as a result, shows exceptional coherence and a large degree of homogeneity.”

Our time in Verona, on day 7 (April 11) will consist of eating in the heart of the town and a visit to the Arena with its magnificently restored first-century Roman Amphitheater. This is followed by a literary pilgrimage to the stone balcony of the famed Gothic-style House of Juliet Capulet, built in the 1300s, and immortalized in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet.

Venice and its Lagoon

UNESCO sites in Italy
Grand Canal in Venice with Santa Maria Della Salute Basilica in the background

Venice is the final of the UNESCO sites in Italy that we’ll visit. The city attracts many pilgrims who specifically travel to Italy to see it. Located in the Veneto region of Northeast Italy, Venice was founded and spread over many islands in the 5th century AD. The city is undoubtedly a unique artistic achievement, an exemplary architectural example of how humans interact with their ecosystems to thrive. Highly technical and creative skills were needed for the formation of Venice’s hydraulic and architectural works. 

According to UNESCO, “In the Mediterranean area, the lagoon of Venice represents an outstanding example of a semi-lacustral habitat which has become vulnerable as a result of irreversible natural and climate changes. In this coherent ecosystem where the muddy shelves (alternately above and below water level) are as important as the islands, pile-dwellings, fishing villages and rice-fields need to be protected no less than the palazzi and churches.”

Venice is the final city we visit on our journey through Italy and its cities and delicacies that make up “the sweet life.” Our walking tour will begin in the fairy-tale splendor of St. Mark’s Square, the true heart of Venice, and our cultural pilgrimage includes a visit to St Mark’s Basilica, founded in 852 as the burial site of St. Mark himself, whose body had been pilfered from Alexandria, Egypt. The basilica is a treasure trove, including the Bronze Horses of St. Mark, brought from Turkey after the Sack of Constantinople, and a beautiful mosaic of The Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.