What do you think of when someone mentions Italy?
Fashion? Pizza? Gondolas?
How about ancient history?
I’ve compiled a list of places perfect for the traveler who’s either obsessed with the Roman Empire or wants to see some of the purest ancient wonders available in one country. In terms of history per square mile, Italy is an absolute playground for the curious traveler.
The cities on this list all match a certain criteria: You can easily arrive by train, there’s plenty of cheap lodging available and there’s an abundance of Roman archaeological sites.
This itinerary is the best way to see Italy both as it is now and as it once was.
Tips to Make the Most of Touring Italy’s Ancient Ruins
- Pack light. As light as you can. You never know when you’ll want to hike that 14-kilometer mountain and have nowhere to store your bag. And you might surprise yourself by how long you can wear clothes without needing to wash them!
- Buy a bank vault-level lock. Travelers are usually easy targets for thieves, as many shave some weight and dollars off the quality of their locks. Invest in a lock you can’t break with bolt cutters. Your passport’s inside, after all.
- Buy a bag with back support. You’ll be traipsing all over uneven surfaces, so I recommend taking a backpack, not a suitcase. If you’re dead set on a suitcase, pack a daypack to take when you leave your hotel for the day. Invest in a reliable, durable backpack brand such as Osprey. These bags have suspended mesh back support, making backpacking not only less painful, but actually comfortable. A more comfortable bag allows you to carry more weight. If the concept of packing light stresses you out, a cozy bag gives you more leeway for an extra pair of socks or a spare shirt.
- Travel the shoulder seasons. “Shoulder season” refers to the weeks directly before or after the most touristy season. The shoulder season in Italy is April to mid-June, then September and October. Visiting during this time means more choices in accommodation, better food, cheaper prices and maybe even higher quality of fellow travelers.
- Take slow trains overnight. This tip is a personal favorite of mine. Hit your next city early in the morning. If you need to take a train anyway, you can cut the cost of staying in a hostel that night.
- Connect with everyone. Meet people through apps like Tinder and Meetup. Worst case scenario, you meet some bad eggs. What’s more probable is you network, get invited to locals’ houses and share your stories in exchange for a couch to crash. You’ll make valuable connections but better yet, you’ll make lifelong friends.
Of course, this a simple guideline. Below is a more comprehensive list of a traveler’s worst enemy or best friend: their budget.
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Budget Tips for Touring Italy’s Ancient Ruins
Here’s a short list of tips that will help keep costs down, without detracting from the enjoyment of your time in Italy.
- Cook as much as you can at your accommodation. Pasta, rice, beans and red meat are cheap and keep you full. They also provide ample energy for the upcoming day of walking miles around a new Italian city.
- Eat local food! Italian food is cheaper than a cheeseburger. When in Rome …
- Invest in good shoes with strong arch support. Remember, you’ll be walking a lot!
- Lots of cities have free public water. Find it. Bottles of water add up after a while.
- If you’re backpacking alone, see if you can hang with groups from your hostel or the locals from your Airbnb. Then you can share a meal to save money.
- Check the cities’ websites before you go. They often list free museum days!
- If you’re a student, milk that as much as you can. At every attraction, ask for a student discount.
- Try to become conversational in Italian before you go. First of all, speaking the language keeps you from getting scammed. Second, when you can communicate with locals, they tell you about off-the-beaten-path places to visit. You have a more authentic experience!
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This list isn’t a “Five Days in Rome” greatest hits mix. It’s about spending some time within Old Italy. Meeting the locals. Hearing their stories.
So you’ve packed your bag and you’re itching to see Italy’s ancient ruins. Where do you go?
Rome If You Want to! Italy’s Top 7 Cities with Ancient Ruins
1. Mediolanum, Lombardy
Why Visit Mediolanum?
In the 21st century, you might know Mediolanum by a different name: Milan.
Mediolanum was founded in 600 B.C. by the Gauls and conquered by Rome in 222 B.C. This ancient settlement is the foundation for modern-day Milan.
International tickets to Milan are cheaper than those to, say, Rome or Florence. Ideally, this is where you should fly into Italy for your historical adventure. Check Skyscanner for the best deals from nearby cities into Milan in case you start somewhere else.
Due to its location, Mediolanum became a major trade network, and consequently an extremely wealthy city. This meant there was ample aureus (money) for public construction. As a result, you’ll see many of the larger buildings still standing today.
What to Do in Mediolanum
The city was once the capital of the Western Roman Empire, and the city scaled appropriately. Take pictures with the Columns of San Lorenzo, an impressive (and lengthy) line of symmetrical pillars supporting the portal to a now bombed out basilica.
The Roman Theater of Mediolanum is the oldest standing structure in Milan today.
Resembling not much more than a few raised columns, the highlight of the theater is an accompanying building in the Parco Dell’Anfiteatro Romano (Park of the Roman Theater). Inside, hundreds of Roman artifacts are laid out within arms reach.
You’ll pass many Porta Romanas (Roman city gates) on your journey, but few are as impressive as the one in Southeast Milan. Walk through and touch the ancient gate that dates back to founding years of the Roman conquest of Mediolanum.
The area is close to a few schools, so the atmosphere of this area is upbeat and exciting.
2. Verona, Veneto
Why Visit Verona?
Verona is so beautiful and mysterious it was chosen by a young Shakespeare as the setting for his tragedy of “Romeo and Juliet.”
But the city has plenty of importance in the real world, too.
The city’s location on the Adige River made it an ideal center of trade back in the day, which catapulted Verona into riches for hundreds of years, from 49 BC to 489 AD, when it was overrun by Gothic armies.
Verona is still a rich city to this day. You can see its ancient ruins while enjoying a high quality of life.
What to Do in Verona
Verona, located between Milan and Venice, is easily accessible by the high-speed Italian rail system TrenItalia. A day trip to Venice is highly suggested! Especially if you’re a Shakespeare fan who wants to see where “The Merchant of Venice” was set.
The Arena di Verona (Arena of Verona), built in the first century, is the number one Roman attraction in Verona. Still in use today, the enormous stadium is world-famous for its opera performances. Seeing an opera here is a must!
The arena will take your breath away. It houses more than 15,000 people with room to breathe, as it once could hold over 30,000 people.
You’ll have your fill of city bustle on this itinerary. Staying in hostels and walking crowded cities can get hot and claustrophobic at times. Take a 30-minute bus to the jaw-dropping city of Sirmione on the Southern coast of Lake Garda.
Do as the Romans did: Take a dip in Lake Garda, then walk up the beach to the thermal springs of Sirmione.
Once you’ve relaxed, head back to Verona to see the city’s Roman gate, the Porta Leoni. It isn’t as big as the Porta Romana of Milan, but it’s an impressive piece of history nonetheless, serving as a gateway to Bologna and Eastern Italy.
3. Aosta, Aosta Valley
Why Visit Aosta?
Aosta resides high in the Italian Alps, on the border of Italy and modern France. If you love a little scenery with your history, this is the place to go!
Aosta is culturally significant because it was a jumping-off point for military extensions into Gail in 24 BC. It grew to prominence until it was razed by conquering armies in the 15 century.
For a place with such an epic military history, it sure is peaceful and beautiful now.
What to Do in Aosta
The only city on this list where you should brush up on your rusty French, Aosta in the Vall d’Aosta, is a bilingual region.
It’s the perfect place to take a break from the Italian pace of life and enjoy some hiking in the mountain air.
The Arch of Augustus, erected in 25 BC, stands strong. Armies would pass under the arch returning from campaigns, and it’s one of the largest Roman arches outside of Rome itself. A crucifix is suspended between the two pillars as an offering to God so the nearby Buthier river wouldn’t flood and destroy the city.
Unique to Aosta is the Cryptoportique du Forum Romain d’Aoste (Crypt of the Roman Forum of Aosta). Originally built as a sort of Roman self-storage facility, it’s one of the few underground ruins on this list.
4. Rome, Lazio
Why Visit Rome?
I mean… do we really have to ask?
Rome is the most visited site of Roman ruins in the world. No surprise there.
The Empire has touched nearly every part of our life. In the Bible, Romans murdered Jesus.
Cleopatra and Mark Antony were slain at the hands of Augustus.
Rome invented sewers, arches, highways, surgical tools, concrete, welfare, apartments… the list goes on. It’s considered by most as the most important civilization in terms of, well, almost everything. It’s hard to disagree.
What to Do in Rome
There are entire volumes written about what to do in Rome!
Of course you need to see the Colosseum, the Forum and the Circus Maximus (or what’s left of it).
The Vatican is built on the Circus of Nero, a very unholy place where Saint Peter is rumored to have been crucified upside down. An immense obelisk marks the military prowess of Emperor Claudius.
Rome is a backpacker’s dream. I lived there for 11 months. I only took one taxi, and that was to the airport. It’s a walkable city, perfect for slow travel and sightseeing
Get gelato, brush up on your Italian while having an espresso, hike the Spanish Steps and eat all the pizza you can. Call me crazy, but I’ll take pizza in Rome over Naples!
You could spend a month in Rome and not see all the wonders of Ancient Rome. They’re everywhere.
Don’t miss the Catacombs! Backpackers would also be crazy to not visit the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and gardens at the Villa Borghese.
Possibly the most intimidating building in the world, Il Vittoriano (The Victorian), towers before the Roman Forum and is worth a visit. Climb to the roof for an incredible view of the Eternal City.
5. Herculaneum, Campania
Why Visit Herculaneum?
Less than two hours from Rome by TrenItalia lies the ashen city of Herculaneum, buried literally and metaphorically in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius next to the city’s more illustrious neighbor, Pompeii.
Due to its proximity to Pompeii, Herculaneum doesn’t get the love it deserves. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
Does the city’s name sound familiar? It’s rumored that Hercules trained within its walls.
The ash that fell on Herculaneum preserved much more than in Pompeii. Wood, marble and skeletons were left behind.
Visiting Pompeii is the more typical choice, but Herculaneum is arguably the better option. The city was filthy rich in its time. That, combined with the unheard of levels of preservation, make Herculaneum my favorite city on this list.
It’s also less touristy than Pompeii, so you won’t have to elbow through crowds of tourists to see everything.
What to Do in Herculaneum
See Herculaneum. Yep, the entire city!
It seems redundant, but it’s true.
It would be like if Beverly Hills was suddenly buried in ash, preserved for almost 2,000 years, and you could walk through it with a grappa, touching almost an entire ancient city.
A couple fan favorites: The House of Neptune and Amphitrite is a house that’s been preserved over centuries. It’s connected to a wine shop, so you can have a little alcohol with your history!
The House of the Black Hall is a mansion full of inspirational history. It’s said to have been owned by a former slave who worked his way up in society.
6. Baia, Campania
Why Visit Baia?
Baia was kind of an Augustan-era Ibiza in its day. There were hot springs and clubs. It’s where the young, attractive, wealthy Romans went to party in between campaigns.
The volcanic hot springs were a particularly exclusive destination, that is until they rose the sea level, submerging the city.
What to Do in Baia
Spend some time in the area and earn a scuba certification. The Roman Sodom and accompanying city are best viewed from the water, 20 or 40 feet below the surface.
If you can’t afford the certification or would rather not submerge yourself, there are plenty of glass-bottom boats and snorkel guides who will show you the underwater city.
Another option is to head up the slope, beyond the waterline to a castle built atop the summer residence of Julius Caesar. The elaborate Baia Castle houses some, if not more, Roman sculptures than the city under the waves.
7. Egnazia, Puglia
Why Visit Egnazia?
Egnazia is the only city on this list on the Eastern coast of Italy.
Situated where a spur might be on the boot of Italy, Egnazia was also once called Gnatia. It was a Bronze Age settlement, then fell under Greek rule until Romans purged them from Italy in the 8th century.
Gnatia was used as a major transportation hub, being perfectly situated to launch reinforcements to the edges of the Eastern Roman Empire. It fell into decline, as many other cities did, but managed to preserve much of its brilliance instead of being totally lost.
What to Do in Egnazia
Egnazia is expansive. Unlike Rome, where you see a few larger monuments above ground, Gnatia’s foundations are mostly intact.
Walk the intricate marble tiles, running your hands along buildings thousands of years old. There’s almost no police presence here, so no one will stop you from touching the foundations. It’s probably the closest you’ll get to ancient Rome.
Roam the city for a few days. Use the last city on this list to connect with the past. There isn’t a better place to do it.
There’s much more to Italy than leather loafers and Ferraris.
This isn’t an itinerary for seeing the highlights of modern Italy, but a glimpse into the past—an era when one people ruled the world from a tall boot in the Mediterranean.
Mitchell Grant travels the world as his job. Currently in Costa Brava, Mitchell’s preferred workplace is three feet from the ocean with a Clara in one hand, his laptop in the other. Check out his personal website, Income Armada, or follow him on Instagram @mitchell.grant.nani.