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Siena

In scenic hill country just south of Florence, this picturesque, well-preserved medieval town lies in the Tuscany region. A bitter competitor with Florence for much of its history, Siena is a treasure trove of art, pageantry and architecture. Visit Giovanni Pisano’s wonderful black-and-white Gothic cathedral (don’t miss the magnificent Bernini statue of Mary Magdalene hidden away in a niche of the Chigi Chapel or the dazzling inlaid marble floors) and tour the Palazzo Pubblico (for its world-famous frescoes, The Effects of Good and Bad Government). You can climb the adjoining Torre del Mangia for a wonderful view over the city. 43 mi/70 km south of Florence.

Rome

Rome seems to have its own gravitational pull, attracting not only millions of tourists each year, but also the most creative artists and thinkers of every era. All that surrounds a visitor in Rome – the stunning art and architecture, the terrible traffic, the grandeur of scale and the lively (almost hyperanimated) citizens – guarantees an unforgettable visit. Rome as we find it is a supreme palimpsest. The ruins of pagan temples have become the foundation of Christian churches, ancient theaters have been made into medieval family fortresses, and Corinthian columns have become part of new walls. Layers of the ages exist, one on top of the other, but the flow of Roman life is ever forward, with a respect for its glorious past. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and don’t expect to see it in one. You could spend a full day seeing everything in the area of the ancient center: the Michelangelo-designed Campidoglio, the Palatine Hill (with its charming little museum) and the Roman Forum, as well as the nearby Colosseum. The basilicas take a little longer because they are spread out around the city. If it’s views you’re after, climb the dome of St. Peter’s or admire the panorama from the top of the Spanish Steps (better yet, from the Pincio Gardens above it) at sunset, or walk around the Colosseum to catch a glimpse of the Forum. From these vantage points you’d well understand why Rome is called the Eternal City. Bustling, beautiful Rome, sprawling among its seven hills, is fascinating for both its ancient and its modern wonders.

Rimini

This crowded beach-resort town on the Adriatic in northeastern Italy is part of a coastal recreation area that stretches 70 mi/120 km north-south, from Porto Garibaldi to Cattolica. Through the 1950s, Rimini served as the main seaside resort for the Emilia-Romagna region. It still has wide sandy beaches, fishing, hot springs, mud baths and watersports, but today it’s best known for its unparalleled nightlife. Late June-September, thousands of young Italians flock to spend their days sleeping on the beach and their nights in the wild discos. These are among the largest nightclubs in the country and are filled to capacity with flamboyantly dressed revelers. The atmosphere is very tolerant, permitting and promoting open displays of homosexuality and transsexuality. Unfortunately, the tolerance also extends to drug and alcohol abuse, which is common throughout the nightlife scene. If you make it there during daylight hours, be sure to see the Arch of Augustus (the oldest Roman triumphal arch in the world, from 27 BC), the Tempio Malatesta (beautiful Renaissance architecture) and the Roman Bridge of Tiberius. Florence, Bologna and Venice are within a few hours’ drive. The Republic of San Marino is just 15 mi/25 km west of Rimini: Plan a half-day excursion there. 147 mi/238 km south of Venice.

Pisa

The Leaning Tower is, of course, Pisa’s main attraction. Even before three of its eight stories were constructed (building began in 1173 and continued until 1350), it had begun to lean. In 1990, the instability of the tower made it necessary to close it to visitors. Fortunately, an extensive program to rebalance the tower was successful in slowly righting the structure to its original degree of “lean.” Now, thanks to modern engineering, the tower and its 294 stairs are once again open for climbing. The tower is on the Campo dei Miracoli, a large, grassy square that’s a pleasant place to relax. While you’re there, visit the Baptistry, which contains a beautiful baptismal font and pulpit by Nicola Pisano; the Romanesque Cathedral di San Zeno, with its silver altar and figures by Brunelleschi; and the Camposanto Cemetery. All in white, the medieval buildings and the wall of the cemetery form a beautiful thematic whole. Stop at the 16th-century church and Palazzo dei Cavalieri, the piazza and the National Museum of San Matteo (excellent collection of 12th- through 15th-century art). And if you have time, visit Pisa’s other leaning tower at the Church of San Michele degli Scalzi: Completed in the 13th century, this seldom-visited tower is worth a look, too. 40 mi/65 km west of Florence.

Naples

Although it’s a fairly dirty port city, Naples has always impressed travelers with its beautiful bay and setting. Nearby Mount Vesuvius forms the backdrop to the city and bay. Naples is the home of Pulcinella (the ancestor of Punch and Judy), the Great Caruso and pizza. It has benefited in recent years from an energetic mayor who has instituted a number of tourist-friendly programs, including closing off a number of piazzas to vehicular traffic, extending museum hours and cleaning up the main port of Molo Beverello, where boats leave for the nearby islands. Naples has many museums that are worth a visit. Among the standouts are the National Archaeological Museum (Greek artifacts and Roman murals, coins and pottery, much of it from nearby Pompeii), the Museo Nazionale della Ceramica (pottery) and the Museo and Galleria di Capodimonte with works by Renaissance and baroque masters (note the impressive ceiling). There are also several castles of note (including Maschio Angioino, Castel dell’Ovo and Sant’Elmo) and two royal palaces (one at Piazza Plebiscito, where you can visit the royal apartments, and another at Capodimonte, where you can see a good museum and walk through the manicured grounds). Naples is 144 mi/232 km southeast of Rome.

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