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A Grand Tour of UNESCO sites in Italy

Ancient artifacts, villas and gardens, and vineyard landscapes: don't miss these UNESCO sites in Italy.


Centuries ago, travelers on their Grand Tour through Europe visited UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy without even realizing it. Of course, they recognized the significance of majestic sites like the Colosseum; but many places they never even glanced at, whether because they were unavailable for site-seeing, not excavated at the time, or simply overlooked altogether. Today, Grand Tourists often plan culturally-rich trips around a UNESCO sightseeing itinerary. These three recently named World Heritage sites definitely need to be added to the must-see list. PS: The Grand Wine Tourist will especially love the last one.

Longobards in Italy, Places of Power (2011)

Sometimes it feels like the ancient Romans get all the attention when it comes to Italy’s long-ago past. Even the Etruscans, swathed in a veil of mystery and of whom so little is known, are spoken of more than the Lombards. But the latter, also known as Longobards, contributed to the main roots of Medieval Europe and Western Christianity and gave modern-day Lombardy its name. That’s certainly something to talk about. The Longobards migrated from Scandinavia to settle in Italy, where they ruled nearly the entire peninsula in the 6th-8th centuries. The Longobard Places of Power is comprised of seven sites throughout Italy with fortresses, churches, and monasteries. They attest to the utterly unique synthesis of religion, art, architecture, and culture that marked the transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Visit these sites today to see a fascinating fusion of Ancient Roman heritage, Christian spirituality, and influences from Byzantium and northern Europe in art and architecture. Two notable sites are the Monastic Complex of San Salvatore-Santa Giulia in Brescia, and the castrum (ancient Roman fortress) of Castelseprio in Torba in Varese. A bronze bust: Monastic Complex of San Salvatore - Santa Giulia A bronze bust: Monastic Complex of San Salvatore - Santa Giulia - © David Bramhall

Medici Villas and Gardens in Tuscany (2013)

The Medici family’s influence in shaping the cultural and artistic heritage of modern Europe cannot be understated. Their fantastic gardens and nature-surrounded villas helped develop the Renaissance, Humanistic, and modern appreciation of landscape and the pursuit of leisure. Take a stroll through the Boboli Gardens in Florence or Pratolino in Vaglia for a first-hand experience of what an Italian garden means. In the Middle Ages, gardens were enclosed behind high walls and grown almost exclusively with vegetables and medicinal plants, herbs, and flowers. The Medici’s were inspired by beguiling descriptions from the Ancient Greeks and Romans of gardens and villas made for beauty and leisure. Those they built in the 15th-17th centuries redefined the princely residence. This, they declared, is how people can live in harmony with nature; this is how we can dedicate our hours to leisure pastimes, art, and knowledge (and this is how we can say “addio” to the wretched Dark Ages). Some of the villas served as hunting lodges (Trebbio, Cafaggiolo), and others as summer residences (Artimino, Fiesole). Today, the gardens are open to the public and the villas are museums, private residences, and institutional seats. Boboli Gardens Boboli Gardens - © Tom Chance

Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont: Langhe-Roero and Monferrato (2014)

The beautiful Underground Cathedrals of Canelli, Coppo Winery The beautiful Underground Cathedrals of Canelli, Coppo Winery - Sergio Bobbio

If the Medici’s hadn’t helped form the appreciation of landscape and nature, would this UNESCO World Heritage even exist today? Either way, it is exactly something the Medici’s would have approved of and patronized: a recognition of the stunning rural views and high quality wine made here for over 2000 years. This World Heritage was conferred for more than beautiful views of vineyard-covered hills and world-class wines, however. Most importantly, it honors the historical significance, economical importance, and cultural heritage of the landscape—a geographical manifestation of pre-Roman wine traditions, which have remained central to daily life over the centuries. The Langhe-Roero and Monferrato Vinicultural Landscape includes (and not only) the hills of Barolo and Barbaresco, Nizza Monferrato for its Barbera production, Canelli for its Moscato d’Asti and growing importance of Metodo Classico production, and Canelli’s stunning Underground Cathedrals (wine cellars largely excavated in the 19th century). Ceretto Estate Ceretto Estate - © Courtesy of Ceretto Winery