Italy? Amazing. Italy from on high? Priceless.
What is it about Italy, with its gravity-defying perches—in the form of soaring towers, lofty church loggias, and rooftop terraces—that induce such lingering imprints of romantic beauty and perfection on our minds? Sure, part of it is the chase—you need to work hard to obtain such splendor; there are few elevators around. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is the most iconic viewpoint of all, but here are some more of the best places in Italy to huff and puff your way to the top.
Duomo di Piacenza
How often can you clamber along the exterior of a Romanesque cathedral, atop its dome? At Piacenza’s grand cattedrale, you do just that, admiring enormous sandstone walls, spiral staircases, and capitals in the company of pigeons, with the town’s terracotta rooftops marching off far into the distance. Finally, you enter the cathedral through a slit of a door, onto the narrow loggia that wraps around the top of its inside dome, where the baroque ceiling frescoes, 130-plus feet above the central nave, are so close you could touch them. (Please don’t.)
INSIDER TIPThe beautifully presented cathedral museum, Kronos, showcases flashy silverware, precious illuminated codes, historic paintings, and more.
You can’t help but to notice the tilt of the two medieval towers—the few remaining from 100-plus that once punctured the skyline—rising above Bologna’s central Piazza di Porta Ravegnana. Honestly, they don’t look safe to climb. Well, you can’t climb Torre Garisenda because, indeed, it’s leaning too severely to enter safely (it leans more than Pisa’s tower). But Torre degli Asinelli, the world’s highest leaning tower at 318 feet, is still fair game. A lung-bursting slog up 498 tight wooden steps awards with breathtaking views over sublime La Rossa—the Red City. Just don’t think about the tilt.
INSIDER TIPFor a different tower experience, Torre Prendiparte houses a bed and breakfast in Bologna’s second tallest medieval tower.
Not to sound too pedantic, but if you have any interest in architectural history, this climb is for you (though a love of views is just fine too). Brunelleschi is the one who figured out back in 1296 the revolutionary notion of how to build the world’s biggest dome without scaffolding—by constructing a double shell, one outside and one inside, with supporting pillars in between. And on this arduous, 463-step ascent up Il Duomo’s dome, you get to climb between the two, through passageways meant for the original construction workers. Warning, it’s winding and claustrophobic, with spots where you are forced to squeeze against the wall to let down traffic pass by. But that makes your triumphal review of the Florence urbanscape from the city’s highest point even more amazing. Note: Reservations are mandatory.
INSIDER TIPGiotto’s Campanile, just next door, offers another option for sublime aerial views, from a large terrace after a 414-step climb, and it tends to be less crowded than the Duomo. It’s also open later, so you have a chance of catching the sunset from above.
San Giorgio Maggiore
San Marco’s Campanile is Venice’s most famous tower, with good reason, given its iconic bird’s-eye views over Piazza and Basilica San Marco … and elevator! But you’ll be treated to an even better view—and no lines or crowds atop—if you hop vaparetto line number 2 a few hundred yards across the lagoon from San Marco to San Giorgio Maggiore, a little island with a church designed by Palladio and a magnificent bell tower (yes, the one that appears in all the pictures taken from San Marco). After an easy-peasy elevator trip to the top of that bell tower (at nearly half the cost of San Marco’s), you’ll take in postcard-perfect views of the lagoon, with a full-on shot of Piazza San Marco and San Marco’s Campanile and, on a crystal-clear day, as far as the Alps. Superbo.
This one is easier to access, though that doesn’t make the payoff any less amazing. A glass elevator whisks you 280 feet through the core of the sky-high building, arriving after 59 seconds to a panoramic terrace. Here the celestial, 360-degree view takes in the snowcapped Alps, towering beyond a sea of terracotta rooftops. This is the stunning Mole Antonelliana, rising over Turin’s skyline with its unique, temple-like appearance, its spire piercing the sky. The Mole was built as a Jewish synagogue in 1889 (though never used as such because they ran out of money), when it reigned as Europe’s tallest masonry building. Today it houses the Italian National Cinema Museum—which in itself is worth a stop. Five floors overflow with fascinating exhibits showcasing the story of the movies, dating all the way back to the time of shadow theater and magic lanterns.
WHERE: San Gimignano
Sitting atop its hilly Tuscan perch, San Gimignano is known as the Manhattan of the Middle Ages—fourteen medieval-era towers stab the skyline (down from an original 72). Torre Grossa is the largest, and the only one you can climb. From this stunning perch, the stone town’s ancient piazzas and amazing assemblage of spindly towers, with Tuscany’s green hills rolling endlessly beyond, have never looked so classic.
Torre Guingni may not be the tallest or most striking medieval tower around, but it does have something rather unusual: a centuries’-old garden on top. Chug up the 230 stairs, thanking your lucky stars that you’re inside the tower (once upon a time, before a modern-day restoration, the original stairs were outside). Upon arriving on high, take note especially of the ancient Holm oaks, symbolizing renewal, along with the spectacular views overlooking Lucca’s ancient Roman center and beyond.
INSIDER TIPThe Torre della Ore (clock tower) across town, Lucca’s highest point, is also open for climbing.
St. Peter’s Basilica
If you want to climb the world’s highest dome (448 feet), you’ll find that in Vatican City at St. Peter’s Basilica, designed by Michelangelo himself (though he died before it was completed). It’s 551 steps to the top (or you can take an elevator to the midway terrace and climb the remaining 320 steps). On the terrace level, look down into the basilica, admire dazzling mosaics, and walk onto the basilica’s roof. Onward, you’ll have to squeeze through a narrowing passageway, clambering up the tight spiral staircase (hold onto the rope). But once you reach the tippy top, you’re rewarded with one of the world’s most glorious 360-degree views, with all of Rome sprawling before you in ancient stone majesty.
INSIDER TIPThe basilica was built facing east, so an early morning climb is spectacular (and you miss out on the crowds).
The tiny town of Cremona, just southeast of Milan, might seem just like any other adorable Italian town, except it has one additional thing going for it: Italy’s tallest bell tower (which also happens to be the third tallest brickwork tower in the world) rises more than 344 feet above its picture-perfect central Piazza del Comune. Actually, there are two things. This amazing piece of architectural wonder also displays an astronomical clock—the world’s largest, at that—which has been telling time, seasons, phases of the moon, etc., since 1583. And yes, you can hike to the tower’s top. Five hundred and two steps will reward you with spectacular views of the ancient town and surrounding sublime River Po valley. That’s a win-win-win.
INSIDER TIPCremona is also famous for Stradivari (to this day there are more than 80 violin workshops) and its divine nougat candy, Cremona torrone.
Torre del Moro
The 13th-century builders of Orvieto’s Torre del Moro aligned their tower with the points of the compass, the perfect vantage from which to watch for marauding foes. Meaning, today, if you climb its 250 steep, spindly steps (an elevator takes you up the first 100 if you wish), you’ll arrive at a 360-degree panorama taking in the most spectacular of landscapes: cypress-dotted hills, miniature hamlets, corrugated castles, with all of Orvieto at your feet. Those ancient builders definitely were onto something.