The Italian Peninsula

By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert

Europe is a continent of peninsulas—there are 5 major peninsulas and many minor ones.  Perhaps the most popular travel destination in Europe is the Italian Peninsula—if not the top destination in Europe, it always is very near the top in travel surveys.  It is also called the Apennine Peninsula., after the mountain range that runs almost the entire length of this country.  This landmass is 1000 km long—620 miles and when seen from the sky is in the shape of a boot.

This a good time to remind you that we have guides to Rome, Venice and Florence available to help you understand some of the best sights at each city on the Italian Peninsula.  Just visit our website, www.dreamdestinations.com and find the Europe pages.  In the Southern Europe page, you can use our convenient order form to get your guide(s).  They are free, and are designed for you to print and fold up in your pocket—no bulky tour book to lug around. 

So, let’s learn about Italian Peninsula and how we can help you experience this wonderful area of Europe.

Overview of the Italian Peninsula

A peninsula is a landmass that has water on three side.  You may be surprised to learn there are 3 countries on the Italian Peninsula.  Folks often think they would be correct in stating that it is only the country of Italy on this peninsula, but they would be wrong.  This confusion results because the two small micro state countries that are hidden in Italy are enclaves—they are surrounded by the much larger country of Italy and are easy to miss.  The two micro states are San Marino and the Vatican.  So, it is time to learn about these 3 awesome countries.

The Big Boy on the Block–Italy

To me, Italy is one of the most fascinating places on earth.  Once, it was most dominate power on earth for 400 years or so during the Roman Empire; it was the birthplace of the Renaissance; and it finally became unified in 1860.  However, in my opinion, it was during and after the Middle Ages, when the feuding and fighting of the various city-states took place, that have shaped this country into many of its present day charms.  Regions are distinct and offer the traveler quite an array of places to visit and marvel at during their visits.  Combine this with the “Dolce Vida”—the good life–and it is easy to see why Italy is such a popular tourist destination.  I think the best way to look at Italy is to divide it into 3 regions—North, Central and South, and keep Rome as a separate topic.

Rome

For anyone traveling to Europe, there are 3 cities that are the most important to visit in my mind.  They are London, Paris and Rome.  The Roman civilization changed the world forever.  Rome’s fantastic sights are a tangled mess of greatness—it often seems a small ruin of Rome pops up in the midst of modern buildings.  The traffic is also a challenge–it also seems everyone who drives wants to beat all others to their destination, so don’t expect drivers to yield the right of way at all times.  Even with these challenges, it is a magical place of history and awesome food and drink.  To see most of the main sights, you will need at least 3 days, but even with over 5 visits to Rome, there is more for us to see—I doubt you will run out of places to visit and experience.  Some of the key sights in Rome are the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, the Arch of Constantine, Trajan’s Column, the Victor Emmanuel Monument, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps.   Here are some pictures:

Roman Forum
Roman Forum
Victor Emmanuel Monument
Victor Emmanuel Monument
Colosseum
Colosseum in Rome

Northern ItalyThe mountains of the Alps define this area of Italy.  It is also home to the Italian Lakes Region and two of our favorite places, Lake Lugano and Lake Como.  Here is a photo at Lake Como:

Lake Como
Lake Como

The two most important towns of this region are Milan and Venice.  Milan is the regional capital of Lombardy.  It is a world famous fashion and shopping destination.  In Milan, the two most famous tourist destinations are the Milan Duomo (cathedral) and the painting of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci.  Here is a picture of the Duomo:

Milan Duomo
Milan Duomo

A word of caution about seeing the Last Supper.  To see this famous work of art, you will require a reservation and you will have only 15 minutes to view the painting in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie.  There are two large paintings at opposite ends of the convent (the Last Supper is to the right as you enter) and they are very strict about their no picture requirement.  We watched a tourist stripped of his camera and told to delete the picture or give up his camera.  For obvious reasons, we do not have a picture to show you.

Venice is a world unto itself.  This intricate area reclaimed from a muddy lagoon is a pedestrian maze of canals, bridges and spectacular sights.  It once was among the most powerful city-states of the world and it dominated trade in much of the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean Sea for several centuries.  The principal tourist sights are around St. Mark’s Square.  They include the Doge Palace, the Cathedral of St. Mark (which contain the relics of this disciple of Christ), the markets of Rialto Bridge area and the canals.  Venice is very crowded, confusing and colorful with its trademark gondolas.  Here are some pictures:

St. Mark's Square
St. Mark’s Square
A small bridge in Venice
A small Bridge in Venice

The Central Region of Italy

This region has the world famous Tuscany hill towns and the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence.  Tuscany is wine country–it produces my favorite Italian red, the Super Tuscan wine.  It has hill towns with fortified towers, left over from the conflicts between the various hill towns, that will take you back a to time long ago.  There are so many to see that it would be easy to stay a week or more here.  Some classic towns include San Gimignano, Siena, Orvieto and Montepulciano.

There are two other interesting cities in the region beside Florence.  Pisa, with its famous leaning tower, and the walled city of Lucca also deserve a visit.  But, the must see in this region is Florence.

Florence, the home of the powerful and rich Medici ruling clan, has the best Renaissance art in Europe.  Key sights in Florence are the Uffizi Gallery, the Accademia (David statue by Michelangelo), the Duomo and Giotto’s tower Ponte Vecchio and the Palazzo Vecchio.  Here are some pictures:

Duomo Florence
Duomo Florence
David
Michelangelo’s David
Uffizi Gallery
Uffizi Gallery

A word of warning about the two key art galleries—the Uffizi and the Accademia.  Without reservations, you could stand in line for hours to get in.  Some guide books recommend at least a month in advance for the Uffizi and a week for the Accademia.  Even with reservations to get into the Accademia, we stood in line for an hour on a small group tour.

Southern Italy

From Naples south, the Amalfi coast has some on the most dramatic views in all of Italy.  It is also home to the historical ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum.  When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, these buried cities became a window into ancient Roman life.  Here are some photos of Pompeii:

Pompeii
A street in Pompeii
Pompeii Forum
Pompeii Forum

The Amalfi coast is dotted with towns clinging to the steep cliffs.  Our personal favorite is Positano.  Here are a couple of photos:

Positano
Positano
Positano
A colorful street in Positano

At the end of the boot, is the island of Sicily.  It is the largest island of the Mediterranean.  In many ways, Sicily is distinct from Italy.  It has its own dialect, customs and cuisine. 

The World’s Oldest Republic—San Marino

The old city state of San Marino is a really fun and cool place to visit.  Although not very easy to get to without a car or tour, it is well worth the effort.  It was founded in the 4th century and is a throwback to older times—it is undisturbed by the modern world.  The dominate feature of this small country is Mount Titano and the 3 fortress built on the 3 peaks to protect this tiny country from invasion.

The capital city is also called San Marino and is a pedestrian only area.  Inside the town walls, it is a delight to wander around.  Here are some of our favorite photos:

San Marino
The 3 Hilltop Fortresses of San Marino
Cesta Tower San Marino
Cesta Tower, San Marino
San Marino
San Marino
San Marino Guard
San Marino Guard

The Smallest Country in the World— the Vatican City

This small area of only .17 square miles far outweighs its size—it is the center of the Catholic Church and for many years the only religion of Christianity.  It is really not possible to overstate its importance in the world stage—it is the religious capital for 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.  The ruler of Vatican City is the pope, who is both the religious and secular leader of this tiny country.  The most important sights are St. Peter’s Square, the Basilica of St. Peter and the Vatican Museum.  Visiting the museum requires an entrance ticket and if you do not have an advance reservation, you could spend several hour waiting in line.  Even to get into the Basilica of St. Peter, we waited over an hour.  The lines are long and I’m told it is a favorite area for pickpockets.  Here are some photos:

St. Pter's Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
Swiss Guard, Vatican City
Swiss Guard, Vatican City
The Pope's Chair
The Pope’s Chair, Vatican City

My Final Thoughts

We are travel and Italian destination experts.  We have first-hand knowledge of Italy.  We know our products and the vendors who sell them to you.  We have designed special tours for dozens of clients, led several and will continue to find just the right vacation that will exceed your expectations.

When you are spending your hard earned money for a vacation, you want an advisor who can match you with the right trip. 

Whatever your Dream Destinations are, we are here to help you get the best possible vacation based on what is important to you!  We will provide you high quality, expertly planned travel.  Please give me a call 713-397-0188 (Hank) or email me at hschrader@dreamdestinations.com.  We want to help you:  Savor life…make memories…Visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!

Hank Schrader
Hank Schrader

HANK is a certified Western European Destination Specialist (DS) who has been traveling to Europe for 45 years.  He is also an Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC), conferred by the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA).  This recognized expert in cruise and leisure travel is a retired Army Officer, and taught World Geography for 8 years.  He is a `71 graduate of West Point and has earned 2 master’s degrees.   His other Certifications:

  • AmaWaterways River Cruise Specialist
  • Viking River Cruise Specialist
  • Scenic River Cruise Specialist
  • Emerald Waterways  Specialist
  • Avalon Waterways Specialist
  • Brit Agent
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