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Cliffside Villages and Historic Cities: Discovering Northern Italy

I recently embarked on a Mediterranean cruise that allowed me to discover some of the cultural gems along Italy’s picturesque northwest coast. From exploring medieval cliffside villages to wandering through historic city centers, this journey combined luxurious pampering onboard with opportunities to soak in the history and beauty of this region.

Cinque Terre

Our first stop was in the Cinque Terre, a rugged stretch of coastline along the Italian Riviera. The Cinque Terre (“Five Lands” in Italian) is a UNESCO World and consists of five villages precariously perched between the cliffs and the sea – Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. We arrived via cruise ship at the seaside town of Portofino and from there, boarded smaller boats that ferried us there.

The pastel-colored, cliff-hugging villages look like they are straight out of a fairy tale. We started our visit in Vernazza, where we explored the charming harbor and the Gothic-style Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, first built in 1318 AD. However, the narrow alleys of Vernazza were completely mobbed with tourists during our visit.

For some respite, we picked up a focaccia and hiked up to Doria Castle to avoid the crowds. The focaccia was too dry and didn’t taste good at all, but at least the view from above offered nice views of Vernazza down below.

Next, we hopped on a boat to neighboring Monterosso. After grabbing a disappointing, overpriced lunch at a touristy restaurant with our guide, we explored Monterosso (the guide hyped up the lunch so much too). While also crowded, the beaches and crystalline waters there were stunningly beautiful. Though, I couldn’t imagine living in either village, with the constant crowds of travelers coming in and out each day. Maybe the other three villages in the Cinque Terre are quieter since they’re harder to get to.

While undeniably beautiful, the crowds and rushed pace of our Cinque Terre tour prevented us from fully enjoying this place.


Pisa was our next destination, home of the famous Leaning Tower. By arriving early, we were able to enjoy the Piazza dei Miracoli before the tour bus crowds descended. The sprawling square contains the medieval Leaning Tower, the Pisa Cathedral with its carved marble façade, and the circular Baptistery – all surrounded by manicured lawns.

Despite the early hour, we still spotted visitors doing the quintessential tourist photo, pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower. The famous tilt of the Leaning Tower was even more pronounced in the past before restoration work stabilized the structure. The tower’s foundation was inadequately laid on soft ground, causing the structure to start leaning soon after the first floors were completed in 1178. Today, the tower leans at about a 4-degree angle. Due to the precarious tilt, only a limited numbers of visitors are allowed inside at a time. Legend holds that Galileo dropped two cannonballs of different masses from the Leaning Tower, proving that their rate of descent was independent of their mass.

The Leaning Tower is actually just one part of Pisa’s impressive Field of Miracles complex. The sprawling square also contains the Pisa Cathedral with its carved marble façade, and the circular Baptistery – all surrounded by manicured lawns.The adjacent white marble Pisa Cathedral with its Romanesque architectural details is a stunning sight, dating back to 1064 AD. We also admired the round Baptistery, a dedicated location for performing baptisms.


Our final stop was the historic city of Florence. We started at the Hospital of the Innocents from the 15th century, designed by Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi. Historically, parents could anonymously leave infants in a revolving door on the outside wall, where they would be safely cared for.

Moving deeper into the city, we visited the Florence Cathedral, with its massive dome that was the largest in the world for 400 years. The crowds moved slowly as eager visitors craned their necks to admire the pink, white and green marble facade.

The cathedral’s ornate façade is divided into three distinct horizontal levels, with rows of saints, prophets, and decorative patterns carved into the marble. The three huge bronze doors of the cathedral are also adorned with relief panels depicting biblical scenes.

We also spent time in Florence’s Signoria Square, home of a replica of Michelangelo’s David and the historic Palazzo Vecchio town hall.

On the way to lunch, we stopped to look at the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s iconic landmark spanning the Arno River. It was common practice in the medieval times to build shops across the bridge. Initially home to tanners and butchers in the medieval era, the bridge is now lined with jewelry shops.

Next, we had lunch at the Palazzo Borghese, once home to Pauline Bonaparte, the sister of Napoleon Bonaparte. The ambience of the place was great, but the food was very disappointing – I could have made better pasta and I’m in no way an expert.

Our final stop was the Basilica of Santa Croce, the resting place for many famous Italians like Galileo, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli. However, we unfortunately did not have time to enter as we were tricked by the tour guide to a leather and gold shop instead for a sales pitch (we were told there was going to be a demo) before having explore the city ourselves the rest of our free time. In the plaza itself, we saw local artists selling their paintings and sketches.

Overall, although the trip was quite rushed, we still got to see a lot of cool stuff. If it weren’t for the crowds and the mediocre food, we would have enjoyed it even more.

See here for more of Cinque Terre, Pisa, and Florence

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