Milan is a mecca for Italian fashionistas, famous for its innovative design and stylish flair. Venture inside the city’s hulking Gothic cathedral, as well as its cathedral to capitalism, Europe’s oldest shopping arcade. The highlight today is pure genius—Da Vinci’s revolutionary The Last Supper mural, the most famous religious painting in history.
Fashion and finance, opera and furniture design, telecom companies and trade fairs—bustling Milan, Italy’s financial and industrial center, is a modern global city whose roots sink deep into the history of Italy. Founded 2,500 years ago, Milan retains traces of every epoch, from Roman, medieval and Renaissance up to the current moment, and it boasts a dazzling bounty of artistic and cultural landmarks, which are yours to experience today.
Your hotel is in the heart of the city, so it’s easy to see the highlights of the neighborhood on a short walk with your guide. Il Duomo, the magnificent cathedral begun in the 14th century and finished 500 years later (the last part to be finished, one of its five great doors, wasn’t installed until 1965), offers one of the most spectacular Gothic façades in the world. Step inside with a local expert for a tour of the ravishing interior, then walk across the square and under the splendid triumphal arch that welcomes visitors and shoppers into the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Learn a bit about the history of this area as you stroll through the beautiful 19th-century glass-covered arcade; it’s the oldest shopping mall in Europe and is still wildly popular, housing the flagships of leading fashion designers and trendy restaurants.
You’ll emerge in Piazza della Scala, home to the internationally celebrated opera house whose name comes from the square, Teatro alla Scala. Directly opposite it is Milan’s city hall—which happens to be a stunning Renaissance palace. It’s just one of the palaces and fortresses that were the heart of medieval civic power, where the Viscontis and then the Sforzas reigned, each ruler adding to the city’s splendor and tumultuous history.
It’s hard to pinpoint a highlight among so many, but Santa Maria delle Grazie, a beautiful Gothic and Renaissance church, offers you a sight you will never forget. The Last Supper is not in the church itself; it adorns the walls of a modest adjoining building that was the Dominican refectory. Your tour ends after you’ve had an opportunity to admire Da Vinci’s revolutionary work or spend some free time exploring the area on your own.
Note: The order of sightseeing varies according to the availability of time slots at Santa Maria delle Grazie.
En route to Venice, you’ll stop in the literary hometown of Shakespeare’s famously star-crossed teen lovers to see the sights and the famous balcony—yes, that balcony. Later, enjoy lunch at a historic wine estate owned by descendants of Dante, the great Italian poet who penned The Inferno.
You’ll check out of your hotel this morning and head toward the Adriatic coast and magical Venice, but the day includes two delightful stops en route: Verona, forever associated with Romeo and Juliet, and the Valpolicella wine country.
Your journey continues from Verona through the lovely vine-clad hills of the Valpolicella wine country. These vineyards grow Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes—and even Garganega, the grape used for Soave wines. While the everyday Valpolicella red wine is popular and easy-drinking, the region also produces Amarone, a lush and unmistakable red that is the result of a unique wine-making process: Grapes are air-dried on bamboo racks for several months before being crushed for fermentation, giving the wine a luscious depth of flavor. Modest farmhouses and great estates alike produce delightful wines, but the Serego Alighieri estate, which belongs to descendants of Dante Alighieri, is one of the oldest and loveliest. The stately villa stands amid gracious gardens and fertile vineyards, welcoming you in for a tour of the grounds and cellars. You’ll see the drying racks and learn about the process before savoring a delectable three-course lunch carefully paired with Serego Alighieri wines.
If ever there was a city that could be described as “bewitching” and “ethereal,” Venice is it. An expert guide will show you iconic sites as well as quiet lanes and secret spots known only to locals (shhhh….). Also on deck today: a scenic cruise around the Venetian Lagoon and an experience that’s sure to be a highlight of your trip—an extremely rare after-hours visit to St. Mark’s Basilica.
Hoping to escape marauding Huns, Goths and Vandals as the Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century, refugees built a little settlement they called Venice on tiny islands in a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea. By the 12th century, Venice was the wealthiest and most powerful city-state in Europe, controlling the Mediterranean and all European trade with the East. Its merchant-aristocrats lavished their wealth on palaces and churches, art and music, creating a city that is truly like no other. Now, seawater laps at the foot of thousand-year-old houses— and sometimes rises above the doorsteps—but the glorious palaces and romantic canals enchant visitors just as they have for centuries. Today you will embark on your own personal voyage of discovery through this entrancing city.
Venice has no need to designate a pedestrians-only historic district: No cars are permitted within the island city; all transportation is by foot or water. Begin your exploration—on foot, of course—by strolling through the historic Castello district. It’s the largest of Venice’s six districts; back in the 13th century it was home to the Arsenal, where Venice’s ships were built (Venetians boasted that they could build a complete ship in a single day) and where the famous Biennale art exhibition now takes place. As you pass 800-year-old homes, you’ll hear the murmur of the soft local dialect through the open windows, clothes flap from lines strung over tiny canals and kids kick soccer balls along cobbled alleys—it’s a real, living, breathing neighborhood, not just a historic site. You will soon arrive at the most famous plaza in Italy, St. Mark’s Square, and the Doge’s Palace. Venetians elected their first doge, or duke, in AD 697 and began building the palace around AD 800.
The palace complex, as it exists now, mostly dates to the 14th and 15th centuries, and it brims with jaw-dropping artistic gems, including Tintoretto’s wall-sized Paradise and works by Veronese, Tiepolo and Titian. Justice—and sometimes injustice, for Venice was a supremely political city—was meted out in the palace, and those convicted of crimes were led across the Bridge of Sighs to prison. Follow their footsteps to the prison and gaze into the cells: Casanova escaped from one of these cells; other, less fortunate prisoners whiled away their time by inscribing graffiti on the walls, which you can still read. Your tour ends at the Rialto (the oldest part of the city) and the famous 16th-century stone bridge spanning the Grand Canal.
After a scenic cruise around the Venetian Lagoon, you can spend the afternoon exploring on your own. In addition to its well-known museums, Venice is also home to some highly specialized ones: Displays at the Correr are devoted to the history of Venice; the Museo della Musica contains 17th- and 18th-century musical instruments and exhibits about composer Antonio Vivaldi (known as the Red Priest for his hair color), who taught music to the daughters of Venetian noblemen; and the Museo Ebraico examines the history of the Jewish community that was confined to an island known as Ghetto Nuovo. The latter was one of Europe’s wealthiest and most cultured Jewish communities, made up in part with refugees from the Spanish Inquisition.
The doors of this icon open especially for you tonight, so you can see the glorious church in the evening light— without the crowds. You’ll find it almost impossible not to gaze heavenward as you enter St. Mark’s. High overhead, magnificent domes are sheathed in mosaics telling the story of the New Testament, but you should not miss the intricate pattern of marble and mosaic tile under your feet. Ahead of you is the famous altarpiece made by 10th-century Byzantine artisans who gilded it and decorated it with precious gems (some of which were subsequently stolen by Napoleon). The building, which exemplifies the city’s historic connection to Byzantium and the Eastern Mediterranean, was finished in the 11th century and incorporates the remnants of earlier churches; gold glass-tile mosaics line the interior walls and cupolas, giving the church its nickname, Church of Gold. It houses treasures collected—one way or another—by Venetians over the centuries: The relics of St. Mark, patron saint of the city, were stolen from Alexandria, and the Tetrarch, a group of four crowned figures, was looted from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. Every successful Venetian voyager returned with something to decorate the basilica—a frieze, a statue—and the result is one of the most stunning works of art and architecture in this amazing city.
Note: It is not always possible to arrange an after-hours visit to St. Mark’s Basilica. If religious functions or festivities are taking place in the evening, we will visit during regular hours.
Join a local expert for a stroll around this picturesque fishing village, a popular place for artists, or “Go Active” with a bike ride along the beaches lining the lagoon. The seaside air and sweeping views are simply spectacular.
The River Countess sails from Venice, cruising through the lagoon, past the Lido, the colorful fishermen’s houses of Pellestrina and the huge ongoing flood-control project called MOSE (which is designed to protect Venice from rising seawater), before docking in Chioggia, sometimes called “Little Venice,” at the southern end of the lagoon.
Bologna or Ferrara? Let your passions be your guide today. If you have an appetite for pasta, head to Bologna—the heart of Italian culinary traditions—and learn how to make (and eat!) your own lunch. Or indulge your appetite for art with an excursion to Ferrara, an ancient center for the arts that once rivaled Medici Florence.
Today you face a tough decision: Do you spend a full day in Bologna, the culinary capital of Northern Italy, or visit UNESCO-designated Ferrara, a beautifully preserved Renaissance city?
Chioggia is such a delight that we’ll return there today to experience something completely different. You can visit the village’s bustling once-a-week market—a colorful and boisterous scene, and quintessentially Italian—or for something really unique, hop aboard a small boat to go mussel harvesting with local fishermen out in the lagoon.
Dip into a lively local scene with a stroll through Chioggia, or, if weather permits, take a small boat out to the lagoon to take part in a mussel harvest.
The Venetian lagoon is dotted with islands, each with its own history, heritage and charm. Your first island of the day is an exceptionally colorful one. Hot pink, chartreuse, orange, lemon yellow—Burano’s brightly painted fishermen’s cottages are an artist’s dream. The sizzling colors may look random, but they are strictly regulated: An owner needs state permission to change the color of the house. Burano is even better known for its lace-making tradition than for its colors; the exquisite craft has been practiced here for 400 years, handed down from mother to daughter since the first workshop was set up at the end of the 16th century. Visit a historic lace-making atelier to see some of this delicate work and, if you like, purchase items to take home.
Enjoy lunch on your own at one of Burano’s charming restaurants, then rejoin the group for a visit to the neighboring island, Mazzorbo. Here you’ll find a different craft practiced: wine-making. Visit an ambitious wine estate devoted to making wine with Dorona grapes, which tolerate the salt air—and the occasional saltwater bath during very high tides—and produce a luscious golden wine. These grapes grew here long ago in a walled vineyard that has been brought back into verdant production. Enjoy a tasting in lovely surroundings.
Then it’s on to Torcello, perhaps the most surprising of all these islands. It was settled before Venice was founded, and at one time it was the greatest, most populous city in the lagoon; now, however, only a handful of people live there. Its centerpiece is the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, the oldest church in the lagoon and a monument to Torcello’s lost might. The doors open early for you so you can see the stunning 11th-century mosaic of the Last Judgment without the crowds—and with expert commentary from your art historian guide.
Lovers of food and wine flock to Italy to immerse themselves in a true farm-to-table epicurean experience. If that sounds like you, you’ll love today’s walking tour to the famous fish and produce market next to the Rialto Bridge. Prefer a more visual feast? Join an art historian for a highlights tour of the Accademia gallery.
Further your acquaintance with the city called the “Queen of the Adriatic” with a tour of its marvelous food markets (your ship’s chef might just lead your expedition) or take a tour of the stunning Academy museum.
Join an art historian on an exclusive guided visit to the Academy. Probably the greatest collection of Venetian Renaissance paintings in the world, it includes works by Tiepolo, Veronese, Tintoretto, Bellini and Canaletto. There are more than 20 galleries, each one containing extraordinary masterpieces, with exhibits generally laid out in chronological order. There are far too many to see in a single visit; fortunately, your guide brings a specialist’s knowledge to the history of Venetian painting and will show you what was unique about Venetian art as it developed from the 14th through the 16th centuries.
Note: Photography is not permitted inside the Academy, and large bags, especially backpacks, must be left in lockers.