Lucca, in Tuscany, has a historic center completely enclosed by walls that are some of Italy's best preserved ramparts. The top of the walls has been made into tree-lined pathways so you can walk or ride a bike atop the walls. Lucca has medieval towers, nearly 100 churches, a long shopping street, and an oval-shaped piazza that used to be a Roman amphitheater. Unlike many Tuscan towns, Lucca is flat rather than on a hill.
Matera is a unique city and one of my favorite places in southern Italy. It's a little off the beaten track but well worth the effort it takes to get there. The sassi of Matera are cave houses and churches cut into the rock walls of a large ravine. Although the houses and churches have mostly been abandoned, some have been renovated and made into cave hotels and the centuries old churches can be visited. The entire sassi area has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ravenna, near the Adriatic Sea in Emilia-Romagna, is known for its mosaics. Stunning early Christian mosaic works from the 5th and 6th centuries decorate the walls of Ravenna's churches and monuments, eight of which have been designated as World Heritage Sites. Ravenna is still a top producer of mosaics and there are mosaic shops and classes. Ravenna also has Roman remains, museums, and cultural events.
Mantova, or Mantua, is a historic city in northern Italy surrounded on three sides by lakes with three lively squares in the city center. Mantova was one of the greatest Renaissance Courts in Europe and home of the wealthy Gonzaga family. The Palazzo Ducale is a huge complex of buildings with beautiful frescoes. Palazzo Te also has great frescoes. Mantova is designated as a World Heritage Site for its Renaissance architecture and is part of the UNESCO Quadrilateral District that includes several other historic cites.
Parma, in northern Italy, is famous for its cheese and ham but it also has an interesting, compact historic center. Parma's 12th century Baptistery is one of Italy's top 12th century monuments and the interior of its Romanesque cathedral is coverd with amazing frescoes and art work. Parma also has museums, cultural events, and of course good restauarants.
Padua is an easy day trip from Venice or can be used as a base for visiting Venice if you prefer to stay outside the city. Padua has Europe's first Botanical Garden, Giotto frescoes, and the Basilica di Sant’Antonio. Padua's main square is impressive and a nice place to enjoy a drink at a cafe.
Urbino is a hill town in the Marche region of central Italy. Urbino has a Renaissance center that's been declared a World Heritage site and its impressive Ducal Palace has one of Italy's top collections of Renaissance paintings. The city is also an important center for majolica ceramics and culture and has a university dating from the early 16th century and a fortress at the top of the hill.
Cremona, in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, is famous for its production of high-quality violins. Cremona has a compact historic center with the top monuments grouped around its central square. The 13th century clock tower, over 100 meters tall, is Europe's second tallest brick tower and is a great place for views of Cremona and the surrounding countryside. Cremona is an easy day trip from Milan.
Lecce, in the Puglia region of southern Italy, is sometimes called the Florence of the South because of its wealth of artistic Baroque monuments. Lecce also has a castle, remians of a Roman amphitheater, an archeological museum, and a main shopping street. Lecce makes a good base for visiting southern Puglia.
Brescia is an often overlooked city east of Milan in northern Italy's Lombardy region with a castle, Roman ruins, Renaissance squares, and an interesting medieval city center. The Santa Giulia City Museum of Brescia is one of my favorite museums, taking the visitor on a route from prehistory through Roman remains and three interesting churches in different styles. The annual Mille Miglia car race starts and ends in Brescia.