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If you've never been to Italy, taking an escorted tour that overnights in three of the most popular cities is an excellent way to get an overview of Italian culture, art, cuisine and history.

Especially if you are not familiar with the Italian language, and if you don't want to deal with the hassle of making your own hotel and transportation arrangements, escorted travel is the way to go.

On an escorted tour of Italy, you'll travel with like-minded passengers and with a tour director who will guide you along every step of the way. Along with knowledgeable local guides, your tour director will offer entertaining commentary about Italy's world-famous art and architecture, as well as its current events and culture.

Built into the itinerary of all escorted tours is free time for you to spend however you wish -- that might be sipping an espresso at an outdoor cafe in Rome, shopping for leather goods in Florence or snapping photos from the many bridges in Venice.

Here's a look at three of the most popular cities on many escorted-tour itineraries. After you've gotten your introduction to Italy on a tour of these fascinating cities, you might consider an in-depth look at Sicily, a resort stay in coastal Sorrento or a faith-based tour of the country's most well-known religious sites.



St. Peter's Square and Basilica
Most escorted tours to Rome include at least a half day of sightseeing to help orient you to the capital city and introduce you to some of the most famous sights: St. Peter?s Square and Basilica, the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.

While visits to Rome's many historic monuments are all memorable, particularly poignant is a visit to St. Peter's Square and Basilica, the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican, a worldwide symbol of Christianity, is the largest church on the planet. Its size and splendor is simply awe-inspiring. Reach the dome (or cupola), designed by Michelangelo, by walking up 330 steps--you will be rewarded with a stunning view of Rome and the square below. The Vatican Museum houses the works of some of the most illustrious artists of all time.


Michelangelo's David

Florence is all about Italian art and architecture. According to UNESCO, Italy has 60 percent of the world's most important works of art -- and more than half of those are located in Florence. The arts flourished in Florence between the 13th and 16th century, and the Italian Renaissance began here when Brunelleschi completed work on the huge dome on Florence's Cathedral, known simply as the Duomo.

Simply walking through town is like strolling through a living history museum, with its public works of art, sculptures and fountains in the various squares (or piazzas). One must-see visit is to the Academy of Fine Arts which features Michelangelo's celebrated sculpture of David. Perhaps Florence's most famous museum is the Uffizi, which showcases art by Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titan and Rubens. After a day of sightseeing, enjoy the local Tuscan cuisine at any one of hundreds of wonderful Florentine restaurants, and be sure to top off your meal in Florence with delectable Italian ice cream called gelato.



Gondolier on Venice's Grand Canal

Wonderfully romantic, Venice is known throughout the world for its network of more than 100 canals. Many visiting tourists take a gondola ride on the canal--what a great souvenir photograph to bring home!

Otherwise, important sights include St. Mark's Square (watch out for pigeons!) and the nearby Basilica; ornate Doge's Palace, once home to the city's aristocrats; the sixteenth-century Bridge of Sighs and the palace prisons. Venice is also known for its hand-blown glass; you can visit a local factory to watch the artisans at work.