How to see Italy's 'hidden' cultural sites for free this weekend

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How to see Italy's 'hidden' cultural sites for free this weekend
Members of the public will have free access to a range of cultural sites in Italy this weekend. Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP.

This Saturday and Sunday, Italy will grant free access to a range of sites usually closed to the public. Here's how to take advantage of the scheme - and what to prioritise seeing.


More than 700 of Italy's historic and cultural sites will open to visitors for free this weekend - October 15th and 16th - thanks to the Giornate FAI d’Autunno, or ‘FAI Autumn days’ programme organised by the Fondo Ambiente Italiano, a cultural heritage society similar to Britain’s National Trust.

Many of the participating sites, including villas, castles, churches, abbeys, parks, and theatres, are not usually open to the public or are otherwise difficult to visit.

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The guided visits will be led by FAI youth members; entry is free but donations are encouraged.


For some of the more popular sites, you'll need to book in advance; for others you simply show up at the meeting point (though it's worth arriving in good time to secure a place). Instructions for visiting each site are provided on the FAI website.

You can view participating sites by region or search FAI's map to see which places are opening closest to you, but the range of options can still be overwhelming.

With that in mind, here are some of the top sites that FAI itself has singled out as being particularly worth visiting if you live in or near any of the Italian cities listed below:


The Corsie Sistine or 'Sistene Wards', sometimes referred to as the 'Second Sistine Chapel' for their sumptuous Renaissance frescoes, are part of Europe's  oldest still-functioning hospital, which dates back to 727 AD. No booking is required, but only FAI members can visit on the Saturday (the complex is open to all members of the public on Sunday; if you want to visit on the Saturday, FAI is currently offering a discount for new members).


Places for Palazzo Dotti are now booked out online, but a limited number of spots are reserved for those who come on the day. This 18th century building, whose origins date back to the 1500s, currently houses Milan's prefettura, or prefect's office. Visitors to this well-preserved former aristocratic residence will be rewarded with the sight of early frescoes by the neoclassical painter Andrea Appiani.

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Villa Favard - both the one in the city centre and the one out in Rovezzano - are recommended as top sites to visit this weekend, with neither requiring advance booking. The two villas date back to the 19th and 13th centuries respectively, with the latter located in the large grounds of what is now a public park, though the villa itself is usually closed to visitors.


First built in the early 12th century as a convent and variously used over the centuries as a navy and artillery barracks, the Convent of San Francesco della Vigna has served as the headquarters of the Institute of Ecumenical Studies since 1989. Its grounds contain the oldest vineyard in Venice, and the site overlooks Venice's northern lagoon. No need to book in advance; entry is first come, first served.

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A more modern recommendation than those listed above, FAI's top pick for Turin is the economics and law library at Turin University's Luigi Einaudi Campus, inaugurated in 2012. Designed by British modernist architect Norman Foster, it has been recognised as one of the 10 most spectacular modern university buildings in the world. The library is open to the public on both Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th, with no advance booking required.


Overlooking Palermo's lively Ballarò market sits the colourful dome of the Church of Carmine Maggiore, a 17th century baroque structure with a 13th century Carmelite chapel. Visitors will be able to climb the bell tower for free, with no advance booking required - FAI's summary does note that the tour involves a climb of 100 steps up a spiral stairwell, so this isn't suitable for those suffering from vertigo or heart disease.


At 33,000sqm, the 'monastic citadel' of Suor Orsola Benincasa is one of the largest architectural complexes in Naples, but is still situated within the confines of the city's historic centre, at the foot of Castel Sant'Elmo. Housing seven buildings, the site is also contains the Suor Orsola Benincasa University, Italy's oldest free university that, like the complex itself, is named after the 16th century Neapolitan mystic. No booking required.


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