SHARE
COPY LINK

DISCOVER ITALY

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

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.

Members of the public will have free access to a range of cultural sites in Italy 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.

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.

READ ALSO: Sagra: The best Italian food festivals to visit in October

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:

Rome

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).

Milan

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.

READ ALSO: Seven reasons autumn is the best time to visit Italy

Florence

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.

Venice

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.

TRAVEL: Eight of the best destinations for an autumn break in Italy

Turin

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.

Palermo

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.

Naples 

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.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

CULTURE

Venice Carnival: What to expect if you’re attending in 2023

After three years of toned-down celebrations, Venice's famous Carnival is finally set to return to its former grandeur. Here’s what you need to know about this year’s edition.

Venice Carnival: What to expect if you're attending in 2023

The historic Venice Carnival – a tradition which dates back to the late 14th century – will be back in all of its splendour this year as the upcoming edition of the festival will be the first one without pandemic-related restrictions since 2019. 

As the undisputed queen of Italian Carnival, Venice will once again put on a full programme of water parades, masked balls, fine dining experiences and street art performances spread over 18 days of sheer carnevale fun.

If you’re planning on taking part in the city’s Carnival celebrations, here’s a quick guide to this year’s main events.

What are the dates?

The Venice Carnival will officially start on Saturday, February 4th with a night parade streaming down the city’s iconic Grand Canal accompanied by music, dance performances and light shows.

READ ALSO: Nine ways to get into trouble while visiting Venice

The parade will kick off two weeks of events, unfolding both in the centro storico (city centre) and on the smaller islands of the lagoon.

As always though, celebrations will peak in the six days between giovedì grasso (‘Fat Thursday’, falling on February 16th) and martedì grasso (shrove Tuesday, falling on February 21st). 

A masked reveller wearing a traditional carnival costume In St Mark's Square, Venice

The 2023 Venice Carnival will start with a floating parade down the Grand Canal on February 4th. Photo by Andrea PATTARO / AFP

The most popular and widely anticipated events of the Venice Carnival are scheduled to take place during those days. However, that will also be the time when the city’s calli and squares will be most crowded. 

What are the main events?

Celebrations will start with the above-mentioned floating parade on Saturday, February 4th, and continue on the following day with another water parade involving traditional Venetian vessels and captained by the beloved Pantegana (a boat shaped like a giant sewer rat).

Apart from that, the Festa delle Marie – a historic beauty pageant during which 12 young local women are dressed up in Renaissance costumes, paraded throughout the city, and then subjected to a vote as to which of them makes the best Maria – will start on Saturday, February 11th. 

The winner of the contest will be announced in Saint Mark’s Square on shrove Tuesday, the final day of the festival. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Venice has delayed its ‘tourist tax’ – again

Original Signs, a music and dancing show performed on six floating stages set within the iconic Venetian Arsenal (the former seat of the Venetian navy), will begin on Friday, February 10th, with performances running on a nearly daily basis until the end of the festival.

Original Signs will run alongside Original Sinners, a fine dining experience followed by a masked ball at the magnificent Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, a 15th century palace facing the Grand Canal which is also the current seat of Venice’s Casino. 

As with Original Signs, the event will be available to the public on multiple dates.

Masked revellers wearing a traditional carnival costume pose in St Mark Square, Venice

The historic ‘Flight of the Angel’ will not take place this year due to ongoing work in St Mark’s Square. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Aside from major events, street art performances, workshops, exhibitions and seminars will take place at various venues across the city for the entire duration of the festival. Some of these require booking in advance, which you can do on the Venice Carnival official website

On a rather sombre note, the Volo dell’Angelo (‘Flight of the Angel’), the traditional ceremony in which a costumed woman ‘flies’ down a cable from the bell tower in Saint Mark’s Square to the centre of the piazza, will not be performed this year due to ongoing repair work

How busy will it be?

The 2023 edition of the Venice Carnival is expected to mark a “final return to normality”, according to local media.  

And, with just a couple of days to go until the official start of the festival, it looks like the floating city is about to experience pre-pandemic numbers of visitors – current estimates indicate that around half a million people will visit the city over Carnival.

According to Claudio Scarpa, president of Venice’s Hoteliers Association, local hotels “will soon be all but fully booked for weekends”, though large numbers of bookings are also being registered on weekdays, especially those in “the last stages of the festival”.

Given the expected turnout, local transport operator ACTV will enhance their services for the entire duration of the Carnival to avoid overcrowding on buses and water buses. 

For more details about the Venice Carnival and bookings, see the festival’s official website

SHOW COMMENTS