I was based in Vancouver before relocating to Italy for the third time, when a good Italian friend came to visit. I asked her what she wanted to see in Vancouver, and she pointed at the downtown skyscrapers.
Where? I said, a little puzzled, looking towards the maze of tall office and apartment buildings that mark the center of the city. On this gorgeous Sunday afternoon, surrounded by mountains and ocean, she wanted to explore the empty streets of an urban cave. Wouldn't she rather rent a bike, I asked, and ride along the seawall?
So, we went downtown. As we were walking along the deserted sidewalks, the tall buildings blocking the warm sunshine, my friend looked disappointed: "Is this the center of the city?"
Then, I understood: she was looking for Piazza Duomo.
It's the first thing I do when I visit any Italian town, too: I beeline to the square in front of the main cathedral, then I find an outdoor café, and order a caffé macchiato.
It's a perfect place to sit and people-watch, review a city map or the day's itinerary, or write postcards. It's usually a good photo-op, a safe place, car-free, and close to the tourist information office. A meeting place and sometimes a marketplace, and right next to an architectural masterpiece (that would be the Duomo or cathedral), why wouldn't you start here?
Some Italian towns have a more interesting piazza which is near Piazza Duomo (Siena, for example). Or sometimes the sidewalk café you'd rather sit at is around the corner. But head towards the Duomo and you'll find something matching the description above, I guarantee it.
Vancouver's skyscrapers clearly mark the business and financial center of the city but the city has no main piazza or square or meeting place.
On the other hand, if I want to find the business district in an Italian city, I need to ask for directions. The soul of an Italian city radiates out from the Duomo.
Photo of Piazza del Campo (around the corner from Piazza Duomo) in Siena, by Sanjay
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