VERONA, Italy -- Many people today know Verona as the setting for William Shakespeare's tragic love story "Romeo and Juliet," but this sensational city has been attracting visitors for more than two millennia. A UNESCO world heritage site, Verona abounds in spectacular architecture and important historical attractions.

Verona's main sites are clustered near the city center. Start with the ancient Roman Arena in the Piazza Bra. It is the third largest in all of Italy, and one of the best preserved. Though almost all of the original facade crumbled in a 12th century earthquake, the inner ring stands unbroken, and the interior is in such excellent shape that it plays host each summer to Verona's renowned opera season.

From the arena, follow the Via Mazzini, a pedestrian-only shopping district featuring some of Italy's most exclusive labels. The road leads to the Piazza Erbe, once site of the Roman Forum, and today still the main gathering place in the city, spectacularly framed by sprawling Renaissance palazzos.

Grab a seat in one of the sidewalk cafes and enjoy the gorgeous scenery and the bustling market. Here you'll find the soaring Lamberti Tower with stunning views of the city at the top of some 238 steps. (There's also an elevator should the climb seem too daunting.)

Here, too, is the Madonna Verona fountain, with its ancient Roman statue converted into the Christ Mother. There's also a platform complete with dangling chain, where medieval criminals were bound for public punishment.

Star-crossed lovers
Just down the street along the Via Cappello is the House of Juliet where love-struck visitors spray graffiti on every available surface with protestations of undying amour. A statue of Juliet stands in the courtyard underneath the balcony where tourists take turns being photographed and contemplating "wherefore art thou, Romeo." Romeo's house is just a block or two away, but it is closed to the public and marked only with a small sign.

The river Adige snakes through the city and multiple bridges span its width. The bridge Pietra, just north of Piazza Erbe, dates from Roman times and offers a magnificent view across the river to the old Roman Theater and Castle Saint Peter. Originally constructed in 100 B.C., this bridge was destroyed in 1945 by retreating German soldiers, but rebuilt shortly after using the original stones.

The Roman Theater, where Shakespeare's plays are still performed, also houses the city's Archeological Museum with mosaics of ancient gladiators and various Roman artifacts from sites within Verona. High above, the castle hill offers sweeping views of the river, though the castle itself is closed to visitors.

Castle culture
If it's a castle you seek, though, Castle Vecchio lies just 10 minutes east of the Arena and is an impressive14th century structure with its own crenellated bridge spanning the river. Today, it houses a museum with art ranging from Roman sculpture through Renaissance paintings.

The castle was constructed by the della Scala family who ruled Verona from 1260 to 1387. Outside the Santa Maria church just off Piazza Erbe, their family cemetery houses one of the most awesome monuments in the entire city.

Churches crowd Verona, and each one bears astounding architecture and priceless pieces of art. One of the most impressive has to be the Basilica of St. Zeno, a bit off the beaten path but well worth the trek. The current structure was built in 1120 on top of two others dating back to the 4th century.

The porch features stunning relief carvings of gargoyles, workman and jousting knights, and a pair of massive bronze doors portray biblical stories. Within, frescoes from the 12th and 14th century illuminate the walls, with graffiti spanning 700 years scratched upon their surface.

Not horsing around
After all this sightseeing, you're bound to be parched. Stop off in one of the many wine bars for a taste of the local vintage. Verona is famed for its Valpolicella and Bardolino. Try a trattoria off the tourist trail for a taste of local specialties, but be warned: horse is a frequent menu item. Look for Trattoria Vecio Mulin, just around the corner from Juliet's House on via Sottoriva. Their menu features various seafood and pasta, and their tables along the river offer a gorgeous view of the Roman Theater.

Truly one of the most beautiful and romantic cities in Italy, when it comes time to leave "fair Verona," you'll understand why Juliet said "parting is such sweet sorrow."