Italy has Europe’s richest, craziest culture. After all, this nation is the cradle of European civilization — established by the Roman Empire and carried on by the Roman Catholic Church. As you explore Italy, you’ll stand face-to-face with some of the world’s most iconic images from this 2,000-year history: the Colosseum of Ancient Rome, the medieval Leaning Tower of Pisa, Michelangelo’sDavid and Botticelli’s Venus, the playful Baroque exuberance of the Trevi Fountain…and the elegant decay that surrounds the canals of Venice.
Beyond these famous sights, though, Italy offers Europe’s richest culture. Traditions still live within a country that is vibrant and fully modern. Go with an eye open to both the Italy of the past and of the present.
At a Glance
▲▲▲ Venice Romantic island city, powerful in medieval times; famous for St. Mark’s Basilica, the Grand Canal, and singing gondoliers.
▲▲▲ Cinque Terre Five idyllic Riviera hamlets along a rugged coastline (and part of a national park), connected by scenic hiking trails and dotted with beaches.
▲▲▲ Florence The cradle of the Renaissance, with the world-class Uffizi Gallery, Brunelleschi’s dome-topped Duomo, Michelangelo’s David, and Italy’s best gelato.
▲▲▲ Siena Florence’s smaller and (some say) more appealing rival, with its grand Il Campo square and striking striped cathedral.
▲▲▲ Rome Italy’s capital, the Eternal City, studded with Roman remnants (Forum, Colosseum, Pantheon), romantic floodlit-fountain squares, and the Vatican — home to one of Italy’s top museums and the Sistine Chapel.
▲▲ Milan Powerhouse city of commerce and fashion, with the prestigious La Scala opera house, Leonardo’s The Last Supper, and three airports.
▲▲ Heart of Tuscany Picturesque, wine-soaked villages of Italy’s heartland, including mellow Montepulciano, Renaissance Pienza, and Brunello-fueled Montalcino.
▲▲ Assisi St. Francis’ hometown, perched on a hillside, with a divinely Giotto-decorated basilica.
▲▲ Orvieto and Civita More hill-town adventures, featuring Orvieto’s classic views and ornate cathedral plus the adorable pocket-sized village of Civita di Bagnoregio.
▲▲ Naples Gritty, in-love-with-life port city featuring vibrant street life and a top archaeological museum.
▲ Near Venice Several interesting towns: Padua (with Giotto’s gloriously frescoed Scrovegni Chapel), Verona (Roman amphitheater plus Romeo and Juliet sights), and Ravenna (top Byzantine mosaics).
▲ The Dolomites Italy’s rugged rooftop with a Germanic flair, featuring Bolzano (home of Ötzi the Iceman), Castelrotto (charming village), and Alpe di Siusi (alpine meadows laced with lifts and hiking trails).
▲ The Lakes Two relaxing lakes, each with low-key resort towns and a mountainous backdrop: Lake Como, with quaint Varenna and upscale Bellagio; and Lake Maggiore, with straightforward Stresa, manicured islands, and elegant villas.
▲ Pisa and Lucca Two classic towns: Pisa, with its famous Leaning Tower and surrounding Field of Miracles, and Lucca, with a charming walled old center.
▲ Volterra and San Gimignano Two hill towns in north Tuscany: vibrant, refreshing Volterra and multi-towered, touristy San Gimignano.
▲ Pompeii and Nearby Famous ruins of the ancient towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, stopped in their tracks by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
▲ Sorrento and Capri The seaside resort port of Sorrento, and a short cruise away, the jet-set island getaway of Capri, with its Blue Grotto.
▲ Amalfi Coast and Paestum String of seafront villages — including hilly Positano and workaday Amalfi — tied together by a scenic mountainous coastal road, plus nearby Paestum, with its well-preserved ancient Greek temples.
Riviera Towns near the Cinque Terre More Italian Riviera fun, including the beach towns of Levanto, Sestri Levante, the larger Santa Margherita Ligure, and trendier Portofino nearby, and to the south, resorty Portovenere and workaday La Spezia (transportation hub).
Where to go
Rome, Italy’s capital and the one city in the country that owes allegiance neither to the north or south, is a tremendous city quite unlike any other, and in terms of historical sights outstrips everywhere else in the country by some way. It’s the focal point of Lazio, in part a poor and sometimes desolate region whose often rugged landscapes, particularly south of Rome, contrast with the more manicured beauty of the other central regions. The regions ofPiemonte and Lombardy, in the northwest, make up the country’s richest and most cosmopolitan region, and the two main centres, Turin and Milan, are its wealthiest cities. In their southern reaches, these regions are flat and scenically dull, especially Lombardy, but in the north the presence of the Alps shapes the character of each: skiing and hiking are prime activities, and the lakes and mountains of Lombardy are time-honoured tourist territory.Liguria, the small coastal province to the south, has long been known as the “Italian Riviera” and is accordingly crowded with sun-seekers for much of the summer. Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful stretch of coast, and its capital, Genoa, is a vibrant, bustling port town with a long seafaring tradition.
Much of the most dramatic mountain scenery lies within the smaller northern regions. In the far northwest, the tiny bilingual region of Valle d’Aosta is home to some of the country’s most frequented ski resorts, and is bordered by the tallest of the Alps – the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. In the northeast, Trentino-Alto Adige, another bilingual region and one in which the national boundary is especially blurred, marks the beginning of the Dolomites mountain range, where Italy’s largest national park, the Stelvio, lies amid some of the country’s most memorable landscapes.
The Dolomites stretch into the northeastern regions of the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. However, here the main focus of interest is, of course, Venice: a unique city, and every bit as beautiful as its reputation would suggest (although this means you won’t be alone in appreciating it). If the crowds are too much, there’s also the arc of historic towns outside the city – Verona, Padua and Vicenza, all centres of interest in their own right, although rather overshadowed by their illustrious neighbour. To the south, the region of Emilia-Romagna was at the heart of Italy’s postwar industrial boom and enjoys a standard of living on a par with Piemonte and Lombardy, although it’s also a traditional stronghold of the Italian Left. Its coast is popular among Italians, and Rimini is about Italy’s brashest (and trendiest) seaside resort, renowned for its nightlife. You may do better to ignore the beaches altogether, however, and concentrate on the ancient centres of Ravenna, Ferrara, Parma and the regional capital of Bologna, one of Italy’s liveliest, most historic but least appreciated cities – and traditionally Italy’s gastronomic and academic capital.
Central Italy represents perhaps the most commonly perceived image of the country, and Tuscany, with its classic rolling countryside and the art-packed towns of Florence, Pisa and Siena, to name only the three best-known, is one of its most visited regions. Neighbouring Umbria is similar in all but its tourist numbers, though it gets busier every year, as visitors flock into towns such as Perugia, Spoleto and Assisi. Further east still, Le Marche has gone the same way, with old stone cottages being turned into foreign-owned holiday homes; the highlights of the region are the ancient towns of Urbino and Ascoli Piceno. South of Le Marche, the hills begin to pucker into mountains in the twin regions of Abruzzo and Molise, one of Italy’s remotest areas, centring on one of the country’s highest peaks – the Gran Sasso d’Italia.
The south proper begins with the region of Campania. Its capital, Naples, is a unique, unforgettable city, the spiritual heart of the Italian south, and close to some of Italy’s finest ancient sites in Pompeii and Herculaneum, not to mention the country’s most spectacular stretch of coast around Amalfi. Basilicata and Calabria, which make up the instep and toe of Italy’s boot, are harder territory but still rewarding, the emphasis less on art, more on the landscape and quiet, relatively unspoilt coastlines. Puglia, the “heel” of Italy, has underrated pleasures, too, notably the landscape of its Gargano peninsula, the souk-like qualities of its capital, Bari, and the Baroque glories of Lecce in the far south. As for Sicily, the island is really a place apart, with a wide mixture of attractions ranging from some of the finest preserved Hellenistic treasures in Europe, to a couple of Italy’s most appealing beach resorts in Taormina and Cefalu, not to mention some gorgeous upland scenery. Come this far south and you’re closer to Africa than Milan, and it shows in the climate, the architecture and the cooking, with couscous featuring on many menus in the west of the island. Sardinia, too, feels far removed from the Italian mainland, especially in its relatively undiscovered interior, although you may be content just to laze on its fine beaches, which are among Italy’s best.
When to go
If you’re planning to visit popular areas, especially beach resorts, avoid July and especially August, when the weather can be too hot and the crowds at their most congested. In August, when most Italians are on holiday, you can expect the crush to be especially bad in the resorts, and the scene in the major historic cities – Rome, Florence, Venice – to be slightly artificial, as the only people around are fellow tourists. The nicest time to visit, in terms of the weather and lack of crowds, is April to late June, and September or October. If you’re planning to swim, however, bear in mind that only the south of the country is likely to be warm enough outside the May to September period.
What to skip
Skip Amalfi Coast, try Cinque Terre
The legendary picturesque destination that is the Amalfi Coast exists in movies like The Talented Mr. Ripley—where limoncello is liberally poured at intimate coastal bars. In reality, you’ll find more tourist busses than Jude Law types. Your best alternative? Cinque Terre (pictured above), or “five towns” set along the rocky northern coast overlooking the Ligurian sea. Once you reach La Spezia (just north of Pisa), each of the small five towns can be reached by foot or by train. What’s more, they offer a feast for the five senses.
In the multi-colored village of Riomaggiore, the first of the towns from the south, venture along the Via dell’Amore. It got its name shortly after World War II, when this trail became a rendezvous point for lovers who lived in Riomaggiore and neighboring Manarola. Today, those who pass through leave padlocks as a nod to everlasting love. Continuing on, stop in sleepyManarola. At the top of town, by the bell tower, you’ll find a wooden railing with steps up to a vineyard path where you’ll take in the scents of grapevines and lemons trees, while bumblebees whiz by and lizards scurry at your feet. The path leads down to the cemetery and then to the breakwater where you’ll either continue along the trail, or if it’s still closed due to recent landslides, catch a train to the next town.
Once arriving in Corniglia, you’ll climb 365-steps to reach town; it’s the only one of the five not in a harbor. It’s worth the trek, if only for a midday glass of vino at Enoteca Il Pirun, which serves them in a funnel-like glass called a Pirun. Apparently, it allows the wine to breathe better. But it’s also silly. (Plus, they give you a bib in case you dribble, which makes for great photos.) Walking along narrow passageways that hug the coast, you’ll see Cinque Terre’s best views as you make your way into Vernazza.
Vernazza is charming with windy streets and a mini beach with large rocks for sunbathing. Recently hit by a massive flood and landslide, it is still recovering from more than 100 million Euros in damage and the loss of three lives. Stop to listen to the waves crashing along the rocks before trekking along to the next town.The trek to Monterosso is the most strenuous, but it’s worth the exercise as you’ll want to do nothing but eat on arriving. (You’ll also want to shell out a few Euro for a lounge chair at one of the beach clubs.) The biggest and most ‘resort-y’ of the five towns, you could easily stay the night. But first, try the simple and delicious lemon acciughe(anchovies) at Risorante Miky, the frutta di mare at L’Alta Marea, and the crema a limone gelato at Slurp! Gelato Artiganale.
Where to Stay: Stay in Vernazza if you want charm and intimacy. But if you also want views, be prepared to hike up stairs. Lots of them. Try Gianni Franzi, whose reception is located in Gianni Franzi Ristorante off the main drag of Piazza Marconi. Their 20 rooms vary in size, but are tucked away amid the carugas overlooking the breakwater. Rates from 70-100 Euro.
If you want modern and hip, the new Hotel Margherita in Monterosso’s Old Town is where it’s at. You’ll get all the amenities—A/C, WiFi, satellite TV—in any of the 31 rooms. Rates from 80-230 Euro.
Ship Florance, try Siena
You’ve heard about David’s “package” and the gold on the Ponte Vecchio. You’ve read tips about navigating the streets between the Uffizi Gallery and the Duomo, and you’ve seen photos of the bistecca fiorentina at Trattoria Mario.
But if you seek a less overwhelming taste of Medieval Italy, try Siena; the ancient walled city known for its differing “contrades” (neighborhoods), each represented by banners and flags featuring 17 symbols from the Oca (goose) and the Tartuca (turtle), to my personal favoriteLeocorno (unicorn).
Siena is best explored without an agenda, since it’s a fairly small city with winding cobblestoned streets that ultimately lead into the Piazza del Campo, with its 400-step Torre del Mangia, a massive tower built in the 14th century. If you’ve got the energy, climb to the top for spectacular views of Tuscany.
As is often the case, the cafes and trattorias around the square get very touristy, so get lost among the car-less streets surrounding it. If you’re lucky, you’ll land at the mysterious-lookingPizzicheria de Miccoli, with its velvet-curtained doorway. Inside, a man who looks straight out ofRatatouille will cut fresh slices of porchetta, prosciutto, and various cheeses for a sandwich. There are no tables and chairs, but it’s worth standing and dining on a stack of wine crates at this family-owned shop.
Where to Stay: Try the very elegant Certosa di Maggiano, a 14th century monastery with just nine rooms and eight suites, making it a romantic destination for couples. With vaulted ceilings and beautiful aristocratic decor, you’ll feel like royalty at this intimate resort outside the city walls.
Skip San Gimignano, try Castellina
San Gimignano means well. But the walled city plays host to tourists clamoring into wine tasting rooms for a sip of Vernaccia wine before climbing the bell tower before stopping in a leather store, before hopping back on the bus. Think smaller, to Castellina in Chianti. 35 miles south of Florence, you’ll get an intimate look at the true charms of Tuscan life.
First, duck under the covered passage known as the Via delle Volte. Along the Medieval walls, you’ll find galleries, gelaterias, and shops selling locally made wooden kitchen tools. At the end of the covered tunnel at the edge of town, turn back and walk along the sidewalk on the sunny main drag where you’ll find kitschy shops and sidewalk cafes.
If you have a car, drive a quick 20 minutes to Panzano in Chianti to pay a visit to the Dante-quoting butcher, Dario Cecchini, at his classical music-blaring butcher shop: Antica Macelleria Cecchini. You’ll find locals seated along the curb just outside enjoying glasses of red wine and small plates of his ‘sushi del Chianti’ and other treats offered complimentary for newcomers (and regulars).
Where to Stay: Head to the center of town where Palazzo Squarcialupi offers 18 beautiful rooms with wooden-beamed ceilings and frescoed walls. Sunbathing by the pool offers views of rolling green hills and cypress trees. Rates from 120 Euro.
Skip Rome, try Milan
Rome is so yesterday. Literally, it’s ancient. From The Vatican to the Colosseum to the Trevi Fountain, there’s lots of looking back here. Sure, areas like Trastevere now offer a glimpse of the modern, young Italian lifestyle, but most people come to Rome to ponder “the way we were.”
Despite what you’ve heard (“it’s gray and industrial “), skip Rome in favor of the northern metropolis of Milan, where well-dressed locals commute by rent-a-bike and order spritzes (Aperol, Prosecco, and an orange slice). (It was also one of Fodor’s Places to Go in 2012) Of course, Milan offers plenty in the way of history, from da Vinci’s The Last Supper at the Santa Maria delle Grazie to the gorgeous Gothic Duomo, but it’s best to take advantage of the well-runMetropolitana (subway) to explore beyond the obvious. This is the city of Armani, Prada, and Missoni after all.
Head to the Brera neighborhood to pop into designer stores where you’ll discover they offer more than just exquisite (expensive) clothing—most stores have “extras” like cafes and hair salons, not to mention merciful blasts of air conditioning. Anyone with a subscription to Vogueshould head to 10 Corso Como, a sanctuary for the high-heeled looking for over-the-top accessories, perfumes, shoes, photography, furniture, books, and of course clothing, in a hyper-designed space (that also has a café).
Being in Italy, Milan has no shortage of great restaurants. Try classic Milanese dishes, like cotoletta alla Milanese (breaded veal cut), with just touch of lemon and a side of arugula at Liu Ristorante. Splurge at Osteria La Bistecca where bowtie-wearing waiters serve super-soft meatballs, creamy spaghetti carbonara, and of course, mouthwatering bistecca.
When the sun goes down, aperitivo heats up. Many restaurants offer meals with the purchase of a drink (think happy hour, but with prosciutto instead of wings.) Head to the Naziglai area to find a host of choices and do yourself a favor: douse yourself in mosquito spray first. As the night wears on, find an outdoor couch at Pacino Cafe, a hip spot that plays everything from house music to Kings of Leon.
Where to Stay: If you want to feel like a local, try Alle Meraviglie, a boutique hotel near the Duomo that offers apartment-like living with super chic amenities. Rates from 175 Euros. Or, splurge at the sleek, luxe Bulgari Milano, where you’ll find modern rooms within and manicured gardens that invite locals and guests outside for coffees or aperitivos. Rates from 530 Euro.
Skip Pisa, try Lucca
So there’s this tower that’s leaning… and it’s been leaning for a while now… Worth seeing? We’d say no. You’ll have more pictures of tourists than the tower anyway. Skip over to Lucca instead, where the streets are filled with fewer tourists (or at least fewer obvious ones) and the Tuscan lifestyle is alive and well.
Yes it’s another walled city, but this one is mostly pedestrian and isn’t as hilly as the others, making it also bike friendly. Lucca’s architecture is noteworthy, with the carved stone columns of the Duomo and pastel-colored stucco buildings with terracotta roofs. Add to that the horse-drawn carriages, and the town takes on this magically charming vibe. Opera fans will want to stop and pay respects at the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini, just steps from the center of town.
You’ll spot local teens eating pizza off paper plates while sitting on the curbs of cobblestone roads, while older locals opt for a street food specialty known as cecina, or “Tuscan Toast”—flatbread made from chickpeas.
At Caffe Di Simo off the main shopping street of Via Fillungo, enjoy an espresso and ponder the life of Puccini, who was a regular.
Where to Stay: Hotel Ilaria may be slightly removed from the city center, but they offer free bike rental, and seeing as that’s the best way to get around Lucca, this modern 36-room hotel (with a hot tub, to boot) is a win-win. Rates from 200 Euro.