Please note our writers visited these destinations prior to the coronavirus pandemic
Is there any country on earth that wears its history as lightly as Italy? Roman ruins sit cheek by jowl with Renaissance palazzos, while modern skycrapers cast their long shadows over neoclassical cathedrals. But there are many more reasons why this is the fifth most visited country in the world – the rolling landscapes of Tuscany, the sandy beaches of Sardinia, the fashion credentials of Milan, and the delectable cuisine of just about everywhere from the Alps down.
So, from the ancient streets of Rome to the lapping waterways of Venice, the serene beauty of the Italian Lakes to the dazzling glamour of the Amalfi Coast, these are some of the Italian cities and regions that every traveller ought to visit.
Firenze, the cradle of the Renaissance, is one of Europe’s great art cities. With frescoes by Giotto and Ghirlandaio, canvases by Botticelli and Bronzino, and sculptures by Michelangelo and Giambologna, there is so much exquisite art and architecture within its ancient walls that it’s easy to become overwhelmed. But, there is more to handsome Florence than just museums and monuments. It is bursting with quirky shops and quality crafts; a living city with an eclectic cultural life that embraces opera, classical music and contemporary art.
The restaurant and nightlife scene is also very much thriving, and escaping for some downtime is rather convenient, given the city’s proximity to the vine-covered hills of Chianti, as well as other Tuscan art towns such as Arezzo, Siena and Lucca. Florence’s diminutive size means everything is very accessible, with most of the main sights lying within walking distance of one another. All in all, this is one of Europe’s most civilised long weekend destinations.
There are days when visitors to this exquisite jewel box of a city outnumber locals two-to-one, and when getting from the station to St Mark’s square is a battle. But despite this, Venice never loses its capacity to enchant: stepping out of the station to be greeted by a glittering canal with the dome of San Simeon Piccolo beyond remains heart-stopping, whether you’re doing it for the first time or the 100th. And even at peak visitor periods, you’re never more than a bridge away from quiet campi (squares), churches concealing luminous Madonnas, or handsome Gothic palazzi.
There are plenty of bustling neighbourhood hangouts too, which goes to show there is more to Venice than peerless artistic riches from centuries past: it’s also a hive of contemporary activity. Beyond the alternating Art and Architecture Biennale shows which showcase all that’s cutting edge internationally, the city’s dwindling population works hard to keep contemporary Venice creative, productive and very vibrant.
Rome has been around for almost three thosuand years and yet carries all that weight of history with a dolce vita lightness of heart. It’s a city that combines the intimacy and human scale of a village with the cultural draws of a historic, art-laden European metropolis. Classical ruins and early Christian places of worship stand next to – or sometimes lie beneath – Renaissance palazzos and Baroque fountains. But there are also great neighbourhood trattorias, quirky shops and a buzzing aperitivo scene.
The golden rule for visitors? Don’t try to cram too much in. Rome moves at a slower pace than many northern cities, and to enjoy it you should take time out in pavement cafés as well as ticking off all the big cultural draws. The city’s mild Mediterranean climate is another persuasive draw for visitors from the cool north, but the main draw will always be the pulsating energy of a place which lives life as a form of theatre.
Milan can come as something of a surprise to those who are familiar with Rome and Florence and are expecting more of the same from Lombardy’s metropolitan hub, for this is a more northern European city in look and feel. Italy’s fashion and design capital, it has an international cosmopolitan outlook, a vibrant food and drink scene and scores of hotels to suit all budgets. Historical edifices sit cheek-by-jowl with modern skyscrapers, while a number of the city’s buildings have spectacular interior courtyards that remain largely undiscovered.
But what largely draws visitors is the city’s excellent shopping – designer stores line the Quadrilatero D’Oro district, while outlets, high street shops and boutiques are found in all corners of the city. Then there are the cultural attractions, notably the Duomo, the Scala opera house and the Pinacoteca di Brera art gallery and, at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous mural of the Last Supper.
In so many other parts of the world, culture is an optional extra, something you do in your spare time. In Tuscany, it’s at the root of everything – though not in an elitist way. A Piero della Francesca fresco exudes the spirit of a region that has long spent its money on beauty and quality. But so does a bowl of ribollita soup, made with seasonal cavolo nero and served with a spiral of just-pressed olive oil. Tuscany also combines fierce pride and care for detail with unpretentious, down-to-earth manners.
It has a collection of handsome art-filled, historic towns with more than enough to see, do, eat and drink to fill a long weekend. In the past, each Tuscan comune would conspire to outdo the rest, and the result is an embarrassment of riches. In addition to Florence, Siena, Pisa, Lucca and Arezzo are all worth at least a day, with smaller hilltowns like San Gimignano, Cortona and Volterra also vying for attention. But don’t let art distract you from landscape: the vineyards of Chianti and Montalcino, the Carrara marble quarries north of Lucca, or the wild Maremma coastal strip are all must-sees.
The legendary Amalfi Coast has been seducing visitors since ancient times with its magnificent scenery and sophisticated yet laid-back lifestyle that was ‘discovered’ by the jet-set in the 1960s. Until the Strada Statale 163 was blasted out of the base of the Lattari mountains in 1852, there was no road linking the small communities along the coast. Maybe it is for this reason that beyond the five-star hotels and super-yachts, another much simpler, rural lifestyle still exists; up in the hills, farmers cultivate plots of steeply terraced land while down on the coast, fishermen make a modest living from the sea.
With its pretty towns and villages and endless glorious views, a visit to the costiera needs to be taken slowly, even if you want to fit in some culture, schedule visits to churches, museums and gardens around lazy lunches, dips in the shimmering sea, sunset aperitivi or simply hanging out and basking in those extraordinary vistas. Don’t miss the drive from Positano to Vietri sul Mare: along its narrow, twisting length, the ‘Road of a 1,000 Bends’ passes some of the most dramatic and beautiful stretches of coastal scenery on the planet.
The Romans were first to see the potential of the Italian lakes as a holiday destination. They built their sumptuous villas in some of the prime positions around Como and Garda, where the southern foothills of the Alps sweep down towards the Mediterranean and the fertile plains of northern Italy, forming some of the most beautiful landscapes in Europe. Modern tourism has transformed the towns, but the lakes, mountains and views are as beautiful as they were 2,000 years ago, and the villages, Baroque gardens and lakeside hotels are still wonderful places to enjoy a holiday, especially during the long, warm autumn.
The westernmost, Lake Orta, is a gorgeous little slice of deep-blue water harbouring one of the country’s prettiest medieval villages, Orta San Giulio. A short drive away is the longest, Lake Maggiore, which extends north across the Swiss border. East lies modish Lake Como, lined with opulent villas and glitzy hotels. Farther east still is Lake Iseo, the least well-known of the five, while the largest of all, Lake Garda, is one of the country’s most popular holiday destinations.
Sicily has long been a crossroads and crucible of Mediterranean culture, and the island today is a fascinating palimpsest in which Greek temples, Norman churches and Baroque palazzos emerge from the rich fabric. But it also has natural wonders aplenty, from the smoking craters of Mount Etna to the still relatively undiscovered beaches of the southern coast. And, with parts of the island on the same latitude as the North African coast, Sicily has a mild climate that makes it an attractive destination for much of the year. Spring and autumn are sheer delight and through high summer temperatures really soar.
When it comes to things to see and do, you’re spoiled for choice: the historic cities of Palermo, Catania and Siracusa, the Etna region with its volcanic landscapes, fertile wine country and picture-perfect Taormina; Ragusa, Modica and the other honey-hued Baroque towns of the south; the Greek temples of Agrigento, Selinunte and Segesta; Roman sites like Piazza Armerina, miles of sandy beaches and secret rocky coves. And then there is the food – from the couscous of Trapani to the pastries of Noto, it’s a destination to delight gastronomes.
With Puglia’s ancient sites and unfussy charms, Italy’s most secluded coast makes a rewarding alternative to the tourist-laden north. To look at its olive trees, whitewashed, hilltop towns, scorched earth and unforgiving heat, one might deem the region to be closer in look and feel to the melting pot of Greece than it is to the grandeur of Rome, although look carefully and you’ll find the landscape is stamped with many footprints – Byzantine, Arab, Balkan and Romanesque included. It’s not that the Renaissance bypassed southern Italy, but it certainly left fewer calling cards.
Don’t come looking for picture-perfect art towns, formal gardens or trophy villas: the draw of Apulia, as it is known in English, is in the unexpected. Trulli country is like nowhere else in Italy – clusters of hobbit-like, whitewashed, dome-roofed houses, whose origins are anyone’s guess. One version holds that they were a means of avoiding a primitive form of housing tax. Then there are the many caves, which provide welcome relief from the heat. The Castellana Grotte, glistening with vast canopies of stalactites, is a notably spectacular sight.
A few years ago, Umbria was known, if at all, as Tuscany’s less alluring sister. Not any more: these days Italy’s ‘green heart’ is every bit as celebrated as its more famous neighbour. The reasons are simple: the region has all Tuscany’s attributes – and a few more. True, it doesn’t have the big set pieces of Florence and Siena, but it does has a coronet of far more intimate and easily visited hill-towns – Perugia, Assisi, Orvieto, Gubbio, Todi, Spoleto and Norcia. Each has enough to keep you busy for a day or more, and none is more than a few miles from the next, making Umbria manageable and straightforward to explore.
There’s also the same glorious pastoral scenery as Tuscany – the olive groves, vineyards and cypress-topped hills, the high mountain landscapes – and the food, wine, art, culture and architecture are the equal of any in Italy. Norcia, with its truffles, hams and cheeses, for example, is a gastronomic centre par excellence; Orvieto’s duomo is one of the country’s finest cathedrals; Spoleto’s summer festival is one of Europe’s major cultural events; and Assisi’s majestic Basilica di San Francesco contains frescoes by Giotto.
Balmy, maritime Liguria is generally best known for the Cinque Terre, the string of five historic and colourful villages spaced along the region’s spectacular cliff-edged coast. Thereare also lesser known quaint coastal towns such as Portovenere and Sestri Levante, and of course there’s Portofino, pretty as a paintbox with its tall pastel houses cradling a harbour lined with bars and restaurants, and presided over by a pine-shaded castle. It still preserves the atmosphere of the fishing village it once was, and you can buy into its chic charm for an afternoon for the price of a bus ticket and a glass of wine.
Nestling into the bay where the Portofino promotory joins the main coastal sweep, Santa Margherita Ligure – known to afficionados simply as ‘Santa’ – is one of Liguria’s most attractive resort towns, all Belle Epoque grand hotels and upmarket bathing establishments – but with a handsome old town that’s full of quirky little shops and tempting bars and restaurants. There’s also Genoa: it’s a working port city, but beyond the associated bawdiness, it’s up there with Italy’s other big hitters. The largely pedestrianised centre, with its maze of alleys unfurling behind the port, is said to be the largest in Europe.
Sardinia has some of the Mediterranean’s most seductive beaches, yet within tootling distance of some great restaurants, agreeable bars and the soothing evening ritual of the passeggiata. When you’ve had your fill of beaches, there’s plenty more to divert you: the magnificent rugged landscape of the granite interior, the fabulous seafood and, for history buffs, the strange and evocative remnants of Sardinia’s ancient nuraghic culture, not to mention a scattering of Carthaginian and Roman ruins, Pisan churches and Spanish Baroque.