This is the land of beauty. Medieval towns, Renaissance art, world-beating landscapes and big cultural hitters like Florence, Venice and Rome – Italy has well and truly earned its moniker of “bel paese” (“beautiful country”). All that culture comes wrapped in thousands of miles of beaches, and sprinkled with world-class food.
Rome’s nickname “the eternal city” is accurate: it’s an astonishing mix of eras and cultures, as evidenced by the ancient Roman remains that litter the streets (it’s not just the Colosseum and the Forum), medieval walls, Renaissance palaces and opulent Baroque fountains, squares and over-the-top churches. Plus, of course, there’s the Vatican, the tiny state-within-a-country. It’s all layered around the tree-lined Tiber, one of Europe’s most strollable rivers. Stay on the Via Veneto for a taste of the Dolce Vita (the film was set here) – try the Rome Marriott Grand Hotel Flora.
Venice is completely unique. You knew that, of course – but you might not know that it’s still buzzing with the same markets, bars and artisan trades as in the medieval period. Stay at least three days, step back a block from the main drag, and you’ll see the real city. From the islands of the lagoon to the world-class art that still takes pride of place in churches, rather than having been moved to museums; from the skinny, often climbable bell-towers to the beaches of the Lido; from the ferries that loop the centre to the gondolas plying their way up the Grand Canal, it’s nonstop enchantment. Take your time to explore the city and stay in any one of the excellent Marriott hotels, such as JW Marriott Venice Resort & Spa, or the stunning, 18th-century Gritti Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel.
You can thank Leonardo da Vinci for Milan’s popularity. Once dismissed as simply the fast-paced business centre, today Milan is swarmed by visitors coming for Da Vinci’s Last Supper, frescoed on the wall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent; the Sforzesco Castle’s Sala delle Asse, which he decorated with a trompe l'oeil forest; his Codex Atlanticus at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana; and the Navigli canals, which he plotted, and which today are the hub of the city’s nightlife. From the cobbled, arty Brera district to the elaborate Duomo, Europe’s second-largest church, there’s much to see – and there are even vintage trams to get you around. Live it up in one of the city’s top hotels, like the Excelsior Hotel Gallia, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Milan. This is the gateway to Italy’s lakes – Como, Maggiore and Iseo are easy day trips away, or stay overnight at the Sheraton Lake Como Hotel.
Those pictures of roads zigzagging up hills topped with cypress trees? They’re of the Val d’Orcia, in Tuscany. This region is home to the wine area of Chianti, some of the Mediterranean’s best beaches, and hilltop towns of incomparable beauty. Tuscany’s largest city, Florence, was the birthplace of the Renaissance. Even today, walking past enormous palazzos, into elegant striped-marble churches, and through statue-studded piazzas whirls you back in time. Its collection of museums and galleries is unmatched – the Uffizi is home to Botticelli’s Venus, the Bargello is full of Donatellos, and the cathedral’s museum has works by Michelangelo.
You’ll want to visit Florence’s old rivals, Siena and Pisa, for their art (and that leaning tower), and stop over in foodie Panzano for a meal. If you’re into cycling, you’ll love the Val d’Orcia’s strade bianche – “white roads”, or gravel tracks – which cut through the famous landscape. Stay at the new Grotta Giusti Thermal Spa Resort Tuscany, Autograph Collection to experience Tuscany’s famous thermal spas, or base yourself at the gorgeous hilltop Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa.
It’s one of Europe’s best beach destinations, with excellent resorts including the Sheraton Cervo Hotel and the Hotel Romazzino, a Luxury Collection Hotel, both just a stone’s throw from the beaches of the Costa Smeralda. But there’s much more to Sardinia than its undeniably gorgeous coast.
Life has always taken place in the entroterra, or inner part of the island, so you’ll find great food and a community feel whenever you head inland. For the best of Sardinia’s thousands of archeological sites, head to Barumini, where you’ll find the prehistoric village of Su Nuraxi, which is still intact.
The mountains around Nuoro are also worth a visit – make sure you stop at Orgosolo, a tiny town known for its political street art created by local residents since the 1970s. Meanwhile, for the best of those beaches, head to the Costa Smeralda, where you’ll find Hotel Cala di Volpe, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Costa Smeralda.
Possibly Italy’s most famous gift to the world, authentic Italian pizza is a cut above what you’ve probably had at home – and we’re not just talking about pineapple as a topping, which is heresy here. There are two main schools of Italian pizza: the original Neapolitan, which is squishier, tends to have more traditional toppings, and is fired in just seconds; and the Roman, which is thinner and crispier. Outside those two cities, there are great places to eat everywhere – most pizzerias will deliver something in between, often with regional-led toppings, such as anchovies and local radicchio in Venice. In Naples, try Concettina ai Tre Santi in the rapidly gentrifying Sanità district. In Rome, it’s all about the Trastevere district – Ivo a Trastevere is a superb pizzeria.
What would life be without pasta? Italy runs on it, and while you’ll find it countrywide, the region of Emilia Romagna – historically the trade crossroads between north and south – is its spiritual home. Here, sfogline (traditional pasta-makers) roll out fresh, eggy pasta by hand; in the south, dried pasta rules. In Bologna, Emilia Romagna’s largest city, dishes to try include tortellini (tiny pasta pillows with a meaty filling) in capon broth – the recipe dates back to the medieval period – and tagliatelle al ragù, the slow-cooked tomato-rich sauce that we’ve traduced as spaghetti bolognese. Da Nello, in the centre of town, is the place to try both.
As a major rice-growing centre, the north of Italy has traditionally been more about risotto than pasta. Risotto alla milanese – coloured bright yellow by saffron and swirled in white wine, parmesan and butter – is the classic introduction to Italian rice. In its hometown, Milan, try it at Ratanà, a converted cinema, with a chunk of bone marrow on the side.
In Venice, you can make a meal out of the bar snacks. As a hard-working, heavy-drinking city over the centuries, Venice dreamed up cicchetti – hefty, protein-heavy bar snacks that offset the alcohol and take the edge off your appetite. From hard-boiled eggs topped with anchovies to delicate slices of bread layered with cheeses, deli meats and vegetables, the list of cicchetti is infinite. Some of the best are at Cantinone già Schiavi, where the hand-topped snacks are so genteel that they’re even dusted with flower petals.
Most of the unmissable things you must do in Italy revolve around culture. In Rome, a Colosseum tour is a must – especially to see the underground areas where gladiators used to wait backstage. Your ticket includes entry to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, too. Don’t skip the latter – you’ll find the best views of the Forum from the Palatine’s terrace. The Vatican is Rome’s other major draw – leave enough time to enjoy the vast museums, before finishing at Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel.
In Florence, explore into the Renaissance era with trips to the Uffizi Galleries and the Bargello museum. Don’t miss the sprawling Boboli and Bardini gardens (the former has spectacular grounds, the latter incomparable city views), and make sure to get a room with a view over the Arno at The St. Regis Florence.
In Venice, you’ll exit the train station onto the Grand Canal; take the vaporetto (waterbus) straight down it, passing below the famous Rialto Bridge before reaching St Mark’s Square, with its byzantine basilica and chichi cafes (try Quadri).
If there’s time, spend a day in charming Bologna, home of the world’s oldest university, for the best meal of your trip; make sure to explore the Quadrilatero district, which has been full of food shops and bars since the medieval period. If you love it, overnight at the AC Hotel Bologna. Stop in Naples for proper pizza and a visit to the ruins of Pompeii (stay at Courtyard by Marriott Naples), or continue on a road trip along the Amalfi Coast.
With the excavation of Rome an ongoing project, archaeologists are constantly uncovering “new” parts of the ancient city, meaning there are unique things to do being unveiled every year. Top of the list is the Mausoleum of Augustus, where Rome’s first emperor is buried – finally restored in 2021 after almost 2000 years of decay.
In Florence, visit San Marco, a still-working monastery that was once home to artist monk Fra Angelico. He frescoed his colleagues’ cells, which are open to visitors today.
Most visitors keep Venice trips short, which means there are plenty of lesser-visited places. For alternative things to do, start with the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, a vast building covered almost entirely in paintings by the city’s star Renaissance painter Tintoretto. Although many tourists take a boat to Burano, most snap pictures of its colourful houses and get straight back onboard. Spend the afternoon there instead – have a leisurely lunch at the Gatto Nero restaurant, which counts Cruise and Clooney among its customers, and then take the shuttle to deserted neighbouring island Torcello, which has two ancient churches, one with jaw-dropping Byzantine mosaics, amid open fields. You can even sleep on a private island – the JW Marriott Venice Resort & Spa is situated on the Isola delle Rose, in the lagoon. Don’t miss Tuscany’s beaches, by the way – although the most famous stretches are up around Pisa (Viareggio has some of the softest sand), head south, to the Grosseto area, for wild strips of sand amid national parks – try Marina di Alberese.
Unless you’re heading into the countryside, or enjoying a leisurely road trip, there’s really no need to rent a car. Italy has an exceptional rail network, and the high-speed Frecce and Italo trains get you round the country far quicker than driving – and with significantly less stress.
One major thing to know as you’re travelling from region to region: Italy is extremely locally focused, with different dialects from one town to the next. That expresses itself in the food, so rather than ordering the same thing everywhere, be open to trying the traditional dishes of wherever you are. In Venice, for example, that means fish rather than pasta or pizza. Ask for “un piatto tipico” – a traditional dish – if you’re unsure.
Published: July 25, 2022
Last Updated: June 27, 2023
Article Tags: Florence , Italy , Rome , Venice
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