Where to go in Italy
Make the most of your time
Italy's northern half clusters historic cities - Rome, Venice, Florence – plus exquisite lakes and the cultured foodie towns of Tuscany and Piedmont. In the south, rough-hewn vibrancy epitomised by Naples contrasts with the chic Amalfi coast. Liguria collides mountains with a coast where Genoa and the Cinque Terre ooze atmosphere. The Alps offer winter sports and summer hiking, the Dolomites more distinctive contours and an underlay of Austrian ways. Out in the Med, Sicily is a cultural melting pot with glorious historic towns like Palmero, Siracusa and Taormina, while Sardinia boasts arguably the Med's best beaches plus a wild interior.
Though part of Campania with Naples, the Amalfi coast is sophisticated confectionery to Napoli street food. Chic piazzas complement be-seen beaches and A-list hangouts Amalfi, Ravello and Positano. For a fantastic flip side, walk ancient hillside tracks through old villages, lemon groves and wild gorges – try The Path of the Gods or Trail of Charms. Check out the vibrant medieval port Salerno too.
There are higher, remoter and more pyrotechnic ranges but few rival the sheer beauty of the jagged rose-tinted Dolomites – peaks that dazzle poets and hikers alike. Several national parks highlight stunning wilderness, alpine meadows and bucolic valleys dotted by wooden houses and vineyards. And feel the vibrant cultural mix of Italy and Austria in charming Bolzano and Merano.
Emilia-Romagna is gourmet paradise, with beautiful Bologna its star. Nicknamed La Grassa (The Fat One), its pleasing mix of hedonism and radicalism is complemented by the world’s oldest university (founded 1088). A foodie trail continues to lovely Parma (parmesan and ham) and Modena (aged balsamic). Ravenna and Ferrara are brilliant too. Burn calories hiking the Appennino Tosco-Emiliano National Park.
“High life” in the Italian Alps often refers to chic as much to altitude, thanks to A-list ski resorts like Courmayeur. But the area is paradise for nature too. Hikers can delve wildlife spots like the Orobie National Park for eagles, vultures and ibex, while climbers can tackle sheer 1,000m granite walls like the infamous Piz Badile or the spiring Sciora peaks.
Wealthy villas have lined the lush shore of Lombardy's grandest lake since Roman empire days. Today you can visit gems like Villa Olmo (Como) and Villa Carlotta (Tremezzo), while enjoying a surround of wooded mountains (snow-capped in winter), bracing boat trips or pottering delightful lakeside towns like Bellagio. Garden lovers should come in April or May for a riot of camellias, azaleas and rhododendron.
Mountains dive into the sea here like a diner falling on fresh pesto in Genoa, its birthplace - a richly historic port laced with twisting lanes (caruggi). Westward, San Remo oozes faded elegance. Eastward, glitzy Portofino contrasts the beguiling Cinque Terre villages, linked by a stunning coastal trail. Inland, visit medieval villages like Dolceaqua and Bussana Vecchia, a ghost town turned unique artists' colony.
Naples & Cantabria
Naples is a siren adept at no-holds-barred seduction, a sensual urban melange whose pulsing street life unfolds amid Baroque splendour. For chic contrast, take a boat to Capri or Sorrento. Nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum are uniquely compelling Roman memorials to the deadly volcanic power of still fiery Mt Vesuvius. West of Sorrento, find an idyllic coast of sleepy hamlets with trails snaking into craggy hills.
Piedmont sweetly blends elegant architecture, Alpine vistas and gourmet brilliance – birthplace of the Slow Food movement, with a local larder including arborio rice, white truffle, Castelmagno cheese and Barolo wine. Turin is its powerhouse of culture and invention, complemented by picturesque foodie towns: Asti, Alba, chocolate-obsessed Cuneo. Rolling hills and the Maritime Alps offer diverse routes to cycle or walk off excess calories.
Skip glitzy Costa Smeralda. There are lovelier beaches elsewhere, for starters: Nora with its Roman amphitheatre; northeastern beauty La Pelosa; the 30m high white dunes of Baia Chia; the entire Orosei coast. Promenade the sea wall in medieval Alghero, admire mysterious Nuraghe ruins (alongside Phoenician and Roman), or seek out wild horses in Barbagia’s herb-scented mountain wilderness.
Sicily is a potent cocktail blending distinctive ingredients. Unforgettable historic towns include gorgeous Siracusa and rough diamond Palermo, its medieval alleys overseen by Moorish palaces and Baroque churches. Ancient Greek sites include Taormina's superb theatre and Agrigento's Valley of Temples. And volcanoes star on dramatic hiking trails: Mt Etna (Europe's highest active volcano) plus the stunning Aeolian islands of Vulcano and Stromboli.
Forget Chiantishire jibes – though not the Chianti produced from Tuscany’s soft vine-swathed hills. Florence’s artistic treasures are complemented by Siena’s Gothic splendour (and its almond biscuits!), San Gimignano’s startling medieval high rises, Renaissance Lucca – and a rather wonky tower in Pisa.... And don’t forget Elba – the rugged Tuscan island that once held Napoleon (briefly) captive but which now captivates hikers and bikers.
Umbria & Le Marche
Umbria has the charms of Tuscany minus the throngs. Wine and olive country drapes hills rising west to the snow-dusted Apennines and descending east to the Adriatic. Medieval towns like Assisi, Spoleto, Macerata and Gubbio jostle with arty Urbino (birthplace of Raphael) and lively Perugia. Brilliant nature getaways await in the Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini and the stunning coastal Parco del Conero.
Travel times in Italy
The following times give you a rough idea of the travel times between the main attractions in Italy
- Naples – Pompeii: 40 minutes by train
- Vernazza - Corniglia (Cinque Terre): 6 hours on foot
- Naples – Capri: 50 minutes by ferry
- Rome – Naples: 1 ¼ hours by train
- Positano – Praiano (Path of the Gods – Cantabria): 6 hours on foot
- Venice – Florence: 2 hours by train
- Florence – Bologna: 40 minutes by train