Ask an Italian where in the world they would most like to live, and the odds are that they will say “right here”. Indeed, most people – not just Italians – have raved about Italy since tourism began, and to be honest the country really does have it all: one of the most diverse and beautiful landscapes in Europe; the world’s greatest hoard of art treasures (many on display in fittingly spectacular cities and buildings); a climate that is on the whole benign; and, most important of all for many, a delicious and authentic national cuisine. The country is not perfect – its historic cities have often been marred by development, and beyond the showpiece sights the infrastructure is visibly straining – but for its places to visit, many of the old clichés still ring true; once you’ve visited, you may never want to travel anywhere else.
Italy might be the world’s most celebrated tourist destination, but it only became a unified state in 1861, and as a result Italians often feel more loyalty to their region than to the nation as a whole – something manifest in its different cuisines, dialects, landscapes and often varying standards of living. However, if there is a single national Italian characteristic, it’s to embrace life to the full – in the hundreds of local festivals taking place across the country on any given day to celebrate a saint or the local harvest; in the importance placed on good food; in the obsession with clothes and image; and in the daily ritual of the collective evening stroll or passeggiata – a sociable affair celebrated by young and old alike in every town and village across the country.
There is also the country’s enormous cultural legacy: Tuscany alone has more classified historical monuments than any country in the world; there are considerable remnants of the Roman Empire all over the country, notably in Rome itself; and every region retains its own relics of an artistic tradition generally acknowledged to be among the world’s richest. Yet if all you want to do is chill out, there’s no reason to be put off. There are any number of places to just lie on a beach, from the resorts filled with regimented rows of sunbeds and umbrellas favoured by the Italians themselves, to secluded and less developed spots. And if you’re looking for an active holiday, there’s no better place: mountains run the country’s length – from the Alps and Dolomites in the north right along the Apennines, which form the spine of the peninsula; skiing and other winter sports are practised avidly; and wildlife of all sorts thrives in the country’s national parks.