Unless you’re heading for a particular destination and staying put, it’s likely you’ll want to take some time to explore this alluring country. But figuring out where to visit in Italy is no mean feat. From ancient hilltop towns to modern bustling cities, dramatic mountain landscapes to sweeping coastal scenery and idyllic beaches, each pocket of the country has something different to offer. And everywhere you go you’ll find a culture steeped in history. There are fabulously preserved Hellenistic treasures in Sicily, Baroque structures in Lecce and the ancient towns of Ostia Antica and Pompeii, while Rome wins the competition for most historical sights hands down. As if this wasn’t enough, Italy’s authentic cuisines and fantastic wines are second to none.
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The best places to visit in Italy
Our travel guide will help you pick out the best places to go in Italy, whether you’re planning on an extended trip or just dipping in for a short break.
Rome and Lazio
Rome, Italy’s capital is the one city in the country that owes allegiance neither to the north or the south. It’s 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.
Best places to go in Rome and Lazio
- The Pantheon This is the most complete ancient Roman structure in the city and contender for the most visually striking – along with the Colosseum.
- Capitoline Museums The august complex, made up of the Palazzo dei Conservatori and Palazzo Nuovo, contains some of Rome’s finest ancient sculpture and paintings.
- Galleria Borghese One of the city’s finest art galleries is situated in the Villa Borghese park. It’s home to the cream of the work of the city’s favourite sculptor, Bernini.
- Vatican Museums Quite simply the largest and richest collection of art in the world, the Vatican Museums knock the socks off Rome’s other museums.
- Ostia Antica It takes half a day to get to Ostia Antica from the city of Rome but it’s worth it. The old port of Rome is one of the best-preserved and most intriguing ancient sites in the country.
- Tivoli Tivoli is the site of the sumptuous Villa Adriana, Emperor Hadrian’s retirement home. The other big draws here are the splendid landscaped gardens of Villa d’Este, consisting of elegant terraces and fountains and the wilder, and lesser visited gardens of Villa Gregoriana. You’ll want the whole day to explore.
- Subiaco St Benedict’s two monasteries are among Italy’s most spiritual and peaceful locations and are just an hour or so east of Rome by car.
The gardens of Villa d'Este, Tivoli © Gianluca Figliola Fantini/Shutterstock
Piemonte and Lombardy
The regions of Piemonte 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.
Best places to go in Piemonte and Lombardy
- White truffles The town of Alba in Piemonte produces the best of this very costly speciality. It is shaved onto pasta dishes and risotto, and enjoyed with excellent local Barolo or Barbaresco wines.
- The Museo Egizio, Turin A dazzling collection of Egyptian antiquities in a city rich in museums.
- Langhe-Roero and Monferrato Sample some of the country’s finest wines from the rolling vineyards of Langhe-Roero and Monferrato.
- Roof of Milan’s Duomo Wander around the roof of the world’s largest Gothic cathedral with the best views of the city and the mountains beyond.
- The Last Supper Leonardo da Vinci’s mural for the refectory wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie is one of the world’s most resonant images.
- Lake Como Hemmed in by mountains, beautiful Lake Como is an unmissable stop for unrepentant romantics.
- Bergamo Alta Bergamo’s medieval upper town is an enchanting spot to spend an evening.
- Mille Miglia This historic race sees hundreds of classic and vintage cars set off from the centre of Brescia.
The Duomo, Milan © Beautiful landscape/Shutterstock
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.
Best places to go in Liguria
- Genoa With its rabbit warren of medieval streets, revamped port area and clutch of first-rate museums and churches, Genoa could easily justify a week of your time.
- Cinque Terre Five picturesque villages make up the Cinque Terre, shoehorned into one of the most rugged parts of Liguria’s coastline and linked by highly scenic, coastal walking paths.
- Finale Ligure This classic Ligurian family resort is one of the most laid-back beach towns in Italy, and a hub for outdoor adventure sports.
- Camogli A gorgeous fishing village pressed against the coast, Camogli makes a lovely base for walks and boat trips around the Portofino headland and beyond.
- Portovenere A postcard-perfect marina at the mouth of the Gulf of Poets, Portovenere is crammed with a colourful row of tower-houses.
- Levanto Family-friendly and unpretentious, Levanto beach town makes a great and authentically Italian base from which to explore the Cinque Terre.
Manarola in the Cinque Terre © Dmitry Rukhlenko/Shutterstock
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.
Best places to go in Valle d’Aosta
- Gran Paradiso National Park Italy’s first national park preserves Alpine valleys and peaks that are home to ibex, chamois and golden eagles.
- Mont Blanc Enjoy excellent views of this awe-inspiring mountain from the top of the Skyway cable car just outside Courmayeur.
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. It’s home to Italy’s largest national park, the Stelvio, which lies amid some of the country’s most memorable landscapes.
Best places to go in Trentino-Alto Adige
- Dolomiti Superski With more than 1200km of pistes and over 450 lifts connecting twelve different ski areas, there’s a vast choice of slopes for all levels.
- Trento Surrounded by mountains, this beautiful city combines Austro-Hungarian and Renaissance architecture with a laid-back vibe.
- Alpine lakes Enjoy the beauty of the region’s majestic Alpine lakes, such as Lago Carezza, Lago di Braies and Lago di Toblino.
- The Dolomiti di Brenta Paths through this rugged cluster of peaks are far less trodden but no less spectacular, with waterfalls, vast glaciers and pristine lakes.
- The Pale di San Martino One of the most spectacular hiking areas in the Dolomites, with a great choice of high-altitude trails.
Rooftops of Trento, Italy © spirins/Shutterstock
The Veneto and Friuli Giulia
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. This unique city is 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. They are all centres of interest in their own right, although rather overshadowed by their illustrious neighbour.
Best places to go in Venice and the Veneto
- Basilica di San Marco San Marco is an amazing sight with its 4000 square metres of golden mosaics.
- The Accademia Masterpieces by Titian, Bellini, Veronese and Tintoretto feature strongly in the world’s best collection of Venetian painting.
- Punta della Dogana If you have even the slightest interest in contemporary art, make time for the Dogana – the best collection of its kind in Europe.
- Carnevale Venice’s carnival is the most famous, but if you want a less touristic event, head for Verona, where the whole town turns out for a procession of more than eighty floats.
- Giotto frescoes, Padua Giotto’s frescoes in the Cappella degli Scrovegni constitute one of the pivotal works in the history of European art.
- Vicenza The well-heeled city of Vicenza is renowned above all for the buildings of Palladio, perhaps the most influential architect ever.
- Verona Cradled in a tight curve of the Adige River, Verona is a fabulously handsome city.
Best places to go in Friuli-Venezia Giulia
- Trieste From the castle atop the San Giusto, take in a panoramic view of the elegant and atmospheric maritime city of Trieste.
- Laguna di Grado Hop on a boat and explore the lagoon, stopping off at one of the islands for a delicious fish or seafood lunch.
- Udine’s Piazza della Libertà The central piazza of the provincial capital, Udine, is a perfect example of classic Venetian architecture.
- San Daniele del Friuli Sample some of the world’s finest prosciutto in its picturesque home town, just north of Udine.
- Cividale del Friuli This attractive small town was granted UNESCO World Heritage status for its extraordinary medieval monuments and art treasures, including the splendid eighth-century Tempietto Longobardo.
Ponte del Diavolo (Devil's bridge) Cividale del Friuli © milosk50/Shutterstock
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 for foodies sniffing out where to go in Italy for fantastic cuisine, Bologna is also traditionally Italy’s gastronomic and academic capital.
Best places to go in Emilia-Romagna
- Bologna’s restaurants A meal out in the gastronomic capital of Italy is a rite of passage for any true food-lover.
- Duomo, Modena One of the finest Romanesque buildings in Italy, with some magnificent decoration inside and out.
- Rocca Viscontea Northern Emilia-Romagna’s most majestic castle.
- Brisighella festivals This medieval village is known for its truffle, polenta and olive festivals in autumn.
- Ravenna’s mosaics Unrivalled both in beauty and state of preservation, these mosaics are unmissable.
- Rimini’s nightlife The hottest, loudest and wildest in the country.
- San Leo This spectacular ancient town on a rocky outcrop is a landmark for kilometres around.
Central Italy represents perhaps the most commonly perceived image of the country. 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.
Best places to go in Tuscany
- The Duomo, Florence Climbing Brunelleschi’s dome is a must.
- The Uffizi, Florence The world’s greatest collection of Italian Renaissance paintings, now with a whole floor of new galleries.
- Chianti The country’s most famous vineyards.
- The Leaning Tower, Pisa Still defying gravity and still continuing to amaze, the Leaning Tower is just one component of Pisa’s spectacular medieval centre.
- Lucca A stunning array of Romanesque churches in this most urbane of Tuscan towns.
- Siena Palio Historic horse race, run over three frenetic laps of the town’s spectacular cobbled main square.
- Tuscan hill-towns Tuscany’s hill-towns epitomize the region for many visitors; San Gimignano is the most popular, but don’t miss Montepulciano, Montalcino and Cortona.
Cypress trees and hills in Tuscany© Jaroslaw Pawlak/Shutterstock
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.
Best places to go in Umbria
- Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria The region’s finest and largest collection of medieval and Renaissance Umbrian paintings.
- Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi Burial place of St Francis and one of Italy’s great buildings, with frescoes by Giotto and Simone Martini.
- Valle di Spoleto A swathe of country with four of the region’s most compelling villages: Spello, Bevagna, Trevi and Montefalco.
- The Valnerina A verdant, mountain-edged valley dotted with hill-villages and spectacular views.
- The Piano Grande A glorious upland plain, the centrepiece of the Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini.
- Duomo, Orvieto On a par with the cathedrals in Milan and Siena, Orvieto’s Duomo has a glorious facade and a majestic fresco cycle by Luca Signorelli.
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.
Best places to go in Le Marche
- Urbino “Ideal city” and art capital created by Federico da Montefeltro, the ultimate Renaissance man.
- Conero Riviera A coastline of white cliffs and turquoise seas ideal for walking, cycling and swimming, or just working up a tan.
- Loreto Experience religious fervour within the Santa Casa, allegedly Jesus’ childhood abode, miraculously carried from Nazareth by angels.
- Macerata Catch open-air opera in this attractive old university town surrounded by pretty countryside.
- Monti Sibillini Take to the hills in this hiker’s mountain paradise.
- Ascoli Piceno A relatively undiscovered town of interesting food and architectural gems in southern Le Marche.
Ascoli Piceno, Le Marche © costagliola/Shutterstock
Abruzzo and Molise
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.
Best places to go in Abruzzo and Molise
- Corno Grande Hike in the wild and craggy Gran Sasso massif, out of which rises Italy’s highest peak, the Corno Grande.
- Driving from Sulmona to Scanno A spectacular route through the mountains up to the wonderfully unspoilt town of Scanno.
- Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo Get back to nature in this lovely park, which has around one hundred indigenous species of fauna and flora.
- Museo Archeologico, Chieti Head here for the best and most comprehensive display of Abruzzese antiquities, including the unique Capestrano Warrior.
- Bull race at Ururi The ordinary town of Ururi turns into a scene of frenetic activity once a year as horses, bulls and carts career through the streets.
- Saepinum This enchanting archeological site in rural Sepino is a throwback to the original Grand Tour, with overgrown Roman ruins dotted with inhabited dwellings.
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.
Best places to go in Campania
- Centro storico, Naples Still following the street plan of the original Greco-Roman settlement, Naples’ ancient centre is unique both above and below ground.
- Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples A superb museum with a wealth of Greek and Roman artefacts.
- Herculaneum and Pompeii These sites afford an unparalleled glimpse into ancient Roman daily life and architecture.
- Capri The most sought-after destination in the Bay of Naples since Emperor Tiberius’ day, this mesmerizingly stunning island is worth braving the crowds to explore.
- Ischia The towering hulk of the Castello Aragonese, perched on a craggy islet linked by a causeway, is just one of this verdant volcanic island’s draws.
- Amalfi Coast A staggeringly beautiful stretch of rugged coastline dotted with secluded coves, beaches and a few of the region’s most picturesque towns.
- Paestum Check out some of Europe’s best-preserved Doric temples and colourful tomb paintings found amid the ruins of this ancient Greek settlement.
The island of Capri © Natalia Macheda/Shutterstock
Basilicata and Calabria
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.
Best places to go in Basilicata and Calabria
- Matera Sliced by a ravine containing thousands of Sassi – cave dwellings gouged out of rock – Matera’s unique city-landscape fusion never ceases to astonish.
- Cripta del Peccato Originale, Contrada Petrapenta The best example of Basilicata’s distinctive rock-hewn churches, with vibrant eighth-century frescoes inside.
- Tropea promontory This region has it all: white sandy beaches, turquoise water, hills tumbling down to the coast and – in Tropea town and Pizzo – two of Calabria’s most engaging resorts.
- Bronzi di Riace Two extraordinary, 2m-high, bronze statues of Greek athletes fished out of the sea and displayed in Reggio Calabria.
- Purple Codex, Rossano History buffs shouldn’t miss this illustrated manuscript from the sixth century with fascinating early depictions of the life of Christ.
- Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Crotone The best of the collections featuring finds from Magna Graecia is small but well presented, displaying fascinating remnants of the Greek settlements on the Ionian coast.
The Sassi district in Matera © Stefano Valeri/Shutterstock
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.
Best places to go in Puglia
- Vieste For sun and sea, head to this resort on the dramatic Gargano promontory, which also serves as a gateway to the remote Tremiti islands.
- Castel del Monte Puglia’s greatest Swabian castle is a testament to thirteenth-century engineering.
- Martina Franca This lively town with its Moorish feel makes a good base for exploring the surrounding area’s trulli – Puglia’s traditional conical whitewashed buildings.
- Ostuni One of the most stunning hilltop towns in southern Italy, Ostuni has a sun-bleached old quarter and a sandy coastline 7km away.
- Lecce Dubbed the “Florence of the South”, Lecce is an exuberant city of Baroque architecture and opulent churches.
- Otranto Pressed against clear Adriatic waters at Italy’s easternmost point, Otranto’s whitewashed medieval core makes a great base for getting around Salento’s windswept coast.
The island of Sicily is 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.
Best places to go in Sicily
- The Aeolian Islands An archipelago of seven islands with active volcanoes, lava beaches, fractured coastlines and whitewashed villages.
- Mount Etna It’s an eerie climb up the blackened lunar landscape of this smoking volcano that dominates eastern Sicily.
- Siracusa Classical dramas are staged every summer in the city’s spectacular ancient Greek theatre, while Ortigia, surrounded by sea, has year-round appeal.
- Val di Noto This valley, stretching from Noto to Ragusa, is full of splendid Baroque towns, built after an earthquake, and now enjoying a renaissance, spurred on by UNESCO.
- Coastal nature reserves Nature reserves such as Vendicari and Zingaro provide respite from the overdevelopment of much of the island’s coast.
- Valley of the Temples, Agrigento A spectacular sight, especially at night when the towering Doric columns are artfully floodlit.
- Villa Romana del Casale The extravagant country residence of an unknown Roman, holding the most lavish late Roman mosaics in Italy.
The Teatro Greco, Taormina, Sicily © K Roy Zerloch/Shuuterstock
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.
Best places to go in Sardinia
- Cagliari’s old town Cagliari’s Castello quarter is the most atmospheric part of town, a dense warren of alleys girded by thick walls.
- Nora Although much of this Carthaginian and Roman archeological site is submerged under the sea, what remains – including mosaics, a theatre and baths – gives a good indication of the town’s former importance.
- Su Nuraxi Sardinia’s mysterious prehistoric nuraghi are strewn throughout the island, and this is one of the most impressive.
- Sa Sartiglia, Oristano One of the island’s most spectacular festivals, involving brilliant feats of equestrian prowess, fabulous costumes and lashings of medieval pageantry.
- Tiscali A vast mountain cave housing the remains of a prehistoric village.
- Beaches Sardinia has secluded beaches along every coast; among the finest are those at La Pelosa, near Stintino, and around Chia, south of Cagliari.
Top image:Photogenic Manarola in the Cinque Terre © Dmitry Rukhlenko/Shutterstock