Ask an Italian where they would most like to live, and the odds are that they will say “right here”. Indeed, if you travel to Italy, you’ll discover that it really does have it all. The country has one of the most diverse and beautiful landscapes in Europe, the world’s greatest hoard of art treasures, a relatively benign climate and a delicious and authentic national cuisine.
The country is not perfect though. Its historic cities have often been marred by development, beyond the showpiece sights the infrastructure is visibly straining, and corruption is rife. But as a visitor 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. As a result, Italians often feel more loyalty to their region than to the nation as a whole. This is manifested in Italy’s cuisines, dialects, landscapes and standards of living.
However, if there is a single national Italian characteristic, it is to embrace life to the full. It’s demonstrated by the hundreds of local festivals to celebrate a saint or the local harvest. It's in the importance placed on good food and in the importance of family. And it's shown in the daily ritual of the 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 enormous cultural legacy. There are remnants of the Roman Empire all over Italy, most notably in Rome itself, while Tuscany alone has more classified historical monuments than any country in the world. And every region retains its own relics of an artistic tradition acknowledged to be among the world’s richest.
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 parasols 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 national parks.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Read here for our round-up of the best things to do in Tuscany.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Deciding when to visit Italy goes in tandem with planning an itinerary for your trip. You might be intent on discovering Italy’s bounty of cultural and historical sights, or you’re heading for one of Italy’s seasonal events or festivals, such as carnival. Maybe you want to spend most of your time on Italy’s beaches, or perhaps you’re leaning towards outdoor activities in the mountains and national parks. Most likely the factors affecting your decision on when to go include the weather, the cost, and what’s on offer at any given time of the year.
The best time to travel to Italy in terms of weather is during spring (April to June) or autumn (September to October). Temperatures are warm and you avoid the unpleasant heat of the summer months, an experience only worsened by busy crowds jostling for a view of this or that ancient ruin, painting, fresco, etc. Also, pretty much the whole of Italy takes its annual summer holiday in August. This leaves the major historical cities empty of locals, leaving only tourists to gawp at the all-important sights. There are fewer tourists during the shoulder seasons too, making this the ideal time to visit Italy.
Winter sees significant bargains on flights and accommodation, apart from in winter resorts, which sees prices hike as the ski season gathers momentum. This is especially the case during the more snow-sure months and during school half-term holidays.
Unpredictable weather in spring makes for a good city break, the ideal time to visit Italy for its churches, museums and galleries, etc.
Find out more on when to visit Italy.
Regular direct flights serve most of Italy from the UK. Prices vary according to destination, how far in advance you book, and time of year. High season, between June and September will undoubtedly be the most expensive time to travel to Italy. Booking ahead with a budget airline could be three times cheaper than leaving it to within three weeks of travel.
You can fly direct from from various cities in the US to Rome and Milan. Indirect flights are invariably cheaper and increases the destinations options. In Canada you can fly direct from Toronto and Montreal to Rome. If travelling from Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa, you’ll have to take an indirect route.
Travelling by train to Italy from the UK or other European countries is a way to limit your carbon footprint and can be an enjoyable part of your holiday. An Interrail (European residents) or Eurail pass (non-European residents) is good value if you plan to make several stops enroute. Travelling by sleeper train (available from various European cities) enables you to make the most of your time. As with flying, the cost of train travel generally varies according to how far in advance you book. For sleeper trains, the time of year is an additional factor – as well as how many people you share a cabin with: one to yourself will cost more than sharing with five others. We advise booking ahead for train travel.
Find out more about travel to Italy by train.
You can travel to Italy by bus from London with Eurolines, a journey lasting 30 hours! Also check options with Busabout, who offer Europe-wide hop-on-hop-off services.
Find out more about travelling by bus to Italy.
As well as low cost package deals, whereby the cost of flights and accommodation are included, several operators offer holidays around specialist interests, such as art, walking, etc. Also check fly-drive deals if you’re planning on renting a car.
Get more detailed information on how to get to Italy in our Italy travel guide.
If you want to see a fair bit of the country when you travel to Italy, maybe take a trip to one of the islands, you’ll need information on how best to get around. Using its extensive rail system is inexpensive, pretty reliable and quick – apart from regional trains, which tend to be slow and don’t necessarily extend to everywhere you might want to go. But regional buses cover the corners the trains don’t reach, although bear in mind that services can be infrequent.
If you want the freedom to stop off wherever you want, you might look into driving, perhaps renting a car or campervan – and mopeds and scooters are a popular way to zip around towns and islands. On the whole, roads in Italy are good and there is an extensive motorway system. And if you’re a cycling enthusiast you may consider using two wheels to get around Italy, either by taking your own bike or by hiring one when you need it, although rental facilities are scarce in rural areas.
For trips to the islands you can hop on a ferry or hydrofoil, and the lakes region in the north operates frequent boats and ferries outside the winter months.
Find out more on how to get around Italy in our Italy travel guide – the lowdown on buses and trains, ticket information, driving and rental, ferry services, bike rental, etc.
It’s not news that Italians can knock out pretty fine pizzas. But to sample the best, head for Naples. Some pizzerias are revered institutions, evidenced by the number of appreciative locals and visitors alike, chowing down on combos of dough and tomato gooeyness. But whichever neighbourhood you’re in, you’re never far from a joint offering up a slice of something thin and crispy.
Rome has no shortage of museums. However, nothing in the city rivals the Vatican museums, home to some of the world’s largest and richest collection of art and culture. You will struggle to see everything in just one visit so the features you really shouldn’t miss are the Raphael Rooms and, of course, the Sistine Chapel, with its world-renowned ceiling frescoes by Michelangelo.
The dramatic, spiky landscape of the Dolomites dominating the Trentino-Alto Adige region is perfect hiking country, and its trails are often subject to snow, ice and scorching sun – in the same day. There are plenty of opportunities for day-walks in stunning scenery that are within average capabilities, with routes well signposted. Alternatively, consider tackling one of the longer trails. The strenuous ascents are worth it for the stupendous views across the valleys and glaciers. Wake up to glorious scenery by staying overnight at one of the mountain refuges on the route.
Napoleon described the Piazza San Marco as the “drawing room of Europe”. This magnificent square in Venice houses the Basilica di San Marco, Italy’s most lavish cathedral, an amazing sight with its 4000 square metres of golden mosaics. Explore the opulent Gothic Palazzo Ducale, and climb to the top of the Campanile for a stunning view over the city.
Our travel guide to Italy has more on top places and things not to miss.
Our carefully-curated travel itineraries will inspire and help you make the most of your trip to Italy. Covering everything from historical sights, art and culture, gorgeous scenery, along with delicious regional cuisines, there’s an itinerary whatever your interests.
Italy is a destination for foodies and every region has its own specialities. If you want to see the country and sample delicious food, our “Foodie’s Italy” itinerary will be right up your street. To make the most of Italy’s great outdoors, check out our “Italy outdoors: mountains and water” itinerary. And to immerse yourself in Italy’s rich art and culture, choose our “Italy indoors: art and culture” itinerary.
Below is a sample itinerary, ideal for those intending to spend eight days or longer around Italy’s attractive lakes and charming historical lakeside villages. You can see all the itineraries in our Italy travel guide here.
You can see all the itineraries in our Italy travel guide.
Italy’s currency is the euro. It’s cheaper to use a debit card rather than a credit card to get euros from ATM machines, and credit and debit cards are widely accepted.
Read more on costs and money.
Most shops and businesses open Monday to Saturday from around 8am–1pm, and from 4pm–7pm, with some closing on Monday mornings and generally all on Sundays, except for pastry shops, usually open Sunday mornings. Most museums, galleries and archeological sites close on Mondays.
The country pretty much shuts down during national holidays, apart from bars, restaurants and some museums and monuments. Many towns close up during August when Italians take their holidays.
Read more on opening hours and public holidays.
Homosexuality is legal in Italy, and the age of consent is 16. The north is more open to homosexuality than the south – Milan, Turin and Rome have established scenes, while Bologna is seen as the LGBTQ capital. Rimini is a popular gay resort and there are other gay beaches on the coast.
Travel in Italy can be challenging for people with disabilities, although access to hotels, public buildings and transport is slowly improving. Some trains have disabled facilities and low-level buses are slowly appearing in towns.
Our Italy travel guide offers more travel tips and advice.
Italy is a relatively safe country for visitors. Reduce the chance of petty theft by taking sensible precautions: don’t flash anything valuable, use a money belt and make sure bags can’t be snatched away. You’re most at risk in busy areas, where pickpockets and scippatori or “snatchers” on scooters are most likely to operate.
Read more on travel safety.
Italians delight in kids and you’ll find bars and restaurants are very family friendly. Breastfeeding is accepted; however, nappy changing facilities are uncommon, as are high chairs, and the cost of nappies and formula milk is high. You can expect discounts on travel and entry to museums.
Read more on travelling with children.
EU citizens only need a passport to travel to Italy and can stay indefinitely. Citizens of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand can also visit Italy on a passport (as long as it’s valid for at least three months from departure date) but can only stay for 90 days. South Africans visiting Italy need a Schengen visa, allowing travel through several countries within the Eurozone. Other nationals should check visa regulations with their nearest Italian embassy or consulate before booking their trip to Italy.
Read more on entry requirements for travel to Italy.
You’re quite likely to come across a festival if you travel to Italy. The Italians love a festival and there are thousands during the year. Religious processions are widespread, Good Friday being particularly well celebrated, and carnival (the big party before the abstemiousness of Lent). Then there are traditional events, such as the Palio horse race in Siena, food festivals, often celebrating regional cuisine, as well as arts festivals, often taking place against a backdrop of Roman or medieval architecture.
Read more on festivals in Italy.
Although not especially cheap, there is no shortage of options for accommodation when visiting Italy. There are boutique hotels, private and HI hostels, convents and monasteries, B&B’s, self-catering apartments, villas and farmhouses, mountain refuges and camping opportunities. There is also the popular agriturismo scheme: owners of country estates, vineyards and farms rent out converted farm buildings.
Booking ahead is necessary if travelling to Italy in high season; if visiting Rome, Venice, or Florence, advance booking is essential from Easter until late September and over the Christmas and New Year period.
An increasing number of hotels are beginning to base room prices on demand, rather than simply on season, particularly those that have booking facilities online, so be aware that there can be huge fluctuations in price. In addition rates vary greatly between the south and north of Italy, as well as between tourist hot spots and more rural areas. As a rule, substantial discounts are to be had by booking online well in advance, or by looking for last-minute hotel bargains online.
Our travel guide gives an approximate cost of accommodation, based on the cheapest standard high season double.
One of the joys of travelling to Italy is being able to sample the wonderful variety of food and drink on offer. From the fresh produce in the local markets and the family-run trattorias offering home-style meals, to the more elaborate cooking in famous fine-dining restaurants, you can embark on a journey through Italy’s food.
Italian cuisine is region specific, with the authenticity of recipes promoting passionate debate among locals. The northwest brings a French influence, with its rich butter, cream and truffle sauces; the northeast is more about Tyrolean ham and dumplings. Umbria in central Italy specialises in salamis, hams, and black truffles, while the southern diet features mediterranean vegetables. Naples is considered to be the home of the humble pizza, and all along the coast seafood dominates, with regions offering twists on classic dishes.
Italian culture is very family orientated, with meal times being a time to come together. And Italians take their food seriously. A traditional lunch menu starts with an antipasto (cold meats, fish or vegetables), followed by the primo (soup, risotto or pasta), then the secondo (the meat or fish course), and concludes with dessert. If you manage all of the courses you’ll probably be undoing your belt a notch or two by the end of your trip.
Find out more about food in Italy.
Traditional bars in Italy are typically open all day and where you might go for a coffee in the morning or an alcoholic drink later in the day. Coffee culture is a specialism in Italy, with many Italians playfully scolding the rest of the world for making it and drinking it incorrectly. Espressos and macchiatos are classic choices throughout the day, but order a milky coffee in the afternoon and expect raised eyebrows.
When it comes to wine, Italy is known the world over – indeed the picturesque vineyards of Tuscany provide one of the quintessential images of the country. There’s the classic Chianti of the region, the vigorous Barolo and Barbaresco reds of Piemonte in the northwest, the sparkling Prosecco of Veneto of the northeast, and the sweet Marsala of Sicily. From a quaffable glass of the local stuff, to a drop of something more refined, wine in Italy is usually good value.
The taste of real Italian ice cream, eaten in Italy, is absolutely unbeatable. Gelato, as it’s known, is the country’s favourite dessert, and there’s no better way to end a day, as Italians do, than with a stroll through the streets sampling a gelato while enjoying the cool of the evening. Italian ice cream really is better than any other, and like most Italian food this is down to the local insistence on using whole milk and eggs, and adding only naturally derived flavours.
Everywhere but the tiniest village will have at least one gelateria, and many cafés serve ice cream as well. If you want to sample the very best, look for the signs saying “artigianale”, which means that the ice cream is produced according to strictly traditional methods, or “produzione propria”, which means it’s home-made.
There’s usually a veritable cornucopia of flavours (gusti) to choose from, from those regarded as the classics – like lemon (limone) and hazelnut (nocciola) – through staples including vanilla with chocolate chips (stracciatella) and strawberry (fragola), to house specialities that might include cinnamon (canella), chocolate with chilli pepper (cioccolato con peperoncino) or even pumpkin (zucca).
Calcio – football, or soccer – is Italy’s national sport, and enjoys a big following across the country. It’s usually possible to get tickets to see one of the top sides – as long as they’re not playing each other – and it’s one of the best introductions to modern Italian culture you’ll find.
Since World War II, Italian football has been dominated by Internazionale and AC Milan (of Milan) and Juventus (Turin), who have between them won the scudetto or Serie A (Italy’s premier division) 54 times. It’s a testament to the English origins of the game that AC Milan, as well as another big club, Genoa, continue to use anglicized names, and to sport the cross of St George in their insignia.
Unfortunately, the other thing that has been copied from the English is hooliganism, which remains a problem in Italian football, along with a latent degree of racism, and, perhaps most notoriously, corruption – the country still hasn’t forgotten the match-fixing scandal of 2006 (“Calciopoli”), and allegations regularly resurface at the highest levels. Juventus, AC Milan and Inter remain the top three teams, although the two Rome clubs, AS Roma and to a lesser extent SS Lazio, regularly do well, although Lazio’s star has faded in recent years and their fans are perceived as among the worst examples of Italy’s right-wing lunatic fringe.
In Tuscany, Fiorentina reckon themselves a big club, while in the south Napoli are beginning to relive their Eighties “glory days”, when they were led by Diego Maradona, although they still struggle to fill their giant 80,000 capacity stadium. We’ve given details of the big city clubs in the Guide, but wherever you are, grab one of Italy’s three sports papers – Gazzetta dello Sport, Corriere dello Sport and Tuttosport – to see what’s on.
Top image: Amalfi coast © proslgn/Shutterstock