Travel Guide: The Best of Italy
Timelessly elegant, Italy’s great cities are some of the most magical places in Europe. Rome, Florence, and Venice are home to awe-inspiring art and architecture, iconic museums, and stunning historical ruins—as well as some of the world’s best food, wine, and shopping. Also beckoning are the sun-kissed olive groves and vineyards, charming hill towns, and atmospheric castles, monasteries, and farmhouses of the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside. Once you’ve been to Italy, it’s easy to understand why travelers return again and again.
Reasons to go
Food: Italy is a pasta lover’s paradise, but don’t forget the pizza and the gelato.
Romance: Whether you’re strolling atmospheric Venice or sipping wine, Italy enchants.
History: The ruins of ancient Rome and the leaning tower of Pisa breathe antiquity.
Art: The big hitters—Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, and more.
Shopping: Few things say quality or style like “made in Italy.”
Stunning landscapes: Tuscany, Umbria, the Cinque Terre, to name just a few.
Places to go
Rome. Italy’s capital is one of the greatest cities in Europe. It’s a large, busy metropolis that lives in the here and now, yet there’s no other place on earth where you’ll encounter such powerful evocations of a storied and spectacular past, from the Colosseum to St. Peter’s.
Venice. One of the world’s most unusual—and most beautiful—cities, Venice has canals instead of streets, along with an atmosphere of faded splendor. It’s also a major international cultural center.
Northern Italy. In the Veneto region of Italy, the green plains stretching west of Venice hold three of northern Italy’s most artistically significant midsize cities: Padua, Vicenza, and Verona. To the west is Milan, Italy’s second-largest city and its business capital. It holds Italy’s most renowned opera house, and as the hub of Italian fashion and design, it’s a shopper’s paradise. Northern Italy’s attractive coastline runs along the Italian Riviera and includes Cinque Terre and its famous hiking trails and villages. Many of Italy’s signature foods come from the Emilia-Romagna region, where Bologna is a significant cultural center and the mosaics of Ravenna are glittering Byzantine treasures.
Florence. In the 15th century, Florence was at the center of an artistic revolution, later labeled the Renaissance, which changed the way people saw the world. Five hundred years later the Renaissance remains the reason people visit Florence—the abundance of treasures found here is mind-boggling.
Tuscany and Umbria. Outside of Florence, the town of Lucca is laid-back yet elegant while Pisa is still famous for its leaning tower and other impressive buildings. The hills spreading south of Florence make up Chianti, a region of sublime wine and fabulous views. South of Chianti, hillside towns like Arezzo and Cortona offer stunning architecture and gorgeous views of the countryside. In Tuscany, Siena, once Florence’s main rival, remains one of Italy’s most appealing medieval towns. Umbria, north of Rome, is a region of beautiful rolling hills topped by attractive old towns full of history, like Orvieto, Spoleto, Perugia, and Assisi, the birthplace of Saint Francis.
Italy at a Glance
Money: ATMs are common; cash is more common than credit.
Country Code: 29
Driving: On the right
Time: Six hours ahead of New York
Documents: Up to 90 days with valid passport; Schengen rules apply.
Air Travel: The major airports are Rome, Milan, Bergamo, and Venice.
Bus Travel: Good for smaller towns.
Car Travel: Rent a car to explore at your own pace, but never to use in the cities themselves (including Rome and Florence). Always rent a GPS along with the car, as Italy’s roads can be confounding. Gas is very expensive.
Train Travel: Excellent and fast between major cities. Slower regional trains connect many smaller towns, as well.
Ways to Save
Stay at an agriturismo. Farm stays are Italy’s best-kept secret. In beautiful settings, they sometimes include meals and are often for half the price of a hotel.
Drink from the free fountains. No need to buy bottled water; fill up at the free public fountains, especially in Rome.
Book rail tickets in advance. Book online ( www.trenitalia.com) at least a week in advance for half the price.
Enjoy aperitivo. This northern Italian tradition entails a drink and a buffet (light or heavy) for about €8–€10.
When to go
High Season: June through September is expensive and busy. In August, most Italians take their own summer holidays; cities are less crowded, but many shops and restaurants close. July and August can be uncomfortably hot.
Low Season: Unless you are skiing, winter offers the least appealing weather, though it’s the best time for airfare and hotel deals and to escape the crowds. Temperatures are still mild, especially in the south.
Value Season: By late September, temperate weather, saner airfares, and more cultural events can make for a happier trip. October is also great, but November is often rainy and (hence) quiet. From late April to early May, the masses have not yet arrived but cafés are already abuzz. March and early April can be changeable and wet.
February: Carnival kicks off across Venice and around Italy. www.carnevaleitaliano.it
April: Religious processions commemorate Easter. On Pasquetta (Easter Monday), most Italians picnic.
June: The Festa della Repubblica commemorates Italy’s 1946 vote for the republic. www.festadellarepubblica.it
October: Alba’s Fiera del Tartufo is devoted to the area’s white truffles. www.fieradeltartufo.org
Plan Your Budget
Visiting Florence's Duomo, free
Ticket to the vatican and sistine chapel €16
Evening Gondola ride in Venice €150
Italy's Top Attractions
- The Vatican, Rome- The home of the Roman Catholic Church, Vatican City, a tiny independent state tucked within central Rome, holds some of the city’s most spectacular sights, including St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums, and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.
- Ancient Rome- The Colosseum and the Roman Forum are remarkable ruins from Rome’s ancient past. Sitting above it all is the Campidoglio, with a piazza designed by Michelangelo and museums containing one of the world’s finest collections of ancient art.
- Galleria Borghese, Rome- Only the best could satisfy the aesthetic taste of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, whose holdings evoke the essence of Baroque Rome. Spectacularly painted ceilings and colored marble frame great Bernini sculptures and paintings by Caravaggio, Titian, and Raphael, among others.
- Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi- The giant basilica—made up of two churches, one built on top of the other—honors St. Francis with its remarkable fresco cycles.
- Piazza del Campo, Siena, Tuscany- Siena is Tuscany’s classic medieval hill town, and its heart is the Piazza del Campo, the beautiful, one-of-a-kind town square.
- Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence- The Uffizi—Renaissance art’s hall of fame—contains masterpieces by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Caravaggio, and dozens of other luminaries.
- Duomo, Florence- The massive dome of Florence’s Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (aka the Duomo) is one of the world’s greatest feats of engineering.
- Ravenna’s Mosaics, Emilia-Romagna- This town off the Adriatic Sea, once the capital of the Western Roman Empire and seat of the Byzantine Empire in the West, is home to 5th- and 6th-century mosaics that rank among the greatest art treasures in Italy.
- Giotto’s Frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua- A contemporary of Dante, Giotto decorated this chapel with an eloquent and beautiful fresco cycle. Its convincing human dimension helped to change the course of Western art.
- Palladio’s Villas and Palazzi, Northern Italy- The 16th-century genius Andrea Palladio is one of the most influential figures in the history of architecture. You can visit his creations in his hometown of Vicenza, in and around Venice, and outside Treviso.
- Piazza San Marco, Venice- The centerpiece of Venice’s main square is the Basilica di San Marco, arguably the most beautiful Byzantine church in the West, with not only its shimmering Byzantine-Romanesque facade but also its jewel-like mosaic-encrusted interior.
- The Grand Canal, Venice- A trip down Venice’s “Main Street,” whether by water bus or gondola, is a signature Italian experience.
Italy's Top Experiences
Relaxing Like an Italian
Il dolce far niente, or “the sweetness of doing nothing,” has long been an art form in Italy. This is a country in which life’s pleasures are warmly celebrated, not guiltily indulged.
Of course, doing “nothing” doesn’t really mean nothing. It means doing things differently: lingering over a glass of wine for the better part of an evening as you watch the sun slowly set; savoring a slow and flirtatious evening passeggiata (stroll) along the main street of a little town; and making a commitment—however temporary—to thinking that there’s nowhere that you have to be next, and no other time but the magical present.
Driving the Back Roads
If you associate Italian roads with unruly motorists and endless traffic snarls, you’re only partly right. Along the rural back roads, things are more relaxed. You might stop on a lark to take a picture of a crumbling farmhouse, have a coffee in a time-stood-still hill town, or enjoy an epic lunch at a rustic agriturismo inaccessible to public transportation. Driving, in short, is the best way to see Italy.
Hiking in the Footsteps of Saint Francis
Umbria, which bills itself as “Italy’s Green Heart,” is fantastic hiking country. Among the many options are two with a Franciscan twist: from the town of Cannara, 16 km (10 miles) south of Assisi, an easy half-hour walk leads to the fields of Pian d’Arca, where St. Francis delivered his sermon to the birds. For slightly more demanding walks, you can follow the saint’s path from Assisi to the Ermeo delle Carceri (Hermitage of Prisons), where Francis and his followers went to “imprison” themselves in prayer, and from here continue along the trails that crisscross Monte Subasio.
Wine-Tasting in Chianti
The gorgeous hills of the Chianti region, between Florence and Siena, produce exceptional wines, and they never taste better than when sampled on their home turf. Many Chianti vineyards are visitor-friendly, but the logistics of a visit are different from what you may have experienced in other wine regions. If you just drop in, you’re likely to get a tasting, but for a tour, you usually need to make an appointment several days ahead of time. The upside is that your tour may end up being a half day of full immersion— including an extended conversation with the winemakers and even a meal.
Eating in Bologna
Italians recognize Emilia as the star of its culinary culture and Bologna as its epicenter. Many dishes native to Bologna, such as the slow-cooked meat-and-tomato saucesugoalla Bolognese, have become so famous that they’re widely available throughout Italy and abroad. But you owe it to yourself to try them in the city where they were born, and where they remain a subject of local pride. Take note, however: in Bologna, asugois never served with spaghetti, but rather with tagliatelle, lasagna, or tortellini.
Visiting a Church
Few images are more identifiable with Italy than the country’s great churches, amazing works of architecture that often took centuries to build. The name “Duomo” (derived from the Latin domus, or house) is used to refer to the principal church of a town or city. Generally speaking, the bigger the city, the more splendid its Duomo.
Still, impressive churches inhabit some unlikely places—in the Umbrian hill towns of Assisi and Orvieto, for example. In Venice the Byzantine-influenced Basilica di San Marco is a testament to the city’s East-meets-West character. Milan’s Duomo is the largest, most imposing Gothic cathedral in Italy. The spectacular dome of Florence’s Duomo is a work of engineering genius. The Basilica di San Pietro in Rome has all the grandeur you’d expect from the seat of the Roman Catholic Church.
Discovering the Cinque Terre
Along the Italian Riviera east of Genoa are five fishing villages known collectively as the Cinque Terre. The beauty of the landscape—with vine-covered hills pushing against an azure sea—and the charm of the villages have turned the area into one of Italy’s top destinations. The number one activity is hiking the trails that link the villages—the views are once-in-a-lifetime gorgeous—but if hiking isn’t your thing, you can still have fun lounging about in cafés, admiring the water, and wandering through the medieval streets.
Shopping in Milan
Italian clothing and furniture design are world famous, and the center of the Italian design industry is Milan. The best way to see what’s happening in the world of fashion is to browse the showrooms and boutiques of the fabled quadrilatero della moda, along and around Via Montenapoleone. The main event in the world of furniture design is Milan’s annual Salone Internazionale del Mobile, held at the Milan fairgrounds for a week in April. Admission is generally restricted to the trade, but the Salone is open to the general public for one day, generally on a Sunday, during the week of the show.
Celebrating the Festivals of Venice
Few people love a good party as much as the Venetians. The biggest is, of course, Carnevale, culminating on Fat Tuesday, but with revelry beginning about 10 days earlier. Hundreds of thousands of visitors from the world over come to enjoy a period of institutionalized fantasy, dressing in exquisitely elaborate costumes. The program changes each year and includes public, mostly free cultural events in all districts of the city.
The Redentore, on the third weekend in July, is a festival essentially for Venetians, but in recent years more and more guests have come to view the festivities and now actually outnumber the locals. The Venetians pack a picnic dinner and eat in boats decorated with paper lanterns in the Bacino di San Marco or on tables set up for private parties along the canals. Just before midnight, there’s a magnificent fireworks display. After the fireworks, young people head for the Lido, where there is dancing on the beach until dawn. The next day (Sunday), everyone crosses a temporary bridge spanning the Canale della Giudecca to Palladio’s Redentore church to light a candle. Venice Biennale is a cutting-edge international art exposition held in odd-numbered years from June to November in exhibition halls in the Venice Public Gardens (Giardini) and in the 14th-century industrial complex (Le Corderie) in the Arsenale. It’s the most important exhibition of contemporary art in Italy and one of the three most important in Europe. In even-numbered years the Biennale devotes itself to architecture, and the Biennale di Architettura has become a must for those interested in contemporary architecture.
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