A travel guide to intriguing Italy
The world’s most uniquely shaped country
Italy is one of the world’s most popular destinations, attracting more than 50 million tourists every year. It is known for its unique boot shape and is home to some of the most famous cities in the world making it the ideal destination for a city break.
There are so many things to do in Italy that you are sure to find something to suit all tastes. From sightseeing and sunbathing to skiing – with the various weather conditions to match – this a year-round destination.
Italy at a glance
The possibilities are endless in Italy. You can step back in time in the capital, Rome, where ancient ruins can be found around every corner including the Colosseum, the world’s largest amphitheatre. Perhaps you would prefer to fall in love with Florence, the capital of the Tuscany region and one of the most romantic cities in the country. Or there’s Milan, the fashion capital and home to two world-famous football teams and one of the largest stadiums in Europe.
Whether you know which part of the country you would like to visit first or are still undecided, read on to find out exactly what to expect from your trip and help you make the most of every second.
Travel advice when visiting Italy
According to gov.uk, about three million tourists visit Italy from Britain each year and the majority of trips pass without incident. That being said, you should still take out travel insurance, just to be on the safe side.
If you are visiting Capri then be aware that you can get a 500€ fine if you use disposable plastic. This law came into effect in May 2019 and includes bags, straws, food packaging and cutlery.
Italy has three active volcanoes including Mount Etna on Sicily, which erupted in February 2019. It had been dormant for two years with the last major eruption back in 1992. This didn’t prevent travel or effect surrounding towns, but it is worth being aware of.
There are a number of ways to travel around Italy. The main cities are well-connected and the high speed trains make it quick and easy to travel between destinations such as Naples, Rome, Florence, Milan and Bologna.
There is also the Frecciargento train which travels through cities such as Venice, Bari, Genoa and Pisa. Plus, there are Intercity trains which connect the larger cities and smaller towns. The main routes are Pisa to Genoa and Venice to Trieste.
You may also like to rent a car, so you can easily travel around the country at your own pace. However, it is worth noting that there are Restricted Driving Zones known as ZTL in the likes of Milan, Pisa, Florence and Rome.
You’ll also find ferries that take you between the mainland and the islands.
Average accommodation costs
The average cost of accommodation in Italy is 64€ a night for one person and 127€ for two people.
Popular attractions in Italy
Even if you haven’t been to Italy before, you are probably aware of the country’s top attractions as they are among the best-known in the world.
Throwing a coin in the famous Trevi Fountain is just the start. Here are three of the country’s popular attractions to throw yourself into.
1. The Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Italian city of Pisa was put on the map when an architectural project went wrong. Construction started on this tower in 1173 and it was a layer of weak subsoil that actually caused it to slant. Today, it is known as the Leaning Tower and has become one of the world’s most recognisable and unique buildings. Head to the Square of Miracles and join other tourists as they pose alongside it for a photo that appears they are holding it up with various body parts. As well as admiring it from the outside, you can climb the 284 steps, as Galileo Galilei once did, to take in the views from the top.
2. Grand Canal
Venice – ‘The Floating City’ – is comprised of 118 islands that sit atop the Venetian Lagoon and are connected by bridges. The main waterway is the Grand Canal, which snakes for just over two miles from San Marco Basilica to Santa Chiara Church. Cars are not allowed in the city, you’ll find water taxis and buses instead. But, it is perhaps best known for its gondolas, which have become a symbol of the city and one of the most romantic experiences. Sit back and glide beneath beautiful bridges and alongside elegant architecture.
3. Vatican City and Sistine Chapel
The Vatican City, an independent city state in the centre of Rome, is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church and home to the Pope. Here you can see St Peter’s Square and St Peter’s Basilica – the former is one of the most famous squares in the world and the latter is among the largest churches. There are also the Vatican Museums and, of course, the Sistine Chapel. Make sure you look up when you enter, it is famed for Michelangelo’s ceiling which took four years to paint from 1508. The centre features the nine stories from Genesis, the best-known is The Creation of Adam. Over the high altar you’ll see The Final Judgement. The apse took the artist a further five years to decorate from 1536.
Italian Waterside Wonders
Italy boasts beautiful beaches but it has a number of coastal and lakeside resorts that it is better known for.
In the south west of Italy you’ll find the rugged Amalfi Coast, which has been named an outstanding example of a Mediterranean landscape by UNESCO. One of the most beautiful and popular parts of the country, it attracts more than five million people each year. Here towns and villages are perched on the Lattari Mountains, looking out on the Tyrrhenian Sea. There are more than 100 beaches on this part of the coastline alone – Castiglione di Ravello Beach in Ravello, Gavitella Beach in Vettica Maggiore and Lannio Beach in Catara are three of the most popular. Meanwhile, Tuoro Vecchio Beach is one of the few sandy beaches in the Amalfi Coast.
The Cinque Terre is a UNESCO national park in the north west of Italy that has been described as a ‘slice of heaven.’ Here, brightly coloured buildings perch on the rocks that cascade down into the crystal clear water. The most famous part of the Italian Riviera is formed of five seaside villages: Corniglia, Vernazza, Manarola, Riomaggiore, Monterosso. The latter is the furthest north and dates back to 643AD. This is the best for beaches while Corniglia is the only one without access to the sea. There is a coastline that connects the villages that you can walk along – which would take six hours to travel along. This is split into four paths, most visitors start at Riomaggiore as it is harder as you head north.
At the foot of the Alps, near the border with Switzerland, you’ll find this lake which attracts A-listers such as George Clooney. The banks of the azure water is decorated with lush greenery and intercepted with brightly coloured flowers while mountains provide the backdrop. There is a plethora of activities on offer, both on and around the lake. Start by exploring the villages that surround it, while on the water you can go on a boat trip or have a go at kayaking or canoeing. There is also the opportunity for zip lining.
Excursions in Italy
Some of Italy’s most famous destinations are situated just a short distance from each other, allowing you to tick more than one item off your list at once.
If you are in Pisa, for example, then you are just an hour and a half from Florence. Likewise, Milan is only a short distance from Lake Como and Lake Garda, while Venice isn’t too far from Verona.
If you are staying on the island of Sicily then it is easy to visit the south of the mainland, and vice versa.
From Sardinia you can visit various destinations on the mainland including Cagliari and Olbia.
Food and drink in Italy
Italian dishes are popular in the UK and you’ll have no doubt sampled them in a local restaurant or rustled them up yourself. If you already think this cuisine is delicious just wait until you try it in Italy.
There are traditional dishes that can be found across the country, most notably bruschetta and caprese salad which are delicious starters and pizza and pasta dishes which are well-known mains.
But, there are certain destinations where some dishes are just ever so slightly better than they are in the rest of Italy. Rome, for example, is known for having the best pizza in the country and is where spaghetti alla carbonara originated, so make sure you try both of these if you are in the capital.
The most popular dish in Florence is bistecca alla florentina – a Florentine steak. In Venice it is cicheti which is Venetian tapas and fresh seafood. Likewise, Pisa’s location near to the sea means it serves up delicious seafood dishes too.
If you are looking for something a bit more upmarket, then head for Milan. This city has the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy.
If you have a sweet tooth, then you’ll no doubt be keen to try gelato – Florence serves up some of the tastiest in the country. Meanwhile, those in Venice will be tucking into Tiramisu – coffee-flavoured dessert that originated nearby.
Tuscany is home to some of the world’s most famous wine regions. Italy’s best-known red wine, Chianti is produced in the capital, Florence.
You’ll also be drinking limoncello, the Italian lemon liqueur is produced in Sorrento.
As well as seeing the sights and soaking up the sun, you’re no doubt keen to discover Italy’s nightlife.
Dinner tends to be taken slightly later in Italy, between 8 and 9pm. This is why it has become a tradition to go out for an aperitivo – a drink before dinner, while the sun is setting between 7pm and 9pm. This explains the origins of vermouth, which was first drunk in Turin.
Milan is one of the best destinations for this pre-dinner drink and Campari is among the most popular drinks to sip on during this time here. This fashionable city also has some of the best bars and nightclubs too.
Shopping in Italy
The capital is a great place to start if you are looking for a bit of retail therapy, it is home to a number of Italian luxury brands that originated here including Valentino.
However, if you love to shop then you want to head for Milan. It is one of the world’s fashion capitals and hosts Fashion Week. This city has an area known as the Golden Triangle where you’ll find high-end designer Italian brands such as Armani and Versace.
Italian culture and art
A large part of Italy is effectively an open-air museum and it has 54 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This is more than any other country and includes the historic centre of the country’s most famous cities such as Florence.
Speaking of Florence, the capital of Tuscany is one of the greatest art cities in Europe. Here you’ll find more than 60 museums and art galleries including the most famous in the world and most visited in Italy, the Uffizi Gallery. This is where you can see Michelangelo’s David, Canvases by Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli as well as Giotto’s Frescoes.
Milan is another city known for its art. At Santa Maria delle Grazia, you can see The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci – one of the world’s most famous paintings.
At the Sistine Chapel, in Rome’s Vatican City, you can see the world’s best-known ceiling and most famous piece of work by Michelangelo. While you are in the capital you won’t want to miss the Vatican Museums either.
Outdoor adventure in Italy
The varied climate and differing landscape provides plenty of outdoor activities across the country all year round.
The most popular of these is skiing and snowboarding and the country boasts some of the best resorts in Europe and millions visit each year for this activity alone. The most famous are situated in The Alps, particularly around the Dolomites.
Breuil-Cervinia in Valle d’Aosta is one of the best ski resorts in the world and enjoys the best conditions for skiing. However, if you fancy the thrill of heli-skiing then head for Monterosa Ski.
While you might not be surprised that skiing is popular in the north, did you know that there is also a ski resort on Mount Etna in Sicily? This is a unique skiing experience. Not only are you on Europe’s largest active volcano but the sea also provides the backdrop and you may well be able to leave your ski jacket behind.
Alternatively, Lake Garda is the place to go sailing and windsurfing, Tuscany is the perfect location for cycling, Sicily is the best place for snorkelling while Capri is ideal for scuba diving, especially around the famous sea caves, Blue Grotto and Grotta Azzurra.
Umbria is known as Italy’s green heart and also offers a wide range of activities from horse riding and hang-gliding to rock climbing and hot air balloon rides.
Italy is home to some of the world’s most famous tourist attractions. You could be here for months and still not have gone beyond the surface. But, if you would also like to step off the traditional tourist trail during your time in Italy, then here are three places to start.
San Marino is situated within Italy and you’ll find it near the Adriatic Sea in the north east. It is technically an independent country – although you might not be surprised to hear that, out of 196, it is the smallest. It dates back to the 4th century AD, making it one of the world’s oldest republics too. Also known as Most Serene Republic of San Marino – it certainly lives up to its name being a picturesque and peaceful escape. Here you’ll find Mount Titano, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the country’s highest point.
The Park of Monsters
Parco dei Mostri or Park of Monsters can be found in the Garden of Bomarzo in northern Lazio and dates back to 1552 when it was designed to express grief and shock visitors. The park, which has been visited by Salvador Dali and inspired his painting ‘The Temptation of Saint Anthony,’ features a number of sculptures. While you are here you can enter “the mouth of hell” which is a giant mouth open wide in a scream. Don’t forget your picnic, there is a table on the tongue where you can stop to eat it.
At the base of the Dolomites you’ll find Lake Carezza. The scenery is spectacular but what makes this lake stand out from the others is the legend that surrounds it. Local folklore states that the stunning colours were formed by the sorcerer Masaré when he attempted to catch the attention of a water nymph who sat on its shores.
He produced a rainbow and then planned to wear a disguise but forgot it and, realising his plan, she was never seen again. In anger, Masaré smashed the rainbow and it fell into the lake in a million pieces, producing the colours you see today and giving it the name, Rainbow Lake.
Best times to go to Italy
Italy has a varied climate, with temperatures differing significantly across the country and throughout the year. Although you’ll need to carefully consider where to go based on the month you are visiting, it does mean that Italy is the ideal destination to visit all year round and the best time is all about you and your bucket list. It tends to remain colder in the north around the snow-capped mountains, while the south is generally warm and sunny.
January is the coldest month and has the highest snowfall, making it the ideal time to visit the ski resorts. Spring and autumn is the perfect time for a city break, it’s not too hot so you can wander around and see the sights without the crowds. June to August is peak season – tourists tend to head for the coastal resorts especially around Sicily and Sardinia.
Now you know the best time to go to Italy and what to do while you are there, you just need to decide which part of ‘the boot’ to visit first and then start planning your itinerary.
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