Italy is the kind of destination that travelers return to over and over. They come for awe-inspiring art and architecture that influenced Western civilization, stunning historical ruins, and some of the world’s best food and wine. Also beckoning aComo and the Mediterranean, and monasteries, castles, and farmhouses
Located in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea in southern Europe, Italy shares open land borders with France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, San Marino and the Vatican City. Together with Greece, it is acknowledged as the birthplace of Western culture. The Renaissance began in Italy and spread to the rest of Europe, bringing a renewed interest in humanism, science, exploration and art. Italian culture flourished at this time, producing famous scholars, artists and polymaths, such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Galileo and Machiavelli. Since the Middle Ages, Italian explorers such as Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, John Cabot and Giovanni da Verrazzano discovered new routes to the Far East and the New World, helping to usher in the European Age of Discovery. Nowadays, there are archeological sites, Baroque churches, villas-turned-museums, and enough art to overload your senses, as well as decadent pasta and gelato to indulge in, and places to shop for everything from handicrafts to haute couture.
The Eternal City
Rome, Italy’s capital, known as the eternal city, is a sprawling, cosmopolitan city with nearly 3,000 years of globally influential art, architecture and culture on display.
Entering the huge archeological site of the Roman Forum and strolling through the ruins, you can almost imagine the citizens of Ancient Rome walking the cobblestoned streets in togas. After visiting the Forum, try your luck with the Bocca della Verità, an ancient stone carving of a bearded man’s face. According to myth, it will bite off the hand of anyone not telling the truth.
The most internationally recognized symbol of Rome, the Colosseum has a long and bloody history. It was inaugurated in 80 A.D. with 100 days of games, including gladiatorial combats and animal fights. It was the largest amphitheater in the Roman Empire and is believed to have packed up to 50,000 people inside. Today nearly 4 million people visit annually. Buy your tickets in advance or be prepared to wait in a very long line. A combined ticket for the Roman Forum, Colosseum, and Palatine Hill grants access to all three sites and lets you skip the line at the Colosseum.
Then, there is one of the most popular public spaces in Rome, the magnificent, oval-shaped Piazza Navona, which is lined with restaurants, gelaterias, souvenir shops, and the Museo di Roma inside the Renaissance Palazzo Braschi. The city’s Baroque art is on full display here. Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi features exquisitely carved figures representing the world’s four great rivers.
It is an undeniable truth that any trip to Rome would be incomplete without a visit to the Trevi Fountain. Nicola Salvi’s awe-inspiring Baroque masterpiece features a marble statue of Neptune at the center, surrounded by tritons. Legend has it that anyone who throws a coin in the fountain will return to Rome. Unfortunately, the gorgeous fountain tends to be overrun by tourists vying for that perfect selfie angle and street hawkers selling cheap souvenirs. Visit early in the morning or late at night, when the crowds disperse.
Do as the Romans Do
When in Rome, you must drink espresso. Drip coffee and Starbucks don’t exist here. It’s not uncommon for Romans to drink three or more espressos a day, and there are some unspoken rules if you don’t want to look like a tourist when ordering. First, cappuccinos are only drunk at breakfast. After that, order un caffè (a shot of espresso) or un caffè macchiato (a shot of espresso with a dollop of steamed milk). If you ask for a latte, you’ll simply get milk. In the hotter months, ask for un caffè freddo (cold espresso sweetened with loads of sugar) or crema di caffè (the Roman equivalent of a frappuccino).Two of the most famous cafés—Tazza d’Oro and Caffè Sant’Eustachio—hold a fierce rivalry and are just blocks from each other. Try them both and see which you prefer.
Rome has no shortage of excellent gelaterias too, and many Romans are steadfastly loyal to their favorite. Giolitti, a few blocks from the Pantheon, is the city’s best old-school gelateria. It’s been around since 1900 and serves dozens of flavors in a rainbow of hues. A small cone gets you two flavors plus whipped cream.
After work, Romans love to meet for aperitivo, the Italian happy hour. Any bar worth its salt offers snacks, though these range from peanuts and potato chips to elaborate buffets of the finest finger food you’ve ever eaten. Gusto, a modern, airy restaurant and bar, goes all out with a selection of cheese, arancini, mini pizzas, salads, and other delicacies, all included in the price of a drink. An Aperol Spritz is the classic Roman aperitivo, but Fragolino—a sweet sparkling wine that tastes like strawberries—comes in at a close second.
One of Rome’s great joys is losing yourself in the narrow cobblestone streets that make up Centro Storico. Starting at Piazza del Popolo, three main roads form a trident leading toward Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum. Branching off are countless streets and alleyways where you’ll find churches with Baroque art, boutiques selling everything from carved wooden figurines to precious jewelry, private courtyards where the wealthiest Romans live, enticing gelaterias, cafés, and restaurants. Take your time and do as the Romans do.
It seems like all the locals have a house by the sea, and when the sweltering heat of summer sets in, it’s easy to understand why. Rome isn’t directly on the Mediterranean, but you don’t have to go far to find great beaches. If you have an extra day to escape the city, a trip out to one of the seaside towns surrounding Rome is absolutely worth it. Popular spots among the locals include Ostia Antica, Fregene, and Cerveteri. Farther south, about halfway to Naples, there’s the whitewashed, unblemished town of Sperlonga-the perfect place for some R&R after all that partying in Testaccio.
Romantic Land of Jade
Florence, like a jade, is brightly embedded on the crown of Tuscany. This small city is the origin of origins of Renaissance and western modern society. Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio were born here; Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael grew up and had their legendary meeting here.
The city is brimming with classic ambience. The streets and bridges still maintain their Medieval look and the lamps and handrails are all designed in classic style. There are no modern high buildings or bituminous streets, but only winding lanes and cobbled roads.
The best view of Florence is from up high in the tower of Palazzo Vecchio, which offers stunning 360-degree views across the city that will take your breath away. Inside the palazzo you’ll also see the opulent rooms and old apartments of the famed Florentine Medici family. It’s a worthy excursion for any traveller, including those visiting with kids.
Within minutes of leaving Florence you are surrounded by vineyards, olive groves and villas perched on top of lush, green hills. An easy 20-minute drive from the city, the Villa Medicea di Lilliano villa and wine estate hosts tastings and cooking classes in a 16th-century country kitchen. Drive up into Chianti for the quaint towns and the array of wine tasting options.
Adventurous foodies should try the quintessential Florentine delicacy lampredotto, served from many street-food carts around the city. Not for the fainthearted, it’s made by simmering cow’s stomach until soft, wedging it in a bun and lacing it all with a green or red sauce. Try it at Da Nerbone in the central food market, where they have been serving hungry locals since 1872.
When you are in need of some pampering, book yourself in at the one-seat beauty treat that is Ziziai. This sleek salon, tucked down a backstreet near the Duomo, is run by the effervescent Simone and Valeria. With over 25 years’ hairdressing experience, Simone is in charge of tresses, while Valeria focuses on make-up. Book an appointment and enjoy a little pampering in between your visits to Florence’s cultural attractions.
City Over the Water
Venice, the capital of northern Italy’s Veneto region, is built on more than 100 small islands in a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea. It has no roads, just canals – including the Grand Canal thoroughfare – lined with Renaissance and Gothic palaces. The best way to take in the Grand Canal is on board a vaporetto (Venice’s ubiquitous waterbus). The canal may no longer be teeming with merchandise-laden cargo boats, but it is still the main thoroughfare of Venice. The three and a half kilometer (two-mile) trip from the railway station to San Marco provides a superb introduction to the city, telling you more about the way Venice works – and has always worked – than any historical tome.
At almost 99m (325ft), the Campanile is the city’s tallest building, embracing in all the red-tiled roof tops of the city, as well as Lido, the whole lagoon and mountains in the distance. Again, if you want to avoid the hordes then the best and easiest option is to hop on a boat and head to one of the many islands. You can rent bikes on the Lido, for example from Venice Rental Services, and from there you can hop on a ferry to the nearby quiet fishermen’s island of Pellestrina.
Just like Rome and Florence, Venice is also a city of art. The world-renowned Venice Biennale, with its design and contemporary art focus, are flanked and alternate with theatre and ballet performances. On weekends, there will surely be some exhibition somewhere around town. The Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi always has an interesting array of artists’ talks, performances and films on offer.
The lagoon city has a long and glorious culinary tradition based on fresh seafood. A writhing, glistening variety of sea creatures swims from the stalls of the Rialto and Chioggia markets into local kitchens, such as granseola (spider crab), garusoli (sea snails) or canoce (mantis shrimps).
You must have already become aware of the fact that Italy is truly a moving feast of art. To delve deeper, visit world-famous museums such as the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Capitoline Museums in Rome, or the Brera Art Gallery in Milan, which offer a rich combination of masterpieces from different areas, blending landscape and culture, history and art, architecture and city planning. Moreover, there are numerous cultural, artistic, and musical events that animate Italian life.
The Uffizi Gallery got Botticelli and Michelangelo, some Raphael and Leonardo, some amazing Venetian pieces by Titian and Tintoretto, the famous Giotto and Cimabue comparison… It’s a Renaissance art historian’s dream collection.
Kingdom of Wine
Italy boasts an exceedingly long history of vineyards. There are numerous grape varieties, adding the distinctive climate and soil of different regions, as well as the unique wine-making styles of individual wineries, Italian wine enjoys an amazing wide ranges. Every September and October sees the harvest of the grapes. You will see the whole hills being covered with shining green vineyards. It’s such a pleasure to pick the grapes and taste wine in the warm breeze.
From south to north, there are plenty of wine-producing areas and most of them are worth a visit. To name just a few, the idyllic Piemonte breeds the famous Barolo and Barbera and Tuscany is particularly known with Chianti, Montalcino and Montepulciano.
Thermal SPA Journey
A spa vacation – as we know it today – was an invention of the Romans. Back many hundred years ago, thermal spring bath gatherings were a welcome change for Italy’s high society.
Now, Italy is one of those corners in the world where there are a large number of natural thermal spots, and therefore spas all possess rare beauty. If you see the word “Bagni” or “Terme” in a town name then you know that it is or was a spa. The Italian word benessere means well-being, so watch out for that too. Because Italy is a geologically active country, it has lots of hot springs, known as sorgenti termali. There are active and dormant volcanoes too which provide mineral rich mud for various health and beauty treatments. Other good-to-try programs include sand therapy, thalassotherapy, wine treatment, aromatherapy and milk bath.
Tuscany is perhaps the region most blessed with spas and there are apparently two million “thermal tourists” a year to the region. Tuscany is famous for its natural springs whose waters, after having carved the rocks, flow aboveground and create natural pools. San Gimignano, Montecatini and Saturnia are most popular hot spring towns which boast many fantastic thermal centers. Most of them have advanced and professional equipment and innovative treatments. These towns are not far from the seaside and the city, which provides much convenience and outdoor activity opportunities.