Where to go in Italy
The best regions and cities of Italy to visit.
Italy is a country blessed by geography, history and culture. Known for its art, its food, wine and incomparable landscapes, it can be difficult to choose where to aim for, particularly on a first trip.
The Italian peninsula stretches out across the mediterranean, nearly touching Greece at its easterly tip, close to northern Africa with its island of Sicily and spanning France, Switzerland, Austria and Croatia in the north.
It is a bridge across the European divide and the variety found across the nation reflects this, from the arabic architecture of the Sicilian cities, to the Greek temples of southern Italy, from the idealistic Renaissance cities of Tuscany to the magical cityscape of Venice in the North - all seemingly hinged on the amazing city of Rome, layered in history, both metaphorically and quite literally.
With so many riches across the country it can be difficult to know where to start. Our advice is to pace yourself and not try to see everything in one go. It would be impossible and, like a fine meal, or a fine wine, the beauty of Italy must be savoured and enjoyed over time - rush it and you will fail to grasp it.
5 best ways to visit Italy
1. Pick an area and take your time
While Italy has many famous cities and iconic landmarks, oftentime the greatest delights can be found off the beaten track, and in the human interaction along the way. As in the story of the doctor who was shown the pregnant madonna of Monterchi, a then virtually unknown fresco by Piero della Francesca, even the smallest village can hide a masterpiece.
I once flew down to Calabria, the toe of Italy, to see the coast and visit the Temple of Paestum, a group of fabulous 5th century BC Greek temples south of Naples.
The temples were breathtaking - but I also went driving in the mountainous region inland and visited a series of villages, for no greater reason than seeing them from the road. Several of them had quite remarkable churches with fabulous frescoes inside, none of them mentioned in my local guide. And the tiny restaurants I stopped at were fabulous. The menu often consisted of a diminutive Calabrian mother telling me what she'd cooked that day - and it was always good.
So, our first advice is: Don't make your visit into a ticklist. Enjoy the unexpected and leave time for it.
2. Second best is often fabulous
With iconic sites and sights making the headlines, the main tourist attractions can often be busy. But the second site on the list if often both quieter and just as beautiful. Some examples?
Heading for Pompeii? Try Herculaneum instead. Just as interesting, if not more, and far quieter. And, unlike Pompeii, the pyroclastic material that covered Herculaneum carbonized and thereby preserved wood in objects such as roofs, beds and doors as well as other organic-based materials such as food. Guide to Visiting Herculaneum
Going to Venice? Well, Venice - or "Venezia" in Italian - is incomparable; but try staying in a town like Verona and then going to Venice on the train. It's an hour's train trip and you'll be staying in a city that regularly stages live opera in their still standing original Roman amphitheatre, the "Arena" - a fabulous experience. Check the 2020 schedule here: Arena di Verona 2020
Visiting the Cinque Terre? This UNESCO world heritage site is a firm favourite among travellers - and with good reason. The little villages perched on the edge of the steep cliffs dropping down into the Mediterranean are linked by beautiful walking paths and by a train that weaves in and out of tunnels above the sea. But its popularity can make it very busy in high season - why not visit Lerici, Ameglia and Tellaro, a few miles away in the National Park of Montemarcello? The paths are similar, the coves equally beautiful but the park is far quieter. This is a sketch I made a while ago in Tellaro, of a covered alley way used for storing fishing boats.
Our third piece of advice:
3. The landscapes are as beautiful as the cities
The famous cities act as a magnet: Rome, Florence, Venice - they are all stunning and stuffed full of art, museums and monuments. Yet many of the most beautiful areas of Italy are known for their landscape.
The Val d'Orcia, south of Siena, is like an enormous extended and diffuse museum, with jewel-like towns like Pienza, the mysterious convent of Monte Oliveto Maggiore and the elegant italianate gardens of "La Foce" of Iris Origo all set along the valley of the Orcia river, with the classic views of Tuscan hills lined with cypresses and occasional tiny chapels.
The Italian Lakes, north of Milan and Como, are stunning landscapes to explore. Lake Como is the most famous, beloved by the Romans (Pliny had several villas on the shores of the lake in the 1st century - though their exact position has still not been pinned down. They're believed to have been close to Bellagio). The southern end of the lake is the more fashionable end, while the north is perfect for exploring Alpine passes and valleys, exploring villages and going sailing.
4. The food and wine are as important as the art
Food and wine are taken very seriously in Italy, and are still closely linked to geography. Different regions will make different shapes of pasta, different towns have their own recipes, cheeses and ways of curing ham. And of course, different landscapes make different wines!
It's worth finding out a little about local specialities and letting restaurant owners guide your choice of menu - you'll most often be delighted.
Typical foods from regions and cities of Italy
The city of Parma is already world famous for its food: Parmesan cheese comes from the city of Parma, as does Parma ham. If you visit Parma try the "Tortelli di Zucca alla Parmigiana" , pasta stuffed with pumpkin and parmesan, usually served with butter and sage as the sauce. Delicious. A simple restaurant that's known for its Tortelli is the Trattoria Ai Due Platani, Strada Budellungo, 104/a, 43123 Coloreto PR. Tel. 0521 645626. Click here for Google Map Directions to Trattoria Ai Due Platani.
Naples is the indisputed home of Pizza. There are heated discussions about who makes the best Pizza and exactly HOW it should be made. But start by trying the Pizza from "Da Michele". He will only make two types of Pizza: Margherita and Marinara. And he only serves beer in his simple Pizza restaurant, in the centre of Naples in Via Cesare Sersale, 1.
Close to Siena there is a tiny village called Orgia with a restaurant called "Dal Cateni", known for their wild boar dishes. Our favourite are the "Pappardelle al ragù di cinghiale", flat wide strips of pasta with a delicious wild boar sauce. The hills west of Siena, where this restaurant sites, are deeply covered with dark forests of evergreen holm oaks and are beloved by wild boar, shy animals that can wreck crops - and that therefore form the basis for local recipes. directions to Cateni restaurant near Siena
5. Live like a local to really get to know Italy
If you put all the above points together, the conclusion is clear: the best way to visit Italy is with plenty of time, so you can settle into the lifestyle, the food, wine and culture.
And the best way to do that is to live like a local. Don't stay in a hotel but find a house you can call your own for a week or two and really get to know the area, the locals, the food and wine.
On your first trip, you may still want to tick some boxes and make sure you've seen the most famous sights. We've made a list of places you mustn't miss in Italy you can have a look at here in case this is your first trip.
But if you'd like to find a spot to live like a local, have a look at these Villas in Tuscany for the classic Tuscan experience. If you'd like to go off the beaten track a little further look at these Villas in Umbria, close to Lake Trasimeno, the site of the battle where Hannibal and his elephants defeated the almighty Roman army. Further north, you can see Villas on the Italian Lakes here, on both Lake Como and Lake Maggiore.
Being in your rented home doesn't mean missing out on the famous sights - you can visit Florence in a day from Chianti by train, or we can organise a car, driver and tour guide for you. Getting to Siena can be easy from your villa too - here's a quick guide: "How to get to Siena".
Cooking courses and wine tasting
One way to really get to know the local food is to prepare it yourself with the help of a local chef. We can organise for a cook to come to you, take you to the market to choose the food and then show you how to prepare local recipes before finally all sitting down to eat the fruits of your stove top labours.
Wine tasting can also be done very locally - many villas have their own vineyards and cellars, or with a driver and van that will take you to the famous estates in Chianti, or Barolo in the north of Italy, and more.
But if you do want to tick a few "must-sees" off your list, here is our personal take on places you mustn't miss, we hope you enjoy it:
While we're obviously fans of villa stays and the relaxed way to explore the country, sometimes you just want to tick some amazing places off your bucket list. So here is our (idiosyncratic) list of what you should see and do in Italy:
The capital of the Roman empire, the centre of Mediterranean power and later of the Catholic church, Rome is a magical city that should not be missed. My personal 5 highlights in Rome are:
1. The Pantheon.
One of the few Roman temples to survive virtually unscathed thanks to being re-consecrated as a church, this is an amazing building even today. The dome was the largest in the world for thousands of years - nobody knew how to cast such a large vaulted roof in concrete. The hole in the middle of the roof lets the rain in and gives the building a curious feeling, of being both enclosed and open. The columns that hold up the portico are monoliths of granite quarried in Egypt and brought over by ship. Each column weighs around 50 tons - the engineering involved was amazing.
Here's a sketch of the Pantheon I made about 20 years ago:
2. The Campidoglio (and the museum)
Two buildings facing a square, designed by Michelangelo, he of Sistine Chapel fame. Rome is built on seven hills - the Capitoline hill used to house the Ara Coeli, the highest altar to Roman Gods, and was the only hill that remained uncaptured during Roman invasions. It's name has given us the word for Capital city, and the layers of history are immense. The stairs up to the square are imposing, the museum is fabulous, with fragments of statues that must have been immense - keep an eye out for Constantine's head, nearly 9 feet high. (Image by Jean-Christophe BENOIST).
If you ever have a chance to watch Andrej Tarkovskji's film Nostalghia there is a key scene played out on the statue of Marcus Aurelius in the centre of the square - a disturbing watch. "Nostalghia" also has beautiful scenes from Tuscany too. Buy or rent Nostalghia on Youtube -
3. Eat "Da Giggetto" al Portico d'Ottavia
Close to the Campidoglio there is an old Roman gateway and just by it a restaurant, "Da Giggetto". This advice may be out of date, I haven't been back to it for years, but it was a delight. Try the Jerusalem artichokes. As a bonus, you will probably walk by the Theatre of Marcellus on your way there, a mini Colosseum that was transformed into a fortified palace during the Renaissance.
Here's a sketch I made a while back:
4. San Clemente
The church of San Clemente has several layers, all of which can be explored today. You enter a church with an 18th century facade and find a dark and atmospheric Romanesque interior. Some steps at the back take you down to an older church, cropped where the newer church was built above it.
All of this is magical enough but a further stairway takes you further underground to a Mithraic temple, complete with altar, hidden underneath the previous two churches. Exploring this Roman church really gives you a feeling of the layering of history in a physical sense.
5. Get out of Rome and see the Tivoli gardens at the Villa d'Este
Living in Rome has been hot and arduous throughout the centuries and Kings, Emperors, Popes and Cardinals have all made themselves countryside retreats throughout the centuries. One of the most impressive is the Villa d'Este with its gardens designed by Pirro Ligorio in the mid 16th century. Powered by gravity, the fountains are spectacular, ornate and powerful.
Everybody should see Venice at least once. It's worth staying away from Venice if you don't like crowds - like Mestre, or Verona as mentioned above. It's also worth visiting Venice during one of the Biennale's, the twice yearly art and architecture events.
Amalfi and Sorrento are everything they promise and more. Colorful buildings crowded onto cliffs with tiny roads weaving through on impossible outcrops, all scattered with scooters, buses and Ferraris. A crystal blue sea as a backdrop to tiny restaurants with terrace shaded by large sail like canvases.
4. Sicily and Southern Italy
For centuries Sicily and the South of Italy were known as "Magna Grecia", an extension of the Greek territories. Modern day Naples, far north of Sicily, owes its name to the Greek for "New City" Nea Polis. The school of Pythagoras, the famous Greek philosopher, was based in Crotone, in modern day Calabria, the toe of the Italian boot.
All of this make Sicily and southern Italy a treasure trove of Greek temples, mosaics and sculptures. Our top 3 things to see in southern Italy would be:
1. Valley of the Temples
In Agrigento, Sicily, this is a fabulous collection of at least 6 Greek temples from around the 5th century BC. This makes them approximately 2500 years old! Wikipedia on the Valle dei templi
If you're visiting Naples and can't make it to Sicily, then try Paestum, a collection of 3 Greek temples lost in brambles for years and rediscovered in the 18th century.
2. The Bronzes of Riace
Two full size Greek stautes of warriors, discovered underwater in 1972. It has taken years to restore these two amazing statues and they are absolutely breathtaking in detail and in ambition.
If you visit, pay attention to the way the weight is carried on the back leg in both figures - and then look at how the flesh at the bottom of the weight carrying foot splays out, just as it would in real life. A british sculptor living in Italy, in Casole d'Elsa, has long theorised that these statues were cast from life - you can read more on this here: Nigel Kontam - How the Bronzes of Riace were cast from life. Or have look at this Youtube Video of how the Bronzi di Riace were cast
A fishing town in Sicily with a Norman Cathedral. It just embodies everything about Sicilian fishing towns that you wish you could capture and take home with you.
5. Lake Como
Of all the lakes, Como is the most elegant. Its southern shores are dotted with elegant villas, and the Borromeo islands are an amazing place to visit and explore.
For a more quiet time, visit the northern shores and take the time to see some of the alpine valleys nearby, like the Val di Mello.
For where to stay on Lake Como see our list here: Villas around Lake Como
Well, Umbria generally, but if I were to pick one city it would be Perugia. Though Orvieto is stunning too - as are Assisiand Gubbio.
But Perugia is a charming city and it lies above Lake Trasimeno, just on the border with Tuscany - and therefore close to Cortona too.
There is only one way to visit Perugia and that it to take the bizarre escalator that leads you up from the train station or the car parks, up the hill towards the city and then, suddenly, underground. You arrive in a medieval city, now abandoned and underground. It's a wondrous experience that never fails to delight me, to wander around old paved streets, past empty medieval shops, under a brick vaulted sky.
When eventually you are disgorged into the centre of the city it feels slightly otherworldly. The explanation is that when the lords of city wanted to expand and improve the city's fortress, the Rocca Paolina, they simply took over sections of the ancient city and used them as the foundations of the expanded fortress! You can visit further sections starting from the Cathedral - Details here (in Italian).
For places to stay around Perugia, have a look here: Villas around Perugia.
If you love food and architecture there are few cities more pleasant to visit than Bologna. The whole region of "Emilia Romagna" is known for it's food and wine, and Bologna is the deserved capital.
Explore the city on foot, walking under the many porticoes, visit the Torre degli Asinelli and make sure you try the local recipes, all world famous:
- Pasta al Ragú
Here's my own personal recipe for ragú
All of it - all of Tuscany is our favourite place. Sheltered by its ridge of Apennine mountains, the Tuscan cities have been independent minded republics for over a 1000 years - they're now part of Italy but the independence of mind and spirit continues.
To read more about the areas and sights of Tuscany read here:
I'll leave you with a map of Italy I drew about 20 years ago - it clearly shows my Tuscano-centric bias, drawn as fish eye view of Italy with our tiny little village of Casole d'Elsa as the omphalos of my world!