Highlights of Italy
Maybe its an age thing...
Over the years I have visited Italy on a number of occasions and each time I have questioned why it took me so long to return. I actually get that feeling about a lot of places but Italy perhaps more so than most!
I think for a long time I saw Italy just as a weekend or city breaks destination which it is but there is of course so much more. I perhaps overlooked the idea of a full summer holiday as in my twenties and thirties there were other hotspots offering the bright lights and boozy nights for a fraction of the cost. As I have got older though, and it comes to us all, places like Italy and Croatia which have so many similarities, have become much more my scene.
Now of course, the idea of a week or two in a Tuscan villa with a pool overlooking olive trees and vineyards, or an island escape, a cultural adventure or a Venice and Rome two centre holiday with added on experiences like wine tasting, truffle hunting, olive oil making is exactly where I am now at!
Something I have also always dreamed of doing is touring Italy in a open top sports car. I actually did do that on the island of Sicily back in the 90’s but the thought of travelling the Mille Miglia route of the fifties in an iconic rosso red Ferrari Dino 206 GT is the stuff of schoolboy dreams as opposed to my reality of cruising stressed as hell through the crazy streets of Palermo, Sicily in rush hour in 1996 in a Renault Megane – it was a convertible mind… but silver….and French!
Such a choice...
Cities like Rome, Naples and Florence in central Italy are home to some of the country’s best cultural attractions. As you head south, the sun-drenched coastal towns like Sorrento or the Bay of Naples area, offer traditional Italian life, authentic experiences, excellent food and wonderfully fresh locally grown produce.
Italy is also full of romance and iconic places to visit, such as Rome’s Colosseum, the amphitheatre in Verona, the northern lakes of Garda and Como, and then there is also Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast and of course you have the Vatican.
I have been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time on the island of Sardinia particularly back in 1998 when I lived in Corsica. I used to regularly make the short 45 minute ferry crossing and visit Sardinia’s wild coastlines and secluded coves as well as the glizy seaside towns of the Costa Smeralda or the historic old town of Alghero. If you’re after culture, then Sicily is packed with sights to see too, the original Greek settlement in Syracuse, the mystical village of Corleone or the majesty of the smoking Mount Etna.
Whilst these are the iconic hot spots, I get just as much, if not more enjoyment from the undiscovered Italy, the off the beaten track retreats, the little villages, those cobbled streets in the twilight hour, that knockout coffee hit at breakfast or as I remember like it was yesterday, the Pecorino Romano cheese soaked in rosemary oil washed down with a glass of Chianti in stunning Lake Como.
A moment that captured a nation....
Now when people start talking to me about Italy there is strangely a moment from the world of football that I believe sums up this country.
It was back in 1982 at the World Cup in Spain when an Italian team who were slow out of the blocks at the start of the tournament hit their straps and made it to the World Cup Final against an unbelievable Brazillian team.
Against the odds Italy won the final and in doing so scored a goal by Marco Tardelli which had one of the greatest goal celebrations ever and it still gives me goosebumps to watch it today ….and I am English ! Even if you hate football have a watch – its just 50 seconds….
Time Difference: Local Time + 1 hour
2h 30m from London
Visa: No for British Nationals
Life is a Dream...
Watching this clip, listening to the Italian commentary, seeing that excited elderly gentleman in the crowd maintaining his style for me just sums up this nation – Italians are emotional, they are passionate, they are flambuoyant, yes they are loud and yes they are at times crazy but mamma mia….. put this all together and its dynamite.
There is a saying in Italy – “La vita è un sogno” – which means “Life is a dream”. Welcome to Italy !
Top Sights & Attractions
There is a huge variety of accommodation options in Italy including family hotels, boutique properties, youth hostels, self-catering villas, family-run B&Bs, villas, mountain monasteries and rural farmhouses.
In recent years Agriturismo has become really popular although actually it originated back in the 50’s but with so many of us conscious of what we consume, the healthy organic home grown farm stay has really taken off. Many of the farms are suitable for the family as they allow for the kids to interact with the farm animals.
Italy can be whatever you want it to be…. personally I love to experience the real Italy rather than the glitzy 5 star hotel offering impeccable service. and fine cuisine.
Hiring a car in Italy is highly recommended if you planning to get out of the city for a reasonable amount of time. I have hired cars in Sicily and Tuscany and loved the freedom ! If you are on a city break then bear in mind the streets are going to be crazy busy with traffic and scooters and even in some places cars are not allowed like the old town of Florence.
To hire a car in Italy, you must be at least 18 years old and have held your license for 1 year. An International Drivers License is expected. On average car rental works out to about £20-£25 per day so it is pretty cost effective. Make sure you take out all the different covers as if you do venture into the cities losing a wing mirror is a distinct possibility !
The choice of both domestic and international ferry options in Italy is mind blowing but when you consider that the majority of Italy is surrounded by sea then it is really no surprise.
My advice is to plan ahead.
International ferries operate to countries such as Albania, France, Spain, Sardinia, Corsica, Greece, Croatia and many more.
A useful website when planning is this is Aferry although of course your travel agent can often pre arrange these itineraries in advance.
The main international airports in Italy are Malpensa Airport in Milan and Leonardo da Vinci Airport (also known as Fiumicino) in Rome.
Visitors also frequently fly to smaller airports, including Venice Marco Polo, Naples and Comiso.
In Sardinia there are three main airports – Olbia, Alghero and Cagliari whilst in Sicily there is Catania.
Taxis in Italian cities are usually yellow or white and as always are best hopped in at official taxi ranks for instance at railways stations, airports and in town centres. Its not usual to hail them on the street although you may get lucky.
Taxis should have a meter, which I would advise you to check is switched on. If its not then agree the fare before setting off. Taxi journeys in Italian cities aren’t for the faint hearted with drivers regularly ignoring speed limits so its your call!
Fares are set by the local authorities. There are often supplements should you have luggage, travelling at night or to the airport. Tipping is not expected although its common to round up the fare to the nearest euro.
Trains in Italy are a fantastic way to travel around. On the whole they are cheap and reasonably reliable, although some of the older trains are not particularly comfortable. All are now non smoking which is great news. Italy’s railway coverage is very good although of course up in the mountains and rural areas you will need to seek the use of other transport.
Train services in Italy are mostly run by the state company Trenitalia. There are also a few privately-run local lines.
Always research your journey in advance and note the different fare classes. Once you have your ticket you are restricted to that type of service – as in the UK if you are caught using a different service then there will be a charge.
I loved travelling by train in Italy – its easy, its exciting and as always letting the train take the strain allows you to marvel at some of the countries beautiful countryside.
Regions & Cities
Italy is divided into 20 regions as per this map. …
The regions are divided into provinces, 110 in all, varying considerably in size.
These provinces are then divided into communes which has a mayor and a local authority and of which there are 8,100.
Key Towns/Cities / Regions
N – North. C – Central. S – South. I – Islands
Venice (Veneto) N
Genoa (Liguria) N
Rome (Lazio) C
Florence (Tuscany) C
Pisa (Tuscany) C
Siena (Tuscany) C
Naples (Campagnia) S
Sorrento (Campagnia) S
Palermo (Sicily) I
Aosta Valley is a small mountainous region of Italy and located in the North West between France and Switzerland. The regional capital is Aosta.
Aosta is rich in monuments from pre-historical, roman, medieval and even later times. The thousand-year-old Sant‘Orsa craft fair is held each year in the centre of Aosta on the 30 and 31 January. Attracting visitors from all across the region there are a wide range of interests including wood carvings, soapstone, ironwork, lace and woollen fabrics, as well as farming equipment, furniture, household utensils and sculptures.
Attractions of this region are:
1. The Alps – Cervino, Monte Rosa, Gran Paradiso and then there is Mont Blanc, which at 15,781 feet is the highest mountain in Europe.
2. Courmayeur – one of Italies signature ski resorts with an amazing cable car ride and sensational views to take in.
3. The Gran Paradiso – a national park where it is still possible to see ibex, chamois, eagles and marmots in their natural surroundings.
Emilia Romagna lies between the River Po to its north and the Apennine Mountains (to its south). It is one of the most fertile and productive regions of Italy. The capital of the region is Bologna.
Bologna is Europes oldest university town and therefore quite a lively, historic capital of the Emilia-Romagna region. Its Piazza Maggiore is an enormous plaza lined with cafes and medieval and Renaissance structures such as the City Hall, the Fountain of Neptune and the Basilica di San Petronio. Then there is Piazza Verdi which attracts musicians and arty students, while the many bars under the arches of Piazza Santo Stefano are a great spot for a sundowner.
At weekend’s the central Via Ugo Bassi and Via Rizzoli, along with perpendicular Via ell’Indipendenza, are pedestrianised and fill with shoppers and street performers. In the evenings, cafes are packed with people as the city is flooded with Bolognesi.
Other attractions of this region are:
1. Emilia Romagna – occupies an interior and a coastline and is a hotbed for music, cinema and art.
2. Rimini, Riccione and Cattolica – for sun sea and entertainments these resorts are some of the regions most popular.
3. The Apennines – between Parma and Piacenza are ideal for outdoor pursuits such as horse riding in the splendid parks and nature reserves.
4. Salsomaggiore and Bagno di Romagna – two popular wellness spas.
5. Modena – a visit to the home of Ferrari is a must for all motorsport fans.
6. Parma – a city famous for its architecture, music, art, prosciutto (ham), cheese and surrounding countryside.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia – an area with a mixture of influences and some off-the-beaten-track destinations. This region is situated in Italy’s northeast corner and borders Slovenia and Austria. The capital is Trieste.
Trieste – a city I have flown to for access to Slovenia and also Istria in Northern Croatia. Trieste looks out over the blue Adriatic, white limestone cliffs and green hills. The city’s main squares are lined with spectacular neoclassical buildings, and the much-photographed canal has an endless number of cafes and restaurants.
Trieste has a sea faring history and while there are some parts which need investment and modernisation, in the heart of Trieste are the delightful and popular streets of the Borgo Teresiano. A well visited attraction is to climb to the top of the San Giusto hill for the best views of the city.
Attractions of this region are:
1. Friuli Venezia Giulia overlooks the Adriatic Sea and is surrounded by high mountains
3. The impressive Carso plateau is formed by windswept rocks and soil erosion has created a series of caves.
4. The Carnia & Julian Alps – mountain sceneries of the Eastern Dolomites are truly spectacular in addition to the lakes and valleys.
5. Lignana Sabbiadoro – a tourist resort between Veneto up to Monfalcone and a coastline dotted with lagoons and sandy beaches.
6. Monfalcone to Trieste – a rocky wild coastline.
Ideal for a seaside or walking holiday, the region enjoys a mild climate in winter with the capital being Genoa.
I visited Genoa a few years back and had the pleasure of an afternoon and evening in the city prior to heading off on a cruise ship the following day. The city is Italies largest sea port and an incredibly important gateway to the Mediterranean for many holidaymakers. It also boasts a pretty old harbour, a popular aquarium and also a lovely historic city centre comprising a labyrinth of narrow alleyways and the Cathedral of San Lorenzo known locally as the Duomo di Genova.
Many visitors including those I travelled with often take the trip 15 miles journey south by land or boat down to Portofino which is an exclusive town well known for its pastel coloured houses, small port and pretty bays. It is a great lunch stop on a day excursion!
Other attractions of this region are:
- Cinque Terre – five small picturesque seaside villages – Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.
- Dolceacqua – a small medieval hamlet in the backcountry, on the west side of the region, made famous by Claude Monet.
- Il Golfo dei Poeti – the Gulf of La Spezia has always been a preferred destination for writers and artists such as Lord Byron.
- Sanremo – an elegant seaside resort famous for its music festival and its carnival, as well as its beaches and seafront.
- Camogli – nestled in the rocks in the Gulf of Paradise, it is a charming village full of hiking trails.
- La Riviera delle Palme – a stunning coast which includes the resorts of Alassio, Loano, Albenga, the Baia dei Saraceni and Finalborgo.
- Triora – sadly noted for witch trials in the 1500s, it is a small hamlet with museums and festivals.
- Taggia e Arma di Taggia – between the resorts of Arma di Taggia and Taggia there are popular hiking trails and motorcycle riding routes.
Lombardy – an urban region with so much to enjoy for the culture lover. The capital of Lombardy is the sensational city of Milan.
Back in 2001 I visited Milan for a couple of nights to take in a football match at the San Siro Stadium – one of the world’s greatest football stadia. As a sports fan that was something special to see your little team – Ipswich Town – play a competitive match against one of footballs powerhouses – we got thrashed but who cares !
The trip to Milan also enabled me to discover the other highlights of a city that is known as one of the most important fashion capitals of the world. I recall walking down the Via Montenapoleone one of the top streets for the top fashion labels, and being mesmorised by the people carrying the Armani, Boss and Gucci bags.The most incredible shopping centre and that is really what it is despite taking the appearance of an Opera House is the Grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.
I also particularly loved the enormous Piazza del Duomo where you start from to visit the historical sites. These include the magnificent Duomo di Milano cathedral, an impressive Opera House, ancient churches and a great variety of museums and art galleries.
I really enjoyed my Autumn visit to Milan…..I loved just to sit with a coffee and watch the beautiful Milanese strutting around the city in the finest of clothes and darkest of shades.
Another key attraction of Lombardy is the quite magnificent Lake Como – Italies third biggest lake. This area has just the most stunning beauty not just in terms of the lake but also the many towns that are dotted around the area. Some of the most popular and all retreats for the wealthy are Bellagio, Tremezzo and Varenna. Lake Como has attracted artists, poets and celebrities for centuries and its clear to see why.
Other attractions of the region are:
1. Bergamo – a charming medieval historic city protected by walls of the XVI and XVII century and is a Unesco World Heritage site.
2. Orobie Alps – a protected mountain range and nature reserves stretching from Lake Como to Valtellina and Camonica Valley.
3. Mantua – a nature reserve surrounded by three lakes and a main centre of the Italian Renaissance.
4. Sirmione – a jewel on Lake Garda, renowned for its Roman remains and thermal waters.
5. Franciacorta – a popular wine region between Brescia and Lake Iseo.
6. Valtellina – a valley offers endless opportunities for mountain sports, wellness, culture and good food.
7. Monte Isola – a green mountain island dotted with villages in the middle of Lake Iseo.
Piedmont or Piemonte in Italian is perhaps more of a winter region considering its impressive mountain landscapes. The capital of this region is Turin.
When people mention Turin to me I immediately think of football as this is home to Juventus (and Torino) – one of the worlds most famous football teams affectionately known as the “Grand Old Lady” of Italian football. . The city is an important business and cultural centre however it is also known for its art galleries, restaurants, churches, palaces, opera houses, piazzas, gardens, theatres, museums and more!
Those who love their architecture are attracted by the sheer variety of periods represented including Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-classical, and Art Nouveau. Many of Turin’s public squares, castles, gardens and elegant palaces such as the Palazzo Madama, were built between the 16th and 18th centuries and a part of the historical centre of Turin was inscribed in the World Heritage List. The city also boasts the famous Shroud of Turin.
Other attractions of this region are:
1. Monviso – on the Piemonte side of Monte Rosa for stunning landscapes.
2. Val di Susa, Valsesia & Val d’Ossola – The Alps form the background for sweeping, picturesque valleys.
3. Langhe and Monferrato – Hills and vineyards that are dotted with small towns and castles.
4. Novara and Vercelli – Expanses of water and rice paddies, long rows of poplars and old farmhouses make up the typical scenery of the plains
5. Lake Maggiore is a popular tourist resort, including Stresa and the Borromean Islands
7. Fortress at Ivrea – as well as the famous Residences of the Royal House of Savoy and the Sacri Monti.
8. The Acqui Terme and Vinadio spas offer treatments and therapies
Trentino Alto Adige is situated in the very north of Italy bordering Austria and Switzerland and is best known for the beauty of its mountain ranges. The regional capital is Trento.
Trento is considered to be one of the richest cities in all of Italy and so the citizens enjoy a high quality of life and standard of living due to its thriving economy. It also has a deep history given its involvement with various Empires and rulers and as such there are many beautiful historical structures such as the Duomo and Castello del Buonocnsiglio.
Furthermore, the city has a host of fine museums and galleries, and some great shopping opportunities.
Attractions of this region are:
1. Madonna di Campiglio, Canazei, Moena, San Martino di Castrozza are popular winter ski and summer activity resorts.
2. Lake Garda is situated in three Italian regions – Lombardy, Veneto and Trentino Alte Aldige.
3. Merano, Lèvico Terme, Peio, Rabbi and Comano Terme are well known in the region as spa towns.
The region of Veneto is located in the north-east of Italy with rather unsurprisingly the capital being Venice.
I visited the pedestrianised and UNESCO protected city of Venice back in the 1990’s. I just found it breathtaking and whilst I was only there for two nights I could easily have stayed a week and revelled in the sights, the sounds and dare I say it the smells of this incredible city. There is music, architecture and food all in a setting of tiny streets (which you just have to explore) and a collection of islands linked by bridges and waterways.
The heart of Venice is St Mark’s square and I recall staying in a tiny hotel just off a tight narrow side street. You know one of those hotels that had deep crimson flowery slightly grubby carpets and an old fashioned noisy gated elevator with a lengthy pause before it opened its doors causing the heart to beat a little faster! I love those kind of hotels.
St. Mark’s square, or Piazza San Marco, is in the heart of the city and often a great place to start your explorations. This is also the place for one of the most expensive coffees in the world although with the accompanying views its worth the money. From St Mark’s square I went up the Campanile di San Marco – the large bell tower at the corner of the square and with superb views of the city.
For another great view and a 15 minute stroll along the Grand Canal from St Marks Square is the Ponte dell’Accademia. This is the location for one of the best and most popular photos of Venice with boats and gondolas in the foreground and the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute framing the view at the end. Just breathtaking.
Then there is Rialto Bridge – probably the most famous of all the bridges in Venice. The Rialto bridge gets its name from the Rialto market on the eastern bank of the river.
No trip to Venice is complete without a Gondola Ride however its not cheap at about 80 euros for 20-30 minutes and thats the day rate – it goes up at night time. However like the coffee in St Marks it’s the experience you are paying for and as long as you don’t get sea sick then its worth it!
Another popular attraction is the Bridge of Sighs and Doge’s Palace. The powerful Doge was the ruler of the Venetian Republic. Just next to the Doge’s Palace is the Ponte dei Sospiri, or better known as the Bridge of Sighs.
The Lido, or Venice Lido is an eleven kilometre narrow strip of land which separates the central part of the Venetian lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. Out of season this immaculate resort provides a range of reasonably priced shops and restaurants. There are lovely views over the lagoon to Venice, and in winter and spring you may be lucky enough, on a clear day, to see the snow-capped summits of the Dolomites. During the summer however the island’s hotels open for the season and hoardes of beach lovers cross from the lagoon-shore ferry stop to enjoy the sun, the beach, the ice cream and a different side to the Venice we all know and love.
Finally, there are the islands of Murano & Burano. Murano is famous for its glass making centre and Burano for its brightly coloured fishermen’s houses and seafood restaurants.
Other attractions of this region are:
- Verona – a city of love, fantastic shopping and restaurants and of course opera
- Lake Garda – for stunning villages, thermal spas and hiking/trekking opportunities.
- The Palladian Villas – built around the mid-16th century, scattered in the province of Vicenza, Padua, Treviso and Rovigo.
- Dolomiti bellunesi – Incredible mountain scenery of The Dolomites including the Three Peaks of Lavaredo, Marmolada, Monte Civetta
- The Prosecco hills – Home to the sparkling white wine vineyards between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene
- The Po River Delta – a protected area of wetlands inhabited by more than 300 species of birds and a popular destination for birdwatching
- Cittadella – a fascinating walled city with medieval origins just a few kilometres from Padua
- Padua – a refined city worth a visit even only for admiring the Giotto’s masterpieces in the Scrovegni Chapel
- Bassano del Grappa – located at the foot of Monte Grappa, it’s famous for its covered wooden bridge .
Lazio is a central Italian region bordering the Tyrrhenian Sea. The capital of the region, and the country, is Rome and the heart of the ancient Roman Empire.
I visited the Eternal city of Rome back in the 1990’s and remember it as this big brute of a city but with a huge sprinkling of romance, character, incredible history and astonishing art! I ticked off all the signature sights include the Colosseum, Roman Forum, the Pantheon, St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican. As you walk the streets and stumble upon sculptures by Michelangelo, paintings by Caravaggio, frescoes by Raphael and fountains by Bernini you realise that there is nowhere in the world quite like Rome.
With all the sightseeing I found a great place to catch your breath was at the famous Trevi fountain. Yes its full of tourists taking pictures (today its selfies) and gazing longingly into one another eyes but hey that’s what you do on a city break to Rome….. isn’t it?
I really liked a market square called Campo de’ Fiori which is a crazy busy area full of tourists and locals buying everything from fresh fruits, flowers, and vegetables to local olive oil and wine.
For views of the city its hard to beat the Ponte Umberto where you can watch the sunset while admiring the Ponte Sant’Angelo, Castel Sant’Angelo, and the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica all grouped together.
The Spanish Steps are not far from here and ideal to visit towards the end of the day as the Spagna metro stop is right by them so its easy to get back to your hotel or the airport if needed.
In the evening fashionable drinkers descend on the city’s bars and cafes for deep conversation and plenty of Italian choreographed gesticulation and flailing of arms!
Rome is magnificent and huge…. so you need two or three days to do it at your own pace!
Other attractions of this region are:
- Ostia Antica – an archaeological park.
- Pontine Islands – an archipelago of six volcanic islands – Ponza, Palmarola, Zannone, Gavi, Ventotene, Santo Stefano.
- Castel Gandolfo – an area on the Alban hills and the venue of the Pope’s summer residence, noble villas and high class cuisine.
- Civita di Bagnoregio – known as “the Dying City”, this historic village perched on a hillside and accessible through a pedestrian bridge.
- Tarquinia – a town of artists with an extraordinary necropolis, medieval monuments and a nature reserve.
- Gardens of Bomarzo – a park with XVI century basalt sculptures depicting monsters, deities and mythological beings.
- Tivoli – a peaceful city outside of Rome with magnificent villas.
- National Park of Circeo – a wide UNESCO protected area along the coast between Anzio and Terracina.
- Sperlonga – one of the “Borghi più belli d’Italia” – Italy’s most beautiful villages.
This region of Central Italy is well known for its beaches cliffs and caves, backed by hills and mountains popular in the winter for skiing. Ancona is the regional capital.
Ancona is an ancient city founded by the Greeks. Split into two parts – the historic centre on Monte Guasco and the modern part on the coast.
Among its standout monuments are the Cathedral of San Ciriaco, with its white and rose marble façade. The Cathedral dominates the city from the heights of Guasco Hill, where the city’s Acropolis was built.
Attractions of this region are:
- Senigallia – a seaside resort and popular lido for people watching.
- Gabicce Mare, Pesaro, Fano, Civitanova Marche and San Benedetto del Tronto – fashionable resorts frequented by high society.
- Conero Riviera offers amazing views and patches of still unspoilt land, often only accessible via the sea or footpaths carved into the green Mediterranean scrub.
- Monti Sibillini and Monti della Laga National Parks – for wildlife and the great outdoors
- The Frasassi Caves – age old limestone caves.
- Piceno and extend through the Esino Valley – An area rich in orchards and vineyards.
Tuscany is perhaps Italies most compelling and beautiful region combining natural beauty with heavenly towns and cities. The regions capital is Florence.
Florence is incredible. As someone who does not really embrace the cultural scene in terms of statues of mens genitalia, broken pots and museums I have to say Florence delivered it to me on a whole different level!
The palaces, museums and churches are home to some of the greatest artistic treasures in the world. The most popular and important sites in Florence include the jaw dropping Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Baptistery, the Uffizi Gallery, the Bargello and the Accademia. Add to this, the numerous churches, art galleries and the library of San Lorenzo dedicated to Michelangelo’s architectural genius and you have a city of world renown.
Despite the heavyweight culture, Florence actually has a small town feel, with its meandering cobbled streets, tiny boutiques and eateries. These are great as after a long day doing the sightseeing all you sometimes need is an ice cold beer and a bowl of pasta! Well I do anyhow !
If you are looking at spreading out beyond the main centre then why not visit the Boboli Gardens or climb up the hill to the church of San Miniato al Monte for some of the very best views of the area.
Siena – When someone asks me if I have any recommendations for Italy they will, I guess, expect me to suggest the signature cities like Rome, Venice or Florence but actually the first name on my lips is always Siena. I spent an afternoon and evening here which is not long enough, back in the late nineties and was absolutely bowled over by the charm and the character of this pretty, small yet oh so atmospheric medieval town. Siena is famous for the Palio – a horse race around the dome shape Piazza del Campo. I actually don’t like this as I know many horses are injured partaking so once again Italy is generating this love hate feeling but putting that to one side the rest of the town is incredible.
The Duomo di Siena is one of the standout buildings off the main Piazza as well as the Torre del Mangia which you can climb for amazing views of the town. Every Wednesday, it’s the biggest market Tuscany has to offer and its at La Lizza. The gorgeous little back streets of Siena at dusk are a dream – the sound of scooters and footsteps on cobbled streets as people shop for local leather goods or stock up on fresh fruit, vegtables, cheese and wine is to them just every day life but to me its why I travel. Siena is in my opinion, the best of Italy….
Pisa is of course renowned for its leaning tower which is simply magnificent as is the area immediately around it – the Campo dei Miracoli or the Piazza del Duomois. This is a large, green open space hosting a group of monuments that are famous all over the world – the baptistery, the cathedral, the cemetery, and the world famous leaning tower. The Piazza has been on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites since 1987.
To the southeast of the Campo, on the river, you’ll find the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo, a fine collection of art and sculpture, while west along the Arno is the Palazzo Reale. A strip of unattractive beach resorts stretch north along the coast from near Pisa to the Ligurian border. This Riviera della Versilia should be something more special, given the dramatic backdrop of the Alpi Apuane, but the beaches share the coastal plain with a railway, autostrada and roads.
Overall I was disappointed in Pisa – yes the tower is an amazing site but the hoardes of tourists taking the money shot backed by stalls selling souvenir books and tacky model leaning towers was not for me…
Other attractions of this region are:
- San Gimignano – a beautifully well preserved medieval town with tall towers and narrow alleys.
- Val d’Orcia – a valley of winding slopes dotted with cypresses and vineyards.
- Chianti – somewhere you are likely to find me – a naturally beautiful area famous for its wine.
- Viaregio – a seaside riviera style resort known for its carnival.
- Lucca – a city on the Serchio river known for its well preserved Renaissance walls encircling the city centre.
- Baratti Gulf – many stunning beaches on the coastal area between Livorno and Grosseto.
- Elba Island – with its amazing beaches and clear waters.
The region of Umbria, Italys only with a coastline, comprises mainly hills, mountains, hollows and plains and extends along the Tiber’s central basin. The regions capital is Perugia.
Like many Italian towns Perugia is steeped in history. The centre is on a hilltop and is packed with medieval lanes and fine buildings. Corso Vannucci, the town’s principal street, is pedestrianised and leads to the main square, Piazza IV Novembre. The town’s cathedral, the Duomo or Cattedrale si San Lorenzo has a baroque facade and Roman ruins
Perugia has two major universities, one of which is for foreigners and this has led to a lot of bars and student digs catering for the younger audience and has brought a drinking culture to parts of the town.
Attractions of this region are:
- Lake Trasimeno, central Italy’s largest lake.
- Castiglione del Lago – ancient dwellings amid a natural landscape.
- The Cascate delle Marmore – waterfalls near Terni.
- The River Nera – an area poular for sports lovers who enjoy canoeing, kayaking.
- Carsulae – an ancient Roman town.
- The Dunarobba Fossil Forest an ancient forest that existed 3 million years ago.
Abruzzo is located in central Italy and considered the greenest region of Italy. It stretches from the heart of the Apennines to the Adriatic Sea, on a mostly mountainous and wild terrain. The regions capital is L’Aquila.
L’Aquila is the regions main art city and therefore has a cosmopolitan feel. However very sadly the city is now more famous as having been rocked by a massive earthquake in 2009. The grandeur is gone and being rebuilt.
Attractions of this region are:
1. Pescasseroli, Rivisondoli & Roccaraso – popular winter ski resorts.
2. Gran Sasso, Laga Mountains, and Mount Majella – popular mountains, peaks and hills rich in history, traditions and art.
3. Aterno Valley – an area full of ancient villages and pretty scenery.
4. National Park of Abruzzo, the Park of Gran Sasso and the Laga Mountains – for species such as golden eagle, wolves and the Marsican brown bear.
Basilicata islocated between Calabria and Apulia, in the south of Italy and is known for its forests, and small charming villages that cover the mountain side. The regions capital is Potenza.
Potenza is one of the highest regional capitals in Italy and overlooks the Basento valley. With a roman history the town hosts a number of historical sites and monuments. Potenza can be explored on foot since most attractions are limited to the centre of the town and with the roads here quite picturesque it makes walking around very enjoyable.
Attractions of this region are:
1. Monticchio Lakes – one of the most spectacular locations in Basilicata.
2. Lake Grande and Lake Piccolo – two splendid stretches of water that fill the two craters of the extinct Mount Vulture.
3. Metaponto and Policoro – coastal resorts offering wide sandy or pebble beaches.
4. The Gulf of Policastro – an area of coastal villages, small beaches and the crystal-clear seas.
Calabria is at the toe of the boot, the extreme south of Italy and separated from Sicily by the Strait of Messina. The capital of the region is Catanzaro.
Catanzaro is an old town by a beach and a little fishing port on a rock and split into two parts by the steep Fiumarella valley. These two parts are connected by a huge concrete steel bridge of Viadotto Morandi – one of the tallest one-arch bridges in Europe. There is a pedestrian walkway, the Strada dei Due Mari where you can enjoy fantastic panoramas of the region.
Historical monuments include the Duomo Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta and the Piazza Duomo.
Attractions of this region are:
- Reggio Calabria – a coastal city hosting the National Archaelogical museum
- Cosenza – a town recognised for its spectacular beauty and history.
- Crotone – a town popular for its panoramic location and its classic Italian lifestyle
Campania is one of the regions of Southern Italy and stretches along the Tyrrhenian Sea, from the mouth of the Garigliano River to the Gulf of Policastro. It is well known for its beautiful coast, art, history and cuisine. The regions capital is Naples.
I read an article about Naples and it was described as a tattered beauty… Naples is raw, it has a chequered history and even today it is not perfect but then perhaps that’s why it appeals to some more than any other Italian city ? It is that rough diamond and the black sheep of the family.
Naples has its very own character and an old-world charm. Like many Italian cities though it is full of narrow cobbled streets, bars restaurants and galleries. Washing hangs up high down every side street and markets are bustling with shoppers touching feeling, smelling and discussing the fresh local produce.
Neapolitans, despite their dodgy reputation, welcome visitors like guests to their home and with so much to do both in the city and throughout the region of Campania its worth a visit!
Sorrento is a small but popular resort perched picturesquely on a plateau above the sea with spectacular views over the Bay of Naples.
It has long been a favourite with British tourists as a gateway to the Amalfi Coast and it also has good train connections for a 30 minute transfer costing 2-3 euros to Pompeii and regular fast ferry connections to Naples and Capri. The Piazza Tasso is a delight and bordered by high quality hotels, shops and restaurants. As well as the buzzing and historical town there are the beaches, nearby traditional villages and rural walks through lemon and olive groves.
Other attractions of this region are:
1. Capri – an island in Italy’s Bay of Naples and known for its rugged landscape, high class hotels, shopping and its Blue Grotto.
2. Ischia – A short ferry ride from Naples, this small volcanic island is known for its thermal springs and mud baths.
3. Positano is one of the most beautiful cliffside villages in Italy. Artists, writers and singers, are all attracted to the white houses and gardens.
4. Pompeii – the famous city buried by an eruption from nearby Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 AD.
Molise is situated in south-central Italy and is known for its nature, history, art, age-old traditions and good food. The regions capital is Campobasso.
Campobasso was once famous for making cutlery but over time this has dwindled and replaced with paving tiles and soaps. The city has various historical sites of interest including the Castello Monforte with six towers of the medieval wall remains in the old town, where there are also the Romanesque churches of San Bartolomeo and San Giorgio.
Attractions of this region are:
- The National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise – nature reserves ideal for walking and wildlife watching.
- Campitello Matese and Capracotta – the areas best loved ski resorts
Puglia, a southern region forming the heel of Italy’s “boot,” is known for its whitewashed hill towns, centuries-old farmland and hundreds of kilometers of Mediterranean coastline. The regions capital is Bari.
Bari is a gorgeous old town with a pretty bustling traditional harbour and some of Italies finest beaches nearby.
The old harbour where the traditional fishing boats land their catches and sell their seafood straight off their boats. This is traditional Bari life and wonderful to witness. The atmospheric old town is called Bari Vecchio. Sitting on a peninsula overlooking the old harbour, this walled part of the city is full of narrow alleyways, cobbled streets and small piazzas, just begging to be explored.
The beaches in Bari start along the Longomare and keep on going while the harbour front Teatro Margherita, is one of the city’s most loved and iconic buildings and is now home to much of the cities contemporary art scene.
Attractions of this region are:
- Lecce – an art city and Baroque jewel scattered with outstanding masterpieces and landmarks.
- Gargano – the “spur of the Italian boot” is home to pristine nature, wonderful beaches, charming villages, olive and citrus groves.
- Alberobello and Itria Valley – set in beautiful countryseide this is the valley quaint villages like Alberobello, Locorotondo and Cisternino.
- Ostuni – the “White City” due to its whitewashed houses.
- Tremiti Islands – a nature reserve of five islands. This is a divers paradise as the only archipelago in the region
- Torre Guaceto Nature Reserve – a natural oasis and protected sea area.
- Castel del Monte – a castle built by the Emperor Frederick II in the XIII century and the region’s most visited monument.
- Castellana Caves – a huge group of underground caves which are considered the most spectacular in Italy
- Salento – an area of white sand beaches and crystal-clear waters and nicknamed “the Maldives of Italy”.
Visitors to the Aeolian Islands will discover a remote and escapist destination rich in stunning natural beauty, a brilliant clear light and unpolluted seas.
There are actually seven islands that make up the Aeolian Islands. From Catania you take the scheduled ferry boat taking one hour to Lipari. Access to the other islands is also by sea.
Lipari – the largest of the islands with a pretty town full of shops, bars and restaurants. The best way to explore the island is by bus or to hire a taxi.
Vulcano – The smoking Gran Cratere looms high over the island and can be climbed in about an hour. There are mud baths, natural springs and a choice of hotels. Lipari is 15 minutes by ferry.
Salina – the greenest island with two extinct volcanoes and 30 minutes from Lipari by hydrofoil.
Stromboli – the most spectacular island with an active volcano which is 2200 metres in height. Undaunted people still live beneath it in whitewashed house with beautiful gardens.
Panarea – the smallest and prettiest of all the islands. Leafy lanes line with fruit trees and no cars. This is a retreat for the rich and famous many of whom arrive from the riviera in their opulent yachts.
Alicudi – This island really is the back of beyond . The island forms a volcano cone and there are some pleasant walks but this island is extremely quiet with little to do.
Filicudi – another small quiet island great for walking with spectacular paths criss crossing their way along mountain terraces, alongside craggy mountain boulders and flowering cacti.
The Aeolian Islands are unique and a visit is for those who love nature and silence ! Perfect !
Pantelleria is an island of wild natural beauty, closer to North Africa than to Sicily, with dramatic coastlines, pristine waters, and an abundance of caves, grotto’s and thermal springs.
The Lago di Venere is a large lake of volcanic origin set inside the original crater with thermal springs draining into it. There are also natural saunas set within hillside caves. From an image it looks like there is a beach here by the lake but actually there are no beaches – people swim from the black volcanic rocks.
Everywhere on the island are steeply terraced vineyards where the local zibibbo grape is grown for Passito wine.
There are many walking trails around the island as well as boat excursions.
The small town of Pantelleria on the north coast provides some restaurants bars and shops and a central hotel opposite the harbour and marina.
Pantelleria has become a chic hideaway for celebrities such as fashion designers, film stars and recording artists who escape to relax on this remote beautiful island. There is a very limited mobile signal on the island – another bonus for those looking to disappear for a break!
Access to the island is via a 50 minute scheduled flight from Palermo.
I have over the years visited almost all of Sardinia for work and leisure, yet its an island which has yet to truly capture my heart.
Sardinia has its history and olde world charm in towns like Alghero, it has its playboy playground and multi million dollar yachts in the stunning Costa Smeralda and all around it has its snow white sandy beaches, emerald sea and ragged coast and then also a gorgeous mountainous interior. Add to that the usual Italian cuisine and fine wine and you would think it was a nailed on save to my favourites folder. I guess Sardinia is that relationship that ticks all the boxes, we get on great, there is an attraction and yes we have had some good times but its just not working……its not Sardinia its me !!
In the south of Sardinia you can find the regions capitol – Cagliari. The city is awash with ancient Roman ruins, museums filled with prehistoric artefacts, churches and elegant palaces. The Il Castello is the central hilltop citadel and Cagliari’s most imposing sight. The streets are full of the noise of scooters hurtling down tree-fringed boulevards and locals hanging out at busy cafes. Outside of the town brings you to Poetto beach, where in the summer it’s party time along a delicious stretch of coast.
On the east coast there is also Cala Mariolu, one of the most beautiful beaches on the entire island.
Back in 2002 and partial to a road trip my good lady and I headed off to Sicily to discover not only the tourist trails but also some of those off the beaten track gems.
Sicily is the largest and most populous island in the Mediterranean and has a veritable feast of top attractions. There is the capital of Palermo, the tourist town of Taormina and a number of other fascinating smaller towns and villages combined with Mount Etna, a beautiful and varied countryside, golden beaches, mountains and fertile plains.
Sicilians have a reputation of being fierce, proud and secretive, but, as we soon discovered they are also generous, loyal, welcoming and artistic.
The islands reputation for food and wine is also totally warranted. Vineyards and olive trees are scattered all over the countryside. Oranges and lemons, fruit trees, nuts, rustic breads, excellent locally produced meat, pastas and seafood are the staple diet together with of course your traditional Italian and unique Sicilian fayre dishes. Local dishes include Pesce Spada – Swordfish stuff with mozzarella, herbs and brandy, Pasta con le Sarde – Fresh Sardines, or Triglia alla Siciliana – Red Mullet in a white wine and orange peel sauce. I loved the food and the wine in Sicily!
For sport and activities head to Taormina, Cefalu or Giardini Naxos for dive centres, water-skiing and pedalo’s plus all the other beach related sports and pastimes.
We flew to Catania on Sicily’s East coast picked up a car and over the next week we travelled down to Syracuse, Ragusa, Agrigento, Corleone, Palermo, Cefalu, Messina, Mount Etna, Castelmola and Taormina.
- Syracuse – an incredible preserved Roman city full of treasures and monuments plus also a lovely market that we stumbled up and a pretty harbour. It is definitely worth a visit.
- Ragusa – one of the most beautiful hilltop cities in Sicily with the Duomo di San Giorgio at its heart.
- Agrigento – a hilltop city and known for the ruins of the ancient city of Akragas in the valley of the temples, an enormous archaeological site
- Corleone – well I had to visit being a fan of the Godfather films. Another place to visit with this interest is Forza D’Agro where some of the filming took place from this iconic series.
- Palermo – the capital of Sicily and oh my god the mopeds…. Now I am a confident driver but do not try to drive in Palermo during rush hour. I did … never again! Having said that once I had ditched the car the city was impressive with narrow cobbled streets, with tiny atmospheric restaurants, Unesco protected churches, white sand beaches with tourquise coloured waters.
- Cefalu is an atmospheric Moorish port with a wealth of narrow lanes, picturesque houses and a beautiful beach. The wooden balconies of bars and restaurants overlooking the sea are a photographers dream.
- Mount Etna – the highest and most active volcano in Europe. You must experience this natural wonder however up to 2900m you can do it yourself but to see the highest craters you would need to invest in a guide. It is in my opinion worth every euro.
- Castelmola – a small village, just 15 minutes drive up from Taormina. With a small selection of restaurants, the delightful Hotel Villa Sonia with an incredible view of Mount Etna from you bath , a tiny piazza and a few bars of which one will make the ladies blush and the gentleman look away – the Turrisi or Phallic Bar in a quaint Sicilian town is totally unexpected and guarantees a raucous if slightly uncomfortable evening!
- Giardini Naxos – an old fishing harbour offering a mix of ancient history and café style society. The magnificent long sandy beach attracts the tourists and sun worshippers.
- Taormina – perched on a cliff top has at its heart a castle, cathedral, and a cluster of chic shops and cafes. The Greco-Roman amphitheatre is a very popular tourist attraction, In the early evening the main promenade, the Corso Umberto, is alive with lovestruck couples, tourists or families with kids running wild. From Taormina you can take a cable car down to its Mazzaro beach. Alongside this is also Giardini Naxos a long and gently shelving beach.
Sicily is magnificent – it took me a while to get Sicily but the road trip made me understand the island, the people and all that it offers. I’d go back in a heart beat !
Explaining in just a few sentences what are the most famous Italian dishes and where to eat the most authentic Italian food is not straight forward and simply not possible as each of the 20 regions have their own dishes, products and ingredients.
Yes of course there are the pasta dishes and the pizzas but in Italy you really need to try the local specialities which are so unique and given the pride the Italians take in their food, almost always ,exceptional !
A typical Italian meal consists of an antipasto, a primo (usually pasta or risotto), secondo (main course, typically fish or meat), contorno (side dish), and dolce (dessert).
Spaghetti ai frutti di mare – Among the classic Italian dishes, the best and most delicious varieties of this dish still are in regions like Sardinia, Sicily and Puglia regions.
Sea urchin spaghetti – Sea urchins only live in crystal clear waters and as such Italy’s coast is full of them and peak season is between November and April.
Arancino – This is typical Sicilian street food and are cone-shaped rice balls breaded and deep-fried.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina – a speciality in Florence is the local Fiorentina T-bone steak.
Risotto alla Milanese – This is probably one of the simplest and most straightforward classic Italian dishes and made from saffron, rice and butter.
Panettone – Typical Italian Christmas cake and available in every bakery and pastry shop across the country.
Italian Wine – Some of the most prominent wine regions in Italy are Tuscany, Piedmont, Veneto, Marche and Abruzzo, Lombardy and Sicily. Some of the top wines are Barolo which originates from northern Italy, specifically from the Piedmont region and Franciacorta from the Providence of Brescia, in the Lombardy region. Of course there is Chianti Classico too.
Prosecco from the Veneto region should be your drink of choice. It’s crisp and light, and the bubbles make the ideal aperitivo.
Aperol Spritz – Aperol with Prosecco and tonic water making a bright orange, fizzy spritz. An alternative of this is Campari Spritz.
Digestivo – there are many drinks to take after a meal but the popular ones are Limoncello which is a sweet lemon liquer or Grappa which is a strong firewater and high in alcohol content.
Beer – Most tend to be refreshingly light such as the Peroni, Moretti and Nastro Azzurro.
* Salve — Hello
* Buonasera — Hello and good evening
* Arrivederci — Goodbye.
A religion in Italy and with many of the worlds top footballers including Diego Maradona (Napoli), Paul Gascoigne (Lazio) and currently Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus) having played or playing in Serie A, Italy’s top league. It is no surprise that the country lives and breathes the game and when the Azzurri (the Blues) the nickname given to the Italian national team do well then the country stops!
Italy is synonymous with cars, being the home of such famous names as Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Fiat, Lamborghini, Lancia and Maserati. Just south of Bologna is Modena the home of Ferrari – probably the most famous motor company in the world. The motor racing circuit in Italy is at Monza although in recent times there have also been races at Imola which is technically in San Marino and perhaps infamously the venue where sadly the great Ayrton Senna lost his life in 1994.
Back in the 50’s Italy was famous for the Mille Miglia race around Italy and it was famously won by Stirling Moss when he was at his absolute prime.
Skiing in Italy is great value for money and when you add to that the incredible food and wine, friendly atmosphere and splendid scenery – especially in Courmayeur and the Dolomites you will be sure to have an amazing experience.
In recent years the country has invested in the most modern lift systems, snow-making equipment and they pride themselves on the care of the slopes. The flexibility of the hotels and short transfer times, particularly to Courmayeur and the rest of the Valle d’Aosta, make it an ideal and affordable destination for short breaks and ski weekends.
Italy has 24 national parks dotted around the country and what I love is that the local people recognise the importance and therefore through environmental education, initiatives and special events they maintain the awareness amongst the community. .
The National Park of Gran Paradiso in the Valle d’Aosta , Piemonte region – an example of a national park catering for all the family and in particular those looking to participate in sports, try local cuisine and take part in educational activities for the kids.
Some parks have been recognized by UNESCO, as in the case of the National Park of the Bellunesi Dolomites in the Veneto region. This is a must for mountain lovers and enthusiasts of winter and summer sports alike.
The oldest of all the parks in the Appennine Mountains in central Italy combines the preservation and development of animals such as the Golden Eagle, the Brown Marsican, wolves, ibex, and chambois.
The ancient Casentinesi Forests in Emilia Romagna and Toscana as well as the Umbra Forest are great to showcase the flora and plant life such as orchids, primroses, lilies, beech trees, live oaks, chestnut trees, red and white firs and spruces, myrtle and junipers.
In the south one of Italy’s largest parks, the National Park of Pollino in Calabria & Basilicata. Here you will find the Grotta del Romito, one of the oldest and most important archaeological sites in Europe, due to the discovery of human remains that date back more than 10,000 years.