Once caput mundi (capital of the world), Rome was legendarily spawned by a wolf-suckled boy, grew to be Western Europe’s first superpower, became the spiritual centrepiece of the Christian world and is now the repository of over two millennia of European art and architecture. From the Pantheon and the Colosseum to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and countless works by Caravaggio, there’s simply too much to see in one visit. So, do as countless others have done before you: toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain and promise to return.
An Escher-esque maze of skinny streets and waterways, Venice straddles the middle ground between reality and sheer fantasy. This is a city of ethereal winter fogs, fairy-tale domes and Gothic arches fit for the set of an opera. Look beyond its sparkling mosaics and brooding Tintorettos and you’ll discover the other Venice: a living, breathing organism studded with secret gardens, sleepy campi (squares) and well-worn bacari (small bars) filled with the fizz of prosecco and the sing-song lilt of the Venetians’ local dialect.
Italy’s most romanticized region, Tuscany is tailor-made for art-loving bon vivants. Home to Brunelleschi’s Duomo and Masaccio’s Cappella Brancacci frescoes, Florence, according to Unesco, contains ‘the greatest concentration of universally renowned works of art in the world’. Beyond its blockbuster museums, elegant churches and flawless Renaissance streetscapes sprawls an undulating landscape of sinuous cypress trees, olive groves and coveted regional treasures, from the Gothic majesty of Siena and Manhattan-esque skyline of medieval San Gimignano to the vineyards of Italy’s most famous wine region, Chianti.
Frozen in its death throes, the time-warped ruins of Pompeii hurtle you 2000 years into the past. Wander through chariot-grooved Roman streets, lavishly frescoed villas and bathhouses, food stores and markets, theatres, even an ancient brothel. Then, in the eerie stillness, your eye on ominous Mt Vesuvius, ponder Pliny the Younger’s terrifying account of the town’s final hours: ‘Darkness came on again, again ashes, thick and heavy. We got up repeatedly to shake these off; otherwise we would have been buried and crushed by the weight.’
Italy’s most celebrated coastline is a gripping strip: coastal mountains plunge into creamy blue sea in a prime-time vertical scene of precipitous crags, sun-bleached villages and lush woodland. Between sea and sky, mountain-top hiking trails deliver Tyrrhenian panoramas fit for a god. While some may argue that the peninsula’s most beautiful coast is Liguria’s Cinque Terre or Calabria’s Costa Viola, it is the Amalfi Coast that has seduced and inspired countless greats, from Wagner and DH Lawrence to Tennessee Williams, Rudolf Nureyev and Gore Vidal.
A browse through any art-history textbook will no doubt highlight seminal movements in Western art, from classical, Renaissance and mannerist to baroque, futurist and metaphysical. All were forged in Italy by a red-carpet roll call of artists including Gentileschi, Giotto, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Bernini, Caravaggio, Carracci, Boccioni, Balla and de Chirico. Find the best of them in Rome’s Museo e Galleria Borghese and Vatican Museums, Florence’s Uffizi, Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia, Milan’s Accademia Brera, Bergamo’s Accademia Carrara and Naples’ hilltop Museo di Capodimonte.
Tackling the Dolomites
Scour the globe and you’ll find plenty of taller, bigger and more geologically volatile mountains, but few can match the romance of the pink-hued, granite Dolomites. Maybe it’s their harsh, jagged summits, the vibrant skirts of spring wildflowers or the rich cache of Ladin legends. Then again, it could just be the magnetic draw of money, style and glamour at Italy’s most fabled ski resort, Cortina d’Ampezzo, or the linguistic curiosity of picture-postcard mountain village Sappada. Whatever the reason, this tiny pocket of northern Italy takes seductiveness to dizzying heights.
In a region as overwhelmingly foodie as Emilia-Romagna it’s only natural that its capital, Bologna, is dubbed ‘La Grassa’ (the fat one). Many belt-busting Italian classics hail from here, including mortadella, tortellini and tagliatelle al ragù. Shop in the deli-packed Quadrilatero and day-trip to the city of Modena for world-famous aged balsamic vinegar. Leave room for Parma, hometown of parmigiano reggiano cheese and the incomparable prosciutto di Parma. Wherever you plunge your fork, toast with a glass or three of Emilia-Romagna’s renowned Lambrusco or sauvignon blanc.
Neapolitan Street Life
Nowhere else in Italy are people as conscious of their role in the theatre of everyday life as in Naples. And in no other Italian city does daily life radiate such drama and intensity. Naples’ ancient streets are a stage, cast with boisterous matriarchs, bellowing baristas and tongue-knotted lovers. To savour the flavour, dive into the city’s rough-and-tumble La Piggnasecca market, a loud, lavish opera of hawking fruit vendors, wriggling seafood and the irresistible aroma of just-baked sfogliatelle (sweetened ricotta pastries).
Murals & Mosaics
Often regarded as ‘dark’, the Italian Middle Ages had an artistic brilliance that’s hard to ignore. Perhaps it was the sparkling hand-cut mosaic of Ravenna’s Byzantine basilicas that provided the guiding light, but something inspired Giotto di Bondone to leap out of the shadows with his daring naturalistic frescoes in Padua’s Cappella degli Scrovegni and the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi. With them he gave the world a new artistic language, and from then it was just a short step to Masaccio’s Trinity and the dawning light of the Renaissance.
Living Luxe on Lago di Como
If it’s good enough for the Clooneys and vacationing Obamas, it’s good enough for mere mortals. Nestled in the shadow of the Rhaetian Alps, dazzling Lago di Como is Lombardy’s most spectacular lake. Its lavish Liberty-style villas are home to movie moguls, fashion royalty and Arab sheikhs, while the lake’s siren calls include gardens at Villa Melzi d’Eril, Villa Carlotta and Villa Balbianello that blush pink with camellias, azaleas and rhododendrons in April and May. For those less flush, Como’s lush green hinterland promises bags of free, wonderfully scenic hiking.
Hiking the Italian Riviera
For the sinful inhabitants of the Cinque Terre’s five sherbet-coloured villages – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore – penance involved a lengthy and arduous hike up the vertiginous cliffside to the local village sanctuary to appeal for forgiveness. You can scale the same trails today, through terraced vineyards and hillsides smothered in macchia (shrubbery). They may give your glutes a good workout, but as the heavenly views unfurl, it’s hard to think of a more benign punishment. Count your blessings.
The English language fails to accurately describe the varied blue, green and – in the deepest shadows – purple hues of the sea surrounding Sardinia. While models, ministers and perma-tanned celebrities wine, dine and sail along the glossy Costa Smeralda, much of Sardinia remains a wild, raw playground. Slather on that sunscreen and explore the island’s rugged coastal beauty, from the tumbledown boulders of Santa Teresa di Gallura and the wind-chiselled cliff face of the Golfo di Orosei to the windswept beauty of the Costa Verde’s dune-backed beaches.
Piedmont on a Plate
Piedmont is one of Italy’s gastronomic powerhouses, a mouth-watering, knee-weakening Promised Land of culinary decadence. At its best in the autumn, this is the place to trawl through woods in search of prestigious fungi and to nibble on cocoa concoctions in gilded cafes, not to mention swill cult-status reds in Slow Food villages. Stock the larder at Turin’s sprawling food emporium Eataly, savour rare white truffles in Alba and compare the nuances of vintage Barolo and Barbaresco wines on the vine-graced slopes of the Langhe.
Escaping to Paradiso
If you’re pining for a mind-clearing retreat, wear down your hiking boots on the 724km of marked trails and mule tracks traversing ‘Grand Paradise’. Part of the Graian Alps and the very first of Italy’s national parks, Gran Paradiso’s pure, pristine spread encompasses 57 glaciers and Alpine pastures awash with wild pansies, gentians and alpenroses, not to mention a healthy population of Alpine ibex, for whose protection the park was originally established. The eponymous Gran Paradiso (4061m) is the park’s only peak, accessed from tranquil Cogne.
Sour, spicy and sweet, the flavours of Sicily reflect millennia of cross-cultural influences – Greek, Arab, Spanish and French. Indeed, no other regional Italian cuisine is quite as complex and intriguing. Tuck into golden panelle (chickpea fritters) in Palermo, fragrant couscous in Trapani and chilli-spiked chocolate in Modica. From Palermo’s Mercato di Ballarò to Catania’s La Pescheria, market stalls burst with local delicacies: Bronte pistachios, briny olives, glistening swordfish and nutty Canestrato cheese. Just leave room for a fluffy, ricotta-filled cannolo, not to mention a slice of oh-so-sweet Sicilian cassata.
There’s baroque, and then there’s barocco leccese (Lecce baroque), the hyper extravagant spin-off defining many a Puglian town. Making it all possible was the local stone, so impossibly soft it led art historian Cesare Brandi to claim it could be carved with a penknife. Craftspeople vied for ever greater heights of creativity, crowding facades with swirling vegetal designs, gargoyles and strange zoomorphic figures. Queen of the architectural crop is Lecce’s Basilica di Santa Croce, so insanely detailed the Marchese Grimaldi said it made him think a lunatic was having a nightmare.
Scaling Mount Etna
Known to the Greeks as the ‘column that holds up the sky’, Mount Etna is not only Europe’s largest volcano, it’s one of the world’s most active. The ancients believed the giant Tifone (Typhoon) lived in its crater and lit the sky with spectacular pyrotechnics. At 3326m it literally towers above Sicily’s Ionian Coast. Whether you tackle it on foot or on a guided 4WD tour, scaling this time bomb rewards with towering views and the secret thrill of having come cheek-to-cheek with a towering threat.