Italy is the seat of modern civilization, with an unrivaled storehouse of Renaissance art and home to some of the world’s most popular foods. Whether you go for the art, the food and wine, or the ancient history (or all of the above), you’ll find so much more—from the hustle of Naples’ streets to the gently rolling hills of Umbria to the coastal delicacies of Liguria.


Photo by Michelle Heimerman


When’s the best time to go to Italy?

A summer spent wandering Italy can keep all those carb pounds in check because the temperatures in most of the country reaches into the 80’s. But since Italians take most of August off for their own vacations, lots of places are closed and the vitality of the country is transferred to the beaches. So, head to the peninsula in the spring or fall. Both are peak culinary seasons with a riot of vegetables appearing from April into June and the wonder of mushrooms and the wine harvest from September well into November.

How to get around Italy

The country’s main airports are in Milan and Rome. Over the past few years, airlines like Norwegian and Turkish Air have run outrageous deals if you fly through their hubs so if you can find a short hop into Italy from Oslo or Istanbul, it may be well worth the discount. Also look for airlines like SAS, KLM, and Swiss.

Italy has a very well developed and fairly reliable rail system that will get you to most towns of note without much delay but the rise of budget airlines means that flying between cities can be just as cheap. But if you want to tour the countryside you’ll still need a rental car.

Food and drink to try in Italy

Italy is a legendary culinary destination for a reason. There are plenty of tourist traps but the whole country is swimming in great wine, an exploding craft brewing scene, and a variety of creative culinary feats—with a focus on quality ingredients. In Italy you’ll find a culture that takes food seriously; don’t miss your opportunity to partake in specialties as well known as Parmesan cheese and Chianti wine or the local specialties of every small town and region. Slow Food has an excellent set of guides and seeing the distinctive snail logo in shop and restaurant windows is a positive cue.

Culture in Italy

Rome is the obvious starting point for culture vultures because it’s drenched in ancient, medieval, papal, and modern history. But Italy also has a tremendous musical footprint that comes alive most vividly in opera. Milan and Venice contain two of the greatest opera houses in the world in La Scala and La Fenice, respectively. Most cities of note, like Bologna and Palermo, contain dynamic opera houses which thrive on repertory and contemporary experiments.

Check out Siena’s summer Palio, a medieval horse race around the city’s central piazza. It’s full of pomp and fanfare—but go prepared, not an ounce of it is sanitized; jockeys are regularly injured, horses even more so. A similar race is held annually in Asti. In Venice, the annual carnival is enticing fun, with all those masks and Baroque plays. And the Venice Biennale, every two years, is a must-see for contemporary art lovers. Don’t forget that Italy is mad for soccer, so if you’re there during the regular season (roughly September through May), seek out a game to experience all the passion and fraternity. It’s even better when events like the European Cup or World Cup are being played; every bar or café will be full of fans.

Local travel tips for Italy

Major cultural institutions like the Uffizi and Borghese Gallery require reserved tickets. Make sure to buy tickets to major institutions well in advance. August is one big national holiday, when the entire country decamps for the beach, mountains, or foreign vacations. It can be fun to play in the sand with Italians but if you want to experience the country in all its glory, plan to avoid that month.

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The comforting taste of familiar Italian food is transformed into a different cuisine in Venice, where the cooking is influenced by spices like saffron brought by traders and by its proximity to both the Alps and the sea. Fresh fish dominates menus, turning up in seafood risotto and pasta as well as in spreads for cicchetti, tapas-like snacks. Sample typically Venetian dishes at family-run trattorie or dine at a fancy restaurant with a view with these top restaurants in Venice.
The allure of this region is overwhelming: Brilliant sunlight on lemon orchards, villas set on cliffs over glittering seas, hikes through fragrant hills to the same views admired by Roman emperors of old. Come for the history or the beaches—just come.
Board a boat or a train, and head into the areas surrounding Genoa along the Ligurian coast, between the mountains and the sea.
The wine-growing area of Chianti sits at Florence’s doorstep. Head south down the SS222 road (known as the “Chiantigiana”) for classic Tuscan landscapes of rolling hills dotted with olives and striped with vines, ochre-hued villas and imposing castles, and hilltop towns bathed in mellow light.
Think of Piedmont and the wines spring instantly to mind. This is the home of Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera. The best places to try a glass or bottle are local restaurants which feature both the famous labels and things that you’ll never find outside of Piedmont. Regional specialties abound. The Slow Food movement is headquartered in Bra and runs a university dedicated to its culinary principles in nearby Pollenzo. Piedmont is also ground zero for Italy’s microbrewing revolution.
The true gateway to southern Italy, Naples is home to some of the world’s most famous foods, but it’s also the base of a cultural collision that would make a surrealist happy. Nearly anyone who is anyone in the history of the Mediterranean has tromped through the city and left their mark including Spaniards, Ancient Romans, Arabs, Fascists, and American GIs after the war.

Palermo, Sicily’s capital, is a marvelously jumbled, crumbling blend of old and new—a canvas upon which the region’s complex and ever-shifting history has been painted. Over the centuries, the port of Palermo was controlled by forces from the far corners—from Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, to Arabs from North Africa, and then Normans from France, who oversaw a renaissance during which many of Palermo’s iconic landmarks and modern tourist attractions were built.

To see some of the vestiges of ancient empires, take a day trip from Palermo to the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its Greek and Roman ruins, including the Temple of Concordia, remain wonderfully intact. Within the city itself, explore the attractions in historic neighborhoods such as the Arab district of La Kalsa, home to the finery-filled Palazzo Mirto. The Quattro Canti (Four Corners) lies in the heart of the old city, with Piazza Pretoria on the corner. From there it’s only a short distance to Palermo’s Norman Palace, another UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Palermo’s star attractions, which houses the Palatine Chapel, famous for its intricate mosaics.

Palermo is also a perfect jumping-off point for sightseeing excursions to the idyllic beaches of Mondello, the medieval coastal town of Cefalù and the mountain village of Monreale, which is known for its exceptional Norman cathedral.

Whether for leather goods, curios, bath and beauty products, or hand-painted ceramics, shopping is a pleasure in this compact city. Artisans have been part of the city’s fabric for centuries so expect the best and most interesting pieces on sale in the shops and boutiques of Florence.
Three days in Florence might sound like a long time, but there is so much to see in this Renaissance gem, that you need to plan your time well. In three days, you can fit in an intoxicating mix of art and culture, fabulous food and wine, great nightlife and lots and lots of aimless wandering. The centro storico, or historic centre, of Florence is very compact, so there may even be time to nip back to your hotel for a rest in between sights!
A morning cappuccino. A decadent hot chocolate. An afternoon espresso with pastries and people watching...
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