Oh, Italy— you boot-shaped beauty, you. With your pizza-spinning chefs, OTT hand gestures, truffle-scented tagliatelle and creamy gelato, there’s really nowhere else that can match. From north to south, you range from ice-capped Dolomites covered in snow to wave-lapped pebble coves baked in 80-degree sun. And between the two…well…let’s just say it’s a panini sandwich bursting with priceless da Vincis, haunting Caravaggios, the palaces of old emperors, terracotta Tuscan towns, and more world-class wineries than you can shake a Chianti at!
Cue this dreamy bucket list of the best things to do in Italy. It should help anyone trying to check off the seemingly endless wealth of wonders that are packed between the Adriatic and the Ligurian seas, Sicily’s smoking volcanos, and the glaciers of the Alps. You can rest assured there’s oodles to sink your teeth into (literally). No mode of transport specified, but we recommend a cheek-wobbling Vespa or an open-top Alfa Romeo. You know, if you happen to have one lying around.
Everyone knows how it goes: hop in a gondola, devour a Cornetto, propose to your travel partner. Cheesy, huh? Well tough, because it’s one of the most important things to do in Italy.
Alternatively, you could get that gondolier to weave through the old waterways and up the Grand Canal, taking in the Doge’s Palace and the handsome arches of the Rialto Bridge as you go. For a break, head over to the district of Murano, where glass blowers have been making artisan goodies for centuries.
Powder hounds assemble! The all-new Dolomiti Superskipass offers access to a whopping 12 ski areas in the heart of the Italian Alps. The best of them might just be Val Gardena, though. Spreading around the Piz Boe under the bishop’s-hat of a mountain that is the Langkofel, it clocks up nearly 200 kilometers of piste.
Be sure to hit the Sella Ronda. It’s a marked ski circuit that can be ridden in both directions. Pizza stops and stunning views of the Dolomites abound along the way.
Talking of views of the Dolomites, there’s no better hunting ground for those than the Via Alta 1. This is legendary hiking terrain, mapped across 1,500 kilometers, through valleys like Cortina d’Ampezzo (stop there to have a coffee with the Gucci-wearing, Alpine-chic crowd) and the serrated Belluno ranges.In total, the whole trek takes around 10-12 days. Along the way, you’ll bed down in high-perched cabins known as rifugios. More often than not, they turn into schnapps- and wine-drinking taverns 2,700 meters up!
Just when you thought you’d had enough of rifugios clutching the mountaintops of the Italian Alps, we send you strolling (read: clambering) in the direction of Lagazuoi. Why? Well, suffice it to say you’ll understand the moment you arrive…
AKA: Sweeping panoramas of the Cinque Torri and the Col di Lana ranges unfold before the little hut. There’s also an on-site Finnish sauna to soothe those post-hike muscles. And you get to taste farm-to-table South Tyrolean food while gazing out at the summits.
Some come to Lake Garda to laze on pebble beaches and munch ice cream while swimming in crystal-clear alpine waters. Others come to conquer heart-thumping via ferrata routes. If you’re not familiar with those, then let’s just say they involve a harness, a hardhat, and a whole load of vertigo! What’s more, the precipitous mountains of the Valle di Ledro right by Riva del Garda are famous for them.
Mind you, those pebble beaches, ice creams, and alpine waters sound just about fine right now.
Red-tiled roofs and honey-hued palazzos fringe the soft bends of the Adige River as it emerges from the Alps. They herald agreeable and grand Verona. The place is most famed for being the home of Shakespeare’s two worst ever Tinder daters: Mr. R Montague and Ms. J Capulet. Go see the famous balcony at the Casa di Giulietta, if you must. Just know that the veranda you can see was actually built out of an old sarcophagus when clocks were still reading 1936 (still feeling all romantic?).
For food, don’t miss Leone da Ciro1924. It’s a pizza joint that does their dough in the Napoli style. You might not be in the south yet, but great pizza abounds!
There might be nothing more Italian that sipping a cappuccino (or capuccio as it’s distinctly pronounced in the north!) on a cobbled piazza in the morning. That’s why we insist you make a detour to the wonderful little town of Lovere. It’s an official I Borghi più belli d’Italia (roughly: “most beautiful villages in Italy”), spilling onto stone squares under cute belfries before the gleaming blue of Lake Iseo.
Dodge the fashionistas and risotto touts to get to the Piazza del Duomo. It’s the heart of Milan, gilded with a great – the fifth largest in the world, in fact – cathedral that dates all the way back to 1386!
Don’t worry, there’s no droning on about the haunting effigies of Saint Bartholomew Flayed and Pellegrino Pellegrini’s altar works here. Move through that on the double to hit the piece de resistance: the roof terrace. Yep, you can walk between the flying buttresses atop the Duomo for views right across the fashion capital!
Piedmont spreads between the French Alps, the Italian Alps, and the Ligurian Sea like a great big basket of grapes. Turin is at its center, but more on that later. Before you hit the city, make time for wine!
The fertile lands that filter off the Po River here are perfect for producing high-quality tipples. Seek out vineyards near the stunning town of Monferrato or Asti. They specialise in the Barbera and Nebbiolo grapes, which regularly price at anything over $40 a bottle!
Remember when we mentioned those mountains on the horizon in Piedmont? Well, they should be in full view from the soaring spire top of the Mole Antonelliana in Turin. This curious piece of turn-of-the-century architecture has the unique distinction of being the tallest museum on the planet. Head up the aptly named Panoramic Lift to see the whole city spreading out before you, and the snow-dusted peaks near France to the north and west.
Ever since the Phoenician Greeks discovered the natural harbor at Genoa, this Ligurian city has been the ruler of the waves. These days, the frigates and fleets might be gone, but there are yachts and super boats in their place.
To taste the waves, charter your ride out to the sparkling bays and craggy cliffs of the nearby Riviera. Those who don’t have sea legs can stick to the old city where mazes of lanes converge on quaysides with tempting seafood aplenty.
Ever received a postcard from Italy? There’s a high chance that the Cinque Terre is featured. These are quintessential mugshots of the Med, after all – think pastel-colored homes cascading from vineyard-clad cliffs to a boat-bobbing sea.
The Cinque Terre itself is actually a whole area of Liguria. It’s linked together by stunning coastal walking paths on the Sentiero Azzurro route. Have the camera ready the whole way because the Technicolor villages of Riomaggiore and Corniglia are Instagram fodder extraordinaire!
Just when you thought you’d left the mountains behind for good, you enter the Apennines. These ancient peaks carve through the heart of Italy, running from toe to tip. Arguably their most dramatic section rises with the Apuan Alps around Carrara.
Delve within and you could find yourself clambering on sheer-drop trails over the soaring ridges of Monte Pisanino. Alternatively, there’s a home-cooked lunch of hearty Tuscan (yes, this is Tuscany!) staples waiting down in Trattoria da Morena.
Walls encircle Lucca entirely. They were built in the Renaissance era when Italy was divvied up into city states that all seemed to have beef with each other. Don’t worry though – these days, Lucca’s bulwarks are transformed into green spaces and urban paths. They offer pretty picnic spots overlooking the cobbles and towers of the old town below.
No. Just one more step. Hold your hands out. Stoop a little. There. Perfect. That’s one to file away and never share; the compulsory snap of you helping the Leaning Tower of Pisa…well, not lean anymore!
But seriously, Pisa warrants a pitstop. It’s not just about a wonky tower. Although that is great. It’s also about seeing a stunning Battistero and the Duomo di Pisa, topped with elegant cupolas and carvings and domes.
Whatever you do, don’t call it bolognaise! In these parts, it’s not a sloppy tomato pasta you’ve rustled up for a Netflix sesh. It’s ragù. Sounds refined, eh? Refined and darn tasty. You’ve got the fertile hills and farms of the surrounding Emilia-Romagna region to thank for that. See if you can grab a seat between the locals at Trattoria Danio to sample the real thing. It’s hidden behind Bologna’s famous shadowy arcades a little from the center.
If Florence were a human, she’d be a well-dressed dame with an air of effortless elegance. You know, the diva always sipping champagne and musing of their time on the Riviera. This was once the incubator of the Italian Renaissance. Art bursts from every corner – the Uffizi Gallery alone contains works by Giotto, Botticelli, Raphael, and Titian.
For stunning Italian views, scale the hills above the Giardino Bardini. You’ll be able to see the Arezzo ranges, the grand Duomo, and the handsome Ponte Vecchio on the Arno River below.
It’s time to delve into the heart of Tuscany. San Gimignano is just that, draped like a blob of honey on wine-growing hills speckled with slender cypresses. A forest of 14 stone-built towers rise from the terracotta roofs to mark out the town. They were once the fortresses of warring families. These days, they lurch above piazzas and winding alleys filled with truffle shops and bodegas.
Visiting on Thursday? Hit the Piazza del Duomo early for the food market. Stacks of olives, hard cheese, homemade pasta, porchetta – it’s all there!
Move over Grand National, Italy has its very own legendary horse race. It takes place biannually on the oval-shaped piazza in the heart of handsome Siena. On a dusty track that’s laid between the medieval palazzos and cappuccino cafes, 10 riders compete to bring the honor home to their contrade (city ward). A warning: The Palio isn’t for the faint hearted. High speed and hard fought, you’ll need some serious moxie to see it through.
Cinnamon-tinted Montepulciano has been posing for postcards since Etruscan times. It crowns the undulating ridges of Southern Tuscany with belfries and castles that go back centuries. Park up below the old town and wander in. You’ll soon be lost in a labyrinth of alleys laced with wine shops (the vino nobile is a must-try!) and flower-strewn B&Bs.
The crenulated Palazzo communale stands next to the Santa Maria delle Grazie church on the main plaza. It’s people-watching heaven, with a tasty ice-cream outlet to boot!
It might not look it, but Tuscany is volcanic country. There are steaming hot springs and fumaroles spurting from the mountains here ad infinitum. The wise Romans (and the wise Etruscans before them) saw their potential, converting many into thermal spas for flinging off the toga and getting some hard-earned R&R.
Some of the best are at Saturnia, where the warm waters gush from the side of a charming Tuscan farmhouse. Others await in the juniper and pine woods of Bagni San Filippo, under huge mineral deposits that glow brilliant white.
The name of Lake Trasimeno might strike fear into the heart of a certain Gaius Flaminius (classics grads alone will appreciate that joke), but it’s music to the ears of anyone exploring central Italy. A shimmering expanse of blue under the wooded Apennines of Northern Umbria, it’s famed as the site of one of the bloodiest military encounters between the Romans and the Carthaginians.
These days, grassy lidos fringe the banks by Castiglione. There’s also a grand castle there, rising high with its donjons raised by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, back in 1247.
Crashing across the borderlands of Umbria and Marche, the Monti Sibillini National Park is a swathe of rugged Italy that’s just asking to be explored. The reserve is like an artist’s palette that changes with the seasons. Come spring, wildflower meadows bloom with poppies and edelweiss. Come winter, there are snow plumes dusting the arched back of Monte Sibilla.
The hiking here is nothing short of wonderful. The trails are largely empty for the whole year, so expect real seclusion as you trek out of charming hill towns like Visso and Ussita.
Another day in middle Italy, another hill town. Only this one’s not just another hill town! Back in the 1300s, it was a major palatial residence of the popes. Later, your homeboy Pope Clement VII took refuge here while Charles V sacked Rome. And everyone’s favorite 13th-century Catholic theologian, a Prof. T to the Aquinas, even taught at the local university!
Yep, you’re walking in the steps of history in Orvieto. Be sure to check out the stunning filigrees of Orvieto Cathedral on the main piazza. Oh, and make an expedition into the maze of subterranean tunnels beneath the town – there’s said to be more than 1,000 of them!
No that’s not a set used in Game of Thrones. It’s Civita di Bagnoregio. Clinging like a land-lubbing limpet to a volcanic tuff in Viterbo province, this one’s a serious jaw dropper. The town can only be reached by a narrow causeway lifted high above a gorge. Around it swirl vistas of olive groves, cypress farms, and wooded mountains.
Inside, you can almost forget that you’re perched on a gravity-defying bluff. Bagnoregio is classic Italian charm, with trattorias serving crisp wines and bougainvillea spilling from the cracks of old cottages.
They say all roads lead to Rome. And so, here you are, stepping foot in the fabled Eternal City. Get ready – there’s really nowhere else like it on earth! From the vast collections of the Vatican Museum (where Michelangelos are ten to a penny) to the romantic walks of La Trastevere district, you’ll never be bored.
Be sure to put ancient Rome front and center though. The hulking Colosseum and the Roman Forum are among the greatest treasures of human history. Tours of both can be combined to save money. And you get to hear about gladiators fighting lions!
Caserta lays claim to the largest palace complex on the globe by total area (soz Versailles). That’s the mighty Reggia di Caserta, which spills across the flatlands of the Campanian low country in a such a show of opulent Baroque that some have hailed it as the magnum opus of the style.
The grounds alone are usually enough to get the camera a-clicking. They flit from majestic Neo-Classical effigies of Diana and Actaeon to wide boulevards peppered with fountains and pruned hedges. Inside, double staircases that look lifted from the Titanic meet a gold-gilded Throne Room. It’s breathtaking.
Think of Naples as the bad boy of Italian cities. With the grit of an ancient port town, a smoking volcano keeping watch, and shadowy tales of Camorra mafioso lurking in the age-stained backstreets, it’s hardly your typical sun, sand, and sea vacation spot. Only, Naples is gorgeous, set on a wide bay that sparkles sky blue, between handsome hills dashed with tomato farms.
And it’s got a secret weapon up its sleeve. No, not knuckle dusters. Pizza. This is the home of the dish. The legendary L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele is the place to try it: totally simple, with passata, buffalo mozzarella, basil, and chewy dough. Be ready to queue for a table.
You certainly wouldn’t have thought this tip would be on an Italian bucket list were you reading in AD 80. Only a year before that, the town of Pompeii – a sort of Ibiza retreat for Roman 18-30s – had been totally ravaged by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Its deluxe villas were under ash. Many of its people were lost.
Archaeologists have now uncovered the town and revealed a time capsule of Roman interest. You can go and wander what’s considered to be one of the most immersive ancient sites in the world. It’s got mosaics, market squares, temples, and even brothels complete with risqué wall murals.
Anyone fancy a hike to the top of an active stratovolcano that is considered one of the most dangerous in the world and you’ve just learned destroyed a whole Roman city and everyone in it? Anyone? No?
Undeterred travelers who prize the thrills of clambering up a smoking caldera will push on and join the trail to the top. It’s not an easy climb. Wiggling through pine forests and up scree slopes, it eventually tops out on the crater rim. There, needless to say, the views are simply divine.
Channel your inner Greta Garbo and fling open the convertible (if Hertz can do you a deal) to drive the meanders of the Amalfi Coast. Seductive and alluring, this region is famed around the globe for its cascading cliffs, lemon orchards, and pastel-painted towns that huddle like scoops of Neapolitan pizza in the coves of Campania.
The glitzy seaside town of Positano is a must. You’ll rub shoulders with champagne-sipping A-listers there. A stop at Furore is also wonderful, if only for that eye-watering pebble beach tucked into a precipitous gorge!
Capri might be in eyeshot of the Sorrento Peninsula, but it really is another world. Sundecks and sleek bistros mingle by impossibly blue Mediterranean waters. Opulent villas hide beneath perfectly shaped stone pines. Cacti clutch the cliffs and gaze towards the sculpted tops of Monte Solaro.
Ever since Tiberius, Rome’s most job-shy emperor, came to the island for his debaucherous parties, the world’s celebs have been flocking for fun in the sun. So, keep an eye out for glitzy yachts. Also expect to have to loosen the purse strings a little – Capri ain’t cheap!
From west to east in one fell swoop (don’t worry, there’s a high-speed train from Naples), you head from Amalfi to the Adriatic. Cue the Gargano National Park. A whopping 120,000 hectares of land is reserved for this jewel. It covers a hinterland of scented citrus trees and pines. And then it drops to the coast.
That’s where you catch the wonders of the region. Beaches like Mattinatella and Vanda Biffani shimmer alabaster white. Lagoons of turquoise drift inland, opening onto coves and crevices that are perfect for snorkelling.
Fresh off the back of being European Capital of Culture 2019, Matera is enjoying a renaissance of its own. People now flock to see its curious cave-cut homes and churches. They’re huddled into the Sassi district, which drops down a small mountain ridge in a medley of ancient troglodyte dwellings.
Lots – and many are considered to be thousands of years old – have now been converted from hermit abodes to boutique B&Bs. Around them, a traditional Southern Italian town unfolds with its beige cottages and piazzas.
Food and beaches – these are the reasons most people come to the far south of Italy. But there’s something else crisscrossing the peaks at the far end of the Apennines: hiking trails.
There’s nowhere better to discover those off-beat routes than at the Pollino National Park. Once a land of prowling banditos and hideaway mobsters, it ranges from the coastal plains to peaks of over 2,000 meters. Between them are curious towns with a taste of Albanian culture, deep canyons, and beech woods aplenty.
Wash away the sweat of the hike by making straight for Tropea. A jewel of Calabria, it clings to a clifftop above the shimmering Med. There’s a cathedral that was constructed by the Normans (yes, you read that right – the Normans) in the 12th century. And you can gawp at the glorious Santa Maria dell’Isola monastery dating back to the 500s AD!
However, it’s the beaches that take the biscuit. Tropea is famed for the gleam of its waters. Azure doesn’t quite do them justice. Simply head for the two miles of coast that runs beneath the town to see for yourself.
Taormina captured the imagination of Goethe and DH Lawrence before rising to become perhaps the most enticing spot on the northeastern shores of Sicily. Blessed with a stunning setting on high ridges above the Messina Strait, it’s now a popular vacay hub with horseshoe beaches and a bustling Corso Umberto I.
Still, the piece de resistance is surely its haunting Teatro Greco. Despite the name, it’s likely a Roman creation. But that doesn’t change the audacity of a whole playhouse carved straight into the hillsides high atop the sea.
Yea, there’s lots of, you know, climbing up uber-dangerous volcanoes in Italy. Still, Etna is a must-see on Sicily. It’s the peak that defines the topography of the island, clocking up a whopping 3,350 meters as it soars from the coast.
To feel its power, pull on the boots and hit the trails. They all start around Rifugio Sapienza at some 2,500 meters. Alternatively, a panoramic cable car can whisk you to nearly 3,000 meters from there. Getting close to the summit means enlisting the help of a pro guide – this is an active volcano, remember?
Nowhere is the rich Greek-Roman history of Sicily revealed in such jaw-dropping glory as in the Valley of the Temples. Set in a dusty opening in the ridges below Agrigento, this UNESCO World Heritage Site reigns as the most-visited spot on the island. It’s easy to see why.
From the haunting remains of the Castor and Pollux Temple to the eye-watering Tempio della Concordia (one of the best-preserved Doric temples on the planet), there’s oodles to get through. Consider coming in seasons like spring and fall to dodge the crowds (and the heat).
Your expeditions around Sicily come to an end at beguiling little Cefalu. Part small fishing town, part grand Norman-Moorish citadel, it fuses the rustic and the historic.
Take in the grandeur of the Mudejar-infused Cefalu Cathedral in the city and delve inside to be wowed by Byzantine murals picked out in gold leaf. Then, make for the shoreline. Cefalu literally spills straight into the Med. There’s a rocky beachfront just meters from the old town, where seafood trattoria and paint-peeling boats bob on light-blue waves.
With her bright-white Costa Smeralda, her megalithic giant’s tombs, her rugged mountains, and Italo-French villages, Sardinia is a whole other chapter in the tome that is Italy. You could spend months exploring the slopes and valleys of the Gennargentu. You could while away whole trips devouring malloreddus gnocchi and pecorino cheese. It’s a good place to leave you on this bucket-list adventure.