HomeJournalThe Best of Travel: Italy
28 Apr, 2024

The Best of Travel: Italy

Angelo Zinna
Angelo Zinna, Florence-based writer/photographer, authored 'Un Altro Bicchiere di Arak,' contributes to Lonely Planet, BBC, New Lines, Condé Nast Traveler, and has explored Europe, Asia, Oceania, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Boasting the world’s highest concentration of UNESCO World Heritage sites, Italy’s allure attracts slow travelers ready to return again and again. No matter how many times you’ve been, the layers of history stack up on one another offering endless opportunities for discovery.

From the northern regions' alpine scenery to the south's coastal towns, the Mediterranean peninsula is dotted with treasured remnants of a convoluted past awaiting to tell their story. But history is only part of Italy’s charm. A journey across the boot will allow you to taste regional cuisines made following proudly preserved traditional recipes, visit world-class museums and immerse yourself in the great outdoors. Here are some great experiences you can expect to encounter while exploring Italy.

1. Roman Ruins

Photo by Federico Di Dio photography on UnsplashRoman ruins at sunset, where history meets the golden hues of the evening. [Photo by Federico Di Dio]

Walk through the cobbled streets of the open-air museum that is Italy’s capital to find yourself immersed in the legacy of the Roman Empire, whose architectural traces still stand 2000 years from their construction.

The ancient buildings found in Rome’s historic center — the Colosseum echoing the roar of gladiators, the Pantheon’s open dome, the Roman Forum and the Arch of Constantine, just to name a few — draw millions of visitors into the city each year, for good reason. Travelers looking to step back in time just need to take a stroll through Rome’s core, although the city’s prestigious museums, such as the Musei Capitolini and the Museo Nazionale Romano have much to tell to those who want to dig deeper. The well-preserved remnants of the Roman civilization are not just relics of a long gone past — they embody the legacy of Roman culture, law and ingenuity, which continue to influence modern Italian society in innumerable ways.

2. Culinary Wonders

Photo by Eilis Garvey on Unsplash Freshly made pasta, a testament to the art of Italian cooking. [Photo by Eilis Garvey]

There’s a reason why most stereotypes about Italy tend to fall within the food category. Few activities are as important in the daily lives of Italians as eating - not just pasta and pizza (although there is no shortage of those), but an endless choice of flavor combinations that vary from region to region.

From the heartwarming polenta of the northern areas to the seafood stews of the coast and the tasty sweets of the south, you’ll surprise your tastebuds with something new everywhere you go.

Award-winning chefs and restaurants are scattered across the country, but you won’t have to splurge to find excellent dishes. Traditional trattorias serving homely food are your best bet at finding Italian food done the right way.

3. Renaissance Masterpieces

Photo by Matteo Lezzi on UnsplashPiazzale degli Uffizi, Firenze, Italy. [Photo by Matteo Lezzi]

Starting from the mid-14th century the artistic movement known as the Renaissance — meaning “rebirth” — took over Europe with a return to the classical arts. This artistic period branched out from some of the major Italian cities, enriching urban landscapes with monumental projects and allowing some of the greatest artistic minds to flourish.

Florence and Rome are known for the abundance of works left behind by Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raffaello and many more great names of the time, but there are many other Renaissance cities worth discovering as you travel through Italy — some of the most impressive include Ferrara, refurbished with a new set of palaces by Duke Ercole I, Mantova, with its Leon Battista Alberti masterpieces, and Pienza, designed by Bernardo Rossellino as the “ideal Renaissance city” for Pope Pius II.

4. Coastal Escapes

Photo by Léonard Cotte on UnsplashA high-angle photo of the Area Archeologica di Tharros, San Giovanni di Sinis, Cabras, Italy. [Photo: Léonard Cotte]

The allure of the Mediterranean increases as you drive south along the peninsula.

Dark blue waters attract crowds during summer months when Italians flock to the beaches en masse, but price spikes and lack of space are easily avoided by traveling during the shoulder season.

Plan for a visit in June or September and you’ll find optimal weather and less crowded beaches. Plus, exploring the hidden coves and picturesque villages that dot the coast is best done without the intense heat of peak summer. With over 4,500 miles of coastline, you’ll be spoilt for choice when choosing your destination. Head to Sicily or Sardinia to find some of Italy’s most pristine waters, or visit the picture-perfect Cinque Terre or Amalfi Coast to enjoy the charm of colorful towns dropping right into the ocean.

5. Vino Anyone?

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on UnsplashThe antique façade of a wine and olive oil store in Rome. [Photo: Gabriella Clare Marino]

Wine in Italy is more than just a drink.

The millennia-old tradition of fermenting grapes to make wine is a reflection of the country’s geographical diversity, made in good parts of rolling hills and sun-drenched valleys that create the optimal conditions for wine production. Touring Italy in search of the perfect glass is a journey through family-run farms, medieval castles and bucolic vineyards spread throughout the twenty regions of Italy, each offering a different set of flavors and characteristics. From the sparkle of Veneto’s Prosecco to Piedmont’s delicate Barolo and Barbaresco, then further south through Tuscany’s Chianti all the way to Sicily’s potent Nero d’Avola and sweet Marsala. Discovering Italian wine is a trip on its own, although you don’t necessarily have to travel far and wide to immerse yourself in this part of the local culture — join in on the aperitivo ritual before dinner or ask any trattoria for a good recommendation and you’ll hardly be disappointed. 

6. Up on the Alps and the Apennines 

Photo by Jan Valečka on UnsplashA sunset hike in the Dolomites, Italy, where the golden light illuminates the majestic mountains. [Photo: Jan Valečka]

Far removed from the postcard-perfect Mediterranean coastline are Italy’s great mountains. Italy has 24 national parks, the majority found in altitude areas where wildlife roams freely distant from the crowded cities and tourist hotspots.

The majestic Dolomites, with their towering peaks and ethereal beauty, are a UNESCO World Heritage site beckoning hikers, climbers, and winter sports enthusiasts, but also chamois, wolves, ibex, marmots and many other animals making the best use of pristine nature.

Whether you’re looking to hike or ski in Italy’s mountains, the Alps offer a full range of outdoor experiences, from beginner-friendly paths to challenging rocky routes. There is much to explore south of the Alps as well. The Apennine mountain chain forms Italy’s spine, running southward to Calabria. The Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga houses the tallest Apennine peak, Abruzzo’s Gran Sasso, where spectacular views can only be conquered one step at a time.

7. Folk Festivals & Mouthwatering Sagre

Photo by Luca Iaconelli on UnsplashA masked face at Carnival in Piazza San Marco, Venezia, capturing the mystery and enchantment of the celebration. [Photo: Luca Iaconelli]

Italians love to celebrate and every season offers an opportunity to do so. Folk festivals, historical reenactments, post-harvest gatherings and open-air music concerts abound, especially between spring and autumn when the warming weather invites people outside.

Italy’s regional identities are celebrated through numerous events connected to medieval traditions or events that have left a mark on local histories.

Horse races such Siena’s Palio, where teams from historic city districts compete in the central square wearing traditional costumes, are as heartfelt today as they used to be centuries ago. But not all festivals are nostalgic — food, a tenet of Italy’s culture, is celebrated in hundreds of small and large sagre, where communities gather around dishes prepared with local ingredients when they are in season. Chestnuts, mushrooms, truffles, cheeses and many more products take center stage in these festivals. Looking for something more contemporary? Music festivals such as Firenze Rocks, Roma Summer Fest and Lucca Summer Festival bring national and international artists to some of Italy’s most impressive locations.

8. Etruscan Heritage

The legacy of the Romans and the art of the Renaissance tend to grab all of the attention when it comes to historic art and architecture in Italy.

Still, another civilization lived on the peninsula before Romulus and Remus funded the capital — the Etruscans.

This obscure group expanded throughout the Italian territory and the Mediterranean region between the 7th and 6th centuries BC, funding some of Italy’s earliest cities and leaving behind a vast collection of fascinating necropolises and precious artifacts now exhibited in museums across the country. Central Italy is where most of the Etruscan remnants are found — in Lazio, Tuscany and Umbria you can find some of the most impressive archeological sites connected to the ancient civilization. Places such as the necropolis of Sovana, with its network of vie cave (hand-dug alleys that cut through the hilly landscape), the tombs of Tarquinia and Cerveteri and the ancient city of Populonia are among the most impressive destinations to get a glimpse of the mysterious Etruscan legacy.

9. Classic and Contemporary Fashion

Photo by David Pupăză on UnsplashThe intricate ceiling of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a masterpiece of architecture and design. [Photo: David Pupăză]

On February 12, 1951, textile entrepreneur Giovanni Battista Giorgini organized Italy’s first fashion show in the ballroom of his Florentine home, Villa Torrigiani.

He believed that Italy’s artisans could compete with France’s more famous brands if only the world knew they existed. The show was a success and the following year it moved to the majestic Sala Bianca of Florence’s Palazzo Pitti. Since then, Pitti has become the bi-yearly gathering for high-end brands and fashion enthusiasts and many of the world’s most iconic brands still proudly show their “Made in Italy” labels. Gucci, Cavalli, Ferragamo and many notable names continue to operate from Florence. Meanwhile, Milan has become the country’s fashion capital, gathering a seemingly endless array of designer boutiques and hosting one of Italy’s most important design fairs, the Salone del Mobile, held each year for a week in April. ||