Updated: May 1
Italy is as much a state of mind as a place, giving you experiences that linger forever, eternally calling you back for another visit. Be it a glimpse of priest quietly contemplating the roses in a Vatican garden, visiting a Tuscan olive grove owned by the same family for 500 years or a witnessing a flirtatious exchange in a piazza in Milan, Italy delivers memories for a lifetime.
And you should keep coming back, because there is so much to see here. For a start, there are its great cities--Rome, Milan, Florence, Venice, Siena and Naples. Italy’s art and architecture alone make it one of the top destinations in the world. At some point, you’ve got to visit Florence, not just for its art and architecture but for its shopping. Rome is a must as well, not just for the Vatican, but for the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain and for its neighborhoods filled with beautiful homes and gardens. Venice is famed for its Grand Canal, St. Mark’s Basilica and St. Mark’s Square. Naples, although often criticized for its urban decay, also has splendid palaces and churches, and its local markets sell top-notch produce.
Beyond the great cities is the Italian countryside--medieval Tuscan towns, unspoiled fishing villages and northern lakes. Italy’s landscapes, be it hill towns, vineyards or seacoast, have inspired artists for generations. Even if you can’t paint what you’ll see, you’ll savor the beauty. Some of Europe’s highest mountains are in the regions of northern Italy, including Piedmont (remember, the 2006 Winter Olympics were in Turin) and Val d’Aosta.
Central Italy includes Tuscany’s lush countryside and neighboring Umbria’s broad plains and olive groves. Southern Italy is wilder, with miles of olive trees, forests and rolling hills. Puglia, the heel of the boot, is distinct for its volcanic hills and isolated marshes. Italy’s islands are worlds unto themselves--Sicily, an island of beauty, mystery and monuments; Sardinia, with its dramatic jagged coastline and beautiful beaches, and Capri, a favorite retreat for the rich and famous.
Take this advice: travel Italy on your stomach. Ask for local specials. Remember that Italians tend to eat late--not until after 1 p.m. for lunch and around 8 for dinner. You can eat in a bar--which is as much about morning coffee and luncheon sandwiches as it is about alcohol--for something quick, or go to a slightly more formal osteria or trattoria or a more formal ristorante.
Getting to Italy and traveling within it is fairly straightforward, with major airports in Rome, Milan and Trieste. Italian rail is reliable, runs frequently and is an ideal way to travel between cities. A rental car is a good option if you’re staying in the countryside. You can ski Italy’s mountains in the winter and swelter in its cities in summer. Even Italians leave the cities in August, and some restaurants and hotels do close during that time. However, humidity isn’t bad, and nights often cool down. Summer is high season; April through June and September to October are ideal times to visit—the weather is wild and crowds diminish.