Italy is, along with Greece, widely recognised as the birthplace of western culture, with more UNESCO World Heritage sites here than in anywhere else in the world. From historical landmarks and religious monuments to beautiful works of art and leaning towers, a journey to Italy is certainly an enriching experience, but there is so much more to see and do in this magnificent Mediterranean country. Even by adding delicious cuisine, breath-taking coastlines, snow-capped mountains, glistening lakes and ancient settlements to the list – we are only scraping the surface of what Italy truly has to offer.
Mountains and Lakes
While you would be correct in thinking Italy is a Mediterranean nation, it is also a southern European country that shares borders with Switzerland and Austria. This means that a journey to Northern Italy will enable you to see many beautiful natural features including lush-green hills, towering mountains and glistening lakes.
Turin is, as described by the famous architect, Le Corbusier, “the city with the most beautiful natural location on earth”. With lush-green hills, snowy mountains to admire in almost every direction, it is easy to see why. Situated in western Italy, Turin offers a gateway to the Italian Alps and a visit during the winter will open up a range of fabulous skiing opportunities.
Alternatively, if you venture over towards the eastern regions of Italy, you will be able to admire the Dolomite Mountains, which is home to another of Italy’s renowned skiing regions. Here, you will be able to take advantage of a huge 1,220km expanse that is home to one of the largest skiing areas in the world. As one of the more recent additions to Italy’s list of UNESCO World Heritage sites, you can also enjoy one of a number of fabulous hiking trails or venture towards the beautiful Lake Garda.
At 50km in length, Lake Garda is the largest of the Italian lakes and there are plenty of charming towns and cities that offer a chance for a romantic getaway away from the tourist sites. Together with Lake Como and Lake Maggiore, on the western coast, these picturesque areas offer some of the most peaceful and scenic holiday options in Italy.
Venture just east of Italy’s western border with France and you will discover Liguria – an area regarded as one of the finest destinations of the Mediterranean. If you are yet to visit this mesmerising region, you will almost instantly be pulled in by the irresistible charm and allure it has to offer, with breathtakingly gorgeous scenery and golden beaches that offer the perfect place to relax and soak up the sun.
Portofino is one of the most iconic destinations of the Italian Riviera, with a bustling harbour that attracts a number of yachts every year. Best of all, the beach is the best place to go to admire the surrounding scenery and, once there, it will certainly be difficult to tear yourself away.
Another renowned resort town in the area is Cinque Terre which, translated, means Five Lands. This takes into account the five coastal villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso – all of which are on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Whichever of these five quaint villages you decide to visit, you will be able to enjoy gorgeous landscapes lined with charming traditional houses and beautiful natural scenery. You can either opt to relax and soak in the scenery or expand your horizons on one of the many rewarding hiking trails that are available.
Rome and the Vatican City
No mention of Italy would be complete without offering an insight into the capital of Rome and its significant cultural heritage. Built on seven hills, the Italian capital is one of the most-visited cities in all of Europe and is home to an abundance of palaces, churches, ruins, monuments, statues and fountains that collectively paint a picture of the ancient history of Europe.
As you might have guessed, Rome is home to vast collection of UNESCO World Heritage sites – so much so that the whole of the historic centre has been awarded the prestigious accolade. Instantly recognisable landmarks including the Spanish steps, the Trevi Fountain, the Roman Forum, and the Colosseum – one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World – are all awaiting your discovery.
Rome is also home to the Vatican City – an independent nation which, at less than half a kilometre in size, is the world’s smallest country. Since the early 14th century, the Vatican City has served as the residence of the pope and the centre of the Roman Catholic Church. The centre is marked by the magnificent St. Peter’s Basilica, which features a dome designed by Michelangelo and a beautifully designed interior.
The Vatican City is also home to St. Peter’s Square, which features a number of fountains and a significant obelisk that was originally built in 37 AD in Egypt before being transported to Rome. Fascinatingly, during the middle age, a bronze ball thought to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar and the Chigi Star containing pieces of the True Cross were both added to the top of the obelisk.
Venice is perhaps one of the most highly prized destinations in all of Italy, with the Adriatic Sea providing direct access to an array of spectacular squares, palaces, cathedrals, towers and much more. Roads have been replaced by a series of 177 canals, which thread through the city and provide residents and tourists with a much more romantic way to see the city via water taxi or gondola. Many of these canals are made even more beautiful by the ornate bridges that cross them and connect the city, particularly the Rialto Bridge.
Comprising of landmarks from different eras and various stages in history, Venice is a city of many contrasting elements that miraculously manage to blend together – creating a unique experience that has to be seen to be believed. A good place to start is the 14th Century Venetian Gothic-style Doge’s Palace, which today serves as a museum. Adjacent to this is St. Mark’s Cathedral, which was built in the 11th century in Italo-Byzantine style and features an interior filled with glittering gold mosaics. Every Venetian landmark tells a different story each visit to the city will present a new series of experiences and discoveries.
It goes without saying that Tuscany is one of the most popular regions with tourists in Italy. Situated on the west coast, you can enjoy charming cities filled with historical and culturally significant monuments. Arguably one of the first destinations to spring to mind when thinking of Italy is Florence, which is highly regarded as a cultural and artistic delight for the senses.
It was here that the Italian Renaissance was born and - between the 14th and 16th centuries - the city was regarded as one of the most important in all of Europe. Today, you will find some of the most renowned fine art museums in the world including the Galleria degli Uffizi, which houses many collections of Renaissance paintings and sculptures. Elsewhere, in Bargelo, you will be able to admire the works of many great Renaissance sculptors including Michelangelo. More modern reflections of the city’s heritage include the recently developed Gucci Museum – a mecca for fashionistas.
No mention of Tuscany would be complete without taking the opportunity to visit Pisa – famous for its leaning tower. This can be found in the Piazza dei Miracoli – otherwise known as the Field of Miracles – which holds UNESCO World Heritage status. It is the marshy ground on which the tower stands that gives it it’s lean, but you may not be aware that there are actually two other leaning landmarks to be discovered in the Piazza. These include the Bell Tower of San Nicola Church and the Bell Tower of San Michele Scalzi Church.
Situated close to the city of Naples, in the southern regions of Italy, is the ancient settlement of Pompeii, which is another of Italy’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. This distinctively unique ancient settlement was almost entirely frozen in time after being engulfed by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD and a visit to the site today offers an unparalleled historical insight.
There are so many fantastically-preserved buildings to explore, all of which offer an insight into a civilisation that once existed in the area surrounding the volcano. Although it is considered best to explore the Pompeii on your own, it is worth keeping your eye open for the huge amphitheatre and the Temple of Apollo, which dates back to 575 BC.
Unknown to some is that not all of Pompeii has been fully excavated, with more than a third of the site still yet to be uncovered. A visit to Pompeii will ignite a spark that will lead you on a journey of intrigue and discovery.
Cliffside towns and villages or colourful terraced houses and lemon trees create perhaps one of the most iconic and idyllic regions in the Mediterranean. From these spectacular small towns, you will be able to enjoy fantastic panoramic views over the turquoise waters, while arriving via an ocean-based cruise provides a chance to fully appreciate how beautiful this area really is. Every view of the Amalfi Coast feels like a perfect postcard photo.
There are many settlements to be discovered and explored, each offering a unique sense of character and a range of interesting landmarks that are worth visiting. These include the Cathedral in Amalfi, Villa Cimbrone and Villa Rufolo in Ravello, and the ancient Roman villa in Minori. Situated just to the south of Naples, it is easy to see why this is one of the finest and most rewarding regions in Italy.
Sardinia and Sicily
Sardinia is the largest of the Italian islands and is almost equidistantly situated between the western coast of Italy and Northern Africa. Unlike the bustling cities and popular tourist destinations found on the Italian mainland, the lush-green build-up of Sardinia offers a refreshing contrast. There are many hills and mountains that are ideal for hikers, while the beaches offer a peaceful oasis and an ideal place to soak up the sun. You will also discover distinctive historical landmarks including Su Nuraxi di Barumini – another of Italy’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites. This unique defensive structure dates back as far as 2000BC and is thought to be the only landmark of its kind in the world.
The rugged and attractive island of Sicily can be found just off the southern tip of Italy, offering warm temperatures throughout the year. Many visitors to Sicily come to in search of relaxation, with warm and inviting beaches including the beautiful San Vito Lo Capo. Italy is highly renowned for its gastronomic offering, but this is elevated to even higher standard in Sicily, with some of the world’s finest culinary delights.
While rice is often used in risotto across the Italian mainland, in Sicily, you will find it in the form of delicious arancini. These fried rice balls are commonly filled with ragout, peas and mozzarella cheese and are a favourite with the locals. You will also many fine sweet dishes including Granita – which consists of crushed ice with varying fruit or coffee flavours – and Sicilian Cannoli - consisting of a sweet crispy shell with a filling of sweet ricotta cheese and chocolate chips.