Italy. It’s home to some of the most famous cities in all of Europe, some of the most diverse scenery landscapes and the world’s most beloved cooking. For the last few years, it’s been home to me too. And I’ve had the preposterously good fortune to travel all over the country, going to some of its best-known spots, and least appreciated corners. And along the way, I’ve realised that even though there’s little to complain about here, even in the Bel Paese some places are just more “belle” than others. So here it is. My top 5 all-time highlights. The places that everybody should go to before they die. And afterwards, if they’re lucky.
Top of mine and everyone else’s list is Tuscany. Think Florence (birthplace of the Renaissance) and Siena (Medieval wonderland). Think picturesque hilltop towns, Romanesque churches and scenic drives through the UNESCO heritage sites of Val D’Orcia. Everywhere you go the views look like they’ve jumped off a postcard and everywhere you eat you’ll hear choirs of angels singing to you. If you have a week, spend at least two days in Florence and then rent a car and head out to explore the nearby Chianti area. Then visit Lucca, San Gimignano and the Square of Miracles in Pisa to round off the week.
Puglia has been getting rave reviews in recent years, and for good reason. Television documentaries often focus on the idiosyncratic trulli houses of Alberbello, and Matera in nearby Basilicata. Both wonderful. But, Salento is still my favourite area to go here. From the pink stones of Lecce to ancient Otranto and Gallipoli, a trip through here takes in wonderful architecture, unspoiled coastline and some very beautiful towns. It also has some of the best traditional fish dishes you’ll taste in Italy too.
Turin is not the first place people think of when they think of Italy. But trust me this town should be on every visitor’s hit list. It has the Mole Antonelliana – a gigantic dome with piercing spire that houses an amazing museum of cinema. It has world-class Egyptian museum, Royal Palace, baroque churches and an atmospheric hilltop church overlooking it all from the hill of Superga. Many foodies flock here to indulge in local delicacies like Agnolotti and the wines that come from the Langhe region. It may be a bit more serious and proper than other Italian towns but it’s got plenty of ways to satisfy your curiosity and tastebuds.
Set in Liguria, the Cinque Terre which means Five Lands is made up of five picturesque villages: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. They are UNESCO World Heritage sights and some of the most idyllic coastal villages I have ever laid eyes on. But the reason it’s on my list is the walking. Each of these towns is linked by a coastal path which provides gorgeous views of the coastline and the towns themselves. The most famous of these is perhaps the Via dell’Amore (or Way of the Lovers) that links Riomaggiore with Manarola. Beautiful, dramatic and worth the sore legs!
VENICE AND ISLANDS
Venice is a place everyone has to see before they die. St. Marks, the Bridge of Sighs, the Jewish ghetto – much has been written about its remarkable sights, and it’s all valid. But for me, the priceless part of any trip here is a visit to the Islands of Venice. Murano with its glass making center, Burano and its brightly painted houses and Torcello, an abandoned island with an ancient church with beautiful frescoes. Check out San Michele too that serves as a cemetery and Mazzorbo. These are evocative islands with plenty of character and its the trip there and back that really makes them special. After all seeing Venice floating dreamlike in the lagoon at sunset is something you’re unlikely to ever forget.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
- The best time to go to Italy is spring and autumn. Never August. It’s very hot and very crowded.
- If you’re going to Venice, book a walking tour. Learning a little history puts the whole place in perspective. And if you’re going to St. Marks, go early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds.
- If you’re going to Tuscany, hire a car in Pisa airport. It’s easier to travel in and out of than Florence.
- Climb to the top of the Mole Antonelliana in Turin for an extraordinary view of the Alps.
- Go slow. In my opinion, it’s better to see less of Italy slowly than more of it in a rush!