Eulogised in countless works of cinema, literature and poetry, and home to some of the greatest artworks, historical monuments and – perhaps best of all – food on the planet, Italy elates, inspires and moves like no other.
With a landscape that winds from pulsating cities to regions of serene natural beauty, picking just a handful of destinations to visit in this wonderful country is no easy task. However, here are 12 places that really shouldn’t be skipped on a tour of Italy.
Best for masterpieces of art and architecture
Once caput mundi (capital of the world), Rome was legendarily spawned by a wolf-suckled boy, grew to be Western Europe's first superpower, became the spiritual centrepiece of the Christian world and is now the repository of over two millennia of European art and architecture. From the Pantheon and the Colosseum to Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel and countless works by Caravaggio, there's simply too much to see in one visit. So, do as countless others have done before you: toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain and promise to return.
Best for churches, galleries and countryside
Italy's most romanticised region, Tuscany is tailor-made for art-loving bon vivants. Home to Brunelleschi's Duomo and Masaccio's Cappella Brancacci frescoes, Florence, according to Unesco, contains "the greatest concentration of universally renowned works of art in the world". Beyond its blockbuster museums, elegant churches and flawless Renaissance streetscapes sprawls an undulating landscape of sinuous cypress trees, olive groves and coveted regional treasures, from the Gothic majesty of Siena and Manhattan-esque skyline of medieval San Gimignano to the vineyards of Italy's most famous wine region, Chianti.
Best for inspiration
Italy's most celebrated coastline is a gripping strip: coastal mountains plunge into creamy blue sea in a prime-time vertical scene of precipitous crags, sun-bleached villages and lush woodland. Between sea and sky, mountain-top hiking trails deliver Tyrrhenian panoramas fit for a god. While some may argue that the peninsula's most beautiful coast is Liguria's Cinque Terre or Calabria's Costa Viola, it is the Amalfi Coast that has seduced and inspired countless greats, from Wagner and DH Lawrence to Tennessee Williams, Rudolf Nureyev and Gore Vidal.
Best for stepping back in time
Frozen in its death throes, the time-warped ruins of Pompeii hurtle you 2000 years into the past. Wander through chariot-grooved Roman streets, lavishly frescoed villas and bathhouses, food stores and markets, theatres, even an ancient brothel. Then, in the eerie stillness, your eye on ominous Mt Vesuvius, ponder Pliny the Younger's terrifying account of the town's final hours: "Darkness came on again, again ashes, thick and heavy. We got up repeatedly to shake these off; otherwise we would have been buried and crushed by the weight."
Best for dramatic mountains
Scour the globe and you'll find plenty of taller, bigger and more geologically volatile mountains, but few can match the romance of the pink-hued, granite Dolomites. Maybe it's their harsh, jagged summits, the vibrant skirts of spring wildflowers or the rich cache of Ladin legends. Then again, it could just be the magnetic draw of money, style and glamour at Italy's most fabled ski resort, Cortina d'Ampezzo, or the linguistic curiosity of picture-postcard mountain village Sappada. Whatever the reason, this tiny pocket of northern Italy takes seductiveness to dizzying heights.
Best for foodies
In a region as overwhelmingly foodie as Emilia-Romagna it's only natural that its capital, Bologna, is dubbed "La Grassa" (the fat one). Many belt-busting Italian classics hail from here, including mortadella, tortellini and tagliatelle al ragù. Shop in the deli-packed Quadrilatero and day-trip to the city of Modena for world-famous aged balsamic vinegar. Leave room for Parma, hometown of parmigiano reggiano cheese and the incomparable prosciutto di Parma. Wherever you plunge your fork, toast with a glass or three of Emilia-Romagna's renowned Lambrusco or sauvignon blanc.
Lago di Como
Best for a slice of luxury
If it's good enough for the Clooneys and vacationing Obamas, it's good enough for mere mortals. Nestled in the shadow of the Rhaetian Alps, dazzling Lago di Como is Lombardy's most spectacular lake. Its lavish Liberty-style villas are home to movie moguls, fashion royalty and Arab sheikhs, while the lake's siren calls include gardens at Villa Melzi d'Eril, Villa Carlotta and Villa Balbianello that blush pink with camellias, azaleas and rhododendrons in April and May. For those less flush, Como's lush green hinterland promises bags of free, wonderfully scenic hiking.
Best for living out loud
Nowhere else in Italy are people as conscious of their role in the theatre of everyday life as in Naples. And in no other Italian city does daily life radiate such drama and intensity. Naples' ancient streets are a stage, cast with boisterous matriarchs, bellowing baristas and tongue-knotted lovers. To savor the flavor, dive into the city's rough-and-tumble La Piggnasecca market, a loud, lavish opera of hawking fruit vendors, wriggling seafood and the irresistible aroma of just-baked sfogliatelle (sweetened ricotta pastries).
Best for coastal beauty
The English language fails to accurately describe the varied blue, green and – in the deepest shadows – purple hues of the sea surrounding Sardinia. While models, ministers and perma-tanned celebrities wine, dine and sail along the glossy Costa Smeralda, much of Sardinia remains a wild, raw playground. Slather on that sunscreen and explore the island's rugged coastal beauty, from the tumbledown boulders of Santa Teresa di Gallura and the wind-chiselled cliff face of the Golfo di Orosei to the windswept beauty of the Costa Verde's dune-backed beaches.
Best for a fairytale city
An Escher-esque maze of skinny streets and waterways, Venice straddles the middle ground between reality and sheer fantasy. This is a city of ethereal winter fogs, fairy-tale domes and Gothic arches fit for the set of an opera. Look beyond its sparkling mosaics and brooding Tintorettos and you'll discover the other Venice: a living, breathing organism studded with secret gardens, sleepy campi (squares) and well-worn bacari (small bars) filled with the fizz of prosecco and the sing-song lilt of the Venetians' local dialect.
Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso
Best for hiking
If you're pining for a mind-clearing retreat, wear down your hiking boots on the 724km of marked trails and mule tracks traversing "Grand Paradise". Part of the Graian Alps and the very first of Italy's national parks, Gran Paradiso's pure, pristine spread encompasses 57 glaciers and Alpine pastures awash with wild pansies, gentians and alpenroses, not to mention a healthy population of Alpine ibex, for whose protection the park was originally established. The eponymous Gran Paradiso (4061m) is the park's only peak, accessed from tranquil Cogne.
Best for thrill seekers
Known to the Greeks as the "column that holds up the sky", Mount Etna is not only Europe's largest volcano, it's one of the world's most active. The ancients believed the giant Tifone (Typhoon) lived in its crater and lit the sky with spectacular pyrotechnics. At 3326m it literally towers above Sicily's Ionian Coast. Whether you tackle it on foot or on a guided 4WD tour, scaling this time bomb rewards with towering views and the secret thrill of having come cheek-to-cheek with a towering threat.