If any one country will revive your appetite for post-lockdown travel, it’ll be Italy. This beautiful and most resilient of nations thrills, inspires, and sometimes even maddens, with its extraordinary array of historic and artistic riches, soaring landscapes and enviable food.

Over the past 15 years or so I’ve spent much of my time travelling the country for Lonely Planet. I’ve covered countless kilometres on foot and traversed the boot by plane, train, ferry, car and, on one terrifying occasion, riding shotgun on a scooter in Naples. So while it may be some time before Italy re-opens to visitors, here’s why I think we should all carpe diem (seize the day) and return to the bel paese (beautiful country).

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Duncan is author of Lonely Planet Rome and has worked on guides to Sicily, Sardinia, Naples & the Amalfi Coast and Piedmont.  Image: Duncan Garwood

Slow Travel

There’s no more liberating feeling than taking to the scenic backroads of Italy’s hilly green centre. Tuscany and neighbouring Umbria are the usual go-to destinations but a recent trip opened my eyes to the rugged beauty and quiet charms of Le Marche. This largely rural region is made for slow travel with its brooding snow-capped peaks, wide open spaces, and lovely hilltop towns.

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The Ducal Palace of Urbino during sunset, home to some of Italy's finest buildings. ©Stefano_Valeri/Shutterstock

Chief among these is Urbino, home to some of Italy’s finest Renaissance art and architecture. Ascoli Piceno is another charmer with a lovely historic centre and fabulous food – it’s the birthplace of olive all’ascolana (deep-fried meat-stuffed olives). On the Adriatic coast, the Parco del Conero is a gorgeous pocket of idyllic beaches and plunging cliffs.

Historic Cities

Italy is home to some of the world’s most alluring cities. Rome, Florence and Venice top the traveller charts but there are plenty more to choose from. Turin, Italy’s original capital, is a real eye-opener. I had little idea of what to expect the first time I visited so was delighted to discover a stylish, cosmopolitan city full of regal palaces, brilliant cafes and fabulous modern art.

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Castel Sant'Elmo overlooking the streets of Naples. ©Jean-Bernard Carillet/Lonely Planet

Down south, Naples is an altogether different prospect. Hot, loud and chaotic, it’s like a shot of adrenalin straight to the heart. I love the screaming energy of its Dickensian streets and am totally in awe of its stash of classical art. The sculptures and mosaics at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale are as impressive as any in the country.

Ancient Treasures

The sheer quantity of Italy’s ancient relics never ceases to amaze me. Places like Pompeii and the Colosseum are just the tip of the iceberg – the whole country is scattered with ruins in various states of repair.

Personal favourites include the remarkable Greek temples at Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples and the towering remains of Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli, the dramatic setting for the season 2 finale of TV’s Killing Eve.

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Going back further in time, the Etruscan necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia are quite astonishing. Then there are the mysterious Bronze Age nuraghi (stone towers) that are such a feature of Sardinia’s rugged hinterland.

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Art Alternatives

You don’t have to be an expert to appreciate Italy’s artistic riches. This, after all, is the country of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

But what sets Italy apart is that for every big-name museum and basilica, there’s a quieter, less-crowded alternative. So while visitors throng to the Vatican to see Michelangelo’s masterpieces in the Sistine Chapel, far fewer head to Padua to admire Giotto’s frescoes in the Cappella degli Scrovegni.

Similarly, art lovers make a beeline for Ravenna and its collection of Unesco-listed mosaics. Less heralded, but no less spectacular, are the exquisite mosaics in the Cappella Palatina in Palermo.

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The exquisite mosaics in the

Another hallmark of Italy is that you can glut on art without paying a centesimo. Walk around central Rome and without even trying you’ll come across fountains and sculptures by big-name Renaissance and baroque artists. Duck into a church – they’re all gratis in Rome –  and you might find yourself face to face with a Raphael or Caravaggio.

Volcanoes & Wolves

Italy is hardly the wild west but its ancient landscape harbours some thrilling surprises. Sicily is home to two of Europe’s most active volcanoes and it’s hard not to feel a frisson of excitement as you catch your first sight of Mount Etna towering above the east of the island.

Off Sicily’s northeastern coast, the tiny Aeolian island of Stromboli also regularly erupts, throwing fiery fountains of lava into the sky to the delight of watching boat trippers.

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The  peak of Mount Etna, as seen from the Madonie National Park. ©Jonathon Stokes/Lonely Planet

Far less visible are the wolves that live in the mountain forests of Abruzzo. I’ve never seen one but I vividly remember an old man telling me of wolf packs prowling through the village of Scanno looking for food after a heavy snowfall. The villagers, he said, stayed indoors.

Festivals & Local Passions

Italians are famously loyal to their hometowns. This deep-rooted allegiance, known in Italian as campanilismo (literally an attachment to your bell tower), comes out in various guises. Many towns and cities have their own dialects, for example, and regional culinary traditions abound.

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Carnival of Ivrea, a mass orange fight just one of Italy's more colourful festivals. ©ROBERTO ZILLI/Shutterstock

Most spectacularly, local passions fuel the country’s madcap festivals. These range from the messy (a mass orange fight in Ivrea) to the sinister (dressing up as shaggy mamuthones in Mamoiada) and downright dangerous (crazy horse races in Siena and Sedilo).

Eating Out

One of the great joys of a trip to Italy is lingering over a long lunch or al fresco dinner. The nation is rightly celebrated for its food (and wine) and every town and village seems to have its own speciality. These traditional dishes are a source of fierce local pride and inspire wonderfully heated arguments as cooks debate the finer points of the recipes. 

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A typical trattoria in Italy.  ©Massimo Salesi/Shutterstock

Italy also boasts some truly memorable settings. Naples’ teeming streets provide the ultimate backdrop for pizza while Bologna’s red centre excels in classic, no-frills trattorias. A standout memory is of a seafood lunch in a trattoria dug into a cave in Santa Maria la Scala, a tiny fishing village near Catania. I subsequently discovered Robert de Niro  used to eat there when filming The Godfather.

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