Planning your first trip to Italy
Arguably Europe’s most enticing country, Italy charms visitors with irresistible food, awesome architecture, diverse scenery and unparalleled art. In fact, it's so packed with possibilities it can almost overwhelm. If you’ve not visited before you could well wonder what to see? Where to go? How to travel? Here’s everything you need to know to get the absolute utmost out of your first trip to Italy.
Italy’s greatest hits
Short on time? Start with the big three: Rome, Florence and Venice. A week is (just) enough to enjoy the country’s headline acts.
The glories of Rome
A day: Rome wasn’t built in one, and you certainly can’t see it in one. Instead allow at least two, preferably three. That’s time to take in the spectacular Colosseum, the 2000-year-old Pantheon, the palace ruins of the Palatino, sacred St Peter's and the art-filled Vatican Museums. Trot up the Spanish Steps, toss a coin in the Trevi Fountain, shop in narrow lanes and indulge in prime people watching.
Florence and Tuscany: art and wine
Two days in Florence sees you cherry-picking the incomparable art in the Uffizi gallery, delighting in the frescoes in the Duomo and pondering the anatomy of Michelangelo's David. It also allows for shopping on the ultra-chic Via de' Tornabuoni and an aperitivo (pre-dinner drink) or two in locals' favourite Piazza della Signoria.
Check into one of the idyllic rural farmhouses in Chianti and spend time exploring a land where vine trellises snake along rolling hills with Romanesque churches sheltering in their folds. Wineries lie everywhere. At extraordinary Antinori, for example, the high quality of the wine is matched by high-tech architectural innovation. A day trip to gorgeously Gothic Siena sees you marvelling at the Italian ability to turn buildings into art.
To enjoy unique, utterly exquisite Venice, allow a few days. Glide down the Grand Canal, by gondola or vaporetto (water bus), tour the grand Palazzo Ducale, gape at the treasure-filled Basilica di San Marco and run out of camera space snapping the extraordinary array of Venetian architecture. There'll also be time to join the locals shopping at Rialto Market, tuck into cicheti (Venetian tapas) and get a little lost amid the 400 bridges and 150 canals.
Best of the rest
Got time to prolong your Italian love affair? With a couple of weeks at your disposal you can add on a few of these other dolce vita delights.
Seductive Naples; extraordinary Pompeii
Gritty and not always pretty, Naples demands to be seen. Come here for an anarchic zest for life, a Unesco-recognised historic core, Greco-Roman artefacts in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, and the Neapolitan Baroque Certosa e Museo di San Martino. Then day-trip it to Pompeii for ruined cityscapes, and to Mt Vesuvius to gaze into a live volcano and across a wide blue bay.
Style and beauty in Milan and the Lakes
For big-city style and legendary landscapes, head to Italy’s northwest. A day in Milan opens up a grand Gothic Duomo (cathedral), Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper and world-class opera at La Scala. A short train ride away, belle époque Lake Maggiore harbours the beguiling Borromean Islands, specks of rock crowned by ornate palaces and extravagant gardens. Or spend a few days at glamorous Lake Como revelling in lake-lapped cocktail bars, sumptuous villas, vintage speedboat trips and the snowy-mountains-meets-azure-water scenery.
Cinque Terre's harbours and hills
In Cinque Terre National Park terraced vineyards cling to sheer hills traversed by improbably steep hiking trails, and villages flow down to tiny harbours lined with restaurants and bars. Ferries and a rattling rural train link the five villages. Allow two to four days to hit the walking trails, swim in the sea, soak up the atmosphere and re-charge.
Eating and drinking
The diversity of regional cuisine alone is worth travelling to Italy for. Bistecca alla fiorentina (Florence's iconic T-bone steak); creamy Po plains risotto; olive oil and lemon-laced grilled fish on Elba; espresso and sweet treats in Naples' backstreets bars; fresh-from-the-wood-oven pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice) in Rome. And as for sampling Brunello, Chianti, Prosecco, Montepulciano and Soave wines in historic cellars and in restaurants just yards from the vines – that’s an experience that lingers for life.
Where to stay
Choose from lakeside campsites, mountain huts, monasteries, hip hostels, family-run hotels, antiques-packed palazzos, secluded villas and remote farmhouses framed by vines and complete with pools. Prices run the gamut too. Book ahead (the earlier the better) in summer (or in winter in ski resorts) and at Easter and Christmas, when rates rise. Local events and festivals also force prices up, while low season bargaining might bring the bill down. Some places require a minimum stay or half-board in summer.
How to travel
Domestic air links, and ferry, train and bus networks are good between main towns and cities. For unforgettable back-road explorations, rent a car. Roads encompass sweeping autostradas (where tolls are charged), regional roads and strade locali (often unpaved and unmapped).
Italy’s trains range from slow regionale and InterCity (faster, making fewer stops) to the high-tech, high-speed alta velocità services. The latter can cut longer journey times in half, although on shorter routes don't save that much time. Alta velocità prices can be significantly more. If you travel on a faster service without the right ticket you’re liable for an on-the-spot fine (up to €50). Validate tickets using the yellow machines on train platforms.
- When greeting people, shake hands or kiss both cheeks and say buongiorno (good day) or buona sera (good evening). Only use first names if invited.
- Restaurants have a cover charge (coperto) of €2-3. If service isn’t included, a small tip may well prompt a smile.
- When visiting religious sites avoid offence by dressing modestly: cover shoulders, torsos and thighs. Although shorts and sandals are fine for the beach, you'll need smart-casual clothes for towns. Walking shoes make cobbled streets and hill paths more comfortable, as will a sunhat, sunscreen and sunglasses.
- In the main tourist centres English is fairly widely spoken, but in rural areas and south of Rome learning a few key expressions and using a phrasebook/phone app with a menu guide will make your visit more fun and mealtimes more enjoyable.
This article was originally published October 2015. It was updated May 2019.