Italy in detail

Activities

Blessed with mountains, lakes and 7600km of coastline, Italy is like one giant, pulse-racing playground. Whether you're after adrenalin-charged skiing in the Alps, hardcore hiking in the Dolomites, coastal climbs in Sardinia, white-water rafting in Calabria or low-key cycling through Piedmont – Madre Natura (Mother Nature) has you covered.

On Land

From the skyscraping Alps to the soft undulations of the Tuscan hills, Italy's diverse geography provides a plethora of land-locked diversions. The Alps are alive with the sound of skiing, snowboarding and mountain biking, while the vine-laced landscapes of Tuscany and Piedmont put the romance into cycling, with gentle inclines and mile after glorious mile of country routes. Further south, the precipitous peaks of the Amalfi Coast harbour an ancient network of shepherds' paths, making for heavenly hikes.

Hiking & Walking

Italy is laced with thousands of kilometres of sentieri (marked trails). Most local and regional tourist office websites have information about walking in their area. Italian Parks (www.parks.it) lists walking trails through each of the country's 25 national parks, and provides updates on Italy's marine parks and other protected areas. Another useful website is that of Italy's major walking club, the Club Alpino Italiano (www.cai.it) – follow the rifugi (mountain huts) link for information about trail routes and accommodation (members of organisations such as the New Zealand Alpine Club, Fédération Française des Clubs Alpins et de Montagne and Deutscher Alpenverein can enjoy discounted rates for accommodation and meals).

Bear in mind that most Italians take their summer holidays in August, so this is when the trails are at their most crowded and the rifugi are often jam-packed – you'll need to book weeks, if not months, in advance. On lower terrain, August’s intense heat can be oppressive. Sidestep this month if you can. Also note that backcountry or wild camping is not permitted in Italy; if you want to pitch a tent, you'll have to do so at a private campsite.

For detailed information on hiking routes in specific regions, check out the reliable Cicerone (www.cicerone.co.uk) series of walking guides.

Feature: Italy's Best Parks & Reserves

ParkFeaturesActivitiesBest Time to Visit
Abruzzo, Lazio e Molisegranite peaks, beech woods, bears, wolveshiking, horse ridingMay-Oct
Appennino Tosco-Emilianomountains, forests, lakesskiing, cycling, hiking, horse ridingFeb-Oct
Arcipelago di La Maddalenarocky islets, beaches, translucent seasailing, diving, snorkellingJun-Sep
Asinaraalbino donkeys, former prisoncycling, boat tours, snorkellingJun-Sep
Aspromonteconiferous forests, high plains, vertiginous villageshikingMay-Oct
Circeosand dunes, rocky coastline, woods, wetlandshiking, birdwatchingApr-Jun & Sep-Oct
Cilento e Vallo di DianoGreek temples, dramatic coastline, caveshiking, swimming, birdwatchingMay-Oct
Cinque TerreUnesco World Heritage site, colourful fishing villages, terraced hillsideshiking, divingApr-Oct
Delta del Pomarshes, wetlandscycling, birdwatchingMay-Oct
Dolomiti BellunesiUnesco World Heritage site, rock spires, highland meadows, chamoisskiing, hiking, mountain bikingDec-Oct
Dolomiti di Sestojagged mountains, Tre Cime di Lavaredo (Three Peaks)hiking, mountain biking, rock climbingJun-Sep
Etnaactive volcano, black lava fields, forestshiking, horse ridingMay-Oct
Garganoancient forests, limestone cliffs, grottoesdiving, hiking, cycling, snorkellingJun-Sep
Golfo di Orosei e del Gennargentusheer cliffs, granite peaks, prehistoric ruinshiking, sailing, rock climbing, canyoningMay-Sep
Gran ParadisoAlpine villages, mountains, meadows, ibexskiing, snowboarding, hiking, climbing, mountain bikingDec-Oct
Gran Sasso e Monti della Lagaragged peaks, birds of prey, wolvesskiing, hiking, climbingDec-Mar
MadonieSicily's highest peaks, wooded slopes, wolves, wildflowershiking, horse ridingMay-Jun & Sep-Oct
Majellamountains, deep gorges, bearshiking, cyclingJun-Sep
Maremmareclaimed marshes, beacheshiking, horse riding, birdwatchingMay-Oct
Monti Sibilliniancient hamlets, mountains, eagleshiking, mountain biking, paraglidingMay-Oct
Pollinomountains, canyons, forest, Larico pines, rare orchidsrafting, canyoning, hikingJun-Sep
Prigionetteforest paths, albino donkeys, Giara horses, wild boarhiking, cyclingMay-Oct
Sciliar-Catinacciopasture lands, valleys, storybook alpine villageshiking, cyclingJun-Sep
Silawooded hills, lakes, remote villages, mushroomsskiing, hiking, canyoning, horse ridingDec-Mar & May-Oct
StelvioAlpine peaks, glaciers, forestsyear-round skiing, hiking, cycling, mountain bikingDec-Sep
Val GrandeAlpine woodlands, chamois, wolves, birdlifehiking, birdwatchingMay-Sep

The Alps & Dolomites

Italy's wild, lushly wooded Alps stretch from France in the west, via the southern borders of Austria and Switzerland, to Slovenia in the east. For hikers, they offer heady mountain vistas, swooping forested valleys and views over large glacial lakes such as Garda, Como and Maggiore.

In the far west, dropping into Piedmont and Liguria, are the Graian, Maritime and Ligurian Alps, which take in the full sweep of the Valle d'Aosta, the vast Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso and the lesser-known Parco Naturale delle Alpi Marittime, before making a sharp and dramatic descent to the Cinque Terre and Portofino park on the Ligurian coastline.

To the east in Friuli Venezia Giulia, you'll find the Giulie and Carnic Alps, where you can hike in pursuit of lynx, marmots and eagles amid supercute Tyrolean villages. Heading west, the white ridges pass through Trentino's Parco Nazionale dello Stelvio, northern Italy's (and the Alps') largest national park, and spill into Lombardy. Lombardy's great lakes – encompassing Garda, Como, Iseo, Maggiore and Orta – are prime hiking territory, mixing mountain and lake vistas. Particularly scenic is the crumpled ridge of mountains in Como's Triangolo Lariano and Garda's Monte Baldo.

Soaring across the borders of the Veneto, Trentino and Alto Adige, the enormous limestone fangs of the Dolomites have the edge when it comes to wild beauty. The Unesco World Heritage–listed mountain range offers some of Italy's most dramatic and vertiginous hiking trails. The multi-day, hut-to-hut alte vie (high routes) that slice through the heart of the range are among the most stunning in Europe. To up the ante somewhat, the region is laced with vie ferrate, fixed routes that snake and ladder up the peaks and allow would-be mountaineers to flirt with rock climbing with the security of a cable to hook onto.

Accommodation in the mountains is in rifugi (huts) or chalets, which should be booked ahead in high season. For serious hiking you'll need to bring appropriate equipment and get detailed trail maps. Tourist offices and visitor centres provide some information, resources and basic maps for easier tourist routes.

Central Italy

Abruzzo's national parks are among Italy's least explored. Here, you can climb Corno Grande, the Apennines' highest peak at 2912m, and explore vast, silent valleys. A top hike here is the three- to four-day trek through the Majella mountains, which follows an old POW escape route from Sulmona to Casoli.

In neighbouring Umbria, the glacier-carved valleys, beech forests and rugged mountains of Monti Sibillini and the Piano Grande, a 1270m-high plain flanked by the peaks of the Apennines, are well off the trodden path and beg to be discovered on foot. Both are spattered with a painter's palette of vibrant wildflowers in spring and early summer.

Tuscany's only significant park with good walking trails is in the southern Maremma, where you can sign up for walks of medium difficulty. The tower-topped medieval town of San Gimignano is also a fine base for guided nature walks into the hills. The Apuane Alps and the stunning Garfagnana valleys are for serious hikers, with hundreds of trails encompassing everything from half-day hikes to long-distance treks. For most people, though, an easy amble through the picturesque vineyards of Chianti suits just fine – with a little wine tasting thrown in for good measure, naturally. Autumn, when the wine and olive harvests start, has a particularly mellow appeal.

Edging northwest, Cinque Terre is postcard stuff, with its collection of five rainbow-bright villages pasted precariously to the clifftops, looking as though the slightest puff of wind would make them topple into the Ligurian Sea any second. The area is honeycombed with terrific trails that teeter through the vines and along the precipitous coastline. The star attraction is undoubtedly the serpentine Sentiero Azzuro linking all five villages, while the Sentiero Rosso presents a highly scenic alternative.

The South

For spectacular sea views hit the Amalfi Coast and Sorrento Peninsula, where age-old paths such as the Sentiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods) disappear into wooded mountains and ancient lemon groves. Across the water, Capri subverts its playboy image with a series of bucolic walking trails far from the crowds.

Crossing the border between Calabria and Basilicata is the Parco Nazionale del Pollino, Italy's largest national park. Claiming the richest repository of flora and fauna in the south, its varied landscapes range from deep river canyons to alpine meadows. Calabria's other national parks – the Sila and Aspromonte – offer similarly dramatic hiking, particularly the area around Sersale in the Sila, studded with waterfalls and the possibility of trekking through the Valli Cupe canyon.

Close to the heel of the stiletto in the sun-baked region of Puglia, the Parco della Murgia Materana, part of the Matera Unesco World Heritage Site, is full of fascinating cave churches and is great for birdwatching.

Sicily & Sardinia

With their unique topographies, Sicily and Sardinia provide unforgettable walking opportunities. Take your pick of volcano hikes in Sicily: the mother of them all is Mount Etna, but there's a whole host of lesser volcanoes on the Aeolian Islands, from the slumbering Vulcano, where you can descend to the crater floor, to a three-hour climb to the summit of Stromboli to see it exploding against the night sky. On Salina, you can clamber up extinct volcano Monte Fossa delle Felci for staggering views of symmetrically aligned volcanic peaks. From Etna you can also trek across into the Madonie park, or on Sicily's northwest coast, you can track the shoreline in the Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro.

Hiking Sardinia's granite peaks is more challenging. The Golfo di Orosei e del Gennargentu park offers a network of old shepherds' tracks on the Supramonte plateau and incorporates the prehistoric site of Tiscali and the Gola Su Gorropu canyon, which requires a guide and a little rock climbing. Arguably the toughest trek in Italy, the island's seven-day Selvaggio Blu is not for the faint-hearted. Stretching 45km along the Golfo di Orosei, the trek traverses wooded ravines, gorges and cliffs and a string of stunning coves. It's not well signposted (a deliberate decision to keep it natural), there's no water en route and some climbing and abseiling is involved.

Cycling

Whether you're after a gentle ride between trattorias, a 100km road race or a teeth-rattling mountain descent, you'll find a route to suit. Tourist offices can usually provide details on trails and guided rides, and bike hire is available in most cities and key activity spots.

Tuscany's rolling countryside has enduring appeal for cyclists, with gentle rides between achingly pretty villages, vines and olive groves. The wine-producing Chianti area south of Florence is a particular favourite. In Umbria, the Valnerina and Piano Grande at Monte Vettore have beautiful trails and quiet country roads to explore. Further north, the flatlands of Emilia-Romagna and the terraced vineyards of Barolo, Barbaresco and Franciacorta are also ideally suited to bike touring, as are the trails rimming Lago di Como and Lago Maggiore. Cycling meets architecture on the Veneto's Brenta Riviera, which offers 150km of bike routes past glorious Venetian villas. In the south, Puglia's flat countryside and coastal paths are also satisfying.

In summer, many Alpine ski resorts offer wonderful cycling. Mountain bikers are in their element whizzing among the peaks around Lago di Garda, Lago Maggiore and the Dolomites in Trentino-Alto Adige. Another challenging area is the granite landscape of the Supramonte in eastern Sardinia.

Friuli Venezia Giulia is another scenic cycling destination, with routes wending their way through the Dolomites, the rolling hills and vineyards of Collio wine country and along the coast. The transnational Ciclovia Alpe Adria Radweg bike route passes through Friuli and across to the island of Grado off Friuli's coast en route to Salzburg in Austria. Seasonal summer trains and buses allow cyclists to hop on and off the trail.

A useful first port of call for two-wheel adventures is Italy Cycling Guide (www.italy-cycling-guide.info), which gives the lowdown on major national and international routes in Italy, as well as route options (including maps and GPS files) for a number of regions.

Feature: Bike Tours

  • We Bike Tuscany Year-round one-day bike tours for riders of every skill level. Transport to Chianti and a support vehicle are provided. It also offers electric-bike tours.
  • Iseobike Tours around the Franciacorta wine region, with wine tastings.
  • Colpo di Pedale Trips for all levels on racers, mountain bikes and city bikes around Piedmont's Langhe wine region.
  • Ciclovagando Half- and full-day tours in Puglia, departing from various Puglian towns including Lecce, Matera and Trani.
  • Guti Bike Rent Run by a Spanish National Champion, this outfit arranges daily bike tours on and around Lago di Como.
  • Xtreme Malcesine On Lago di Garda's east bank, mountain-bike tours into the hills departing from the base of the Monte Baldo cable car. Garda Bike Shop is another outfit to run tours around Lago di Garda.
  • Soul Cycles Hooks up mountain-bike enthusiasts with qualified guides and some outstanding mountain-biking tracks along Liguria's Riviera di Ponente.

Horse Riding

Almost every region can be explored on horseback. Riding is particularly accessible in southern Tuscany where iconic butteri (Maremmese cowboys) herd cows in the Parco Regionale della Maremma. Guided treks can be arranged through the park’s main visitor centre in Alberese or contact Montebelli Agriturismo & Country Hotel, one of a handful of hotels in the region to offer horse riding.

Different regions offer different types of treks: In the Valle d'Asota in northern Italy, horseback enthusiasts can explore the protected Parc Nazionale del Gran Paradiso on horseback with Le Traîneau Equestrian Tourism Centre. Not far from Lago di Garda at Ranch Barlot, you can saddle up an Appaloosa or Argentinian pony and trek for two to eight days Western-style up Monte Baldo or through the lushly forested Adige valley. In southern Italy Horse Riding Tour Naples visits Parco Nazionale del Vesuvio (weather permitting) and casts an alternative spin on visiting Pompeii.

Sardinia's Horse Country Resort is among Italy's most important equestrian centres, with a stable of Arabian, Andalusian and Sardinian horses. In addition to lessons and various packages, it also offers accommodation.

Favourite agriturismi (farm stays) with ample opportunity to hack through the surrounding countryside on horseback include Podere San Lorenzo near Volterra in central Tuscany, Le Case Rosse di Montebuono on Lage Trasimeno in Umbria, and the aptly named Eldorado Ranch in Matera, southern Italy. Riding packages at the Gstatschhof Ponyhof in the Dolomites include snow treks (January to March).

Rock Climbing

The huge rock walls of the Dolomites set testing challenges for rock climbers of all levels, with everything from simple, single-pitch routes to long, multi-pitch ascents, many of which are easily accessible by road. To combine rock climbing with high-level hiking, clip into the vie ferrate (trails with permanent cables and ladders) in the Brenta Dolomites.

Climbs of all grades are found in the Trentino town of Arco, home to the world-famous Rock Master Festival, from short, single-pitch sport routes to lengthier, Dolomite-style climbs.

For hardcore mountaineering, alpinists can pit themselves against Western Europe's highest peaks in the Valle d'Aosta. Courmayeur and Cogne, a renowned ice-climbing centre, make good bases.

To the south, the Gran Sasso massif is a favourite. Of its three peaks, Corno Grande (2912m) is the highest and Corno Piccolo (2655m) the easiest to get to.

Other hot spots include Monte Pellegrino outside Palermo in Sicily, and Domusnovas, Ogliastra and the Supramonte in Sardinia.

The best source of climbing information is the Club Alpino Italiano (www.cai.it). Another good information source is the website Climb Europe (www.climb-europe.com), which also sells rock-climbing guidebooks covering Italy.

Italy's largest indoor-climbing centre is Salewa Cube in Bolzano, South Tyrol.

Skiing & Snowboarding

Most of Italy's top ski resorts are in the northern Alps, where names like Sestriere, Cortina d'Ampezzo, Madonna di Campiglio and Courmayeur are well known to serious skiers. Travel down the peninsula and you'll find smaller resorts dotted throughout the Apennines, in Lazio, Le Marche and Abruzzo. The Apennines often receive mega snowfalls and fewer crowds (so shorter lift queues), and historic villages such as Scanno and Pescocostanzo are far more charming than some of the bigger resorts found elsewhere. Even Sicily's Mount Etna is skiable in winter.

Two snowboarding hot spots are Trentino's Madonna di Campiglio and Valle d'Aosta's Breuil-Cervinia. Madonna's facilities are among the best in the country and include a snowboard park with descents for all levels and a dedicated boarder-cross zone. Breuil-Cervinia, situated at 2050m in the shadow of the Matterhorn, is better suited to intermediate and advanced levels.

Facilities at the bigger centres are generally world-class, with pistes ranging from nursery slopes to tough black runs. As well as sci alpino (downhill skiing), resorts might offer sci di fondo (cross-country skiing) and sci alpinismo (ski mountaineering).

The ski season runs from December to late March, although there is year-round skiing in Trentino-Alto Adige and on Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco) and the Matterhorn in the Valle d'Aosta. Generally, January and February are the best, busiest and priciest months. For better value, consider Friuli's expanding Sella Nevea runs or Tarvisio, one of the coldest spots in the Alps, where the season is often extended into April.

The best bargain of the ski year is the settimana bianca (literally 'white week'), a term used by resorts that generally refers to an all-inclusive ski package that covers accommodation, food and ski passes.

Feature: Top Ski Resorts

Spread across the north of the country in the Alps and Dolomites, Italy has a bumper crop of ski resorts, which range from the fast and fashion-conscious to the low-key and affordable. Here's our pick of them at a glance.

Skiing Resources

Check out the following websites for detailed information about Italy's ski resorts, including facilities, accommodation, updated snow reports, webcams and special offers:

  • J2Ski (www.j2ski.com)
  • Iglu Ski (www.igluski.com)
  • On the Snow (www.onthesnow.co.uk)
  • If You Ski (www.ifyouski.com)

Feature: Zipline Flights

How do angels fly? At the speed of light, apparently. Il Volo dell’Angelo (Flight of the Angel) in Basilicata is one of the world’s longest (1452m) and fastest (120km/h) zip lines, racing you between two villages: Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa! If you want to amp up the adventure, this is the ultimate high-wire thrill.

Those who prefer to zip on an aerial wire over medieval towers, piazzas and burnt-red rooftops should try the new Zipline Majella in Pacentro, by the Parco Nazionale della Majella in Abruzzo. In northern Italy Lago Maggiore Zipline offers high-speed flights at 120km/h across one of Europe's prettiest lakes.

On Water

On the coast, sport goes beyond posing on packed beaches. Sardinia's cobalt waters and Sicily's Aeolian Islands claim some of Italy's best diving. Windsurfers flock to Sardinia, Sicily and the northern lakes, while adrenalin junkies ride rapids from Piedmont to Calabria.

Diving

Diving is one of Italy's most popular summer pursuits, and there are hundreds of schools offering courses, dives for all levels and equipment hire.

Most diving schools open seasonally, typically from about June to October. If possible, avoid August, when the Italian coast is besieged by holidaymakers and peak-season prices.

Feature: Top Dive Sites

For divers ready to take the plunge, Italy delivers on all fronts, with everything from sea caves, the remnants of old volcanoes and abundant marine life underwater. The best diving is generally found on the clear waters surrounding the country's islands and islets.

Sicily makes an exceptional base, especially the cobalt waters of the Unesco-protected Aeolian Islands, where you can dive in sea grottoes around the remains of old volcanoes. The volcanic island of Ustica, Italy's first marine reserve, is also rich with underwater flora and fauna.

Over on Sardinia, the diving is equally outstanding. Dangling off the northwest coast, Capo Caccia is the dive site for Sardinia's coral divers and features the largest underwater grotto in the Mediterranean. In the north, the Maddalena marine park boasts translucent waters and diving around 60 islets.

On the craggy shores of the Italian Riviera in Liguria, Cinque Terre Marine Reserve is a good base for diving in the north of the country.

Heading further south, Capri, Ischia and Procida in Campania are three islands in the Bay of Naples with exceptional diving amid sun-struck sea caves. In the southeast, the Isole Tremiti are wind-eroded islands off Puglia's Gargano Promontory, pock-marked with huge sea caves.

Sailing

Italy has a proud maritime tradition and you can hire a paddle boat or sleek sailing yacht almost anywhere in the country. Sailors of all levels are catered for: experienced skippers can island-hop around Sicily and Sardinia, or along the Amalfi, Tuscan, Ligurian or Triestino coasts on chartered yachts; weekend boaters can explore hidden coves in rented dinghies around Puglia, in the Tuscan archipelago and around the Sorrento Peninsula; and speed freaks can take to the Lombard lakes in sexy speedboats.

Down south, on the Amalfi Coast, prime swimming spots are often only accessible by boat. It's a similar story on the islands of Capri, Ischia, Procida and Elba.

In Sicily, the cobalt waters of the Aeolian Islands are perfect for idle island-hopping. Across in Sardinia, the Golfo di Orosei, Santa Teresa di Gallura and the Arcipelago di La Maddalena are all top sailing spots. Sardinia's main sailing portal is www.sailingsardinia.it.

Italy's most prestigious sailing regattas are Lago di Garda's September Centomiglia, which sails just south of Gargnano, and the Barcolana held in Trieste in October. The latter is the Med's largest regatta.

Reputable yacht charter companies include Bareboat Sailing Holidays (www.bareboatsailingholidays.com).

Rafting, Kayaking & SUP

A mecca for water rats, the Sesia River in northern Piedmont is Italy's top white-water destination. At its best between April and September, it runs from the slopes of Monte Rosa down through the spectacular scenery of the Valsesia. Operators in Varallo offer various solutions to the rapids: there's canoeing, kayaking, white-water rafting, canyoning, hydrospeed and tubing.

In Alto Adige, the Val di Sole is another white-water destination, as is Lago Ledro in Trentino, where you can canyon beneath invigorating waterfalls. Further south, Monti Sibillini in Umbria is another good choice for white-water adventures.

On the southwest coast, Kayak Napoli offers great tours of the Neapolitan coastline for all levels, ticking off often-inaccessible ruins, neoclassical villas, gardens and grottoes from the water. Liguria's mythical Cinque Terra shoreline can be tranquilly explored with Manarol-based Arbaspàa.

At the southern end of the peninsula, the Lao River rapids in Calabria's Parco Nazionale del Pollino provide exhilarating rafting, as well as canoeing and canyoning. Trips can be arranged in Scalea.

The compelling red granite coastline of Ogliastra in Sardinia is best seen on a relaxed paddle with Cardedu Kayak. On the Friulian Coast ASD Fairplay organises seasonal kayak and stand-up paddleboard (SUP) courses and tours. In Sicily, Sicily in Kayak offers kayaking, sailing and SUP tours around Vulcano and the other Aeolians, ranging from half a day to an entire week.

Romantics won't do better than a mellow SUP foray on Lago Maggiore with Tomaso Surf & Sail, along the canals of Venice with SUP in Venice or along the River Arno in Renaissance Florence with Firenze Rafting.

Windsurfing & Kitesurfing

Considered one of Europe's prime windsurfing spots, Lago di Garda enjoys excellent wind conditions: the northerly peler blows in early on sunny mornings, while the southerly ora sweeps down in the early afternoon as regular as clockwork. The two main centres are Torbole, home of the World Windsurf Championship, and Malcesine, 15km south. OKSurf is one of many lake schools offering lessons.

For windsurfing on the sea, head to Sardinia. In the north, Porto Pollo, also known as Portu Puddu, is good for beginners and experts – the bay provides protected waters for learners, while experts can enjoy the high winds as they funnel through the channel between Sardinia and Corsica. To the northeast, there's good windsurfing on the island of Elba, off the Tuscan coast. Competitions such as the Chia Classic are held off the southwest coast in June.

Kitesurfing enthusiasts flock to western Sicily. The shallow waters and gentler winds of the Laguna dello Stagnone, a lagoon between Trapani and Marsala, are ideal for beginners and intermediates. The accommodation, gear rental and lesson packages offered by Prokite Alby Rondina are good-value.