Italy is a dazzling, mesmerising feast of a country. Here are the country’s must-see highlights – if you don’t make it to them all on one trip, it’s the perfect excuse to return.
The economic and fashion powerhouse of Milan is worth visiting for the faded beauty of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper alone, as well as its mesmerisingly Gothic Duomo. Also in the north are the deep-blue volcanic lakes, Como and Garda, where mountains meet fiercely blue lakes, their banks dotted by caramel-hued fairytale towns.
And then there’s Venice, which seems to have sprung from a dream, a city built audaciously on a lagoon. Come here to see the glittering mosaics of San Marco and its awe-inspiring waterside piazza, and to glide along narrow canals in a gondola.
Whatever you do, make time to fit in the five Ligurian villages of Cinque Terre. These preposterously constructed, stuck-in-time villages cling to the steeply terraced cliffs that form one of Italy’s most spectacular stretches of coast.
Florence overflows with Renaissance treasures, with its Duomo, crowned by Brunelleschi’s dome, and the masterpiece-stuffed Uffizi Gallery. This cityscape is unparalleled, its medieval buildings tinged red and gold in the sun, cluttering the banks of the Arno.
Rome is Italy’s greatest city, and somewhere everyone should go at least once. Sometimes called Caput Mundi (‘capital of the world’), this historical metropolis is dotted by thrilling vestiges of ancient splendour, from the awe-inspiring Roman temple of the Pantheon to the world’s most iconic Roman ruin, the Colosseum. It’s also the palpitating heart of the Catholic world and no trip would be complete without a visit to the Vatican Museums, St Peter’s, and the Michelangelo-decorated Sistine Chapel (but remember they say, ‘for Rome, a lifetime is not enough’).
As far as countryside goes, you are again, spoilt for choice, but be sure to experience the enveloping, endless green of Tuscany, punctuated by brushstroke cypress trees and medieval hilltop towns built from stone the colour of autumn leaves. And then there’s the wondrous scenery of nearby Umbria, its hills crowned by perfect towns such as Orvieto and Assisi.
For standout coastal vistas, head to the Amalfi Coast, a rollickingly exquisite 50-km stretch, featuring dizzying hairpin bends and pale-lemon and rose-coloured towns draped over fantastical seacliff scenery.
Just north of here is Italy’s craziest, most charismatic city, Naples, which has more of the buzz of an African or Arabian city than somewhere in Europe. And don’t pass up a chance to see the seared-in-time remains of Pompeii, Italy’s most unforgettable ancient site.
In the south, under fierce blue skies, you’ll be bowled over by Puglia’s laidback golden-stone town of Lecce, whose sandstone churches seethe with almost hallucinatory carving, while a must for beach lovers is Puglia’s powder white-edged coastline close to Otranto. And everyone, at some point, should try to make it to the island of Sicily, to explore its golden sand-edged coastline, dazzling Arabic-influenced cuisine, Mount Etna, and a cultural legacy that encompasses the temples of Magna Graecia, Moorish artisanship and Norman austerity.