20 reasons why we cannot wait to return to Italy

Tim Jepson
grand hotel tremezzo

No other country has Italy’s riches; its peerless combination of art, culture, food and wine, of fashion, opera, people and landscapes; its vivid blend of the old and new, the beguiling and the beautiful.

On Wednesday, this glorious country reopened its borders to European travellers. Its countless pleasures have been coming back to life: beaches and pools, hotels and museums, bars and restaurants. Star attractions – Pisa’s Tower, Rome’s Colosseum, Florence’s Duomo – are welcoming visitors again.

Currently the FCO still advises against all but essential travel, but from July 1 all airlines intend to resume flights from the UK. So with Italy’s wonders almost within our grasp again, here are 20 reasons we can’t wait to return.

1. Rediscover Tuscany

Of course it’s a cliché, but what a cliché. Everything that goes to make the good life is here: towns and cities filled with art and culture – Florence, Siena and Lucca and smaller gems such as Pienza, Sovana and Cortona; fine food; excellent wine; and a variety of exquisite landscapes, from the vineyards of Chianti and the pastoral hills of the Val d’Orcia to the islands of Elba and Capraia and the mountains of the Orecchiella and Alpi Apuane. 

2. Fall in love with the Lakes

Poets and painters have celebrated the Italian Lakes for centuries, and no wonder, for they represent some of Europe’s loveliest landscapes. Luxuriant gardens and idyllic villages scatter their mild-weathered shores, with the wooded slopes and snow-capped peaks of the Alps as backdrop. Maggiore and Garda are the most visited, Iseo and Orta the quietest – but if you have to settle for one, make it Como, which is the most beautiful. 

3. Hear opera in its birthplace

Opera’s roots are Italian, as are most of its greatest composers – Verdi, Rossini, Puccini, Monteverdi, Bellini, Donizetti. Italy also has two of the world’s best-known opera houses – La Scala and La Fenice – but beautiful theatres are also found in Bologna, Palermo, Treviso, Prato and Ferrara. Seasonal festivals proliferate, notably the Festival dell’Arena in Verona, the Festival Verdi in Parma; the Festival Puccini near Lucca; the Macerata Opera Festival in the Marche; and the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro.

teatro massimo vittorio emanuele, palermo - getty

4. Dine out

It’s impossible to pick one location for a gastronomic odyssey – you might go for Bologna, or Norcia in Umbria – but let’s plump for wealthy Parma, home to Parma ham and parmesan; a fine mix of simple trattorias and Michelin-starred restaurants; and plenty of exceptional food shops, not least Silvano Romani for hams and salamis.

5. Visit the dramatic Dolomites

Plenty of countries have mountains, but only Italy has the Dolomites, Europe’s most dramatic upland region. Hiking is superb – and easy, if you use the cable cars to do the hard work – with the Brenta massif (and Madonna di Campiglio as a base) a good choice for first-time visitors. Or take a driving tour – the roads are excellent – starting with the 68-mile Grande Strada delle Dolomiti, a designated scenic route, and the SS49 road along the Val Pusteria or SS242 in the Val Gardena.

6. See Venice without the crowds

The world would be an infinitely poorer place without Rome or Florence, but a world without Venice? Of course it’s a city with problems, but you can easily escape its more troubling elements. Venice casts its spell year-round, so visit in winter; walk to the fringes, far from St Mark’s, to San Nicolò dei Mendicoli in the west, Madonna dell’Orto in the north; explore the empty, echoing alleys at night; and spend a week here, more if you can, to uncover a sense of the living city beyond its superficial image.

dolomites, italy - getty

7. Find fine art

Italy has more than its share of world-class art galleries – the Uffizi in Florence, the Accademia in Venice, the Vatican’s collections in Rome. But even modest Italian towns have masterpieces. Perugia’s Galleria Nazionale, for example, full of Umbrian masterpieces; or the Carrara in Bergamo; the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino; the Galleria Regionale in Palermo; the Pinacoteca in Siena; the Museo Civico in Vicenza. And in Italy, more than any other European country, exceptional art is still found in the places for which it was commissioned. 

8. Escape to an island

Italy’s mainland is such a patchwork of fine landscapes that it’s easy to overlook its islands. Not the obvious ones like Capri, but those such as the Isole Tremiti off Puglia, still little known to outsiders; and Ponza, a beautiful bolt hole for Romans in the know; or Capraia and Elba, close to the Tuscan mainland; and the Aeolian and Egadi islands – Lipari and Marettimo in particular – off Sicily.

9. Be swept away by the greatest coasts

Italy’s beaches – save in Sardinia – may not be superlative, but there are sublime stretches of coastline. Amalfi and the Cinque Terre are the most celebrated but there are quieter alternatives, especially in the south. In Puglia, make for the Gargano and Salento, two peninsulas of cliffs, crescent sands and turquoise seas; and in Campania, south of Naples, head for the Cilento, a wild, rocky enclave scattered with lovely villages such as Acciaroli, Agropoli and Santa Maria di Castellabate.

ninfa garden - getty

10. Find peace in glorious gardens

Gardens are everywhere in Italy, from the villas of the Veneto and the Italian Lakes in the north to the cypress-shaded estates of Tuscany and the lemon-scented courtyards of Sicily in the south. Personal favourites include Ninfa, south of Rome; Hanbury near Ventimiglia; the Villa Carlotta on Lake Como; La Mortella on Ischia; and the weird and wonderful Tarot Gardens in northern Lazio.

11. Explore tiny towns

Cities might seem Italy’s thing – Rome, Florence and Venice, with Milan and Naples close behind – but it’s the surfeit of beautiful small towns that make up much of the country’s appeal. Tuscany and Umbria have them in abundance, but every region has its star turns: favourites include Sulmona in the Abruzzo; Enna, Erice and Noto in Sicily; Matera in Basilicata; Tropea in Calabria; Ostuni in Puglia; Ascoli Piceno in the Marche; Ravenna in Emilia-Romagna; Camogli in Liguria. 

12. Go wild in the great outdoors

Italy’s ski resorts are world-class – think Alta Badia, Courmayeur and Cervinia. You can canoe, sail and kayak on the Lakes, go walking or cycling in Tuscany and Umbria or take multi-day treks and circuits on long-distance trails in the Alps and beyond. And how about paragliding in Umbria (sarnanoturismo.it), white-water rafting in Calabria (raftingfiumelao.com) or tracking wolves in the Abruzzo (wildlifeadventures.it)?

13. Time travel to the ancient world

Other countries can lay claim to the odd Roman ruin and Greece has no shortage of monuments to its ancient past. But Italy combines Greek ruins – notably Sicily’s 2,000-year-old temples and theatres – with countless remains from 1,000 years of Roman history. Pompeii stands alone among the latter, followed by the greatest monuments of Rome itself, the Colosseum and Pantheon.

pompeii - getty

14. See Europe’s finest medieval town

Making this claim is asking for trouble in a country with so many exceptional examples, but if you wanted one place you would happily spend months or years of your life, it is hard to think of anywhere more tempting than hilltop Siena. Not too big, not too small; urbane and easy-going; still ringed by walls; crammed with art and architecture; easier on the eye, with its soft brick, than Florence, its dark-stoned rival – and with all the temptations of Tuscany on its doorstep.

15. Lose yourself in the Abruzzo

Italy is a country dominated by mountains, notably the Alps in the north and the long spine of the Apennines in the south and centre, where the immense wilderness of the Abruzzo, east of Rome, is the most starkly beautiful. Make for the great massifs of the Maiella and Gran Sasso, still the haunt of wolves and bears, and for timeless little towns and villages such as Castel del Monte, Scanno, Caramanico Terme and Santo Stefano Sessanio.

16. On the trail of the baroque

The extravagance of the baroque is not to all tastes – if it is for you, then you will probably already relish the interiors of Rome and Naples’ many sumptuously decorated churches. But there is another side to the Italian baroque, namely the Spanish-influenced architecture distinctive to Sicily. Palermo, the island’s capital, has the richest heritage, but the little towns of Noto, Ragusa and Modica have an intimate, honey-stoned beauty you will find nowhere else in Italy.

noto, italy - istock

17. The place where nobody goes

It’s a mystery, Mantua. I have visited this town between Milan and Venice for 20 years and in this time the number of overseas visitors has remained more or less the same: virtually zero. Who knows why, for it has a magical setting, ringed by lakes; Italy’s largest ducal palace, with masterpieces by Mantegna and others; the Palazzo Te, spectacularly frescoed by Giulio Romano; and a lovely centre of shady medieval arcades and cobbled piazzas.

18. Wonderful wine

There is Chianti, of course, where Badia a Coltibuono is my winery of choice. In Umbria, lovely, medieval Montefalco has red wines found nowhere else. In Italy’s northwest, the glorious hills near Alba produce barolo and barbaresco, while in Sicily, an emerging wine destination, fine scenery is a backdrop for the Cottonera estate on the slopes of Etna and the Tasca del Merita properties, notably Regaleali, south of the majestic Madonie mountains.

19. On the trail of the Romanesque

Italy dazzles with its monumental architecture but Italy’s Romanesque buildings, simple and austere, have a gentler, subtler charm. You will find examples almost everywhere, but two regions stand out: Umbria, especially the towns of Spoleto, Todi, Assisi and Bevagna and – a personal favourite – the glorious abbey of San Pietro in Valle; and Puglia, where a tour taking in Bari, Castel del Monte, Trani, Barletti, Ruvo and Bitonto will reveal some of the loveliest architecture in the whole of Europe, never mind Italy.

matera - istock

20. Head South

True, visitors have to work harder in Calabria and Basilicata, the South’s key regions, than in the north of Italy – but in places like Matera, with its cave dwellings and ancient churches, or the coastal resorts of Maratea or Tropea, you have towns as compelling as any further north. And in the Parco Nazionale del Pollino, centred on the lonely uplands of Monte Pollino (7,735ft), you will come across a way of rural life unchanged in centuries.