Inside: The top destinations in Italy to add to your Bucket List. Plus jaw-dropping itineraries whether you have a week or a month.
Are you planning a trip to Italy? If so, you’re in for a treat! This amazing country wows visitors with history, culture and beaty and truly has something for everyone.
Looking to explore ancient ruins and historical sites? Italy’s got you covered from the Colosseum to Pompeii.
Searching for a stunning Mediterranean beach to bask in the sunshine? Yep, Italy’s got that, too.
Seeking incredible food and wine? Hello!?! We’re talking about Italy, here!
In this ultimate guide to Italy, you’ll find all the information you need to make the most of your time in this magnificent country. From the current entry requirements to how to plan the perfect itinerary, whether you have one week or a full month to explore. And all the essential details in between!
While the travel industry across the globe took a universal shellacking from COVID-19, perhaps no country suffered worse than Italy.
And that’s why Italy should be at the top of your Bucket List this year. There’s lost vacation time to make up for and there’s no better place to make it count than the magical Italian countryside.
So what are you waiting for? Start planning your dream vacation to Italy now!
Let’s start with the basics…
What are the current entry requirements for travel to Italy?
Italy was the hardest hit of the European countries during the pandemic and, as such, they were slower to ease all Covid restrictions than other European countries (like Greece, for example).
However, as of June 1, 2022, Italy is once again open to all visitors without restrictions, regardless of vaccination status. A Covid test is not required for entry and all mask requirements have been lifted, except for hospitals and other medical facilities.
Now, let’s get back to the fun stuff!
How many days do you need in Italy?
While I heartily endorse traveling around the entire world in 30 days, you could easily spend 30 days (or more) exploring the historic cities, rolling countryside, and exquisite islands of Italy. Tip: If you do have 30 days…first, lucky you! And second, check my 4-week Italy itinerary below.
Of course, I may be a little biased. My husband and I were married in Tuscany and kicked off our 3-month round-the-world honeymoon in Cinque Terre and Venice.
But it’s easy to be partial to Italy.
So how long do you really need? It depends on where you want to go, but I would say a week, minimum. Of course, I’ve been known to fly to Rome just for a long weekend. But I also used to go around the world in 30 days once a year so my travel habits are anything but traditional.
Two weeks is ideal. Three weeks, even better! But no matter how much time you have, you can make the most of it with the suggested itineraries I’ve listed below.
What’s the best time to visit Italy?
The tourism “season” in Italy runs roughly from April to November. My visits to Italy have spanned just about every month of the year and for my money, the best times to visit are April/May and September/October.
During those shoulder season months, you’ll find lower hotel rates, better availability, and fewer crowds. And the weather is still amazing, especially in southern Italy. Expect temps in the 70’s and plenty of sunshine.
What’s the worst time to visit Italy?
If you want to visit Italy at the most crowded and expensive time of year, visit in July or August. These are the most popular months for cruise ships and tour groups. Not to mention most of Europe goes on vacation in the month of August and many of them head straight to the Italian coastline and islands thanks to direct, low-cost flights into Rome, Naples, and Milan.
What’s the best way to get around Italy?
The answer to that question largely depends on where you’re going within Italy. Most international flights into Italy arrive at Rome’s busy Fiumicino Leonardo da Vinci International Airport (FCO). From there, you have a variety of options for traveling around Italy.
Flights within Italy
It’s unlikely you’ll need to book domestic flights within Italy to get around. Unless you’re going from one of the larger cities in the north (Milan, Turin, or Venice) all the way to the southern tip of the country (Naples or Palermo), in which case a flight might make good sense. Even then, I often prefer the train just to avoid the hassle of the airport on either end.
Traveling by train in Italy
If you’re traveling between major cities in Italy, the highly efficient train system is your best best. The major cities are connected by hi-speed trains that make it quick and easy to get from one to the other. Here are the average hi-speed train times and approximate fares between major cities:
|Avg Price ($)
The best site for booking trains in Italy in advance is ItaliaRail.
Driving in Italy (a cautionary tale)
But the truth is, sometimes a car is just the best way to get everywhere you want to go in Italy on your own schedule.
So, if you must, my go-to for rental cars is DiscoverCars.com, especially when renting in Europe. After renting with them dozens of times in multiple countries, I’ve found they’re the best option for low rates and – most importantly – no surprises (like extra charges) at the counter.
However, and here’s my cautionary tale, driving in Italy can be challenging. Don’t get me wrong, the road system is terrific and the physical act of driving in Italy is not at all difficult (unlike driving in Ireland), especially if you stick to the highways (called autostradas). However, the rules for driving in Italy (and especially the speed limits) can be a little difficult to decipher.
In fact, my husband who – in 40 years of driving – has never had a single speeding ticket in his entire life (honestly, there should be some kind of award for that), has had more than one ticket in Italy. And he is truly just about the most cautious and attentive driver you’ve ever seen in your life. No, he’s never been pulled over. Each time, the ticket arrived in the mail several months after our trip. And yes, you do have to pay them. Especially if you ever want to rent a car in Italy again.
The most common culprits for tickets in Italy are automated speed cameras and ZTL zones “Zona Traffico Limitato” in city centers. Often, speed limits are not well posted, which is why those cameras are such a nuisance. You have no idea you’ve exceeded the speed limit until that ticket comes in the mail months later. And ZTL zones (unique to Italy) are restricted areas that prohibit driving in certain historic areas (like Florence’s historic district, for example).
But it is possible to drive in Italy and not encounter any issues if you’re prepared. After all, my husband only got tickets twice out of the 10-15 times we’ve been (and we’ve driven almost every time). But this subject is too comprehensive to be covered adequately in this guide. So, if you do rent a car, here’s the most helpful post I’ve found on driving in Italy. Read it from start to finish, watch your speed, learn what a ZTL sign looks like, and you’ll be fine.
Best Food & Drinks to try in Italy
And now, we move on to my favorite subject…food! And more importantly, wine!
I could write an entire romance novel devoted to Italian food and wine. But for the purposes of this guide, I’ll hit the highlights. Part of the joy of a trip to Italy is discovering the country’s magical cuisine as you travel from region to region.
Foods you have to try in Italy
A traditional meal in Italy consists of at least four courses but can stretch to as many as eight or more. It begins with an antipasti (or starter), followed by primi (the first hot course, often pasta, soup or risotto without meat), then secondi (a meat or seafood course), and finally dolci (dessert). These are the typical categories you’ll see listed on an Italian menu.
There’s nothing Italians love more than lingering over a long meal and enjoying quality time with family and friends. We could all take a lesson from the Italians on that one!
Starters – The first course (equivalent to the US appetizer) often consists of a charcuterie platter, cheeses or breads. Bruschetta and caprese (fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil) are also popular options.
Pasta, pasta, pasta – Nothing says Italy like a decadent pasta dish and you’ll find a wide variety of pasta specialties to try throughout the country. Though the rest of the world often treats pasta as a main course, it’s a course unto itself in Italy. Top pasta dishes to sample on your trip include lasagna, anything with pesto, linguine with clams (linguine alle vongole), spaghetti with garlic and oil (spaghetti aglio e olio) and, my all-time favorite, spaghetti carbonara. Tip: In the Amalfi Coast region, try pasta dishes with lemon!
Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Florentine steak) – Sourced from a particular breed of cattle known for producing incredibly flavorful meat, this unique cut of steak is a popular “secondi” and a must when visiting Florence and the greater Tuscan region. Seasonings are kept simple to highlight the delicious flavor of the meat. We served this as the secondi at our wedding in Tuscany and it’s still my husband’s favorite dish when we visit.
Pizza – Treated as a snack more than a meal, tis iconic Italian creation falls into two categories within Italy. Roman-style is paper thin and crispy, while Neopolitan-style is thicker and fluffier. Try it Roman style in Rome and Neopolitan style in Naples. Less is more when it comes to toppings to let the quality of the ingredients in the sauce shine through.
Cannoli – Native to Sicily, the “Sicilian connolo” is a tube-like crispy pastry shell filled with ricotta cheese mixed with chocolate bits and candied fruit. These tasty treats can be found in cafes throughout Italy. A late morning or mid-afternoon cappuccino and cannoli stop is a staple during my typical day in Italy.
Tiramisu – Perhaps the most well-known Italian dessert, you’ve likely had tiramisu elsewhere in the world. But since everything’s better in Italy, don’t miss a chance to try this coffee-soaked sponge cake piece of heaven at least once on your trip.
How to find the best gelato in Italy
From the mountains of the Dolomites to the beaches of Sicily, you’ll find gelato shops just about everywhere in Italy. Gelato differs from ice cream in a few ways. Ice cream contains eggs and has more milk fat and more air. Gelato usually does not contain eggs, contains less cream and is churned slower. It contains less air making it more dense in texture and richer in flavor than ice cream.
But all gelato shops in Italy are not created equal. For example, the vibrant rainbow mounds of gelato dotted with fruit and hunks of chocolate that make a great Instagram photo are not likely to be your best best. That, my friends, is tourist gelato. And while it’ll probably taste just fine on a hot summer day, it’s not what you travelled all the way to Italy for.
Authentic hot or cold-pressed Italian gelato comes in stainless steel tubs, with lids. If you’re choosing your flavor from a list on a sign instead of visually through a window, chances are it’s quality gelato. The best gelato is dense, not infused with air, and its colors are muted and natural.
For example, banana gelato should not be neon yellow. Bananas are off white. You know this. A little common sense will go a long way in seeking out the best of Italy’s frozen delights.
Drinks you have to try in Italy
Everything revolves around food in Italy and the drinks are no exception. Here, a brief introduction to the Italian concepts of “aperitivo and digestivo” are in order.
An aperitivo is a pre-meal drink intended to “open the stomach” before dining. This cherished Italian custom typically takes place between 7-9pm in the evening and may also include some small finger foods. A digestivo, typically served as a shot, is an after dinner drink meant to aid in digestion after a hearty Italian meal.
Taking part in both Italian traditions with your meal is all part of the fun of dining in Italy. Like Italian food, wines and spirits vary greatly by region. Let’s cover a few of the most popular options:
Italian wines – Let’s be honest, all of Italy is basically just one giant vineyard. Some of Italy’s most famous wine regions are Tuscany, Abruzzo, Piedmont, Veneto, and Sicily but brilliant wines are produced in just about every nook and cranny of this country. Many of the wineries can be visited for tastings, but you can also find plenty of local wine options to sample in every restaurant. Some of my favorites are Montepulciano, Dolcetto and Sangiovese. You can, of course, sip wine any time of day in Italy but it’s also a popular choice for an aperitivo.
Prosecco – Though it’s technically also a wine, Italy’s legendary sparkling concoction is worthy of a separate mention. Produced only in Italy, this light, crisp, nectar of the Gods is the Italian answer to champagne. Personally, I actually prefer it to champagne, especially prosecco produced in the Veneto region. It’s my go-to aperitivo.
Aperol Spritz – Invented in Venice, this popular Italian cocktail mixes the bitter herbal-orange flavor of Aperol with prosecco and tonic water. (For an even more bitter option, if you dare, try a Campari Spritz.) Full disclosure: I’ve tried an Aperol Spritz several times and I’m just not a fan. I love how pretty they are and the average Italian looks impossibly chic drinking one on a hot summer day by the sea, but I just can’t do it. Not when there’s prosecco and limoncello nearby. Which brings me to…
Limoncello – In the southern regions of Sicily and the Amalfi Coast, trees burdened by softball-sized lemons line every street and limoncello reigns supreme. I don’t want to oversell it here, but in my opinion this decadent lemon liquor is literally heaven in a shot glass. Each seaside town and island produces their own variety and I often feel a sense of obligation to try them all when I visit. It’s the polite thing to do, right? Not surprisingly, limoncello is my go-to digestivo and one of my all-time favorite drinks anywhere in the world.
Grappa – Made from the stems, skins and seeds of winemaking grapes, Grappa is another popular digestivo. It’s typically very high in alcohol and has a peppery intense grape flavor. Like the Aperol spritz, this one is an acquired taste that I have yet to acquire. If you’re a fan of drinks that burn when they go down, give it a go.
Sambuca – Another common digestivo, Sambuca is an anise-flavored liqueur. It pairs well with an after dinner coffee but if you’re not a fan of licorice it may not be for you.
But whatever you choose to drink, be sure to pair that beverage with a cheerful “cin cin” (pronounced chin-chin), the Italian version of “cheers.”
So now that you know how to get around Italy and what to eat and drink, let’s get to the really good stuff…the BEST places to go in Italy!
Best places to visit in Italy
Oh boy. I could go on. And on. And on.
But for the purposes of this guide, I’ll focus on the most popular cities, regions, lakes, and islands around the country. Plus, a few off the radar gems well worth a detour. I’ll cover each very briefly on this page but for most of these destinations I’ve written much more detailed posts. I’ve linked to those posts throughout so if you’re interested in a certain city or region, just follow those links for more information on that particular destination.
Let’s get started!
The Cities of Italy
The most beautiful big cities in Italy are the first three listed here – Rome, Florence, and Venice.
These are an absolute must-see when visiting Italy. Conveniently, the vast majority of international flights to Italy arrive and depart from these three cities. So, they’re an easy addition to any itinerary. If you’re hoping to cover a lot of ground on a short stay, consider flying into one and out of another.
The other two cities on this list? Well, I have more of a take it or leave it attitude about them (especially the last one). But – sigh – they are the gateways to some of the most beautiful regions of Italy, so they still rate a mention.
In addition to the big cities listed here, Italy is home to hundreds of smaller cities, towns and villages. Many of these are well worth a visit and I’ve covered some of my favorites in the remaining regions below.
Italy’s “Eternal City” is the country’s #1 must-see. I mean, you simply can’t visit Italy without at least a day or two in Rome.
Fortunately, most international flights arrive here so it’s an obvious first stop on any Italian itinerary. And as someone who first visited Rome many years ago, I can say with certainty that it’s an amazing city to explore. The Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps are all must-see sights, and there’s so much history to absorb around every corner in the historic city center. Plus, like the rest of Italy, the food is amazing.
Read More: Rome in 48 Hours
Florence (& Pisa)
Florence is my favorite of the big Italian cities. It’s a large city with a small-town feel. Like Rome, the history here is rich and expansive. Not to mention the stunning architecture and incredible museums and artworks. The Florence Cathedral (Duomo) dominates the city’s skyline and it’s one of Florence’s most impressive sights. Don’t miss a stroll across the Arno River on the iconic Ponte Vecchio bridge or a visit to the incredible Uffizi Gallery.
If you’re looking for a beautiful city to explore that just oozes Italian charm, Florence is the perfect destination. (It also makes a lovely backdrop for wedding photos!)
Bonus: The iconic Leaning Tower of Pisa is just a short train ride away. (Because, c’mon, you’ve just gotta get that photo op!)
Venice (& Burano/Murano)
Venice is perhaps Italy’s most unique city. Built on a series of islands in a lagoon, the ubiquitous canals are a beautiful sight. And there’s simply nothing more romantic than a gondola ride through the city. St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace are both must-see sights, and the Rialto Bridge is a great place for quality people watching. Venice is definitely a city like no other and should not be missed.
If you have more than a day or two in Venice, take a ferry trip out to the islands of Burano (famed for its Venetian glass) and Murano (a charming fishing village with vibrantly painted houses.
Bonus: You can also catch a ferry in Venice to lovely Rovinj, Croatia, one of my favorite places (outside of Italy),
Read More: The Romance of Venice Italy
This bustling city in northern Italy is more geared toward industry than tourism. The fashion industry, to be precise. And I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan since the city feels far more industrial than charming. But it does make a terrific gateway to the magnificent lakes of Como and Garda. So, if you’re headed there, Milan is your best entry point (Venice is also a great option for Lake Garda).
Plus, there are a few impressive sights to see in Milan – the Duomo di Milano is a must, as are the Teatro alla Scala and Castello Sforzesco. Next to the Duomo is the magnificent Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II, Italy’s oldest shopping gallery dating back to 1877. Among other luxury retailers, the Galleria is home to the original Prada store.
OK, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Naples is probably my least favorite city in Italy. Ironically, it’s also the gateway to the spectacular Amalfi Coast and stunning islands like Capri, Ischia, and Procida. Which means it’s mostly unavoidable if you’re headed to those destinations. It’s also the easiest home base for visiting the fascinating ruins of Pompeii.
So, what’s the problem with Naples?
I’ve visited the city three times, first on my 3rd Round-the-World trip, 2nd on a Mediterranean cruise, and more recently on my way to Procida and the Amalfi Coast. On my first trip (10+ years ago), I loved Naples. I walked all over the city on my own and felt completely safe.
On more recent visits, the city has gone downhill a bit and petty crime against tourists is more common. Pickpockets are rampant and can be aggressive. That said, there are plenty of pickpockets working the tourist circuit in other major cities around the world, too, but I still go. So, wherever you go when you travel, it’s always a good idea to be aware of your surroundings and watch your back.
But not all is lost. Naples has been making pizzas since the 16th century and the classic Margherita pizza was invented here. Naples is literally the best place on earth to sample this famous pizza and many others. You’ll find plenty of places to enjoy this Italian delight.
The Islands of Italy
It’s hard to choose a favorite among Italy’s sublime islands. So, it’s probably just best to see them all, right? Well, obviously!
There’s no doubt Capri is Italy’s most famous island and with good reason. Capri’s natural landscape is spectacular. Everyone thinks so. And, as a result, everyone goes there. Like ritzy Lake Como, Capri is best known for 5-star hotels, designer shops and the European jet set.
Don’t get me wrong, you have to see it. It’s just not the place I would chose as a home base for a visit to the Amalfi Coast region.
For many years, colorful Procida was probably best known as “the extra ferry stop” between Naples and the popular islands of Ischia and Capri. Often overlooked in favor of its glitzier neighboring islands, Procida has long been one of my favorite hidden gems in Italy.
However, last January, this tiny, soft spoken island beat out nine other Italian cities and small towns to be named Italy’s Capital of Culture for 2022. Procida is the first island to win the award after its inception 8 years ago and assumes the crown from Parma, last year’s winner. With all the recent press, things could get busier in this sleepy fishing village. So get there while you can.
The largest island in Southern Italy’s Gulf of Naples, the volcanic island of Ischia is famed for its mineral-rich thermal waters. The island is home to bubbling hot springs, therapeutic spas, dazzling beach resorts, lush gardens, and rolling vineyards. Not to mention one pretty impressive medieval castle built on a rock in 474 BC (Castello Aragonese).
If you’re looking for an island in the Amalfi Coast area to call home for your stay, Ischia is a terrific choice. The island has plenty of affordable hotel options and easy ferry connections for day trips to Capri, Procida, and Sorrento.
Located just off Italy’s northwestern coast, Elba is Italy’s third-largest island (after Sardinia and Sicily). It’s the largest of the nine islands that make up the National Park of the Tuscan Archipelago (Europe’s largest marine park). Elba Island is perhaps most famous for harboring French Emperor Napoleon during his exile in 1814-15.
But, Elba’s rich Napoleonic history aside, most visitors flock to this island for clear blue seas and magnificent beaches rivaling those in the Caribbean.
Italy’s largest island is also the largest island in the entire Mediterranean. But Sicily’s culture is uniquely Sicilian and, like Sardinia, it is one of five autonomous regions of Italy, allowing it a certain amount of political self-rule.
Well known for its amazing beaches, Sicily is also home to Mount Etna (an active volcano) and the historic capital of Palermo. The Aeolian Islands are a popular destination for visitors to Sicily and gorgeous Mondello Beach is widely considered the region’s most lovely. During your visit, don’t miss a traditional Sicilian “granita,” a semi-frozen dessert.
Italy’s second largest island, Sardinia is world famous for its stunning coastline (most notably the Emerald Coast) and sparkling clear waters. This popular Mediterranean holiday hotspot is a great choice for an Italian beach vacation. Situated between Sardinia and Corsica, don’t miss a visit to the nearby Maddalena Islands. This charming archipelago is made of up of 7 large islands and 55 tiny islets surrounded by turquoise seas more reminiscent of the Caribbean than the Mediterranean.
Read More: Sardinia and the Maddalena Islands
Tip: From the northern tip of Sardinia, it’s also an easy day trip by ferry to the scenic town of Bonifacio, Corsica.
Italy’s rugged coastline is where the real magic happens. From north to south, here are some of the best regions to appreciate the Italian coastline in all its natural beauty.
Located in Italy’s northwestern corner, the coastal strip between the French border and the Tuscan border is widely referred to as the Italian Riviera. It’s divided in the center by Liguria’s capital city, the port town of Genoa. To Genoa’s east, known as the Riviera di Levante, the most popular cities to visit are: Camogli, Portofino, Santa Margherita Ligure, and Rapallo. Santa Margherita Ligure makes the ideal, affordable home base for exploring the region.
One hidden gem not to be missed in this region is the seaside monastery of San Fruttuoso. Accessible only by boat, most ferries make a stop here between Camogli and Portofino.
Located farther south along the Italian Riviera in the Liguria region, the five vibrant villages that hug the dramatic coastline are collectively known as “Cinque Terre” or five lands. From the nearby town of La Spezia (considered the gateway to the villages) they are, in order – Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. Early settlers converted the steep, rugged terrain into an elaborately-terraced landscape that allowed for the growing of vines and olive trees. Today, these unique five villages make up the Cinque Terre National Park.
For beaches (and fewer steps!), head to Monterosso al Mare. To avoid the tourist crowds, try Corniglia. It’s the hardest of the villages to reach due to a lack of sea connections and infrequent train service. But for pure romance and charm, it’s hard to top Riomaggiore, Manarola, or Vernazza (we kicked off our Round-the-World honeymoon in Riomaggiore!).
Stretching more than 30 miles along Italy’s Sorrentine Peninsula, the sun-kissed Amalfi Coast has charmed visitors for decades. From Sorrento to Salerno, a labyrinth of narrow alleys and gravity-defying stairways connect mountain to sea with typical Italian flair. Traditional white-washed houses and magenta bougainvillea blend with the scent of lemon blossoms to create a dramatic landscape that seems plucked from a watercolor painting.
Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997, the Amalfi Coast is one Bucket List destination that truly lives up to the hype. The impossibly beautiful village of Positano is the most popular home base for visitors to the region. It’s also home to some world-class hotels.
Summer is prime time for the Amalfi Coast but I also once visited in the winter months, on Round the World #4. And I have to say, while pretty much every hotel and restaurant was closed, it was spectacular to see the region without a single tourist to be found (well, except me!). I used lovely Sorrento as a home base and it was a breeze to travel to Amalfi, Positano and neighboring towns by local bus. And the weather was mild, even in January. Highly recommend.
Read More: Positively Perfect Positano
From a geographical standpoint, the region of Puglia forms the “heel” on Italy’s famous designer boot. Bari, a lively port town, is the region’s capital. But the stunning baroque architecture of Lecce make it perhaps the most beautiful of Puglia’s cities to visit. Along the Adriatic coast, there are plenty of coastal towns worthy of a lingering pause. The most famous of these is Polignano a Mare, but Trani, Brindisi, and Monopoli also rate a stopover.
Tip: Don’t miss a visit to Alberobello to see the “trulli” stone huts with their distinctive cone-shaped roofs.
Yes, there’s more to the Italian countryside than just Tuscany (though it’s the obvious superstar!). From vineyards to rolling hills, here are some of Italy’s best places to escape the city life.
It’s the iconic image of Italy, the impossibly beautiful countryside of Tuscany. This scenic region in central Italy encompasses a diverse landscape from the Apennine Mountains and cypress-lined drives to sun-soaked hill towns and the beaches of Elba Island. The capital city of Florence is the best launching point to explore the Tuscan countryside. The larger towns of Siena, Lucca, and Pisa all merit at least an afternoon of exploration but the rolling hills are really the star of the region.
For the full Italian experience, don’t miss the chance to spend a few nights in a traditional Tuscan villa.
Tip: Tuscany also happens to make a pretty spectacular place to say, “I do.”
Perhaps the most famous of the Italian hill towns, the walled city of San Gimignano is one of Tuscany’s best destinations. The town’s skyline is dominated by striking medieval towers and the entire historic center is encircled by 13th-century walls. Located about 25 miles from either Florence or Siena, San Gimignano can easily be visited by organized (or self-driven) day trip.
It’s also a frequent stop with the tour bus circuit so don’t expect to have it all to yourself. But despite the daily crowds, it’s still absolutely worth a visit.
Tip: If you do want to experience San Gimignano without the crowds, visit in the off season or simply spend the night. Most tour buses arrive by 10:00am and depart by 4:00pm each day leaving the early morning and evenings perfect for peaceful exploration.
Like Tuscany, Umbria is home to fantastic vineyards, charming medieval hill towns, and verdant rolling hills. But with far fewer visitors than neighboring Tuscany, Umbria feels a bit more undiscovered. The medieval hill towns of Narni, Montefalco, and Orvieto are must-sees in Umbria and are more easily reached from Rome than most of Tuscany’s hill towns (another perk of Umbria versus Tuscany).
The only thing Umbria doesn’t have is a coastline. But with all that exceptional food and wine, you won’t miss it.
World renowned as a winter skiing and adventure sport destination, Italy’s dramatic “Dolomiti” mountain range is located in the country’s northeast region, between Venice and the Austrian border. The traditional Alpine villages of the Dolomites might have you wondering if you’ve accidentally crossed the border into Austria or Germany (in fact, many in the South Tyrol region speak German first, not Italian).
Though best known as a winter destination, this mountainous region is equally charming in the summer months when spectacular hiking trails, fresh Alpine air, and beautiful lakes (like Lake Braies) are the main attractions.
Tip: The tiny church of San Giovanni in Ranui is one of the most iconic sights in the Dolomites.
Italy’s fantastic water views aren’t just limited to the coastline. This diverse country is also home to some pretty spectacular lakes. Let’s take a closer look at two of my favorites.
Lake Como is the perfect place for a “George-Clooney-style” fashionable Italian holiday. This stunning lake is surrounded by soaring peaks and 5-star hotels. Como’s colorful towns and villages have welcomed Italy’s well-heeled visitors every summer for decades. In the warmer months, window boxes overflow with vibrant bougainvillea and classic vaporina wooden boats glide swiftly across the lake carrying everyone from wedding parties to celebrities.
Bellagio, dubbed the “pearl of Lake Como” is the most famous of the many towns along the lakefront. It’s also widely considered the most beautiful. Other picturesque towns along Lake Como’s cosmopolitan shores – Varenna, Como, Menaggio, and Tremezzo, just to name a few. Each town is wonderfully unique with its own charm and they’re all worth a visit if you have the time.
In the summer months it’s easy (and scenic!) to travel between them via the local ferry service. (There are also convenient local buses but where’s the fun in that?) You can visit Lake Como by day trip from Milan but, trust me, you’ll want to stay longer.
The Bottom Line: If you’re looking for a relaxing Italian holiday on the water, Lake Como is the perfect destination.
I actually prefer Lake Garda to Lake Como. It’s less crowded, less expensive and just as beautiful. Perhaps the most lovely lakeside town in Garda is Limone sul Garda. But Sirmione, Malcesine, and Riva del Garda are also glorious options for a lakeside holiday. From swimming and boating to exploring historic villages, you’ll find plenty to do around Lake Garda.
Like Lake Como, ferry transportation is the way to go during the summer months. However, if you visit in the off-season you may want a car.
While not technically Italy, this sovereign hilltop microstate is surrounded by Italy on all sides. This fairytale town is like something out of a Disney movie and will literally charm your socks off. It’s small enough to be visited in a day trip but do yourself a favor and linger for an overnight stay.
Tip: San Marino is best visited with your own rental car as there is no direct train service.
Favorite Hidden Gems in Italy
It’s nearly impossible to find less touristy “hidden gems” in Italy these days. After all, it’s one of the most popular travel destinations in the world. But I do have a few favorites I’m willing to share. These are mostly off the major tourist circuit but they are popular with Italians so you’re unlikely to have them all to yourself. But if you want to enjoy Italy as the locals do, try these:
- Procida (near Naples)
- San Fruttuoso (near Portofino)
- Corniglia (the least-visited village of Cinque Terre)
- Camogli (Italian Riviera)
- Maddalena Islands (by ferry from Sardinia)
Cruises around Italy & the Mediterranean
Cruising is a great way to explore Italy without the hassles of traveling between regions. Many cruises depart from Rome’s Civitavecchia cruise port. But there are also a number of amazing Mediterranean itineraries from Barcelona that include bonus stops like France, Mallorca and even Tunisia (I did that itinerary a few years ago and it was fantastic!).
Here are the most popular cruise ports in Italy and the best places to visit while in port:
Civitavecchia – This is Italy’s main port and the most popular departure point for cruises around Italy. Located 50 miles from the city center of Rome, it’s a just a 40 minute ride on the express train. If your cruise originates elsewhere in the Mediterranean, this is your perfect opportunity to explore the wonders of Rome.
Genoa – Hop the ferry and head toward Positano for the perfect day trip. Along the way, the ferry stops in the gorgeous little seaside monastery of San Fruttuoso. This stunning beach area is only accessible by boat and is a terrific bonus on the way to Portofino. A bit farther but still possible by day trip is Cinque Terre. Though, if you go with this option, book your trip through the cruise line so the ship doesn’t leave you if you get stuck in traffic or have a ferry delay.
Venice – As of July 2021, large ships are no longer allowed to dock at Venice’s main cruise port (just small ships and river cruise boats). However, larger ships now dock at Porto Marghera on the mainland which is a more industrial area. Not to worry, the cruise lines have pivoted and if you’re cruising out of Venice it’s still possible to stay in the heart of Venice prior to your sailing and transit to the new port.
Naples – I’ve already mentioned my overall dislike for Naples, but it still makes a terrific cruise stop. Just catch the ferry to charming Procida or cosmopolitan Capri. Either makes a great day in port. Depending on how long your ship is docked, you may even be able to make a day of it on the Amalfi Coast.
Livorno – Located about an hour’s drive from Florence, the number one thing to do here is spend the day exploring Florence with a quick obligatory stop for a photo-op at the Leaning Tower of Pisa (because you just have to). It’s also possible to visit Cinque Terre from this port.
Salerno – This smaller port is the best option for visiting the Amalfi Coast. It’s also an easy ferry ride out to Capri.
Suggested Itineraries for Italy
And now, the good stuff! Here’s how to make the most of your time in Italy whether you have a week, a month or somewhere in between.
1 Week Italy Itineraries
With just one week, it’s best to stick to the major cities since they are easy to transit between via high-speed trains. Alternatively, you could choose one city and explore the surrounding area near it. Since most of us only have a week or two on vacation, I’ll focus most of my advice on 1-week itineraries and you can add-on as needed, depending on how much time you have to enjoy!
Here are a few examples of terrific 1-week itineraries:
Rome, Florence, Venice – Save time by flying into one city and home from another. For example, arrive in Rome and depart from Venice with a stop in Florence in between. Plan 2 nights in each city.
Rome + the Amalfi Coast – For this one, you’ll fly in and out of Rome. Be sure to stay in Rome on your last night since travel time back from the Amalfi Coast can be unpredictable. With that in mind, I recommend heading straight to the Amalfi area (perhaps Positano or Capri to start) on arrival in Italy. Then you can work your way back to Rome slowly while taking in the Amalfi area including Positano, Amalfi, Capri, Procida, etc. Stop for a night in Sorrento and explore nearby Pompeii. Then, be sure to give Rome at least 2 full days.
Florence + Cinque Terre/Italian Riviera – Like the above itinerary, I recommend starting your trip on the coast and ending with at least 2 days in Florence. The northern part of the Italian Riviera (Portofino, Camogli, Santa Margherita Ligure) isn’t easily connected to Cinque Terre, so choose one or the other and maximize your time exploring the seaside towns. Cinque Terre is much closer and makes for an easier add-on to Florence when you only have a week. Don’t miss a quick stop in Pisa on your way back to Florence.
Florence + Tuscan Countryside – The ultimate Italian holiday! For this one, I recommend renting a car to maximize your time. You won’t need it in Florence so, ideally, rent the car when you first land and head straight for the countryside. Then return it back at the airport before spending a few days in Florence. If driving in Italy isn’t your thing, there are plenty of convenient tours to the countryside available from Florence. Don’t miss San Gimignano and San Marino.
Venice + Verona & Lake Garda – From Venice to Lake Garda takes a little over 2 hours whether you drive or take the train. In the summer months, take the train. It’s easy to get around Lake Garda with the local ferry system. Outside the summer season, it’s better to have a car. If you drive, don’t miss a stop in Verona on the way. End in Venice with at least two full days.
Milan + Lake Como – Since I already mentioned I’m not a huge fan of Milan, I’d set aside just one full day there and instead focus on the beautiful towns of Lake Como. Like Lake Garda, it’s better to skip the rental car and utilize the local ferry system to travel between towns in the summer months. But in off-season you’ll want to have a car.
2 Week Italy Itinerary
With two weeks, choose your two favorites from the list above. My choice for a first time trip to Italy?
Rome + Amalfi Coast, followed by Florence + the Tuscan countryside. It’s the perfect blend of all the best of Italy – the history, the rugged coastline, and the countryside. Ideally, fly into Rome and out of Florence to save time. Bonus: Depending on how much time you devote to the countryside, you could also squeeze in a day or two in Venice and fly home from there.
3 Week Italy Itinerary
Choose your favorite combination of the one week itineraries x 3! Plan your itinerary around the places in Italy that are the highest on your Bucket List. My choice?
Rome + Amalfi Coast, followed by Florence + the Tuscan countryside, and then end with Venice + Lake Garda. Venice is so unique from Rome or Florence that it’s really a must if you can make the time. With one or two weeks, it’s certainly possible to make it part of your itinerary. But with 3 full weeks you simply cannot miss it.
4 Week Italy Itinerary
Now we’re talking! With a full month to explore you can slow down and really experience what makes Italy so special.
Yes, sure, do all the things. Like the things I suggested for a 2 or 3-week trip. But do yourself a favor and rent an apartment or villa for one of those weeks. I vote for either a villa somewhere in the Tuscan countryside or one of the less touristy towns (like one of those hidden gems I mentioned above?).
Spend the week just immersing yourself in the local culture and doing as the Italians do. Tip: If you choose a villa, this is the one where I got married and it’s amazing.
Italy Honeymoon Itinerary? Here are Italy’s most romantic destinations
It all depends on how much time you have, of course, but there are so many romantic honeymoon spots in Italy! For romance, I’d forgo Rome and Milan and focus on other areas. Here’s my top 5 list of the most romantic destinations in Italy:
- Venice – A gondola ride under the Bridge of Sighs (don’t forget to kiss!) is a honeymoon must.
- Florence -This city can’t help itself, it just oozes romance. Pairs well with Cinque Terre due to proximity.
- Amalfi Coast – Clifftop sea views, 5-star hotels and dining options, it’s a honeymoon paradise straight out of central casting.
- Cinque Terre – Equally spectacular vistas as the Amalfi Coast but slightly less touristy and expensive.
- Italian Riviera/Positano – The whole region is lovely but Positano is for lovers.
Italy FAQ – What to know before you go!
Italian is, of course, the primary language in Italy. However, around 40% of the population also speak at least some English. You won’t have any trouble communicating in English in the main cities and primary tourist areas. However, once you get into the countryside and the smaller villages you’ll have more trouble. The Google Translate app can be your best friend whether you’re visiting a less touristy part of Italy or just trying to translate a menu in a Rome trattoria.
Hint: You can almost always get a menu in English in the larger cities and popular tourist areas. In fact, they’ll often provide it even if you didn’t ask – after all, you did ask for your table in English, right?
Again, in the major cities and popular tourist areas, yes and yes. The less touristy or more remote the region, the more cash you’ll probably need.
Italy’s currency is the Euro and ATMs are widely available. Most hotels, restaurants, and shops will accept credit cards (primarily Visa & Master Card). But for smaller shops, cafes, restaurants, and even some hotels cash is preferred. As a general rule of thumb, I pay for anything under EUR 50 with cash.
With all the incredible beauty to be found in Italy there must be a downside, right? Unfortunately, yes. Allow me to call your attention to Italian public restrooms. Sigh.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for historic relics. I’d just prefer not to find them in the ladies room. And that’s if you can even find a ladies room available for your use. Unlike the US, public restrooms are not a common thing in Italy. Your best bets for finding a restroom when you’re out and about are restaurants (yes, you’ll need to order something) and large hotels where they will hopefully assume you’re a guest. I have been known to make a random stop for a cappuccino and cannoli just to take advantage of the cafe’s facilities (or was it just a convenient excuse for a cannoli break? I’ll never tell).
When you do find a restroom, expect it to be down a narrow set of stairs to some damp cellar area. And don’t expect a seat on the toilet or toilet paper (always travel with your own!).
Like most of Europe, the voltage in Italy is 230V, 50Hz frequency. For Americans with 120V (single voltage) devices, you’ll need a voltage converter (expensive and heavy). However, for dual voltage devices that can run on either 110V or 220V (the vast majority of cell phones, tablets, laptops, etc.), all you’ll need is a simple adapter plug like this one that I carry.
Note: Most hairdryers and styling devices are single voltage. Every hotel will have a hairdryer, leave that at home. If there’s a styling tool you can’t live without, invest in one that’s dual voltage before you go.
If you’re planning a vacation to Italy, you’re truly in for a treat!
I hope this guide will help you make the most of your time in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. From its stunning coastal cities to its picturesque villages in the countryside, a trip to Italy will inspire a lifetime of memories.
So what are you waiting for? Start planning your Italian adventure today!