In many ways, Italy is not just a European destination; it is the European destination. It is the boot standing in most travelers’ bucket lists — which boasts the best of the continent in one country.
You have of course the geography: sun-kissed vineyards and olive groves growing against a snow-capped mountain backdrop.
It is dramatic rocky coasts plunging into the Mediterranean, with colorful towns hanging onto the slopes. It is floating, magical islands that for centuries have lured travelers with their seductive charms.
Italy is art, culture and architecture, with thousands of years of masterworks cast in paint and stone – frescoes in the Duomo, the once-in-a-lifetime experience of the art in the Uffizi Gallery and Michelangelo’s David.
It is history, with the imperial majesty of the Roman Empire revealed in the magnificent Colosseum, where the roars of the crowd and the thumbs up or down of the Emperor could mean life or death for a fallen gladiator. Or it is a gondola ride back in time along the Grand Canal of Venice.
Of course, Italy is also food and drink, with some of the world’s best, full-bodied wines and cuisine that is as much a celebration of life as sustenance: A fresh pizza on a corner in Naples, for which the North America version is pallid, doughy impostor.
Or a country feast in Tuscany, where simple, local-grown fresh ingredients come together in cuisine best enjoyed in a group, with laughter and wine flowing.
And Italy is its people – generous, passionate, full of humor and anxious to reveal the country’s riches to visitors.
Try to Conquer Rome
Rome wasn’t built in a day; nor can you conquer it in one. On every corner of one of the world’s most romantic and awe-inspiring cities you will find the art, architecture and ruined glories of a civilization thousands of years old.
While Rome may no longer rule the world, it holds sway over the imagination. And against its materials splendors you also find the spiritual presence of the Vatican and the Catholic Church, including St Peter’s Basilica, the soaring masterpiece of Renaissance architecture.
No visit to Rome would be complete without experiencing the great Colosseum, where, starting in 80 AD, gladiators contested with wild animals and each other in bouts to the death for the amusement of onlookers noble and common.
At its height, Emperor Tajan held a marathon 117-day spectacle, involving 9,000 gladiators and 10,000 animals.
To counteract the effects of pollution and traffic, the Colosseum was recently given its first clean-up in 2,000 years. Today the top three tiers of the structure, as well as the hypogeum (the underground chambers and passages below the arena), are available for guided tours.
Dramatic Ruins, Coast and History
South of Rome you find gritty, beautiful and utterly fascinating Naples where the art of Caravaggio, Michelangelo and Raphael stands besides the continuing art of pizza making, in the place where the dish was invented.
Three castles dating back to the 12th and 13th century tower in magnificent contrast to Naples’ 2,500-year-old underground city carved from volcanic rock. The best Italian coffee and pasta, including spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), are reputed to be found here.
Not far from Naples you have the sprawling, haunted ruins of Pompeii – a vivid and sobering reminder of the fiery, destructive forces of nature unleashed by Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.
The disaster preserved a window onto the life of Ancient Rome, with bodies, buildings, art and artifacts stored for later generations in the volcanic ash.
Further south is the UNESCO-recognized Amalfi Coast, where mountains plunge into the turquoise sea, and the landscape is laced with lush woods and building that cling by their fingernails to steep slopes.
The pastel colors, chic boutiques and and sun-worshiping beaches of Positano attract the jet set.
They also visit the Island of Capri, noted for its stunning beauty and the songs of the sirens, which after the fall of Troy nearly lured Ulysses to his doom on his great odyssey home.
Whitewashed villages, hilltop villas, the magical Blue Grotto sea cavern and superb restaurants round out its appeal.
Postcard Landscapes and Waterways of the Good Life
Going north from Rome, you reach the region of Tuscany, with its postcard landscapes, where medieval hilltop villages soar over golden fields of wheat and terraced rows of vineyards that march up hillsides.
In Florence, the most outstanding landmark is the domed Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, completed in 1434 and still the fourth largest church in the world.
Its magnificent Renaissance dome was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi.
The vast Gothic structure is built on the site of the 7th century church of Santa Reparata, the remains of which can be seen in the crypt. A guided tour can take you to the rooftop terrace on the Duomo, which is normally closed to the public.
Moving further north, towards the alps, you come to Venice, a city of marble palaces built improbably on a lagoon.
Here, after you sail down the appropriately named Grand Canal on gondola or vaporetto (water bus), you can sit down to a fresh feast of Venetian seafood, accompanied by the bubbly perfection of proseco, the city’s signature drink.
Eccentric fashions, the grandeur of Palazzo Ducale and Basilica di San Marco, secret squares, lively neighborhood wine bars and a vibrant art scene also beckon from the city built on water.
Two hours west of Venice is Lake Garda, the country’s largest lake, attracting a cosmopolitan crowd to three distinct regions – Lombardy, Trentino Alto-Adige and the Veneto.
Vineyard hopping, spa towns, restaurants serving air-dried ham, steep alpine hills, sunny beaches, well-fortified castles, Roman ruins, mountain hikes and lakeside promenades all contribute to la dolce vita.
Italy's pull is irresistible to travellers and it's no different around here! Explore Lombardy, Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast with us in our Italy: North to South program, or join us to hike above the gorgeous Lake Como in our Above Como program. For the latest stories, tours, and events, subscribe to our newsletter!