Italy is more than a country. It’s a state of mind. Sifting back over years of travel notes, that’s the feeling washing over me.
I’ve buzzed past the Colosseum on a Vespa, witnessed the Palio in Siena, swum in crystal-clear water off Sardinia. But it was the passeggiata in Siracusa that really brought it home, that made the word ‘Italy’ one of the few that can instantly erase lines from my forehead.
It ain’t perfect, of course. Driving in Italy is hairy; the difference between romance and real life in places like Naples and Sicily can be jarring, and tourist crowds are pushing Venice towards crisis.
But who wants perfection? That would be boring – one thing Italy could never be. From David to the Dolomites, the Aeolian Islands to the Amalfi Coast, we’ve tried to capture its essence in our travel pages.
Impossible? Absolutely. But it’s the perfect excuse to go back…
Buon viaggio! – Pól Ó Conghaile
1. Take a Fiat 500 tour in Rome
Want to experience the iconic craziness of Italian driving while feeling like you’re starring a 1950s Cinecittà Studios movie? Make those dreams come true with a tour in a candy-coloured vintage Fiat
Cinquecento. Once you’ve got to grips with the car’s retro gearbox, you’ll be whizzing round the Colosseum like a pro. Your guide will show you lesser-known spots of the city, like the romantic Orange Garden on the Aventine Hill and a unique, unforgettable view of St Peter’s Basilica. — LM
Do it: rome500exp.com; 90-minute tour from €95pp.
While you’re at it: Prefer the fast lane? Check out the Ferrari museums in Emilia-Romagna, where you can learn all about these sleek racing cars and their creator, Mr Enzo Ferrari, himself (musei.ferrari.com/en).
2. See Cinque Terre — without the crowds
The beauty of these five colourful fishing villages is that they’re connected by paths and sea rather than by road. A popular way to see them is to hike the coastal trail, but escape the crowds by travelling by water — you can rent your own boat and captain from one of the harbours. Cinque Terre gets busy in high season, so visit in shoulder or low season to avoid peak summer crowds and start your hike later in the afternoon for quieter times on the trails. — YG
Do it: cinqueterre.it
While you’re at it: Forgo the expensive gondolas of Venice and whizz up and down the city’s canals by vaporetto waterbus — buy a day pass and get timetable info and apps at actv.avmspa.it/en.
More: Famous Five: Why Italy’s Cinque Terre is worth braving the crowds
3. Climb a volcano in Sicily
If you like playing with fire, a walking tour of Sicily and her volcanic Aeolian Islands is just for you. Vulcano is named after the still-smoking crater in its centre; Stromboli is a cone-shaped island topped with a regularly erupting core, while Mount Etna is one of the biggest active volcanoes in the world. You can climb all three and see lava flows and explosive eruptions (at a safe distance, of course) before taking it easy in the historic beachside town of Taormina. — LM
Do it: See visitsicily.info and italia.it, or take a nine-day Islands of Sicily walk from £1,349/€1,509pp (headwater.com).
While you’re at it: Less strenuous, but no less picturesque, is a walking holiday between the iconic Cinque Terre cliffside villages (see No.2 above).
4. Make pasta in Bologna
Ever wanted to make your own pasta, but been put off by all the faff? Well, if you’re ever going to learn, this is the place to do it. At the CIBO — Culinary Institute of Bologna, you’ll learn how to roll out your pasta by hand (working those biceps in the process) and, afterwards, enjoy it with a glass of local wine. — NB
Do it: cookingclassesinbologna.com, from €95pp.
While you’re at it: Eat a bowl of tagliatelle al ragù — this rich, earthy sauce is a world away from your mam’s spag bol.
More: Forget Rome and Tuscany: Here’s Italy’s tastiest foodie break
5. Drive the Amalfi Coast
It has lots of twists and turns, but a drive along the Amalfi Coast Road, suspended between mountains and sea, is like no other. All along the way you’ll experience the beautiful colours of the Mediterranean, with views down to secret coves (and peeks into grand villas) and up to lemon groves and mountain terraces. Drop into the seaside town of Positano or drive high up into the hills to Ravello for magnificent villa gardens and outdoor opera performances. — YG
Do it: amalficoast.com (not an official site).
While you’re at it: Take to the hills above Amalfi and walk the Path of the Gods, passing vineyards and terraces with panoramic coastal views.
6. Marvel at Michelangelo
You can’t visit Italy without paying homage to the country’s artistic hero, Michelangelo. Head to the Sistine Chapel in Rome and breathe in the immense beauty of the ceiling — it’s worth getting a crick in your neck. The sculpture of David is at the Accademia Gallery in Florence. Anyone who has seen the iconic work “has no need to see anything else by another sculptor, living or dead”, as painter and author Giorgio Vasari’s famous quote puts it. — NB
Do it: museivaticani.va, entry €16; galleriaaccademiafirenze.beniculturali.it, entry €8.
While you’re at it: Peek through the keyhole at the Piazza of the Knights of Malta for an unbeatable view of Rome.
More: Rome: Skip the line with a private tour of the Sistine Chapel
7. Tour one of the world’s smallest countries
San Marino is the fifth-smallest country in the world, measuring just 61 sq km. Still, it has its own flag, football team and even its own army. Take a trip up to its steep, UNESCO-listed capital (of the same name) to marvel at three impressive defence towers perching perilously on the peaks of Monte Titano, its fine palazzi and, bizarrely, its torture museum — which has a collection of over 100 grisly devices dating back to the 16th century. — LM
Do it: visitsanmarino.com
While you’re at it: The Vatican, a country within Rome, is the smallest state in the world, with a population of just 1,000 — and its own postal service.
8. Rent a farmhouse in Umbria
Set in the green heart of Italy, and less busy or expensive than neighbouring Tuscany, Umbria has all the ingredients for the perfect holiday. Rent a quiet farmhouse with a pool for a relaxing week with good food and wine. If you can drag yourself away from the villa for outings and culture, the region is dotted with medieval villages to explore, and many have summer festivals. — YG
Do it: umbriatourism.it/en
While you’re at it: Visit Assisi for its historical centre and Basilica di San Francesco, or Orvieto for its network of tiny streets, churches and museums.
9. Go to the opera in La Scala
If you’re only going to go to the opera once in your life, you need to do it right. La Scala in Milan is impressively grandiose, from the ornate carvings on the boxes to the impressive chandeliers. You’ll need to book tickets in advance — they go on sale two months before the first performance of a show. There’s an excellent museum, and you can also take a behind-the-scenes tour where you’ll see the stage, the Royal Box and the backstage areas. — NB
Do it: teatroallascala.org
While You’re at it: Catch an outdoor opera at the Verona Arena, an impressive Roman amphitheatre, or in Ravello during the Chamber Music Festival.
10. Join the ‘Juliet Club’ in Verona
Star-crossed lovers can seek advice on all matters of the heart by writing to one of history’s most celebrated romantics, Giulietta Capuleti, who was rendered immortal by William Shakespeare. After you’ve visited her home, stood on her balcony, and, er, rubbed the right-hand bosom of her bronze statue for luck, post your letter to the Juliet Club, who will reply with the best advice they can offer. — LM
Do it: julietclub.com
While you’re at it: They say if you toss a coin in the Trevi Fountain, you will always return to Rome — apparently around €3,000 is thrown in every day.
11. Ski the Italian Alps
With good food and wine, prices a little lower than its neighbours, thousands of kilometres of slopes and hundreds of different ski areas across the Alps and Dolomites, what’s not to love about skiing in Italy? Livigno is a good beginner resort, with plenty of ski runs on the two different mountains, plus a choice of schools and even night skiing for those who can’t tear themselves away from the slopes, while advanced skiers might head for the Dolomiti Superski area to the Val Gardena resorts. — YG
Do it: For Livigno, see topflight.ie for ski packages; for Val Gardena, see crystalski.ie.
While you’re at it: This area is beautiful in summer too: take to the hiking trails for fresh air and natural beauty.
12. Sunbathe in style at the Venice lido
Venice is a gorgeous and captivating city — but it’s no secret that it can be packed to the rafters, particularly in the summer. Your escape? A quick little vaporetto ride to the Lido di Venezia, where you’ll find a 10km stretch of sand (and the all important beach bars). Come September, the island is filled with stars, as it plays host to the Venice Film Festival. — NB
Do it: veneziaeilsuolido.it/en
While you’re at it: Take a cicchetti tour in Venice — these little bar snacks were invented here and match perfectly with a glass of Prosecco.
More: Venice: Here’s the real secret to skipping the tourist crowds
13. Be gobsmacked by vintage Gucci in Florence
The creation of humble Florentine porter Guccio Gucci, this label started life as a purveyor of fine luggage and evolved into one of world’s most coveted brands. The fascinating museum, Gucci Museo, takes you through nearly 100 years of heritage, with exhibits from bicycle bags and zebra-skin suitcases to surfboards, watches and even a Cadillac emblazoned with the famous entwined ‘G’s. You can also drool over some fabulous couture dresses, worn by some of the world’s most beautiful women, from Sophia Loren to Hilary Swank. — LM
Do it: guccimuseo.com, €6pp.
While you’re at it: For some truly stylish window shopping, take a sartorial stroll through Milan’s stunning Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II arcade, stocked with famous stores ranging from Prada to Versace (ingalleria.com).
More: Dan Brown’s Italy – A blockbuster trip through Venice and Florence
14. Eat the world’s best pizza in Naples
Naples may have had a reputation that was far from salubrious, but it’s undergoing something of a transformation. Even in days gone by, there was always something that attracted the crowds — the world’s best pizza. You might know it as the place Julia Roberts visits in Eat, Pray, Love, but L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele has long been regarded as the best of the best. Join the queue, order a bubbling Margherita and then die a little with that first glorious bite. — NB
Do it: damichele.net
While you’re at it: Neapolitan coffee has its own reputation too, dating back to the 17th century — the stove-top coffee maker makes a killer brew.