So you’re going to Italy. I bet you’re excited. But you’re looking at that map and thinking how many places should I pack in and which region is going to give me the type of vacation I’m dreaming about. You have no idea how many emails I’ve received over the years from perplexed people wondering which combination they should do on their next Italian holiday. You’ve got limited vacation time so you don’t want to spend all your time travelling from one place to another BUT BUT BUT there are so many MUST-SEE parts that you feel like you can include with some good organisation.
I’ve lived in Italy for a while, I’ve travelled all over the country for my TV shows and travel articles. So here’s my advice on working out which part of Italy is for you and when.
I love it. I chose it as my city to live in full-time. I made countless TV shows gushing about its beauty BUT try to avoid seeing it in August. It’s a different city. All the Italians leave to go on holiday, it gets super hot and many of the restaurants close. Sure, if you’ve got a night to stopover on your way to or from the airport it’s still beautiful but I’m telling you, if you’ve been to Rome in August it’s almost as though you haven’t really seen Rome. Come September the piazzas fill with stylish locals all tanned and flirting and keen to make the summer evenings stretch out a bit further and the city is buzzing with life. I’m sorry, I know August is the big travel month and I don’t want to rain on your Roman Holiday but this is the truth. Some people say to me, “Ah I didn’t really like Rome, too many tourists, too hot.” and I get seriously offended. Rome without the Romans is just a Disneyland ghost town – no wonder you didn’t like it. You just have to know when to go and where to go. You can stay in so many different areas of Rome but if you want somewhere that’s a cross between a filmset and living amongst locals for the area of Monti, anywhere labelled the centro storico (near the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Piazza del Popolo) or Trastevere. Avoid places near the Vatican and Trastevere station and although Testaccio is hailed as a foodie mecca it will be quite a walk to get into the rest of town so keep that in mind.
Yes. It’s as vibrant and vast as it appears in the movies. But here’s how I’d do it. You’ve probably got this idea in your head of sipping wine and gazing out at green green rolling hills. If so, do Tuscany in May. The Tuscan hills change colour dramatically throughout the year. If you’re going around harvest time and just after a hot summer in September most of the hills will be brown. There are certainly other advantages, September is a wonderful month for food festivals BUT you won’t get the fields of vibrant red poppies that you’ll find in spring.
In order to really enjoy Tuscany you’ll probably want to find an agriturismo, a farmstay bed and breakfast, where they produce wine or olive oil and rent out a few rooms to help make ends meet. The best little towns or accommodation are usually in remote locations that are poorly connected so you will want to rent a car rather than relying on trains. On the other hand, parking in Tuscan cities (or any Italian city for that matter) is a nightmare and even my Italian friends don’t seem to escape a day without a parking fine so I would split your holiday up so that you’re returning your rental car in the city and using trains to travel between cities but hiring a car for experiencing the countryside.
Speaking of Tuscany, maybe you’re wondering if you should do Florence, which is the most popular city in this region. Again, some people say to me “Ah, there were so many tourists…” Not if you stay on the Oltrarno side. You’ve got the side of Florence where the big duomo is and then you have the other side where the Florentine locals tend to live and socialise. Florence is fashionable, home to artisans and easy to navigate on foot but you will need to get out of Florence if you want to feel like you’re in the Tuscan countryside. If you’re really short on time, try staying in Fiesole, which is just above Florence – it gives you that feeling of Tuscan hills but you can make day trips into Florence for seeing markets or going out for dinner. Other options for Italian countryside include the region of Le Marche, which is less expensive, less touristy and geographically stunning.
I love Venice in winter. I’ve been there in all seasons but I think winter is my favourite, mainly because it’s known for its Italian-style tapas, which are called cicchetti and when it’s cold you can wander through all the back alleys and go bar-hopping just grazing on these little gourmet snacks all day long. Now unless you’re going in the height of summer buy or bring gumboots or some kind of rain resistant shoe. Venice must be seen by walking around irrespective of the season and you will get lost at some point. This can be the most fun, but it’s not fun if you’re travelling with someone who doesn’t have appropriate shoes. Go for something comfortable and rain-proof. After you’ve seen the main attractions like San Marco square, I particularly love the Jewish quarter. Not many tourists go there and you really see how Venetians live, it feels so far removed from all the stores selling masks or the designer boutiques.
If you’re asking yourself, is Venice worth it? It’s quite a fair way from Rome and it’s renowned for its crowds of tourists. Well, in a word: yes. I loathe tourists but there is simply something that takes your breath away when faced with this turquoise water and all these ancient coloured buildings. There are still so many hidden secrets and local spots where you can escape crowds even though many articles these days will tell you the Venetian way of life is disappearing.
THE AMALFI COAST
Okay, if you follow me on Instagram you know I love this part of Italy and that I spent a year living there. If you’ve seen some panoramic brightly coloured screensaver or cover of a travel magazine with a beach and an Italian village, it’s probably from this magical stretch of coastline. The main spots are Amalfi, Capri, Positano and Ravello. Positano is visually stunning, Amalfi has really cute neighbouring villages that feel very traditional, Capri has great nightlife and is very chic, Ravello is up in the hills and ideal for honeymooners. Forget Sorrento. It has a very different feel as there are a lot of tourist pubs and hotels and it is somewhat detached from the main stretch of villages that lie north of Sorrento towards the city of Salerno.
The main thing people ask me is, how should I get there. From Rome you can catch a train that takes about two hours and stops at Salerno via Naples. If you get even remotely carsick, take my advice, don’t catch the bus from Salerno station or Sorrento. Take a ferry. The ferries are big and stable, they stop at Amalfi, Capri and Positano and you can sit outside and get fresh air and get someone beautiful photos of the Amalfi Coast from the water. Taxis are available too (for about 100euro one way – I usually fly into Naples) but you absolutely have to be sitting in the passenger seat up the front as the famously winding road is magnificent but a nightmare if you’re in the backseat of the car.
Sorrento also has a very rustic local train called la Vesuviana. This is a basic train, there’s no air-conditioning and it can get quite crowded but it will take you to Naples if you can’t get to Salerno or you’re in Positano, which is closer to Sorrento.
I think the mistake some people make is expecting that Milan will feel very Italian. We hear that it’s associated with fashion shows and design and quintessential Italian style. It’s a super cosmopolitan city but although the duomo in the main square is spectacular, unless you’re with a local, you could find it hard to discover places that feel very Italian. It’s fashionable, it’s full of young ambitious Italians, the nightlife is great – they invented the ‘aperitivo’ – but you can’t just arrive in Milan and walk around and stumble upon place like you can in Rome or Florence. Visually it can be quite depressing, there is less of the alfresco culture of dining out in the street, meaning it’s harder to find restaurants or cafes just by taking a stroll and choosing by instinct. This doesn’t mean that wonderful restaurants and stores and piazzas don’t exist in this city – they do. But it’s not a city that opens up to the traveller visually, which contrasts sharply with the way one might experience the rest of Italy.
This island in the south of Italy is adored by foreigners and Italians but it is quite big so if you’re thinking of getting a car and doing a road trip, keep in mind that the distances are quite vast and perhaps you might be better staying in one spot and really getting to know the place. The islands off Sicily are stunning and from June/July onwards this is party central for Italians of all ages. They all head down here from Rome or Milan and rent villas or boats and island-hop. Panarea, for example, has a beautiful open-air nightclub where you can dance till dawn and then spend the daylight hours exploring a picturesque little white village. If flights to Sicily itself are expensive, I’ve often arrived at these islands by catching an overnight ferry from mainland Italy and just sleeping out under the stars.
CINQUE TERRE & PORTOFINO
Breathtaking hikes looking down at gelato-coloured seaside villages. It’s going to impress you for sure. What you might want to weigh up is whether you’ll be upset if it’s too cold to swim. If you’re not hitting it right in summer and you have this image of yourself living in a bikini and diving into the water every five seconds, I’d choose the Amalfi Coast or Sicily instead as being much further south buys you an extended summer. I’ve swum in Positano as late as November. But if you’re up in the north or flying out of Milan, a little weekend in Portofino will be memorable even just dining in its little square and taking a wander around the village. Unfortunately, many locals who have lived in these places for generations can no longer afford to live in the towns by the water so to my fussy taste, it does feel a little touristy but this is largely because I’ve been spoilt travelling extensively throughout Italy. If it’s your first time in Italy, villages like these will blow you away with or without the tourists.
There are two sides to this island. The celebrity side in the north, where Italy’s politicians and millionaires hang out in their superyachts and then outside of that is an island that is incredibly rustic and home to some of the longest-living people in the world. I would say, if you’ve done Italy a few times and you’re keen for something different, go to Sardinia and spend some time really exploring the island. The flights and ferries tend to be prohibitively expensive so for this reason if you’ve only got a little time perhaps it’s not worth going all the way out there. It can get very windy as well so if you paid to go out and then found the weather not so good you might be disappointed. That said, some of the best summer parties happen up in the north of Sardinia and you’ll find the bars, the ports and the beaches full of Italians ready to dance till dawn.
This region is in the south of Italy but on the Adriatic side. A lot of Italians love Puglia for its food, its villages, its beaches. It attracts may people seeking a cycling vacation. I would say that the beaches aren’t as good as in other parts of Italy. This is a generalisation and there are beautiful spots in this region but you may be disappointed if you’re hoping for somewhere that has the movie-set coloured villages like you’d find in the Amalfi Coast in the south or Portofino or Cinque Terre in the north. You might want to rent a car and drive across Italy to reach Puglia and stop off in the beautiful and seemingly biblical town of Matera with its ancient cave dwellings.
Okay, this is racing through a country that has so much more than just the cities and places I’ve mentioned but hopefully it will help you as a starting point.