Italy's perfect places

Discover volcanic islands, dramatic coastlines and spectacular lakes

Italy's perfect places La Cattolica di Stilo, Calabria - © Alessandra Santarellii
By Amy Grier & Yolanda Zappaterra

Go beyond Italy's big three – Rome, Milan and Venice – and you'll find idyllic destinations with a rich mix of architectural gems, enchanting countryside and beautiful beaches.

Rural idylls

1. Calabria

Glorious sea and sunshine along 800 kilometres of coastline, plus sheer cliffs and medieval architecture without the rampant designer tourism of northern Italy.

Where to sleep

Residenza Il Barone (Largo Barone, www.residenzailbarone.it) in Tropea, the jewel in Calabria's coastal crown. A stylish hotel with period charm, modern fittings and a roof terrace.

Where to eat and drink

Vecchio Forno (Via Caviano, off Corso Vittorio Emanuele III) is the city's best and cheapest pizzeria.

Getting there

Aeroporto Internazionale di Lamezia is 64km from Tropea and has a railway connection to the town.

When to go

Spring and autumn, when weather and crowds are bearable.

2. Urbino

Sitting atop a hill, lording it over miles of glorious countryside, Urbino, home during the Renaissance to Raphael, Botticelli and Piero della Francesca, is these days a well-derserved World Heritage Site.

Where to sleep

Albergo Raffaello (Vicolino S Margherita 40, www.albergoraffaello.com), is set in a former seminary but forgoes monkish asceticism in favour of comfortable rooms and excellent views.

Where to eat and drink

Antica Osteria La Guercia (Via Baviera 33, Pésaro). Eat excellent local pasta dishes on the terrace or in the rustic dining room, and ask to see the Roman mosaic in the back room.

Getting there

Ancona or Rimini airports are nearest. For Urbino take the train to Pésaro then a bus.

When to go

February or October for the National Truffle Fairs in Acqulagna. Other festivals are in August and July.

Coast & islands

3. The Aeolian Islands

The surreal cluster of volcanic islands between Naples and Sicily are as diverse as they are extraordinary; hang out with donkeys on Alicudi, and Bergman fans on Stromboli, or best of all, shuttle between all of them.

Where to sleep

Diana Brown (Vico Himera 3, www.dianabrown.it) on Lipari is an affordable, clean 12-roomed B&B where breakfast is served on the sun-drenched terrace.

Where to eat and drink

Hotel Signum (Via Scalo 15, Malfa) on Salina is a treat, serving stunning regional food in one of the archipelago's nicest hotels.

Getting there

Buses run regularly from Catania airport 86km away to Messina train station; from there it's a short walk to the hydrofoil.

When to go

Swim in warm seas from late spring to autumn. Avoid winter, when storms can cut off the islands for days.

4. The Amalfi Coast & Capri

One of the world's most beautiful and dramatic coastlines is packed with swish shops, smart cafés and great restaurants. Don't forget your convertible (for sweeping round the hair-raising hairpin bends, of course).

Where to sleep

Villa Krupp (Via Matteotti 12, www.villakrupp.it), perched above the Gardens of Augustus on Capri, used to be Maxim Gorky's house. It has bright, pretty rooms, some with private terraces.

Where to eat

Da Gemma (Via Fra' Gerardo Sasso 10) in Amalfi has a balcony terrace that's perfect for people watching, romantic suppers and dishes of simple, good seafood.

Getting there

The Aeroporto Internazionale di Napoli is 37km away; good bus and ferry services connect Naples with the area.

When to go

May or September: in between the heat and crowds are too much, earlier or later everything's shut.

Small gems

5. Bologna

Foodies are well aware of Bologna's gastronomic heritage, but beyond the great dining lie hundreds of beautiful porticoes lining 40 kilometres of the city's elegant streets.

Where to sleep

Porto San Mamolo (Vicolo del Falcone 6/8, www.hotelportasanmamolo.it). A secret garden with pomegranate trees makes this the perfect haunt for the romantically inclined.

Where to eat and drink

Nu Lounge Bar (Via dei Musei 6). Chilled during the day, rowdy at night, it has a great martini menu as well as classic pizza and pasta dishes.

Getting there

The Bologna Aerobus runs regularly from the Marconi International Airport. Forli Airport is 60km away.

When to go

May, June and around October are best.

6. Ravenna

This small town boasts an array of stunning Byzantine mosaics and was the hub of the ancient world. Bustling but compact and cosmopolitan, there are several beach resorts nearby.

Where to sleep

Bed & Breakfast A Casa di Paola (Via Paola Costa 31, www.acasadipaola.it) has three stylish rooms plus a small apartment for longer stays.

Where to eat and drink

Trattoria La Rustica (Via Alberoni 55) is a charming restaurant offering local delicacies with a rustic feel.

Getting there

Forli, Rimini and Bologna are the nearest airports. Regular airport buses connect with the railway station.

When to go

Late June to early September to catch late night openings of the town's mosaics.

Lakes & mountains

7. The Lakes

Of northern Italy's spectacular lakes – Maggiore, Como and Orta – Lago d'Orta is the only one you can take in a single glance. Don't miss the medieval town of Orta San Giulio.

Where to sleep

Leon d'Oro (Piazza Motta 43, www.albergoleondoro.it). A distinctly Alpine-looking hotel on the waterfront.

Where to eat and drink

Taverna Antico Agnello (Via Olina 18). A rustic, family-run taverna serving hearty food in a snug dining room. There's a great wine list and most of the diners are locals, which says a lot.

Getting there

For Orta, the nearest airport is Milan's Aeroporto di Malpensa. Take a mainline train service from Stazione Centrale to Novara, then the local service.

When to go

April-July. Many places close from October-March.

8. The Dolomites

Perhaps the most weird and wonderful mountains in the whole of the Alps are ideal for winter skiing or summer rambling and climbing. Don't forget your camera; as the sun sets the soaring columns and gentle valleys turn a brilliant, blazing pink.

Where to sleep

Rifugio Graffer, (Madonna di Campiglio, Brenta Dolomites, www.graffer.com). A remote and beautiful hut set high on the mountainside. You have to ski or walk to get there (luggage transport is available), but it's worth it for the desserts alone!

Where to eat and drink

Castel Roncolo Osteria (Bolzana, Via San Antonio 1). Luscious fresh pasta and local specialities in a wonderful setting. It's best to book ahead.

Getting there

Brescia, Verona, Treviso and Venice are the nearest airports. All have connecting buses
to railway stations for ongoing trains and coaches.

When to go

Late June to late September for walking and climbing. Skiing between mid-December and March/April.

Cities

9. Genoa

After a stint as European city of culture, the birthplace of Christopher Columbus has undergone a cultural and architectural renaissance, and has a medieval old town to rival Venice.

Where to sleep

Agnello d'Oro (Via Monachette 6, www.hotelagnellodoro.it), a quiet and lovely converted sixteenth-century convent.

Where to eat and drink

Osteria Da Maria (Vico Testadoro 14r) is busy and bustling, serving up Genovese fare such as pansotti (ravioli in walnut sauce).

Getting there

Genoa's Cristoforo Columbo airport is 6km west of the centre.

When to go

Avoid the too-hot summer temperatures by going in spring or autumn.

10. Turin

Unpretentious and soberly beautiful, Turin is one of Italy's least explored cities. In 2008, it was World Design City, and thanks to ongoing civic beautification, keeps on getting better.

Where to sleep

Hotel Victoria (Via Nino Costa 4, www.hotelvictoria-torino.com). Family-run for 50 years, the style here is both elegant and cosy. Top floor rooms have mountain views.

Where to eat and drink

Gramsci (Via Gramsci 12) for posh pizza and aspirational main courses in a suave, suede-lined dining room.

Getting there

Aeroporto Internazionale Sando Pertini is 16km north of the city. Bus is the best way to get into the centre of town.

When to go

A year-round destination. Summers are not too hot and winters not too cold.

More Italian cities

Read more about Rome and Milan on our dedicated city sites, which include 100s of hotel, restaurant, museum and other reviews.

Top tips

Jan Fuscoe, editor of Time Out's 'Italy: perfect places to stay, eat & explore', has some Euro-saving tips...

How do I avoid the £12 cappuccino?

By bypassing the main piazzas. But remember: you're paying for the people-watching too, which is an essential part of any trip to Italy...

I want to speak like a native – any tips?

Stay with local farmers at an agriturismo, with the bonus of eating fabulous organic food too; http://en.agriturismo.it or www.agriturismo.com are good.

How do I tell a good cheap restaurant from a bad cheap tourist trap?

Look who else is eating: if it's full of tourists, it's probably been recommended by the hotel you're staying in. And eat late – after 9pm.

Any cheap tipple recommendations?

A carafe of house wine is always cheaper than bottled beer or named wines, and wine in Italy is rarely bad.

Italy guidebook

Find 30 inspirational Italian breaks in Time Out's 'Italy: perfect places to stay, eat & explore' for the discounted price of £11.80 (£3.19 off rrp) at www.timeout.com/shop.