Best things to do in Italy
You can’t skip a stone in Venice without hitting a gondola but the best way to experience the city of canals is to learn how to pilot a boat yourself. Instead of paying dearly for a short (but romantic) boat ride, book a lesson to learn voga alla veneta, the Venetian style of rowing while standing up. Better yet, paddle your boat down the waterways directly to a bar with cicchetti (happy hour snacks).
Michelangelo’s masterpiece is a major bucket list item, but that means crowds of tourists inside the saintly Sistine Chapel. Beat the hordes by reserving a ticket to see the Vatican Museums after dark. From April through October, the museum stays open until 11pm on Fridays and the art viewing gets more intimate as the clock ticks later. Kill time by grabbing a prosecco at the café in the Pine Cone courtyard before making a beeline for the painted chapel.
The best way to see the Tuscan countryside is from the driver’s seat of an iconic Italian vintage car. Clamber inside a minuscule Fiat 500 to hit the snaking roads, from Florence to wineries in the hills of Chianti. The car came to fame during the dolce vita heyday of the 1960s and its small size and signature bright colours are seriously smile-inducing and 100 per cent Italiano.
Capri gets all the credit, but the neighbouring island of Ischia is the holiday favourite for Italians in the know. The island in the Bay of Naples was formed by volcanic activity and is full of natural hot springs. After catching some sun on the beach, slip into a thermal spa to wash every last worry away. The best can be found near Casamicciola.
During the Renaissance, Borromini became one of Rome’s most celebrated architects and designed palaces and basilicas for Popes. In 2016, one of his most beautiful buildings opened to the public as Eitch Borromini, a boutique hotel with a killer terrace. Stop in at sunset for aperitivo (Italian happy hour) and take in the 360-degree views of the Eternal City from Eitch Borromini above Piazza Navona.
The cliffside trails connecting the five villages of Cinque Terre are picturesque but also packed with tour groups who block the paths on Italy’s most famous hike. The outdated trains that run between beach towns are similarly stuffed, so instead, book a cruise to arrive at each village by water. The views of the towering coloured homes built above the sea look even better from the deck of a boat.
Hardcore outdoor enthusiasts can hike up the side of Sicily’s Mount Etna, but the best way to experience Italy’s largest volcano up close is to hop aboard a train. Take the Ferrovia Circumetnea to Randazzo and then switch to the Wine Bus to discover the area’s most unique wines. The tipsy tasting day makes for a fun train journey home.
The outside of the iconic Colosseum is one of the most famous photo backdrops in Rome, but the best way to see the monument is from below. Book a guided tour to have special access to the subterranean area and catch a glimpse of the ingenious network of tunnels, pulleys and levers that once delivered props, gladiators and exotic animals to centre stage.
Backdoor 43 is smaller than most walk-in wardrobes but the bespoke bar in Milan makes up for the lack of space with plenty of creativity. The four square-metres have been designed to display bottles like an apothecary shop. Patrons can book the itty-bitty bar for two hours of private drinking, or order from a slot window on the street. The takeaway window is only big enough to show the bartender’s hands (and maybe a fleeting glimpse at his Guy Fawkes mask).
Located on the island of Budelli off the coast of Sardinia, the Spiaggia Rosa is one of the most unique beaches in the world thanks to its pink-coloured sand. The beach can be found in the Maddalena Archipelago National Park and its coloured sand is so rare that the Italian government no longer lets sun worshippers sit upon the shore. Luckily, the rosy hue and the crystal blue waters can still be seen while relaxing on the nearby beaches of Spiaggia del Cavaliere and Cala di Roto.
The sassi (cave homes) in the Basilicata village of Matera are thought to date back more than 9,000 years. The prehistoric cave dwellings were carved directly into a rocky hillside, and were inhabited up until the 1950s. The stone town has since been revived and some of the sassi have been turned into chic boutique escapes. Book a room to sleep in the historic caves, and be sure to pop into a sassi pub for a nightcap.
Leave behind the sun of southern Italy for the ski slopes of the Dolomites, where some of the country’s culinary heavyweights are whipping up fine dining in mountain chalets. With three Michelin stars, St. Hubertus restaurant in the small ski town of San Cassiano is one of the best eateries in the world. In fact, there are two other Michelin-starred restaurants in the same valley, which means plenty of gourmet options when the ski day ends.
Italy runs on espresso, and the prettiest place to raise a dainty mug of coffee is at Bar Luce in Milan. The retro-style coffee bar, designed by director Wes Anderson, looks more like a movie set than a real-life cafe. After you are done playing The Life Aquatic pinball and ogling the light pink and minty green hues inside the bar, head next door to the Prada Foundation’s contemporary art museum.
Italy is home to some of Europe’s most famous volcanoes and no one should leave the country without seeing one up close. The best to hike is found in the dreamy Aeolian Islands between Calabria and Sicily. Join a group to scale the side of Stromboli and watch the sunset, while lava erupts at the top of the crater. Recover from the hike on the island’s deserted black sand beaches the next day.
Catch a ferry to the tiny island of Isola San Giulio in Lake Orta to wander the quiet streets. The fairytale village has been turned into a monastery and the minuscule space is dominated by a beautiful basilica. The isolated town is easily one of the prettiest spots in Italy but is still little-known. The Benedictine nuns who call the island home have taken a vow of silence, so all visitors must do the same while ashore.
Every visitor to Milan makes a pilgrimage to the glass-domed Galleria in the heart of the city, but few know to climb up four flights of stairs to the roof. A catwalk highline opened above the shopping centre in 2015 and offers rooftop views over the fashion capital of Italy. Order ahead and have a picnic lunch delivered so you can dine on prosciutto and pasta salad while admiring the spires of the Duomo.
Plan the dinner of a lifetime inside a limestone grotto in the charming beach town of Polignano a Mare. The gourmet restaurant in Puglia is the hottest reservation in Southern Italy thanks to the decadent menu and unbelievable views – especially at night when the open dining room is lit only with candles and the aquamarine reflection of the water below.
There are only twelve full-time residents left in Civita di Bagnoregio because the village’s charming stone homes are slowly eroding and falling into the valley below. The striking town was built precariously atop a hill in central Italy and is now only accessible on foot via a 500m bridge. Saunter across for lunch under a shady pergola at one of the few trattorias in town and savour the rustic fare in a setting that might soon disappear.
Florence’s Duomo is a must-see stop, but the line to climb to the top can eat up precious hours. Rather than wait, head to the library for a truly unique view of the church. Pass by historic documents and through reading rooms lined with wooden shelves to arrive at the Oblate Library café. The open-air terrace looks out at the famous landmark and is the best secret spot for an affordable drink in the centre of the city.
After the death of his wife, a sixteenth-century Italian prince wanted to express his grief in a big way. He commissioned a ‘Villa of Wonders’ and filled the garden escape with towering statues, including an enormous screaming stone head. The surreal Parco dei Mostri lies between Rome and Florence and is the perfect place to stop for Italy’s most unique photo opp.