7 ways to experience the best of Italy

As a country, Italy has it all: stunning scenery, incomparable cuisine, deep historical and religious roots and some of the best art and architecture in the world. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the romance and culture that has influenced and inspired so many others.

Whether it’s your first time or you’re looking to experience the country in a whole new way, we’ve got some ideas to inspire your planning.

Tempt your taste buds

The mere mention of Italy may already have your mouth watering. Each region offers its own specialties, flavours and traditional recipes. Culinary tours make a welcome addition to any itinerary, offering demonstrations, tastings, market tours and workshops. Go on a truffle hunt, or search for the best gelato.

While it would be nearly impossible to miss Italian cuisine and fine wine on any trip, true foodies can plan an entire vacation around their passion. Imagine escaping to a country villa to learn the art of Tuscan cuisine, explore the countryside and tour local vineyards and markets. Culinary tours and cooking schools offer itineraries from 3 days to two weeks long, and even create custom programs for groups.  (For more ideas, see Delicious destinations.)

Tour the famous cities

Once independent city-states and kingdoms after the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy’s cities are steeped in history and culture. It would be hard to imagine a trip to Italy that doesn’t include the canals of Venice or Rome’s grand Colosseum and its architectural marvel, the Pantheon. Visit Michelango’s David at the Accademia Gallery in Florence, and embrace the medieval charm of Siena.

Of course, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention other top cities like Naples, Milan, Verona, Genoa, Positano and Turin. If you’ve “been there, done that” or want to dodge the tourist crowds, try a smaller city like Parma, Ravenna or Lecce. (About.com has a list of Best Small Cities to Visit in Italy for more ideas.)

Need a little help? Check out some of our previous articles on Italy, including: A Florence fling, How to do Rome in 48 hours and Old-world romance in Siena.

Hit the road

Looking for flexibility, breathtaking scenery and out-of-the-way places? Consider a road trip for a new way to see the country. While the autostrada (toll motorway) connects the major cities, often it’s the secondary routes that offer the best views if you have the time.

And two wheels can take you even farther than four, allowing you to explore spots a car can’t go. Cycling and motor biking are popular ways to see the country, but don’t worry if you aren’t a cycling pro. Bicycles can easily work with other modes of transportation. For instance, many ships and ferries don’t charge to carry bicycles, and motor bikes don’t require booking in advance — perfect for travelling the islands. Many trains also transport bikes.

Whether you plan to drive or cycle, watch for related organizations and websites like the Automobile Club d’Italia and BikersHotel which help with route ideas, accommodations and driving basics. Make sure you understand the rules of the road and know what to do if an accident happens.

(For more information, see Five things you should know before driving abroad. Or for a little inspiration, check out Driving the Amalfi Coast.)

Embrace your faith

While Vatican City is technically a sovereign entity, it’s an essential stop on many travellers’ Italy itineraries. Every year millions of tourists make the trip to St. Peter’s Basilica to see the architectural mastery of Bramante, Michelangelo and Bernini, and the famed frescos of the Sistine Chapel. For Roman Catholics, it’s also a chance to visit the holiest place on earth — and a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the Pope and participate in a liturgical event.

However, the Vatican isn’t the only place of religious significance in the country. Every year, believers flock to the Chapel of the Shroud in Turin to visit the famous relic, and art lovers are drawn to Santa Maria delle Grazie to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Italy is dotted with famous cathedrals like St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, the Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral) and the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. Rome itself has dozens of churches dating all the way back to the 4th and 5th centuries.

Of course, Italy has sites of religious significance for other faiths too. The ruins of temples to ancient gods and goddesses can still be seen in Rome and Siracusa. Il Ghetto, the Venice neighbourhood where Jews were forced to live from the 16th to the 18th century, is home to the Museo Communità Ebraica (Museum of the Jewish Community). Today, museum staff offers tours of the local synagogues. Elsewhere, the Jewish Museum of Rome is part of an even grander synagogue, appropriately named the Great Synagogue.

For more places to visit, Sacred Destinations has a list of Sacred Sites in Italy.

Indulge a love of the arts

Love art and architecture? In addition to the 95,000 monumental churches and 1,500 convents, the country also boasts 40,000 forts and castles, 30,000 historical residences (with 4,000 gardens), 36,000 archives and libraries, and 5,600 museums and archaeological sites — not to mention the thousands of cities and towns that are works of art in their own right. Throughout the centuries, rich patrons like the Catholic Church and prominent families like the Medici had money to lavish on beauty and innovation.

Where to start? Some big name museums include the Brera Art Gallery in Milan, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and the Capitoline Museums in Rome. To enjoy works in their original context, look to public buildings or famous residences like the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence.

A good guidebook can be a boon when deciding where to go, plus it can provide some historical background on the works. For the ultimate creative experience, look for courses and workshops to inspire the artist in you.

Make it a mountain retreat

Whether it’s scenery you’re after or a little adventure, the Alps are the ideal place to explore. This idyllic mountain range encompasses a number of regions including Liguria to the Valle d’Aosta, Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, and Friuli Venezia Giulia, to name a few.

Looking for an active getaway? There are plenty of opportunities for sports all year round. In the warmer months, enjoy hiking, cycling and horseback riding — or get out on the water for some kayaking and rafting. In the winter months, there’s no place quite the like the Alps for a skiing adventure. (See Adventure in the Alps for more details.)

If relaxing is more your style, escape to a vacation apartment or chalet, or head to one of Italy’s many wellness retreats for a spa vacation instead.

Join in the fun of special events

Time your trip just right and you can find a little something extra, like a festival or special event. Aside from world famous events like Carnevale in Venice or the Biennale, there’s no shortage of ways to get in on the celebrations across the country. Celebrate a festival dedicated to a saint, or look for cultural events like the L’ardia Di San Costantino (Ancient Horse Race) in Sardinia, or la Quintana — a jousting tournament held every August in Ascoli Piceno.

Music festivals and concerts are a common occurrence in summer months, but the fall and winter have their fair share of events and holidays too. For instance, celebrate Juliet’s Birthday in Verona in September or Feast Day of San Michele in various places across Italy. What’s On When and About.com have an overview of events.

For more information about travel to Italy, visit the Italian Tourism Official Website.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Lidian Neeleman

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