Italy’s not just a place. It’s a lifestyle.
It’s reaching for olive oil, rather than butter, then drizzling on a little extra. Taking regular espresso breaks but swearing off milky coffee after breakfast. Staying up late without staying out all night, and honoring superstitions passed down by your nonna.
Business hours are a loose concept, but you can set your watch by riposo, Italy’s answer to Spain’s siesta. The whole country’s a style icon, but it’s hardly lacking character or natural beauty, from fishing villages radiating Mediterranean vibes to low-key luxe mountain towns oozing Alpine cool. Then there’s the bigger, historic, pleasantly walkable cities.
As destinations go, Italy’s a safe recommendation for almost anyone, yet there’s always the question of where to spend those precious vacation days. Rather than trying to bounce around the entire country like you’re on a cruise, opt to settle into one region, really get to know it, and embrace the local lifestyle.
To help you put together your perfect itinerary, here’s our guide to imitable Italy for every type of traveler.
For the food: Naples or Emilia-Romagna
Grittier than canal-cut Venice and Florence with its Renaissance roots, yet every bit as rich, Naples can be hit or miss with travelers. Until you ask about the food, that is. The city’s often credited with inventing pizza, and the classic Neapolitan style is protected both by UNESCO and a government outfit tasked with certifying only the most authentic pizzerias. Margherita pies are just the beginning in Naples, though. Save room for deep-fried street foods; seafood pasta like spaghetti alle vongole, made with fresh clams; and sweets like sfogliatella, a croissant-like pastry filled with ricotta and candied fruit.
Travel north from Naples and you’ll eventually hit Bologna, the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region and a powerhouse of flavor. You’ll do well there if your metabolism can withstand meaty pasta like green lasagne, tagliatelle al ragù, and tortellini stuffed with cheese and ham. If you prefer to graze rather than gorge, take it back to the basics in Parma with salty, nutty Parmigiano Reggiano and prosciutto di Parma tastings, or swing by Modena to sample the best balsamic vinegar you’ll ever taste (and, if you can swing it, a meal at world-famous Osteria Francescana).
For the wine: Tuscany
Postcards were invented to capture places like Tuscany, where vineyards, olive and cypress groves, and swaths of sunflowers fleck the hills outside landmark cities like Florence and Pisa. Anyone can appreciate the panoramas Tuscany’s landscape paints, but none more than oenophiles, who quite literally relish drinking in the scenery. Vino aficionados can whet their palates with classic Chiantis at acclaimed estates like Antinori, Castellare di Castellina, and Fattoria la Loggia before sampling vintages not made from Sangiovese grapes, especially the region’s widely grown and increasingly popular Cabernet Sauvignons.
Really, though, Tuscany’s been perfecting its viticulture since the eighth century, so you’d have to try pretty hard to be disappointed here.
For finer things and late nights: Milan
Milan may be Italy’s fashion capital, if not the world’s, but la dolce vita dictates more than just the dress code in the modern, glamorous metropolis. Manage not to max out your credit card at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the oldest shopping arcade in Italy, and you’ll realize just how many other luxuries await. Think Michelin-caliber meals at restaurants like two-star Seta and one-star Alice Ristorante, bookended by pre-dinner drinks at chic aperitivo bars and nightcaps at trendy cocktail joints like Nottingham Forest.
The fun doesn’t have to end there, however. Milan is a young, vibrant city with clubs that stay open late, some as late as 6:00 AM. Just be sure to get some sleep, as you won’t want to miss on the city’s famed fine arts, including Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” housed in the Santa Maria delle Grazie church.
For hiking, cycling, and snow sports: the Dolomites
The crown jewel of the Italian Alps, strung across northeast Italy near the Austrian border, the Dolomite range is an 18-peak, UNESCO-protected wonder that reaches an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet. Come in summer for via ferrata hiking up cliff faces, perhaps in Parco Naturale Adamello Brenta near Trentino, or mountain biking around the Val Gardena valley. Alternately, visit ritzy, sporty Cortina d’Ampezzo during ski season to sail down the same slopes as Bond in For Your Eyes Only and 1956’s Winter Olympians. Consider a day trip to the Dolomites next time you’re in Venice, only a couple of hour’s south by car; however you get there, don’t leave without seeing the beautiful 15th-century Reifenstein castle in South Tyrol.
For art and architecture: Florence
Florence is, on the whole, an architectural masterpiece: a sea of whitewashed, terracotta-topped structures with the city’s centerpiece, the bulbous Duomo, rising a few stories above the rest. The epicenter of commerce and culture from the 14th to 16th centuries, aptly called the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence continues to draw visitors for its exquisite art. Tour the Uffizi Gallery to see precious works like Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” and the Galleria dell’Accademia for Michelangelo’s “David.” Double down with a visit to the Palazzo Vecchio to see the “David” copy, famous in its own right, and nearby Loggia dei Lanzi statue garden.
Later, climb to the top of the Duomo, also known as the Florence Cathedral, for an unbeatable lookout over the city. Youthful but not excessively young, historic but not stodgy, Florence is a treat for art and architecture lovers of all ages; even just standing on the Ponte Vecchio bridge, watching the sun sink into the horizon and dip below the Arno river, is pure magic.
For lovebirds: Verona
Romeo and Juliet is more of a cautionary tale starring teenage hormones than it is the #relationshipgoals love story it’s sometimes cited as, but that doesn’t make Verona, where Shakespeare’s iconic play was set, any less romantic. While Casa di Giulietta and Juliet’s balcony are obvious tourist gimmicks, the city’s wide piazzas, Roman and Renaissance architecture, museums, galleries, and cozy restaurants specializing in creamy risotto make it ideal for couples. Steal away to nearby Lake Garda for a day if you’re craving seclusion.
For summer sunbathers: the Amalfi Coast
Most people think Positano and its Marina Grande beach when they hear Amalfi, but the area’s 30 miles of coastline house seaside towns both rightfully popular and nearly undiscovered. We recommend Ravello for a quieter yet equally stunning getaway, located midway between Positano and Salerno, not far from the town of Amalfi itself.
Ravello shares the coast’s iconic cliffside architecture but does one better with exquisite gardens overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea at the 13th-century Villa Rufolo. Visit during summer to tan and catch the city’s lively music and arts festival, sometimes called the Wagner Festival after the German composer who visited the city in 1880 and was presumably as smitten as you’ll be. The best beach near Ravello is Castiglione; elsewhere, sun-seekers may enjoy sandy Vietri sul Mare beach, secret Gavitello beach in Praiano, or family-friendly Maiori and Minori beaches.
For ruins and relics: Pompeii or Matera
Pompeii, the lost Roman city toppled by Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, has been a magnet for tourists and archaeologists alike since it was rediscovered in the mid-18th century, remarkably well preserved under a thick layer of ash. Now is a particularly exciting time to visit as a 2,000-year-old shrine was newly uncovered late last year. Full-price tickets are a reasonable 15 euros. Dedicate at least three hours to exploring Pompeii (it’s a city-sized attraction, after all) and tack on Herculaneum, a neighboring city also destroyed in the eruption, if you have time.
Matera doesn’t have Pompeii’s name recognition, but that’s part of the appeal. Unlike the ancient, ash-buried city, Matera showcases two impressive networks of prehistoric dwellings, called sassi, cut from southern Italy’s limestone cliffs. It’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on Earth, albeit one plagued with poverty, disease, and neglect until more recently. All that’s changing, though. Since its UNESCO inscription in 1993 and more recent nomination as one of 2019’s European Capitals of Culture, Matera has more tourist appeal than ever before with a growing number of accommodations and dining options.
For family vacation: Rome
Italy’s dynamic capital is at once an obvious choice for a family vacation and a curious one. It’s not the easiest city to navigate, and the near-constant crush of tourists certainly doesn’t help the oppressive traffic, confusing public transport, lengthy wait times, and the like.
But the good far outweighs the bad and the ugly in Rome, and it’s perfect for groups of all ages, budgets, and interests. Alongside world-class, educational attractions like the Colosseum and Roman Forum, the city’s filled with fun to-dos that kids will eat up, like puppet theater in the park, tossing coins into the Trevi Fountain, posing with a giant marble foot, and sticking a hand in the Mouth of Truth, a stone frieze that’s said to chomp down on any arms belonging to liars. Then there’s Vatican City, technically an independent city-state within Rome’s bounds, where you can admire Michelangelo’s works of art inside the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica.
Walking tours are readily available both across the city and underground through the catacombs below. Don’t forget to refuel with a few scoops of gelato after a full day of exploring.
For a crowd-free retreat: Lake Iseo
Lake Iseo is what Lake Como was before Clooney put it on the map. Tucked away between Bergamo and Brescia, it’s the best-kept secret of the Lombard lakes, though chances are the glassy, snaking, mountain-ringed body of water won’t stay that way for long.
Hug the lake on a scenic drive, take a refreshing dip right from shore, or get out on the water whether by kayak, canoe, or speedboat. Then venture to nearby Valle Camonica to see Stone Age carvings, followed by a jaunt to the neighboring Franciacorta wine country, which is quickly carving space for itself as one of Italy’s premier sparkling-wine regions, when you want to channel your inner A-lister without the superstar price tag.
For off-season travelers: Venice
With its meandering gondolas, glinting marble architecture, and turquoise lagoon, Venice really is as stunning as they say. It’s also as crowded, a problem the city has taken measures to combat. To do your part to preserve what some consider the world’s most beautiful city, visit Venice in winter when the crowds clear out and locals come out of hiding. It’ll be misty, and cold, but pack appropriately and the only chill you’ll feel is at Saint Mark’s Basilica, where you’ll have a shot at an actual moment of silence. If you’d rather make some noise, go in February for the pre-Lent Venice Carnival festival, famous for its masks, costumes, and masquerade balls.