The land where civilisations rose, artists created masterpieces and chefs first dreamed up our favourite meals, Italy is never short of a visitor. In fact, there is just so much to experience in this European gem, we’ve made your planning a little easier by breaking it down into ravioli sized chunks. So all you have to do is pick between a sun or city experience or even a little bit of both!
When you picture yourself living La Dolce Vita, you’re probably sitting on a sun dappled hilltop terrace, overlooking the lapping waters of the Mediterranean with a cold drink in one hand and a forkful of pasta in the other, right?
Well whether you realise it or not, your dream avatar is soaking up the subconscious sun in Sorrento, the seaside city of northwest Italy.
Named after the mythical sirens that lulled ancient Greek sailors to their deaths, the city is much more welcoming to its modern day tourists. Stroll the picturesque Piazza Tasso and Piazza Della Vittoria, where the Romans built a temple in honour of the God of Love Venus, and take in the energy of the town. Try the native Limoncello and favourite local dish, Gnocchi alla Sorrentina. Or even just take in the stunning views of the Island of Procida and the Gulf of Naples. Also visible from the hilltops of Sorrento is Mount Vesuvius, which the more active among you can hike on a clear day.
Visit the scenic nearby towns of Positano, Amalfi and Ravello. Immerse yourself in history at the volcanic ash preserved city of Pompeii or sail to the isle of Capri, where the magical Blue Grotto awaits.
Italy’s second largest island is widely credited with having some of the world’s most crystal clear water, especially along its Costa Smeralda. The 20km stretch along the island’s northern coast boasts perfect picture beaches such as Grande Pevero and Capriccioli while the resort town of Porto Cervo is a celebrity favourite with Beyonce and Jay Z and former Bond Pierce Brosnan snapped there in the past couple of years.
As well as being a mecca for beach and water sport lovers, Sardinia draws a steady crowd amongst the history and archaeology buffs too. The island is home to unique megalithic monuments known as The Nuraghi that are dotted throughout the landscape. With over 7,000 of the stone bee hived shaped structures you are never too far away from one, but head to the complex in Barumini for the most significant examples.
The most famous local dish on the island is Su Porcheddu, suckling pig spit roasted for five hours but if you really want to expand your holiday horizons, try some sea urchins that are so loved by islanders they hold festivals in their honour.
If your idea of a city break well spent is three days of art, history and food then really Rome is a no brainer. The eternal city is seriously good value for money when it comes to ticking off your travel must see check list. Choose a hotel close to a piazza and rely on your feet to get the best out of this majestic maze of character filled alleys. Pack only runners, if such a thing had been around during the 1st century, it’s what the Gladiators would have worn, the ancient cobbled streets are not for the weak of arch. But any sympathy felt for your feet soon dissipates when you emerge from a narrow street to find the awe inspiring Trevi Fountain or The Pantheon right there in front of you. But as magnificent as they are, don’t use the historic monuments as a guide for your dining choices. The restaurants closest to the attractions have the highest rents and can be known to compensate on the quality of the food. Instead walk down the less travelled side streets for the hidden gems, especially where the locals are eating. When in Rome, try to eat like a Roman; not all carbonaras are created equally. Earn your appetite and gelato with a trip to the Colosseum and Roman Forum, tours range in price and length and run between 10am and 6pm so there’s no excuse to miss these ancient arenas of deprivation and civilisation. Cleanse your palette with a trip to the other side of the city where the hallowed gates of the Vatican awaits. Give yourself at least three hours to walk through the Vatican Museum which ends with the enclosed Sistine Chapel. Don’t attempt to dawdle or take photos of Michelangelo’s ceiling, it’s not looked upon fondly. And if you think his painting and decorating are good, have a look at his chisel work in St Peter’s Basilica. The Pieta is overwhelming up close and had it not been for a crazed geologist taking a hammer to it in 1972 you could get even closer than the glass barrier allows. If you go on the right days, you can get a mass in with the Pope himself but either way, the Vatican is a special place of truly other worldly energy and scope. Just cover your shoulders for God’s sake.
A truly unique city, Venice is made up of 118 small islands connected by a series of canals earning it the moniker of The Floating City. Although there are no roads, pedestrians amble the narrow maze of city streets to marvel at the Gothic and Renaissance architecture. In fact getting lost in Venice is often credited as one of its main charms. Get your bearings at Piazza San Marco, where you can feed the pigeons before climbing the Campanile bell tower for a panoramic view of the city of canals. Visit St Mark’s Basilica but be respectful of its no camera policy. For the perfect selfie spot in Venice head to the Rialto bridge, one of the largest brides crossing the Grand Canal. The huge bridge offers rows of shops and market vendors and is always jam packed so expect lots of company as you watch the gondolas and passenger ferries sail by beneath you. And what self respecting visitor to Venice would pass up the opportunity to take a gondola ride? It’s a good idea to agree a price with your gondolier before setting sail, but the city guide is €80 for 40 minutes and €100 after 7pm. If you want to be serenaded as you sail, well that’s going to cost you extra! For some historic context visit the Doges Palace, a former seat of Government that now serves as Venice’s museum. Here you can walk across the infamous enclosed Bridge of Sighs and see the same views that prisoners on their way to execution saw as their last glimpse of the city. Unsurprisingly fish is a major part of the Venetian diet, which anchovies and sardines featuring heavily in local dishes while red bitter liqueurs such as Aperol and Campari are among the most popular tipples.
If you are trying to decide between a modern Italian city or a one steeped in historic charm, then look no further than Bergamo. Here you will get to experience a tale of two cities with the bustling Citta Bassa and the older Citta Alta. Nestled in the foothills of the Italian mountains and close to Milan, Bergamo is best know for its surrounding Venetian wall, which is now enjoyed as a scenic walkway. Get the best views of the city from its highest point, the top of the Torre Civica which houses the largest bell in Lombardy that chimes every night at 10pm to signify the closure of the city gates. The Upper and Lower cities are connected by a railway system called the funicular and there are so many buildings of historic significance here, its best advised to get on a walking tour to understand what you are seeing around the Piazza Vecchia. One of the most popular attractions is the Cappella Colleoni, the sarcophagus of local hero Bartolomeo Colleoni. The medieval mercenary fought for the Republic of Venice and is created as being a major figure in the birth of modern Italy. He is however also known by his bizarre legend of having had three testicles, a testament to such is carved onto the iron gates of the chapel and its considered good luck to give them a rub as you pass.
Undoubtedly best known for its iconic leaning tower, the Tuscan city of Pisa has lots more to offer than some subsiding architecture. Built in 1372, the white marble bell tower of the Campanile situated in the Piazza dei Miracoli, tilts at a 5 degree angle but it perfectly safe to climb. Just be mindful that numbers are limited to 40 for period of 35mins so book tickets ahead of your visit. While at the Piazza, take in the other magnificent surrounding structures of The Pisa Cathedral, the Pisa Baptistry and the Camposanto Monumentale. When you’ve had your fill of architectural masterpieces, head out of the city to the seaside resort of Marina de Pisa or venture north to the Parco Regionale Migliarino, a 24,000 hectare green space offering lush forests, sand dunes and nature walkways. But if you’re staying in the city get your steps in with a stroll along the Arvo River and pick up some of the local delicacies such as Castagnaccio, a chestnut based cake or Torta co’bischeri which translates as Pilgrim Cake. Because if your holiday isn’t a Pisa cake in Pisa, then where will it be?
In fair Verona where we lay our scene, there is a stage awaiting its players. Could you be the next traveller to follow in the fictional footsteps of the worlds most famous lovers? Best known the world over as the setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Verona in Italy’s northern Veneto region has become a mecca for romance. Thousands flock each year to the 13th Century building that has been adopted as the home of the ill fated Juliet, complete with her balcony from where Romeo declared his devotion beneath. Located in the Via Capello, the house is a small museum created to replicate the interior of the heroine’s home. From here cross the Ponte Pietra across the Adige River to wonder at the Roman Theatre and Archaeological Museum, built into the side of a hill. For some more imposing edifices visit the Lamberti Tower for some birds eye views or the Fondazione Arena, the third largest outdoor arena in Italy. The original site of the Roman Forum, Piazza delle Erbe is the perfect place to immerse yourself in the history of the city as well as pick up some souvenirs before heading out for dinner. Some of the favourite local dishes to try are the minced port Risotto with Tastasal and the Pastissada de Caval, which is horse meat stew so equine enthusiasts, you have been warned.
Whether you opt for a city break or a sun holiday, there are no bad choices when to comes to picking your perfect Italian escape. Blessed with sun, oozing charm and character and just a few hours flight from Dublin, Italy is just waiting to be explored.