Related: Audley Travel
From glorious museums and grand Roman ruins to rich cuisine and storied vineyards, Italy is a land of indulgences. With such an abundance of treasures, it can be hard to choose where you want to go. To help you sort through the wealth of options, we’ve picked the four most popular reasons to visit — food and wine, art, history and landscapes — and suggested the best regions to explore those interests.
Gastronomy in Piedmont
Defined by the lofty Alps and the rich soil of the mountains’ foothills and valleys, Piedmont is probably best known for its vineyards, which produce the king and queen of wine, Barolo and Barbaresco.
But there’s more to the region than just wine. Sheep grazed in the alpine meadows give rich milk that creates a wealth of cheese. Orchards of hazelnut bushes grow in tidy rows on the sides of gentle hills. And, between September and January, hunters venture out among the trees with their dogs, trained to sniff Piedmont’s hidden treasure, the prized white truffle.
It’s easy to spend your whole holiday in Piedmont simply eating and drinking. But, if you want to delve deeper, a private driving tour of the area’s small artisan producers can give you a chance to meet some of the people who actually grow the region’s food and wine.
Visit Silvio, a shepherd who tends a flock of endangered heritage-breed sheep and makes traditional cheese from their unpasteurised milk. A tasting with wine will give you the chance to compare and learn more about the different flavours that evolve as cheese ages.
From there, travel to a family-run hazelnut orchard. Here, you can make a cake with Milena, the daughter who tends the trees with her husband. Finish your day with a visit to a family-owned winery for a Barolo tasting in Serralunga.
If you prefer to stay focused on just wine, take a tour of the small village of Barolo, which lends its name to the region’s best-known vintage, and enjoy tastings at the local wineries. The surrounding landscape has been protected by UNESCO for its natural beauty and historical significance — this has been an important wine-growing region since Pliny the Elder sung its praises 2,000 years ago.
Renaissance art in Florence
One of the Art Cities, Florence is arguably the greatest storehouse of European Renaissance art in the world. This is a city where it’s unremarkable for you to wander into a small church to find a piece by Michelangelo tucked behind an altar. Even the buildings themselves are works of art, often designed by the era’s masters.
You’ll find the greatest collection of their paintings at the Galleria degli Uffizi, including Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo (The Holy Family). Though you’ve probably seen these works hundreds of times, reproduced on magnets, tote bags and calendars, it’s a very different experience to see them in person. Up close, you can get a new appreciation for the confident brushwork and glowing, transparent pigments that make these some of the greatest artworks in Western history.
Housed in a 16th-century palazzo, the sprawling museum is so packed with both art and other visitors that it can be overwhelming. A private guide can steer you around the omnipresent crowds and provide some context for the vast array of art that you’ll see. If you need a break, we suggest venturing upstairs to the rooftop cafe for some fresh air. These terraced hanging gardens were created by the Medici clan, who staged musical performances here.
Outside of the grand museums and elaborate churches, you can still find art being produced in Florence. The city’s well-preserved streets are packed with workshops known as botteghe. Here, artisans still create handicrafts using traditional, centuries-old techniques.
Watch a leather worker use hand tools to turn hides into buttery-soft shoes or bags. At a stationary shop, artisans will demonstrate how they create densely marbled endpapers for books, and at a cantucci shop, bakers will share a recipe that dates back to the Renaissance. Perhaps the highlight of the tour is a stop at a workshop where mosaicists still craft commessos, intricate pictures constructed from carefully cut semiprecious stones.
Two millennia of history in Rome
Capital of the Roman Empire and seat of the Catholic Church, Rome is dense with history. You can spend several days exploring just the ancient sites: the three-high ranks of arches and columns at the Colosseum, the enigmatic ruins of Palatine Hill and the great jumbled remnants of the Roman Forum.
Across the Tiber, the Vatican Museums display some of the most dazzling artworks that humans have ever made. Even if you’ve seen them before, the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Rooms warrant another visit, and the other galleries are filled with one of history’s greatest collections of art from around the world and across time.
The sheer scale and volume of these sights cannot be overstated — a private guide can help make sense of what you’re seeing by providing context and interpretation.
However, there’s more to Rome beyond the big-name attractions. To dig deep into the layers of history, we recommend a tour that uncovers how Romans have preserved and transformed their city over the centuries.
Begin at Basilica di San Clemente, a 12th-century church with an interior that was clearly cobbled together from a variety of styles. Glittering Byzantine mosaics stand next to 1,800-year-old repurposed columns and a floor inlaid with rare stones, scavenged from ancient sites. Descend a layer and you’ll find yourself in an early Christian church that dates from the 4th century, when Christianity was first legalised in Rome. Here, long-ago graffiti artists left behind crass sayings that are some of the earliest written examples of the Italian language.
If you go down one more layer, you’ll find yourself in an archaeological dig that has uncovered not only an ancient apartment building, but also a temple where a mystery cult once worshiped Mithras. You’ll see a depiction of a bull as well as the edges of an unexcavated labyrinth.
Continue the subterranean theme of the tour with a visit to the catacombs. Because burial was an unusual custom in the 1st century, there were no cemeteries in Rome. Instead, early Christians interred their dead in miles of underground tunnels riddled with tombs and sepulchral chambers. Most of the bones have been removed, but you’ll see a statue of Saint Cecilia, whose body was allegedly exhumed in 1599, still perfectly preserved almost 1,000 years after she was buried.
For a look at a grisly chapter of Roman history, the tour concludes with a visit to the Crypts of the Capuchin Monks. For several decades in the 18th century, the monks decorated different rooms with the bones of their dead brethren, including chandeliers of femurs and arches outlined in polished skulls. Some monks, wearing their brown hooded robes, stand holding rosaries with hands that are still covered in mummified flesh that’s slowly turned dark in the damp air.
Mediterranean landscapes on the Amalfi Coast
The sheer cliffs, fragrant orchards and dazzlingly blue waters of the Amalfi Coast have attracted people since the Roman era, when emperors came here to while away their twilight years in the warm sun. Here, cave-riddled precipices overhang hidden coves and villages cling to the steep coast.
Jetsetters sail their superyachts into the harbour at Positano to soak up the sun and shop at the chic, pastel-painted boutiques. But, venture beyond the glitz of the city and you’ll find stretches of protected landscapes that remain largely pristine.
Avid hikers and casual walkers can follow several paths with views that live up to their poetic names: the Path of the Gods on the mainland and the Path of the Forts on the nearby island of Capri. These reward your walk with panoramic views of the azure Tyrrhenian Sea and glimpses down the long, craggy length of the coastline.
However, the Path of the Gods can get busy, particularly on sunny summer days. Those looking for a less-crowded alternative can take a stroll through the Valley of the Mills. The trail begins at Pontone and snakes along for 5 km (3 miles) through shady woodland and past the ruins of several white stone mills nestled in the depths of the valley below the trail. As you walk, your guide can relay the natural and human history of this protected area, explaining the story of the mills and pointing out the different plants you’ll see, some of them rare.
We suggest visiting in the morning, when the sun is at the right angle to illuminate the derelict mills. These are covered in vines and overgrown with ferns that can seem to glow in the sunshine. As a bonus, a morning walk will have you arrive in Amalfi in time for a seaside lunch.
For an entirely different perspective on the region, you can take a kayak along the Sorrentine Peninsula. Glide silently through the limpid blue waters in a transparent kayak, so nothing interferes with your view through the crystal-clear waters of the Punta Campanella, a protected marine area. Led by a private guide, you’ll visit hidden coves with deserted beaches and paddle into craggy sea caves.
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