Italy has everything you could possibly want from a holiday: stunning beaches, iconic cities and great food – not to mention the history that goes with it all. Italy is ideal for all types of holiday – from short city breaks to beach holidays to a multi destination trips around the country.
Beach Holidays in Italy
Sicily Beach Holidays
Sicily, an island at the southern point of Italy, has over 1000km of coastline so finding a great beach is easy. There are resorts all around the island.
Taormina on the east coast has beautiful clear water, great restaurants and bars, and a wide selection of hotels to match all tastes and budgets. It is also very family friendly.
San Vito Lo Capo is a lower key destination at the north-west point of the island. The area has been used for many film sets and boasts an excellent beach.
Fontane Bianche is just outside the city of Syracuse towards the south-east of the island. This offers a great opportunity to explore the historic city during your holiday, and is one of the best places for bars and nightlife on the island, whilst still having a great beach.
Puglia Beach Holidays
Puglia is the south-eastern region of Italy, around the city of Bari. The area is less popular with tourists than the rest of the country, however it still has great beaches, culture, food and baroque cities, making it ideal for a quieter beach holiday.
There are great resorts and beaches all along the coast of Puglia from the great Baia dei Turchi in the south near the town of Otranto, to luxury resorts around Vieste in northern Puglia. The area is great if you want to relax on less busy beaches and have historic towns and cities close by for their restaurants, bars and culture.
Sardinia Beach Holidays
Sardinia boasts some of the best beaches in Italy. The island is in the Mediterranean off the west coast of Italy. Ringed by white sand and clear water, many Italians flock here for beach holidays. The island has a mixture of luxury beach resorts, golf resorts, secluded beaches and historic cities.
The Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast) on the north-east of the island has many beach resorts and is the top destination for luxury holidays in Sardinia. The area has lots of great beaches that are perfect for swimming and water sports. Along the coast there are lots of stylish towns with great bars and restaurants.
On the south coast around the village of Chia there are quiet beaches that host a range of beach resorts. The atmosphere down south is more relaxed than on the Costa Smeralda so if you are looking for a relaxing beach holiday this area could be perfect.
The west coast of the island has very dramatic scenery. There are a number of places to stay on this coast, although most are around the historic city of Alghero towards the north. This coast is ideal for water sports, and in particular attracts a lot of surfers.
Abruzzo Beach Holidays
Abruzzo is about half way down the east coast of Italy, opposite Rome. The area is less known for its beach resorts than other regions in Italy (and the rest of the Mediterranean) and is great if you are looking for a peaceful beach holiday.
The beaches around the town of Vasto in the south of Abruzzo are a great option if you are looking for a beach holiday close to a lively and interesting town. Alternatively you can stay in the town itself and use the public beach, which is much less busy than most public beaches in Italy.
Pescara and the nearby Montesilvano both have long public beaches that are a great option if you are looking for a beach holiday with good nightlife. They are also great options if you do not want to spend all of your time on the beach as they are both interesting cities.
Cities and Cultural Sites
Italy has a history that rivals any other country in the world and with this comes a huge number of historic towns and cities, as well as cultural sites. Almost every place you go in Italy has some historical significance dating back over 1000 years.
All the towns and cities also have great bars and restaurants – although the style varies by region.
Northern Italy is the industrial and economic heartland of the country. Right at the north of the country are the Alps, with borders to France, Switzerland, Austria and Croatia. This area is great for trekking and cycling in summer, and skiing in winter. On the flatter ground to south of the Alps are the main cities of the north.
Milan, known for its fashion and design industries, is also the financial hub of Italy. People sometimes dismiss Milan as a business city and not as one of Italy’s best cities to visit as a tourist. Whilst Milan is more modern than other cities (Rome for example) it is still definitely worth a visit.
The centre of the city has a lot of interesting sites including the Gothic Cathedral (with great views from the top) and the Galleria Ambrosiana, which houses artwork by Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Raphael and Botticelli, and has an amazing Renaissance library.
A 10 minute walk from the Cathedral square is the Castello Sforzesco, a large fortress built by the medieval and renaissance rulers of Milan – the Szforza family. The fortress is a great way to understand the history of Milan, and you can also see art by Da Vinci and explore its gardens.
Near to the Castello is the church – Santa Marie Delle Grazie – that houses Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper.
As with anywhere in Italy, Milan has great bars and restaurants, and has a good nightlife scene due to its size.
Turin has wide boulevards laid out in a grid formation (thanks to the Romans) that makes it feel like Paris. The architecture is Baroque, in contrast to that of Genoa and Milan, and the city has lots of wide open squares.
Turin is a great place to discover on foot owing to its layout. There are some great Palazzos in Turin that are worth a visit including the Pallazzo Reale (former home of the Savoy family who ruled the city). Turin Cathedral – famous for housing the Turin Shroud – is also worth exploring.
Aside from seeing the sights, Turin is a great place to enjoy coffee or drinks in any of many cafes that line the wide boulevards and squares.
Genoa has one of the best preserved medieval centres in Europe. The city receives relatively few visitors compared to other large Italian cities, including Milan and Turin, and therefore feels as close to a hidden gem as you can find in Italy.
Walking around the narrow, cobbled medieval streets is the best way to experience Genoa. The streets are too narrow for traffic, and if you look up you will see the buildings almost touching at the top. There are also interesting sites including the Cathedral, medieval and renaissance palaces and churches.
The Renaissance part of town has some grander buildings and wider streets that are a great contrast to the medieval area.
Genoa has a fascinating history – it was the most important port in Europe during the early Renaissance period, and in order to support the trade that came with it was home to the first bank in the world.
Venice is unlike any other city in the world. The combination of interlinking canals and historical buildings makes this one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
You can spend days in Venice without visiting any sights in particular. Wandering along the canals and looking at architecture is enough to keep most people occupied. Especially once you factor in stops at cafes, bars and restaurants. However, Venice also has more than its fair share of sights: from the Doge’s Palace (where the rulers of Venice used to live) to numerous churches, art galleries and St Mark’s Basilica.
There are also smaller islands that make for great days trips, including Murano (famous for glassmaking) and Venice Lido (Venice’s seaside resort).
Bologna is a city of around 400 thousand people. The city is famous for its university and the lively atmosphere this gives it.
The centre of the city is dominated by the Piazza Maggiore – a large Medieval square with lots of bars, restaurants and cafes. Bologna has the best surviving examples in Italy of towers built by noble families in the medieval period. These towers were tall and thin as a family’s prestige was linked to the height of its tower. Most of these have now fallen down (both in Bologna and elsewhere in Italy), but a couple of good examples still remain standing in the city.
Northern Italy has a number of lakes very popular with tourists. The most famous of these are Lake Como and Lake Garda. Both are ringed by hills and mountains, but whilst Lake Como has a more stylish and exclusive feel, Lake Garda is better known for its watersports and mountain biking.
Other Places in Northern Italy
There are many other places in Northern Italy worth visiting, including the well preserved Renaissance city of Mantua; Verona (where Romeo and Juliet is set); the stylish coastal town of Portofino; and Parma, where Parmesan Cheese and Parma Ham comes from.
The most popular destination in Central Italy is Rome. However, there is much more to the region than the city: the rolling hills of Tuscany; the medieval city of Florence; and the city state of San Marino just to mention a few.
As the home of the Catholic Church, the capital of the Roman Empire, and the power centre of the Medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe, Rome is one of the most interesting cities in the world. Add to that a well preserved historical centre, and great bars and restaurants, and you have a fantastic city to visit and explore.
Remnants of the Roman Empire are everywhere to be seen in central Rome. From the Forum – where political meetings and markets were held – to the incredibly well preserved Colosseum and many other smaller remains. These can generally all be seen on foot and are a great way to learn about the origins and early history of the city.
Across the Tiber River from the Forum and Colosseum is the Vatican City – the home of the Catholic Church. Consisting of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Vatican Museums and a number of other important buildings there is a lot to see here, including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling. Just on the outskirts of the Vatican City is the Castel Sant’Angelo – a medieval fortress that has been involved in numerous attacks on Rome, and has a secret passage to the Vatican for the Pope to escape along in the case of an attack.
On the Eastern side of Tiber next to the Forum is the medieval and Renaissance centre of Rome. This area has narrow cobbled streets leading to unexpected squares, lined with bars and restaurants. Sites in the area include the Trevi Fountain, The Pantheon, and the Spanish Steps. At night the Piazza Navona and Campo de’ Fiori have lively bars and restaurants.
Outside of the centre there are many other sites, including Renaissance villas built by Noble families. The best of these is the Villa Borghese with its extensive gardens.
Florence is the capital of Tuscany and was the cultural heart of the Renaissance. The city centre is well preserved and nowhere else has as much important Renaissance artwork and architecture in such a small area.
Florence’s political, cultural and financial peak was achieved in the Renaissance period under the rule of the Medici family. The power initially came from the important role the city played in the wool industry, before becoming a significant finance and banking centre. Power and wealth was concentrated among several noble families (of which the Medici were most powerful), and was expressed through the building of great Palazzo (palaces) and the patronage of leading artists.
In central Florence there are dozens of Palazzo of varying size and grandeur that once belonged to Noble families, as well as the Palazzo Vecchio that was centre of government in the city. The Palazzo Vecchio is the largest in the city and is worth a visit to understand the political system of Renaissance Florence. The Palazzo Medici Riccardi – home to the Medici’s in the late 15th and early 16th centuries – is now the seat of the municipal government, but can still be visited. Other major Palazzo’s include the Strozzi and the Corsi.
Across the river Arno from the main part of town is the huge Palazzo Pitti. This Palazzo was the residence of the Medici in the late 16th Century and has large gardens that are great on a sunny day. To reach the Palazzo Pitti from the main part of the city you cross the Ponte Vecchio, a medieval bridge lined with shops.
The legacy of the Florentine families’ patronage of artists can be seen at many art galleries across the city. From the world-famous Uffizi (includes words by Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Botticelli) and Galleria dell’Accademia (Michelangelo’s David), to many smaller galleries and churches around the city.
Florence has great examples of medieval and renaissance churches and monasteries. The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore dominates the skyline with its impressive dome, whilst many other smaller churches populate the city centre. The Convent of San Marco (now a museum) is worth a visit for its history and art. The convent was home to Girolamo Savonarola, a preacher who ousted the Medici for a few years and turned the city into a puritanical dictatorship before being captured and executed by the Pope.
A great day trip from Florence is to the small town of San Gimignano in the hills to the south of the city. The town has spectacular views, great bars and restaurants and some Roman ruins.
Siena is a small city to the south of Florence that has an incredibly well preserved centre. Where other cities have new buildings mixed with the old, and roads running through them, Siena’s centre has managed to avoid this.
The city is on a hill top centred on the Piazza del Campo – a large square lined with restaurants and bars, and home to the Palazzo Publico. Whilst there is less to see and do compared to Florence (although the Cathedral and Palazzo Publico are worth a visit), the main attraction of Siena is wandering around and eating or drinking at the bars and restaurants in the historical centre.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cinque Terre is on the west coast of Italy, north of Pisa. Cinque Terre is made up of five colourful fishing villages built dramatically perched on cliffs overlooking the sea.
There is a coastal path that links the five villages that can be walked in a day, although many people just aim for two or three of the villages. You can stop to eat, drink and swim along the way.
La Spezia is the gateway town to the villages, which you can reach by boat or by train.
Perugia, like many towns and cities in central Italy, sits on top of a hill. The centre of the city is a maze of cobbled streets linking squares, churches and Palazzo. The 13th Century Palazzo dei Priori and Fontana Maggiore are some of the best sites in the city.
Perugia is a lively university town and has great bars and nightlife.
Other Places in Central Italy
Central Italy has lots of smaller towns and cities that are worth visiting, including: Pisa – famous for its leaning tower; the classicly Italian beachside resort of Viareggio (which also acts as a good base for the region); Viterbo – an ancient city that was home to the Popes of the 13th Century; and the enclaved city-state of San Marino.
Compared to Central and Northern Italy, Southern Italy’s historical sites are more weighted towards ancient Rome and Greece than the medieval or renaissance periods. The climate and landscape is also different – hills are more dramatic compared to the rolling hills of Central Italy, and the weather is hotter and drier.
Naples is the major city of Southern Italy, and the historical centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, it is less visited than many of the cities to the north so you can expect to avoid crowds at tourist sites.
Compared to the historical centres of Northern and Central Italy (Rome, Siena, Florence), the old part of Naples is dilapidated and remains the realm of locals as opposed to tourists. The best things to do in Naples involve eating and drinking – . Naples is famous for the best pizza and ice cream in Italy.
The National Archaeological Museum is worth visiting – it contains lots artefacts from Ancient Greece and Rome, including the Farnese Marbles. Under Naples there are tunnels and passageways that lead to Roman ruins, including a theatre and churches. These can be visited by going through multiple entrances around the city.
Another key attraction is the Bay of Naples, with views of the Island of Capri and Mt Vesuvius. There are bars and restaurants along the waterfront to help you make the most of the views.
Around 2000 years ago Pompeii was covered in volcanic ash when Mt Vesuvius erupted. The towns’ inhabitants were killed and the buildings completely covered. It remained this way until 1748 when it was rediscovered.
The ash preserved the structures and inhabitants, and you can now get a unique view into what life was like in a Roman settlement 2000 years ago. The archaeological site is large and you could spend a whole day walking through the preserved town.
The site is around 40 minutes south of Naples by train. There are four other smaller, less visited, sites in the area that suffered a similar fate – the next biggest but much less visited one is Herculaneum.
The Neapolitan Riviera, to the South of Naples, is one of the most scenic bits of coastline in Italy. Towns and villages are perched on cliffs overlooking the sea – the most famous of these towns are Sorrento, Positano and Amalfi.
These three towns are all located on the coast and slope down the cliffs to pebble beaches. The buildings are colourful and the towns have plenty of stylish bars and restaurants. Whilst it is possible to sunbathe on the town beaches, they tend to get very busy in summer. However, there are boats that can take you to quieter, more secluded spots.
The island of Capri, whilst not technically part of the Riviera, is easily reachable by boat from the area. The island has been a holiday destination since Roman times and is now a stylish and exclusive resort favoured by the rich and famous.
Matera is dramatically perched atop a hill in Southern Italy. Italy is not short of historical cities but none beat Matera – it is estimated to be the third oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world. The 7000 year cave dwellings still exist under the city.
The caves – or Sassi – are the key draw of the city and are the reason it has been made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These caves were occupied until the 1950s when residents were removed due to public outrage amongst the poor families that lived in them. Today, you can wander through the Sassi districts.
Other Places in Southern Italy
Southern Italy’s history means there are many more towns and sites to explore. From the port of Bari on the east coast, to the Baroque city of Lecce. There are also several national parks that are popular with hikers.
Right at the south of Italy is the island of Sicily. The island has been highly sought after over the past few thousand years and this explains its mixture of Roman, Norman, Renaissance and Baroque sites.
Palermo is the capital of Sicily and the biggest city on the Island. The centre of town is a mixture of small, run-down alleys, tired Baroque Palaces and Norman churches. The streets are often filled with lively food markets, and the influence of many cultures can be seen here as well in the restaurants, with a mixture of Arabic, Italian and Spanish food.
Catania is an ancient port city at the foot of Mt Etna. The city centre has fewer sites of interest than Palermo, although it does still have more than its fair share of grand Palazzo and beautiful squares. What Catania has over Palermo is a livelier, younger spirit. For those looking for bars and nightlife Catania is a great place to visit.
Other Places in Sicily
Sicily has much to do outside of the main cities. There are great beaches and beach resorts around the island (see the Beach Holidays section), as well as plenty to do in the interior – including climbing Mt Etna.
There is so much to see in Italy and so many possible itineraries. Below are a few ideas but each is fully customisable.
The Best of Italy Itinerary
If you want to see the main sites in Italy in a relatively short amount of time then this itinerary may be for you. Fly in to Milan and spend a day or two there before getting a train or driving (yourself or a hired driver) to Venice. From Venice head south to Florence (with a possible day trip to Siena). From Florence head to Rome and then on down to Naples. From Naples you go to Sicily and spend a couple of days in Palermo. If you want to add a beach holiday onto the end then Sicily or Sardinia are both great options.
Northern Italy Itinerary
If you have a short amount of time and want to take in the main sites in Northern Italy then a possible trip starts in Genoa before heading north to Turin and Milan, and finishing in Venice. This could be done in a week.
North and Central Italy Itinerary
To see the main sites of North and Central Italy you can fly to Milan before heading over to Venice. From Venice you can stop off in Bologna on you way down to Florence. Siena is not far from Florence and is a good stop on the way down to Rome.
Southern Italy Itinerary
Southern Italy is much less traveled by tourists than Northern and Central Italy, so if you want to get off the beaten track the following itinerary may suit you. Start in Naples (with a possible day trip to Pompeii). From Naples head south to the Italian Riviera with a night or two in Positano, Sorrento or Amalfi. From the Riviera head east across the country to the port of Bari. From here you can either head south to the beaches of Puglia, or head straight over to Palermo in Sicily, stopping off in Matera along the way.
Neapolitan Riviera Itinerary
If you want a more relaxed itinerary full of stylish bars and restaurants, great views and beautiful beaches then a week or two in the Neapolitan Riviera is perfect. The best way to see the area is to hire a car and drive between the towns of Sorrento, Positano and Amalfi. You could also add on a couple of days on the island of Capri.
Where to Stay
Italy has lots of hotels from luxury beach resorts in Sardinia, to stylish boutique hotels in Rome and Milan, to quirky rural accommodation in Tuscany. There are plenty of options to suit everyone.
When to Go
If you are looking for a beach holiday then May to September are the best months to go, as the weather is warmer. Outside of these months Sicily has warm weather but it may be too cool to sunbathe.
If you plan to visit cities then it is best to avoid the months of July and August if possible as it can be too hot and busy. April to June and September to November are the best times to visit.
Trains are a great option for getting around Italy. Most cities and large towns have stations and the trains are quick and easy. Buses are also available and tend to be cheaper, but are less comfortable.
Hiring a car is another good option. It makes it much easier to explore smaller towns and rural areas and hiring them is easy. A car with a driver is another option.
Italy has lots of international airports with frequent flights from all over the UK.
There are a lot of beach options in Italy, ranging from less visited beaches in Puglia to the regimented sunbeds of Viareggio in Tuscany. Those further down the country are more reliable when it comes to weather, and are also likely to be warmer for more months of the year.