Italy – the Ultimate Travel Guide
Picturesque scenery, ancient historical sites, fabulous food and wine, friendly locals – and so many different experiences every time you go. Italy is one of our favourite spots in the world to holiday. Here are some of our top places and suggestions to help you have a great time and stay safe while travelling there.
Where to go
Set in the rolling hills of Tuscany, Siena is quieter than the larger cities, and full of history and culture. There are endless opportunities to explore the beauty and charm of this city. Local guides are often the best way to see a new city – try a full-day walking tour of Siena and the Chianti Region with Siena Walking Tours. With your guide, you can visit the interior plazas of palace compounds, originally built by the wealthy families to provide a safe haven from bandits and thieves. Or marvel at its many beautiful frescos, its cathedral, and its history. If you go in July or August, enjoy the twice-annual Il Palio di Siena horse race, where each of Siena’s 17 contrade (families) race bareback around the Piazza del Campo in the city centre, often coming to grief on the sharp turns.
Rabbit Beach, Lampedusa
Rabbit Beach has just been named the top beach in the world in TripAdvisor’s Traveller Choice Beaches Awards 2014. Charming and wild, protected by cliffs, with crystal clear water shallow for a long way out so paddling and snorkeling are easy and fun. Not many people speak English, and there are no amenities, and just one café, so it’s a chance to experience real Italy away from tourist hordes. To get there, catch a bus from the city centre and then walk down the cliffs to the beach.
Ravenna is quite different to other Italian cities in its history, culture, art and ambience. Visitors find that it is much more sober and untheatrical than almost all of the rest of Italy, and offers exceptional beauty and insights into the formation of Europe and civilization worldwide. It was once the capital of the Byzantine Empire in Italy and still has many beautiful mosaics from this heritage. The Domus dei Tappetti di Pietra (House of Stone Carpets) is the remains of a small 5th-6th century Byzantine palace under the Church of S. Eufemia, and has a beautiful mosaic floor. To stay, try the M-Club; it is a small B&B right in the centre of Ravenna, on the edge of the pedestrian zone and very close to the sights. Italian locals stay there and consider it a hidden gem. Visit Dante’s tomb, including the place where the villagers hid his ashes during World War II to keep them safe. Or the church of San Francesco, which was built by Archbishop Neon in the 5th Century, extended between the 9th and 10th centuries, and restored in the year 1000, which has beautiful underwater mosaics in the crypt.
For something different, try an Agriturismo (farm holiday) in Tuscany, Sicily or Orvieto. An Agriturismo is a working farm with accommodation, often in historic or traditional buildings (rooms, apartments, villas) or camping. Sometimes but not always, meals are served; if so, the produce comes from the owner's own and local farms. Witness rural Italy and its slower rhythms of life first-hand, sampling local products and learning about agricultural practices. Agriturismo is low-impact, green tourism. It is usually cheaper than a hotel, and many have amenities like swimming pools and tennis courts. Check http://www.agriturist.it/ for more information.
When to go
Italy is very busy in the high season – bustling, and full of Fiats, crazy Vespa drivers, arguments and hot tempers. Although the weather is usually good, and everything is open, queues for most attractions will be long and places will be crowded. There are some public holidays in summer – Festa della Repubblica (Birth of the Italian Republic) Festival on 2 June and the Ferragosto/Assumption Day holiday on 15 August – if you want places to be open, avoid, or if you’re happy to join in, go!
In September the weather is usually still good, and many tourists are gone plus you are entering harvest season, which is a magical time in Italy, full of festivals and outstanding food.
If you are after snow, the best falls are usually in January, as it tends to rain in November and December. Winter is also good for sightseeing if you wrap up, even with short days, as there are much shorter queues, although not everything will be open.
In Spring, shutters are taken down or rolled up to let in the light, the almond and fruit trees bloom, and there are many festivals, especially around Easter time.
Everyone. Couples, groups, families, backpackers – Italy is a popular destination and its friendly charm and beauty will captivate you. If you’re the type who expects perfect organisation, though, you might be better off in Germany! Italy is sometimes chaotic and doesn’t always run to schedule, which is oddly relaxing, if you don’t mind going with the flow.
How to get there
By air – most major cities have at least one airport accessible from Dubai or major European cities including Paris, London, Amsterdam, or Berlin, and most full-service and low-cost carriers fly daily.
By train – the trains run to Italy from most major cities in Europe and they are very good. You can also travel by train between small local stations or between cities, even overnight. It’s best to leave at least 1 hour to 45 minutes before your train is due to depart to allow time to clear customs, find your train on the platform (sometimes these are not exactly in sync in Italy) and purchase your ticket.
By ferry – you can travel to Italy by ferry from Spain, Greece, Croatia and many of the Mediterranean Islands.
By car – avoid cars in cities as they are impossible to park and the driving is often hectic and stressful. However, travelling outside major cities and using motorways to get across large stretches can be very efficient.
5 Travel Risks
It is unlikely you will be mugged, but bag snatchers and pickpockets often work in professional gangs, especially near major attractions and transport hubs. Carry your cash and credit cards in a money belt or other safety device, and keep extra cash and copies of your travel documents in a safer spot. Thieves will not look like beggars – they often dress as tourists or business people and stage elaborate distractions such as loud arguments or three-card tricks. Also don’t wear expensive jewellery or leave belongings in unattended vehicles.
If an ATM eats your card, check the slot for a thin plastic holder with a little piece hanging out, as thieves will use tweezers to extract your card after you’ve gone.
Transport strikes can be quite common so you may encounter delays and cancellations – it's a good idea to have travel insurance before you go. Find out more at the Commissione di Garganzia website, where planned strikes are officially listed: http://www.cgsse.it/web/guest
The private medical centres and clinics in Italy are usually very good, however, for non-citizens they can be expensive, so make sure you have travel insurance booked before you go.
If travelling by train, validate your ticket or you could face a fine from the Police, who regularly check tourists' tickets. Use the small yellow machine at train stations.