I was always amazed at how many Italians don’t go abroad for their holidays. When I taught English in Rome I used to ask my students why they didn’t visit other countries. They simply replied: “Why would we? We have incredible culture, some of the best beaches in Europe and mountains to go skiing in the winter!” Italy is undoubtedly beautiful and I feel privileged to have spent three years of my life there. It’s a unique country where you are just as likely to find beauty in a quiet cobbled backstreet or a traditional trattoria than in its stunning beaches or extraordinary countryside. Using my experience of living quite a few years in Italy I have compiled a list of twenty places I feel are worth visiting. Some will be obvious, others maybe not so. Here is my personal list of 20 of the most beautiful places to visit in Italy (in no particular order)…
Cinque Terre – a string of beautiful centuries-old colourful villages set on the rugged Italian Riviera coastline
The rugged, rustic but breathtaking beauty of Cinque Terre seems to perfectly sum up why Italy is so revered as a travel destination. Located on the stunning Italian Riviera coastline and easily one of the most attractive places to visit in Italy, the series of five brightly coloured medieval villages cling jaggedly – and almost impossibly – to the inhospitable coastal rocks. It’s such an important place it was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1997. Meander around the narrow streets, wander the ancient vineyards which cling to steep terraces and then head for a pesto pasta lunch (a regional specialty) at one of the local trattorias.
Lake Como – a stunning upscale Italian resort known for its dramatic scenery
Famously home to George Clooney’s Italian villa, Lake Como is the third largest lake in Italy and a hot spot for tourists and locals alike. Traditionally, Lake Como has been known for being the place for wealthy people and political entities to retreat to from time-to-time. Lake Como is home to a number of castles and luxurious accommodations and in case you need to get around the lake, its water transport ferry system is state of the art. It has been an important part of the lake since its induction in 1826. Check out our post on Discovering Bellagio in Lake Como.
Camogli, Liguria – a beautiful underrated resort on the Italian Riviera
In the northern portion of Italy, the peninsula of Portofino houses small fishing villages. Among the most notable and famous villages is Camogli in Liguria. This small port maintains a modest population of around 5,500 people and remains a protected location within the Portofino Marine Protected Area. Strolling through the marketplace or basking in the un on Comogli’s coast is a welcomed activity for tourists and locals alike. Bring your camera and enjoy taking many pictures of every nook and cranny of this marvelously picturesque part of Italy’s coast.
Calabria – the very pretty sun-soaked “toe” of Italy
In southern Italy, Calabria is part of the land separating the Tyrrhenian Sea from the Ionian Sea and the sun-baked toe of Italy’s boot! Some attractions in Italy can seem like a dressed-up show simply put in place for tourist’s enjoyment, but that is not something you will find in Calabria. Apart from being among the most epically beautiful places in Italy, this portion of the country is quintessentially Italian. Calabria has lovingly escaped the tourist game to provide an unspoiled and seemingly untouched view of classic Italy. If you want to see Italians as they are, as opposed to a scripted rendition, Calabria is the place to go.
Capri – the picturesque island with upscale hotels and rugged landscapes
A favourite with honeymooners and well-heeled tourists, visitors have flocked to this resort island since Roman Times and it has maintained its stunning beauty. It’s a small island in Italy’s Bay of Naples and is home to rugged landscapes, yacht-filled coves, upscale hotels and plenty of boutique shops stocking everything, from Italian wine to designer fashion. You can’t leave without visiting the Blue Grotto which is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Italy. It’s a natural dark cavern where the sea colour is a stunning electric blue (actually sunlight passing through an underwater cave).
Todi, Umbria – the beautiful medieval hilltop town offering soft-stone houses and gorgeous views
Located almost in the very centre of Italy, this postcard-pretty city is perched high on Tiber River’s east bank and visitors enjoy amazing views of the surrounding area. A hilltop town with a gorgeous mix of soft-stone houses, palazzi and belfries the city of Todi is quite the draw. The views are incredible, but so is the Medieval history and suspended-in-time ambiance. Since Medieval times, Todi has been among the most sustainable cities. This is largely due to the city adapting to the times and being able to reinvent itself as needed. The Piazza del Popolo is the main meeting area for the locals and an excellent place to hang out and people watch.
Elba Island – a postcard-pretty island off the Tuscan coast and an increasingly popular resort
Just north of the Tuscan Archipelago sits Elba Island, it’s remained a fairly under-the-radar destination in Italy but its an increasingly trendy place to holiday. The gorgeous Italian island is populated by around 30,000 people, but that number significantly increases during its tourist-filled summer months. Elba Island is located in Italy’s Archipelago Toscano National Park and is also known as the countries third largest island. Sardinia and Sicily are the only larger islands in Italy. Cavo Beach and Spiaggia Delle Tombe are among the most popular and picturesque beaches on Elba Island. Like most islands, snorkeling and diving are some of the best activities for tourists to enjoy. For further suggestions in this region, check out our post on 20 of the most beautiful places to visit in Tuscany.
Castelmezzano, Basilicata – a small mountain town and one of the finest treasures of Basilicata
Castelmezzano in the Southern region of Basilicata is not just a picturesque, beautiful town with terracotta covered roofs in Italy. It is so much more than that. The city is known for being beautiful, but also a destination spot for adventure seekers looking to zipline through the mountains. The Flight of the Angel is a unique opportunity to go from one mountain to the next with its final end in Castelmezzano. This high flying attraction allows you to get a bird’s eye view of the city and the landscape surrounding it. A visit to Castelmezzano is something that should not be missed on your tour of Italy!
Puglia – the gorgeous southern region forming the heel of Italy’s “boot”
I hadn’t really considered Puglia until I discovered ‘Il Collegio Holidays’. The company was featured on Channel 4’s Grand Designs and they offer visitors a chance to stay in a beautiful villa in Masseria Impisi. It’s marketed as an art holiday although even if you are hopeless at drawing (like me) you still could enjoy the wonderful scenery that the Adriatic coast offers. This part of Italy is perfect for those wishing to sample a genuine taste of the real Italy as well as the fabulous blue sea and beaches. Other reasons to visit this region include the excellent regional cuisine, beautiful whitewashed hill towns, picturesque olive groves, centuries-old farmland and lush green orchards.
Lake Orta – a wonderful Italian lake and an under-the-radar Italian gem
Lake Garda and Como are the most famous beautiful lakes in Italy, but if you are the type of person who wants more relaxation than simply a tourist ridden destination, Lake Orta is the place to go. This is the lake where locals tend to gravitate when they need to recharge. At the center of Lake Orta is a small island, Isola San Giulio which is home to a century-old monastery and basilica. Taking a ferry out to the island and soak up the wonderful and tranquil atmosphere!
Spiaggia della Due Sorelle – a beautiful beach far away from the tourist crowds
Italian beaches are legendary attracting visitors from every corner of the globe. Spiaggia della Due Sorelle, is ranked as one of Italy’s to 10 beaches and this is no accident. The pristine blue waters along with its dramatic rocky coastline give it almost a fairytale appearance. However beautiful, Spiaggia della Due Sorelle is far away from the tourist crowds. As it’s difficult to get to (it’s accessible only by ferry leaving from the port of Numana) and maintains no facilities for visitors, many tourists choose larger, and therefore more crowded beaches. If you want to enjoy the classic Italian coast in its unspoiled beauty, this is the beach to head to!
Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast – the coastline awarded UNESCO status for its undisputed beauty and unique natural landscapes
This coastline should be on everyone’s list of stunning places to visit in Italy. The most famous area is the resort town of Sorrento where you’ll find the addictive liqueur limoncello and of course plenty of great wine. The city can also be used as a base to visit Pompeii – the town which was buried by Mount Vesuvius’ volcanic eruption back in 79AD. Further along the ruggedly beautiful coast, you will find the impossibly picturesque and affluent town of Positano and the small pretty town of Amalfi. The area offers one of the world’s greatest coastal drives so be sure to hire a car if you can, Fiat 500’s are always an apt choice! I would also recommend taking a boat from Sorrento to the romantic island of Capri where you can see the gorgeous Blue Grotto – a sea cave that is flooded with a brilliant blue or emerald light. Check out our post on 10 reasons why you should visit the Amalfi Coast.
Ischia Island – a stunning volcanic island and resort known for its mineral-rich thermal waters
Located on the Tyrrhenian Sea, Ischia Island is one of the many volcanically formed islands. Located about 30 km from Naples, tourists travel to this unbelievably beautiful island as it is the largest of the Phlegreen Islands in Italy. To get out to Ischia Island, visitors must take a ferry. There are actually two ferries that bring people to the island. One takes 1.5 hours while the other is just one hour travel time, so choose the right one for your needs. Once there, you can enjoy the illustrious beauty of this island and maybe even enjoy some cliff diving if you are adventurous enough.
Venice – the famously beautiful and romantic canal-dotted city
Venice is one of the most famous cities in Italy and one that’s built on water. It’s also often cited as one of the world’s most romantic travel destinations. In the middle of the city, you’ll find the grand square ‘Piazza San Marco’ where the even more impressive basilica resides. If you’re a culture seeker you’ll be spoilt for choice here; Venice has the world’s most artistic masterpieces per square kilometre and there are numerous churches, museums, and palaces worth visiting. Another highlight is the Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri) which is an enclosed bridge that passes over the Rio di Palazzo. If you’re a romantic type and want to try a gondola just remember to take plenty of money – you will be charged a small fortune for the privilege. We have a post on Venice – discovering one of the world’s most romantic cities.
Verona – Italy’s other famous romantic city known for being the setting of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”
Verona is a lovely, relaxed city that was made famous by Shakespeare’s famous story of Romeo and Juliet. It has the third-largest Roman Arena in Italy and I highly recommend catching an opera during your visit. UNESCO has awarded the city a world heritage site status because of its urban structure and architecture, which include Roman remains and ancient castles. As you can imagine Verona is a very romantic city, so if you take a partner you never know they might just end up proposing! The Italian lakes are very accessible from Verona and Lake Garda, Lake Como and Lake Maggiore are some of the most well-known. The mountain lakes offer classically beautiful images of Italy and are flanked by sleepy cobblestone villages and secluded gardens.
Bologna – the lively, historic capital of the Emilia-Romagna region famous for its cuisine
A stunning city known for its beauty, left-wing politics, wealth and most importantly its cuisine. Bologna is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy. If you arrive by train, move swiftly away from the station so you can take in the most beautiful sites of the city. There are many arcades that allow you to explore the city even if it’s raining. I recommend wandering around the backstreets until you stumble upon one of the many beautiful squares where you can stop for a cafe or gelato. Bologna also boasts the oldest university in the world, which was founded in 1088. Although most people visit the city to discover its renowned culinary delights, these include tagliatelle al ragù, lasagne, tortellini served in broth and fried gnocchi.
Florence – the cradle of the Renaissance and the enchanting capital of Tuscany
Florence is both a magnificent and fascinating place and an art lovers’ dream. A popular city nestled in the rolling hills of the Tuscany region, Florence has plenty to offer its many visitors. For starters, there are numerous museums filled with famous paintings and sculptures and two places I recommend are the Pitti Palace and the Uffizi. The latter hosts work by Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo and receives approximately 1.6 million tourists a year (you should book before you go or unfortunately face a long wait). Also, take your time to explore the rest of the Tuscany. Known as the Renaissance country, the region offers some of the most beautiful and romantic natural scenery in the world. The extraordinary countryside and coastline keep the relaxed vacationers happy and the ever-flowing supply of fine wine and cuisine will certainly please the food connoisseurs.
Rome – Italy’s capital city and a blend of culture, romance and gasp-inducing ancient architecture
It’s impossible to do a tour of Italy without visiting their famous capital. Rome is a truly incredible city which is full of history spanning over a whopping twenty centuries – you could say Rome is the world’s best open-air museum. As you wander around the streets the architecture will definitely leave you in awe, so make sure you pack your camera. There are many sites to visit, the most famous being the Coliseum, the Vatican, St. Peter’s, the Trevi Fountain and my personal favourite the Pantheon. You probably won’t get to see them all in a weekend but it will give you a reason to go back! Rome’s cafe culture is also world-famous and for a real Rome, experience chose from one of many piazzas and watch the world go by with (an expensive) expresso. We have a popular post on 12 unusual things to do in Rome.
Sardinia – the large Italian island known for its gorgeous sandy beaches and turquoise waters
This large island just off the coast of Italy is a favourite holiday spot for Italians and rich footballers. Most of the time it’s a very quiet and relaxing island but popular areas can get very busy in the summer so you will need to book early to stay at the best places. To reach Sardinia you can sail or fly into Alghero, Cagliari or the port town Olbia. The whole island is beautiful and compared to many holiday islands resorts in Europe it remains relatively unspoiled. There are certainly no high rise concrete hotels here, even the resort areas are surprisingly tasteful. I would personally recommend Sant’antioco and San Pietro as these are the most remote and traditional areas. Sardinia’s coastline is world-renowned so you won’t have to search far for amazing beaches and clear water where ever you choose to stay.
Sicily – the largest of the Italian islands home to Mount Etna and an authentic Southern Italian way of life
The largest island in the Mediterranean Sea makes an excellent holiday destination. Like Sardinia, it has excellent beaches and wonderful cuisine only far cheaper. You will also have the luxury of being able to island-hop – the Aegadian Islands, Aeolian Islands and Pantelleria Lampedusa are all nearby and very accessible. Sicily is a traditional and rustic island with a rich culture and a potent mix of architecture, arts, cuisine, literature and music. Here you can spend your time sitting on beaches, visiting archaeological sites or sampling the locally caught fish. Make sure you include a visit to the Selinunte which is an ancient building containing five temples centered on an acropolis. The east coast of Sicily is more developed and tourist-friendly and the west coast is more untouched. As you travel down the latter you’ll be amazed how friendly the Sicilian people are and how pleased they are that you chose to visit Sicily. Also check out our post on Unspolit places to visit in Sicily for travel snobs.