Top areas to explore in Italy if you have four weeks or more to travel around, and where to stay. Choose the best areas stay in Italy, and visit them at your own pace using the most fascinating Italian towns as hubs.
If you are lucky enough to have one month (or more!) to spend in Italy, you may not want to consider identifying three or four “hubs” from where to explore the country at a more relaxed pace and with the possibility of discovering destinations off the mainstream touristic destinations.
Therefore, I didn’t organize this page as a tour, but more as the areas worth exploring (in my opinion), with one or two “hubs” in each one where you can set up your base, and even rent an apartment or a country house. How many areas, and days in each area, will depend on your personal interest and aspirations!
1) Venice region, Garda lake and the Dolomites
The rushy travelers hardly see much more than Venice. It’s a pity, since this area has much more to offer, included the most beautiful mountains in the world (in my opinion): the Dolomites.
Your highlights would be:
- Venice, by definition
- Verona, and possibly, Vicenza
- The Garda lake
You can use Venice or Verona as a Hub, or make stops while transferring to Milan / Como lake (makes more sense from a logistic point of view).
From Verona (or from Venice) a 2-3 hours drive will bring you to the Dolomites.
Dolomites: in my view, the most beatiful mountains in the world! Bressanone, Ortisei, Corvara, Cortina. Indian Summer in October – November, gorgeous colors, fantastic sky slopes from December to April, great trails in the summer time..
2) Milan and Como lake
The International Expo ended in October 2015, but Milan is still a good place to use as a hub to visit it’s many attractions and the surrounding towns. Main highlights would be:
- Milan, Italian bustling capital of fashion, culture and business
Como lake, and its pearl, Bellagio (easy day trip from Milan)
Bergamo, hidden medieval jewel one hour train from Milan
Parma, home of Italian excellences such as Parmesan Cheese, Prosciutto Crudo (typicall ham) and Culatello
Milan is the logical hub of your exploring the region
3) Cinque Terre and Portofino
Cinque Terre are one of the highlights of a trip to Italy for most foreigners. The funny thing is that in general foreign tourist neglect what the Italians consider the region top destination: Portofino. Actually all the cost from Portofino to Lerici deserves a visit, so if you have enough time, you could easily spend up to 5-6 days enjoying the area.
So here are the highlights:
Cinque Terre: 5 tiny colored villages (Monterosso,Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore – http://www.cinqueterre.it/info.php) clinging to steep hills, in front of a deep blue see: it’s a natural reserve and a Unesco heritage (http://ventisqueras.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/vernazza-cinque-terre-italy.jpg)
- Portofino, posh and beautiful village, one of the main “dolce vita” spots in the ’50s. and San Fruttuoso medieval abbey, located in a secluded beach (http://www.italia.it/it/idee-di-viaggio/mare/portofino.html). You can only get there by boat or after a long hike.
Sestri Levante, picturesque Liguria village, with a beautiful small beach (the baia del silenzio) and a gorgeous promontory overlooking the sea (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cb/Sestri_Levante_and_Baia_del_Silenzio,_the_Bay_of_Silence.jpg)
The “Golfo dei poeti” (poets’ gulf), with Portovenere and Lerici as main highlights (http://www.hotelportovenere.it/foto/aeree/01.jpg)
If you plan to focus on Cinque Terre, then your hub could be Monterosso, otherwise Sestri is a very convenient option.
4) Emilia Romagna
This region is, mysteriously enough, out of the mainstream touristic itineraries, even though nearly all visitors cross it while travelling from Florence to Venice or to Milan.
But the few ones who will decide to dedicate a couple of days (or more) to this beautiful region will discover art treasures such as medieval Bologna, Renaissance Ferrara or, even more breathtaking, Roman Empire capital Ravenna, and its amazing 1500 years old mosaics (Ravenna and Ferrara are both Unesco sites). Emilia Romagna is also one of the Italian food capital, being home to Lasagne, Tagliatelle al ragù and world renowned Parmigiano cheese, prosciutto crudo and Balsamic Vinegar.
It’s a must, obviously, and everybody has in mind highlights such as Florence, Siena and Pisa.
However, Tuscany is an enchanting region, with hundred hiddedn jewells that deserve not less than a week to be explored. Here are your highlights:
- Start with the North, with Lucca , to be explored by bike along the longest renaissance city walls in Europe. Add a a quick trip to Pisa’s Campo de’ Miracoli and it’s leaning tower.
Then explore central Tuscany: Siena, romantic Monteriggioni, San Gimignano and its dozens medieval towers, Montalcino, home of the world renowned Brunello. Chianti could also be easily visited in one day trip from Florene or from Siena
Don’t miss the Val d’Orcia, to the south: that’s the region you see on Tuscany postcards, cypresses dotting endless smooth hills, and indulge in Montepulciano and in Pienza, the “perfect” renaissance town.
Evenutally, leave the beaten paths and discover the Etruscan territory: Pitigliano, Volterra and Tuscania. Natural SPA in Saturnia.
Florence is a good hub for Lucca, Pisa, Chianti and Siena, but to taste Tuscany flavor you should spend at least a couple of nights in the country side. Renting a car is highly recommended.
Nearly as beautiful as Tuscany but as rich in history, culture and, less visited and, in my view, even more romantic. In other words: a fantastic off the beaten path destination!
- Perugia, its narrow medieval streets and its fascinating art museums
The delightfull small towns, full of history, art and beautiful scenery: Assisi, Todi, Spoleto, Spello, Gubbio. Orvieto.
Civita Bagoreggio (“the dying city”), close to Orvieto, is an unbelievable romantic destination, totally out of the beaten path!
I would choose Assisi or Orvieto as my hub.
7) Rome and the surrounding region
Rome deserves one week on its own. Refer to my many posts to learn more and to plan your itinerary.
8) Naples and the Amalfi coast
What should I say? I’m so in love with this region, and I can’t believe that most travelers limit their visit to Pompei and to Sorrento. Similar to Sicily, the region has seen so many dominations across the centuries (Greeks, Romans, Normans, Frenchs, …) that it has developed a culture and a life style of it’s own, probably the closest to the “Dolce Vita” you may still find in Italy.
Here are you highlights:
- Naples: yes, you will need to keep your eyes opened (but wouldn’t you do the same in New York or in Rio?), but the incredible art and cultural treasures of it’s city center definitely deserve the effort! Don’t miss San Gregorio Armeno and it’s amazing Nativity Scenes market
Capri: beaty in it’s purest state. Sip and aperitivo in the Piazzetta, walk down to the Faraglioni to admire sunset (and to dive into the deep blue water), indulge in a restaurant, waiting for a seafood spaghetti plate while sipping a glass of cold Greco di Tufo wine
Positano, Ravello, Furore and Amalfi: lovely hamlets built on unbelievable cliffs (don’t miss Villa Cimbrone terrace in Ravello!). Positano is my favorite.
Pompei and less known (therefore less crowded) Ercolano, for a dive into the Roman empire
Hard to find the best hub: I would personally spend a couple of nights in Capri, and 2 or 3 days in Positano. Sorrento is very conveniently located, but it’s not my favorite spot.
The “heel” of Italy, Apulia is surprisingly out of mainstream touristic itineraries;
Two main areas to consider:
- In the Northern part, look for Polignano a Mare, Trani, Alberobello (to see the famous trulli), Castel del Monte, Ostuni. The main highlghts are the already mentiuonned Trulli (ancient conic stone houses, you can’t find them anywhere else) and the medieval monument such as the many cathedral and Castel Del Monte.
- In the southern part (the so called “Salento”), look for Lecce, Otranto, Gallipoli. Try to rent a car and to sleep in a Masseria (local ancient country house, built in white sandstone in the middle of endless olive trees plantations)
It’s not uncommon to swim in the see until the end of October.
Sicily is one of the most beautiful and cultural rich Italian regions. Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French, all have invaded the Island and left something of their culture. The result? An amazing cultural melting pot, and one of the best cuisine in Italy, with a taste of Middle East (don’t the Cus Cus alla Trapanese).
Highlights: Palermo, Siracusa, Noto, Ragusa, Piazza Armerina (awsome roman mosaics), Taormina. You can swim till early November, and again from the end of April.
For a true escape, consider spending up to one week in the Eolian islands. It’s a volcanic archipel of seven islands, each one with its peculiar “character”. My preferred one is Salina, the greenest one, but posh Panarea is delightful and on Stromboli you can climb up to the top of the active Volcano to see lava fountains at night. Avoid August, and you will discover Italy like it used to be 50 years ago, since the islands get crowded only in the very summer period.
A final note: Italy has much more to offer, and I know I’ve skipped a number of areas worth visiting (such as the Langhe in Piedmont, the Marche region, the Calabria-Basilicata, …). My ambition was not to write a guide book of Italy, so had to make painful choices.. I’ll try to cover these areas in my future posts!
Would you like an independent advice on your next trip to Italy? Visit my Italy Travel consultant page.
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