It’s no surprise that Italy is among the top five most visited countries in Europe. Art-filled cities, spectacular alpine landscapes, food festivals, and universally acclaimed gastronomy attract holidaymakers from all around the globe. However, when there’s so much to choose from, how do you filter the vast array of attractions to make sure you get the best experience?
After living and working in Italy for around 15 years, my list of “must-sees” is a somewhat moveable feast and is certainly ever-expanding. Yet there are some places and certain experiences that I continue to recommend without fail to friends and family.
1. Skyway Monte Bianco Cable Car
There’s no “must-see” quite like the dizzy height of 3,500 meters on Mont Blanc. The Skyway Monte Bianco cable car whisks its visitors from the Italian town of Courmayeur to the lofty peak of Punta Helbronner and is still one of the most popular elements of my Best of the Italian Alps hiking tour. The journey is every bit as spectacular as the final destination thanks to the cable car’s 360-degree rotating cabins which allow visitors to marvel at the peaks of the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, and the Gran Paradiso. The skyway is open most of the year and for much of it, the cable car departs at 15-minute intervals, taking around 20 minutes to reach the top peak of Punta Helbronner.
If you can resist the temptation to whizz straight to the top and hop off at the second station instead, the Pavillon du Mont Fréty, to visit the unique winery and the Botanic Garden Saussurea. This is one of Europe’s highest Botanic Gardens and is home to over 900 plant species.
Pro Tip: Be prepared for a drop in temperature at the top, even in the summer months.
2. Verona Opera
You don’t need to be a mad opera fan to be bowled over by the spectacle of a performance at Verona Opera, and never more so than in 2023, which marks the 100th anniversary of the Opera Festival. The open-air setting, in an ancient amphitheater, is home to some of the world’s most extraordinary staging, presenting operas that are produced on a simply epic scale. The 2023 schedule includes some of the greatest operas of all time, including Aida, Carmen, La Traviata, and Nabucco.
Pro Tip: With seating for up to 30,000, there’s plenty to choose from! Tickets range from €32 to €330 per person, with the cheapest seats on stone steps — you can bring a cushion or rent one for around €5. Book tickets through their official website.
3. At Least One Food Festival
If you need evidence that the best things in life are free, here’s just the proof you need! I can’t think of a better way of stepping into Italian culture than at a food festival. Whether celebrating chestnuts, truffles, mushrooms, or artichokes, Italian food festivals are all variations on a theme — essentially a celebration of local food, a sharing of stories and recipes, and a chance to catch up with friends and neighbors.
Pro Tip: Italy’s food festivals range enormously in size. While the annual White Truffle Fair of Alba in Piedmont is a global affair, food festivals dedicated to some of Italy’s most prized delicacies, such as chestnuts from Mugello or the Borgotaro mushroom, are much smaller, more intimate events that will provide a better local flavor.
4. A Michelin-Starred Restaurant
Follow the locals to the nearest trattoria and you can’t go far wrong when it comes to dining out in Italy. In most cases, you can be sure that most dishes will feature locally grown or produced ingredients and will be of high quality. However, if you want to take your Italian gastronomic experience to a whole new level, check into a Michelin-starred restaurant where every plate is a work of art and every mouthful a taste of heaven.
Pro Tip: Ristorante Arnolfo is a 2 Michelin-star restaurant in Tuscany’s Colle di Val D’Elsa and one of my favorite local restaurants. Set in a medieval palazzo with views over the Tuscan hills, the restaurant features dishes prepared with local organic produce with a contemporary twist, under the auspices of chef Gaetano Trovato.
5. Italy’s National Parks
With 25 national parks and multiple regional parks and nature reserves running the length and breadth of Italy, you won’t have a problem when it comes to scenic hikes. Wherever you go in Italy, you’ll never be far from a national park. Top spots include the awe-inspiring Dolomites and the Gran Paradiso while in the more remote Abruzzo region you’ll find three national parks, including Italy’s largest, the Pollino National Park.
Pro Tip: If you’re looking for somewhere to stay in a national park in Italy, you can be sure of getting an authentic experience in an albergo diffuso — a collection of “scattered” hotel rooms created from former village dwellings. The Sextantio, in Santo Stefano di Sessanio in the Abruzzo, was one of the first of its kind but the model has been replicated throughout Italy and is slowly going global.
6. Palio Of Siena
The Palio of Siena is Italy’s most famous event with good reason, attracting crowds upward of 50,000 every year and never failing to dazzle. The race takes place on 2 days, one in July and one in August.
The dramatic bareback race takes place right in the heart of the eye-catching Tuscan city of Siena, in the shell-shaped central Piazza del Campo. The truth, however, is that it’s so much more than a horse race. This is an event that offers the opportunity to mingle with locals and catch a glimpse of Italian tradition at its finest, from the parades and pre-race horse blessings to the celebratory contrada dinner in the streets of the city on the night before the race.
Pro Tip: Access to the Piazza del Campo is free but for the best experience, consider buying a package or tour that includes involvement in the pre-race events.
7. The UNESCO City Of Matera
Given that most of us associate Italy with the rose-tinted glossy world of film and fashion, visiting a city like Matera can be a sharp reminder of the country’s history and diversity. This extraordinary “city of caves” was, until the 1950s, a site of extreme poverty and disease. The narrow winding streets of the Sassi di Matera districts and the churches hewn out of rock remain, but former cave dwellings have been transformed into stylish boutique hotels and highlights include a museum of contemporary sculpture and a selection of excellent restaurants.
Pro Tip: A walking tour outside the city will allow you to visit rock churches and abandoned houses. You will also get a better feel for the local history and the tour will take you into the beautiful countryside.
8. An Overnight On An Italian Island
If you thought Italy’s mainland was beautiful, wait until you see its islands! Each has its own distinctive character and high points. On the main islands of Sardinia, Elba, Ischia, and Sicily, holidaymakers flock to the coastline, basking on powder-soft sandy beaches and swimming in translucent azure seas. However, venture into the interior of any of the islands and you’ll find dramatic landscapes, fascinating historic sights, and food traditions that have been handed down through centuries.
You can also take your pick from numerous small islands, including the Isole Tremiti off the coast of Puglia, the Aeolian and Egadi islands off Sicily, and the lesser-known Tuscan islands of Procida and Giglio.
Pro Tip: Avoid the busier months of July and August when Italians head for the islands and instead aim for May, June, and September when temperatures are milder and there are fewer visitors.
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