Rome and Lazio
More than a lifetime is required to explore Rome, the ancient city that serves as the capital of both Italy and the region of Lazio. The Coliseum and Vatican Museums vie for the largest number of visitors, while Rome’s many other treasures tend to overshadow Lazio’s other highlights, which include UNESCO heritage sites of an emperor and a Renaissance cardinal in Tivoli, medieval tranquility in Viterbo and Etruscan ruins in Tarquinia. Montecassino houses a massive Benedictine monastery, a scene of conflict during World War II. Volcanic hills, forests, lakes and farmland give way to the coast, where vestiges of ancient Rome are in evidence even while sunbathers relax.
Abruzzo and Molise
Mountains etched with tracks from ancient cattle-drives and sprawling parklands, like Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo, define most of Abruzzo and Molise. Dense forests give way to medieval towns. Along the way to monasteries, abbeys, and ancient ruins such as Pietrabbondanza and Saepinium, gourmet meals and superb wines await. The pleasantly rugged coast still preserves some spindly fishing wharves.
Naples and Campania
Campania epitomizes the balmy, Mediterranean ideal. Glamorous seaside getaways on the Amalfi Coast and Isle of Capri have long attracted the elite. The Bay of Naples is a heart-stopping stunner of deep blue waters framed by the volcanic Mount Vesuvius. The volcano destroyed nearby Pompeii, the eerie ruins of which are among Italy’s most visited sights. Naples, the capital and cultural heart, is a fast-paced jumble of Baroque art, regal buildings and superb cuisine.
Puglia has quickly become a favorite tourist haunt, which is not surprising. Its long seashore boasts bustling harbors, sandy beaches and dramatic cliffs, which are particularly impressive along the Gargano Promontory, the ‘spur’ of Italy’s boot. Alberobello is sprinkled with ‘trulli,’ curious dome-shaped homes. Meanwhile, the city of Lecce is famed for its splendid historic center, a Southern apotheosis of the Baroque. The landscape is dotted with mysterious dolmen and menhirs amidst ancient olive groves. Puglia’s ‘heel’ alternates wild coastline with lovely seaside towns, curving back up toward Calabria in the busy port of Taranto.
Calabria and Basilicata
Tropea is the jewel of Calabria’s long coast, while Greek bronze statues lure visitors to Reggio. Whereas in smaller Basilicata, the rock dwellings of Matera are so evocative of ancient eras they’ve been used as film sets by Pasolini and Gibson.
Sardinia is the second-largest Mediterranean isle. Its unique island culture includes a pocket of Catalan heritage in and around the city of Alghero. From the altitudes in Barbagia to the dry and craggy landscapes with cork trees bent by the wind, Sardinia seems largely untamed. The prehistoric nuraghi structures add mystery. Conversely, the Emerald Coast, Sardinia’s key attraction, draws an elite clientele to the area’s exclusive resorts. Cagliari, the capital, is a busy port.
The great island of Sicily, the Mediterranean’s largest isle, is prized by travelers for its extensive Greek and Roman ruins, which stand majestically at Agrigento, Segesta and Taormina, among others. Modern Sicilian life bustles in Palermo, a capital that reflects millennia of conquests, while to the east Catania is closer to Mount Etna, an active volcano and the island’s highest point. Sun-drenched and spoiled for sights, the island melting pot of Sicily produces some of Italy’s best cuisine from Norman, Greek, Arab, Spanish, and French influences.
Valle d’Aosta and Piemonte
The north western regions of Italy contrast the Valle d’Aosta basking in the shadow of Mont Blanc and defined by mountains, with Piemonte in the fertile Po River Plain. The Valle d’Aosta shares many traditions with its French neighbors, as does Turin. Piemonte’s capital, Turin transformed dramatically from industrial city to genteel cultural center, enhanced by the 2006 Olympics.
A sliver of a region, Liguria possesses almost everything to wish for on a trip to Italy, including Alpine vistas, warm Mediterranean breezes and colorful coastal villages of the Cinque Terre that make the heart sing. Liguria’s coast curves along the Gulf of Genova, named for the illustrious maritime capital.
Lombardy and the Lake Region
Affluence is evident in Lombardy, from the stunning villages of the region’s Lake District (Regione dei Laghi) to Milan, where Italy’s chic designers, bright business minds and savvy media players maintain a very visible presence. Though Lombardy is the epitome of modern Italy, it is not without its heritage trail, which marches right through Milan, by way of the Duomo and Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, to the photogenic and refined.
Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia
Connected via canals and alluring bridges, Venice, the capital of the Veneto, is instantly recognizable and boasts a unique culture derived from its days as one of the Mediterranean’s most prominent seafaring powers. The Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a small region that was once a part of Austria’s domain, possess cities of quiet charm, such as Verona, Padova, and Trieste, and are known for their superb wines from full-bodied red Amarone to whites like sparkling Prosecco.
Tucked firmly into the Dolomites, the dual autonomous provinces of Trentino and Alto Adige make up this region. Spectacular mountain passes have made Trentino-Alto Adige a pristine skiers’ paradise. However, its relative isolation over the centuries has resulted in a pervasive Germanic culture, whereby most towns have both German and Italian names. The Iceman, in Bolzano’s archaeological museum, is a favorite attraction.
Bologna and Emilia Romagna
Love of food has steered many a tourist to Emilia Romagna, Italy’s culinary center. Indigenous items from the region’s pantry include balsamic vinegar from Modena, prosciutto ham and Parmesan cheese from Parma and numerous pasta varieties. Bologna, the regional seat, has a lovely historic center of medieval towers and Renaissance squares. Ravenna, a former capital of Byzantium, astounds with its trove of ancient mosaics. Ferrara has the Este castle and Palazzo Diamante, known for the quality of its art exhibits.
Home to the art center of Florence, Pisa’s famous Leaning Tower and the vineyards of Chianti, Tuscany is the region that is most familiar to travelers. Its dizzying collection of must-see sights goes beyond the well-known diversions to include Renaissance cities such as Arezzo, Lucca and Pienza, medieval enclaves in Siena and San Gimignano, and natural wonders such as the thermal baths in Montecatini Terme. Indeed, all of Tuscany begs to be explored. Coastal areas often have Etruscan archeological sights within easy reach and to the north the marble quarries of Carrara, supplier to Michelangelo among others, remain active.
Umbria and Le Marche
Landlocked and green with forests, Umbria is a quiet region of hill towns and undulating landscapes, from which both saints and artists have drawn inspiration. The main attraction is Assisi, the town where the great basilica to St Francis beckons millions of devoted pilgrims each year. Umbria’s pleasant capital Perugia, a strategic town since Etruscan times, has an impressive cache of art and artefacts in its museums. Le Marche is known primarily for its hill towns, bordered by the Sibillini Mountains and by the dramatic coastal cliffs of the Conero that frame the Adriatic beaches near the port and capital of Ancona. Nestled in the mountain forests is Urbino, the birthplace of master painter Raphael, and one of the most elegant cities of the Renaissance.