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Italy- Fascinating cities, ancient sights, cultural treasures and beautiful scenery
June 12, 2017, 11:52 am

Arguably Europe’s most enticing country, Italy charms visitors with irresistible food, awesome architecture, diverse scenery and unparalleled art. In fact, it is so packed with possibilities it can almost overwhelm.

If you have not visited before, you could well wonder what to see, where to go or how to travel. So, here is everything you need to know to get the utmost out of your first-time Italy trip.

Italy’s greatest hits: If you are short on time, then start with the big three: Rome, Florence and Venice. A week is enough to enjoy the country’s headline acts.

The glories of Rome: As the famous saying goes, Rome was not built in a day, and you definitely cannot see it in one. Instead, allow at least two, preferably three. That is the time it takes to take in the spectacular Colosseum, the 2000-year-old Pantheon, the palace ruins of the Palatino, sacred St. Peter's and the art-filled Vatican Museums. Trot up the Spanish Steps, toss a coin in the Trevi Fountain, shop in narrow lanes and indulge in prime people watching.

Discover art in Florence: Two days in Florence sees you cherry-picking the incomparable art in the Uffizi gallery, delighting in the frescoes in the Duomo and pondering the anatomy of Michelangelo's David.

Bewitching Venice: To enjoy unique, utterly exquisite Venice, allow a few days. Glide down the Grand Canal, by gondola or vaporetto (water bus), tour the grand Palazzo Ducale, gape at the treasure-filled Basilica di San Marco and run out of camera space snapping the extraordinary array of Venetian architecture. There will also be time to join the locals shopping at Rialto Market, tuck into cicheti (Venetian tapas) and get a little lost amid the 400 bridges and 150 canals.

Best of the rest: If you have a couple of free weeks at your disposal, you can add on a few of other dolce vita delights.

Captivating Naples; extraordinary Pompeii: Gritty and not always pretty, Naples demands to be seen. Come here for an anarchic zest for life, a UNESCO-recognized historic core, Greco-Roman artifacts in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, and the Neapolitan Baroque Certosa e Museo di San Martino. Then day-trip it to Pompeii for ruined cityscapes, and to Mt. Vesuvius to gaze into a live volcano and across a wide blue bay.

Style and beauty in Milan and the Lakes: For big-city style and legendary landscapes, head to Italy’s northwest. A day in Milan opens up a grand Gothic Duomo (cathedral), Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper and world-class opera at La Scala. A short train ride away, belle époque Lake Maggiore harbors the beguiling Borromean Islands, specks of rock crowned by ornate palaces and extravagant gardens. Or spend a few days at glamorous Lake Como reveling in sumptuous villas, vintage speedboat trips and the snowy-mountains-meets-azure-water scenery.

Cinque Terre's harbors and hills: In Cinque Terre National Park terraced vineyards cling to sheer hills traversed by improbably steep hiking trails, and villages flow down to tiny harbors lined with restaurants and bars. Ferries and a rattling rural train link the five villages. Allow two to four days to hit the walking trails, swim in the sea, soak up the atmosphere and re-charge.

Eating and drinking: The diversity of regional cuisine alone is worth traveling to Italy for. Bistecca alla fiorentina (Florence's iconic T-bone steak); creamy Po plains risotto; olive oil and lemon-laced grilled fish on Elba; espresso and sweet treats in Naples' backstreets bars and fresh-from-the-wood-oven pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice) in Rome.

Where to stay: Choose from lakeside campsites, mountain huts, monasteries, hip hostels, family-run hotels, antiques-packed palazzos, secluded villas and remote farmhouses framed by vines and complete with pools.

How to travel: Domestic air links, and ferry, train and bus networks are good between main towns and cities. Italy’s trains range from slow regionale and InterCity (faster, making fewer stops) to the high-tech, high-speed alta velocità services. The latter can cut longer journey times in half, although on shorter routes do not save that much time. 

Practical Tips:

  • When greeting people, shake hands or kiss both cheeks and say buongiorno (good day) or buona sera (good evening). Only use first names if invited.
  •  Restaurants have a cover charge. If service is not included, a small tip may well prompt a smile.
  • When visiting religious sites, avoid offence by dressing modestly. Although shorts and sandals are fine for the beach, you will need smart-casual clothes for towns. Walking shoes make cobbled streets and hill paths more comfortable, as will a sunhat, sunscreen and sunglasses.
  •  In the main tourist centers, English is fairly widely spoken, but in rural areas and south of Rome learning a few key expressions and using a phrasebook/phone app with a menu guide will make your visit more fun and mealtimes more enjoyable.
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