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The ultimate guide for places to visit in Italy

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There are plenty of countries that claim to have it all, but for Italy, that may just be true. Mountain landscapes, paradisiacal beaches, ancient towns, rolling countryside... need we go on? In addition to the scenery, you'll find that as you travel north to south, every region has its own distinctive culture, cuisine and festivities, making a journey through Italy feel almost like a multi-country affair. This has much to do with the country's history - having been divided into a number of different kingdoms and states prior to its unification in 1861, it's no wonder that each region has its own influences, which can still be felt today.

Naturally, the only problem with all of this variety is when it becomes time to decide exactly where to go in Italy. How do you choose between the beaches of Sicily, the elegance of Lake Como, and the cultural heritage of Rome? Well, we think a good place to start is with your interests. Happily, you'll find practically every passion has a perfect destination in Italy, so you can base your trip on what is most important to you. Of course, there are the more obvious options - into fashion? Head to Milan. Planning the ultimate romantic getaway? It's got to be Venice. But in this guide, we've tried to add some destinations that you may not have thought of before.

Ready for some holiday inspiration? Whatever you're into, be it art, nature, music, photography, history or food, these are the best places to visit in Italy according to your interests.

For the history buffs

If you have a penchant for history, Italy has much to offer you. In fact, you'll find plenty to keep you occupied no matter which region you visit. There are a few places that stand out, though. For starters, no guide to the best historical destinations in Italy would be complete without mentioning the capital city. With around 2,775 years of history to its name, Rome is replete with museums, galleries and landmarks. Of course, there are gems like the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain, as well as the chance to do day trips to see masterpieces like the Sistine Chapel. But also lesser-known, but no less fascinating, historical marvels like the Circus Maximus Mithraeum - an underground temple built and used by a mysterious cult in 2 AD - the rather morbid Santa Maria della Concezione Crypts, and an 'Egyptian' pyramid built by a wealthy Roman sometime between 18 and 12 BC.

Another important historical site that is regularly the star of top 10 places to visit in Italy lists, Pompeii is a must for anyone looking to gain a glimpse of what life was like in ancient Rome. Before the disastrous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, Pompeii was a lively coastal resort near the Bay of Naples. Today, visitors can wander through chariot-grooved lanes, and explore exquisitely frescoed homes and spas, shops, entertainment venues and even a brothel. If you're short of time, the equally well-preserved ruins of the town Herculaneum, destroyed in the same volcanic eruption, make a good smaller-scale alternative.

Undoubtedly another of the best places to visit in southern Italy for history lovers, Matera is home to the ancient settlement of Sassi, where a labyrinth of cave homes was carved into the rock more than 10,000 years ago. Unsurprisingly a Unesco World Heritage Site, some of the caves were actually still inhabited in the 1950s, until concerns about poor living conditions resulted in the evacuation of the last residents. Today, several of the caves have been transformed into museums, complete with furniture and utensils, enabling visitors to visualise everyday life for those who once called the caves home.

For the culture vultures

Rome may be the first place that springs to mind when you think of cultural hotspots in Italy, but the Eternal City is far from the only place to experience world-class art, music and theatre. Take Florence, for example. Tuscany's capital is one of the most popular places in Italy, for very good reason. Not only is the city itself visually stunning thanks to its Renaissance architecture - a style that was born in the city in the 15th century - but, having been home to historically important artists such as Donatello, Botticelli and Brunelleschi, it is one of the best places in Europe to become immersed in art. From Michelangelo’s “David” sculpture and Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”, to more hidden gems such as the Murate - a contemporary hub for arts housed in a former prison - and the Museo Opificio delle Pietre Dure - a museum dedicated to the craft of inlaying semi-precious stones.

Those holidaying in southern Italy have the option of exploring the 'Florence of the South' - Lecce. The city, located in the Puglia region, was honoured with the nickname owing to its impressive array of cultural landmarks, museums, galleries and palaces. However, it is the city's theatre scene that really stands out for culture lovers. Its oldest, the Roman Amphitheatre, which dates all the way back to 2 CE and was only discovered in 1901, despite its city centre location, still plays host to plays and concerts today. Other venues include the elegant 18th century Teatro Politeama Greco, where you can see everything from ballet to musicals like Grease, the Teatro Paisiello, the city's second-oldest city, and Cantieri teatrali Koreja, which hosts more contemporary pieces in an old factory.

Next on your cultural tour of Italy should be Bologna. The city has plenty of quirky attractions - the three mysterious arrows stuck in the 13th century Casa Isolani, the Finestrella di Via Piella (Canal Window) that provides a glimpse at one of the last remaining sections of the city's canals, and the strange demon statue of the Palazzo Bolognini Amorini Salina. However, it is music where the city really shines - and is known as Italy's musical capital as a result. In addition to a history of musical creation thanks to the universities here, it is one of the best places in northern Italy, if not the country, to enjoy live music. With regular concerts and street performers in Piazza Maggiore in the city's historical centre, as well as an annual jazz festival and classical music festival, it's no wonder that the city was designated a UNESCO Creative City of Music.

For the outdoor enthusiasts

Located in Italy's northeast and bordered by Austria, the Dolomites is undoubtedly one of the must-visit places in Italy for fans of outdoor activities. There is plenty to keep adventure seekers occupied here, with mountain biking, rafting, rock climbing and even bungee jumping. There's also the chance to take advantage of the snowy peaks on the region's ski slopes in the winter until the early spring. However, the region isn't all high-octane sports and intrepid trekking - there are plenty of gentler things to do for those wanting to enjoy the surroundings in a more relaxed way, including exploring lively cities like Bolzano and Trento or unwinding in charming mountain villages like Collalbo, half-day hikes and boat trips on one of the area's many pristine lakes. It's also one of the best destinations in northern Italy for birdwatching, with owls, golden eagles, woodpeckers, grouses and common kestrels all spotted across the region.

Another great place to get outdoors, enjoy spectacular mountain scenery and breathe wonderfully fresh air is the Central Apennines. Despite being only two hours from Rome, the area is home to a wonderfully diverse array of fauna, making it one of the top 10 places to visit in Italy for wildlife watching. Its 125,000-acre national park is home to Marsican brown bears, wolves, Apennine chamois, wild boars and griffon vultures. There is also a rewilding project in place to protect the habitat of its resident animals and encourage environmentally friendly wildlife tours.

For a different type of outdoor activity, head to Sicily to partake in some water activities in a truly idyllic setting. The island offers opportunities for kayaking, diving and snorkelling - particularly good around the Aeolian Isles and Isola Bella marine park - and boat trips, perhaps to see Taormina's famous Blue Grotto - so-called thanks to the glimmering blue waters that reflect on the walls of the sea cave. The region also offers the chance to see the spectacular Mount Etna. You can take the cable car to the peak, an ascent of some 2,300 metres, and then walk to the volcano's crater to enjoy the outstanding views.

For the easy-going

If you're looking for a slower-paced holiday, Italy has much to offer. While the vibrant streets of Rome and the bustle of Venice's Grand Canal provide plenty of thrills, there are plenty of opportunities to unwind surrounded by enigmatic surroundings. The country's largest lake, Lake Garda, is the perfect place to start. Sample the local produce at a wine tour in Bardolino, experience the restorative effects of the thermal baths in the resort town of Sirmione, or simply take it easy in Garda itself, with activities such as people watching over a leisurely al-fresco lunch, cruising on one of Europe's most scenic lakes, or strolling around perfectly manicured gardens and villas.

Another of the best places to go in Italy for a bit of R&R is Sardinia. Unsurprisingly given its location in the Mediterranean Sea, the island is home to some of the country's most spectacular beaches, and with almost 2000 kilometres of sandy coastline to choose from, you're spoilt for choice. While popular destinations like the white sand Pelosa beach can get crowded in the summer months, there are plenty of other options for something a little more off-the-beaten-path, from the rugged Costa Verde to the picture-perfect La Maddalena archipelago.

If rolling countryside, thriving vineyards and sleepy villages are your thing, Tuscany is an ideal holiday destination, and the perfect place to unwind after a visit to the nearby Cinque Terre. Stroll around historic hilltop towns like San Gimignano and Montalcino, get your fill of culture in pretty cities like Florence and Siena, or just chill out at a rural guest house with a good book. The region is also renowned for its wine, with vineyard-rich towns like Montepulciano offering the chance to sample the local varieties surrounded by captivating landscapes on a wine tour.

For the foodies

While the food in Italy rarely disappoints, there are a few places that should be on every foodie's to-do list, and top of that list has to be Bologna. The capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, responsible for giving us parma ham, parmesan and balsamic vinegar, Bologna has a long tradition of culinary excellence, having invented dishes like lasagne, tortellini and tagliatelle al ragù (which in turn gave birth to the spaghetti bolognese we know and love). Despite its wealth of historic and cultural offerings, the city remains largely off the main tourist trail, which has only helped to preserve its authentic edge when it comes to the dishes on offer at its local restaurants. Wander through the lively Mercato delle Erbe, pull up a chair at a trattoria (casual traditional restaurant), or enjoy a glass of wine at Osteria del Sole, the city's oldest bar, dating back to the 15th century.  
It's probably no great surprise that the city that gave us pizza is known as one of the best places to visit in Italy for food. Wondering where to find the best pizza in Naples? Choose from L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele - one of the city's oldest, founded in 1870 - Da Attilio - best known for its star-shaped pizzas - and 50 Kalò, which has a more artisan approach to the city's favourite dish. If you're looking for a bite on-the-go, you can get your pizza fix with a 'portafoglio' (wallet) - a folded slice that will set you back just one euro. Of course, the city's cuisine extends far beyond pizza, with superb seafood, pasta dishes and street food (look out for pasta fritters). There are also plenty of local drinks to sample, from the Caffe Napoletano to limoncello made with lemons from the nearby Amalfi Coast.  
One of Italy's largest yet least visited regions, foodies are in for a treat with a trip to Piedmont. Home of the international Slow Food movement, there is a focus on good farming, seasonal dishes and quality ingredients here, resulting in an excellent local food scene with strong ties to the region's past. Best known for its rich, creamy dishes and local truffles, Piedmont also has a reputation for producing premium hazelnuts - this is the home of Nutella and Ferrero, after all, as well as mouthwatering wines, with the hills around the town of Alba particularly popular for wine tours.

So, there we have it - our guide to the best places to visit in Italy depending on your interests. We hope we've given you some inspiration for your next trip, whether you're looking for an action-packed adventure holiday or a more relaxed beach getaway. The good news is that it's relatively easy to travel around the country, so whatever passion you're following, you can enjoy it in several regions. Alternatively, if you'd like to experience everything this dazzling country has to offer, why not join one of our multi-destination tours of Italy for an all-round view of its food, history, culture, and scenery. 

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