Italy: la più bella!
For me, Italy invokes the best feelings we can have in life: the pleasure of food, of a conversation among friends, of the union in a family, of free time, of the moment when our skin prickles when we first look at Santa Croce in Florence, of the streets full of clotheslines in Palermo, of the splendid color of the Lago di Como. I could go on and on commenting on millions of fascinating scenes like these. Such scenes wouldn’t fit in a text or a lifetime. Italy is the enthusiasm that lives within us when we think of traveling, eating well or cultivating the essential idleness. The dolce far niente...
Although Italy is a small country, it is very diverse when one travels from the South to the North. That's why I wouldn't point out the best places to visit in Italy: honestly, the whole country is just superb! One region is so different from the other that one can say there are different countries within Italy. Italy’s geography is formed by 20 regions and any Italian will affirm the cultural, social and food distinction between each one. One cannot, in fact, compare the South with the North of Italy.
From Rome down south
There is more simplicity, more warmth (in both senses – weather and people), people speak louder, life is lived in a more "scruffy" way, in my opinion, and people observe each other more - they pay more attention to each other and let’s face it, meddle more into each other’s lives. More welcoming people who suddenly become friends. This doesn't mean that you don't find these references further north, especially in the hundreds of scattered tiny towns, and provide extremely close and affectionate relationships and encounters - but it's definitely unlike the South.
From Rome upwards
Tourism - in addition to being greater, especially in the Tuscan region which is highly promoted worldwide - sets the tone for culture, especially in the best-known cities such as Florence, Milan, Venice and Rome itself: they are crowded all year round (except, unfortunatelly, during Covid-19 pandemic). One feels less welcoming, in the purest sense of the word, and a slightly less warm relationship prevails, very much aimed at the mass tourism.
From Napoli downwards it is as if we are entering a large open market: noisy, messy, colorful, alive. And how alive it is! It is where I understood the value of time in our lives. Where I tasted the best flavors and aromas from which Southern Mediterranean Italian cuisine is made. Where I recalled my ancestors, the way we related. My emotions were stirred with each look, each behavior, each nightfall, more and more similar to my Arab-Italian roots of which I am made.
When it comes to historical heritage, in turn, it is difficult not to think about the Romans. Go to Rome to understand a little of the history that marked one of the most important civilizations in the world. To be flabbergasted in front of the giant Colosseum. And whether you are religious or not, don’t miss the Vatican. It goes beyond your imagination in terms of structure and opulence. It's something beyond…
I don’t want to make biased articles; but I will never be able to deny my passion for Southern Italy. Fulfilling my dream of visiting Sicily, my heart still beats when I remember the photographs that come to my mind. It's such an alluring region, full of richness in culture and traditions. Not to mention some of the must-see museums and sights in Palermo whose architecture presents a unique beauty because of its heritage, left by Arabs, Greeks and also Spaniards.
But I would be frivolous not to appreciate the beauty found in towns far above the country like Bergamo and Bergamo Alta; Parma; Verona; Padova...not to mention Venice, where my maternal family came from and I'm so proud of: struggling immigrants, from whom I inherited the Italian citizenship that allows me, nowadays, to explore this world freely.
When I think about travelling to Italy, I think about food. I think about eating at the table with friends and family for hours, laughing, fighting, crying, living. Italians love spending a great deal of time surrounded by family and friends while they all enjoy a delicious meal together. Family, on the one hand, is what matters most in their lives (fair enough). Therefore, cultivating special moments amongst beloved ones whilst nurturing oneself with good food, is a ritual which one cannot live without.
Italians are well known all around the world for being very good cooks; it's rare to find one who doesn't have skills (or at least a few) when it comes to cooking. Gastronomically speaking, chances of being disappointed are very low when looking for an Italian restaurant. Not only because of their excellent cuisine chefs but also when we take into account the country's blessed geography. Italy has it all: fruits, vegetables, fish, sea food (always fresh), a terroir that allows the cultivation of wonderful wines as well as pastas and breads - whose technique they master very well.
Italy has an abundant food heritage and its variety is rich as it caters to everyone's tastes. Each region has specific traditions and habits. One reason why we'll always find different dishes and flavours throughout the country.
Where to visit
I can't see a better city to start from than Rome. It is the cradle of civilizations. Beautiful, big, historic, exciting. If time permits, take a train to Florence and Venice. They are two world relics. The train trips, besides not being so long, are very pleasant due to the landscapes and structure of the trains. You pay approximately 25 to 50 Dollars from Rome to Florence (depending on the day, time and speed of the train) and from there to Venice an extra 30 to 60 dollars. You can purchase the ticket upon your arrival, at the station, or online, also at the last minute or in advance, with better prices (I really like the Trainline App). Personally, I don't think Milan is a must (I'm sure some of you might disagree with that), but for those who like cosmopolitan cities and fashion retail, it's a good option. When in the North, it is very worthwhile, if you have time, to visit Bergamo, Como (in this case, your trip’s budget has to be significant, because it is a very expensive region), Parma and Verona. Or even go to the other side to Turin, whose architecture is gorgeous and the closeness to France grants it a different atmosphere. But then you will have to extend your travel itinerary to at least 10 to 15 days.
Where to stay
Everything depends on your budget. There are hotels that suit every budget. However, if the idea is not to invest a lot, Bed & Breakfasts in Italy are a great option, in the whole country, as well as rental apartments like Airbnb. I have stayed in both, and several times. My secret to decide between one or the other has to do with how long I'll be staying in the country and I also take into account my expectations of the travelling time. For instance: I suggest a B&B for short stays or in case you wish to save money (such stays usually cost from 30 Euros on, via Booking).
Many travelers enjoy having an experience just like the locals: I suggest renting an Airbnb apartment whose owner might become a friend or at least someone who you can have a good conversation about the city (and its lifestyle) with. I find it very nice to interact with local people. But bear in mind that nowadays some beautiful apartments for rent can be as expensive as a fancy hotel. I love staying at Hotels too, especially in capitals such as Rome, Milan, Turin and Venice, but it comes with a price: the good hotels charge at least 200 Euros a night.
The best time to travel to Italy
When you start planning your trip to Italy, you can go any time of year. In my opinion, you can have a very good time no matter when you decide to go. Italy doesn't have a harsh winter and the further south you go, the warmer it will be. However, if you prefer to avoid feeling that heat, consider exploring the north which has milder temperatures even during summertime (especially in the evenings).
If the trip is in summertime, exploring the Amalfi Coast is unforgettable, in my opinion: Positano, Sorrento, Ischia... The journey to the islands is made by boat, but you can also do it by car, but the boat is much more charming. Don’t miss visiting Napoli first and then Pompeii (you can visit it in an afternoon) - a fascinating tour through this archaeological site shaken by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius centuries ago (I recommend going with a Guide).
There are those who love Napoli and those who hate it. It is difficult to reach a middle ground! Sicily is another wonderful spring/summer destination: explore the whole island starting with Palermo, then Cefalu, Taormina, Isola Bella, Catania, Syracuse, Marsala on the other side of the island... It is small and easy to visit in approximately two weeks. Staying 20 to 30 days is more than ideal. You can visit it by car or even by boat, stopping at the coast. The region of Puglia is also wonderful to visit when temperatures are high.
During wintertime a lot can be seen in Italy. I would discard beach regions like the Amalfi Coast, Corsica, Sardinia... Venice, in winter, is not very pleasant either because of rain and humidity. It does not usually snow in Italy, so I find it quite peaceful to explore it in winter if you love cold temperatures. Autumn, on the other hand, is always a good choice.
How long to stay
I would reserve at least three to four days for each city; it is a very rich country in many ways and you cannot enjoy and absorb it if you hop from one place to another. Depending on the combination of your itinerary, plane routes are a good alternative (Rome-Palermo; Rome-Milan, for example). The first time that I ventured myself on a travel to Italy, I stayed two weeks and visited a lot. If you only have one week, I suggest choosing only two cities, so as not to leave with the feeling of having seen little.
How much does it cost to travel to Italy?
Italy, in general, is not an expensive country for tourists. Even bigger cities like Rome and Milan are not as expensive when compared to other metropolis like Paris, New York, London, Amsterdam (where I live: read everything about Holland here).
We can eat very well in Italy - especially in smaller cities - with 25 dollars (say: starter, main course and a glass of house wine). Even less can be spent depending on how much more or less touristy the city is and its neighborhood.
Museums and churches usually charge an entry fee between 10 and 20 dollars. Buses and trains are not expensive. Taxis and Ubers are also easy to use, via the app, in larger cities and are good value for money depending on the route, the need for comfort and the number of bags.