It’s no surprise that Italy is among the five most visited countries in Europe. Cities teeming with art, spectacular alpine landscapes, food festivals and universally recognized gastronomy attract vacationers from all over the world. However, when there’s so much choice, how do you filter the wide range of attractions to ensure you get the best experience?
Having lived and worked in Italy for around 15 years, my list of ‘must-sees’ is a somewhat mobile feast and will certainly continue to grow. However, there are some places and certain experiences that I would definitely recommend to my friends and family.
1. Skyway Monte Bianco cable car
There is no “must-see” like the dizzying 3,500 meters of Mont Blanc. The Skyway Monte Bianco cable car takes visitors from the Italian town of Courmayeur to the lofty summit of Punta Helbronner and remains one of the most popular elements of my Best of the Italian Alps hiking tour. The ride is just 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 Gran Paradiso. The skyway is open most of the year and the cable car runs mostly every 15 minutes and takes about 20 minutes to reach the highest peak of Punta Helbronner.
If you can resist the temptation to zoom straight to the top, hop off at the second stop, the Pavillon du Mont Fréty, to visit the unique Saussurea Winery and Botanical Gardens. This is one of the highest botanical gardens in Europe and is home to over 900 species of plants.
Pro tip: Expect a drop in temperature at the top even in the summer months.
2. Verona Opera
You don’t have to be a die-hard opera fan to be overwhelmed by the spectacle of a performance at Verona Opera, especially in 2023, which marks the 100th anniversary of the Opera Festival. The open-air setting in an ancient amphitheater hosts some of the world’s most extraordinary productions, presenting operas produced on simply epic scale. The 2023 schedule includes some of the greatest operas of all time, including Aida, carmen, La traviataand nabuk.
Pro tip: With seating for up to 30,000 people, there’s plenty to choose from! Tickets cost between €32 and €330 per person, with the cheapest seats being on stone steps – you can bring a pillow or rent one for around €5. Book tickets through their official website.
3. At least one food festival
If you need proof that the best things in life are free, then here’s the proof you need! I can’t think of a better way to immerse yourself in Italian culture than at a food festival. Whether it’s celebrating chestnuts, truffles, mushrooms or artichokes, Italian food festivals are all variations on a theme – essentially a celebration of local foods, an exchange of stories and recipes, and a chance to meet friends and neighbors.
Pro tip: Italy’s culinary festivals are of enormous magnitude. While the annual Alba White Truffle Fair in Piedmont is a global affair, food festivals dedicated to some of Italy’s most treasured delicacies, such as Mugello chestnuts or the Borgotaro mushroom, are much smaller, more intimate events that offer a better local flavor provide taste.
4. A Michelin-starred restaurant
Follow the locals to the nearest trattoria and you can’t go far wrong when it comes to dining in Italy. In most cases you can be assured that most of the dishes are made from locally grown or produced ingredients and are of high quality. However, if you want to take your Italian gastronomic experience to a whole new level, visit a Michelin-starred restaurant where every plate is a work of art and every bite is a taste from heaven.
Pro tip: Ristorante Arnolfo is a 2 Michelin star restaurant in Tuscany’s Colle di Val D’Elsa and one of my favorite restaurants in the region. The restaurant is housed in a medieval palazzo overlooking the Tuscan hills and, under the auspices of chef Gaetano Trovato, offers dishes made from local organic produce with a modern twist.
5. Italy’s national parks
With 25 national parks and several regional parks and nature reserves stretching across Italy, you won’t have any problems when it comes to scenic hikes. Wherever you go in Italy you will never be far from a national park. Top spots include the impressive Dolomites and Gran Paradiso, while in the more remote region of Abruzzo you’ll find three national parks, including Italy’s largest, Pollino National Park.
Pro tip: If you are looking for accommodation in a national park in Italy, you can be sure that you will be staying in an authentic experience Albergo diffuse — a collection of “scattered” hotel rooms created from former village dwellings. The sextantio at Santo Stefano di Sessanio in Abruzzo was one of the first of its kind, but the model has been replicated throughout Italy and is slowly spreading worldwide.
6. Palio of Siena
The Palio of Siena is Italy’s most famous event for good reason, attracting more than 50,000 people each year and never failing to amaze. The race takes place over 2 days, one in July and one in August.
The dramatic bareback race takes place right in the heart of the flashy Tuscan city of Siena on the shell-shaped central Piazza del Campo. However, the truth is that it is so much more than a horse race. This is an event that offers an opportunity to mingle with the locals and get a glimpse of Italian tradition at its finest, from the pre-race parades and horse blessings to the celebrations against Dinner on the city streets the night before the race.
Pro tip: Access to Piazza del Campo is free, but for the best experience consider purchasing a package or tour that includes attendance at the pre-race events.
7. The UNESCO city of Matera
As most of us associate Italy with the rosy glossy world of film and fashion, visiting a city like Matera can be a stark reminder of the country’s history and diversity. This extraordinary “city of caves” was a place of extreme poverty and disease until the 1950s. The narrow, winding streets of the Sassi di Matera districts and rock-cut churches remain, but former cave dwellings have been converted into stylish boutique hotels, and highlights include a contemporary sculpture museum and a selection of excellent restaurants.
Pro tip: On a tour outside of the city you can visit rock churches and abandoned houses. You will also get a better sense of the local history and the tour will take you into the beautiful countryside.
8. An overnight stay on an Italian island
If you thought mainland Italy was beautiful, wait until you see its islands! Each has its own distinctive character and highlights. On the main islands of Sardinia, Elba, Ischia and Sicily, holidaymakers flock to shore, sunning themselves on powder-soft sandy beaches and swimming in the translucent azure seas. However, if you venture into the interior of any of the islands, you will find dramatic landscapes, fascinating historical sights and food traditions passed down through the centuries.
There are also plenty of small islands to choose from, 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 to the islands, and instead aim for May, June, and September, when temperatures are milder and fewer visitors come.
For more information on traveling to Italy, see these articles: