Last updated 21 January 2021
After spending some time in the North of Italy, here’s what we’d recommend if you have some spare time, a bit of extra cash and the luxury of travelling a little slower.
It doesn't need to be Milan... It could be Genoa or anywhere that isn’t predominantly a tourist town. Starting out in a working city gives you a chance to ease into the Italian way of life without a million tourists.
Saying that, Milan in particular is a great introduction to Northern Italy: there's plenty of shopping, famous brands and a café culture. All in all, a great place to recover from jetlag. There are some big attractions (the Duomo, the Galleria, and Leonardo's The Last Supper to start) so there’s lots to see, but not enough to be overwhelming. The station in Milan is big with connections everywhere, so it’s also a good place to start navigating public transport.
For truly spectacular scenery and and some insight into a different side of Italy, spend some time in the Dolomites. The area is good for walking, hiking and mountain in the summer and skiing in the winter. Pick a town to base yourself in - Bolzano and Trento are popular choices - just keep in mind that locals are more likely to speak German than English, or even Italian.
Most of this region was Austrian until it was annexed by Italy after World War I and it shows in both the food and the culture. Italy is renowned for its regional rivalries but that is even more marked here. Spend some time in the museums to find out more about the area's fascinating history (and see some examples of the war bunkers), then dedicate the rest of your trip to enjoying the scenery.
If you missed seeing Lake Garda or Como, head further north and visit the great lake, Lago di Braies. An alpine lake nestled in the mountains, it's worth the walk to get there, and you can even row a boat on the water in the summer. Other nearby attractions include wine tasting at monasteries and marvelling at the beautiful frescoes inside the cathedral in Bressanone.
Venice can be madness during the day, full of crowds and tours from cruise ship. At night, they city seems to take a deep breath, the crowds thin. and the vibrancy and magic come through. St Mark’s Square is especially beautiful at night with live music and soft lighting.
During the day, visit the famous Bridge of Sighs - its name is a reference to the bridge being the last thing many convicted criminals saw before they were executed (it was originally part of the prison complex). Then head to the Venetian Ghetto, the old Jewish District. Established in the 1500s, it was the world's first ghetto and is still a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood today. Consider stopping at one of the local restaurants for lunch. Delicious and affordable, you'll be able to sit by the canal and watch the world go by.
Getting lost in Venice is a prerequisite for any visit, so take your time wandering through the narrow streets. Then take a break from that (and the crowds) and take a ferry to one of the neighbouring islands. Murano, Burano and Torcello and famous for their glass, lace and cathedral respectively. You can visit all three in a whirlwind tour, or just go to one for a deeper perspective on its history and culture.
If you’re a true romantic, Verona may be your pick, otherwise consider somewhere in the Emilia-Romagna region. Liguria also has a chain of seaside towns along the Italian Riviera, if you're after something coastal. The location isn't that important - find somewhere that resonates with you. Then take a week (or longer if you have time) to experience the food, surroundings and quirks of that particular location.
One of the things that we noticed in Italy was that people are fiercely proud of their town and region (especially when compared to other places in the country). Spending longer somewhere starts to give you a more in-depth perspective of that place, and its own unique brand of tribalism. It's a double-edged sword - if you stay too long, you quickly realise that there's a good chance you'll never belong.
Regardless, there's definitely something amazing about slowly starting to realise how locals see and feel about this place that most people only see for a day or two. In fact, you may even find yourself returning there on your next trip to Italy.
The Cinque Terre are five famous fishing villages dotted along the coast of Liguria, with a national park rising into the hills behind them. While it's a tourist tradition to walk between them, you can also visit them by train or boat. I'm going to break with tradition and suggest you do the latter... with the caveat that you should do one of the longer walks in the national park, perhaps between just two of the villages.
The main benefit in doing one of the longer walks is that it tends to go higher - meaning you get the really spectacular views of the villages. These routes are also quieter, so there's most space for walking, taking a break and photos without crowds of people. The Cinque Terre are famous for the terraced vineyards on the clifftops, and the higher paths (some of which are practically goat tracks) take you through them, along with colourful flowers and amazing views of the ocean. Just make sure you go prepared with enough water and snacks (unlike us).
Whatever your path, stay in Monterosso for dinner. One of the bigger towns, there's a large, sandy beach if you want to have a swim after your walk. Otherwise, try one of the lovely restaurants in the town - the seafood risotto we had at a tiny restaurants in Monterosso was one of our best meals in Italy.
While Portofino is a household name, Santa Margherita is probably one of the loveliest towns in the Italian Riviera. With pretty coloured buildings, a walkable harbour and some great food and restaurant options, Santa Margherita is an affordable alternative to Portofino. Its good train and bus connections also make it a great base for exploring the region.
From Santa Margherita, you can take a ferry to Portofino or you can walk along the coast. I suggest you walk there - the route hugs the coastline, you can see villas and resorts tucked into the hillside and stop at pebbled beaches for a swim. The water is visible all the way - dark blue, silky and tempting - until you finally reach the rocky inlet and tiny town of Portofino.
The town is small but beautiful, and you can see where the movie stars spend their holidays. Consider staying for lunch, but Portofino is expensive - don't be surprised if you find yourself opting for a beer from the corner store instead, enjoyed on the waterfront near where the luxury yachts are docked. An afternoon should be enough to see the town, then take the ferry back to Santa Margherita, for an on-water perspective of both seaside towns.
Potentially Italy's most underrated city, Genoa is a coastal city situated on the Ligurian Sea. Historically a maritime city state like Venice, there's a wealth of art, culture and history to see in this beautiful city. The historical centre is surprisingly hard and full of gems and photo opportunities. Take a break from the winding cobblestoned streets and explore Via Garibaldi, the 16th Century street home to a range of palaces and museums - Palazzo Rosso, the Palazzo Bianco, and the Palazzo Doria Tursi all show works from famous Italian artists and the buildings themselves are worth a visit.
The old port of the city, Porto Antico, should definitely be on your list. The old port has been completely revitalised and is home to the largest aquarium in Europe with over 15,000 animals belonging to 400 species. While you're in the area, go up the Bigo elevator for panoramic views of the city and the old harbour.
For a break from the city, take a walk along the Corso Italia, a three-kilometre route along the coast of Genoa. Keep going until you get to Boccadasse, the old "fishermen's district" of Genoa. With a pebbled beach, pastel-coloured houses and colourful fishing boats, Boccadessa gives you a wonderfully different perspective of the city. And, while you're here, be sure to try some of the excellent fish restaurants.
While we're on the subject of food, Genoa has many dishes worth sampling. As well as the obligatory seafood, be sure to try the pansotti alla salsa di noci, a pasta stuffed with chard and ricotta, topped with a walnut sauce. Other stars include fish stews, pandolce (a local version of pannetone and like buridda and ciuppin; capponmagro, the elaborate seafood and vegetable salad (typically prepared at Christmas); and wonderful sweets like pandolce (Genoa’s answer to panettone) and the gobeletti, Liguria's tiny jam tarts.
Doing the little things can be fun and an opportunity to mix things up from what you usually do. An easy example, learn to drink espresso like the locals, short, black and standing up – it’s a habit that can be hard to give up. Try out an aperitivo hour and enjoy your drinks with nibbles. Enjoy a long lunch one day, and leave sightseeing for another time.
Most of all, relax, keep smiling, speak Italian where you can (it makes a difference) and have fun. Try and give yourself enough time to take it slow and really understand the places you visit. If it all feels a bit rushed, do what we do, and leave the rest for another trip!