From famed attractions like Rome’s Colosseum to a little-known seaside trattoria on the Adriatic, Italy offers a feast of experiences. History and culture combine with Mother Nature and the Italian passion for art, food, wine and music to offer visitors an endless menu of choices. Tourism is Italy’s leading industry, making the marriage between the visitor and host a happy one, nurtured by the promise of new discoveries with every day.
Great works of art, beautiful scenery, delicious food and fine wines have made the country a top tourist destination for centuries. The grand tour was created in the 17th century by wealthy foreigners, many from colder climes like England, who headed south to meander through Italy’s villas and gardens, ruins and churches. In the 19th century, when tourism expanded to include the middle classes, Italy’s popularity increased.
Tourism is the country’s leading industry, according to the World Factbook. Italians are passionate about preserving the past, but they also produce some of the world’s best modern fashions and furnishings.
Rome tops the list with its ancient ruins, museums and Vatican City, the spiritual center of the Roman Catholic world. Florence is noted as the birthplace of the Renaissance, while movies and books set in Tuscany have made renting a country villa there a popular vacation. Gastronomic travelers head for Bologna and Emilia-Romagna, the region that is home to Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar and Parma hams. Milan, a modern city that is also home to historic treasures like Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” is famed for its fashion and design shops. The romantic palazzos and canals of Venice sing a siren song to thousands of tourists every year.
April to June and September to October are the best months to visit. Prices and crowds increase in the height of summer. In spring, wildflowers bloom across the countryside and the air is fresh in the city streets and piazzas. In the fall the grape and olive harvests are celebrated in many regions. The weather may be chilly in winter, but museums are free of crowds, trattorias are cozy and city shops are festive.
Culinary and outdoor tours are increasingly popular and visitors are venturing to less-visited areas, including the rugged island of Sardinia off Italy’s west coast. The Aeolian Islands, small, volcanic outcroppings in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the northern coast of Sicily, attract beach and nature lovers. Visitors are exploring the hill towns, quiet beaches and harbor cafes of Le Marche region, midway down the Adriatic coast. Apulia, on the “heel” of Italy, is touted as a place to unwind, enjoy the sunny climate and relax in a rented farmhouse.