Having lived in Sorrento for 15 years, Italy is now my home from home. In the 80s, I worked for a specialist independent travel company, with Rome and the south of Italy being my specialist areas.
Not surprisingly, I returned to the UK completely Italianised and had to get used to not having an afternoon siesta (still miss those) and remembering the importance of driving in an orderly fashion!
I have now been working with Rayburn Tours for 9 years and, in my role as Tour Co-ordinator, am lucky enough to have travelled back to Italy around 30 times, so consider myself something of an expert!
In terms of tours, Italy is a great all-rounder destination. It’s brilliant for language, art and classics students, fantastic for sightseeing, and second to none for geographers – with ten active volcanoes! And then there’s the food. As far as I’m concerned, two words can perfectly sum up the Italian cuisine; ‘Pizza’ and ‘gelato’…
Without further ado, here are my top ten Italian highlights:
Italy is packed with coffee bars, all offering a seriously amazing cup of the strong stuff, alongside the usual staggering array of delicious cakes and pastries. What’s not to love?!
With regard to coffee, Italians take their choices seriously. Espressos are a morning ritual, taken standing at the bar, while milkier coffees like cappuccinos or caffe latte are only drunk in the mornings, and never after a meal. Whatever your favourite, Coffee lovers simply can’t come to Italy and not indulge in this cultural rite of passage.
For historical significance there is no place quite like Italy, with my favourite archaeological sites being Herculaneum, Pompeii and Naples underground.
Herculaneum is smaller, better preserved and less crowded than its sister site of Pompeii, although it was devastated by the same eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Pompeii is the more popular option, with less preserved detail, but magnificent plaster casts of people and animals from where they were coated in falling ash.
Then, for groups visiting Naples, the walk through the city’s historical centre – known as the modern day Pompeii – to reach the captivating Naples Underground experience offers a unique journey into the city’s past, 40 metres below street level.
Italians typically enjoy their ice cream, or ‘gelato’, after dinner. You can choose from literally dozens of flavours and a real gem is the ‘Palazzo del Freddo Giovanni Fassi’ in Rome, which dates back to 1880 and has convenient indoor seating.
Tip: If you’re travelling to Sorrento, groups can even try their hand at ice cream making at a family run gelateria!
I highly recommend visiting a market while in Italy, and my favourite is undoubtedly Catania’s vibrant food and fish market.
This huge outdoor market offers cheap food and a wonderful sensory experience, what with all the sights, smells, and banter from locals and vendors alike. Taking place just off the main square, Piazza del Duomo, this is the busiest and oldest market in Sicily, well worth a visit for groups looking to get a real feel for Italian life.
Italy is home to Europe’s largest active volcano, namely Mount Etna in Sicily. As if that weren’t enough, there’s then the currently dormant Mount Vesuvius in the beautiful Bay of Naples and the active Mount Stromboli off the coast of Sicily, where groups can do a trek for an excursion like no other!
Speaking of trekking, I must have taken the trek up Mount Vesuvius about 50 times, though I never get tired of the stunning panoramic views over the Bay of Naples and Isle of Capri. I can honestly say that wherever your trekking takes you, geographers will be spoilt for choice!
You haven’t had pizza until you’ve had pizza from Naples (where the margherita pizza originated!) cooked in an authentic, wood-fired oven.
My favourite pizzeria has to be the rustic Zii-Antonio in Sorrento. Located in the heart of the town, it’s a great place for groups to spend their final night on tour. And, in case you’re wondering, my favourite pizza is La Napoletana – tomatoes, mozzarella, anchovies and capers. Perfetto!
From Rome to Venice to Pisa, Italy has a wealth of incredible cities, with 20 regions each boasting its own unique traditions and cuisine, but Florence has to be my favourite. Once you see it, it’s impossible not to fall in love with its charms.
Being full of churches, museums and incredible architecture, Florence is a breathtaking Renaissance city where the works of masters such as Michelangelo and Brunelleschi can be found. Sitting at the feet of the Appennine Mountains, Florence is like a work of art in its own right, bursting with spectacular architecture, history, and sights such as the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, the Duomo, and the Galleria dell’Accademia.
Possibly the coolest mode of transport on the planet, Vespas are the epitome of chic, and in Italy, along with Fiat 500’s, you will find them ten to a dozen.
As is par to the course, during my time in Italy I had a Vespa which I absolutely loved, having fond memories of riding up and down the Amalfi Coast! For groups who are interested in learning more, there is even a worthwhile Vespa Museum in Pisa.
The way of life
Whatever ‘it’ is, the Italians have it in abundance. Italians are passionate, expressive people, with a love of good food, good conversation and fabulous clothes!
Making the best of oneself is a social norm, and to take part in some serious people watching, Italians love to put on their finest clothes for an after dinner stroll (known as ‘la passeggiata’) to see, be seen, and maybe stop off for a gelato on the way!
From the stunning Fountain of the Four Rivers in my favourite Piazza in Rome, Piazza Navona, to the iconic Trevi Fountains and awe inspiring Pantheon (just how did they build this?!), it is impossible to wander through any Italian city without being surrounded by some magnificent form of architecture or ancient art, often thousands of years old.
Of course, this provides a magical opportunity for history, classics or art students, and I recently couriered for an art trip to Rome, where the students were able to sketch at Piazza Navona, which was thoroughly enjoyable for everyone. As the party leader said; “The best moments were when the children just started to draw. They seem to understand how valuable drawing is as an aid to really looking at things, and will remember the things that they drew with more clarity than anything that they merely looked at.”
So, even after 15 years of calling it home and multiple trips for work, I still look forward to my next visit to Italy.
And that’s got to say something.