Italy's Distinct Regions
To most of us outsiders, Italy is one homogeneous country filled with great food, great wine, historic sites, and gorgeous scenery. It might surprise many to learn, however, that not only is Italy comprised of 20 unique regions, but there are also 34 native dialects that stem from these regions. The result is that each area of the country offers a wholly unique cultural experience.
Taking the country's great diversity into account, we've organized this guide according to the common interests of those visiting Italy for the first, second, or even sixth time. Whether you want to embark on a winter sports adventure, a tour of historic cities, a beach holiday, a coastal road trip, a wine tour, or a bit of everything, this regional guide has all the info you need.
Best for Culture, History, and Iconic Cities
Lazio: Rome and the Historic Central Coast
Lazio is a region in central Italy most famous for, you guessed it, Rome. The capital city is the beating heart of Italy, a metropolis dating back to antiquity and ground zero for some of the richest history and culture on the European continent. You can see this history in any number of globally famous sites, from the Colosseum to the Vatican Museum. Then there's the food. From coffee to pizza to gelato to cured meats and various pasta, there's no shortage of delectable treats on every corner in Rome.
While you should certainly visit Italy's capital, there are other great destinations in Lazio. Located near the coast, Ostia Antica is a historic site featuring ruins of an ancient settlement dating back to the 7th century BCE. There are also good hiking opportunities in the hills of Castelli Romani, located about an hour south of Rome, as well as at Circeo Mountain. offshore you'll find the Pontine Islands archipelago, which makes an ideal weekend getaway for sunseekers.
Lombardy: Chic Milan and the Italian Lakes
Lombardy, in the far north of the country, is a small region known for its capital city of Milan and some of Italy's most beautiful northern lakes. Milan is ground zero for high fashion and world-class nightlife, so fashionistas and scenesters won't leave unfulfilled. However, there's deep culture to be found in this city, too. The Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral) is a masterwork of gothic architecture, and hanging on the dining room wall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie church is Da Vinci's masterwork: The Last Supper.
Travel north of Milan and you'll be treated to some of Italy's most gorgeous bodies of water. Lake Como is the glaring standout, and while this resort region is as glitzy as its rich and famous lakeshore residents, it's hardly the only option in the region. There's Lake Maggiore, a giant that straddles both Italy and Switzerland, as well as the smaller and more serene Lake Idro and Lake Iseo, all great for boating.
Veneto: Romance in Venice and Verona
This small region is one of Italy's most famous—it's home to Venice, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. 20 million people visit the "City of Water" each year, and it isn't hard to see why—it's as romantic as they come. Plus there's a regal air to Venice due to the fact that many of its best hotels are in buildings that were former palaces. This is on top of all the museums, art galleries, cathedrals, and other marvels of Venetian architecture that combine to form a city unlike any other on earth.
But hey, Venice isn't the only romantic city in the region. Veneto is also home to the well-preserved medieval city of Verona, where those two star-crossed lovers from Shakespeare's timeless tragedy "Romeo and Juliet" fell in love. Fun fact: you can visit Juliet's house, which is a museum located in a 13th-century home that has no real connection to Shakespeare's tale yet whose romantic balcony suits the fiction perfectly.
Emilia Romagna: Medieval History and Culinary Tradition
Stretching from the east coast of northern Italy to the west, Emilia Romagna is home to historic Bologna. This is where medieval and Renaissance history converge in a dazzling spectacle of architecture. Also in the region are the equally impressive cities of Parma, Ferrara, Ravenna, and Modena, which, like Bologna, don't lack for palaces, museums, expansive plazas, and Renaissance history. For a getaway on the Adriatic coast, there's the postcard town of Cattolica or the major metropolis of Rimini.
This is one of the wealthier regions in Italy, and it's known primarily for its incredible cuisine. Here, you'll find everything from delectable Parma ham and mortadella, to calamari in the coastal towns, to the artisan balsamic vinegar in Modena, and of course, that Italian staple now found in kitchens across the globe, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Best for Outdoor Excursions
Abruzzo: Mountains and Coast Without the Crowds
Italy is pretty much a tourist destination year round, so there are always crowds to contend with—unless you know the less popular places to look. Abruzzo is one such off-the-beaten-path region you can go to escape the tourist hoards. Located near the center of the country east of Rome, it not only boasts the Apennine Mountain range but has an impressive section of Adriatic coastline as well (check out the incredibly wide beach fronting the port city of Pescara).
Much of Abruzzo's interior is protected in the form of national parks and nature reserves (such as the National Park of Abruzzo), so this is a good region to come if you're an outdoorsy type who enjoys mountain hikes, camping, lake excursions, skiing, water sports, or anything active. And if you love to eat, be sure to try the handmade spaghetti the region is famous for (they've been doing it for over 200 years) and wash it down with the region's famous Montepulciano wine.
Aosta Valley: Ski the Alps at Breuil-Cervinia
The Aosta Valley, in the northwest of Italy at the border with France/Switzerland, is the country's smallest region. Famous for its Alps, Aosta a prime destination for winter sports enthusiasts who like carving their way down powdery slopes with the snow-capped peak of the Matterhorn behind them. If that's your goal, head to Breuil-Cervinia, a Matterhorn ski resort. Another major resort in the region is Courmayeur, located at the foot of the famous Mont Blanc.
If you're traveling in the warmer months, there are some beautiful mountain villages like Bard, which you can visit. There's also the 13th-century Gothic marvel of Fénis Castle, which is the most famous medieval castle in the region. On top of that, there are Roman ruins to explore as enjoy its unique Italian/Swiss heritage and singular culture—Aosta is one of the few autonomous regions in Italy.
Basilicata: Bucolic Countryside and Ancient Caves
Located on the bottom of Italy's boot, most of Basilicata is sparsely populated countryside (it has a low population density of just 56 people per square kilometer). It's another great area to come for an active excursion as there are plenty of mountains here, like the Apennines. Then there's the remote and green Appennino Lucano National Park, home to many romantic getaway spots such as Lago Sirno. Oh, and Basilicata is also home to the ancient city of Matera, which is famous for its cave dwellings.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia: Alpine Slopes, Castles, and Wine on the Austrian Border
This is the 5th smallest region in Italy, located at the northeastern corner of the country and bordering Slovenia and Austria. It may be diminutive in size, but Friuli-Venezia Giulia boasts coastline as well as mountains (this is the final section of the Alps in Italy). Of course, winter sports are a popular activity here, and you can take to the Alpine slopes at the largest ski resort in the region, Tarvisio—Monte Lussari, which offers 15 miles (25 km) of runs.
Besides mountain excursions, you can visit Udine and the region's capital of Trieste, a port city on the Adriatic Coast. Both are historic cities home to impressive castles such as Castle Miramare. Like the Aosta Valley, Friuli-Venezia Giulia is an autonomous region that shares a border with other countries, so there are Slavic and Austrian influences in the food (think sausages, pickled turnips, horseradish, etc.). Still, the region is really famous for producing some of Italy's best white wines and grappas.
Trentino-Alto Adige: Mountain Fun in Every Season
This far north region of Italy, also known as South Tyrol, sits at the border with Switzerland and Austria. Therefore, its culture is more akin to its northern neighbors. In fact, up until it was annexed in 1919, this region was part of Austria-Hungary.
Trentino-Alto Adige is home to sections of two incredible mountain ranges: the Dolomites and the Alps. This makes it a great destination for skiing/snowboarding and mountain hikes. You could also come in the spring and summer months and enjoy the flourishing nature. There are a number of glassy emerald lakes backed by snow-capped peaks, like Lake Prags, as well as charming alpine towns, like Meran, and impressive medieval fortresses like Trauttmansdorff Castle.
Best for Beaches & Coastal Holidays
Calabria: Swim and Hike in Sunny Solitude
Calabria is the toe of Italy's boot, almost connecting to Sicily. Like its island neighbor, Calabria gets much sun, which makes it a good place to enjoy some beach time and/or hike the Appennino Mountains. Like Basilicata, Calabria is less-developed than many other regions, so it's a good spot if you're in the country during the summer and you want to laze on less crowded beaches. For the best soft sands and sky blue waters, head to the resort of Tropea, and for panoramic coastal views go to the cape at Capo Vaticano.
Campania: Pristine Beaches, Cliffside Towns, and Pizza on the Southwest Coast
This region, located in southwest Italy, is as gorgeous as anywhere else in the country. Here you'll find the city of Naples, the birthplace of pizza as we know it. Looming over Naples are the iconic slopes and the gaping crater of Mt. Vesuvius, which you can hike in a half hour or so. Then there's the Amalfi Coast, which is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous 25-mile (40-km) stretch of land. And the cliffside towns of Sorrento and Positano, as well as nearby islands like Capri, make great destinations for a family vacation.
Obviously, these locales are quite popular during the peak tourist months. However, there are still remote areas of Campania that see fewer visitors. To get off the main tourist trail, head to the coastal town of Salerno, which is a good base of operations to explore Campania, but it also has a nice waterfront promenade plus interesting medieval castles and forts. You could then visit Paestum, which is also at the coast and is home to the most impressive Ancient Greek ruins in Italy: the Second Temple of Hera.
Le Marche: Lesser Known Stretch of Adriatic Coast
This smaller region of central Italy sits on the Adriatic coast and is another great off-the-beaten-path destination. Most travelers don't know much about Le Marche, but those tourists who do flock to its coastal cities and towns. Near the region's capital of Ancona are some fine beaches with white sands and turquoise waters, like Numana, Passetto, the Beach of the Two Sisters, and more. You can also go mountain hiking at Monte Conero, a promontory featuring rich green strawberry trees and sea views.
There's culture and history to spare in this region, too. Travel to the historic hilltop village of Urbino and you can visit museums that reflect the town's history as one of the cultural capital of the Renaissance during the 15th and 16th centuries. After all, this is the birthplace of the high-Renaissance painter Raphael.
And just inland from the coast is another Renaissance city with much history: Ascoli Piceno. You could come here just to visit its expansive Piazza del Popolo, and you wouldn't leave disappointed. This central plaza was built in the 16th century with local marble, as were many of the other impressive buildings in the city's historic center.
Liguria: Rugged Charm of Cinque Terre
Liguria is a boomerang-shaped strip of land in northwest Italy that borders the high-profile locales of Tuscany, Piedmont, and Emilia-Romagna. Its capital is the port city of Genoa, a lovely medieval city and a great cultural touchstone. After all, not only did Christopher Colombus hail from Genoa, but foodies will know it as the birthplace of pesto alla Genovese, that delectable green sauce made from basil, cheese, olive oil, and European pine nuts. The gelato here is nothing to sneeze at, either.
But the main tourist destination and what's really put the region on the map is Cinque Terre, which is like a northern version of the Amalfi Coast. This is a section of rugged coastline that comprises five colorful and historic villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Activities along this "Italian Riviera" include hiking, cliff jumping, wine tasting, lazing on postcard beaches like San Ternzeo and Monterosso, or simply watching the gorgeous sunsets.
Other noteworthy coastal towns in Liguria include Rapallo, where brightly painted houses and a 16th-century castle overlook a tranquil harbor; Portofino, a small and laid-back fishing village; and Santa Margherita Ligure, a resort town that has crescent-shaped pebble beaches perfect for sunbathing.
Molise: A Taste of Old World Italy
Italy's second-tiniest region is also its newest. Located near the center of the country to the east, until 1963 Molise was part of Abruzzo, which now borders it to the north. Like many of Italy's southern regions, Molise is predominantly an agriculture area, producing staples like fruits and vegetables, wine, and olive oil. There isn't much tourism infrastructure here, so it's as "old world" Italy as you're likely to find in the country.
On top of charming hilltop villages, like Bagnoli del Trigno and Fornelli, the region also boasts a little section of Adriatic coast. If you want to explore it, head to Termoli, a historic coastal village that still stands behind its original stone fortifications which once protected it from invaders. There's a wide and inviting beach fronting the town plus historic landmarks like the Castelo Svevo, a 13th-century castle. You'll find some great seafood here too.
Puglia: Crystalline Waters, Olive Oil, and Trulli Villages
Puglia is a region located on the heel of Italy's boot. Here you'll find premium beaches on two different coastlines: one fronting the Adriatic and the other the Ionian Sea. Beaches that both Italians and tourists flock to in summer include the narrow strip of perfect sand at Lama Monachile, the southernmost region of Salento (whose beaches are known as the "Maldives of Italy"), and the Grotta della Poesia, a natural pool of crystalline water that has earned its name: the "Cave of Poetry."
Puglia is also known for its beautiful countryside (it's a major olive-oil producing region) and hilltop towns like Ostuni and Alberobello, the latter being famous for its cone-shaped trulli homes. The capital, Bari, is a raucous university city and Lecce, further south, is a handsome town filled with baroque buildings. The food is predictably great here, featuring unique pasta like orecchiette ("little ears"), and the great Pane di Altamura, a type of bread that stays fresh up to two weeks and is regarded as the best in the world.
Sardinia: Central Italian Island with Glittering Yachts and Beaches
Sardinia is the very model of Mediterranean splendor. This island off the west coast of central Italy is hugely popular with vacationing Italians as well as the international jet-set crowd (it's impossible to miss all the mega-yachts offshore). The most iconic locale (on an already iconic island) is Costa Smeralda, a 34-mile/55-km stretch of coast on the northeast side of Sardinia. This is a prime resort area where sky blue waters kiss white-sand beaches and at night the discos are abuzz with revelry.
As unforgettable as it is to beach-hop by sailboat around Sardinia, the inland offers many hidden treasures as well. On top of great mountain routes for hiking and cycling, you'll also find ruins dating back to the bronze age as well as elaborately shaped granite rocks that have been sculpted over the centuries by island winds. The sweet spots in which to visit Sardinia are the shoulder seasons of April-June and September-October when the crowds aren't at their dense summer peak.
Sardinia is perfect for cycling—you might try this 8-day guided bike trip around the island. Other options include a 12-day road trip with great day hikes and a week-long active Sardinia/Corsica sailing trip.
Sicily: Iconic Culture, Food, and Ancient Ruins
Sicily has it all, from coastal cities with thriving street-food scenes like Palermo and Catania to fabulous beaches like Cefalú and San Vito Lo Capo to landmarks like Mt. Etna and Roman ruins. Sicily's long and storied history goes back to when it was first settled by the ancient Greeks. The intervening years saw a mix of conquerors, from the Arabs to the Spanish to the French. This melting pot of cultures combined to form the unique spirit of Sicily evident today in its art, music, and, especially, its food.
Like much of southern Italy, Sicily is rich in culture and heritage. Take it from the experts: to really see this island, you need to spend a good two weeks exploring it, ideally by car or motorbike around the coast. And if you've got a sweet tooth, be sure to sample that most delectable Italian treat that originated right in Sicily—cannoli.
Best for Wine Tasting
Piedmont: Home of Barolo and Barbaresco (and Prime Skiing in Turin)
Located northwest of Liguria at the border with France and Switzerland, Piedmont is probably most famous for the ideal ski conditions around its capital city of Turin (Via Lattea is one deservedly famous ski resort). This isn't a surprise since Piedmont is basically surrounded by the Alps. That said, there's much in the way of culture here, too.
The city of Turin, for example, is a baroque gem with many landmarks, such as the spire of the 19th century Mole Antonelliana building, plus the famous Egyptian Museum, which displays a collection of ancient artifacts including papyrus, sphinxes, and even mummies. The Royal Palace of Turin is also worth a visit, as it's a model of 17th-century opulence and was once home to the Kings of Savoy.
However, Turin isn't only the Alps; much of it is fertile flatland. The region produces a good amount of rice and wine, most notably wines that come from the Nebbiolo grape like Barolo and Barbaresco. These are tannic wines defined by their bold flavors like spice, cherry, fig, and rose. But these two wines represent a paltry fraction of all the varietals the region produces; in fact, Piedmont is favorably compared to Tuscany as one of the great wine producing regions of Italy.
For more on Italy's wine regions, see this article.
Tuscany: Experience the Renaissance while Sipping Chianti
From the wine to the vineyards that produce it to the hills upon which those vineyards grow, the northwest region of Tuscany is pure iconic Italy. The opportunities for fun and adventure in this area are many, be it touring the historic streets of Florence amid icons like the Duomo Cathedral, or cycling country roads alongside rows of cypress trees jutting from the ground giant green asparagus stalks. Having said that, Tuscany isn't only its countryside and charming hilltop towns like Luca and Cortona.
The region's rich heritage of Renaissance art and culture is on display at the famous Uffizi Gallery, in Florence. Then there's, of course, that famous "leaning tower" in the city of Pisa, located at the coast. There are other unheralded waterfront gems in Tuscany, such as the lively beach town of Viareggio, the port city of Portoferraio, and the southern fishing village of Castiglione della Pescaia, where you'll eat some of the most delicious pasta and seafood dishes anywhere.
And for wine, of course, you can head to the famous Chianti region and sample the most well-known varietal of all Tuscan wines. For variety, taste the many Sangiovese-based wines throughout the region on various wine tours, or get right to the root of the region's viticulture heritage by visiting Barone Ricasoli, where the famous Chianti varietal was born some 900 years ago.
Umbria: Hilltop Towns in the Green Heart of Italy
One of Umbria's many benefits is that it's as gorgeous as Tuscany (which borders it to the west) but less visited by travelers and, therefore, less expensive. Even if you decide to visit during Italy's high tourist season of June-August, in Umbria you'll pay less to rent villas and hotel rooms than you would in Tuscany. And like its regional brother, Umbria produces its own great wines and olive oils.
To whit, the region is located in the center of the country, is known as the "green heart of Italy," and features a comparable amount of medieval hilltop towns. The town of Assisi, with its massive Basilica of St. Frances, is one such well-preserved example. Another is Orvieto, which sits cliffside on a hill dotted with deep green cypress trees. Perugia is not only the capital of Umbria but another famously historic city whose earliest origins date back to when it was settled by the Ancient Etruscans in the early 4th century.
Overall, this is a great area to come for outdoor hikes, wine tasting, and visiting historic cities/towns. Bonus that Umbria is closer to Rome than Tuscany is, so you can make an easier weekend trip to this region from the capital. For more, read our roundup of 6 Hidden Hill Towns in Italy.
Ready to plan your trip? Check out more great itinerary ideas.