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Italy is a fascinating country that, since its unification only 150 years ago, has managed to be many things while remaining resolutely Italian. Visitors will notice a change in traditions, attitudes, style, food and landscape as they travel through Italy's 20 regions, where the history of conquest and settlement has given each Italian region its own particular flavour.

Lombardia in the north incorporates beautiful Renaissance cities like Pavia and Mantua, as well as a varied geography from fertile plains to a mountainous lake region. Liguria, one of Italy's smallest regions, is a steep sliver of coastline known as the Italian Riviera and home to the quaint cliff-side towns of the Cinque Terre. Tuscany, with its spectacular hill towns and scenery, is one of Italy's top vacation destinations, while neighbouring Umbria offers a quieter alternative for those seeking a retreat to the countryside. Further south is Campania: a compact region of fertile land, dramatic seascapes (especially on the Amalfi coast), and the ancient Roman resorts of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Calabria, the 'toe' of Italy's boot-shape, is made up of isolated villages, unspoiled mountain retreats and historic ruins where tradition and local culture has thrived without the influence of mass-tourism. Sicilia, the island in front of Italy's 'boot', has superlative cuisine, ancient Greek temples and volatile volcanoes that produce spectacular fireworks for spellbound audiences.

Each year, tourists (in the tens-of-thousands) flock to the must-see list of Italy's architectural icons, ruins and attractions. It's easy to hop a train from region to region and drive the scenic local roads or motorways, but Italy's magnificent cities and towns are best explored on foot.

The best way to take in all that is Rome is to wander, and get lost. Losing one's way in this fascinating and beautiful city will uncover the unexpected and create the most memorable moments: newly unearthed ruins; quaint artisans' workshops; ancient walls displaying graffiti from the 1st century AD; locals conversing with rapid-fire speech and animated hand gestures. A great starting point is the Spanish Steps, but choose any of Rome's famous icons - The Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, or any of the piazzas - and follow whichever path beckons. Be sure to call into the tiny stand-at-the-bar cafes to re-charge on a short black and panettone before hitting Rome's many museums, galleries, theatres and shops.

The unique city of Venice has an allure that draws visitors to return time and time again. Winding waterways, curved bridges and labyrinthine lanes link the 116 islands together. While ancient historical gems amaze and inspire, it is the dusty bookstores, vintage glass makers, tiny trattorias, and canals lined with historic palazzo (palaces) that exude the romantic notion spruiked for hundreds of years by Venice's artists, poets, musicians and gondoliers.

Florence is a stunningly-beautiful city of Renaissance architecture and terracotta rooftops fashioned along the winding Arno river. It is the city for fine art and impressive museums, with roadside cafes offering the perfect place to watch the world go by.

Picturesque towns such as Lucca, Todi, Volterra, San Gimignano, and Siena stand much the same as they did several hundred years ago. Their Etruscan, ancient Roman and medieval walls shelter narrow cobblestone streets, fine piazzas, centuries-old palaces and churches. Gently undulating olive and wine growing countryside surround the towns, dotted with villas and farmhouses that offer the perfect traditional Italian getaway.

Milan is the hub of Italy's fashion and design elite. Fashion festivals, design houses (Armani, Gucci, Versace etc), furniture fairs and long legged models are synonymous with the city dominated by post-war architecture, canal-side cafés and courtyards veiled by intricate wrought-iron gates. Milan's love of avant garde concepts, colour and pattern, has made it a hot spot for architects and interior designers to strut their stuff: a perfect example being the Boscolo Exedra Milan, a near surrealist modern art hotel in the city's fashion district.

Italy is famous all over the world for its rich and varied cuisine. The importance of good, fresh produce and traditional methods of preparation are passed down from generation to generation, along with a deep belief that eating is a time for pleasure; to be shared with loved ones. While regional delicacies such as slow-cooked boar tagliatelle or sea-urchin risotto will certainly impress, it is the exquisite flavours and simplicity of a Neapolitan pizza, Parma ham-wrapped melon, or a Caprese salad that captures the true essence of Italian cuisine - the latter's composition of red, white and green ingredients a fitting tribute to the nation's revered flag. Little plates of marinated olives, prosciutto, pecorino and mini panini are served in most bars, in most cities, to whet ones' appetite in the hour before dinner. To sit back in the late afternoon sunlight, sip from a glass of '98 Brunello wine and contemplate the day that has already passed, is a truly great Italian moment.

Spring (April to June) and autumn (mid-September to early November) are the best times to visit most parts of Italy as there is plenty of sunshine without extreme heat. July and August are hot (mid-high 30s) and many stores close for summer break. Southern Italy, the Amalfi Coast, and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia have long, hot summers and mild winters due to the Mediterranean climate. The best time to visit the Apennines and the Alps for a skiing holiday is from December to April.

Click here for our suggestions on events and places to go at various times of year.