Of all European countries, Italy is perhaps the hardest to classify. It is a modern, industrialized nation. It is the harbinger of style, its designers leading the way with each season's fashions
If there is a single national characteristic, it's to embrace life to the full: in the hundreds of local festivals taking place across the country on any given day, to celebrate a saint or the local harvest; in the importance placed on good food; in the obsession with clothes and image; and above all in the daily domestic ritual of the collective evening stroll - a sociable affair celebrated by young and old alike in every town and village across the country.
Italians often feel more loyalty to their region than the nation as a whole. Italy breaks down into twenty regions, which in turn divide into different provinces. Some of these regional boundaries reflect long-standing historic borders, like Tuscany, Lombardy or the Veneto
The north is one of the most advanced industrial societies in the world, its people speak Italian with the cadences of France or Germany and its "capital", Milan, is a thoroughly European city. The south , derogatively known as il mezzogiorno , begins somewhere between Rome and Naples, and is by contrast one of the most economically depressed areas in Europe.
The economic backwardness of the south is partly the result of the historical neglect to which it was subjected by various foreign occupiers. But it is also the result of the deliberate policy of politicians and corporate heads to industrialize the north while preserving the underdeveloped south as a convenient reservoir of labour. Italy's industrial power and dynamism, based in the north, was built on the back of exploited southerners who emigrated to the northern industrial cities of Turin, Milan and Genoa in their millions during the Fifties and Sixties.
The Italian capital attracts around 20 million visitors a year, lured by its culture, rich sense of history and status as one of the world's most intriguing cities. Rome is unique because past and present are indelibly linked. The city's history isn't packed away in a museum; it's visible everywhere you look, living and breathing in the here and now.Italy Holiday Guide
It's hard not to be impressed when a city's vistas take in over two thousand years of achievements, and this is evident in some of Rome's most popular tourist attractions. Visit the Pantheon and the iconic Colosseum, neither of which need much explanation. A visit to Vatican City - home to new Pope Benedict XVI - will take in the amazing St Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel (home of Michelangelo's masterpiece) and St Peter's Square.
Finally, no visit to Rome would be complete without a visit to the Trevi fountain, the world's coolest wishing well. Throw one coin over your shoulder into the Trevi and you are destined to return to city once again.
All the postcards in the world cannot prepare you for your first view of Venice, surely in contention for the title of World's Most Beautiful City. The city is built on 117 small islands, with 150 canals and over 400 bridges linking them all together. Cars can't traverse the city's watery streets, so to see the sights you're either walking or navigating Venice's waterways by water taxi or the celebrated gondolas.
Wind your way up the Grand Canal, past bridges and ornate canal-side homes; sip espresso in famous St Mark's Square (if you can afford it and don't mind sharing your table with a few pigeons!); sip a Bellini in the cocktail's birthplace, Harry's Bar; or visit the late Peggy Guggenheim's impressive collection of modern art.
It can cost a lot to visit somewhere this good-looking. Restaurants and accommodation are the most expensive in Italy, and a ride in a traditional Venetian gondola can set you back €62 for less than an hour's ride. But is the expense worth it? We say, most definitely.
This beautiful city in the heart of Tuscany still emanates all the artistic wonder so prevalent here several centuries ago. It was of course the home of the Renaissance, of Machiavelli and Michelangelo, and it seems Florence is still intriguing and inspiring its visitors today.
The famous Uffizi Gallery is a mecca for art lovers, holding Botticelli's Birth of Venus and works by Rembrandt, Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio in what was Europe's first modern museum. Amble onwards to the Santa Croce, a church which holds the skeletons of some of Renaissance-era Florence's most prominent names. The duomo, or dome, which sits atop Florence's cathedral is the most recognised symbol of the city. Then of course there's the world's most famous statue, Michelangelo's David, carved out of one large piece of marble and able to be viewed at the Galleria dell'Accademia.
And for those who prefer something a bit more modern, visit the Galleria Poggiali e Forconi, an exhibition gallery dedicated to contemporary artists like Enzo Cucchi, Luca Pignatelli and Gilberto Zorio.
For non-art lovers, have a wander around the city's craft shops where you'll be able to pick up leather goods and silver ornaments and jewellery at bargain prices.
Sorrento is a picture-perfect Italian tourist town balanced on the high cliffs overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. It's a beautiful resort style town, handily close to the nearby island of Capri, and a short albeit hairy drive away from the beautiful Amalfi Coast.
If you can bear to leave your people-watching spot at one of the city's elegant cafes, take a stroll around the town's piazzas and up to the hills for spectacular views; or shop for Sorrento specialties like clothing, embroidery and furniture; or hire a boat or eat your fill of fresh seafood. Whatever activity you choose, it's exremely difficult not to find la dolce vita in this part of the world.
Italy Holiday Guide