Italy: Rediscover its Art, Architecture & Gastronomy

I’m usually the one in my house to start all conversations about holidays and travel, or to jump at the chance to discuss these topics, so it took me by surprise, last Saturday morning, to hear my husband declare that he feels he has ‘unfinished business’ in Italy. And, before I could get a word in, he said he thought we should touring in Italy this year. 

Anyway, I got right onto my favourite hotel in Rome, but the big news there is that they’re refurbishing!  For the next eight months!  How can our timing be so poor? OK, so that’s a good excuse for a change, and maybe an article featuring new accommodation to try out in Italy? I’ve put the Hotel Guru to the test, and these are the recommendations: 

Rome

Arguably nowhere has been a travel destination for as long as Rome but it’s the kind of place that A) you can never really fully explore; B) has a seemingly endless number of museums and galleries one would want to definitely visit; and C) keeps changing! So it definitely needs a regular rediscover. And it’s this property recommendation from the Hotel Guru that really sparked off this whole article properly for me.  

Where to Stay:

Relais Rione Ponte is a relatively new, nine room boutique hotel in the heart of the Eternal City, with a permanent contemporary art exhibition on show throughout the rooms and stylish, contemporary-to-match interiors. A five minute stroll from both the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain, this hotel is hidden away on the second floor of an elegant, 17th century palazzo, with most of the nine rooms overlooking iconic Roman squares. There’s no restaurant, but they do offer a Continental breakfast, and you’re surrounded by cafes and restaurants. The nine rooms start from just €149 per night B&B.

Practical Details: Rome is about a five and a half hour flight from the UK, or you can travel by train, which will take between 13 and 18 hours from St. Pancras, depending on whether you travel overnight and how many changes you’re prepared to make.  

Rome’s weather is beautifully sunny and pleasingly Mediterranean, with mild, moist winters and hot, dry summers, which can be hotter than Italy’s southern beach resorts because the buildings trap in the heat. So July, Rome’s hottest month, can be rather stifling, with daily maximum averages at 32°C, but that doesn’t stop summer from being the most popular time to visit. And December is charming, what with all the Christmas festivities, but it’s also the rainiest month.

Florence

Florence too keeps changing, though on a smaller scale. It’s just that the exhibitions in the galleries and museums keep being refreshed, along with the treasures in the windows of the boutiques, and the menus in the restaurants. And if you’ve visited in summer and winter and spring, but not in autumn, well there’s unfinished business there! If you’ve stayed in the hills and not the city there’s another reason to rediscover Florence, and vice versa. These cites are magical city break destinations for good reason.

Where to Stay:

Antica Torre di Via Tornabuoni is a luxurious hotel converted from two neighbouring palazzi, which are tucked discreetly away on one of Florence’s most fashionable streets, just a few steps from the museums, cathedral and central markets, and boasting incredible views over the city from the roof terrace and restaurant. Stay in one of these 24 rooms and suites, with their grand interiors, and you’ll not be more than ten minutes walk from any major sight, yet the entrance is so discreet it feels residential. One of the palazzi is medieval, the other was built in the 17th century, so whilst the original features of the rooms vary, all of them have designer furnishings, marble bathrooms and quality artisanal pieces. If it’s warm they serve breakfast on one of their terraces, either looking up into the hills with their elegant villas, or over the city, the Duomo and the river. Rooms start from around €178 per night.  

Practical Details: Florence has its own airport, but for some travellers it will be quicker and easier to fly to Bologna, or even Pisa, and catch the train from there. It takes about 12 hours to travel to Florence by train, from St. Pancras. Florence is another typically Mediterranean city with hot, dry, sun-drenched summers and cool, wet winters. Summer is the most popular time to visit, despite the average daily maximum temperatures up around 31°C during July and August, and the city’s maze of buildings keeping out the breezes. It’s more pleasant come autumn or spring, when the queues will also be shorter. Winter is surprisingly dark for Italy, with only around five hours of sunshine a day around Christmas, but more come February, and this isn’t a bad time to visit either.  

Rural Tuscany

And once you start talking about whole regions like Tuscany and Umbria, well! There are just sooo many achingly gorgeous views, and such an array of beautiful hilltop villages, and jaw-dropping art collections, and amazing architecture. And so many pockets and corners deserving of more thorough investigations.  

Where to Stay:

Castello Banfi il Borgo is Tuscany to a ’t’, a stunning, 13th century castle and award-winning wine estate turned award-winning boutique hotel, with traditional, romantic interiors, incredible views and gourmet cuisine. If the 14 elegantly, uniquely decorated rooms weren’t enough of an addition to the above, there are also two restaurants, an enoteca packed with great wines from the estate, a balsameria packed with balsamic vinegar from the estate, beautiful gardens and terraces, a heated outdoor pool with vineyard views, a small gym and beautiful surrounds at every turn. Castello Banfi il Borgo is in Poggio all Mura, which is near Montalcino, sort of between Siena and Orvieto if you drew a wiggly line. The 14 rooms start from around €380 per night, and the room rate includes a tasting and tour of the wine estate.  

Practical Details: To reach Poggio all Mura you must first travel to Florence or Pisa, whichever way you thought was easier when you read the above, and then you catch a train and then a taxi, or hire a car. It looks like it will take about ten hours trying to go by public transport, but I’m sure it would be quicker in a hire car with a good navigator…

Tuscany still benefits from that Mediterranean climate that will feature throughout this article, but the exact details of how hot it will get in summer really depend on details like the specific location, are you in a city surrounded by elegant, sun-trapping architecture, or the countryside, or in a gorgeous hilltop village benefitting from the breeze? Generally speaking July and August are the hottest months, and the most popular for visitors, and November is the wettest and the least sunny, on a par with December in expecting only about three hours of sunshine a day. The Christmas celebrations are beautiful, though.  

Rural Umbria

Perugia

Where to Stay:

Relais Casamassima offers the quintessential experience of rural Umbria. This carefully restored, 16th century farmhouse is now an agriturismo with the feel of a boutique hotel, surrounded by its own lush gardens and grounds, and the views are of rolling green. There are only five suites, some have a living room, some a private terrace, all have a working fireplace, and a mix of antique and contemporary furnishings. There’s also a pool and several terraces, all with views into the Umbrian hills. There’s no restaurant, but the owner offers breakfast and light lunches and suppers — using produce from the farm — by arrangement. Perugia is 15minutes away by car. But the peace and tranquility here means that you might want to treat it as a real escape. Rooms start from around €170 per night.  

Practical Details: Relais Casamassima’s closest centre is Perugia, which has its own airport, which is connected to some UK airports, but alternatively you can route through Milan, or fly to Florence or Rome and then catch the train from there. Between eight and 11 hours travel time by public transport is reasonable. Perugia’s rainfall is slightly more balanced across the year than the other Italian destinations we’ve been imagining ourselves holidaying in today, and the summer months can feel quite humid as well as hot. There’s still plenty of sunshine, about ten hours a day, and the maximum daily averages are 29°C in July and August, the hottest months. Winter might even bring a bit of frost. As I so often think, it can better to go in the middle/milder seasons, though summer is still the most popular.  

Sicily: try Catania!

Catania is a new one for me, it’s Sicily’s second city, after Palermo, and despite being almost as historic, and in the shadows of Mount Etna, which is one of the big draws for visiting Sicily, it’s not really considered as much of a tourist destination. It’s got Baroque piazzas, and a great black and white palazzi, and much of the city is built on top of solidified lava, from the ancient Roman amphitheatre to the Piazza Duomo. You’re breathing dramatic history wherever you turn here. And then there are all the pleasures of Sicily: the sunshine, the food, the culture and the dramatically diverse landscape.   

Where to Stay: 

The Relais San Giuliano is a 12 room, privately-owned boutique hotel, with that feel of offering a really personal welcome to all their guests, in an elegant, contemporary villa-style building. Each of its rooms and suites, some large enough for a family, have been meticulously decorated, and, just like the exterior, you can expect lots of natural materials, clean lines and open spaces. Despite its few rooms there’s still great facilities, including a Sicilian bar and restaurant, a spa with a hammam, jacuzzi and treatment room, and an infinity pool. Rooms start from around €135 per night.  

Practical Details: Catania has its own airport, which you can fly to directly from Luton, but even from a different airport, and with a stop over in Paris or Milan, it’s still only about six or seven hours away. Or 25 hours on the train from St. Pancras.

By now you’re expecting to hear about the Mediterranean climate involving hot, sunny summers, but Catania’s winters are pretty warm too, with some rain. Sicily’s weather is varied, its mountainous interior providing some protection from the winds and rain coming largely from the northwest. Catania has some protection too, and in July and August the average daily maximum temperatures are 26°C, and in the coldest months, December and January, daily maximums are 12 and 13°C, but you can still expect 7 or 8 hours of sunshine a day. So there’s not really a bad time to visit, especially when you consider the ski season, and how warm the sea is well into October.

More in-the-know travel recommendations from Hotel Guru here