Italy is known for its food, and the reports are no exaggeration – if anything, the Italian food we know and love from elsewhere in the world is actually a weak imitation of the real thing. Everyone who travels in Italy – even the pickiest eaters – comes home raving about the food there. They’re usually a few pounds heavier, too.
When you add in the astonishing Renaissance architecture of cities like Florence, and the gorgeous countryside of – most of the country, really, but especially Calabria, in the South – Italy is a very tempting place to wander around for a few weeks.
The only major problem is that although the country has excellent rail connections between the towns and cities, car hire is essential in Italy if you want to see the countryside – and, crucially, visit the many roadside trattoria that are scattered through the countryside, each offering delicious examples of the local cuisine, which can vary in distinctive style even from town to town, let alone from region to region.
Our advice is to take the train between major destinations – an InterRail or Eurail pass may save you money if you plan to travel extensively – and then get yourself some wheels for adventures into the less accessible areas. Here are two of our favourite regions – and their cuisines – to help inspire you:
In the south – Calabria
Filling the whole southern “toe” of Italy, sunny Calabria looks and feels like the place people imagine when they picture traditional Italy – the Italy of old. Green mountains with villages clinging up high on their sides; old Italian grand-mamas in black dresses, looking out of their doorways; winding coastal roads where you’ll find amazing seafood and gorgeous views.
The cuisine here is, in general, healthy and fresh, featuring lots of tomatoes, swordfish, sardines, aubergine (eggplant), and other locally grown veggies – we also love the little fried honey pastries that are served for dessert. Calabrian wine (the majority of wine produced here is red) is well-respected but strong – don’t drink and drive, kids! Save it for when you’re relaxing over Calabrian dinner and a beautiful coastal sunset.
In the north – Florence
A truly astonishing city, Florence is like wandering round some surreal blend of living history and a virtual reality Assassin’s Creed; if you don’t have long to spend in Italy, make sure this is one of your “must see” places. Situated in the region of Tuscany, known for its rolling green countryside and fine food and wine, Florence was one of the wealthiest cities in Mediaeval Europe, and its UNESCO-protected historic centre has survived largely unchanged since this era of flamboyant boom.
Many consider Florence one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and it’s difficult to argue. Wandering into a Florentine townhouse can result in something of a sensory overload, mind you – the vaulting architecture, endless intricate patterns, the echoing chambers – so you might want to take frequent breaks.
Stop to enjoy a traditional Florentine lunch from a street-food stand – cuisine here is hearty and delicious, with soups like the beany ribollita, and many tasty local meat dishes, featuring prominently.