There is an infamous rivalry between the north and south of Italy. But which one really has the edge when it comes to sightseeing, romantic city breaks, the best beaches and mouth-watering food?
If you have planned an early holiday, Venice Carnival is certainly a highlight of the first months of the year, but the electric atmosphere of Saint Rosalia’s celebrations in Palermo should also not be missed. It’s hard to top the incredible statues and monuments of Rome, but what about the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pompeii? Sicily boasts wonderful wild stretches of coastline but enchanting Liguria packs a punch with dramatic rocky outcrops. Decisions, decisions…
Best for sightseeing…
North: You will trip over the historic sights in the Eternal City of Rome. The magnificent Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the ancient Roman Forum, the Baths of Diocletian and the Pantheon are all fantastic reminders of a once powerful civilisation. And of course, for a glimpse of the Sistine Chapel, the marvellous frescoes and to see where the Pope lives, visitors should head to Vatican City. Your feet will deserve a hard earned rest after a busy day of sightseeing and fortunately, there are a number of cheap Rome hotels within stumbling distance to the historical city centre.
South: Naples is a great setting off point for some wonderful sights. Hike up Mt Vesuvius, then head to Herculaneum and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pompeii, the ancient Roman city, once a sprawling metropolis, destroyed by the last catastrophic vesuvian eruption. Visitors can also take a boat trip to the rich and famous’ favourite island of Ischia and after a picturesque drive along the Amalfi coast, head up the hillside to Ravello and discover why Wagner, DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf fell in love with these views and these stunning gardens.
Best for food…it’s a draw!
North: Liguria is praised for its focaccia and the area surrounding Genoa is renowned for pesto. Bologna in the Emilia-Romagna region claims one of Italy’s staple sauces, Bolognese, and is perhaps one of the top foodie cities in the country.
South: The Straits of Messina acts as a funnel for shoals of swordfish so expect most restaurants in Sicily to serve this delicious fish. Sicilians also have a sweet tooth and you’ll find plenty of cafés selling cannoli (crispy pastries filled with ricotta) and also granite (flavoured crushed ices). Naples has really set the standard for pizza around the world and you will struggle to find a disappointing pizza fresh from the wood burning ovens in this city.
Best for events
North: The most important event on the Venice calendar is the colourful Venice Carnival held each year with a flurry of glittering masks, balls and parties lasting until the early hours. The coastal town of Viareggio also has a fascinating carnival with huge floats and parades. In Winter months visitors can look forward to the prestigious Venice Film Festival and also the Venice Biennale. The famous horse-race, the Palio di Siena, is held in July and the white truffle season, which becomes an opportunity for the organization of food fairs, is a staple of autumn seasonal entertainment. If you decide to come to Italy for Carnival, be aware this period is treated as high season, so book early to find cheap hotels in Venice.
South: Easter is perhaps the most fascinating celebration in the South, particularly in Sicily where sobering parades are held in Enna and Trapani. Between May and June La Mattanza is the tuna-fishing ritual held around Trapani, while Palermo honours its patron Saint, Santa Rosalia with a whirlwind of parades and street parties in July.
Best for nightlife
South: Naples may be hectic but the inhabitants’ lust for life really takes shape as night falls. Via Paladino, the area just north of university campus, attracts a crowd composed mostly by students, while the piazzas of Amedeo and San Pasquale are always buzzing for aperitivo with some live music venues and more than enough people to share a fresh pizza with at 5am. In the warmer months, locals flock to the nearby resorts of Miseno and Bagnoli, where the beach clubs cater for steamy discotheque nights under the stars.
North: Italians prefer a few glasses of wine in a nice bar and chatting with family and friends than clubbing, but this is more noticeable in the north. Rimini on the east coast is a popular seaside resort and has a number of beach bars and clubs to cater for the summer tourists. The bar scene beside the Navigli canal in Milan offers a selection of sociable cocktail bars and fabulous eateries, with plenty of cheap hotels nearby. Venice has a strict policy on live music late at night but the bars in the Campo Santa Margherita attract a local crowd as does the area of the Piazza di Santo Spirito in Florence.
Best for beaches
South: The Amalfi Coast is simply stunning, but in peak season you will have to share this stretch of paradise with quite a crowd. Puglia is also busy in August, but the beaches are clean and the sea crystal clear. Do check out the Salento area, which can vary from rocky caves and dramatic headlands in the east, to tranquil coves and small resorts in the west. The black-sand beaches on the volcanic Aeolian archipelago off Sicily are idyllic and perfect for snorkeling. You might even swim over bubbling mid-sea fumaroles! In Sicily, try Cefalù or Mondello for sandy stretches, although you will find considerably less people around Scolpello and Vito San Capo. Lo Zingaro Nature Reserve is a bit of a hike, but worth the extra effort for glorious stretches of undisturbed wildlife. As the sun begins its fiery orange descent, the landscape rivals the Caribbean and Maldives!
North: With Italy’s population concentrated in the north, it is not surprising the beaches become so crowded in August, as families flee the cities and head to the beaches. Unfortunately, many of the sandy stretches in the north are littered with lines of sun loungers and sections of free beach are few and far between – you can easily pay €40 as a family for a day at the beach. Viareggio has lots of facilities (which come at a cost) and the mountains make for a stunning backdrop. If you can brave the pebbles underfoot, the Ligurian coastline is stunning and home to the famous Cinque Terre – Monterosso has the largest sandy stretch and is dotted with colourful painted fisherman’s houses.
Best for a city break
North: The elegant red rooftops of the Baroque cities in the north make for a breathtaking city break. And since much of the country’s wealth and industry grew from the north, cities such as Florence, Rome, Venice, Milan and Turin boast some of the country’s top cultural institutes, restaurants, shopping opportunities and historical landmarks. Art lovers can mosey about galleries in Florence while the maze of waterways in Venice will ignite a spark in any romantic getaway. For something a bit different, Bologna is a bustling university town, a must for foodie travelers and smaller and more manageable for a weekend break than perhaps some of the large cities.
South: Palermo in Sicily is an up and coming destination. The city was heavily bombed in World War II, but a number of cultural institutions are making the most of the skeletal architecture and trendy bars, nightclubs and galleries are moving in to these dilapidated spaces. Head in to the hills to visit Monreale, an awe inspiring 12th century Norman cathedral, or relax in the shade of the giant and 150-year old fig trees in Giardino Garibaldi.