Italy is a moveable feast of endless courses. No matter how much you gorge yourself on its splendours, you always feel like you haven’t made it past the antipasti. In the show-stopping cities of Rome, Venice, Florence and Milan the Roman Empire was born, the intellectual light of the Renaissance was ignited and art, music, fashion and design were revolutionized for a modern world.
Few cities can boast the blockbuster history of Rome. It was here that Christ appeared to St. Peter, Brutus betrayed Caesar and Gregory Peck whisked Audrey Hepburn around the Colosseum on a Vespa. From the Roman Forum and the Pantheon to Bramante’s and Bernini’s dazzling architecture, Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel and countless Caravaggio’s, Rome is like a physical Filofax of Western European culture. Of course it is packed with masterpieces. Getting around the Vatican museums alone could take a week before you’ve even begun to explore the enormous art collections at the Galleria Borghese, the Galleria Doria Pamphilj and the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica.
Yet Rome is far from stuck in the past. Amid the treasures of the centro storico is Antonello Colonna’s cutting edge restaurant, Open Colonna, while the chariot racetrack of Circus Maximus doubles as a rock concert arena in summer. And then there’s Bernini’s baroque fountain, which is surrounded by contemporary art studios such as Luna e L’Altra. It might not have Berlin’s audacity or London’s edginess, but new millennium Rome is catching up with its northern rivals. The city boasts impressive contemporary art shows at MACRO, MAXXI and Pastificio Cerere; cutting-edge music and arts at Auditorium Parco della Musica; and a hip new cocktail scene driven by the likes of Co.So, Yeah! Pigneto and Vineria Litro.
Most people come to Florence to see its masterpieces – Brunelleschi’s Duomo, the Medici’s marble mausoleum, Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus – which is certainly reason enough. But remember that Florentines have raised the stuff of everyday life to a kind of artform, too. Food, fashion, music and architecture, you’ll quickly learn that the root of Florentine pathology is an unswerving dedication to living life well. So while others less in tune with Florentine ways race to join the queue snaking around the Uffizi, you’ll be taking a stroll to historic Gilli for a chocolate-swirled cappuccino. Then you’ll hire a bike and head south across the river to gaze crowd-free at Masaccio’s revolutionary frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria Novella. For lunch you may join well-heeled locals at Il Santo Bevitore or Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina before taking in a blockbuster show at the Palazzo Pitti or chilling out in the pretty Boboli gardens.
In a land of legends, its sometimes hard to find space for the new, but since Florentine, Matteo Renzi, started shaking things up as Italy’s new prime minister, Florence has been working on reinvigorating neglected landmarks and ushering in contemporary galleries and arts venues. The usually traditional Mercato Centrale has a new hall filled with unusual regional food artisans; an ultramodern opera house has blown the architectural world away with its avant-garde design; and the Museo Novecento showcases large-scale contemporary artworks within a Renaissance-era palace with a rooftop screening room. Toast the changes with celebrity restauranteur Fabbio Picchi at members club Il Teatro del Sale where you’ll be wined, dined and entertained in style.
Pinch yourself, and you might expect to wake up from this vision of golden domes, marble palaces and luminous green canals. Instead accept you’re in Venice, a city so extraordinary its beauty cannot be exaggerated. Venetians flooded the world with red-hot Renaissance artworks by Bellini, Titian and Tintoretto; baroque music by Vivaldi; modern opera at La Fenice; and spice-route inspired cuisine thanks to Marco Polo. Since then it has hardly rested on its laurels; when its political power waned in the 18th century it wooed the world with Carnival parties, beautiful courtesans and scandalous corset-free Fortuny fashions. Even now cutting-edge architects showcase their work at the summer Biennale and contemporary art is championed by billionaire benefactors at the Guggenheim, Palazzo Grassi, the Dogana and the Cini Foundation.
While the Doge’s pink, marble palace and the mosaics of Saint Mark’s basilica draw gasping crowds to Piazza San Marco, there’s a whole lagoon full of islands to explore from Murano’s legendary glass furnaces to Burano’s multicoloured fishermen’s houses and Mazzorbo’s vineyards. Art-filled mornings at the Galleria dell’Accademia and Palazzo Ca’ d’Oro are easily balanced with kayaking along Venetian canals, pedalling down Lido beaches and striking yoga poses in Giudecca gardens. In between, you’ll no doubt feel the need for a spritz or two and a Venetian cicheti (tapas plate). They are best served at Bacaro da Fiore, Estro, All’Arco and Bacarando. For bigger lagoon feasts book ahead for dinner at ProntoPesce, Antiche Carampane and Trattoria Corte Sconta.
Since Leonardo da Vinci broke all the rules in his world-famous painting of the Last Supper at Santa Maria delle Grazie, the indefatigably inventive Milanese seem to have skipped from the Renaissance to the 21st century. Not only is Milan a treasure trove of 20th-century art – displayed in the Museo Novecento, the Galleria d’Italia Piazza Scala and Hangar Bicocca – but Art Deco and Rationalist architecture abound and Michelin-starred chefs push the boundaries of traditional cuisine at Carlo e Camilla, Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia and Innocenti Evasioni. Even now, jackhammers are hard at work on the 420-acre Expo2015 site, producing new Milanese neighbourhoods and a futuristic skyline modeled by star architects Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind and César Pelli, while fashion brands pay for historic renovations and new museums such as the Fondazione Prada.
But Milan’s love of modernity disguises a city of ancient roots. In the warren of cobbled streets at its heart is the world’s largest and most dazzling Gothic cathedral; Napoleon’s preferred art gallery, the Pinacoteca Brera, is stuffed with Old Masters; while medieval and Renaissance treasures fill the Castello Sforzesco and Museo Poldi Pezzoli. On top of all that, no other museum in Italy has lately packed its calendar with as many world-class art exhibits as the Palazzo Reale and this year they’ll be bringing Leonardo back home with the largest exhibit of his works ever shown in Italy.