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A cultural guide to Italy

Living la dolce vita

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29 March 2023 by Charlie Pritchard

The art, music, food and festivals that have helped make Italy one of the world's most enduring holiday destinations. Read our guide to living the sweet life, and how to make the most of this beautiful country.

In cultural terms, it's difficult to imagine a more complete country than Italy. Ever since the days of the Grand Tours of the 17th and 18th centuries, when the young upper-class elite travelled across Europe in search of cultural enlightenment among the spectacular galleries and palaces of the great Renaissance cities of Florence, Rome and Venice, this remarkable country has attracted visitors in their thousands, seduced by the music, art, food, wine and festivals of one of Europe's great destinations.

When planning your tour of Italy look out for Baglioni Hotels: a collection of nine exclusive properties mainly located in period buildings in the country's art and culture hubs. Vibrant, fashionable and original, these hotels balance tradition and modernity to create a new concept in contemporary luxury.  Combine a stay on the Tuscan coast with the culture of Florencetour the three classic cities of Rome, Florence and Venice; or perhaps opt for a luxury stay in a Venetian palace to feel spoiled and special.

Art and Music

Throughout the centuries, Italy has produced some of the world's great painters and sculptors. Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Botticelli have been responsible for some of the most recognisable and talked about masterpieces ever produced; works such as Da Vinci's The Last Supper and Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. And the awe-inspiring frescoes of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, Florence's Duomo and the magnificent Piccolomini Library in Siena leave visitors utterly spellbound, while the majestic Uffizi gallery, also in Florence, is one of the oldest and most famous art museums in the western world.

And it's not just art for which Italy is famed. It's also the birthplace of opera, the powerful musical art form which first came to the world's attention at the end of the 16th century with the first performance of Jacopo Peri's Dafne in the Tuscan city of Florence. Combining text, music and theatre with extravagant costumes and sets, this artistic phenomenon quickly spread throughout Europe and the rest of the world, but Italy is still regarded as its rightful home.

Indeed, Italy is where you'll find some of the world's most revered and historic opera houses, including the spectacular La Scala in Milan, La Fenice in Venice and Arena di Verona, a vast Roman amphitheatre, which hosts, among others, a spectacular annual performance of Giuseppe Verdi's iconic opera Aida, one of the highlights of the Italian operatic calendar.

Looking for an Italian opera break? Visit the Arena di Verona

Madame Butterfly, La Fenice, Venice

Food and drink

Briny, slick and luscious linguine studded with small clams, a simple lamb chop chargrilled to perfection and finished with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of salt, deep-fried courgette flowers wrapped around a melting mixture of ricotta and a sliver of anchovy, paper thin slices of pizza blistered in a wood furnace...

Eating in Italy is one of the very greatest pleasures of being there. It's hard to find a bad meal, though some tourist trap eateries on the edges of popular squares and attractions might manage to serve one, but even these are more likely to overcharge than overcook; because most Italians are passionate and proud about their cuisine, and rightly so. It may not have the finesse of fine French cooking perhaps, but it has a direct and delicious robustness to it.

Simplicity, not sophistication defines the style of cooking here, and in this particular Italian instance, it's very much about substance over style.

A deep-fried courgette flower can be stuffed with many things, although ricotta is a typical favourite

Italy is renowned for its wine. With some one million vineyards spread across the country, it challenges France as the world's largest exporter and producer. Pinot Grigio is, of course, wildly popular, home and abroad, as is Chianti, a dry red produced in central Tuscany. But if you'd like to try a little something different, consider the Sicilian Nero d'Avola or Verdicchio, which has been grown in the March region since the 1300s.

Italians are kings of the cocktail, too; martinis originated from Liguria, and you can't escape the Negroni, a bitter sweet mix of Campari, gin and Red Martini, or sweet Bellinis in the streets of Venice. Or try a refreshing Aperol Spritz, which looks like an Italian susnset in a glass, the bitterness of the spirit balanced with prosecco and/or soda water. Liqueur lists are also extensive, with Amaro, Amaretto and limoncello - made from lemons and sipped from a frozen glass - among the most popular. Grappa is considered to be the best digestif and the varieties available are exhaustive and range from the smooth to the extremely rough.

And then of course, there's coffee. Best enjoyed short, strong and black (simply, caffè), whilst leaning up against the counter of a Roman newsagent or on a terrace under a mid-morning sun. Other varieties - including cappuccino (a breakfast favourite and generally not consumed by Italians after 11am), caffè macchiato or caffè freddo (taken cold, during the summer) - are available, too. Drinking coffee is as Italian an experience as sailing the Amalfi coast or rambling the ruins of Rome.

Looking for an Italian food tour? Try our Gastronomy of Sicily tour

lutheran church and vineyard in the italian alps
Lutheran Church and Vineyard in the Italian Alps

Italy's festivals

Highlights of Italy's extensive cultural calendar include many traditional regional festivals, interspersed with international arts, music and sports events. The annual Carnevale, which begins 40 days before Easter and is celebrated across the country, is one of Italy's most spectacular annual festivals. Oristano and Mamoiada on Sardinia and Acireale on Sicily are among the most colourful regional celebrations, the former two combining religious and pagan rituals, while festivities in Venice start two weeks early.

In early June the Regatta of the Ancient Maritime Republics in Pisa sees boats races on the Arno River, pitting the home city against Genoa, Venice and Amalfi.

During the summer, from mid-June to mid-August, the Festival de Caracalla, in Rome includes opera, ballet and classical concerts set amid the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla. This time of year also sees the annual Il Palio di Siena. The famous horse race around the Piazza del Campo takes place in two stages in which the 17 contrade (local neighbourhoods) compete. There are other events in the days leading up to each race (from 29 June and 13 August), making Il Palio one of Italy's most flamboyant festivals.

Moving into late summer and early autumn, the aforementioned Arena di Verona summer season begins, with spectacular performances of iconic operatic works, set in the city's 1st-century amphitheatre.

Looking for an Italian festival break? Visit the Il Palio di Siena on a short break

Il Palio, Siena

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