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Insider tips for short breaks to Italy

By Eleanor Day

The majority of Italy tours only scratch the surface of the country. So how can you experience the ‘real’ Italy in a short amount of time? Eleanor Day, Italy expert at Cox & Kings, shares her top tips. You can also see our tips for the best holiday destinations in Italy.

Birds eye view of Rome from Janiculum Hill

1. Find the highest point

A room with a view isn’t always possible but Italy has no shortage of historical buildings offering visitors fantastic panoramas as well as the chance to work off that large lunch or dinner. I particularly recommend the San Giorgio Maggiore Church in Venice. Climb to the top of the bell tower for a remarkable Venetian view. There are also the natural viewpoints that offer vistas at no charge, such as Gianicolo (Janiculum Hill) in Rome, the coastal trail between the villages of the Cinque Terre or the top of Mount Vesuvius above the Bay of Naples.

Morning coffee with a view

2. Shun the hotel breakfast

Most city breaks in Italy are on a room only basis – I recommend that you frequent the local coffee bar instead of the hotel buffet. While the majority of the tourists are not yet out and about, join the locals for a quick espresso and a cornetto (Italian equivalent of the croissant). Coffee is not to take away in Italy but neither is the time always taken to sit down. It’s often enjoyed while standing at the bar. Remember to pay first, take your receipt or scontrino and show it to the barista. Be warned, there is no system of queuing – push to be served!

The Rialto fish market, Venice

3. Seek out the local food market

Italians are in their element here and early morning is the best time to experience the local markets while the produce is still fresh and abundant. There is much shouting and gesticulation over quality and price as well cries of greeting and exchange of gossip. Visit the Rialto fish market in Venice to see some colourful catches from the sea, the Pignasecca market in Naples for its economical, in-season produce and the Ballerò food market in Palermo, which sells everything under the Italian sun. Many of these markets have been in place for hundreds of years.

One of the Matera cave churches

4. Step inside a church

Roman ruins, works of art, castles and palaces are not always accessible – or you have to queue for an age – but a profusion of churches can be found everywhere. Catholicism is at the core of Italian culture. Many churches date back centuries, providing a detailed glimpse into Italy’s past. From the shimmering gold interiors of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice and Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome’s Trastevere neighbourhood to the humble cave churches of Matera, you don’t have to be religious to marvel at these. While the average tourist in Italy tours only the main basilicas, dig deeper to visit the hidden treasures.

Piazza del Campo, Siena

5. Take time out in the piazza

Stop off in the small square of a local village, neighbourhood or the grander spaces found in the cities. Avoid the over-priced restaurants and, instead, grab a slice of pizza or a deliciously creamy gelato, find a place to perch and relax into the slower pace of Italian life by watching the world go by. A personal favourite is Piazza del Campo in Siena for its graceful, sloping shell shape. Another, Piazza Santo Stefano, is a hidden space in Bologna which comes alive on hot summer evenings with groups of students. An Aperol Spritz or Negroni makes for the perfect Italian sundowner.

Find out more about Cox & Kings’ Italy tours and city breaks.

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