Why do we travel? Would you agree we travel to immerse ourselves into new places and seek connection in both the familiar and the foreign? Italy is one of these places where so many of us feel an immediate sense of coming home. That’s what happened to me when I first stepped foot on the Italian boot -- I felt a lightness, joy and sense of belonging that has kept me coming back and each time going deeper into its magical culture. Italy’s 4,720 miles of coastline make it the perfect place to explore via a cruise. Nearly every destination you might want to visit is close enough to the coastline to easily explore on port visit.
And, on a cruise, you can cover more ground in Italy than you ever could by traveling on land; popular around-Italy itineraries may start or end in Venice or Rome, and make stops in Amalfi, Sorrento, Sicily, Portofino, Florence, Elba and Brindisi (along with a foray into nearby Montenegro’s Kotor).
With stops in so many Italian ports you will feel truly immersed in the culture and might just be speaking some of the language by the end of your cruise.
And here’s the big secret that I’ve learned in my travels: No doubt, Italy is spectacular for three of our favorite pastimes – culinary exploration, art and music, not to mention its spectacular cities, villages and scenery.
There is wonder and surprise around every corner in Italy -- the food! The art! The music! The breadth and depth of new experiences to enjoy in Italy is endless. But what truly makes Italy the perfect place to go deeper are the locals. Italians simply love people, are proud of their culture and go out of their way to share it. Any new experience in Italy that’s shared with a local is that much better. Don’t just taste olive oil or cheese buy meet the person who makes it and likely comes from a long family tradition of producing Italy’s most cherished products.
Here are three ways to go deeper when cruising around Italy.
What is synonymous with Italy if not food? It would take lifetimes to peel back the culinary layers of Italy. While of course there are beloved dishes that are found throughout the country -- I love the pasta! -- each city and region has its own distinct flavors and local products. These foods and the way they are harvested and prepared tell the story of an area’s social, political and natural histories. It's what makes food the perfect vehicle to go deeper in Italy.
Some of my most memorable experiences in Italy have centered around food. I have joined hunters and their dogs traipsing through the woods of Tuscany and Umbria searching for elusive and delicious truffles. Local friends have taken me through the fresh food markets in Rome’s Testaccio and Florence’s Sant’Ambrogio. Plus nearly every meal in Italy has been memorable -- from long, wine-filled Sunday lunches at trattorias (an Italian tradition) to picnics overlooking the Amalfi Coast and Tuscany’s Val d’Orcia.
A staple of the Italian diet is olive oil, so revered by locals that they sometimes refer to it as “green gold.” I swear after a week in Italy (enjoying olive oil in almost every dish) your skin will glow and you will look younger! Olive oil is also credited for the vigorous health Italians enjoy -- OK, that and some wine. Go to the source, visit one of Liguria’s largest olive groves to learn how the olives are harvested and milled and taste the results.
When you’re visiting Naples and the Amalfi Coast, take some time to visit the birthplace of perhaps the freshest and best mozzarella in the world, made from the milk of 600 water buffalo. Meet the master cheesemaker who demonstrates his centuries-old techniques for creating these slices of heaven.
Even though I’m not the best cook, I take a cooking lesson in every new Italian city or region I visit. It's great fun and a good avenue for cultural connection. If your ship calls at the stunning Sicilian port of Siracusa, where a local takes you to the local fish and vegetable markets to shop for fresh ingredients before putting you to work in her home kitchen learning local recipes before a convivial wine-filled meal tasting your creations, don't miss signing up.
My Favorite Italy Discoveries
If your cruise brings you to an Amalfi Coast port, head to nearby Naples. This is the birthplace of pizza and a visit to the city isn’t complete without a stop at Da Michele or Sorbillo for the best pies of your life. They say it’s the water in Naples that is the secret ingredient. That’s also what makes the coffee world famous, and I always pop into historic Gran Caffe Gambrinus for an espresso. If your port of call is Trieste, you might be surprised that the dish of choice is Gulasch alla Triestina. Yes, Goolash! That’s because this was once part of Austria and an important port for the Austrian-Hungarian empire.
There are a few places I go back to again and again to eat. Vino Vino in Venice is a hole-in-the-wall where the gondoliers eat lunch; the menu changes but have the lasagna if it is being served. In Florence, I love to stop in to see my friend Giovanni Latini at Osteria di Giovanni and have his famous bistecca Fiorentina (Florentine steak – a must). I’m crazy about the Roman pasta dish cacio e pepe (a delicious combo of spaghetti and cheese) and my favorite place to eat it is at Da Enzo, a tiny restaurant in Rome's Trastevere.
Discovering the Arts
Did you know that Italy is home to at least half of the art in the world? How staggering is that? Art is part of daily life in Italy; you’ll discover rare works hidden in a nondescript local church, masterpieces hanging in internationally renowned museums, and modern street art in cities like Florence and Rome.
No one ever forgets the first time they see the statue of the David in Florence’s Accademia -- I first laid eyes on him on a hot summer day on my first trip to Italy with my mom. Or crane up their necks to take in a first look of Michelangelo’s other great work: The Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. While these masterpieces were my introduction to the art of Italy, I now look for it in everyday Italian life.
Art always tells a story and is best understood in context. That’s why when exploring Italy’s museums and historic sites, you must go with a guide.
If there’s one city that’s Italy’s most magnetic art destination, it has to be Florence. This is of course where you too can see Michelangelo’s David in person. The beauty of Florence is you don’t have to be inside a building to enjoy art -- the architecture, the famous Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio will send shivers down your spine with their beauty and history.
For one of the highest concentrations of paintings and scultpures that you can take in in just one day, Rome offers the incredible Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. Go deeper with one of the greatest artists of all time, the very epitome of Italian artistry: Michelangelo. Gaze up at the ceiling he painted at the most famous chapel in the world featuring the hands of God and Adam and see his incredibly moving "Pieta" sculpture in St. Peter’s Basilica.
My Favorite Italy Discoveries
Art isn’t just what is old in Italy; it's being created every day in new and unique ways. Street art is quite popular here these days. Look for the work of Clet as you walk around Florence. He uses stickers to transform street signs into modern art and political statements. You can also visit his studio/shop in the San Niccolo Neighborhood. In Rome, I love Alice Pasquini’s colorful, modern graffiti-like street art.
My favorite kind of art is the wearable kind, especially jewelry. In Venice, pop into Venetian, my friend Marisa Convento’s shop. Marisa is preserving the age-old tradition of the impiraressa, a bead stringer. In the Venetian Republic, beads were used for trade and these women played an important role in the history of Venice. Beyond its masterpieces, Florence has attracted artists from around the world to learn, apprentice and create. Sarah Amrhein is an American who works in polymer clay. Head to her shop on Via dello Sprone for stunning floral jewelry and accessories.
Life Is an Opera
Opera was born in Italy. You’ll come to this realization when you spend some time in the country and understand that every Italian is a living character in his own dramatic opera! But seriously, opera is the soundtrack for Italian culture. If you have time for even just one musical experience while cruising, make it opera. Don’t prejudge that it's boring or that you won’t understand the singing in Italian.
My most memorable opera experience came about when I scored a last-row, last-minute ticket for Puccini’s Tosca at La Scala, probably the most revered opera house in the world, in Milan. What most surprised me? The Italian audience was very opinionated – cheering and booing the cast in equal measure.
Its easy to combine cruising and opera because opera is everywhere in Italy, even in the ports. One can’t-miss experience is laid on for passengers on Azamara Club Cruises during visits to the Tuscan port city of Livorno. Its AzAmazing experience involves a trip to the Goldoni Theater, which dates back to 1847 and is one of the most beautiful in Italy. It’s the perfect place to listen to sopranos sing their hearts out. The historic port city of Trieste, in northern Italy on the Adriatic, makes for another great locale to take in the sounds of Puccini, Rossini and Capurro. Italy will touch you deeply – through the food, the art, the opera -- and don’t be surprised if you find yourself ready to book another Italy cruise right away. Italy is addictive!
My Favorite Italy Discoveries
If your port of call allows an overnight and the timing works, head for one of Italy’s endless summer open-air music festivals. One of my favorites is Tuscany’s La Foce Festival, held at one of the perhaps the most beautiful gardens in all of Italy. On the Amalfi Coast, the Ravello Festival features stunning views over the Mediterranean and a wide range of genres from classical to jazz.
Add a musical note to your Venice port call with a stop at the free Museo della Musica (Museum of Music) in the Church of San Maurizio. You will learn about the city’s violin making tradition and see rare instruments dating back to the 17th century. In Naples, take in traditional Neapolitan folk music like at Napulitanata, a live music venue founded by musicians trying to preserve traditions like tarantella.
Kathy McCabe is the host of the PBS travel series Dream of Italy and the founder of the award-winning travel publication and membership website Dream of Italy. She’s lost count of how many times she has been to Italy -- maybe 50 -- and each trip brings new surprises that she can’t wait to share with her audience.