Looking for a cultural break in Italy? Our experts offer their top picks for 2018, from art in unsung cities to the gardens of the Italian Lakes.
1. Ravenna and Urbino - Byzantine capital, Renaissance court
These are two of the most under-appreciated art cities in Italy and Martin Randall combines them into a fascinating tour. Down on the coast, Ravenna is home to some of the greatest buildings of late antiquity with among the finest surviving Byzantine mosaics. The itinerary includes a private visit to the church of San Vitale, followed by a chance to see the mosaics at the adjacent Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Up in the hills, in Urbino (Raphael’s birthplace), the star attractions are the 15th century Ducal Palace and the National Gallery of Le Marche which house a first-class collection of paintings including works by Raphael, Piero della Francesca, Uccello, Titian and Barocci. The tour is led by art historian Dr Luca Leoncini.
A four-night break including four-star hotel accommodation with breakfast, three dinners with wine and return flights from London costs from £1,560pp with Martin Randall (020 8742 3355; martinrandall.com). Departs April 25. (Trisha Andres)
2. The secrets of Pompeii with Lindsey Davis
Travel back to Roman times on an exclusive journey into the fascinating world of the Romans in Pompeii and the Bay of Naples, including insight from historical novelist Lindsey Davis.
Discover the lives of gladiators, slaves, citizens and senators in the Roman world on this exclusive five-day Telegraph Tour in the company of expert scholars and enjoy exclusive special access to closed galleries at Naples Museum and the Roman town of Herculaneum.
£1,995 for four nights including four-star b&b accommodation, meals, private lectures and tours, entrance fees, and return flights from London. Departs April 4. Operated by Andante for Telegraph Travel.
3. The glory that is Florence
Known as the cradle of the Renaissance, Florence is truly a treasury of art, sculpture and breathtakingly magnificent architecture. VJV’s five-night Treasures of Florence tour offers a detailed discovery, enriched by the knowledge of expert local guides. Visit the cathedral, baptistery, 13th century town hall, churches, chapels, palaces and museums where many of its masterpieces are displayed, and benefit from priority entrance to the Uffizi and Accademia. Based in a four-star, centrally-located hotel, you’ll walk to each site, and also take a walking tour of the Oltrarno, the south bank of the Arno river that bisects this city.
From £795pp (two sharing) including flights and transfers, entrance fees, five nights' accommodation, five breakfasts and free public transport on Days 2, 3 and 4. Departures from February to November. Voyages Jules Verne 020 3553 3722; vjv.com). For the best hotels in Florence, see our guide (Pat Richardson)
4. Discover Trieste
This port close to the Slovenian border is a contender for the most underrated city in Italy. It bristles with life, has a fascinating history, and serves some of the finest coffee in the land, according to Helen Pickles. It is also home to the Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi, which this spring will be showing Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. See the opera, and explore the unsung city, on a three-night tour with Travel for the Arts.
From £1,460, including flights.
5. Sicilian highlights
Sicily is the Mediterranean’s largest island; its multilayered history can be hard to piece together; and Palermo, the capital, is chaotic. So an escorted coach tour is a good plan, especially if you’re a newcomer. Titan’s fast-paced and comprehensive 10-day Sicily – Jewel of the Mediterranean tour covers key classical sights such as the Valley of the Temples and Piazza Armerina, plus Norman-era high points such as Monreale cathedral, and Etna. Vox audio headsets, promising improved audibility, are used on excursions.
Frequent departures April-June, late August to October: from £1,749, including breakfasts, some dinners, flights and home-to-airport transfers. Titan (0808 115 4089; titantravel.co.uk). (Fred Mawer).
6. Gardens and villas of the Italian lakes
Since time immemorial, the inhabitants of northern Italy’s larger cities have used lakes Como and Maggiore as their rural escape. The first-century naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote eloquently of them: the former, more mountainous and dramatic, the latter, with its two spectacularly landscaped islands – Isola Bella and Isola Madre – and both with villas and gardens of the rich and famous on their shores. Martin Randall’s six-night Gardens and Villas of the Italian Lakes tour throws some lesser-known gems into a classic itinerary, adding commentary from a highly knowledgeable architectural historian to bring the whole thing alive.
From £3,090 per person; departs April 19 (020 8742 3355; martinrandall.com). For advice on where to stay in the Italian Lakes, see our guide (Anne Hanley)
7. The Puccini Festival with Rupert Christiansen
Join The Telegraph’s opera critic Rupert Christiansen on this exclusive trip to the Puccini Opera Festival in Torre del Lago this summer, taking in performances of the great composer’s operas in a magnificent lake-side setting. Rupert writes: “Giacomo Puccini wrote music that goes straight to the heart. To see and hear his work performed in his beautifully preserved home town, within sight of the villa where he lived and where he is buried, is a magically authentic experience that casts fresh light on his genius.”
The four-night trip costs from £2,189 per person, including b&B accommodation, some meals, concerts, tours, transport and flights. Departs August 2. Operated by Prestige Holidays for Telegraph Travel.
8. The grand tour
Trafalgar’s 17-day Grand Italian Experience tour takes in the three must-see cities of Florence, Venice and Rome – but also Pompeii, Capri, Assisi, Verona, Milan, the Lakes, Liguria, Siena and more. Along the way, there is time for such experiences as a meal at a traditional farmhouse in Puglia, and an after-hours tour of the Missionary Ethnological Museum at the Vatican followed by a private dinner in a courtyard.
Departures from April, prices from £3,020pp including breakfasts and some dinners but excluding flights. Trafalgar (0800 533 5619; trafalgar.com).
9. Bottega del Tintoretto, Venice
Venice’s 16th-century artistic genius Tintoretto was famous for his frenetic activity, and this workshop next to the house where the maestro lived and worked carries on that tradition. Print works, exhibition space, conference centre and meeting place for artists working in every imaginable medium, the Bottega also organises of some of Venice’s best art courses. Etching, letterpress printing on the workshop’s ancient presses, sculpture, sketching and other disciplines are covered in five-day crash courses, or you can piggy-back on year-long courses, attending just for the time you choose to spend in La Serenissima.
Trains from Venice to Florence and Rome pass through Ferrara, but it’s only the most intrepid Italophiles who alight here – a pity, given the very special things this most urbane of Italy’s northern cities has to offer. Supremely elegant, the unusually wide central streets have something De Chirico-esque about them when empty. But they lend themselves, too, to the kind of street-party atmosphere that prevails when the Internazionale journalism festival brings some 70,000 people to the city in early October or buskers flood the streets for a festa in August (17th-26th). The massive brick bulk of the moated Estense castle faces the delicate 12th-century façade of the cathedral; Palazzo dei Diamanti, with its striking bugnato walls, stages world-class art exhibitions; in Palazzo Schifanoia are a series of delightful frescoes depicting seasons and classical gods, created in the 15th century for Ferrara’s ruling Duke Borso d’Este.