Italy summer booking guide
How to book the best Italian cultural holiday, with advice on independent travel, escorted tours, our favourite trips, including Umbria's hill-top towns, Roman ruins, and opera, and the best tour operators. By Telegraph Travel's Italy experts.
Given Italy’s extraordinary artistic and architectural heritage, culture in some form will feature on most Italian holidays. From Medieval frescoes to Renaissance architecture and Baroque marble, the country’s art and buildings form an impressive cultural infrastructure. However, with hundreds of towns offering richly-painted duomos, extensive gardens, and seemingly impenetrable histories, it can be difficult to know where to start. Escorted travel – whether with a specialist or more mainstream operator – as well as going it alone – are all options.
If you are particularly keen to focus on a specific interest, it may be best to book with a specialist tour operator, whose small group escorted trips will allow you to see specific elements of Italian culture in detail – the Greeks in Sicily, or the Palladian villas of the Veneto region, for example.
Cultural tours with such companies typically have a guest lecturer, and some include private or out-of-hours-visits and meetings with curators. These can be key features of such trips – private visits to the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums, say, or to private villas and gardens in Tuscany. As a result they are not cheap – expect to pay £2,000 and up for a seven-day trip.
How can you judge the quality of such tours when looking at what to book? Firstly, consult our list of recommended operators below. Obvious things to check are the pedigree of lecturers – look for names, online biographies and evidence of expertise – and group size – above 15 to 20 and trips can be less intimate. Also important to research are the amount of free time, how many meals are included, and whether tips, transfers, flights and entry fees are covered.
Scroll down for a list of tour operators offering culture holidays in Italy
Operators should also guarantee timed entry to the big sights: if they don’t, you could wait hours to see Michelangelo’s David, say, or the paintings of the Uffizi. And read the small print: lecturers, itineraries and private visits may alter or be cancelled at short notice. Furthermore, are itineraries too busy, or not busy enough?
Also check the accommodation: are the places you will be staying at named? If not, ask questions: are they convenient for exploring historic towns on your own? Do they have character or are they merely chosen as bland, inexpensive bases?
When booking an escorted tour, don’t lose sight of the considerations you would apply to other Italian holidays. Consider temperatures in particular: you don’t want to be walking around Pompeii’s shade-less site in high summer, for example.
While specialists can address specific cultural themes, don’t disdain mainstream escorted tour operators, many of which have dedicated cultural tours, or city and regional tours and excursions that allow you to indulge interests such as art, architecture and history. They also have plenty of experience, employ local guides and offer lower prices. While groups may be larger, itineraries are often more varied and less academic.
Riviera Travel, for example – in business since 1984 – has a five-day tour of "Ancient & Baroque" Rome, with guided visits and timed entry to the Palazzo Borghese, one of Rome’s finest palaces (from £629 pp b&b, including flights).
Another mainstream operator, Travelsphere, has a range of general escorted tours to Italy’s main cities and regions, but also trips that allow for more specialist interests. Its “Classic Sicily” itinerary (eight days’ half board from £899, including flights); among other things, it includes visits to the glorious Greek temple at Segesta and the Roman mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale.
If you are travelling independently, consult local tourist offices. An online search using a town’s name plus “turismo” or “ufficio informazioni” usually brings up the official site. You will find information on money-saving passes to cultural attractions (often available to purchase online) and how to book tickets before you leave for timed entry to the big sights. (Tim Jepson)
Tour operators offering culture holidays in Italy
ACE (01223 841055; aceculturaltours.co.uk) uses academics for its art, garden, music festival and city tours.
Andante (01722 713800; andantetravels.co.uk) is a small-group archaeology specialist.
Archers Direct (0800 223 0179; archersdirect.co.uk) has a wide choice of keenly priced escorted group coach tours with flexible tailor-made additions.
ArtViva (0039 055 264 5033; italy.artviva.com) sources native, English-speaking art graduates and other private guides across the country.
Bellini Travel (020 7602 7602; bellinitravel.com) is an Italy specialist that can arrange tailor-made trips with guides and private access to some leading sites, museums and galleries.
Ciceroni Travel (01869 811167; ciceroni.co.uk) is an Italian specialist, with founder Tom Duncan often the guide for a small but interesting selection of tours, many with exclusive private visits.
Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk) includes designated “Art” group tours among a wide range of group and tailor-made cultural trips in Italy. Also look at the offering of Travel Editions (020 7251 0045; traveleditions.co.uk).
Fine Art Travel (020 7437 8553; finearttravel.co.uk) can make similar arrangements, and has a few group tours.
JMB Travel (01242 220394; jmb-travel.co.uk) is the go-to specialist for opera performances, festivals and tours.
Kirker Holidays (020 7593 2283; kirkerholidays.com) offers escorted cultural tours and music holidays. Its Concierge Service can also arrange cultural experiences for clients booking short breaks.
Martin Randall Travel (020 8742 3355; martinrandall.com) is one of longest-established specialist cultural operators, and also has one of the largest selections of tours, covering art, architecture, history, music and gardens.
Peter Sommer Travels (01600 888220; petersommer.com) offers cultural tours aboard a gulet along the Amalfi Coast or the Aeolian Islands, and land-based holidays in Sicily and Rome.
Riviera Travel (01283 742300; rivieratravel.co.uk) has a dozen fully-inclusive escorted five-and eight-day city, regional and pan-Italian tours.
Shearings (0844 824 6351; shearings.com) and Voyages Jules Verne (0845 166 7003; vjv.com) have similar and equally affordable escorted tours.
Sunvil Discovery (020 8758 4722, sunvil.co.uk) offers flexible, multi-centre cultural itineraries throughout Italy. Trips range from a chance to explore Sorrento and Maratea with visits to Pompeii and Herculaneum, to opera breaks in Verona.
Titan (0800 988 5823; titantravel.co.uk) is an escorted coach, rail and cruise operator of long standing, with over two dozen trips to Italy, including unusual Dolomite, Puglian and Sardinian itineraries.
Travelsphere (0844 334 8870; travelsphere.co.uk) has regional and “top-to-toe” escorted group itineraries, with many included and optional cultural excursions.