First-time visitors to Italy generally tend towards packing too much visual baggage into the itinerary suitcase, jamming each day with so much running from place to place, it would be a head scratcher to even the best runners in ancient Rome. It’s totally understandable, of course, as Italy’s long-lived and historic culture has produced an abundance of essential travel experiences, but it is avoidable. With some careful planning, you can experience Italy like a native — with casual elegance as your guide and la dolce vita as your constant companion.

First things first, narrow the scope of your visit by picking a destination that fits your passions. Elegant, refined tradition and tranquility? Lake Como, near the Swiss border, is your match. The center of the universe for art, culture and civilization? Head to Rome. Oenology and agriculture? Tour the wineries and explore the towns in Tuscany. Fashion, jewelry and art fans will love Milan and Florence. Do sunny, chic beaches and hillside villages appeal? On to the Amalfi Coast. Italy has a destination for every type of traveler.

Depending on just how much time you can devote to your Italian vacation, it is a divine departure to consider a week or two in a villa, concentrating on destinations that pique your interest. A week in Rome will be much busier than a week on Lake Como, but each has their advantages and allure. Either way, you’ll be able to adopt an Italian way of life. Dive deep into your destination and really immerse yourself in its culture, then wrap the ends of the week with hotel stays in cities that you just can’t miss.

A week in Rome visiting the Roman Forum, Trevi Fountain, the Vatican, Campo de Fiori and Piazza del Popolo, among the many other sights, provides ample time to really engage in the city. If you are an art and history buff, you’ll probably be subconsciously planning for your next visit while visiting the Via Appia Antica and touring the catacombs. Wrap your superb city trip with a cruise to Capri, and then catch the high-speed train to Florence. The 82-minute journey is a smart investment to view galleries, churches and incredible sculpture. Firenze, as the Italians call Florence, is also a huge center for fashion, with a shoppers’ mecca beckoning from Santa Maria Novella, and the outdoor markets of Mercato Centrale offering interesting antiques among other treasures.

If you’ve got an extra day or two, consider a winery tour on the end of your Florence excursion. After all, you are in Tuscany, and perhaps an extra week at a winery villa would prove the right choice. Many villas welcome children and are adequately equipped to do so. Others are romantic in only the way Italy can be, with exquisite pools, gardens and architecture, all surrounded by vineyards. There’s plenty of good wine around and a bounty of local cuisine, as well. This region is as famous for its olive oil as its wine, so be sure to dine on some antipasto, fettunta or a pappardelle alla lepre (egg noodles with wild hare sauce, a regional mainstay).

The flip side of an urban trip would be something near the water, with laid-back culture and hillside charm. A week in a villa on the Amalfi Coast is just the thing to recharge your batteries, with charming beachside cafes, quaint shops and cobblestone streets, stepping back a bit from today’s busy world. Wrap up your trip with a cruise to Capri on the front end and finish with a Roman holiday full of museums, food and romantic ruins.

To add some sophisticated flair to your trip (as if Rome wasn’t enough!), try Lake Como, where gorgeous lakeside villas, lush gardens, steep mountains and wonderful, small galleries and shops abound. Gorgeous wooden boats, stylishly designed and outfitted, skim across the lake to enjoy the area’s restaurants, casinos and nightclubs. Think 007 takes a vacation — this is definitely where he’d choose to spend his downtime. Insider tip: an alternative to the water taxi, drop a few extra dollars and charter your own runabout, Casino Royale style. Guides will have you roaring about with confidence in no time. It’s a great way to get around, as well as trip the coastline of the star-studded villas hugging the shore.

You will probably want to spend your entire time indulging in Lake Como, but if you wanted to wrap it up with something fantastic, hop the train to any of many great destinations, such as the Rome, Milan, Florence or Tuscany wineries. If you really wanted to do it up right, charter a flight down to Sicily for a gelato, where it was invented, and discover the unusually diverse culture within this small country all while unwinding amid sandy beaches and cutting coasts, and dining on outrageously delicious local seafood.

Special attention for kids is lavished at the Italian version of the theme park at Gardaland, in northern Italy between Milan and Venice. North of Rome, Bomarzo Monster Park offers a stroll through the gardens interspersed with mythical grotesque statues that delight the eye and the imagination. Ghosts, goblins and gargoyles abound in the architecture, and can supply kids with just the hook they need to engage.

Tips for all, especially those with children, would include a bit of up-front curiosity satiated by learning a few Italian phrases, and watching a few videos about the places you’ll visit. A little knowledge goes a long way in ensuring you won’t miss something fascinating, including a brief conversation with native Italians. That’s sure to bring a smile, especially if it comes from a child. And remember, it’s all right not to see it all in one visit. Italy knows you’ll be back.

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