Everyone's familiar with Italy - home of pizza and pasta, of Chianti and spumante, of passion and fashion, of Totti and Pavarotti. It's got art, architecture, style, good food and fine wines. It's full of surprises, like an immaculately-coiffed signora unfolding herself from a tiny Fiat. It's not short of history - just remember what those Romans have done for us! And it's got some fabulous places to stay.
The capital, Rome, is arguably the historic heart of Europe: birthplace of its greatest empire, home of Catholicism, the city all roads lead to. But it also has a youthful vibe, lively bars and streetlife, and great retail therapy - all in all, a perfect city break (several times over!). Two more cities you have to see before you die are: Venice, a dreamy waterscape of elegant canals and exuberant palaces, beloved by artists, historians, romancers and carnival-goers; and Florence, the regional capital of Tuscany and - some would say - the artistic capital of Europe, with several of its finest galleries.
Nestling in the heart of the mainland, Tuscany and Umbria are just how you picture rural Italy: rolling landscapes with vine-rich valleys and cypress-crested ridges; historic hilltowns with medieval palazzi and glorious churches; a healthy diet, a moderate climate... it's no wonder the Renaissance took root here.
But where is the elusive "new Tuscany"? Some point to Piedmont, a glorious region of rolling vineyards, pretty hilltowns and medieval castles tucked between Genoa and Turin in northwest Italy, with outstanding cuisine, truffle festivals and views to distant Alps. Or perhaps it's Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot; there's plenty of history and architecture - Moorish hilltowns, Roman theatres, rustic trulli (cone-huts), the Baroque gem of Lecce - with the added bonus of sandy beaches and superb cuisine. Northern Italians flock here in summer, and there are pockets of Cote d'Azur trendiness.
If you want to escape all that, head to Sicily, the largest island in the Med. There's enough coastline for everyone, some outstanding Baroque towns in the southeast (our favourite corner), plus a hulking great volcano (Mt. Etna) and unspoilt mountains (the Madonie). To escape still further, take a boat to the Aeolian Islands, 7 volcanic lumps sticking like fangs out of the Tyrrhenian Sea, with unfeasibly clear waters, pretty whitewashed villages and youthful summer crowds.
And let's not forget the 'most beautiful coastline in the world': the Amalfi Coast, where uber-pretty villages cling to terraced hillsides above a roller-coaster of azure coves. Combined with neighbouring Naples (a great and gritty city) and Pompeii (the best preserved Roman town in the world), it makes a fabulous week's holiday.