Karen GoldbergBy Karen Goldberg
Managing Director, Hotels & Resorts
Virtuoso

As my husband hates to fly, I had a dream that we were able to travel from our New Jersey home to Italy in a mere blink of an eye. It then actually happened, courtesy of the unparalleled comfort of the Emirates A380. One minute we were on the Long Island Expressway and the next we were landing at Malpensa. Somewhere in the middle, we found ourselves wondering where else and how soon we could again travel on the A380!

To complete this fantastical journey, as we stepped off the plane, a well-dressed, strikingly handsome, unmistakably Italian gentleman held a sign with our name on it. As if we were characters in some luxury fairy tale, this meet-and-greet service escorted us from the plane door and to our car and driver in a New York minute.

Then and there I started composing my thank-you letter for the first of many recommended unforgettable places in Italy. Arrangements were seamless through one of Virtuoso’s stellar On-Site ground operators. These experts can make pretty much anything happen in their destinations.

Milan: More than Pasta

Milan has the pull of great food, shopping and a favorable exchange rate which hasn’t been seen in years. In addition, Mandarin Oriental, Milan had recently opened and I wanted to see it.

Housed in four 18th century buildings, this jewel allows you to fall out of bed onto the shops of Via Manzoni. The lure of the handsomely decorated Mandarin Bar soon had us seated outdoors next to the unmistakable Mario Batali, in his bold orange shorts. Exquisite design, a food lover’s haven, a 9,600-square-foot spa and the wow factor of a Fornesetti suite combine to make this hotel a must-do experience on your tour of unforgettable places in Italy.

True to the Mandarin Oriental brand, the concierge hit the mark when he recommended our dream restaurant.  At Solferino, the veal milanese and osso buco should not be missed.

unforgettable places in italy: historic grand hotel tremezzo with water in front
The historic Grand Hotel Tremezzo stands regally over Lake Como

We explored, shopped and ate our way through the lovely neighborhood of Brera with its winding streets and artsy vibe. Another highlight was Panzerotti Luini, famous for what we call an inside-out pizza. If you do nothing else in Milan, have a panzerotti at Luini for lunch. It’s one of the many spots that makes Milan one of the most unforgettable places in Italy.

Lake Como: Gorgeous Gems

A little over an hour drive from Milan had us settling into the 1910 Grand Hotel Tremezzo. It stands regally over Lake Como, glowing in brilliant, bright light.  Family-owned, this quintessential Italian gem satisfies every longing for the glamour and grace of the Art Nouveau era. We fully expected Greta Garbo to emerge from one of the beautifully appointed rooms. Dinner at the hotel’s La Terraza restaurant affords unparalleled views of the lake. We feasted on a whitefish pulled straight from the water and an osso buco cooked for 72 hours in a secret sauce.

Don’t miss the hotel’s next-door neighbor. Villa Carlotta’s gardens and museum are so gorgeous that you cannot help but slow down to admire them all.

A tour around the lake in a private boat is a must. Only a tour with a guide can get you inside the spectacularly beautiful Villa del Balbianello. A number of films have been shot on the grounds of the 18th-century villa.

The lovely lake towns like Varenna and Bellagio awakened my college Italian enough to speak to the charming gentlemen selling their wares. An exchange had us departing with not one but two postcards as a gift from our new friends. We also left with the realization that flattery is an art form which no one does better than the Italians.

Leaving the lake is bearable only knowing that you’re headed back to the Tremezzo.

That night, with images swirling in our heads of magnificent villas and views, we slept on what we would forever remember as the best bed and linens anywhere. We were as sad to leave these comforts as we were to leave the lake area itself. But we knew other unforgettable places in Italy lay ahead.

Santa Margherita Ligure: From the Lake to the Sea

We started a four-hour drive, onwards and backwards, to an area I had been to 30 years ago and now wanted to show my husband. We arrived at the sea, in Santa Margherita Ligure, next to Portofino. From my stay so many years ago, I remembered a spectacular footpath from Santa Margherita to Portofino. I also recalled a restaurant whose name had long been forgotten where I dined two out of three nights because it was that good. I secretly held on to the possibility that I might find both again.

unforgettable places in italy: Colorful Cinque Terre buildings on steep cliff overlooking water
Cinque Terre’s colorful towns on the sea are some of Italy’s most scenic places

Across from the sea stands a piece of heaven where discerning guests have stayed for over a century, Grand Hotel Miramare. With stunning ocean views and beautifully landscaped grounds, this became our home for four nights.

Cinque Terre, Pisa & Lucca: Day Tripping

If you can tear yourself away from your sun-drenched sea-view hotel balcony, Santa Margherita is a fabulous base to explore Cinque Terre. It’s one of the most beautiful areas of the Italian Riviera.

We headed out for a 90-minute drive to this must-see-before-you-leave-earth magical place.  Two recommendations for this full-day trip would be:

1) use the services of a Virtuoso travel advisor who can arrange transportation and a knowledgeable guide

2) make sure you have available storage for the slew of photos you’re sure to take

Another must-do day excursion for one more of the most unforgettable places in Italy is Pisa. We were finally able to take that infamous, cross-off-your-bucket list shot of us holding up the Leaning Tower.

That night, back at the Grand Hotel Miramare, we looked through the tour company’s list of recommended restaurants. In complete and immediate amazement, I recognized the name of the little restaurant of 30 years ago. La Cambusa still delights patrons with its family-style fare, including fresh seafood and pasta.

One of the many pleasures of travel is discovering a place you know you’ll go back to as soon as possible. Lucca was such a discovery. We endlessly thank our Virtuoso travel advisor for using one of Virtuoso’s On-Site ground operators, who recommended this visit to us.

unforgettable places in italy: the author holding up the leaning tower of pisa
Another item crossed off the travel bucket list: the author “holding up” the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Just a half-hour drive from Pisa, Lucca is a shopper’s heaven and a photographer’s paradise. You’ll see about 100 churches, tree-lined streets, beautiful architecture and amazing light.  This lovely walled town is filled with gorgeous shops, many family-owned since the 1800s. It seems like an outdoor medieval mall. Every third weekend of the month, a very fun flea market appears in the old town.

Portofino: A Magical Arrival

You can take day trips filled with discoveries each and every day to the charming towns in this region. But Portofino and Santa Margherita, with their shopping streets and seaside promenades, were especially calling our names. They are truly among the unforgettable places in Italy.

The Miramare’s wonderful concierge directed us to a footpath along the sea, then through the hillside park of my memories. Thirty years later it is well-marked rather than a small, dust-covered sign on the ground. What a beautiful way to arrive at the splendor of Portofino! The seaside promenade turned off into lush gardens and hilltop views of the water. We returned to the hotel by boat and prepared to say arrivederci to Italy – but not for long.

Puglia and Basilicata: The Other Italy

A few months later, I had the enormous good luck to return and experience more of the most unforgettable places in Italy. This time I explored the southern regions of Puglia and Basilicata. Consider them the arch and heel of Italy’s boot.

I was charmed by their crazy beautiful towns. Ostuni is famed for its citadel in Old Town, sitting atop a hill and guarded by ancient walls. Matera, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, features churches carved from the region’s volcanic rock. Lecce features rich Baroque architecture in a city more than 2,000 years old. The fantasy-like Alberobello is renowned for its unusual houses with conical roofs.

unforgettable places in italy: modern room at borgo egnazia
The simple becomes the beautiful at Borgo Egnazia in Pugia

A short ride from Bari or Brindisi airports brings you to the family-run gems of Masseria San Domenico and Borgo Egnazia. There are hotels that know the secret to turn the simple into beautiful and the ordinary into something divine. These two happily share this secret with those who have the good fortune to stay there.

Another regional treasure is Basilicata’s Palazzo Margherita. The historic palace, now owned by Francis Ford Coppola, features just nine unique, luxurious rooms.

Seeing These Unforgettable Places in Italy Firsthand

There are few words to accurately describe the impossible beauty and abundant experiences that await visitors to this less discovered region of Italy. My two pieces of advice: partner with a Virtuoso travel advisor who specializes in Italy. Then go immediately!