Rome isn’t just the geographical centre of Italy, it’s the country’s historic heart, too. Whether cycling a 2,000-year-old Roman road, glimpsing the birthplace of the Renaissance or road-tripping to vineyards and Medieval hill towns through Umbria, Rome is the perfect base from which to dive into Italy’s incredible history and cuisine.
When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, it preserved the last few seconds of life in the Roman city of Pompeii. Entombed within compacted ash, its ancient streets, bathhouses and homes remained eerily intact. It even left a grisly snapshot of the townspeople, with those caught in the disaster interred in the calcified rock, their final poses recreated by pouring plaster into the hollows within. This day trip takes in both the city and its infamous volcano, ascending all the way to Mount Vesuvius’s steaming crater during summer (this part is exchanged for a tour of Naples in the winter). The views alone are worth the thigh burn.
It’s true – all roads did lead to Rome. The Appian Way was once a lifeline of the Roman Empire, the first link in a network of roads that would eventually total some 80,000km (49,710mi). Today, much of its 370km (230mi) route has been modernised, but flickers of its cobbled past can still be spotted. It’s also an easily pedalled artery to some of Rome’s most iconic sites. Explore a snippet of the Way, stopping at tombs and relics of its imperial past. The highlight is surely a visit to the Catacombs di San Callisto, the largest in Rome, which contains the entrance to a tunnel network that stretches more than 20km (12.4mi).
Thanks to its spring waters and mild climate, Tivoli has long been a popular getaway for Romans. Even emperors found peace here, including Hadrian who built a grand villa at the foot of the Tiburtine hills in AD 124. Its size is palatial, while the eccentric design records his travels through its architecture, from Grecian theatres to an Egyptian-style canal. This guided day trip combines a visit here with the region’s other man-made wonder, the Renaissance-era home of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este. His vast Italianate gardens reveal a weakness for elaborate water features, with a musical water fountain and the 130m-(427ft-)long Avenue of the Hundred Fountains among the most remarkable sights. It’s a double delight.
Umbria is the green soul of central Italy, where dense forests and cypress-spotted plains still wrap its hilltop towns. It’s a scene played out on repeat as you hurtle north of Rome and into the Tiber Valley on this fascinating day trip. The first stop is the second of these two towns, just 90 minutes from the capital. Orvieto’s beautiful Gothic cathedral still forms the centrepiece here, its frescoes said by many to rival those of the Sistine Chapel. Then it’s on to Assisi, whose name will forever be linked to its most famous son, St Francis. Visit his childhood home and birthplace, plotting his life and deeds in the frescoes and basilica that followed in his honour.
‘Italian food’ is a rather misleading term. Cooking in Italy is highly regional, dictated by what grows in the farms, fields and forests nearby, and even by an area’s history. Tuscany’s heartland was never wealthy; it’s a rural place, where rustic cooking mirrors the hard-won olive groves and vineyards that scatter its hills. This ‘Tuscany Taster’ round-trip tour eschews the noisy bustle of the capital for the green embrace of Italy’s breadbasket. As well as a three-course dinner, pit stops include the remote Sant’Antimo Abbey (a popular stop on the old Via Francigena pilgrim trail) and the town of Pienza, with time to stock your larder full of nutty pecorino cheese, fatty soppressata (dried salami) and truffles aplenty.
Castelli Romani encompasses 13 towns swaddled by the velvet-green caldera of the Alban Hills, south of Rome. It is a historic getaway for frazzled Romans and, apart from its lakes and peaks, is known for one thing in particular: wine. Volcanic soils make the area especially fertile for winemakers, with the hilltop town of Frascati at its heart. Its eponymous wine was even said to have flowed from the fountains of Rome upon the inauguration of Popes Clement X and Innocent X. This private Castelli Romani Vineyard and Wine Tastings tour heads for its medieval cobbles and that of neighbouring Grottaferrata, before touring the Santa Benedetta winery, set in a secluded former convent. Sate your palate with local Lariano bread, cheese and wines made from Malvasia, Bellone and Trebbiano Toscano grapes amid this beautiful hill country.
Florence was the cradle of the Renaissance. Its 15th-century heyday was fuelled by the wealth of merchants, bankers and the all-powerful Medici family, with the funding of great religious artworks, thought to smooth over all their sins. The result is a city built on guilt and art, and one which lies just a 90-minute train ride from Rome. This Florence day trip makes timely use of its fast rail links, as you skip the lines at Florence’s Uffizi Gallery to spy Botticelli’s famous ‘The Birth of Venus’, wander the shops along the Ponte Vecchio and climb the great Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore – one of the great sights of the Western world. A whirlwind trip to Europe’s iconic art capital.
The city of canals is one of Europe’s most elaborate constructions, but it’s getting harder and harder to see due to overcrowding. Demand has long outstripped supply in Venice, and it’s easy to see why. The sight of the Byzantine domes of the Basilica di San Marco or the palaces that line the Grand Canal are no less beautiful for their endless reproduction. The independent Venice day-trip from Rome is as good a way as any to get a glimpse of the grandeur of Italy’s jewel and still escape the bustle. The journey only takes three hours, and once there you can skip the queues at the Basilica and avoid the logjams on the narrow walkways by negotiating its canals instead with a Vaporetto (water taxi) ticket.
Sheared from the tip of the Sorrento Peninsula, south of Naples, the beauty of Capri is no secret. The notoriously capricious Roman emperor Tiberius even moved the imperial capital here to the island at the end of his reign so he could indulge in his vices away from the clucking of the Senate. A ‘Capri Day Trip’ tour (via a 1 hour 10 minute high-speed train to Naples, then jet boat on to Capri) reveals just what a seductress it is. But while the island’s late fame as an escape for Italy’s super-rich may have lent an artisanal veneer to its rugged, bushy terrain, its stylish boutiques, grand villas and fine restaurants still pale in comparison to the twinkling waters of its famous Blue Grotto sea cave. It’s a true natural wonder.