Things to do
Opera: when thinking about Italy, many people will have an aria running through their head, whether consciously or not, thus it's almost a crime to visit the country that invented opera and not attend a performance. Most cities and towns will be putting on a show, but one of the greatest places on earth, let alone just in Italy, to see an opera is Verona. The city, famous for its star-cross'd lovers, is home to an ancient amphitheatre, the Arena di Verona, which is one of the most atmospheric venues. Ticket-holders can choose between plush cushioned seats or sitting on the thousand-year old steps and light candles. The Arena comes alive each summer during the Verona Opera Festival; if you're there during this time, take the hire car and go - don't risk missing out.
Shopping: Italy is famed for its stylish residents and haute-couture fashion houses and if shopping's your game, then Milan's the name. Contrary to popular belief, it's not all Gucci, Armani and Prada, though such designers do grace the 'golden rectangle' shopping streets. There are also ample opportunities to pick up goods, including designer items, at lower prices as Milan also possess outlet stores. That's providing you don't mind being seen in last season's trends...
People watching: Venice, with its bridges and canals is a wonderful city, one in which it's great to do a spot of people watching in-between seeing the sights or taking a gondola cruise. Head to St Mark's Square and stop for a hot chocolate while watching people go by. Yes, there will be a lot of tourists, but there are plenty of locals too. It's a fascinating pastime, even better in February, during the Venice Carnival. This annual event sees people dress up in masks and elaborate costumes, parading the streets without a car in the world. Sit back and drink it all in.
Architecture: while there are incredible structures all over Italy, if you've only got time for one architectural stop, then make it Rome. Here you will find the Colosseum, the Pantheon, St Peter's Basilica, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps... the list goes on. Though many of these architectural gems are in close proximity, to see them all could take ages - in fact, to see all the sights on the movie-themed 'Roman Holiday' tour, you'd need to walk for several hours. Hence it might be a better use of time to brave the erratic yet exciting roads and rent a car.
Antiquity: with an exhibition on at the moment in London, you may have heard more about Pompeii and Herculaneum recently. These are the two cities that were devastated by Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, but both were affected in different ways. The cities have been partly excavated and the remains are fascinating. In Pompeii are the famous casts of poor local people, caught in their death throes, whereas in Herculaneum are the ghoulish boat sheds that contain numerous skeletal remains. However, the ruins of these cities give an interesting insight into how these poor people lived and a visit is far more about celebrating their life than their unfortunate demise.
If Italy is a boot, then Sicily is the football that the boot is kicking, situated off the southern-most tip. It is a large island - again, it would make sense to explore with a hire car, rather than rely on public transport - with its own culture and language, distinct from Italian (though today Italian dominates).
It is perhaps best well-known as the home of Mount Etna, but fans of Italian detective fiction will recognise it from the 'Inspector Montalbano' series. There is a lot to see and do aside from the beaches; Sicily boasts several archaeological sites, temples and castles. There is a heavy Greek influence, which is evident in its art and architecture - such as the Greek Theatre in Taormina. In truth, most of the island's attractions are on the cultural side, but there is a number of good restaurants, bars and clubs in Palermo, Catania and Taormina.