Italy Is Travel + Leisure's Destination of the Year — Here’s Why

A new Italian renaissance is waiting in the wings, and there’s no better time to start planning your next visit.

The town of Atrani, Italy
The town of Atrani, of Italy's Amalfi Coast. Photo: Milles Studio/Stocksy

All you have to do, really, is close your eyes, and you’re there.

Your specific there might be the Val d’Orcia, where cypresses march in rows across low, undulating hills. Or it might be the vertiginous cliffs of the Amalfi Coast, where pastel-hued villages cascade down to pebble beaches and secret coves. Or perhaps it’s the plains of Puglia, with their thousand-year-old olive trees and frothy Baroque cathedrals.

Italy is a land made up of signifiers that the whole world recognizes and loves. Perhaps more than any European country, it informs our idea of the holiday; take, for example, the traveler in whose mind those brushstroke cypresses are indelibly imprinted — but who has never even set foot in Tuscany.

As I write this, Italy, like most of Europe, is still off-limits to American visitors. But whether you’re a neophyte or have explored the country from Liguria to Lecce, now is a good time to dive into that planning-and-dreaming sweet spot to which Italy lends itself so well.

Scenes from Tuscany and Puglia, Italy
From left: Cypress trees lining the roadside in Tuscany’s visually iconic Val d’Orcia; breakfast in the courtyard of Palazzo Daniele, a hotel in a former mansion in the Puglian town of Gagliano del Capo. From left: Marilar Irastorza/Stocksy; Paola+Murray

Many of us have already found ourselves drawn there by a sense of compassion and fellow feeling. In the spring of this year, we watched as Italy became one of the first countries to be devastated by COVID-19. (In the northern province of Lombardy alone, almost 17,000 people died in the first three months.) While throughout the summer other European countries had to impose and reimpose quarantines, Italy was able to take tentative first steps back to normalcy, opening its borders to the U.K. and much of Europe.

What awaits the traveler in 2021? Everything that has always made Italy alluring: the food, the wine, the artisan traditions, the fashion (oh, the fashion), cities that are palimpsests of history; the sea, and of course that ineffable but deeply desirable state known as dolce far niente — all of it’s still there to revel in. But there’s also something new in the air. Call it a deepened, or renewed, appreciation among Italians of the richness and breadth of their country’s patrimony.

When we can travel again, Italy will need us. That old cliché about hospitality being hard-coded into the Italian way of life is actually kind of true. And as a result, the Italian tourism ecosystem is vast. It comprises not just hotels and airports and cruise ships; it extends deep into the country’s socioeconomic fabric. The artisanal businesses that form the backbone of thoughtful travel experiences — boutique winemakers, olive farmers, innkeepers, craftspeople, boat captains, drivers, and, of course, guides — suffered profoundly this year. Some of the most venerated cultural institutions and sites in the world, ones that have shaped many of our lives (and rely enormously on tourism income), suffered, too.

Related: The Top 10 Italy Resort Hotels

The next year may well see them all flourish again. We can ensure this by being part of that renaissance. So peruse the following pages, and plan your next visit. The posterity of the things that say Italy to us — from an almond granita by the shore in Sicily to the illuminated façade of San Miniato al Monte in Florence — is in our hands.

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