28 September 2020

Thinking of Italy? Where to go now

 At the time I'm writing this most British citizens are free to travel to Italy with no restrictions or travel warnings and many have recently travelled (like me), have booked travel or are considering it (readers in lockdown areas should check local guidance). Travel to Italy is also straightforward for residents of many other countries, although sadly some of my readers will be limited to planning for next year. During the pandemic different countries' rules and liberties have changed and will change again; travel between continents and some types of travel may be difficult or impossible. 

As always I can't take the responsibility of actively advising anyone to travel. There are a number of potential complications and risks to consider, and many people would rather wait until next year. It's very important to check your travel insurance, the rules of both the country you are leaving and your destination, the procedures of airports and airlines in between and to think through implications of rule changes, quarantine impositions, and health risks.

But right now Italy is probably the one of the best places you could travel to from the UK. After a terrible experience in the early stages of the pandemic and a tough lockdown, Italy has currently got much lower infection rates than many other European countries, has managed to keep its figures stable for several weeks now and is being praised as an example of successful infection controls. Of course this could change, but at present there is no automatic quarantine expected of travellers at either end of a UK-Italy journey, Italy is considerably safer than Britain - and if the UK rules are arduous, you could export your extended family for an Italian break where you will be allowed to be together, maybe even plan a family Christmas in the sunshine. There are also some very good travel bargains - my brother has flown to Venice today for £144 per person for three nights in a central hotel, flights included.

In the case of origin countries/areas with a very high infection rate (much higher than the UK), Italy has instituted testing on arrival rather than imposing quarantine - an encouraging move for incoming travellers. Currently passengers flying into Rome report getting fast and efficient Covid-19 tests, with the results in half an hour. Rome Fiumicino Airport has won a 5-star rating for its pandemic protocols. Note that there is testing on departure from Rome too, with positive results meaning a passenger can't travel.

Apart from the universal problem of partying youngsters breaking rules, Italy has seen a generally community-spirited response to legislated precautions. Masks are worn on public transport and indoors, with hardly any exceptions, and should also be worn in crowded outdoor areas after 6pm. When I was in Venice the worst offenders at non-mask-wearing were foreign tourists.

Italy's latest pandemic protection measures are explained helpfully here in English: 

> http://www.salute.gov.it/portale/nuovocoronavirus/dettaglioFaqNuovoCoronavirus.jsp?lingua=english&id=230

If you're not happy to comply with these, or to accept the possibility of quarantine in case of a positive test or symptoms, then don't travel to Italy. Italy is keen to welcome foreign visitors - tourism represented 13% of GDP last year, and Italians are hospitable by nature - and is doing its best to offer a welcoming experience - it would be heart-breaking if this endangers its population.

Some hotels and tourist businesses are still closed but the majority are open. In Venice restaurants were doing very good business when I was there. Most museums and tourist attractions are open, though you should check ahead for opening times, which may be reduced, and make any necessary online bookings. Airports are much quieter than normal.

I travel to Italy in autumn and winter not just to see friends, family and familiar places, but also to enjoy quieter cities, atmospheric scenery, a bigger chance of sunshine and warmth than the UK, and because frankly some destinations are too hot in summer months. Thick rich Italian hot chocolate is another big attraction. Here's a hot chocolate I enjoyed in wintry Turin:

This year, independently of the pandemic, there is another significant reason for UK citizens to visit Italy soon. After the New Year, due to Brexit, there are no guarantees as to the ease of travel or whether British citizens will be eligible for health care (a pretty big consideration given that many travel insurers are now excluding pandemic-related issues from their cover). Maybe everything will be fine, but if you only have a UK passport and want to travel with the rights and entitlements of EU citizens, you only have three months left.

Where to go

It's a changeable situation and unlike any normal autumn and winter. This year, as well as the climate, visitors will be prepared for potentially changing situations with regard to restrictions, tourist numbers and opening times/dates. Where to go will of course be affected by when you are planning to travel - a last dose of summer, or a winter city break?

This week the temperature in Sicily is forecast to reach 29 degrees centigrade, Rome is set for 24 degrees, and the north of Italy 21 or 22 degrees. Over the next few weeks there's still time for some late sunshine and warmth and maybe a few hours on the beach.  (I managed this in northerly-but-mild Liguria last October). While not quite as ideal as spring, autumn can be a good time for a walking holiday - a good chance of sunshine but not too hot for physical activity. Later in the year the north can get cold, though a wrapped-up city break in Venice or Turin with hot-chocolate breaks has its own appeal. 

Airlines have reduced the number of flights between Italy and the UK, but also reduced prices and there are some very good deals available, so budget-conscious travellers can opt to choose their destination based on prices. On British Airway's website there are tools helping customers to find the cheapest return flights.

In choosing a destination it's also worth considering the unique advantages of this particular year. Disaster has struck, but there are bright spots that can give comfort, however sad their underlying causes My experience of Venice last month was transformed by the absence of tour groups and cruise ships (cruising has restarted now, but in a very limited way). There are very few visitors in Italy from outside Europe, whereas in recent years cities have been filled with big Chinese tour parties even through winter months. Most travellers are now in couples or family groups, exploring widely and very engaged with their surroundings, making sightseeing a much easier and more pleasant experience all round, with no crowds to fight through. 

Sicily is popular with independent travellers at the moment, visiting Taormina in particular, which is often swamped by cruise ship visitors in normal years. This might be a good time to visit destinations which similarly are usually popular with tour parties, and cruise ships. Local day-trippers and travellers from mainland Europe are still flocking to the most accessible honeypots, especially on public holidays, but not everywhere is conveniently placed for this, and the impact is much less than the normal crowds. Venice, Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast, Capri, Portofino and the Cinque Terre are among the places which are worth considering. (Note that I have only visited Venice during the pandemic and not the others, and I haven't checked local openings and availability). The narrow lanes and art museums of Florence might be another good possibility for making the most of a quieter season. The unique historic cave town of Matera has been getting busier with tourists every year, and is featured in the new James Bond film - so this could be a good time to visit while you can. So thinking of places which might normally be impacted by crowds is a good starting point, along with climate, attractions, and maybe the local coronavirus situation.


The south of Italy wasn't much affected by the first wave of coronavirus, which was focussed mostly in Lombardy and neighbouring regions. Visiting the town of Bergamo, which suffered among the worst, might be a good way of showing solidarity and helping to rebuild tourism. The infection numbers for different Italian regions can be downloaded here - this might be helpful if considering safety but also the risk of a UK travel corridor closure - though at the moment, with much higher rates than Italy, it would be extremely hypocritical of the UK Foreign Office to quarantine arrivals. There is big variation in numbers of infections between Italian regions - the Valle d'Aosta region, for example, has only 66 positive cases as of September 27th, and several regions only have new daily infections (incremento casi totali) in single or double figures (zero for Aosta). The UK policy of separating 'islands with airports' from mainland regions could affect the Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia - they could potentially be given either travel corridors or warnings separately to mainland Italy. Sardinia's resorts and nightclubs were Covid hotspots in the summer, and I'd suggest checking their figures before booking a trip there. 

My own personal preference for a trip in the next few weeks, after checking infection rates and local news, would be to aim for southern sunshine - Sicily, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento, for example. I'd combine walking and exploring with time enjoying warmth and maybe time by the sea. Liguria also offers a good variety of options - last October I explored the city, took a boat trip, and went walking on the Portofino headland, eating picnics in olive groves about the sea, then spending a warm half-hour on a sunny beach. Venice and Rome are good destinations at any time. From mid-October onwards I'd be thinking more of city breaks, or exploring small towns - a tour of Tuscany, maybe.

For all the difficulties of planning travel now, there could be big rewards too. Keep monitoring the news for updated restrictions and travel warnings, have contingency plans and do your best to have valid insurance if it's available. Consider booking at short-notice to minimise the risk of shifts in rules and changing situations. 

For the latest 7-day coronavirus figures and the standing of Italy with regard to UK quarantine restrictions, follow https://twitter.com/PPaulCharles on Twitter.

Italy and the whole travel industry are in a very difficult situation and travellers are very important to all of us. If you can't or don't wish to travel now, Italy will still have wonders to offer and be a welcoming destination in the future too.

A request for help

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Buy my Venice Kindle guidebook (published in 2013; prices, a few restaurants, and some museum layouts will have changed but the walking tours, descriptions and vast majority of detail will still be accurate. It has excellent reviews!)

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Some more photos from my trip to Genoa last October (with excursions to Nervi and Portofino)

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