Love Italian culture, music and food? Give the big cities a miss and discover the delights of smaller Venice, Florence and Verona instead.
Italy is an open air museum of antiquities and Renaissance splendour, it's music straight from the heart, and, of course, fabulous food. Many visitors flock to Rome and Milan for their fill of Italian culture. Why not be a bit different and explore some of the smaller cities – Venice, Florence and Verona – and their festivals with Jet2CityBreaks? Each is its own piece of authentic Italy, without the bustle and challenge of a massive metropolis.
Every two years, Venice - one of the most recognisable and beautiful cities in the world - hosts The Biennale – an arts show featuring several thousand exhibits from international artists. Between May and November, miles of Venice's Gothic stone and Baroque facades rub shoulders with avant-garde installations: Lorenzo Quinn's giant hands reach out of the lagoon to support a sinking building; Rachel Maclean's dark, modern retelling of Pinocchio is projected in a deconsecrated church... you get the picture. You'll find most of the exhibits at the Giardini and Arsenale venues, but look out also for Biennale Fringe events popping up around the city. There's so much to see, feel and comprehend – no two people experience the same Biennale.
Of course, the Biennale isn't Venice's only festival. In chilly January and February, the Venice Carnival, backdropped by the Canalettoesque beauty of the wintry lagoon, brings out masked ladies in crinolines and powdered popinjays in wigs and cravats to parade in St Mark's Square. The mask and costume shops outnumber the grocers. Most events happen at the historic dockyard, the Arsenale, and if you have a cool €700 in your pocket you may be able to get into one of the full costume masked balls.
Food in Venice is, as you would expect, seafood-based with specialities that include fried marinated sardines, baccala (salt cod), crispy soft-shelled crabs and sticky black squid ink risotto. Pasta here is wholemeal (bigoli) and there's succulent calves' liver with onions for the carnivores. Prosecco is the sparkling tipple of choice, even better topped up with white peach juice as a Bellini in Harry's Bar.
Dominated by Brunelleschi's magnificent Duomo, Florence was the cradle of the Renaissance and undoubtedly one of Europe's finest cities. Works by Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Giotto and Leonardo da Vinci greet you at almost every turn as you explore the historic cobbled lanes and piazzas, peeking into ornate churches.
Cultural must do's, if you're feeling up to them, are: climbing the 400+ steps up to the Duomo's two viewing platforms, for breathtaking views across the terracotta-roofed city; and the Uffizi gallery, an almost overwhelming collection of Renaissance masterpieces, including Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Raphael's Madonna of the Goldfinch. If you want to see Michelangelo's statue of David, he's in the Accademia Gallery half a mile down the road. When you have seen enough cherubs, there are fantastic natural history and medical museums that unravel the Renaissance's science side.
Florence hosts festivals throughout the year: April-June brings the Maggio Musicale, Italy's foremost opera and classical festival, and an ice-cream festival, celebrating Florence's artisan gelati. In August and September the atmospheric medieval courtyard of the Bargello Museum becomes an open-air auditorium for theatre, dance and music of all genres.
Florence being in Tuscany, the food is simple and delicious, relying on good bread, olive oil, beef and game, cheese and beans. A must-try is a Florentine steak – a huge chargrilled T-bone, best paired with a nice Chianti. And seeing as Florence is famous for its artisan ice cream, skip restaurant desserts and pop into a gelateria instead.
Romantic Verona, home of star-cross'd lovers Romeo and Juliet and almost as many Roman ruins as Rome itself, is now one of Italy's most-visited cities. And for good reason. The pretty historic centre, famous for its many bell towers and beautiful Piazza delle Erbe is compact, sitting within a loop of the Adige River. Its backstreet restaurant scene is legendary, and it's a magnet for fashionistas browsing the designer boutiques tucked in between the gilded churches.
Verona's most famous landmark is the Arena - its colossal Roman amphitheatre. Built around 30 AD, it has seen its fair share of gladiatorial violence and gore, although today it's the hub for something far more civilised – theatre and jazz festivals in June, and the magnificent open air Arena Opera Festival in July and August.
Being inland, Veronese food centres around meat, cheese, wild mushrooms, freshwater fish and bitter-leaved Treviso salads. Look out for specialities such as risotto with local sausage, and polenta with cheese or mushrooms, accompanied by local wines including Amarone della Valpolicella and Soave. And of course you must try the delectable biscuits, Baci di Giulietta (Juliet's kisses).
Experience the cultures of Venice (from £239 per person), Florence (from £229 per person) or Verona (from £289 per person) with Jet2CityBreaks. Packages include your flights and 3 nights' hotel in the city of your choice. With great flight times and a selection of amazing 3-5* hotels to make your mini-break perfect, now's the time to visit one or all of these stunning cities.
Jet2CityBreaks are offering £200 off per couple. Fly to Venice from three UK airports, (Edinburgh, Leeds Bradford and Manchester), Florence from four UK airports, (East Midlands, Leeds Bradford, Manchester and Newcastle) or Verona from four UK airports, (East Midlands, Edinburgh and Leeds Bradford) – new for Summer 2018 with Jet2CityBreaks.
You can book your mini-break with a deposit of just £60 (and zero credit card fees) with 22kg of luggage included in the price too. ATOL and ABTA protected.