Michelangelo, Vivaldi, Puccini, Brunelleschi, Da Vinci, Ferrari, Bugati, Fellini, Armani, Prada, Missoni – the list of Italian names that have left their stylish imprint on the world spans the centuries. And what inspired all this creativity? Towns and cities drenched in ancient history, some of the finest food and wine in the world, and sublime landscapes, from the placid waters of the northern lakes, to the cypress-spiked landscapes of Tuscany, and the high drama of the Amalfi coast.
With all that on offer, it's not difficult to see why Italy is one of the favourite destinations for British holidaymakers. But it might also mean that you feel a little scruffy departing for Venice or Milan on a no-frills flight at the crack of dawn. Happily, there are dozens of options for injecting style into your trip.
For the ultimate arrival, there's really only one choice. Book a berth on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (0845 217 0799; orient-express.com). This sophisticated service, pictured above right, with its elegant cabins and fine dining, departs London Victoria for Venice Santa Lucia on a trip that takes two days and costs from £1,830 full board. This year, there's even an option to spend your whole holiday on the luxury train, with the new nine-day "Renaissance Rivals" trip. Devised to showcase some of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo's works in the cities of their creation, this is one of a series of escorted tours in association with London's National Gallery. Departing London Victoria on 16 May, the trip costs £7,950 per person and features three nights' accommodation at the Villa San Michele in Florence.
However, you don't have to save up for the trip of a lifetime to arrive in style. For a civilised and leisurely journey to Italy, take the Eurostar (0870 518 6186; eurostar.com) to Paris – with return fares from £69 in standard class and £189 in standard premier class – where you can connect to the Thello (00 33 1 83 82 00 00; thello.com), an upgraded sleeper train that has been running the overnight route from Paris to Milan, Verona and Venice since December. The connection from Paris to Bologna, Florence and Rome is due to recommence from 20 June. The best fares are available direct through Trenitalia (00 39 06 6847 5475; trenitalia.com), which runs the new service with Veolia. For the journey between Paris and Milan, expect to pay return fares in March from €160 for a couchette in a shared cabin to €440 for a single compartment.
If you also have the luxury of time, you could take the slow lane and drive through France via Eurotunnel (08705 35 35 35; eurotunnel.com), with returns starting at £44 per car, or one of the ferry services that cross the Channel, from £74 return for the P&O service from Dover to Calais, entering Italy through the Mont Blanc tunnel at Courmayeur.
A hire car will give you the greatest flexibility for getting around, but Italy's extensive train network is also one of the best ways to explore, linking many towns and cities. And from this spring, the sleek new red Italo (ntvspa.it) trains – aka the Ferrari Train – are due to take to the rails of Italy's high-speed network alongside the current Trenitalia schedule, calling at Turin, Milan, Venice, Padua, Bologna, Florence, Rome, Naples and Salerno. Premium passengers will get free Wi-Fi and access to a cinema carriage and station lounges.
What better name for a classic grand tour with a contemporary twist than the "Italian Vogue" tour? This luxurious journey offered by Insight Vacations (01475 741 203; insightvacations.com/uk) travels from Rome to destinations including Capri, Chianti, Florence and Venice, and includes such top-class lodgings as the Capri Palace and Spa, private tours to sites such as Pompeii, right, and a Cinque Terre cruise.
If you have £3,465 to spare – a price that excludes flights but includes luxury coach transport, accommodation, most meals, wine tastings, and private tours – there are still spaces on the first departure on 23 April.
Nautilus Yachting (01732 867445; nautilusyachting. com) has just opened a charter base in Grado, from where you can explore the Gulf of Trieste by chartering a four-cabin Bavaria 47 Cruiser from £1,939 a week.
Make a stately journey of exploration on one of the new tours from Great Rail Journeys (01904 521980; greatrail.com). Among them is a 13-day itinerary from Rome down through Puglia and Basilicata via Lecce, Matera and the Gargano peninsula. It costs £1,935 per person, based on two sharing, including first-class rail and coach travel, transfers, 12 nights' B&B, nine dinners, guided tours and a guide.
There are several luxury lodgings opening this year. One not to miss is Castello di Casole (00 39 0577 967560; castellodicasole.com), right, an Etruscan castle near Siena in Tuscany due to open as a hotel from 1 July. It is the former home of the film-maker Luchino Visconti and is set amid vineyards, olive groves and a wildlife reserve. It will offer guests 41 suites, two restaurants, a bar and spa. Doubles from €630 per night.
Another film-maker has just opened a hotel in the birthplace of his grandfather. Francis Ford Coppola's Palazzo Margherita (00 39 0835 549060; palazzomargherita.com), in Bernalda, Basilicata, offers doubles from €360, B&B.
Other hotels to anticipate include the latest addition to the Salviatino Collection, Palazzo Victoria (00 39 045 590 566; palazzovictoria. com), opening in Verona later this month, with B&B from €230. In May, Monastero Santa Rosa Hotel & Spa (monasterosantarosa.com) opens in a 17th-century monastery on the Amalfi coast, with rooms from €415.
There's also a crop of superior new self-catering lodgings. Highlights include Monteluce in the Sicilian countryside near Noto, a beautiful one-bedroom property with a pool, available from £1,068 per week through Holiday Lettings (holidaylettings.co.uk/185485), and a refurbished three-bedroom apartment, Scale Nove, in Gallipoli near Lecce, available through Think Puglia (020 7377 8518; thinkpuglia.com) from €2,550 per week.
Il Rosaio, a four-bedroom stone house in Umbria with private pool, is newly offered by Vintage Travel (01954 261431; vintagetravel.co.uk) from £1,550 a week. And Sardinian Places (0845 330 2050; sardinianplaces. co.uk) has added the Villa Montemoro, a three-bedroom property near Porto Cervo on Sardinia's Costa Smeralda. Price from £484 per person per week, based on six sharing, with flights from Gatwick and car hire.
Italy's cultural heritage draws millions each year, and 2012 sees yet more museums, exhibitions and special tours to keep the human tide flowing (www.italiantouristboard.co.uk).
In Milan, add Gallerie di Piazza Scala (gallerieditalia.com), via Manzoni 10, to your itinerary. This new cultural venue displays more than 200 works of art, dating from the 1800s and featuring artists from Antonio Canova to Umberto Boccioni, within rooms at the Palazzo Anguissola Antona Traversi and Palazzo Brentani. (Visit before the Novecento section officially opens later this year and you'll get in free.)
In Modena, you can pay homage to the supercar star of the new Casa Ferrari Museum (00 39 059 2033 940; museocasaenzoferrari.it), opening next Saturday, 10 March. The complex includes the house in which Enzo Ferrari was born in 1898 and a new extension shaped as a car bonnet, in the same yellow against which the prancing horse is set. Inside, a collection of Italian cars, historic documents and memorabilia will more than satisfy discerning petrolheads. Entrance is €13.
And don't be just another face in the crowd at the Sistine Chapel, pictured above, in Vatican City. Italy With Us (00 39 06 3972 3051; italywithus.com) can get you in for an exclusive morning viewing before the doors officially open or after hoi polloi have been ushered out at night. Tours from €50 per person.
Eat, drink and be merryFor top-class dining, get a copy of this year's Michelin guide to Italy (michelin. com). You'll find 38 newly starred restaurants, with Lombardy heading the list. Must-book tables include Massimo Bottura's restaurant Osteria Francescana (00 39 059 210118; osteriafrancescana.it) in Modena, which won a third star. New two-star restaurants include Principe Cerami (00 39 094 261 3111; amthotels.it; open April-October) in Taormina, Sicily; L'Olivo (00 39 081 978 0111; capripalace.com) at the Capri Palace hotel; Quattro Passi (00 39 081 808 2800; ristorantequattropassi.com) in Massalubrense; and Restaurant Oliver Glowig (00 39 06 321 6126; oliverglowig.com) in Rome.
Arblaster & Clarke (01730 263111; winetours. co.uk) has a new nine-night tour that travels from Florence to Naples, calling at top vineyards along the way. It costs £3,450 per person, based on two sharing, including accommodation, most meals, vineyard visits coach and train transport, and the services of a tour manager. Flights excluded.
Lastly, Italy holds its first Slow Food Day (slowfood.it) on 26 May, with events in more than 300 locations.
Luxury on a shoestring
Enjoy luxe for less on the Tuscan island of Elba, pictured above (visitelba.com). The third largest of Italy's islands is known by the British for little more than being the place to where Napoleon was exiled. That's all likely to change in 2014, when it will mark the 200th anniversary of his incarceration. However, beat the crowds to learn more about this island-cum-nature reserve with great beaches. Do it in budget style, too, at the Hotel Ilio (00 39 0565 90 80 18; hotelilio.com), which opens for the season on 20 April. This three-star property in the hamlet of Capo Sant'Andrea and has half-board doubles for €140.
Amid thousands of properties, the new short-stay accommodation company House Trip (020-3463 0087; housetrip. com) features the fabulously opulent Penthouse Marquis Lucifero around the corner from the Campo dei Fiori in Rome. It can sleep up to four, but at £120 per night for the whole apartment, it's affordable for two people.
Families who like a bit of classy camping can bridge the luxury gap at Canonici di San Marco (00 39 348 722 5577; viacanonici.com), a small collection of beautifully furnished lodges where you can mix country frolics with sightseeing in nearby Venice. The lodges sleep two to six and cost from €700 per week for two sharing, with additional beds at €20. Prices include breakfast, bikes, Wi-Fi and transfers.
Check out special promotional sites, such as lastminute.com's Top Secret Hotel (0871 222 5969; lastminute.com). At time of going to print, it was offering 50 per cent off three nights at a four-star hotel in Milan from 8-11 March, price £166. The catch: you'll find out what hotel this is only after booking, though you are allowed to know that it has a spa, pool and it's in the Bovisa district. Keep an eye on Secret Escapes too (secretescapes.com), which runs "flash sales" of hotels and holidays.
Shop and flop
High-class shopping doesn't begin and end on the via Condotti in Rome, or Milan's golden quadrangle. For truly high-end purchases, consider a private appointment with the artisans who create covetable luxury goods. Watch the craftspeople at Luigi Bevilacqua's showroom in Venice weave delicate velvets, satins and damasks on hand-operated looms dating from the 17th century. If it inspires you to commission a piece for your own home, you'll be pleased to know that this special tour of the workshop, titled Glimpses of Textiles, organised by The Italian Connection and Spirito Italiano (01424 728 900; italian-connection.co.uk), includes the services of a personal shopper. Tours, pictured, are available on request for £510 for groups of up to six. Flights and hotels extra.
If your budget is a little tighter, Summer's Leases (0845 230 2223; summers leases.com) has a cottage for two in Moncioni, Tuscany, called Podere La Rota, from €650 a week, that is perfectly positioned for snapping up ritzy bargains at The Mall (00 39 055 8657 775; themall.it), which teems with outlet stores for Gucci, Valentino, Bottega Veneta and Prada. More retail tip-offs can be found in the cottage's savvy House Book.