Cold, wet and miserable?
Not a bit of it. While the Italian Alpine resorts are hoping for a solid freeze and plenty of snow by January, elsewhere in this beautiful country you can expect many fine, clear days during winter. Naturally, the further south you go, the warmer and brighter the weather is likely to be. But in the north, winter is the ideal time to be a tourist in Italy's "great indoors" – the churches, galleries and museums where so much sensational art is preserved. Most tourists have departed from Venice and Florence, and a misty day in early December is when these cities are at their most serene.
Where should I start?
Milan, which is more accessible than ever by plane and train. There are no bold architectural statements here, apart from Italy's second-biggest church, simply called the Duomo. You can, however, fill a weekend with some little gems. An unlikely image painted on dry plaster on the wall of a refectory is the most precious: Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper at the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie. You reach it through a complex series of electric doors and air-monitored waiting booths; numbers are strictly limited and you are given just 15 minutes to see the famed picture. The painting does the talking while you stand silently in awe. Even in winter, you must book at least a day in advance (00 39 02 8942 1146; www.cenacolovinciano.it). Tickets cost ¿6.50 (£4.50), with a ¿1.50 (£1.10) booking fee.
The nearby Pinacoteca di Brera, at Via Brera 28 (00 39 02 894 21 146; www.brera.beniculturali.it) has no such complicated arrangements. It has the generous opening hours of 8.15am-6.45pm every day except Monday, admission ¿6.50 (£4.60). Raphael's The Marriage of the Virgin altarpiece is perhaps the highlight, but the museum also includes works by Rembrandt, Goya, Picasso and Caravaggio.
Stay nearby at Antica Locanda Solferino, at Via Castelfidardo 2 (00 39 02 657 0129; www.anticalocandasolferino.it). The 11 finely furnished double rooms range in price from ¿260 (£186) to ¿300 (£215); four apartments are also available, from ¿300 (£215).
One of Europe's oldest and busiest opera houses, the recently refurbished La Scala is heavily subsidised by the state, which means you can enjoy outstanding ballet, opera and concerts for less than the comparable experience in London. Call 00 39 02 88791 or visit www.teatroallascala.org.
Is Florence ever crowd-free?
No. But between November and February, this great dark peach-hued city has fewer tourists and more Florentines than during the rest of the year. In the Galleria degli Uffizi (00 39 055 238 8651; www.uffizi.firenze.it), one of the most revered art galleries in the world, you can see Uccello's Rout of San Romano and Botticelli's La Primavera, as well as works by Da Vinci and Michelangelo. It opens from 8.30am-6.50pm daily except Monday, and is best visited in late afternoon on two successive days; the crowds dwindle a couple of hours before it closes, and paying the ¿6.50 (£4.60) admission twice is no hardship. If you cannot manage that, at least pre-book your visit in advance by calling 00 39 055 294883.
An hour's train ride south from the city brings you to two delightful Tuscan cities that almost feel like Florence before mass tourism. Siena gets its soul back after the summer and is wonderfully quiet in the autumn. Arezzo, also in southern Tuscany, has a nationally renowned open-air antiques market on the first Sunday of each month and previous Saturday (www.arezzofieraantiquaria.com).
Some Christmas shopping?
Designer fashion outlets and factory shops are fast becoming another source of tourist income in Italy. The Mall (00 39 055 865 7775; email@example.com) lies north of Arezzo, near the Incisa exit of the A1, and half an hour by bus from Santa Maria Novella station in Florence, and is the place to go for last year's collections and accessories by top Italian designers including Armani, Gucci, Ferragamo and Ermenegildo Zegna at 30-50 per cent off. It opens 10am-7pm daily.
A Roman Christmas?
Despite the 80m-high Christmas tree and life-size Nativity scene in St Peter's Square (the cow and donkey are particularly well done), Italy's capital is a refreshingly low-key Christmas city. Instead of British shoppers fretting and sweating, most Romans will have already ordered their fresh fish days ahead for the big family Christmas Eve supper. There is even a post-Christmas holiday on 8 January for Epiphany; this celebration centres on Piazza Navona, with stalls laden with sweets and figurines.
The queues are as seemingly endless as ever at the Vatican Museums at 100 Viale Vaticano (00 39 06 698 83 333; www.vatican.va) because winter opening hours are reduced: just 10am-1.45pm daily except Sundays, admission ¿13 (£9), although they open additionally on the last Sunday of every month (9am-12.30pm), when admission is free. But on nine days over Christmas and New Year, the hours are extended to 4.45pm, allowing a calm and queue-free visit over lunchtime until closure. Those key dates are 24, 27, 28, 29 and 31 December; and 2, 3, 4 and 5 January.
When in Rome, invest in the Roma Pass (www.romapass.it). For ¿20 (£14) you get three days of admission to archaeological sites and many museums, a map and unlimited public transport.
An excellent place to base yourself in winter is the Hotel Pantheon at 131 Via dei Pastini (00 39 06 6787 746; www.hotelpantheon.it). The 13 rooms are simply furnished, the staff are friendly, and the hotel's location is surprisingly peaceful, given its position just round the corner from the Pantheon itself. Off-season, you should be able to get a better rate than the usual ¿200 (£140), including breakfast.
Can I meet the ancients?
Yes. First fly south to Naples – on British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) from Gatwick; or easyJet (0871 244 2366; www.easyJet.com) from Stansted. The Circumvesuviana train leaves Napoli Centrale every half-hour, reaching Pompeii in 30 minutes. The Roman city that was frozen in time by the eruption of Vesuvius is far too big to take in during a single visit, so stay at the family-friendly Hotel Amleto (00 39 081 863 1004; www.hotelamleto.it), where a double room costs ¿110 (£77) a night, including breakfast. The site (00 39 081 857 5331; www.pompeiisites.org) opens 8.30am-5pm, admission ¿11 (£8).
Hop back on the train and head to Herculaneum. If Pompeii was a rather average town (the sewage ran through the streets), then Herculaneum was the posh town (they had underground lead piping), as you'll seeu ofrom its baths and villas. Architecturally, the site (contact details as for Pompeii) is far better preserved than Pompeii, with much of the timber, mosaics and frescos intact, giving a better picture of what the site looked like pre-AD79. The site is open 8.30am-6pm daily, admission ¿10 (£7).
At nearby Torre Annunziata, Nero's second wife Poppaea Sabina reputedly kept the Villa Oplontis (contact details as for Pompeii). It has one of the biggest pools you'll see, and the frescos are as good as anything in Pompeii. Open 8.30am-6pm, admission ¿5 (£3.60).
Back in Naples, the National Museum of Archaeology features most of the works of art dug out of the sites themselves, including mosaics, urns, busts, statues and household items such as frying pans, and even window glass. To complete your Vesuvian tour, stay in splendour for your final night at the Vesuvio at 45 Via Partenope in Naples (00 39 081 764 0044; www.vesuvio.it). The guest list includes Guy de Maupassant, Bill Clinton and Grace Kelly (though not all in the same room). Doubles from ¿230 (£165), including breakfast.
Can I find some winter sun?
Yes, at one of the all-year resorts in Sicily. Situated halfway along the Tyrrhenian coast, between Messina and Palermo, Cefalu lies within an enclosed bay with a long, sandy beach, and is dominated by a large windswept outcrop hanging over the town. Theu otwin towers of the Norman cathedral peer out over the tightly packed streets and washing-draped houses.
Fly to Palermo from Stansted on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com), or from Gatwick on easyJet (0871 244 2366; www.easyJet.com). Take the train from Palermo airport to Palermo Centrale railway station. Another hour brings you to Cefalu itself; call 00 39 092 192 2259 for tourist information, or visit www.cefalu.it.
Cefalu is the only year-round resort on the Mediterranean's largest island, from which the eastern and western sides of the island can both be reached on day trips. Options include the Greek Temples at Agrigento, the spectacular mosaics at the Imperial Roman villa at Piazza Armerina, and, of course, Mount Etna, Europe's most active volcano.
Here, you can even walk across the lava flows of the last major eruptions in 2002. Call 00 39 333 209 6604 or see www.volcanotrek.com to book an English-speaking volcanologist, geologist and guide with 4x4 for a memorable day out. Prices start at ¿30 (£21.50) per person, with discounts for groups. The ancient theatre at Taormina, which is perched on its own ragged outcrop above the sea, frames quite a view of Mount Etna, especially if one of its wells decides to spit lava and spew steam.
Does Venice freeze?
No, but a cool winter visit to Venice certainly sees fewer visitors and cheaper hotel prices. However, you could be in for some aquatic surprises. The water in the canals tends to reach its highest any time between now and April; the great high tides of the last 40 years (such as 144cm above normal at the beginning of 2000) have all taken place between November and January. You can call the high-water forecast on 00 39 041 241 1996, or go to www.comune.venezia.it/maree for up-to-the-hour information on high water. You may need wellies to trudge over the planks laid over Venice like a web by the local council.
If you want an economy visit to Venice, this is definitely the time of year for cheap flights and hotel bargains. But avoid the high-season hotel rates during Venice Carnival, which in 2008 runs from 25 January to 5 February.
The main artistic attraction in Venice is the Accademia (00 39 041 520 0343; www.gallerieaccademia.org), with its amazing collection spanning five centuries of Venetian art. Among the star exhibits are Giorgione's The Tempest, a Pieta by Titian, and Paolo Veronese's Feast in the House of Levi. It opens 8.15am-7.15pm daily (Mondays from 8.15am-2pm), admission ¿6.50 (£4.65). To have the place almost to yourself, visit over lunchtime or in late afternoon.
The Venice Card (www.venicecard.it) gives you access to museums, galleries, public transport, the Venice Casino, and even a few "pay-as-you-go" public conveniences.
I'm on the hunt for truffles
For serious foodies, there's the Alba White Truffle International Festival (www.fieradeltartufo.org), which has just started and runs to 11 November. As well as celebrating the sought-after fungi, it features specialities from all over the Alba area, music and pageants. And when you're ready to drop, south of Alba is the village of Monforte d'Alba, where you will find the 18th-century Villa Beccaris (00 39 0173 78158; www.villabeccaris.it), which has 20 rooms. Doubles from ¿195 (£140), with breakfast.
Additional research by Ben Ross, Sophie Lam, Simon Calder and Fred Quick
Home to genius: Antonioni and Pavarotti
Ferrara and Modena are the Emilian and Romagnolo home towns of two recently departed Italian cultural giants: Michelangelo Antonioni and Luciano Pavarotti. They are also conveniently close together, and most easily accessed on British Airways from Gatwick to Bologna.
The winter fog is as synonymous with Ferrara as it is with one of Antonioni's noir films. Through the clouds rises the great Castello Estense, surrounded by its own tantalising moat and drawbridge. The castle (00 39 05 322 99233; www.castelloestense.it) opens 9.30am-5.30pm, admission €7 (£5).
Stay at the Hotel Ferrara (00 39 0532 205048; www.hotelferrara.com), which overlooks the castle; doubles from €110 (£77), including breakfast.
Most renaissance dukedoms are indelibly linked to a single family. In Ferrara, it's the Este family: they had the cash, muscle and ego to bully their neighbours into practically anything. The art they commissioned in the mid-15th century is celebrated until 6 January in the prickly Palazzo Diamanti (00 39 05 322 44949; www.palazzodiamanti.it). It opens 9am-7pm, admission €10 (£7.20).
Across in Modena, eyes have always been drawn to Piazza Grande and Lanfranco's great medieval duomo, where the life and voice of Luciano Pavarotti were celebrated last month. Like most things Italian, the church's style is all on the outside: the grey stone building teems with carved capitals, sculptures, arches, reliefs and loggias.
The large Galleria Estense (00 39 059 439 5711; www.galleriaestense.beniculturali.it) is close to the town walls and to the park where so many of Pavarotti's charity concerts took place. Besides paintings by local boys Correggio, Reni and Guercino, and a fine one by Velazquez, the real highlight is on the first floor of the library. The Bible of Borso D'Este is simply the greatest illustrated bible of the 15th century.
The shiny red sheds of the legendary Maserati factory can be visited by appointment; see www.motorsite.it for details on this and other factory tours, including Ferrari at nearby Maranello.
Book early at Hosteria Giusti at Vicolo Squalone 46 (00 39 0592 22533). There are only four tables in a small room behind an old salumeria. The owner will even knock up a proper renaissance salad.
Superb skiing: italian resorts lead the way
Although resorts such as Courmayeur and Cortina are well placed on the world ski map, few people realise the full scope of skiing in Italy. The country boasts more than 300 ski areas, from Sicily in the south where you can ski on Mt Etna (00 39 095 643180; www.prolocolinguaglossa.it), up through the Apennines to Cervinia (00 39 0166 949136; www.cervinia.it) in the north, where you can ride a six-seater chairlift over the Swiss border to Zermatt.
On the way there are numerous compact but often well-equipped ski areas close to the big cities. Campo Felice (00 39 06 94300001; www.campofelice.it) is one of half a dozen areas near Rome, its dozen lifts including two quad chairs. Indeed, Italian skiing as a whole has been investing huge sums in state-of-the-art lifts and extensive snowmaking in recent years.
The host of the 2006 Winter Olympics and the home of great skiers such as Alberto Tomba also deserves praise for introducing several healthy initiatives to world skiing: legislating compulsory helmet-wearing for under-14s on the snow to save lives, and a cigarette ban in public places to save lungs – which is especially welcome in the pure mountain air.
The resort of Sestriere (00 39 0122 799411; www.vialattea.it), built by Fiat in 1934, was one of the earliest of the high-altitude purpose-built ski stations. Or try the Dolomiti Superski (www.dolomitisuperski.com), the biggest ski business in the country. It offers more than 750 miles of ski piste on one pass and includes the Sella Ronda circuit, the heart of a network of valleys radiating off it that make it the world's third largest lift-linked ski area.
PATRICK THORNEReuse content