PROBABLY a lot of people touch down at Rimini's airport with a shudder, fearing from the evidence outside the plane that they have made a terrible mistake. It is like landing in the mid-Seventies at an artless, heartless resort. This stretch of Italy's Adriatic coast looks as though it was the prototype for the package tour.

What drew me to Rimini was a last-minute fare of pounds 99. At that price you resign yourself to aesthetically displeasing architecture while immersing yourself in the sea and the sun. Yet, despite its haphazard appearance, the seafront maintains a vitality that reverberates all day and peaks at about midnight when the clubbers hit the shoreline. The nightlife is spectacular and, this being Italy, there are some wonderful surprises. The road in from the airport passes the doddery Arch of Augustus, a monument whose condition is none the less remarkable, considering it was built 2,020 years ago.

Rimini is poised between Italy's sophisticated north and earthy south. Beyond the city, the day-tripper can choose between the antiquity of Ravenna, the brilliant insanity of Venice and the entertaining presumption of the mountain republic of San Marino. Or you can just indulge in a Fellini-esque frenzy of eating and posing; Rimini is the film-maker's home town.

Getting there: InterAir (071-439 6633) has charters each Thursday from Gatwick, pounds 144 return. Italy Sky Shuttle (0345 581505) has Sunday flights from Gatwick for pounds 189. Cheap tickets may also be available to nearby Ancona and Bologna. Miramare airport is four miles from the centre of Rimini, a pounds 5 cab ride away.

Getting around: A network of local buses connects Rimini with nearby resorts, and inland with San Marino. For longer distances, take a train.

You can rent a car in advance through Lupus Travel of London (071-287 1292); a Fiat Panda costs pounds 179 for a week, fuel excluded.

Accommodation: The ribbon of awkwardly angular hotels along the shore is a visual offence but offers plenty of choice - 55,000 rooms in 1,600 hotels, according to one estimate - and relatively low prices. The most expensive is the Grand Hotel (010 39 0541 56000 - see dialling note below in Further Information), an over-the-top confection that dominates the Parco dell'Indipendenza. A double room with breakfast costs pounds 145 per night.

To avoid the drearily functional, chose a place with character in the city centre. The Promozione Alberghiera agency in the railway station can find you a room in Rimini itself or in a nearby resort (Cattolica is the liveliest). The Youth Hostel (0541 373216) is noisily close to the airport at Miramare; bed and breakfast costs pounds 6.50.

Best eating: Neither price nor quality varies significantly among the dozens of pizzerias along the seafront; pizza, salad and a beer cost about pounds 7. Trattorias around the old town provide more varied and substantial fare. A reliably good meal with wine and coffee can be had for pounds 20-pounds 25 at either of the following: the Belvedere Trattoria at Via Flaminia 58 (0541 386451, closed Wednesdays), and the Vecchia Ostaria at Via Tristano Isota 18 (0541 778255). Both specialise in fish.

Best beach: Technically, there is nothing wrong with the 10-mile beach: fine sand, gently shelving to a sea no longer tainted by green gunge (an algae attack in the Eighties rendered bathing inadvisable). The British visitor may be shocked, though, that such a natural resource should be privatised: the coastline has been parcelled up and fenced off. Expect to pay about pounds 7 for a day's rental of a sunlounger, but you are not buying exclusivity: at weekends there is hardly room to move among the topless sunbathers and their strutting male admirers.

Sights to see: The old town of Rimini is blithely overlooked by most sunseekers. They miss a warmly atmospheric quarter with one great treat: the 15th-century Malatesta Temple, which now serves as the city's cathedral. A wealthy rogue named Sigismundo Malatesta (the surname means 'headache') transformed a 13th-century church into this Renaissance gem.

Breaking away: Inland and uphill lie some real treasures. Atop a mountain only 12 miles from Rimini, the Most Serene Republic of San Marino is a 25-square-mile chunk of independence entirely surrounded by Italy. Founded in AD301 by a Dalmatian saint attempting to escape religious persecution, it claims to be the world's oldest republic. Its 22,000 citizens coax a living from tourism, sustained by the visitor's wish to boast of having visited another country. If you want a sounder reason to go there, the views on the descent are spectacular.

Ravenna is 30 miles and an hour from Rimini by train. Emerging from the station, it is hard to believe that this was once capital of the Western Roman Empire. But walking towards the centre along Viale Farini, you begin to sense that this is a city steeped in art and history.

'Old, dirty and undistinguished' is how Edith Templeton (see Books below) described the church of San Vitale; unpromisingly located among ragged streets north-west of the centre, it could be 'the annexe of a London hospital or railway station'. Inside, however, are the finest mosaics in Christendom. Portraits of the Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora, are so dazzling they could have been created last week rather than 1,400 years ago. And you can enjoy them in relative solitude.

Most of the people who missed Ravenna are to be found two hours north, in Venice, which is temptingly close to Rimini, and dozens of agents offer day trips by bus. The price is about pounds 60, which sounds excessive but includes a boat trip across the lagoon to the city: the best way to arrive in Venice. If you prefer to organise your own trip, you can cut the cost by three-quarters, but the journey by train takes longer - you have to change at Bologna.

When you finally reach Venice, you will find this strange city possessed of the same flaws as the beach at Rimini: woeful overcrowding, and ceaseless exploitation of visitors. But head away from the main tourist drags, and you begin to sense the wonder of a place that defies all urban conventions and transcends every connotation of normality.

Set books: In-flight appetiser: The Surprise of Cremona by Edith Templeton (Methuen, pounds 4.95). An entertaining and incisive description of north-east Italy, it also says a lot about the attitude of British travellers.

Good guide: Italy - the Rough Guide (pounds 12.99). Up-to-date (published last month) and comprehensive.

Further information: The international dialling code for Italy is 010 39; omit the initial zero of the area code. Italian State Tourist Board, 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY (071-408 1254). Local tourist offices: Rimini - Piazzale Indipendenza 3 (0541 51101); San Marino - Contrada Omagnano 20 (0549 882400); Ravenna - Via Salara 8 (0544 35404).

(Photograph and map omitted)