Hiking and cycling Italy's great outdoors
Vine-centric strolls await in the spectacular scenery of Tuscany’s Chianti region. (John Hay/LPI)
As if its cultural bite wasn’t fierce enough, Italy boasts some of the planet’s most spectacular scenery, from icy Alps and epic lakes to vine-laced hills and sunburnt coasts. One day you’re cycling through an Alpine national park, the next you’re sunning it up on a sizzling volcanic beach. Not bad for a country smaller than New Mexico.
Outdoor aficionados are spoilt rotten for choice, with active options spanning high-octane trekking and skiing to lazy coastal meanders. Not that we suggest you snub life's more decadent pleasures: Chianti wine trails make for tasty cycling trips, while Piedmont truffle hunts turn a walk in the woods into a gourmet adventure. So strap up, hit the track or make a splash in one of Europe's best al fresco playgrounds.
Thousands of kilometres of sentieri (marked trails) crisscross Italy, ranging from mountain treks to gentle lakeside passeggiate (strolls). In season (the end of June to September), northern Italy's sweeping Alps provide superb walking with breathtaking backdrops.
Some of the best trails traverse the high passes and stunning valleys of the Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso in Valle d'Aosta. This national park is well-known for its wildlife, which includes marmots, bearded vultures and the once-threatened ibex. South of the Valle d'Aosta in Piedmont, delicious rambles lace the truffle- and vine-laden countryside of Alba. Further south on the coast, Liguria's Cinque Terre lets you village-hop along terraced hills choked with olive groves and dry-stone-walled vineyards.
More vino-centric strolls await in Tuscany's Chianti region, while further east in Assisi, you can walk in the footsteps of St Francis on the wooded Monte Subasio. On the trails above the Amalfi Coast, age-old paths disappear into wooded mountains and ancient olive groves, skirt plunging cliffs, and offer the finest coastal views this side of heaven.
Even closer to Naples, Mt Vesuvius offers a relatively easy walk up to its ashen crater, from where the views across Naples, the bay islands and the Apennines strangely redeem this slumbering menace.
For more peering into craters, consider the more challenging climb up Sicily's Mt Etna or a trek up the Fossa di Vulcano on the island of Vulcano. It is about an hour's scramble to the lowest point of the crater's edge (290m), but once you reach the top, the sight of the steaming crater encrusted with red and yellow crystals is reward enough. The bottom is clearly visible from the rim and you can even take a steep trail down to walk along the crater floor. Even more dramatic (and challenging) is an organised trek up Stromboli's hyperactive crater.
Back on the mainland, the regions of Puglia and Basilicata also serve up some blissful walking opportunities, with top choices including gorge tours in Matera, hikes through rugged hills in seaside Maratea and wanderings in the wildlife-loaded Foresta Umbra ("Forest of Shadows") near Vieste. Tourist offices can generally provide walking information and basic maps.
For the ultimate Italian cycling experience, hit the saddle in spring, when it's not too hot and the countryside is ablaze with wildflowers. Whether you want a gentle ride between trattorias or a 100km road-race, you'll find a route to suit in Italy, with tourist offices usually providing details on trails and guided rides.
Cyclists adore Tuscany's famously rolling countryside, particularly the Chianti area south of Florence. Foodies can combine exercise and feasting on a guided, day-long bike tour of the region. Neighbouring Umbria is also a great place to pedal, with an abundance of beautiful landscapes and quiet country roads.
Further north, the flatlands of Emilia-Romagna make bike touring a relative breeze. Add to this some of Italy's most celebrated culinary towns, and you could easily spend a week cycling from one producer to the next, with pit stops at Michelin-star restaurants and rustic osterie.
Down south in Puglia, the countryside surrounding Lecce is perfect for cycling, and several companies organize cycling tours across the region and rugged neighbour Basilicata.
In summer, northern Italy's Alpine regions are a big hit with mountain bikers, with several outstanding trails cutting through the majestic Dolomites and, further west, the Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso.