“You may have the universe if I may have Italy.”
Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi felt so enchanted by his home country that he was willing to give up the rest of the universe for it — and can you really blame him? From the glassy canals of Venice to the rolling countryside of Tuscany, Italy will lure you, charm you, and make you never want to leave. Benvenuto!
- Unification: 1861
- Capital city: Rome
- Area: 301,338 km2, 116,347 mi2
- Population: 60.6 million
- Official language: Italian
- Currency: Euro (€)
- Time Zone: Central European Time (CET)
- Drive on the: Right
Where in the World
Situated in southern Europe, Italy borders France to the west, Switzerland and Austria to the north, and Slovenia to the east. To the south, its main peninsula extends into the Mediterranean Sea, neighboring the Adriatic Sea to the east and the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west. Off its western coast lies the island of Sardinia, while the island of Sicily sits at the southern tip of the nation (the toe of “the boot”).
For those who know their U.S. states, Italy is roughly equal to the size of New Mexico. The country is divided into 20 regions, and each is subdivided into provinces.
Due to its size and geography, Italy features a variety of landscapes. To the north, you’ll find the snow-covered peaks and fertile valleys of the Alps and the Dolomites, while in the south you’ll encounter the rolling hills and flat plains of wine country. Even Italy’s many cities are diverse, from the canals of Venice to the Roman ruins of the capital to the terracotta architecture of Florence.
A Bit of History
Following Julius Caesar’s death in the first century B.C., Rome grew into a massive empire, stretching throughout the Mediterranean region. Rome became one of the most powerful empires in world history, and has had deep influences on all of Western civilization, including the widespread use of Romance languages and the emergence of Christianity as a major religion.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy was invaded by Germanic tribes and eventually divided into city-states. The Black Death wiped out one third of its population in the 1300s, but Italy eventually experienced a vigorous revival of art and culture during the Renaissance.
By the mid-19th century, an Italian nationalist movement began to spread throughout the country, eventually leading to Italy’s unification in 1861. The new Kingdom of Italy industrialized rapidly, though after WWI it entered a period of economic and social turmoil. Following defeat in WWII, the country abolished the monarchy and reinstated democracy. Today, Italy has become an advanced nation, both economically, with the eighth-largest GDP in the world, and culturally, featuring the most UNESCO World Heritage sites (53) of any other country in the world.
The five busiest airports in Italy are Rome Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino (FCO), Milan-Malpensa (MXP), Orio al Serio (BGY), Milan Linate (LIN), and Venice Marco Polo (VCE). Due to the country’s size and large number of cities, however, there will most likely be a regional airport near whichever city you’re trying to visit, though it’s easiest to fly into a larger airport and transfer to a train. Either way, make sure to do your research beforehand!
The many towns and cities of Italy can be accessed by airplanes, ferries, buses, and trains. Or, if you’d prefer to explore the beautiful back roads of the Italian countryside, opt for a rental car. The train systems range from the slower InterCity system to the high-speed alta velocita service. The latter is significantly more expensive, but for longer distances, it will save you a lot of time. You can check timetables and buy tickets in advance on the Trenitalia website.
Know Before You Go
Italy is a popular tourist destination, so English will be spoken in most of the larger cities and popular tourist spots. That said, if you’re visiting any of the more rural areas in the south, you’ll want to brush up on a few common phrases. Make sure to add grazie (thank you), mi scusi (pardon me), per favore (please), and parla inglese (do you speak English) to your repertoire!
When exploring Italian cities, make sure to wear comfortable walking shoes — you won’t want to get sore feet while wandering around the hills and cobblestoned streets. Additionally, if you plan to visit any religious sites, make sure to dress modestly, covering your shoulders, torso, and thighs.
When greeting people, either shaking hands or kissing both cheeks is acceptable. Also, avoid using first names with new acquaintances unless you are invited to do so.
Obviously, a main focus of your Italian adventure will be the cuisine — so research each region’s claim to fame. For instance, you won’t want to leave Bologna without trying some classic Italian dishes, but if you’re in Naples, make sure to try the pastries and espresso. Keep in mind that most restaurants have a cover charge of two to three euro, and if it’s not included, you’ll want to leave a small tip (10 to 15 percent).
Many restaurants and shops will accept credit cards, but don’t rely on them too much! Upon arrival at the airport, withdraw a couple hundred euros from an ATM so you’ll always have some cash while exploring. Planning on visiting a few of Italy’s great museums? Well, so are thousands of other travelers. Make sure to book your tickets online ahead of time so you can skip the long lines.
It’s also important to note that hotels (and even some AirBnBs) will need your passport when you check in. We’re all concerned about identity theft, so when the concierge asks for your passport and then says they may need to keep it overnight, you might get a little jumpy — but don’t fret. It’s perfectly fine. Italian law requires all accommodations to register guests with local police. They’ll return your passport the following morning, if not before.
Finally, there’s a reason Italy is such a popular destination. There’s so much to see and experience throughout this enchanting country. So don’t try to fit it all into one trip! Pick a couple cities or regions and take your time exploring. Go for a walk through town, grab a midnight gelato, order a second glass of wine … The rest of the universe can wait, so enjoy your time in Italia!
Photo by Gianluca Fazio.