Italy is the fifth-most visited country in the world for a reason. Internationally regarded for its culture, fashion, art, history, and cuisine, Italy has been attracting tourists since the “Grand Tour” in the late 17th century. From brilliant beaches to picturesque mountain villages, Italy is home to more UNESCO World Heritage Sites that any other country on the planet. This Insider’s Guide to Italy will help you plan your travels and navigate this spectacular destination like a pro.
Located in Southern Europe, Italy encompasses an area of 116,437 square miles. It shares borders with the countries of France, Switzerland, Slovenia, Austria, Vatican City and San Marino. Commonly referred to as “the Boot”, the Italian Peninsula and islands of Sardinia and Sicily are situated in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea. With a population of nearly 61 million, it is the fourth-most populous nation in the European Union.
Italy enjoys a mostly temperate seasonal and Mediterranean climate. Due to the diverse geographical landscape of the country, the temperature can vary widely. Depending on your exact trip itinerary, it’s generally wise to pack in layers. The temperature in the Alps can drastically differ from the beaches in Sicily. For example, over the winter months, it might be 28 degrees Fahrenheit and snowing in Milan, while it is 68 degrees Fahrenheit in Palermo. The east coast of the peninsula is generally drier, but it is also colder throughout winter. During summer, south of Florence is generally sunny and relatively dry, while it is more humid and cloudy in the north. Spring and fall can be unpredictable.
The official language of Italy is Italian. There are different regional dialects, but this is decreasing rapidly. In addition to Italian, there are 12 minority languages considered in various areas of the country.
In larger cities and popular tourists spots, it is not difficult to find Italians who speak English. On average, the younger generations are more likely to know English. However, in rural areas, a basic understanding of the English language is not nearly as prevalent. Either way, it is polite to learn a few basic words and phrases. A simple “per favore” (please) or “grazie” (thank you) goes a long way.
Like many European countries and most in the European Union, the currency in Italy is the Euro, which is represented by the € symbol. You can easily check the current exchange rate online to give you a better idea on what to expect and help budget your vacation.
There are plenty of currency exchange kiosks in airports, hotels and popular tourist spots. However, these kiosks are known to offer poor exchange rates and exorbitant fees. Make sure you are educated on the current exchange rate, and always read the small print. Also, don’t be afraid to negotiate the fee. If your bank has a European counterpart, using a corresponding ATM is often the better option. Italy does accept all major credit and debit cards, but it is wise to carry some cash. As always, inform your bank about your impending travel abroad.
Tipping in Italy isn’t as common as it is in the United States. When dining at casual restaurants, simply leave the change or round up the total amount. In nicer restaurants, you can tip slightly more. Some restaurants already charge a service fee, so check over your final bill.
Tipping taxi drivers is rare, but for exceptional service, round up the final fare. Similarly, tipping is not required in hotels, but giving the bellmen, concierge and housekeepers a few Euros is appreciated.
Italian culture largely stems from family relationships, the arts, architecture and food, and Italians view their culture as one of their greatest achievements and exports. The family is at the very center of the social structure, and it is not uncommon for extended families to reside together in the south. Roman Catholicism is the largest religion, with over 80 percent of the country identifying themselves as such. Actual church attendance is comparatively low, but the religion does make a large cultural impact on the country, nevertheless.
Italy is a major fashion center, and appearances do matter. Italians are extremely fashion conscious, and they will consider your attire immediately. In Italy, fashion is a way to convey confidence and status. At parties, even if the invitation states “casual”, Italians will still dress up. When eating in restaurants and visiting the sites, make sure your attire is appropriate. Bring a wrap or cardigan to churches, while avoiding short shorts, skirts and dresses.
Likewise, manners and body language are also important. When greeting a stranger, a handshake is considered proper etiquette. Once a relationship has been established, “air kissing” on both cheeks is common. Always maintain eye contact, and at dinner parties, follow the lead of the host or hostess. When dining at a restaurant, ask for your check upon completion of the meal. Servers will most likely not bring you the bill on their own. If you do not want your wine glass refilled, keep it mostly full.
Italian cuisine is one of the most popular in the world and has heavily influenced food in other countries, including the United States. Italian food is noted for its simplicity, fresh ingredients, and regional diversity. Cheese, wine and coffee (especially espresso) are staples in Italian meals. Pasta with tomatoes or tomato sauce is served throughout Italy, but the variety and ingredients vary by region. Northern Italy offers stuffed pasta, risotto and polenta, with seafood, basil (pesto), ham (prosciutto), sausage, various cheeses, nuts and olive oil featured prominently. Southern Italian pasta features ricotta cheese, eggplant, capers, fish (anchovies and sardines), olives, olive oil, artichokes and garlic. Different regions have their own specialties, including suckling pig in Sardinia. Sicilian food is based in traditional Italian cuisine, but it is also heavily influenced by Spanish, Arab and Greek cuisine. Of course, Italy is also known for pizza and gelato.
The Italian meal structure is much like ours. An average day includes breakfast (colazione), lunch (pranzo) and supper (cena), with a mid-morning snack and mid-afternoon snack. However, lunch is regarded as the most important meal of the day. A traditional Italian meal (served on special occasions) consists of 3 to 4 courses, but most daily meals include 1 or 2 courses, plus a side dish and coffee. To avoid looking like a tourist, order cappuccino before noon and espresso after.
Violent crimes are rare in Italy. However, there is a moderate risk of theft and other economic crimes. Cities in Southern Italy generally have a higher crime rate than cities in Northern Italy. Organized groups of pick-pockets and thieves are known to target busy tourist areas, so, to avoid being a target, be alert and keep your valuables in a safe place.
Do not buy counterfeit goods in Italy. You can be fined and/or detained for doing so. Also, when you purchase train, metro or bus tickets, you must validate them in designated machines before departure. If you don’t, it may result in an immediate fine.
Regions in Italy
Northwest Italy is home to the city Milan. Milan is regarded as the business and fashion capital of the county, as well as the largest metropolitan area in Italy. The Italian Riviera is also located in this region, including the cities of Cinque Terre and Portofino. Comprised of five cities on magnificent, rugged coastline, Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walking trails and trains connect the villages, as they are not all accessible by car. Cinque Terre is a popular tourist destination and largely untouched by corporate development.
Venice is located in Northeast Italy. The canal-filled city is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. A romantic gondola ride and magnificent architecture evoke captivating imagery when planning a trip to this city. However, Northeast Italy is home to more than just Venice. The Dolomites and Julian Alps are in this region and host world-class ski resorts. For Shakespeare enthusiasts, Verona is in this region, as well.
A trip to Italy will undoubtedly include a visit to Central Italy. Rome is one of the most-visited cities in the world and offers a wide range of architectural treasures. Some of the remaining structures of the Roman Empire are located here, including the Colosseum. The Colosseum is regarded as one of the wonders of the world. Rome holds an impressive array of priceless art collections, sculptures and fountains, including the Trevi Fountain.
Outside of Rome, Central Italy also houses Florence in the Tuscany region. Florence has been noted as one of the most beautiful cities in the world and is the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. Tuscany is also an important wine-producing region.
Southern Italy enjoys a preferential Mediterranean climate and spectacular beaches. Naples is the most-visited city in this area, and the ancient ruins of Pompeii are the most-visited sight. Southern Italy also includes the Amalfi Coast. This absolutely breathtaking region is home to cities like Positano, Amalfi and Sorrento. Take a ferry or boat trip to the island of Capri, and visit the Grotta Azzurra (Blue Grotto). To make visiting this area even better, Southern Italy is known for its relatively lower-priced and varied cuisine.
Sicily is Italy’s largest island, encompassing an area of 9,927 square miles. It is renowned for its archaeological sites and distinctive Sicilian cuisine. It is also home to Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe at 10,992 feet tall.
Another island off the western coast of Italy, Sardinia is similarly known for its archaeological sites. Known as “nuraghes”, these ancient, stone structures are scattered throughout the island and have become the symbol for Sardinia. Sardinia also have beautiful beaches.
Italy offers history buffs a chance to explore stunning architectural feats, art enthusiasts the opportunity to peruse endless galleries and foodies a chance to indulge in legendary cuisine. Use the information from this insider’s guide to Italy to acquaint yourself with the country. Whether it’s your first trip or your tenth, there is always something new to discover in Italy.