Europe ‘s kinky over-the-knee boot has it all: popes, painters, polenta, paramours, poets, political puerility and potentates. Its dreamy light and sumptuous landscapes seem made for romance, and its three millennia of history, culture and cuisine seduces just about everyone.
You can visit Roman ruins, gawk at Renaissance art, stay in tiny medieval hill towns, go skiing in the Alps, explore the canals of Venice and gaze at beautiful churches. Naturally you can also indulge in the pleasures of la dolce vita : good food, good wine and improving your wardrobe.
Language: Italian, French, German, Serbian, Croatian
Religion: 84% Roman Catholic, 6% Jewish, Muslim and Protestant
Time: GMT/UTC +1 (+2 in summer) (Central European Time)
Dialling Code: 39
Electricity: 220V (some 125V still found), 50 Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
Money & Costs
Summer is hot, especially in the south. Spring and autumn are mild with fine, sunny weather. Winter in the south is much drier and warmer than in northern and central areas. Mountain regions are colder with heavy winter snowfalls.
Required clothing: Lightweight cottons and linens are worn during the summer, except in the mountains. Light- to mediumweights are worn in the south during winter, while warmer clothes are worn elsewhere. Alpine wear is advised for winter mountain resorts.
When to Go
Italy is at its best in spring (April-May) and autumn (October-November). During these seasons, the scenery is beautiful, the temperatures are pleasant and there are relatively few crowds. Try to avoid August, as this is the time that most Italians take their vacations, and many shops and businesses are closed as a result.
Religious, cultural and historical events pepper the Italian calendar. The pre-Easter Carnivale is closely associated with Venice ; Holy Week Easter processions are especially flamboyant at Taranto , Chieti and Sicily ; and Florence explodes a cart full of fireworks on Easter Sunday. Festivals honouring patron saints are also particularly colourful events; for example the Fiestas di San Nicola in Bari and San Gennaro in Naples , the Festival of Snakes in Abruzzo (May) and the Fiesta of Sant’Antonio in Padua (June). Events betraying more than a hint of history include the Race of the Candles and Palio of the Crossbow in Gubbio (May), the Sardinian Cavalcade (May), the Regata of the Four Ancient Maritime Republics (which rotates between Pisa , Venice , Amalfi and Genoa , and is held in June), Il Palio in Siena (July & August) and Venice ‘s Historic Regatta (September).
It’s hard to say what you’ll find most breathtaking about the eternal city – the arrogant opulence of the Vatican , the timelessness of the Forum, the top speed of a Fiat Bambino, the millions of cats in the Colosseum , trying to cross a major intersection, or the bill for your latte.
Sightseeing in Rome is exhilarating and exhausting. That it wasn’t built in a day is quickly evident when you start exploring the temples, residences, basilicas, churches, palazzi , piazzi , parks, museums and fountains. All this and the Vatican too!
Stretching for 50km (31mi) along a promontory from Sorrento to Salerno is some of Europe ‘s most beautiful coastline. The road hugs the zigzagging bends and curves of the cliffy coast, overlooking intensely blue waters and passing picture-postcard villages that cling to the cliff walls like matchbox houses.
Walled Assisi is miraculous: it has somehow managed to retain some tranquil refuges amid the tourist hubbub. Perched halfway up Mt Subasio , looking over Perugia , the visual impact of its shimmering white marble buildings is magnificent. The town’s many churches include Santa Maria
Maggiore , San Pietro and St Clare.
The city is dominated by the massive 14th-century Rocca Maggiore – a hill fortress that offers fabulous views over the valley and back to Perugia . St Francis was born here in 1182, and work began on his basilica two years after his death in 1228. It’s a magnificent tribute to the patron saint of animals, with frescoes by Giotto , Cimabue and Martini. Relics from Imperial days include the excavated forum and the pillared facade of the Temple of Minerva ; Roman foundations are a common feature of many buildings.
The cultural and historical impact of Florence is overwhelming. Close up, however, the city is one of Italy ‘s most atmospheric and pleasant, retaining a strong resemblance to the small late-medieval centre that contributed so much to the cultural and political development of Europe .
For eye-watering sights, you won’t need to venture far from Florence ‘s medieval core, a Renaissance wonderland containing the graceful span of Ponte Vecchio , the Duomo’s skyscraping dome, the gilded splendour of Basilica di San Lorenzo and the well-hung Uffizi gallery.
The hard-working Milanese run their busy metropolis with efficiency and aplomb. It is the country’s economic engine room, home to Italy ‘s stock market and business centres . This stylish city is also the world’s design capital and rivals Paris as a leading fashion centre.
Milan is a sprawling metropolis, but most of its attractions are concentrated in its centre. Its hub is the Duomo , a fantastic Gothic confection topped by the Maddonina (our little Madonna), Milan ‘s protectress . Not far away is La Scala , one of the world’s great opera houses.
Naples is raucous, polluted, anarchic, deafening, crumbling and grubby. It’s also a lot of fun. Superbly positioned on a bay, Naples has a little – and often a lot – of everything. It pulsates with noisy street markets and swarms of people buzzing around on Vespas with no regard for traffic rules.
Naples ‘ historic centre features a church-encrusted piazza and some seriously elaborate architecture. In addition to the usual Italian quota of castles, musuems and palazzi , Naples has the priceless treasures of Pompeii and Herculaneum at its doorstep.
Ramparts – just one of the many vestiges of the city’s medieval prime – still crown the hills that surround gentle Siena . Its many reddish-brown buildings gave the world ‘burnt sienna,’ and a thriving cultural scene was dubbed the Sienese school in the 13th and 14th centuries. Disease and autocrats from the Viscontis to the Medicis brought urban growth and cultural finesse to a screaming halt, the rot setting in with the plague of 1348, which killed 65,000 of the city’s 100,000 people. Fortunately, Italy ‘s finest medieval square – the Piazza del Campo – was finished just in time, with the graceful town hall and emblemic tower nearby. Siena ‘s duomo is a stunner, with black and white stripes of marble on the facade. Palazzos, piazzas, art collections, museums and churches are scattered throughout the easily walkable old town, making Siena a great destination for visitors who like to see things from the pavement up.
La Serenissima , Queen of the Adriatic , captivating city of canals and palaces…or tawdry sewer alive with crowds and charlatans? Venice ‘s nature is dual: water and land, long history and doubtful future, airy delicacy and dim melancholy. When this precious place sinks, the world will be the poorer.
Take time to meander – losing yourself in the maze of canals and lanes is one of Venice ‘s principal pleasures. The cluster of sights around the Piazza San Marco are heart- clutchingly beautiful, but the more secret pleasures of the hushed backstreets are just as entrancing.
Many Italian products are world-famous for their style and quality. Care should be taken when buying antiques since Italy is renowned for skilled imitators. Prices are generally fixed and bargaining is not general practice, although a discount may be given on a large purchase. Florence , Milan and Rome are famous as important fashion centres, but smaller towns also offer good scope for shopping. It is advisable to avoid hawkers or sellers on the beaches. Some places are known for particular products, eg Como ( Lombardy ) for silk, Prato ( Tuscany ) for textiles, Empoli ( Tuscany ) for the production of bottles and glasses in green glass, Deruta ( Umbria ) and Faenza ( Emilia-Romagna ) for pottery, Carrara ( Tuscany ) for marble. Torre Annunziata ( Campania ) and Alghero ( Sardinia ) are centres for handicraft products in coral, and in several parts of Sardinia business cards and writing paper made of cork are produced. Cremona ( Lombardy ) is famous for its handmade violins. Castelfidardo ( Marche ) is famous for its accordion factories, and for its production of guitars and organs. Two small towns concentrate on producing their speciality: Valenza ( Piedmont ), which has a large number of goldsmith artisans, and Sulmona ( Abruzzo ), which produces ‘confetti’, sugar-coated almonds used all over Italy for wedding celebrations. Vietri sul Mare ( Campania ) is one of the most important centres of ceramic paving-tiles, and Ravenna ( Emilia-Romagna ) is famous for mosaics.
Table service is most common in restaurants and bars. There are no licensing laws.
Pasta plays a substantial part in Italian recipes, but nearly all regions have developed their own special dishes. Examples of dishes from each region are listed below. Italy has over 20 major wine regions, from Valle d’Aosta on the French border to Sicily and Sardinia in the south.
Italy ‘s many regional cucine , while remaining distinctive to their regions of origin, have undergone a pan-Italian fusion in the hands of chefs, evolving into a unique cuisine that is justifiably world famous. Cooking styles vary notably, from the rich and creamy dishes of the north to the hot and spicy specialities of the south. Northern Emilia-Romagna has produced the best-known dishes – spaghetti bolognese , lasagne and tortellini – and is also home to the best prosciutto and mortadella . Liguria is the home of pesto, that mainstay of cafes worldwide. Spectacular vegetable and pasta dishes feature just as predominantly as seafood and exotic meats – anyone for frog rissotto , donkey steak or entrail pudding? Desserts – cassata, cannoli , zabaglione, granita and marzipan – come into their own in Sicily , while Sardinia is famous for its spit-roasted piglet. Coffee, beer and wine are of course magnificent countrywide.
Don’t be surprised by Italy ‘s two-hour lunch break (generally 1:30-3:30 pm ).
Do dress appropriately and hold down the commotion when visiting churches. The official dress code in all churches requires that your shoulders, knees and midriff are covered. Women should cover their heads upon entering a church. While some small towns are not so strict, there are three sets of inspectors you must pass through to enter St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome . Absolutely no exceptions are made.
Don’t be surprised by the excessive hotel taxes, additional charges and requests for payment for extras such as air-conditioning. Sometimes these taxes or service charges are included in room rates; check upon arrival.
Do wear good-quality, stylish clothing: It is appreciated, and it’s essential if you want to be perceived as competent and successful.
Do attempt to pronounce Italian words correctly. Just remember that the letter “c” followed by an ” i ” or “e” has the English ” ch ” sound, while a ” ch ” followed by an ” i ” or “e” has the English “k” sound. Thus, che citta ! (what a town!) is pronounced KAY chee -TAH.