Thanks to the entertainment industry, Italy has often become synonymous with pizza and pasta, Prohibition-era gangsters, and dance club fist pumping. But to simply fall prey to these distortions would be to overlook the Roman authority on antiquity, the Venetian monopoly on romance and mystery, and the Florentine stranglehold on the arts. It would be to overlook the true variety of subcultures that exist from Lombardy to Sicily and all of the regional adventures, cultures, and cuisines in between.
Which is not to say that the previously mentioned phenomena don't exist. It's just that half of them do so on Jersey Shore or in Goodfellas. Modern Italy is a country that factors high internationally in the happiness of its populace, the reliability of its tourist economy (despite its recession of recent years) and the intrigue of its history. The tough thing about planning a trip to Italy is that every region is worth exploring for unique reasons, especially if you're looking to bypass the usual tourist agenda and view a country that just may dispel the silly notion of the boot-shaped country that may exist in the heads of the oblivious.
For example, cuisine varies far more than one would expect. In northern regions like Lombardy and Veneto, polenta and risotto are staples, while regions like Emilia-Romagna, Lazio, and Abruzzo are the kings of pasta, Campania is home of the pizza, and Sicily is known for its Marsala wines and dishes based off of its many historical influences. Then again, you'll find various centers of wine, olive oil, seafood, and much more, necessitating a closer look at regional customs and products that may be available through our range of city pages.
Another thing that deviates an incredible amount is the landscape. Italy has the skiing and hiking of the Alps in the far north, the grumbling and spewing Mount Etna in Sicily, and such a range of beautiful coastline on all sides that the money-hunger of resort culture has yet to suck the life out of every quaint town with a stretch of pristine beach (the Apulia region, for one). Then again, sitting on a hill in the Abruzzo region at sunset as the mist fringes the olive trees as far as your eye can see is one of many singular moments that can be had in so many different corners of Italy, each with their own unique, personal touches. If you're looking to indulge your adventurous side, then we've got all the information you'll need right here.
And we haven't even touched on the popularity of football (and the excellent range of club teams like Juventas, Inter Milan, and A.C. Milan), the internationally renowned iconography (the Leaning Tower of Pisa, gondolas, all of Rome), and the eras of history whose pulse is still evident in the streets of Pompeii and the Valley of the Temples in Sicily. You don't need to have the tourist experience in Italy; browse our travel videos, off-the-beaten-path activities, community uploads, and beyond for a better sense of the Italy that speaks to the adventurer in you.
Visitors from within the European Union or from countries that are considered first-world (the US among them) do not need a visa if traveling to Italy for 90 days or less. If you are unsure of whether you need a visa due to a longer stay, a different country of residence or different reasons for entering the country, then check here for further information.
The typical Italian currency is the Euro. You'll find updated exchange rates here.
Italy's government is a democratic republic built upon a constitution. The executive powers of government rest with the Council of Ministers, which is led by the Prime Minister, while two houses of parliament are in charge of legislative decisions. The president is the head of state and has a position of power in all three branches of government.
Politics in Italy are complicated, to say the least. There are numerous influential political parties and frequent changes of loyalty, which have become increasingly frequent in recent years due to economic crises and hardships within the country. As of late 2013, there have been outcries for a changing of the guard on the government level, much of it stemming from complications around a tax-fraud conviction of conservative leader, Silvio Berlusconi. Up-to-date information on Italian politics can be had via the New York Times.
Although you'll find that English is spoken in most tourist areas and in tourism-related jobs, the majority of Italians do not speak it with fluency. In popular destinations like Rome, Florence, Venice or Naples the majority of hotels will have English-speaking staff, while many of the restaurants near tourist attractions will have alternate English menus or English-speaking wait staff. You'll find that if you're looking for more authentic establishments and winding your way further from the beaten path, you'll more often have to rely on gestures and reliable phrase-book or language app to communicate with locals. It's hard to make a generalization about such things, but we've found that even making the effort to speak Italian (no matter your lack of confidence) is met with gratitude. Also, if you're looking to take guided tours, the large majority of guides will be multilingual, although its best to check ahead of time.
Crime and Safety:
We need to preface this section by saying that Italy is generally a safe place, but you'll need to use the common sense you would use in any country, even your own. Keep your money secured, stay out of poorly-lit areas when alone, and look out for pickpockets in high traffic areas; these are just a few suggestions that come in handy anywhere. The Italian mob is very real, although they are more involved in drug trafficking, politics, and prostitution than bothering foreign travelers; they also operate largely in southern regions of Italy like Sicily. If you visit northern cities like Rome or Venice or Milan, there's no need to hide in your hotel room after nine or drive a Brinks truck with your money in it, but be sure to have the local list of emergency numbers available (as any prepared traveler will) and stay out of shabbier looking areas; again, like when you're visiting any place you don't know.
Modes of Transportation:
Italy has numerous modern, easy methods of transportation that connect the majority of its major cities. The rail system is an excellent and affordable way to move between destinations like Rome, Venice, Pisa, Naples, Milan, and even other countries (France, Switzerland, Austria), although Tren Italia has had issues in past with worker strikes and unreliable service. You'll also have no trouble arriving via airplane to any location in Italy, even the less-connected south. Roadways are well-managed, although there are a lot of public tolls on highways marked with an "A". You'll also see a lot of congestion on main routes entering cities (the autostrada between Venice and Milan, for one). Buses are usually quite consistent, even in more remote areas like Aosta Valley, but it would be a smart idea to carry a schedule and arrive early. Train information may be found here.
Although Italy is not a huge country (see Canada or Australia), it does have its discrepancies in weather. The country's northern cities (Turin, Milan) will tend to get much colder and snowier during the winter-time than more southerly cities like Palermo, simply because of nearness to the equator. These temperature differences are far less pronounced during the summer, when a day at the beach is popular for anyone living near the coast or even the lake districts in the north. Then again, south of Florence tends to be more dry and sunny during the summer, while northern cities will have more prevalent humidity that also includes rain and thunderstorms. Popular destinations like Rome, Genoa, Naples, and Palermo are considered within a Mediterranean climate, while Milan, Venice, Verona, Florence, and Bologna are considered humid subtropical.
Eating and Tipping:
When in Italy, tipping is NOT required. In areas that have traditionally seen the added (oblivious) tourist kindnesses, some in the service community (taxis, restaurant staff, etc.) have come to expect it, but we repeat: it is NOT required. Especially in restaurants, you'll already be facing a possible service charge (servizio) and/or cover charge (coperto), so unless your service is above and beyond, you may not want to tip. Italian wait staff usually worry more about getting food to tables and less about providing a more elaborate customer service experience anyway. Then again, if you do want to tip, then be sure to hand it directly to your server before you leave. As far as eating times are concerned, lunch usually runs until about 2pm at the latest; many businesses will close at this time and reopen a few hours later for dinner, which usually doesn't get going until 8pm at the earliest. If you're hungry in the meantime, the Italian phenomenon of aperitivo (much like the American "happy hour") is a great way to snack on the cheap.
Other tips worth mentioning: never handle produce at a market with your bare hands; drink your coffee after you eat; show the server how much you want when ordering a pizza slice, which you'll usually pay for by weight; be aware of sitting down at coffee shops or at restaurants, for there are often charges applied to your tab if you use a table (as compared to standing and drinking your coffee); and when shopping at a supermarket, make sure to bring some change if you plan on using a shopping cart.
The legal drinking age in Italy is 18 years old. No matter where you go, you'll have plenty of choices: despite the fact that Italians produce such a huge variety of wines and liqueurs, beer is also widely available in commercial areas. Lagers like Nastro Azzurro have been joined in recent years by an upswing in microbrews. Liqueurs are regional; the lemon-based limoncello is a staple of the Gulf of Naples, the grape-based grappa originates from Salerno, and internationally famous Amaretto was first made in the small northern town of Saronno.
The Italian wine legacy is even more grand and can by no means be covered at length here. Some famous producers include Tuscany's various Sangiovese regions of Tuscany (known for Merlots and Cabernets), the Friuli region of the northeast (Pinot grigio is notable), the revered Piedmont region (Moscato, the revered Barolo and Barbaresco), and the Veneto region (Prosecco and Valpolicella). Here's a bit more info on Italian wines.
One last thing that cannot go without mention is the widely practiced pre-dinner event called aperitivo. Many Italians do their drinking during this time (6-8pm) when a huge variety of snacks (and sometimes even buffets) are available for the price of a marked-up drink. Although this custom is indicative of a culture that prefers socializing over inebriation, there are still plenty of late-night options available in major destinations. For more on the specifics of Italian nightlife, browse our city-associated nightlife pages.
Antonio Meucci of Italy actually invented the telephone before Alexander Graham Bell, but was too poor to pay for a patent and died before his case was resolved. Also, if you want a pepperoni pizza in Italy, don't call it by pepperoni; in Italian, peperoni actually means "bell peppers." Unless you actually want a bell pepper pizza, ask for pizza al diavolo, which is the closest that you'll find to the American pepperoni pizza.
Peak season:Generally May through September
Il Palio di Siena
Set in the majestic Piazza del Campo in the center of Siena, Italy, Il Palio di Siena is one of the most famous horse races in the world; less for its famous riders or prize money, but for its unique circumstances and representations of local pride. Held twice a year (on July 2nd and August 16th), jockeys ride bareback on a circular dirt track in the colors of their contrade, which are the neighborhoods they represent. Preceded by a parade around the track with medieval garb and weaponry, the highlight is most definitely the race, which usually lasts about a minute and half. During that time, riders may use their whips on their horses or other riders and, perhaps most surprisingly, a steed may win for its contrade even if the jockey has been dismounted. If you plan on seeing the beautiful city of Siena (Tuscany region), there is no reason to miss this amazing, centuries-old spectacle. Even better, come for the spectacle and stay for the city.
Venice Film Festival
The longest running international film festival around, lovers of cinema will find the Venice Film Festival to be an excellent occasion on which to visit the city. A platform for public premieres of both the best recent Italian films and a range of projects from internationally reputable actors and directors, the festival is also a fantastic opportunity to see a few movie stars. Running for a week at the end of August/beginning of September, the majority of screenings are available to the public; take a look at the official website for further information.
A celebration on par with the Carnival of Brazil (although with more clothing), Carnevale in Italy is all about mystique and hidden identity. Grown from a tradition of mask-making, this ancient Christian ritual has become, particularly where it is most popular in Venice, an affair of lavish balls attended by masked locals. Tourists will have trouble getting in to most unless they know someone, while open functions can end up being quite costly.
Most of the Carnevale celebrations in Italy occur around forty days prior to Easter, meaning that the date will vary each year; outside of Venice, you'll catch plenty of parades, parties, and entertainment, and there are even a few that are notably large. The Carnevales in Viareggio, Ivrea, Acireale, Milan, and Putignano. Ivrea's Carnevale is of especial interest due to the Battle of Oranges that precedes Fat Tuesday; it is literally three days of sanctioned orange throwing between teams of townspeople. Travelers don't usually participate, but are allowed spectating areas and red caps that signal that they are off-limits. Visit the included websites for further information.
Regatta of the Maritime Republics
A traditional boat race run between ancient, Italian maritime powers (Amalfi, Genoa, Pisa, and Venice), the Regatta is a chance at cultural immersion that mixes custom and sport in exciting tandem. Taking place in early June in one of the four participating regions, the eight-man teams each row a “gozzi”, an Italian row-boat, in a two-kilometer circuit in an attempt to bring pride to their region. The event that is preceded by a pageant of traditional clothing and symbols in the city streets reminiscent of the glorious pasts of these maritime powers. Genoa will host in 2014.
Ferrara Sotto le Stelle
Ferrara Sotto le Stelle ("Ferrara Under the Stars" in English) is a lineup of international artists that play public concerts in the historic Piazza Castello in the city of Ferrara, just north of Bologna in the region of Emilia-Romagna. With crowds of thousands that gather in the shadow of the iconic Castle Estense, this weekly concert series has lured the likes of Bob Dylan, Bon Iver, LCD Soundsystem, Sigur Ros, and many other artists with sizable followings. Take a look at the official website for upcoming artists and dates.
If you really want to experience authentic Italy from a performing arts perspective, then the opera in Verona is an obvious choice. Held every summer in the Arena di Verona, a 15,000 capacity amphitheater built in the 1st century AD, there is arguably no better opportunity for a traveler to behold this timeless art form in such a historic context. Although Aida by Verdi is usually a part of the summer program for its grandiose scale, a range of operas are performed from June to September with tickets selling as low as 22 Euros. Check the included website for further ticket and program information.
A festival for those who don't mind a little bloodshed and machismo, the Calcio Fiorentino is quite the unique sporting event. This game with rules similar to rugby is waged tournament-style the third week in June in the city of Florence's Piazza Santa Croce, with more fist-fights than a hockey rivalry. Each match is refereed and while sucker-punching is illegal, almost anything else goes (and usually does) between members of the 27-man teams that represent different corners of the city. If you want to experience an event where the gladiatorial spirit still thrives, then Calcio Fiorentino (otherwise known as Calcio Storico or just Calcio) is a great way to take time off from the all of the paintings and sculptures you're going to see in Florence.