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.
Full country name: Italian Republic
Area: 301,230 sq km
Population: 57.99 million
Capital City: Rome (pop 3.8 million)
Language: Italian, French, German, Serbian, Croatian
Religion: 84% Roman Catholic, 6% Jewish, Muslim and Protestant
Head of State: President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi
Head of Government: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
GDP: US$1.45 trillion
GDP per capita: US$25,100
Major Industries: tourism, engineering, textiles, chemicals, food processing, motor vehicles, clothing and footwear
Major Trading Partners: EU (especially Germany, France, UK, Spain, Netherlands), USA
Member of EU: Yes
Facts for the Traveler
Visas: EU citizens require only a passport or ID card to stay or work in Italy for as long as they like. They are, however, required to register with a ‘questura’ (police station) if they take up residence and obtain a ‘permesso di soggiorno’ (permission to remain for a nominated period). Citizens of many other countries, including the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Switzerland and Japan, do not need a visa if entering as tourists for up to three months. Since passports are not stamped on entry, that three-month rule can generally be interpreted with a certain flexibility. If you are entering for any reason other than tourism (for instance, study) or plan to remain for an extended period, insist on having the entry stamp. Without it you could encounter problems when trying to obtain a ‘permesso di soggiorno.’ Non-EU citizens who want to study at a university or language school must have a study visa. These can be obtained from your nearest Italian embassy or consulate.
Health risks: Rabies (This is only found in the Alps), Leishmaniasis (This is found in coastal regions), Lyme Disease
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +1 (+2 in summer) (Central European Time)
Dialling Code: 39
Electricity: 230V ,50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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 Festas di San Nicola in Bari and San Gennaro in Naples, the Festival of Snakes in Abruzzo (May) and the Festa 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.