Italy Travel Guide: Overview
In Southern Europe—right in the heart of the Mediterranean—lies a boot-shaped country stuffed to the brim with culture, history and fine cuisine. Sharing its border with France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia, Italy contains approximately 116,400 square miles, and it’s home to around 61 million people. Once the thriving epicenter of the Roman Empire and the birthplace of the 14th-century Renaissance, Italy boasts more UNESCO World Heritage cultural sites than any other country. Even if history doesn’t strike your fancy, enjoy the country’s jaw-dropping coastline and high-fashion scene or feast on some of the best pizza and pasta in the world.
Rome wasn’t built in a day…and Italy’s history can hardly be summed up in a paragraph, but here’s a brief overview!
- 8th Century BCE: The Greeks settle in Italy and set up colonies along the coast of Southern Italy and Sicily. As the Greeks develop the region, Rome forms as a small agricultural community farther north.
- 395 CE: The Roman Empire is divided into western and eastern provinces. The Western Empire collapses around 476 CE. Several powerful trade-focused city-states emerge, including Florence, Venice and Genoa.
- 1400s: The Italian Renaissance begins. Humanism, science, exploration and the arts flourish. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo play central roles in the movement.
- 1870: Italy becomes a constitutional monarchy and unifies.
- 1922: Dictator Benito Mussolini comes to power and leads a Fascist government until 1943, when the king deposes him. A few months later, he becomes the leader of the Italian Social Republic, and he sides with the Axis powers through WWII. He is executed in Italy in 1945.
- 1946: A referendum abolishes the monarchy, and Italy becomes a republic. A new constitution comes into effect on January 1, 1948.
- 1970s: The ’70s bring social and economic unrest as Europe fears a communist uprising in Italy.
- 1980s: In the ’80s, Italy experiences economic growth, but investigations uncover widespread corruption involving politicians, public officials and business people.
- Recent History: Italy is hit hard during the 2008 recession, and public debt rises to the second largest in Europe (after Greece). In 2014, the Democratic Party’s Matteo Renzi becomes prime minister. He leads for three years before Paolo Gentiloni succeeds him. Today, Italy’s tourism industry is flourishing, and the country continues to work toward economic stability and growth.
Walk down the street almost anywhere in Italy to see zooming Vespas, people talking animatedly with their hands and well-dressed men and women sipping espressos at outdoor cafes. Continue a bit farther, and you might just pass some 2,000-year-old ruins from the Roman Empire, a beautiful stained-glass cathedral or a hole-in-the-wall panini shop. The Italian culture is both commanding and romantic, steeped in history and just about as charming as it gets.
Oh, and did we mention the pasta? Italy’s food and wine culture is a major part of what makes the country so unique. On nearly every corner you’ll catch a whiff of garlic and fresh focaccia. Meals are long, include several courses and are meant to be enjoyed together. Food is centered on fresh and high-quality ingredients, and there’s often a good deal of pride and generations of tradition behind every dish. So, tread carefully if asking for substitutions on a pizza!
Good to Know
The Italian currency is the Euro. Money exchange can be done at the airport, bank or any currency exchange. Generally, you’ll be charged a lower fee for a bank exchange. Using a credit card for purchases might end up costing you the least in fees, but remember that credit cards aren’t accepted everywhere.
Tipping is not compulsory in Italy, but it’s certainly not frowned upon either. Most restaurants, especially in larger cities and touristy areas, will charge a coperto (service charge), so any additional tip is considered a bonus. If there’s no coperto, it’s not uncommon to leave a Euro or two, or even up to 5–10 percent, if the service warrants it. Don’t feel obligated to leave that additional tip, though.
Italians greet their family and close friends with two light kisses (one on each cheek). How do you gracefully avoid an unintentional smooch? First kiss to your right and then to the left.
Backroads Pro Tip
If you’re greeting a stranger or taking a business-related meeting, stick to a handshake. More personal greetings are meant for family, friends and casual settings.
To visit any religious sites, it’s a good idea to cover your back, chest, shoulders and even knees. Bring along a large scarf or tunic to throw on in cathedrals and churches.
Italy operates on 220 volt and 50 hertz, and it has its own electrical plug design. You can find adapters at the airport or at specialized shops. In addition to an adaptor, US visitors will want a voltage converter. The stronger voltage in Italy can damage US devices designed for 110 volt.
Generally shop owners require you to purchase something to use their restrooms. At train stations and some other locations, you’ll find an attendant, and you’ll be charged between 50 to 75 Euro cents to use the facilities. Want to be polite and blend in? Practice your Italian! To ask “Where is the bathroom?” say “Dov’è il bagno?”
The tap water is safe to drink in Italy. Even the water from drinking fountains (brass taps) around many of the cities is perfectly good to drink. If you see an “Acqua Non Potabile” sign, however, this indicates the water should not be consumed.
When To Visit Italy
Italy offers year-round delights, so the best time to visit truly depends on what you’re looking to gain from your Italian adventures. If you’re after beach time, spring, summer and autumn can all accommodate, while those more interested in the country’s culinary offerings can capitalize on olive, grape, truffle and porcini harvesting in the fall. Anyone who’s a glutton for snow sports should head to the Dolomites in the winter for five-star chalets and great snow over long runs.
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- Every day, approximately 3,000 Euro worth of change is tossed into Trevi Fountain. It’s all collected daily and donated to charity.
- Italy is the only place in continental Europe you’ll find active volcanoes—three, in fact: Vesuvius, Etna and Stromboli.
- Vatican City is the world’s smallest country.
- Italy boasts 50 UNESCO World Heritage sites, which is the most of any nation.
- In Tuscany in 2007, a dog named Rocco discovered a truffle coming in at 3.3 pounds. It later sold at auction for the equivalent of about $333,000. Good boy!
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Regions and Cities
With so many spectacular areas to visit, it’s hard to know where to start your Italy travel experience. To give you some direction, here’s just some of our favorite Italian regions and must-visit cities:
Head south along the west coast for ancient ruins, stunning coastal views and all the pizza you can dream of!
Naples is the region’s energetic capital and the birthplace of pizza. Need we say more? Grab a giant pizza (or two!), and head to the coast.
Famous for its picturesque coastal towns, such as Positano, Amalfi and Ravello, the Amalfi Coast offers breathtaking views and curvy cliffside roads straight out of a luxury car commercial.
An easy day trip from Sorrento, Capri is sunny and beautiful with chic shops, restaurants and great coastal views.
Famous for the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Pompeii is an ancient Roman city that was buried under ash for thousands of years. This helped to preserve its artifacts and remains, making it one of the most insightful and productive archaeological sites to date.
The center of Northern Italy, this region is a foodie’s paradise.
Emilia-Romagna’s capital city is home to the world’s oldest university, and it’s the heart of Italy's food scene.
Revel in art, music, history and enough prosciutto and parmesan to last a lifetime. Parma is particularly known for its beautiful churches and surrounding rolling countryside.
An art and history lover’s haven, Ravenna is most famous for its Byzantine mosaics and for being Dante’s final resting place.
Head here for authentic balsamic vinegar and fancy cars! The headquarters of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and Pagani are all nearby.
This region of Central Italy borders the Tyrrhenian Sea, and it’s where you’ll find Rome and all its glory!
There’s no city in the world quite like it. Vibrant with culture, art, history and cuisine, Rome is meant to be experienced headfirst—with a healthy dose of the “when in Rome” mentality!
Offering sweeping views of the region, Tivoli boasts beautiful gardens and ruins to explore.
This coastal region of Northwest Italy is known for fresh pesto and unbelievable coastal views.
Liguria’s thriving capital city, Genoa is a charming port town that played a central role in maritime trade throughout history.
Head here for those quintessential Italian views. Five villages are built right into the cliffside, and one of the world’s most scenic hiking trails connects them all.
A small fishing town on the Italian Riviera, Portofino is complete with delightful cobblestoned squares and the perfect beach.
Head up to this northern region for your fashion fix and the Italian Lakes.
Put on your trendiest outfit. Milan is the global fashion and design capital and home to Leonard da Vinci’s mural The Last Supper.
Including Lago Maggiore, Lago di Garda and Lago di Como, these beautiful lakes offer a relaxing atmosphere with deep-blue water and the Alps as a backdrop.
Welcome to the heel of the boot! There’s plenty of gorgeous coastline here, as well as lesser-known towns with boundless beauty.
A major port and economic center in Southern Italy and the capital of Puglia, Bari is home to an impressive 11th-century basilica and a 12th-century cathedral and castle.
Full of whitewashed buildings and ancient walls, Ostuni is a must-see for its stunning cathedrals.
Renaissance art, rolling hills dotted with vineyards and hilltop villages define this stunning region.
Tuscany’s capital city and the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence has enough history, art and food to keep you busy for months.
A much-loved medieval hilltop city, Siena is a jewel of Tuscany.
Easily accessible from Florence or Perugia, Arezzo is full of remarkable buildings, interesting museums and a famous antiques fair.
The city walls from the late Renaissance years still remain, and this makes it the perfect place to explore by the seat of a rented bike.
Montalcino and Montepulciano
Calling all wine lovers! Add these beautiful Tuscan towns to the top of your list, and you won’t be sorry.
In Umbria, you get beautiful landscapes and rich tradition—all while staying a bit off the beaten path.
Head here to Umbria’s capital for the famous Perugia Chocolate Festival.
The city’s Basilica of St. Francis is full of one-of-a-kind paintings and fascinating history.
Worth a Visit
There’s so much to do and to see in this country; one trip is surely not enough. To get you started, though, here are a few of our favorite must-see sites:
You can’t visit Rome and miss the remains of the world’s largest amphitheater. Built in 70 AD and used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles, the Colosseum is simply not a stop you want to skip!
Trastevere is a picturesque Roman neighborhood with small cobblestoned streets, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and outlandish street performers.
Officially titled “Vatican City State,” this independent state is located within the city of Rome. It’s best to book a guide in order to skip the lines and to get the inside scoop.
Built by Michelangelo between 1501 and 1504, this one-of-a-kind sculpture now lives in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence.
Things to See and to Do
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How to Get to Italy
A US citizen can enter Italy without a visa and can stay for upwards of 90 days. You’ll need a return ticket ahead of time to prove your intended departure date.
To enter Italy, a US citizen will need a passport. That passport must be valid upon entry and should be valid for at least three months after your intended departure date.
When entering Italy by air, it’s best to research flights into the following airports first:
- Rome Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport
- Milan-Malpensa Airport
- Milan Linate Airport
- Bergamo Airport
- Bologna Airport
- Venice Marco Polo Airport
Train travel is usually the best way to get around Italy. Several companies of varying speed and comfort levels are available. Trains drop you in city centers with easy access to the major sites and good accommodations. However, watch for signs that warn of train strikes, and be prepared to change your travel plans when things are running late—or not at all.
Within most cities, there are also metro systems and efficient bus systems. Purchase bus and metro tickets before boarding, and be sure to validate them once aboard. Passengers with invalidated tickets are subject to fines.
Backroads Pro Tip
Taxis are readily available outside most train and bus stations, but make sure you know what price to expect for your trip so you’re not overcharged.
The official language of Italy is Italian. Almost everyone in Italy speaks Italian, but you’ll be able to find English speakers in most major cities. Here are some of the basics to use during your travels, but when all else fails, resort to Spanglish or charades!
- Hi, good-bye: Ciao
- Hello, good morning: Buongiorno
- Hello, good evening: Buonasera
- Good-bye: Arrivederci
- Have a good day: Una buona giornata
- Have a good/nice evening (to be used when you’re leaving): Buona serata
- Fine, thank you: Bene, grazie
- Please: Per favore
- How are you? (formal): Come sta?
- How are you? (informal): Come stai?
Food and Drink
In the food arena, no other country does it with quite as much passion or flair as Italy. Whether you find yourself drooling over fresh-baked focaccia drizzled in olive oil or a creamy gorgonzola gnocchi topped with shaved truffle, we suggest you start your diet after your Italian vacation.
Each region has its own local specialties. There simply aren’t enough meals in a day to sample everything, but here are some of this travel guide’s not-to-miss favorites.
Wine: Barolo, Montepulciano, Chianti…the list goes on. No Italian meal is complete without it.
Limoncello: You can smell it from a mile away. This liquor is made from fresh lemons and is often offered after your meal to cleanse your palate and to settle your stomach.
Neapolitan pizza: Where better to eat pizza than its birthplace? Pizza in Naples is served in a different style. It’s more “soupy” than regular pizza, and it’s made with a slightly sweet tomato sauce and cheese so fresh it could bring a tear to your eye.
Spaghetti alla carbonara: Rome’s signature dish, this rich and creamy pasta is sure to be in a different league than what you’ve tried back home. This dish is especially tasty with black truffles shaved on top.
Truffles: Truffles, especially the white variety, can only be grown in specific regions of the world, and Italy is one of the top producers of this rare and pricy delicacy. The taste is strong, earthy and absolutely delicious.
While you’re here, don’t forget to partake in aperitivo (something akin to Italian happy hour). It’s the perfect time to try an Aperol spritz, and between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m., some bars even offer mini buffets of free appetizers with the purchase of a cocktail.
Food in Italy: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
While traveling in Italy, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings in order to avoid theft. Keep your valuables close and zipped up, especially in crowded or touristy areas and on public transit. Be careful with people selling things on the street as well. Often they’ll target tourists by handing over a bracelet or rose and then demanding money. That rose won’t look quite as romantic after you’ve refused to pay for it.
If you need emergency services during your stay in Italy, the following are some local numbers to call:
•112: Italy’s 911 equivalent
•113: Emergency police help number
•116: Road assistance
•115: Fire department
For a general emergency, the best number to call is 112.
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Italy adventure!