Unsurprisingly, Italy has the largest number of UNESCO World Heritage sites in the world, and has often been described as one big living museum. It’s also one of the globe’s most popular tourist destinations for its northern mountains, the central Eternal City of Rome and its fabulous southern beaches. Whatever makes an ideal vacation, Italy has it, with delicious food and wine, warm, sunny, summers, and great nightlife as a bonus.
Acknowledged for its vital place in the development of Western civilization, Italy is best known for the magnificence of its ancient cities and towns, Roman era ruins and unparalleled public works of art dating from the iconic Renaissance period. Its rich cuisine is world-famous, and its wines tell of the warm sunshine grown in verdant hills. Sailing is a popular outdoor activity on Italy’s extensive coastline, and water sports are available at all the larger resorts. The country isn’t just a summer adventure destination, with the Italian Alps offering world-class skiing in the winter along with rock-climbing, mountaineering, white-water rafting and hiking year-round.
The Italian people love their music, art and lifestyle with a passion unknown in more northern climates and share their love with all those who visit. Noisy, exuberant and boisterous, they live life to the fullest in a unique, laid-back manner. Accommodation is easily found at all budgets from inns and self-service to upscale hotels offering the best in dining and entertainment. Heading off the beaten path can find the least expensive lodgings and food, and top city prices compare with those in most European capitals.
In general, a trip to Italy can be taken at any time of year, dependent on its agenda. Spring and fall are the best times for hiking, cycling and other outdoor sports dependant on the weather, and high summer is great for a beach holiday, although crowded during the high season. Exploring Italy’s magnificent heritage sites is best done in the shoulder seasons as there are fewer crowds and less chance of searing heat.
For museum buffs, any time or year is good, and winter sports run from late November to April. The peak summer season is the most expensive in regards to accommodation, with winter breaks far from the ski areas the most likely to attract bargain rates. Rome, of course, is packed solid at Christmas and Easter.
Sardinia is summer heaven, with package tourists arriving in the high season, but far less busy in the late shoulder months, with falling hotel rates and many resorts shutting down completely in the winter. Sicily is less of a major destination than the Italian mainland and often cheaper, yet is wild and lovely and has more than its fair share of ancient ruins.
Currency: the Euro
Official language: Italian
The myth goes that the twins Romulus and Remus founded Rome in 753 BC, although the expansion of Rome and its Imperial beginnings really date back around 350 BC with the conquest of the Etruscans, a former Mediterranean power. The empire dominated all of Western Europe for over 800 years until its fall in 475 AD, after which Italy became a confusion of numerous city-states for most of the following millennium.
Ancient Rome’s golden days began after the conquests of Carthage and the Macedonian empires, with a fusion between the Hellenistic and Roman cultures bringing a cosmopolitan ethos to the previously rural Roman elite. By the dying years of the pre-Christian era Rome had consolidated its position as a major empire and had few foes. The zenith of Italian civilization began with the election of Augustus Caesar, now accepted as the official beginning of the great empire and the birth of Roman literature. Iconic poets such as Horace, Virgil and Ovid wrote the texts still regarded as ‘the classics’ today.
The rich culture of Italy formed the heart of the Western World from the days of Imperial Rome up to the end of the 16th century. The Roman Empire itself, the emergence of the Roman Catholic Church, the cultural flowering of the Renaissance era and the birth of Humanism all exerted strong influence across the globe. Nowadays, Italian culture is best represented in art, music, fashion and cuisine, all existing in harmony with great icons of the past, many of which are now UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Italy is home to more than 50% of the world’s art treasures, and the works of its great composers over the ages are still much-loved by the majority of locals. Music, whether classical or modern, is an integral part of life, unsurprisingly in a country which invented the musical stave, and the piano and opera have given birth to many of the world’s greatest composers, conductors and singers. In modern times, Italy is credited with developing progressive rock, italo-disco and experimental rock.
Given the country’s length and topography, it’s no surprise that Italy’s weather varies considerably, even between regions at the same latitude. Much of northern Italy’s interior with the exception of the Alpine areas has a humid subtropical climate, while its Ligurian coastline and the Florentine peninsula enjoy Mediterranean temperatures. During the far southern Palermo winter, highs can reach 68°F, while on the same day Rome will see temperatures only around 46°F and Milan will have snowfall and freezing conditions. In summer, regional temperature differences as not as noticeable.
The Adriatic Sea coast is drier than the western coastline, but is colder in winter and the more northerly areas are subject to the chilly Bora winds throughout winter and spring, with Trieste getting the strongest gusts. Along the Apennine mountain slopes, winter blizzards are common and while snow is falling in the north, warmer sirocco winds blow farther south. The waters of Venice have been known to freeze solid in winter, and the wind comes in icy blasts. Rain in the north is evenly distributed over the year, with temperatures veering between cool and cold.
Italy is part of the Schengen Agreement, which means there are no border controls for nationals of EU countries. EU citizens only require a valid national identity card or passport to enter Italy. Non-EU citizen require a valid passport and possibly a visa if you intend on a longer visit.
If you plan to visit any remote destinations in Italy or you want the freedom to go wherever, self-drive is the best option. If you’re traveling in a group, it’s also the most economic way to see this spectacular country. Most roads, especially the Autostrada long-distance routes, are well-kept, although in the northern the switchback twists and turns of the mountain roads can be nerve-wracking.
Negotiated rates are an invitation to scam, and if the meter is ‘broken’, find another cab. A small tip is acceptable, and small bills save you from the driver’s common ‘don’t have any change’ ploy. In Rome, Taxifacile (+39-03-553-8724) is good, and Naples’ Cotana (+39-081-570-7070) is one of the city’s five recognized taxi cooperatives.
A romantic way to travel from Naples to the resorts on the Amalfi coast, the islands of Ischia and Capri or the beach resort of Sorrento is by boat, with hydrofoils and ferries leaving regularly from Naples harbor. If Sicily is on the vacation agenda, ferries also run from Naples down the Mediterranean coastline and across to the island.
Italian train service is in general reliable, frequent and a good value for the money. High-speed expresses, known as Eurostar Italia, connect the major cities, while slower intercity routes connect cities and regional towns, and local trains run between towns. The Eurocity and Euronight express connect Italy with other European railways. The cost of train travel is less than in many other European countries and the comfort levels range from luxury to acceptable.
The high-speed route between Milan, Bologna, Florence, Rome and Naples cuts the average travel time in half due to a dedicated high-speed line, with travel times to other cities in Italy taking slightly longer on traditional railroads. Treni Notte are night trains, used on longer routes such as Milan to Rome and offer sleeper cars and couchettes. For Eurostar Italia, reservations must be made in advance, regardless if you’re traveling in first or second class. Intercity seats can be reserved, but it’s not mandatory.
Before you leave on your holiday, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:
Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)
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