Frescos, Fountains, Fellini and so much more! - Reviewed by Deborah
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Few countries leave you with such a dilemma as Bel Paese, meaning ‘beautiful country’ in Italian. With so many must-see cities and regions, you could dedicate a lifetime of getaways to Italy and still be left with Italian destinations on your bucket list.
Ironically, perhaps, Italy is also a country that brought us some of history’s most celebrated explorers such as Marco Polo, Amerigo Vespucci and even Christopher Columbus. Today, the multitudes of delighted visitors that make Italy their choice each year may wonder why anyone would ever want to leave such a rich and inspiring country.
Whether you love history, nature, art, fashion, opera, wine, hiking, schmoozing, posing on the beach, football (soccer to our North American friends) or eating delicious meals that continue for hours until you pop a belly like Pavarotti, Italy has everything you could possibly want—and more that you didn’t even know you wanted. And let’s not forget the Vatican City, an independent city-state surrounded by Rome where its museums, art, architecture and the Pope attract more than just the pious.
QUICK FACTS ABOUT ITALY
The iconic boot-shaped country with more than 7,600 km (4,700 mi) of coastline including its islands sits at the heart of the Mediterranean surrounded by the Adriatic, Ionian and Tyrrhenian Sea, enjoying land borders with France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, San Marino and the Vatican City.
Just over 60 million inhabitants make Italy the fourth most populated country in Europe, with more than 50 million visitors every year supporting 60% of the country’s GDP.
The Alps, lakes and Italian Riviera await nature lovers seeking tranquility while Milan treats the fashion-forward with glittering panache, and romantics find their feet and Juliet’s balcony in Verona and Venice.
Tuscany—from Siena to Pisa to Florence to Bologna—invites wine and fine art connoisseurs while Rome offers up its ancient treasures and urban sophistication to all who crave culture and inspiration.
A tour of the south will take you along the Amalfi Coast with its cities built into dramatic cliff sides and stunning walks and waterfalls, but not before visiting Naples or the enigmatic archaeological site of Pompeii.
No overview of Italy would be complete without mention of its many islands, with Sicily and Sardinia counting amongst the biggest islands in the Mediterranean.
Evidence of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and its continuation in the East as the Byzantine Empire can be witnessed throughout the country. Nowhere can the vestiges of the Roman Empire be appreciated more pointedly than in Rome where the Coliseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, and aqueducts still stand proud. Multitudes of lesser Roman ruins can be enjoyed at every turn.
Italy was also the birthplace of the Renaissance before the movement spread throughout Europe. Historical figures such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Galileo Galilei and Niccolò Machiavelli were just some of the fruits of this fertile period.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Most of Italy is either hilly or mountainous with approximately 40% of the Italian peninsula covered in mountains that claim the southern face of the Alps. Indeed, Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc, is located within the Italian Alps bordering France.
To the south, active volcanoes make for great hiking. Mount Vesuvius near Naples, Mount Etna on Sicily and Mount Stromboli on the Aeolian Island of the same name are amongst numerous volcanoes that are now extinct or dormant.
Likewise, Italy is famed for its lakes and endless coastline that is the sixth longest in Europe. The warm waters are perfect for bathing from spring to early autumn.
With its mild, Mediterranean climate, it is generally comfortable to visit Italy any time of the year if you bring the right attire. But remember that the northern part of the country can get particularly cold and wet in winter, even reaching freezing temperatures with snow, hail and biting winds. Summers can get very hot reaching close to 30ºC (85ºF). The best times to visit Italy are spring and late summer-early autumn. Generally speaking, the south enjoys more balmy weather than the north throughout the year.
LANGUAGE, RELIGION AND PEOPLE
Italian is spoken throughout the country. While some people – particularly in tourist hotspots – will speak enough English to help you, don’t rely on everyone to speak English. Nevertheless, the people are very friendly and it’s easy to get around, so what little Italian you learn from your phrasebook will be enough for you to access Italy’s magic.
When it comes to religion—as you might expect from a country that quite literally embraces the Vatican City—the population is overwhelmingly Christian; statistics suggest that close to 90% belong to the Roman Catholic faith. Therefore, it may not surprise you that rules are fairly strict about the dress code when visiting churches, particularly St Peter’s Basilica in Rome or the Duomo in Milan. Remember, no shoulders, no knees and certainly no midriffs!
FOOD AND DRINK
Don’t be fooled into thinking that you know Italian food before you have visited the country. Your idea of Italian food will be challenged – for the better! Each region has its own specialties and culinary personality, so the best way to travel around Italy as a foodie is with an open mind (or should we say, open belly) to try new things.
The best practice is to ask your waiter to recommend the local specialty and seasonal dishes plus the perfect wine to accompany your meal. The beauty of traveling in one of the world’s oldest wine producing countries is that you will be pleasantly surprised by the price-quality ratio on your bottle of wine, so you can feel free to trust your waiter’s suggestion.
Better still, allow us at Tripwix to organize a local chef to prepare tailored meals for you in your villa for that unique local experience. Or, take a cooking class and learn how to make your own regional dishes when you get home.
Gelato and sorbet deserve their own mention. You won’t be able to walk more than a few meters in any town center or village in Italy without the chance to partake in this nation’s favourite sweet export. Nowadays, you will find many gelaterias offering artigianale (artisan) ice-cream.
When it comes to whetting your whistle, wine leads the pack, followed by limoncello, campari, aperol and other aperitifs and digestive liqueurs. With such amazing local vineyards in nearly all of the country’s regions, be sure to leave enough space in your suitcase for a couple of bottles of wine to take home – or even consider having a case sent on ahead of your return home. At least one wine-tasting tour is near-on obligatory when visiting Italy for any length of time.
Coffee, like gelato, deserves its own paragraph and quite possibly its own detailed blog post. You will find cafes and bars everywhere in Italy, many of which serve paninis and pastries throughout the day – this is important to know if you hungry between the traditional meal times, when you will find most restaurants are closed: Breakfast 7:00-10:00, Lunch 12:30-2:30, Dinner 19:30-late. Don’t be surprised if your coffee is smaller than you are used to, Italian coffee servings tend to be much smaller than your Starbucks order… oh, and don’t ask for espresso either, simply ask for “un caffé” and be sure to drink your cappuccinos and caffé lattes (avoid saying just latté or you will get a glass of hot milk) in the morning to avoid a look of reproach from your bartender.
Opera and classical music are perhaps the most famous Italian exports when it comes to music, with classical composers such as Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Gioacchino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti springing to mind. The violin, viola, and cello were first made in Italy during the early 16th century, and there are a number of places in northern Italy, such as Cremona, near Milan, that are famous for manufacturing string instruments. If you love opera, you must reserve a place at the outside amphitheatre in Verona. It is open during the summer months only from the end of June until the end of August.
The local currency is Euros. There’s no shortage of banks and exchange bureaus in the cities, but changing money may be more difficult in the smaller towns and villages. Drawing out cash from an ATM is often your best solution as well as the most favourable exchange rate.
Where to start! Fashion, jewellery, ceramics, leather, linen, watches, art and designer names galore, plus a host of souvenir type stores in all the main tourist hot spots. From handmade masks and venetian glass in Veneto, to designer labels in Milan, to ceramics, cashmere, textiles, and chocolates in Umbria – Italy has to be one of the best places on earth for shopping.
BEST TIME TO VISIT ITALY
Shoulder Season (Apr–Jun & Sep–Nov)
Though the main tourist cities in Italy such as Venice, Florence, Rome and Pisa are fairly busy all year long, you can avoid the crowds by arriving during the shoulder season. Beware that April and November can be quite chilly, so be prepared with a range of clothing for all types of weather. Autumn is great if you want to catch the grape harvest.
Summer Season (Jul & Aug)
Italy’s beaches and top tourist regions are more crowded during this time and you should book well in advance. Italians also take their summer vacations in summer, so you will encounter a wonderful mix of cultures wherever you go. Expect high temperatures and warmer sea conditions.
Winter Season (Dec – March)
Winter is high season for northern Italy as ski season begins in the Alps and Dolomites. For other regions, this season is a great opportunity to visit cultural centers where lines will be shorter to access museums and attractions. Beware that major holidays like Christmas and Easter can be very busy.
Winter generally brings many sunny days throughout the country and the climate is naturally mild, particularly in the south.
Photo credit for featured image: Gianfranco Bove