Before you visit Italy, learn a bit about the history, religion, geography, climate, and local traditions so you can be fully prepared for your journey abroad. Within this article, we provide the best overview of Italy plus some first-hand travel tips along the way!
Welcome aboard to our Globally Educated Series where we focus on one nation at a time to give you the most comprehensive overview of each country before embarking on your journey. We look forward to helping you prepare for your trip to Italy - let's get started!
Imagine it: You’re cruising along the rich and rugged Amalfi Coast. Colorful cliffside villages meet the fresh Mediterranean Sea and the aroma of coffee and the salty sea fills the air. Soon you find yourself in Florence, soaking up Renaissance art and impressive cathedrals before sipping wine in a nearby vineyard. Life in Italy is la dolce vita, the sweet life, and that’s just a little scoop of what you’re in for. And don’t get us started on the sweet scoops of gelato!
Brief History of Italy
The bell towers are chiming and Italy is calling to you! But before you go, let’s get you globally educated. First things first? Some quick history notes for you before you embark on your journey Italy.
Let’s get one thing straight, Italy is old. Societies can be traced back to 1200 BC, but we don’t know much about those times until 800 BC when the Greeks and the Etruscan arrived. Skilled artists, the Etruscan crafted gold and silver jewelry, painted pottery, and built cities in a grid pattern – think Arezzo, Cortona, and Perugia (these still exist today).
Etruscan kings ruled Rome for nearly a hundred years. They traded with Greeks and both societies influenced one another. The Greeks established colonies on Italian islands like Sicily and Ischia in the Bay of Naples. This was followed by colonized parts of Reggio Calabria in mainland Italy.
Eventually, Romans rebelled against the Etruscans. The last Etruscan city fell in 265 BC, as a result.
The Roman Empire
Rome was ruled by kings until 510 BC. After that, Romans established a new form of government where the upper classes ruled. In 451 BC, the Romans established the “Twelve Tables,” a standardized code of laws meant for public, private, and political matters.
The Roman government stayed like this for several hundred years until a shift toward Imperialism and the rise of power of Julius Caesar in 60 BC. During these next years, the empire swept across the Mediterranean region and conquered Egypt.
In A.D. 117, the Roman Empire stretched from Portugal to Syria to Britain to North Africa – covering more of the world every year that passed. Then, in AD 286, the Roman Empire split into eastern and western empires, with a different emperor for each.
This began the fall of the Roman Empire. Rome fell in AD 476 and the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) held on until the 15th century until its capital Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) fell to the Turks.
Italy in the 20th century
In 1914, during WWI, Italy sided with the United Kingdom and the United States. However, the country was left in poverty at the end of the war. Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party rose to power, with a promise to restore the Roman Empire and maximize its strength. Mussolini ruled as a dictator and entered WWII on the side of Germany and Japan. Later, he was captured and executed by the public in the city of Milan.
Modern Day Italy
Today there is a bit of a divide between the north and the south. The north is advanced, wealthier and more industrialized. The south, on the other hand, remains poorer. Nonetheless, tourism, the wine industry, finance, and education have become the most important in Italy. It’s one of the most popular places to visit in Europe, with visitors flocking to its cultural cities and dazzling coastlines.
Languages in Italy
Ciao, ciao! Benvenuto in Italia! Welcome to Italy, home to the romance language of Italian. Spoken by about 85 million people worldwide, Italian is a direct descendant of Latin. Today’s Standard Italian is based on the Tuscan language of Florence from the 14th century.
We’re saying Standard Italian because Italy is actually full of dialects and regional languages like Sardinian, Sicilian, and Lombard. Several of the regional languages have official recognition in Italy, like Sardinian. Then, Sardinian also has four different dialects.
Something you may not know about Italy is that there are regions in the north where German and Sloven are spoken. If you visit the province of South Tyrol in northern Italy and in the north-eastern Italian regions, you’ll stumble upon German. As for Slovene, it is spoken around the border with Slovenia – of course!
Recent data shows that roughly 34% of the Italian population speaks English. A third of this population can generally only speak a basic level of English, and fluency in English is quite uncommon in Italy. Those fluent in English are usually university students, high-level business professionals, or avid travelers.
So when it comes to Italy travel advice, we definitely recommend learning a few words and phrases before you visit Italy.Here are a few essential Italian words and phrases to get you started!
- Ciao (chow) – hello (informal)
- Per favore (pair, fa-vor-ay) – please
- Grazie (graht-see-eh) – thank you
- Va bene (vah, ben-ayh) – ok
- un caffè, per favore – a coffee please
- Un bicchiere di vino bianco/rosso, per favore – a glass of white/red wine, please
Find more words and phrases to know before visiting Italy here!
Demographics of Italy
Italy has a current population of about 60 million. It’s been steadily declining over the decades and is actually set to decrease to just over 40 million by the end of the century. The largest population is based in Rome in central Italy, followed by Milan in the north, and Naples in the south.
As for the ethnic groups in Italy, roughly 95% are Italian, 5% are Albanians, Romanians, Ukrainians, and other Europeans, 2.5% are Africans (including North Africa), and 1% of the population are other minorities.
Data shows that almost 16,000 Americans are living in Italy – most residing in major cities like Rome and Milan.
Cities in Italy
Home to some of the world’s oldest places, exploring Italian cities is simply a must when you travel to Italy. Let’s take a look at some of the largest and most visited cities in Italy.
This mesmerizing capital city once ruled the Roman Empire. It’s a highly romanticized and lively destination, with ancient ruins scattered around its like exploring an open-air museum! Visitors can walk through the heart of the Roman Empire – now in beautiful ruins – or take a tour of the Colosseum (pictured above), visit the fascinating Vatican City, or wander down ancient, cobbled streets.
Rome is the largest city in Italy and the 8th largest in Europe with a 2.8 million population. It’s also one of the best places in Italy for history, architecture, and cuisine. It would take a lifetime to see and experience all the amazing things this Italian city has to offer.
Italy’s second-largest city is located in the northern Lombardy region. It is often seen as the fashion capital of Italy and is in direct competition with Paris for the world’s fashion capital. With a population of 1.4 million, Milan is bustling and business-savvy. Its most notable feature is the striking Gothic cathedral, Duomo di Milano.
Foodies flock to Naples for its pizza and are quickly greeted with the vibrant chaos of this southern Italian city. Naples is the third-largest city in Italy, with a population of over 940,000. Naples is unlike most of Italy’s other cities. This one plays by its own rules. Its streets are packed with vendors, Vespas, and cars. Seriously, you’ve got to have your wits about you when crossing the street in Naples. Naples is a little rough around the edges, but no doubt full of beauty.
It’s located on the coast, offering gorgeous views of the Mediterranean, there’s an ancient volcano looming in the distance, and historic cathedrals and beautiful plazas swarm the city.
But if you’re looking for simplicity and calmness on your trip to Italy, don’t spend too much time in Naples… or maybe you go and realize it’s just what your soul needed – who knows!
Though it’s one of the smaller cities in Italy, it hardly needs an introduction. Florence is nestled around the beautiful hills of Tuscany and is known for its renaissance art including masterpieces by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.
Its UNESCO center flaunts one of the world’s most stunning cathedrals, plus picturesque bridges, historic museums and art galleries, and tons of charm. Walk or cycle around, eat pasta, and experience one of the best places in Italy.
Geography of Italy
Italy is a boot-shaped peninsula in southern Europe that leads into the Adriatic Sea, Tyrrhenian Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and the Ionian Sea. Mountains crisscross the interior, helping to divide the country into 20 administrative regions. Other than the sea, Italy is bordered by France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia.
Much of northern Italy, near the borders with other countries, is surrounded by the Alps (the Dolomites are located in the Northern Italian Alps and are pictured below). Then, the Apennines descend down the center of Italy, taking up much of its central landmass. Back in the Alps, Gran Paradiso is the highest mountain in Italy, standing at 13,323 ft (4,061 m).
Italy’s boot shape makes Italy easy to spot on a map. The Puglia region in the southeast makes up the "heel of the boot" and the Calabria region in the southwest is at the "toe of the boot." Basilicata makes up the space in between the two.
What is the climate like in Italy?
Italy is known for its Mediterranean climate, but that doesn’t make up the entirety of the country. The coasts of Italy are largely Mediterranean, but the inland is generally cooler and wetter yet usually hotter during the summer.
Southern Italy has a hot and mostly dry climate – resulting in some wildfires during the hottest months of the year. On the other hand, the north has more of an Alpine climate, receiving a lot of snow in winter.
Let’s look at Rome’s average temperatures.
At a glimpse: Summers in Rome are short, hot, humid, dry, and mostly clear. Winters in Rome are long, cold, wet, and partly cloudy. Since you’re bound to visit Rome on your first trip to Italy, let’s dive into the average temperatures in Rome.
Summer in Rome: Temperatures in the day are typically in the high 70s and mid-80s (21-29°C), with August being the hottest month of the year. Temperatures drop to the 60s (15.5-20°C) at night.
Winter in Rome: Daily temperatures average a high of 55°F (13°C) and a low of 37°F (3°C). However, temperatures usually stay in the 40s (4.5-9°C) during winter in Rome.
Religion in Italy
Here’s a little fact you might not know: Many believe Italy to be the home of the Pope, but actually…. The Pope, the head of the Catholic Church, resides at the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City, which is the smallest fully independent nation-state. Rome surrounds Vatican City, but it is separate from Italy altogether.
Nonetheless, Roman Catholicism is the major religion in Italy. It makes perfect sense as Vatican City rests in the heart of Rome. Catholicism makes up approximately 74% of the population in Italy. Even more so, the Catholic Church’s statistics indicate that 96% of Italians were baptized as Catholic. Though this doesn’t outright reflect the number of active members, it is more so a look at the traditions within Italian culture.
Non-Catholic Christian groups make up 9.3% of the population. These include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelicals, Latter-day Saints, and Protestants.
Then, roughly 3.7% of the Italian population is Muslim. And an increasing number of Italians identify as atheists or non-religious. They are guaranteed freedom of religion under the Italian constitution, though not from Italy’s law against blasphemy.
Economy & Major Produces in Italy
Italy has a highly developed market economy. In fact, the Italian economy has progressed from being one of the weakest European economies following World War II to being one of the most powerful.
What is interesting to note is that Italy has the 3rd-largest national economy in the European Union and one of the largest in the world, yet salaries aren’t necessarily high in Italy. Poverty is particularly a threat in southern Italy, and 2017 data indicates that 8.4% of the population lives in “absolute poverty.”
However, Italy is a world leader in olive oil production and a major exporter of rice, tomatoes, and wine. The tourism industry is also a major factor that drives Italy’s economy.
What is Italy known for?
So. Many. Things! When we think of Italy, we think of pasta dishes, Neapolitan pizza, romantic plazas, ancient Roman architecture, superior coffee, the charm of Tuscany, the Mediterranean… the list goes on. So, before you visit Italy, here are some things to check out… that aren’t food (more on that soon!)
Italian coffee culture
Italians take their coffee seriously. At home, they usually use a metal stovetop coffee maker called a Moka pot. This whips up a dark-roast and delicious brew that Italians love. Out and about, a cappuccino is typical before noon (seriously, it is frowned upon to have one any later) or a caffè macchiato (a shot of espresso with a splash of frothy milk), or a simple espresso.
Italy travel advice: Here’s a sweet guide to ordering coffee in Italy.
Much like the bold yellow taxis in NYC or red double-decker buses in London, Vespas are synonymous with Italy. Showcased in many films like La Dolce Vita and Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday.
Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci are two of the world’s most famous artists and both hail from Italy, so it’s easy to see why art – particularly Renaissance art is such a big deal here. Plus, the beauty of Italy is that art is not just limited to museums. You’ll find gorgeous sculptures carved into intricate fountains or gardens, on the roofs of churches, and dotted throughout castles and historic residences. Then, one of the best places in Italy for Renaissance art is Florence and its Uffizi Gallery.
Italy is a serious destination for wine enthusiasts. While, in general, the country is known for its wine, Chianti really has a leg up. It’s a red wine from Tuscany, home to lush rolling vineyards and picturesque villas. One of the best things to do in Italy is to visit a vineyard, or at least a wine bar if you’re short on time… and Chianti should definitely be enjoyed!
How many times have you asked someone what their favorite type of food is and “Probably Italian” is their response? Is that not the most typical response? The western world loves Italian cuisine, and Italians are very proud of their culinary skills too. So before you visit Italy, try these iconic dishes.
Not specifically fettuccine alfredo. Instead, we’re talking about the flat thick pasta, typically homemade, and mixed with tomato sauce, basil, and topped with Parmesan cheese. You’ll find many fettuccine-based pasta dishes in Italy, but we highly recommend starting with something classic and simple to get a true appreciation for Italian cuisine.
There’s mozzarella, there’s buffalo mozzarella, and then there’s burrata – the king of Italian cheeses. A mix of mozzarella and cream, burrata has a deliciously cream, melt-in-your-mouth taste. It’s often ordered as a starter or served on top of various pasta dishes.
Italian-style ice cream is the perfect treat when walking the streets of Rome on a warm afternoon. Gelato uses more milk than cream but is served at a slightly warmer temperature than typical ice cream so you get that meltable sensation in your mouth. Try pistachio gelato and then go from there. Italians tend to judge a gelateria by the quality of its pistachio gelato.
Need we say more? Yes, actually we do. Pizza is an Italian icon. The world has recreated this dish time and time again, but we still love the classics. While on a trip to Italy, wander your way down to Naples and indulge in classic Napolitan pizza – the Margherita. Thin, flimsy, with a layer of tomato sauce and topped with a bit of mozzarella cheese and seasoned with basil. Most restaurants will also give you a spicy oil you can lather over your pizza too.
Italy Travel Advice
Before you go, here are some essential Italy travel tips to maximize your trip!
- Italy uses the euro (€) and the majority of places accept payment by card. However, it’s good to use an ATM to take out euros once you’ve arrived in the city as you might need cash for some restaurants and small purchases.
- Be aware of pickpockets on public transport and in crowded places, especially in Rome, Milan, and Venice (pictured above).
- Pack comfortable shoes for walking on cobbled streets.
- Espresso drinks are often drunk quickly and standing up at a bar. Italians do not order a cappuccino after noon.
- Bottled water is the norm in restaurants. Tap water is not usually served.
- Some restaurants in Italy charge a “coperto”, which is essentially a cover fee. It’s usually €1 or €2 and it’s charged per person.
- Most restaurants don’t open for dinner until after 7 or 8 p.m.
- Tips usually aren't necessary, but some touristy places may have “Tip Not Included” printed on the bill. This is just to influence unfamiliar tourists into leaving a tip.
- Always validate your train tickets before boarding or else you could receive a fine. You'll see the green Trenitalia validation machine or older yellow machines near the platforms. Just insert the ticket and that will validate it for your upcoming journey.
- In Rome, you can get around by foot, metro, bus, tram, or train. There are three metro lines, with stops near the main attractions. You can also use the Hop On Hop Off Bus.
- Call 112 in case of an emergency.