The Ultimate Guide to Italy

by GoAbroad Writing Team

Popularly known as the world's "living art gallery", Italy is an exotic place of both art and architectural masterpieces created throughout history, attracting hundreds of thousands of travelers each year. No visit to Italy is complete without a trip to see the most remarkable cathedral in Europe, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. You can visit Rome to look for antique treasures from several of the world's most famous painters. Florence is awash in history with ancient churches, villas, and palazzos. Every turn in Venice is a piece of history, whether it's a 13th century church, renaissance piazza, or monument. The Doge's Palace and the Bridge of Sighs are just a couple landmarks worth ment

The famous leaning tower of Pisa. The famous leaning tower of Pisa. Photo by GoAbroad Writing Team

Aside from the unending, tangible history in Italy, the nation has beyond remarkable landscapes which bring any visit to an entirely new level. You can go skiing in the Alps, visit Roman ruins and Greek temples, or explore the Grand Canal in Venice.

As one of the world's best-loved destinations, Italy is also the land of la dolce vita meaning "the sweet life". After an adventure tourists can unwind, relax, and be pampered by staying at one Italy’s high end spas or simply enjoy Italy's sophisticated dining pleasures, such as family-owned places where you can experience real Italian cooking.

Geography & Demographics

Italy is popularly known to be one of Europes most sophisticated destinations. It is a mountainous peninsula in the Mediterranean Sea. To the north is a mountainous area known as the Alps, that separates Italy from France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia. At the south of Italy is the Po Valley, a fertile farm land and the basin of the Po River, and extending well into the Mediterranean Sea sit Sicily and Sardinia, two of Italy's largest islands. Sicily is located across the narrow strait of Messina where volcanoes can be found. Sardinia has a mountainous landscape and rocky offshore islands.

Within the borders of Italy lies two of Italy's independent counties, the Vatican and the world's smallest country, San Marino. Milan prevails to be Italy's first city of commerce, and the Po River plain is A99 considered to be both italy's and southern Europe's most advanced agricultural region. Turin is a major attraction for tourists and is home to one of the world's largest car producers, Fiat. Rome, the capital of Italy, continues to manifest the architectural and artistic tradition known to be among the world's richest. 

The climate in Italy has a mild temperate but varies from one region to another. In northern Italy, the temperature is relatively cold during winter and most areas have snow, while Southern Italy has a more pleasant winter and a warmer climate.

Italy's population is well over 50 million with more than three million people living in Rome. Italy also has small groups of German, French, and Slovene minorities.

People & Culture

Despite its rich and magnificent art and architecture, there's no reason to be intimidated. Italian people are very hospitable and are rarely indifferent. Hundreds of local festivals take place across the country in any given day to celebrate a saint or a local harvest, including the daily domestic ritual of passeggiata, a collective evening stroll celebrated by the young and old alike in towns and villages across the country. If there is one special national characteristic Italians are known for, it's that they know how to live life to the fullest.

Language

The official spoken language of the nation is Italian. There are also other spoken dialects used by or understood by a minority of the population, such as French, German, and Slovene. Learning to speak Italian is as challenging as with any other foreign language. But if you want to make the most of your time visitng Italy, you have to try to learn at least a little bit of Italian. There are several language schools in Italy which offers a variety of classes you can choose from to suit your language ability, or you may also choose to get private lessons. 

Etiquette

In meeting people, the proper etiquette practiced by Italians is rather formal. A simple handshake with eye contact and a smile is made between strangers. It is improper to call someone by their first names unless invited to do so. Men and women dress formally when invited to business and social gatherings. Ties and suits are worn among men, while women are advised to dress simply but elegantly.

One is expected to use Signore (Mr.) and Signora (Mrs.) when addressing strangers, prior to stating their family name. In business etiquette personal and professional titles should be used consistently regardless of any casual or formal conversation. However, if a title is not known, the honorific plus the title is used. In general, honor and pride are very critical matters in Italian culture, so avoid insulting the personal pride of Italians, their families, towns, or friends.

Gestures

Here are some gestures used in Italy which have specific meanings:

  • People shake hands when arriving and leaving.
  • Women kiss cheek to cheek.
  • Men slap each other on the back and may as well embrace if they know each other.
  • A flick of the chin means "buzz off" equal to America's middle finger gesture. 
  • Sitting with crossed legs at the ankle suggests a respect for traditional values and rules of etiquette.
  • Pinching the bridge of your nose in business signifies a bad or negative evaluation.
  • Crossing your arms on your chest suggests defensiveness.
  • When giving gifts choose quality over quantity. It doesn't matter is it's small.
  • Biting your hands expresses dislike.
  • Pointing on the head means “crazy”.
  • In America, holding up two fingers to form a "v" symbolizes peace. In Italy it represents victory.
  • Turning a finger on the cheek, rubbing hands together followed by a quick kiss of the fingertips expresses satisfaction particularly after having a delicious meal.

Food

An Italian meal starts with a prima colazione (breakfast) usually served with a light cappuccino and a brioche (sweet pastry), sometimes an espresso (a strong coffee). Lunch, or pranzo, is the big meal which consists of a starter (antipasto), pasta, rice, or soup (primo piatto), a meat or fish (secondo piatto) with some vegetables (contomo), and a fresh fruit (frutta). 

Dinner (cena) is always the major meal in comparison to lunch. Pasta is the most common course in an Italian meal particularly in the northern area. Meat is not common in most Italian homes but instead Italian diets are full of vegetables, seafood, veal, or chicken. Gelato (ice cream) is available in many different flavours paired with a cone (un cono), which can be found in most gelateria.

Religion

A large majority of Italians are Roman Catholics. A small minority of Italians are Jews, Protestants and Muslims. For those who are religious, avoid wearing shorts for men and sleeveless tops for women in church settings. 

Music

Italian music is generally eclectic. A wide range of opera and classical music are the traditional styles known from many different regions. Opera is an essential part of Italian musical culture and a part of popular music known to many, along with other imported genres like jazz, rock, and hip hop. 

Italian folk music extends to diversified dances, styles, and instruments. The country's historical contribution has become a national pride particularly with the development of opera, which became popular all over the world. New innovations in music including the development of Gregorian chant and musical notation.

Dance

Popular dances include tarantella, a dialect form used to describe a common kind of spider, which is part of a folk ritual intended to cure the poison caused by the tarantula bites. Tuscan regional dances display weapon dances, which signify the moves of combat and are somewhat similar to the "garland dances" in Europe. Duru-duru dance is known in Sardinia, and it is about love and courting. The Duru-duru is danced in couples, either single or more. Another dance is performed by the sound of tambourine known as tammuriata. This dance is usually performed in southern Italy with a lyric song called strambotto.

Sports

The most popular sport in Italy is soccer, followed by calcio, cycling, bowls, or bocce, which is a kind of bowling and horse racing. The Italian national soccer team has won the World Cup multiple times, and everyone looks forward to the most anticipated cycling event held yearly called the Girod'Italia.

Italy's wide coast measuring around 8,500 kilometers is a favorite destination for most tourists where they can enjoy several types of watersports. In the south of Italy a few winter sports options are also available where a large portion of Italians spend their time during winter.

Currency Information

The currency in Italy was converted to Euro along with the twelve European Union countries in January of 2002. Notes are in denominations of 500, 200, 100, 50, 20, 10, and 5. Coins are available in various denominations as well. Converting dollars to Euros can be done through any bank, ATM machine, or exchange office at airports, seaports, or railway stations located in the largest cities. The people of Italy are not used to big tipping but sometimes it's just a matter of personal discretion.

Things to Do

For those who love the nightlife, there is plenty to check out as far as clubs go and the party doesn't start until the wee hours of the morning. There's everything from disco to ballroom dancing to live music. For shop addicts, Italy is well known for its fashion industry and is famous worldwide for its high-end fashion and style.

Museums

Italy is considered to be the second country, next to Spain, when it comes to historical, artistic heritage in the world. Florence is known for its valuable treasure of marbles, frescos, and oil paintings. It is well known to many as the capital of Italian Renaissance Art. Some of the popular works are located at The Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery, the Bargello Museum, and the Palazzo Pitti. Others well known locations include Museo Archeologico, San Marco, and the Fra Angelico Museum.

In Rome, you will find a variety of museums that represent churches and castles. One of the oldest is the Vatican Museum, which keeps the greatest collections of art and sculpture in the world. The Caitoline Museum, the Galleria Borghese, the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, the Villa Farnesina, the Etruscan Museum, and the Museo Nazionale d'Arte Orientale are a few among several world-famous galleries throughout the Italy. Others include the Museum of the Souls of the Dead, the National Pasta Museum, and the Museum of Criminology. 

In Sicily, several museums can be found in different regions, such as the Regional Museum in Messina, the Marionette Museum in Palermo, and the Aeolian Archaeological Museum in Lipari among others.

Milan has enough museums to satisfy a tourist's craving for the fine arts, like the Museum of Ancient Art and Museo Poldi-Pezzoli. In the field of sciences, the Leonardo da Vinci National Museum of Science and Technology is a favorite.

Nightlife

There are several options for visitors to enjoy the nightlife in Italy, from a moonlit stroll to a disco bar full of vigorous international crowd. A number of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs can be found in major cities and selected tourist resorts available for everyone from all walks of life. Most restaurants set up tables outside for customers to take delight in watching street theatres or simply just enjoying the good weather. A majority of students will be found in major cities enjoying the nightlife in Italy so it's not surprising that the atmosphere is very youthful. Clubs play a variety of music from alternative to techno starting late at night until the wee hours of the morning. Concerts are also being held outdoors to make most of the summer evenings.

Transportation

Bus terminals can be found anywhere in larger towns from small local services connecting the rural communities to expensive bus services between big cities. Tickets are available in supermarkets, newsstands, and at the vending machines situated in train or metro stations. Buy tickets immediately before hopping on the bus or you can buy them in advance. There aren’t usually tickets sold at night or on Sundays, so you can buy them earlier if traveling during those time periods. Tickets are only considered "used" when validated on the bus or metro. You also have to keep your ticket until you are out of the station particularly on the metro. Traveling without a ticket has a corresponding fine!

Health and Safety

Crime

Petty crimes such as pickpocketing, bag-snatching, and stealing cars are serious crimes among major cities in Naples and Rome. Pickpockets disguise and dress up like businessmen to deceive tourists into believing they're not capable of stealing. Others also work on scooters, quickly disappearing before you can react. This sometimes occurs in major train stations, crowded streets like markets, and tourist sights.

You can prevent crime by avoiding carrying purses and passports when walking in crowded streets, such as the supermarkets, and avoid walking alone in the dark or on empty streets.  Always keep your hotel room locked and do not open the door to strangers. Try to ignore unwanted approaches from strangers or better yet, politely walk away. If you know someone is following you, take action by shouting "Va via!" (Go away!).

Cultural Shock

Moving to a new country means adjusting to the norms. Traveling to Italy is no different. Below is a list of information that may be useful for anyone traveling to Italy:

  • Picture-taking is restricted in some museums. Ask permission to take pictures in these areas. Cameras in active flash mode should be avoided to prevent distracting other people.
  • When giving gifts, do not wrap it in purple, as Italians consider it a symbol of bad luck. Gifts are opened right away when received. 
  • Being on time is not a big deal in Italy when invited to a dinner or a party. A maximum time between 15-30 minutes will not upset the host party. However, punctuality is a virtue particularly in the north.
  • Walking around town in bikinis, beach attire, or any skimpy outfits is considered rude
  • Some stores do not allow women to try on shirts and blouses. Returning or exchanging items even if it is flawed rarely occur.

Passport and Visa

Check out GoAbroad.com’s Embassy and Consulate Directory to find an Italian Embassy or Consulate in your home country, to learn more about visa requirements.

Travel Programs in Italy

Search for volunteering opportunities from GoAbroad.com's Volunteer Abroad Directory for Italy

To check out internship opportunities, search GoAbroad.com's Internship Programs in Italy.

Find an Italian Language Schools in Italy in GoAbroad.com’s Language Study Program Directory.

Get teaching experience in Italy, search through GoAbroad.com’s Teach Abroad Directory.

Join an Eco-Adventure Program in Italy, find a trip in GoAbroad’s Adventure Travel Directory.

Search through Study Abroad Programs in GoAbroad.com’s Study Abroad Directory.

Complete a Degree in Italy, check out GoAbroad’s Directory of Degree Programs.

Find a job in Italy through GoAbroad’s Job Directory.