Italy, Italia, is a Mediterranean country in southern Europe that borders the countries of France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia along the Alps. Its coasts are primarily on the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas. Nearly 4700 miles of coastline make for fantastic beaches and seaside towns to explore.
About 40% of the land is mountainous so there is good skiing in winter and hiking in summer. Monte Bianco, or Mont Blanc, is the highest point with a height of 4748 meters.
Italy is divided into 20 regions, 18 on the mainland and the two large islands regions. Since the peninsula’s shape is similar to a boot, Italy is often referred to as the boot. Puglia represents the heel of the boot and Calabria the toe. Tuscany, in central Italy, is the most popular region to visit.
Italy is one of the world’s most popular travel destinations. It offers a wide variety of things to see and do and places to visit. Its wealth of artistic and archaeological treasures is reflected in the number of its UNESCO World Heritage Sites, more than any other country. Art and history are found everywhere, in historic cities and smaller towns and villages. From the sea to the mountains, nature lovers will find a lots to do, too. Travelers often make repeat visits since there is so much to see and do.
Italian cuisine, wine, and gelato are world famous so eating is often a highlight of a visit. Each region has its own food specialties so be sure to ask about them wherever you are.
Italy has 20 regions, 18 of which are on the mainland plus the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Choose the region you wish to explore or see Italian Regions for locations. Click the Trip Ideas tab in the yellow bar above for more places to go.
Italy has something to offer in every season so when you go depends on the kinds of things you like to do and the weather you want. For example, if you want to swim in the sea, summer is the best time to go, although it will be high season along the coast but if you want to eat truffles, autumn is the best time to go.
* Spring is usually a very nice time to go to Italy – days are getting longer, temperatures are warming, and wildflowers and gardens are beautiful. May 1, Labor Day, is a big holiday in Italy and much of Europe. Many of the top sites and destinations are very crowded and some museums and sites are closed but there are often parades, concerts, and special events. Other spring holidays are Easter and Pasquetta (Easter Monday), Liberation Day on April 25, and Republic Day on June 2.
* Summer travel can be fun even though it’s hot in most parts of Italy and high season in many places, especially on the coast. There are many festivals and outdoor music performances, it’s nice to eat dinner outside, and it’s the perfect time for going to the beach and swimming in the sea. In August, many Italians spend their vacation along the coast so if you’re planning to do the same, you should book your hotel in advance. The cities empty out in August though, especially on August 15, Ferragosto or Assumption Day, a big national holiday when many shops and restaurants close for vacation, although most tourist sites are open.
* Fall is often a nice time to visit Italy. Temperatures are fairly moderate, flights to Italy are often less expensive, and crowds start to thin, although October is becoming one of the most popular months to visit and you may find high season hotel prices in the top tourist cities. Fall is a good time for foodies with foods like truffles and wild mushrooms. There are many food and wine festivals throughout Italy and truffle fairs are a great place to taste (and smell) fresh truffles. Many places, especially in the north, have good fall colors as temperatures cool. Seaside resorts start to close and tourist attractions, outside major tourist areas, may have shorter opening hours than in summer. National holidays during fall are All Saints Day on November 1 and Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception on December 8.
* For those who don’t mind the cold, winter can be a great time to go to Italy when most places aren’t so crowded. Fewer tourists mean very few crowds at museums and attractions. You’ll find bargain hotel prices in many places (except around Christmas and New Year), you can see opera and concerts in Italy’s historic theaters, or enjoy skiing and winter sports in the mountains. Museums and sites may be open shorter hours during winter and in small places, only on weekends. In seaside resort towns, many hotels and restaurants may be closed. National holidays are December 25 and 26 and January 1 and 6, Epiphany.
While Italy is only about the size of the 5th largest state in the US, similar to Arizona or New Mexico (see this size comparison map), there is a lot to see. Traveling between places and within towns may take longer than you expect and it’s a good idea to leave yourself some free time for unexpected activities or just sitting in a cafe enjoying the slow pace.
The amount of time you should spend depends on how many places you want to go. If you plan to visit Rome, Florence, and Venice allow 1 to 2 weeks, depending on whether you also want to take day trips, cooking classes, or other activities. Because of the long flight time and expense, if you’re coming from the US it’s advisable to spend at least 2 to 3 weeks. Don’t expect to see the whole country on one trip!
US citizens can stay a maximum of 90 days. For longer stays, visitors need a special visa which is good for any of the countries in the Schengen zone of Europe. Visitors from some countries may need a visa to enter Italy and the amount of time they can stay without a visa may be limited. Find out if you need a visa and how to get it on this web site.
In general high season is late spring through summer. In many big Italian cities, however, August is low season (when Italians take vacation) while along the coast the month of August is the highest season so if you’re going to the coast, try to avoid August.
Italy’s climate is predominantly Mediterranean, meaning that it is fairly mild. The mountains (about 40% of Italy) have a colder Alpine climate while in the south the climate tends to be hotter and drier. Parts of Italy can be very hot and humid during summer though. While the coast enjoys a fairly pleasant climate nearly year round, weather warm enough for swimming in the sea is primarily limited to summer months. See Italy weather and typical climate.
Spring: Expect some rain, especially in the earlier part of spring, and even snow in the mountains. In southern Italy it usually gets warm enough to swim in the sea by mid-spring. Most hotels start to heat their pools and restaurants set up outdoor tables by late spring.
Summer: Expect hot weather in most parts of Italy. In some parts of Italy, especially in the mountains, there may be rain or afternoon thunder storms. The south is normally very hot and dry while more to the north, many places are hot and humid.
Fall: Fall is the season with the most rainfall in many parts of Italy so be prepared for some rain and possibly snow in the mountains in late fall. In the south and along the coast, it’s still fairly warm in early fall but cools off later in the season. Aqua alta, or high waters, start of flood parts of Venice in late fall.
Winter: Winter weather ranges from relatively mild on the coasts of Sicily and the southern mainland to very cold and snowy inland, especially in the northern mountains. Popular destinations like Venice, Florence, and the hill towns of Tuscany and Umbria can get a dusting of snow in winter, too. Although you’ll probably have some rain you may also be rewarded with crisp, clear days in many places. If you’re driving, you’ll need to carry snow chains or have snow tires on your car (by law).
Italy currently has twelve national holidays.
Banks and most shops are closed on national holidays although in tourist areas some shops should be open. Most museums and sites are closed on Christmas and New Year’s Day and some are also closed on Easter and May 1. Public transportation runs on a Sunday and holiday schedule. You’re likely to find special events and festivals on most of these holidays.
January 1, New Year’s Day or Capodanno
January 6, Epiphany, end of the Christmas season and also the day la Befana brings gifts
Easter Sunday, Pasqua, date varies
Easter Monday, La Pasquetta, the day after Easter
April 25, Liberation Day or Festa della Liberazione commemorating the end of WWII
May 1, Labor Day, the day of the worker
June 2, Republic Day, Festa della Repubblica
August 15, Ferragosto, also Assumption Day, is the traditional start of the August holidays
November 1, All Saint’s Day or Ognissanti
December 8, Immaculate Conception, traditional start of the Christmas season
December 25, Christmas or Natale
December 26, Saint Stephen’s Day or Santo Stefano
Italy is in the central European time zone, or GMT 2 hours. Daylight savings usually begins the last Sunday in March and ends the last Sunday in October. For most of the year, the time in Italy is 6 hours ahead of the time in New York.
Chiuso per Ferie
Shops, bars, restaurants, and even some accommodations close at least two weeks of the year for vacation and you’ll see a sign that says Chiuso per Ferie. Although they can choose any time of year, August is the most common period. In the cities many places close in August, sometimes for the whole month, so if you’re in a city you may feel like you’re in a ghost town, especially if you venture away from the tourist areas. Major tourist attractions will still be open, though, and you’ll find enough open restaurants to find a place to eat. In seaside towns many places close in January and February.
Italy’s Carnival or Mardi Gras
This is celebrated, as in many places around the world, 40 days before Easter, a final party before the start of Lent. Because the date of Easter varies each year, the date of carnevale also varies (see dates through 2020).
Carnevale is a huge winter festival celebrated all over Italy with parades, masquerade balls, entertainment, music, and parties. Festivities and events start two to three weeks ahead, usually on weekends, and culminate on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
Italy’s most famous carnevale events are held in:
• Venice – highlights are boat parades, people wearing costumes or masks, parties, and fireworks
• Viareggio – on the coast of Tuscany is famous for its parades with huge allegorical floats. Parades are held three dates before and two after carnevale as well as on Tuesday.
• Ivrea, a small town in Piedmont, celebrates with an orange-throwing battle re-enacting a historic battle.
• Sartiglia in Sardinia – Carnevale is celebrated with an amazing medieval tournament on horseback with costumed riders.
December 8 – January 6
Christmas season in Italy is traditionally celebrated December 24-January 6, or Christmas Eve through Epiphany but many Christmas markets and events start on December 8, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, or even earlier. National holidays are December 8, December 25 and 26, January 1, and January 6.
Although this is changing, the primary day for gift giving in Italy is Epiphany, January 6, the 12th day of Christmas when the three Wise Men gave Baby Jesus their gifts. This is the day that La Befana arrives in the night to fill children’s stockings. Epiphany events often include religious processions or nativity pageants.
Nativity displays (presepi) and living nativities (presepi viventi) are a major part of Christmas. Almost every church and house sets up a nativity. Naples is one of the top places to visit for nativities as theirs are very elaborate and often include town figures and even international celebrities (see photos). Via San Gregorio Armeno is the street famous for nativity workshops.
Christmas decorations, Christmas trees, and Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) are becoming more common throughout Italy. Christmas markets are held many places in December, from small towns to famous places like the big market in Piazza Navona in Rome or in the Trentino-Alto Adige Region in the north.
Christmas in Rome and the Vatican is one of the most popular in Italy. Thousands of visitors go to Saint Peter’s Basilica in hopes of hearing the Pope say Christmas Eve mass or Saint Peter’s Square to hear the Pope deliver his Christmas message at noon.
Holy Week, Easter, and la Pasquetta
Easter is one of the most important holidays in Italy. The week leading up to Easter is filled with religious processions and pageants all over Italy, especially on Thursday evening and Good Friday, when the Via Crucis, or Stations of the Cross is re-enacted. Rome is the top Easter week destination as people come to see the Pope presiding over Palm Sunday and Easter masses at the Vatican.
Easter Monday, La Pasquetta: The day after Easter is a national holiday, often celebrated with a picnic in the countryside.
Read about Easter week processions and events
Italy uses the common European currency called the euro. Euro coin denominations are 1, 5, 10, 20,and 50 euro cents and 1 and 2 euro coins. Paper currency is in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, and 500 euro (and higher). The word euro is both singular and plural.
You will need cash for many things, including stopping at the bar for coffee, shopping in most stores, and sometimes even at restaurants as many places don’t accept credit cards. Be sure you keep a supply of coins handy too, there are many times you may need coins.
Prices often change or fluctuate depending on seasonality. Therefore we don’t provide exact prices that could quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, we have indicated general price ranges for most points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in € (euro)
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
€ => Tickets less than €15 per person
€€ => Tickets €15 – €30 per person
€€€ => Tickets €30 or higher per person
Sleep — Small towns/rural
€ => Rooms less than €60 for a double
€€ => Rooms €60 – €100 for a double
€€€ => Rooms €100 or higher for a double
Sleep — Large Cities
€ => Rooms less than €100 for a double
€€ => Rooms €100 – €150 for a double
€€€ => Rooms €150 or higher for a double
€=> €5- €10 per person for a meal (without alcohol)
€€ => €10 – €25 per person for a meal (without alcohol)
€€€ => €25 or higher per person for a meal (without alcohol)
€ => Tickets less than €25 per person
€€ => Tickets €25 – €50 per person
€€€ => Tickets €50 or higher per person
It is not necessary to tip in Italian restaurants although a few coins, or up to 5%, is appreciated, especially if service is very good. You do not need to tip taxi drivers. You can tip a hotel porter who brings your bags to your room or the maid.
Public transportation in Italy is good. Fast trains reach all the major cities and are a good way to go from city center to city center. Regional trains serve many smaller towns. Buy Italian train tickets on Rail Europe.
Budget airlines serve many of Italy’s airports, making a convenient way to travel between places that are farther apart.
If you plan to explore rural countryside, small towns, and villages, booking a rental car is a good way to go. If you’re from the US, be sure to get an International Driver’s Permit, available from the American Automobile Association, before you go. If you’re stopped for any reason, you may be fined for not having it.
Most towns and cities have a good bus or metro system, although they can be very crowded. Many towns have bicycle rentals. The historic center is often closed to traffic so walking or renting a bike is usually the best way to explore.
Italy’s two major international airports with flights from the US are Rome Fiumicino and Milan Malpensa. For those changing planes in Europe, there are a number of different airports to fly into, depending on where you’re going. Some commonly used airports are Venice, Naples, Pisa or Florence for Tuscany, and Bari or Brindisi for Puglia.
Italian trains (treni) are the best way to travel between big cities and to go to places where there’s not much parking, such as the Cinque Terre, or where parking may be expensive. Trains usually go pretty near the city center and if not, they are connected by bus or metro.
All trains are non-smoking. Most trains have first and second class cars. Trains have toilets and most trains now have one handicapped accessible car with accessible toilet.
Regional trains (regionale) are the slowest and least expensive. Be sure to validate your ticket for these trains. Some regional trains have only second class cars but if first class is available it’s sometimes worth buying to have a better chance of getting a seat on crowded routes.
Intercity trains are the next fastest and have fewer stops than regional trains, stopping only in bigger towns and cities. You can should reserve a seat on intercity trains.
Le Frecce are the fast trains that travel between major cities. They are also the most expensive and require a seat reservation. Currently there are 3 levels of speed that travel on different routes – Frecciarossa (red), Frecciargento (silver), and Frecciabianca (white). Frecce trains have climate control, electric sockets, snack bar, and luggage racks, and sometimes a restaurant car. On some of the newest trains there are executive, business, and premium levels of service.
Train Tickets — How to Buy and Validate Them
Train tickets can be bought at almost any train station. Many stations have automatic ticket machines but they may not take foreign credit cards so have cash if you want to use them. If the ticket window is open, you can buy your tickets there. If you don’t speak Italian, it’s helpful to write your destination and train time on a piece of paper to show the ticket seller.
Most Intercity trains and all Frecce (fast) trains require a seat reservation, which you can make when you buy your ticket. You can often save money by buying these tickets in advance either at the station, online from trenitalia or from Rail Europe Italian train tickets.
If you are traveling by regional train, you can buy a ticket for the route you want at the station that can be used for any time on the ticket’s date. Then you must validate your regional ticket before boarding the train (it is valid for 4 hours after validation). You can be fined on board for not validating your ticket. If you buy a regional train ticket that is for a specific date and time, it does not need to be validated.
Tickets for Museums and Sites
Many top museums and sites have long ticket lines that you can avoid by buying your tickets before you go. Buy tickets for museums and sites in advance through Select Italy in US dollars. Some popular sights, such as da Vinci’s The Last Supper in Milan, require advance reservations that can usually be made up to 2 months in advance.
International Driving Permit – Get one if you plan to drive
Contrary to what you might hear, if you have a license from a state in the US you should also carry an International Driving Permit along with your local driver’s license. I’ve had to show mine three times recently at routine traffic stops and I’ve heard of people getting fined for not having one.
You can get an international driver’s permit from the American Automobile Association (AAA). This is not a license and requires no test, it is basically a translation of your driver’s license. Since it’s relatively inexpensive and easy to get, it’s advisable to get one if you plan to drive in Italy.
Italy has only been a unified country since 1861 when it was unified by Victor Emmanuel, so it’s a relatively young country and its history varies by region. The Romans controlled much of what is now Italy (and other parts of Europe) for several hundred years and you’ll find Roman remains throughout most of the country.
Before the Romans, the population varied by area. The Greeks populated parts of southern Italy and Sicily, leaving behind temples, theaters, and other remains. The Etruscans in central Italy are one of the best known pre-Roman cultures, leaving behind elaborate painted tombs and monumental walls.
After the fall of the Romans, Italy moved into the medieval period and many castles with surrounding borgos were built. The Renaissance started in Florence in the early 14th century and spread to other parts of Italy and Europe during the following two centuries. During the Renaissance a huge amount of art works were produced. Many of Italy’s top monuments date from the late Middle Ages or Renaissance period.
Italy’s main religion is Catholic but there are small Jewish, Protestant, and Muslim communities. The seat of Catholicism is in Vatican City, a tiny country inside the borders of Italy and a top place visited by tourists. The Pope gives special audiences and masses in Saint Peter’s Basilica and Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City.
Italy’s official language is Italian, but there are many regional dialects that are still spoken today. German is spoken in the northeastern region of Trentino-Alto Adige and there are small French-speaking populations in the Valle d’Aosta region to the northwest, a Slovene-speaking minority in the Trieste area to the northeast, and Greek and Albanian speaking communities in the south. On the island of Sardinia the language of Sardo is still spoken many places.
Sites about Italy:
Martha’s Italy – My writings on places to go and things to see in Italy.
Wandering Italy – Places to go in Italy, including many off the beaten track, and articles about food in Italy.
Select Italy – A good source for buying tickets and booking one day tours in Italy, in US dollars.
Italy’s most visited cities are Rome, Florence, and Venice. It’s easy to visit all 3 by train, flying into Rome and out of Venice (or reverse) if possible to avoid having to return to Rome. If you can’t fly out of Venice, Milan has a big international airport and can be reached by train from Venice. You could also spend a couple of days visiting Milan. Recommended time for this itinerary is at least 3 days in each city with 4 days in at least one of them, especially if you want to add day trips or activities such as a cooking class.
Cities are best visited by train – Buy Italian train tickets on Rail Europe.
* Rome is known for its Colosseum and other ancient Roman sites, beautiful squares with famous fountains, and the nearby Vatican and Saint Peter’s Square.
* Florence is a Renaissance city with top art museums such as the Uffizi Gallery, a huge Gothic duomo that’s one of Italy’s top cathedrals, the Ponte Vecchio across the Arno River, and gorgeous squares and monuments.
* Venice is one of Italy’s most unique and romantic cities with its winding canals and small walking streets. Saint Mark’s Square is the heart of Venice with the Doge’s Palace and stunning cathedral, Basilica San Marco, a blend of east and west.
Italy is a pretty child-friendly country and children are welcome almost everywhere. Families often enjoy staying in an agriturismo (renovated farm house with rooms or apartments) and kids love having a gelato. If you’re traveling in summer, a day at the beach is a good sight-seeing break.
5 places that are especially good for kids:
*Hill Towns in Umbria – the smaller medieval hill towns of Umbria aren’t usually as crowded as those in Tuscany and can be lots of fun for kids to explore.
* Castles can be found all over Italy and children often have a great time exploring the ancient walls and rooms. Children imagine themselves in the role of a knight, princess, or even king or queen. There’s often an interesting medieval town below the castle, too, but remember that since they are usually on a hill, it may require some climbing to get there.
* Rome is a good city for families with its ancient ruins, parks, fountains, a zoo, and even a children’s museum (Explora Museo dei Bambini). Older kids often enjoy the Bocca della Verita and catacombs. Or take the Eternally Young: Rome for Children half day tour.
* Lake Garda is the top lake for family lake vacations but any of Italy’s lakes are good. The southern part of the lake has good sand and pebble beaches and is has good swimming. Ferries are a fun way for families to explore the lake. Near Lake Garda is Gardaland if your kids want to go to an amusement park.
* Sacro Bosco di Bomarzo, also called Bomarzo Monster Park, near Viterbo in Lazio region north of Rome, is a delight for kids with its statuary in the shape of mythical creatures. You’ll need a car to get there.
Many of Italy’s hill towns and castles date from the Middle Ages. Medieval towns often have walls surrounding them and may have a castle or fortress at the top. Most of the best-preserved medieval towns sit on a hill but there are remnants of the middle ages in city centers too. Castles can be found all over Italy and range from ruins to restored castles that can be visited and may have a museum inside or even renovated into castle hotels.
Medieval festivals, often held in summer, are becoming popular in small towns and villages and many towns have historic re-enactments of events from the Middle Ages. Attending these events can be a lot of fun.
Recommended Medieval Towns to Visit:
* Siena, San Gimignano, and Cortona in Tuscany
* Assisi, Gubbio, and Todi in Umbria
* Brisighella, Castell’Arquato and the historic center of Bologna in Emilia Romagna. Brisighella has the unique Via degli Asini, a 12th century covered passageway built to protect donkeys carrying chalk from the quarries and it holds a big medieval festival in June.
* The old town on the hill above Sanremo, on the Italian Riviera, is one of the more unusual medieval centers. Also in the same area, the old town of Ventimiglia.
* Monte Sant’Angelo and the walled historic centers of Gallipoli and Otranto on the Salento Peninsula in Puglia.
Beautiful monuments, ancient ruins, and works of art can be found all over Italy but there are a few that are at the top of the must-see list for Italy, all on the list of Italy’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Top 5 must-see tourist attractions:
* Roman Colosseum – Buy your Colosseum and Roman Forum pass in advance to avoid the long ticket line. The pass is also good for visiting the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill nearby, on the same day or the following day. The lowest and top levels can only be visited on a guided tour. Book a Colosseum Dungeons and Upper Tiers Tour from Select Italy.
* Leaning Tower of Pisa – In addition to the Leaning Tower, other stunning medieval monuments in Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli include the cathedral, bell tower, baptistery, and Camposanto (walled cemetery).
* Ancient Ruins of Pompeii – In 79 AD an eruption of Mount Vesuvius volcano buried the town of Pompeii. Much of the town has been excavated. Pompeii can easily be visited from Naples or Sorrento on the Amalfi Peninsula but there are hotels in town if you want to spend the night. Pompeii can be reached by train.
* Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice – On Saint Mark’s Square, the basilica is a top example of East meets West architecture and is known for its stunning golden mosaics.
* Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums in the Vatican City. Although not technically in Italy, the Vatican Museums complex (including the Sistine Chapel) is tone of the most visited places by tourists to Italy. Ticket lines are usually very long so buy your Vatican Museums Tickets in advance to avoid the line.
Italy is bordered on three sides by the sea so there are plenty of great places to go on the coast but a few places along the sea stand out as especially spectacular, primarily in southern Italy.
* Cinque Terre, on the Italian Riviera, is one of the most visited and best-known coastal spots in northern Italy. These 5 small villages are connected by train, ferry, or hiking trails but unfortunately they are often overrun with tourists. The colorful village of Portovenere nearby is less crowded and still offers beautiful scenery. The Cinque Terre and Portovenere make up a UNESCO World Heritage site.
* The Amalfi Coast, south of Naples, is one of Italy’s most dramatic stretches of coastline. Villages cling to the side of the cliff, overlooking the clear, blue sea. Off the coast is the island of Capri, one of Italy’s most visited islands.
* Calabria, the toe of the boot, has many pristine beaches along its nearly 500 miles of coastline. The Mediterranean Coast of Calabria is known for its white sand beaches sitting below rocky cliffs, some topped with castles or charming villages.