Submitted by Heather Demars on August 1, 2016
Few countries in the world can offer as much history, culture, art, architecture, and variety as Italy has waiting for its visitors. The birthplace of the Renaissance, Italy is the ultimate travel destination for world history and art buffs and is home to some of the most important pieces of art and architecture in the world. One can practically still hear the faint clash of gladiator swords while touring the Roman Colosseum, can feel the brushstrokes Michelangelo took while completing his masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Italy’s churches are some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring in the world, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City in the heart of Rome and St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. For those craving adventure, Italy has it all – skiing in the Alps, biking through the sprawling wine country of Tuscany, and windsurfing off the Mediterranean beaches of Sicily. And if the history and the adventure opportunities are not enough, the food alone is worth the visit. Lasagna. Pizza. Linguini. Risotto. Gelato. Tiramisu. Need we say more?
When to Travel
While the climate varies greatly from one region to the next, the best time to visit Italy is likely between April and June. July and August bring the summer holiday crowds, rising travel costs, and stifling temperatures. While winter months are not usually considered to be ideal travel time, it is the perfect time to plan your trip if your itinerary includes hitting the slopes of the Italian Alps. Rome and many regions in southern Italy experience mild winters and hot summers, making winter travel to these destinations enjoyable if travel during the more popular spring months is not possible.
While the idea of traveling to Italy will often conjure the image of sun-drenched vineyards and Mediterranean beaches, some areas of the country, such as Milan, experience regular rain and cloud cover. In fact, Milan is often compared to London in climate. From the Alps in the North to Sicily in the south, the country has something to offer to its guests year-round.
Besides the climate, Italy’s festivals are also something to take into consideration when planning your vacation. Festivals range from small, local celebrations to elaborate national and cultural events, and can be experienced year-round. Once your destinations are planned, research the area well to make sure your travel dates allow you to participate in these rich cultural experiences.
Italian Cuisines and Drinks
The words “Italian food” often conjures images of pizza, spaghetti, and lasagna, all smothered in rich cheeses and aromatic sauces. Italian food has become popular world wide, and it is no surprise. Italians have made their food famous through their use of herbs such as oregano, basil, thyme, sage, and rosemary. And while many people simply think of mozzarella and parmesan cheese as the primary “Italian cheeses”, there are, in reality, more than 400 types of cheese made in the country. In a country known for its amazing food, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what one should sample while there. Some specialties not to miss include:
Pizza – What would a trip to Italy be without a slice or two of authentic, Italian pizza? Originally concocted by peasants as an affordable meal during wartime, pizza is now famous around the globe but is still considered the best in its hometown. The dish varies from one city to the next, with a wide variety of crusts, sauces, cheeses, and other toppings.
Lasagna – Another classic Italian dish. Traditionally made with alternating layers of wide, flat noodles, tomato sauce, ground beef, and cheese, lasagna is another dish that can be found in many varieties, including white sauce and vegetable lasagnas.
Chicken Parmigiana – Breaded and fried pieces of chicken topped with a rich layer of melted chese.
Linguini – While the term is used to describe the slightly flat, thin long noodle, in Italy Linguini is usually served with a delectable clam sauce made with fresh clams, olive oil, and a healthy portion of garlic.
Fettuccine Alfredo – Long, wide noodles served with a rich and creamy white sauce.
Pasta Primavera – Especially popular in the springtime when fresh vegetables are abundant, pasta primavera is traditionally a vegetarian dish of pasta mixed with vegetables, with the occasional addition of meat or seafood.
Veal Marsala – Veal cutlets are usually lightly breaded and fried and cooked in a rich Marsala wine sauce. Though many variations can be found, traditionally the dish is served with mushrooms and green onions.This
Shrimp fra Diavolo – “Diavolo”, Italian for “devil”, is an appropriate name for this spicy dish prepared with fresh shrimp and generous amounts of crushed pepper.
Risotto – Sauteed rice cooked in a stock until it is rich and creamy. Many variations include the addition of meat, vegetables, cheeses, or seafood.
Polenta – Yellow corn meal cooked with stock. Extremely versatile, polenta can be served in a creamy consistency, fried, or even roasted.
Gelato – Italian ice cream that comes in a wide assortment of flavors, including traditional fruit flavors, chocolate, coffee, tiramisu, hazelnut, and pistachio. Smoother and richer than traditional ice cream, gelato is a must-try while in Italy.
Tiramisu – A popular Italian desert made from coffee, mascarpone, and cookies, usually sprinkled with cocoa powder or cinnamon on top.
Wine is a source of pride for Italians, and rightfully so. The country sports some of the best vineyards in the world, producing a vast assortment of wines to please almost any palate. Beer and coffee are also common beverages in Italy and can be widely found.
Popular Vacation Sites in Italy
Rome – Italy’s capital city, once considered the caput mundi (capital of the world), sits at the very top of many world travelers’ lists of must-see cities. Walking through the streets of Rome is in many ways like stepping through a portal to another time. A historian’s dream come true, Rome offers some of the most impressive ruins in the world, most notably the Roman Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Rome is also home to the Pantheon, one of the city’s best-preserved buildings. Built in about 125 A.D., the Pantheon has been in constant use since its construction. A unique experience not to be missed while in Rome is a tour of Vatican City, the world’s smallest sovereign nation at just over 100 acres. The Vatican’s most popular attraction is St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in Christendom. Inside, visitors can stand in awe of Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel frescoes or marvel at his La Pieta, which many consider to be the most moving piece of sculpture ever created. The Vatican museum hosts an impressive array of artifacts, including sculptures, paintings, mosaics, and tapestries from practically every era and location in art history.
Venice – This “City of Water” is often considered to be one of Europe’s most romantic cities, and it’s not difficult to understand why. It is difficult to picture anything more romantic than drifting peacefully down Venice’s moonlit canals, ensconced in the crushed velvet trappings of your own private gondola. Besides the city’s many canal tours, Venice is also home to St. Mark’s Basilica and square. St. Marks Basilica, with it’s impressive domes and multi-colored marble pillars, not to mention the interior mosaics, is easily one of the most beautiful churches in Italy. After touring the canals and St. Mark’s, and simply strolling along the city’s quaint streets, even the most unromantic visitor is sure to fall in love with this “Floating City.”
Sicily - The largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily is a unique blend of Italy, Greece, and Africa, a land of mountains and beaches, of history and tradition. Visitors to Sicily especially enjoy exploring Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano and Italy’s tallest peak south of the Alps. If you prefer beaches to mountains, Sicily is ready to please with plenty of sandy beaches and warm Mediterranean waters. The island is full of activities for the more adventurous travelers, from water sports on the beaches, to hiking and biking tours across the island, to the thrill of skiing or snowboarding on an active volcano in the winter. Sicily also has several ancient sites to explore, including the ruins at Segesta and Siracusa, Phoenician settlements, Greek temples and even a Norman castle or two.
Tuscany – Widely regarded as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, the region of Tuscany is home to some of Italy’s finest cities and attractions, including the leaning tower at Pisa, the Renaissance art and architecture of Florence, and the classic medieval hill town of Siena. Tuscany is famous not only for its culture, art, and history, but also for its world-famous cuisine and wine. Bike tours through the rolling hills of Florence’s wine country are especially popular, as are tours of the many world-class wineries in the region. Relax in a charming Tuscan villa and simply enjoy soaking in the peaceful rays of the late afternoon sun while enjoying a glass of exquisite Chianti.
Italy is one of the many European countries that uses the euro as its currency. The euro is divided into 100 cents. Notes come in denominations of 500, 200, 100, 50, 20, 10, and 5 euros, with coins available in denominations of 2 and 1 euro, and 50, 20, 10, 5, 2, and 1 cents. While exchange offices are open longer hours, the best exchange rates for changing money in Italy are usually found in banks and post offices. Italy is an expensive country in comparison with others, and offers many luxury hotels and upscale dining and entertainment venues. While less expensive options, such as hostels, exist, visitors to the country should make sure they arrive with sufficient funds. All bills include service charges, so tipping is not necessary, though it is becoming increasingly common in hotels and restaurants. Usually rounding the bill up to the nearest Euro 5 or tipping 5% is considered appropriate. There is an IVA or VAT sales tax (20% for most goods and 10% in restaurants and hotels) that is usually included unless otherwise stated. Tax is reduced to 4% for certain goods, such as books, and the tax can be refunded on some items that are to be exported out of the European Union, though you will need to ask merchandisers for a tax-free voucher at the time of purchase. Credit cards are widely accepted throughout the country, though if you plan on visiting rural regions plan to have some euros handy.