If you love ancient culture, delectable food, and wondrous sights, then you already know Italy is a must-see. Sharing borders with France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia, this Mediterranean country is situated at the bottom end of Europe.
Steeped in history, Italy has been home to some of the most famous people, sights, and food including Leonardo da Vinci and Julius Caesar, pizza and pasta, and the Vatican and Colosseum. With so much going on, it would take months to explore everything in Italy. For most travellers, that's just not possible, so we've put together a guide to the top spots to visit. Come along with us on a whirlwind tour of this jewel of the Mediterranean. We are off to Italia!
Here are a few must-know facts about Italy:
Currency: Euro (EUR)
Official language: Italian
Capital city: Rome
Italy has several famous cities and regions; think Florence, Tuscany, Milan, and Naples. However, none are as famous as the capital city, Rome. Known as the Eternal City for its longstanding Roman Empire, Rome is one of the oldest cities in the world.
The sheer volume of ancient architecture, much of it beautifully preserved, will astound any tourist. Cathedrals, columns, spires, and fountains occupy nearly every square metre of the city, making it feel like you're staying in an open-air museum. The Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, and the Vatican are all located in this historical city.
Rome was also the home of legendary figures like Julius Caesar, Leonardo da Vinci, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the famous architect responsible for many magnificent monuments such as the Fontana del Tritone.
There is so much more to explore in Rome, we recommend you spend at least a week there. Check out a good travel guide to Rome to find the city's not-to-be-missed sights.
Evidence of human ancestors in the region dates back to around 850,000 years ago and Italian civilisation as we know it now has a very long history – one of the oldest on earth.
The most well-known era of Italian rule is the Roman Empire. In 509 BCE, Romans overthrew the Roman king Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and established the Roman Senate of the People, more commonly referred to as the SPQR. The eventual leader of the Senate was Julius Caesar. He was famously murdered by his peers following the belief that he grew weak in his efforts to maintain the power and glory of the Roman Empire.
During its time of dominance, the Roman Empire was among the most powerful, wealthiest, and geographically vast empires in history, spanning more than five-million square kilometres during its pinnacle of rule.
Rome is perhaps the most popular tourist destination in the country, in part due to its many attractions. These include the Colosseum, which is a domineering display of the artistic prowess and pride of a once-great empire, and the Vatican, the seat of the Catholic religion and its head, the Pope. When the Pope is in Rome, you can attend a Papal audience just about every Wednesday morning. Tickets are free but need to be booked in advance as his address is extremely popular, usually with thousands turning out to hear him speak.
Duomo (which directly translates to 'cathedral') in Milan is one of the largest cathedrals ever built; its vast size can only truly be understood when seen in person. It is just as magnificent on the inside as it is on the outside, so if you'd like to explore the interior of Duomo, simply book a tour in advance.
Pompeii, located in the south, offers travellers the opportunity to explore ancient archaeological areas and see the eerily preserved remains of the people who were caught in the infamous eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
The large Piazzale Michelangelo square in Florence offers panoramic views of the surrounding city. It is beautifully kept with lush gardens and you can marvel at a bronze replica of Michelangelo's famous statue, David.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of Italy's more bizarre landmarks but is nonetheless a popular stop for tourists, many of whom love to pretend to hold the lopsided tower up in photos.
When browsing for accommodation in Italy, you'll be surprised by the range of options available. From luxurious five-star hotels to quaint and modest rooms, there is something for every budget.
If you want to book a place to stay in popular tourist destinations, such as Rome and Florence, book far in advance as decent accommodation gets snatched up quickly. Italy can be an extremely busy country depending on the time of the year, with cultural events such as Milan Fashion Week bringing hordes of visitors every year, so keep this in mind when booking your Italy tour.
Bicycles are a part of everyday life in many European countries and Italy is no different. A bicycle tour is a relaxing way to explore the country at your own pace and get a feel for what life is like for the people who live there.
If cycling requires a bit more effort than what you'd prefer, book a scooter tour and explore more of the country at a quicker pace. Remember to take your driver's licence with you!
Want to do something a little different? A little-known tour which explores the tombs of the Vatican below the city is available, giving travellers the opportunity to see the tomb of St. Peter himself. Due to the close confines of the underground chambers, the tour offers a limited number of tickets each day.
Tip: If you smoke or suffer from oxygen-related issues, this tour may not be ideal for you as oxygen is limited beneath the city.
Lecce, a town near Florence, offers excellent hiking trails where you can spend the day exploring the countryside in full view of the Alps.
Immerse yourself in a James Bond experience and take a boat trip on Lake Como, the location of the famous boat race scene in the movie Casino Royale. It's also the holiday destination of choice for many celebrities including George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Experience the thrill of driving Italy's favourite car and book a test drive at Ferrari's home base in Modena. Although it's quite pricey, the experience is worth it for hardcore Ferrari fans.
Italy offers a diverse climate due to the vertical layout of the country. The northern region experiences colder weather compared to the south, with Naples and Sicily (south) offering warmer temperatures than Turin, a city located near the northern border of Switzerland.
The average temperatures in winter are between 0° C and 12° C, while the average temperature in summer ranges from 20° C to 25° C, making it a great holiday destination for anyone wishing to experience an ideal climate during their travels.
Italy is famous for many things – art, history, supercars, fashion – but nothing can compare to the international adoption of their food. The country's food culture is so famous that many of the dishes are prepared by people across the world, with pasta and pizza being the most commonly known, along with other unique dishes like gnocchi and risotto.
Italians are adept at cooking more than starch though; their fish and meat dishes and salads are just as good. Cold cuts and finger foods are treats enjoyed by many, and bread is so beloved there it's automatically offered with many meals.
Espresso is adored across the globe and Italian wine is considered to be world-class.
If you want a quick snack on-the-go, Italy has various international fast food chains such as McDonalds and KFC. Interestingly, some food chains, such as Starbucks, have struggled to make an impression there, as slow dining is a major part of Italian culture.
The crime rate in Italy is among the lowest in Western Europe, but there is a large and well-known organised crime unit operating in the country. Known as the Mafia, this crime organisation operates in various cities across the country, most notably in Naples.
Crime is considered to be worse in the southern part of the country, which is more impoverished than the north.
Tip: No matter where you go in Italy, carry as few items on you as possible, as pickpocketing is common throughout the country.
Italy is a member of the European Union and South Africans need a Schengen visa to enter. You can apply for one by booking a visa appointment online.
Italian roads, especially those in the larger cities of Rome and Milan, aren't particularly car-friendly due to narrow lanes and limited parking spots. If you plan to hire a rental car in Italy, ensure you have rental car insurance in place as small dents and scratches are almost unavoidable.
Public transport in Italy is well-organised and functions smoothly, with busses, trams, and underground railway systems available in many cities. Uber and other cab services are also available, but these can be quite pricey.
Italy is surrounded by numerous seas, with the Mediterranean being one of the most popular entry points for cruise ships docking in the country.
Just about every city has its own airport, but the more popular international airports are located in Rome, Milan, and Sicily.
Italians are proud and patriotic about their products and traditions. Because their cuisine has spread across the world, the food you eat in Italy may not be what you're used to – South Africans have added a Western twist to many of the Italian dishes we enjoy here. Rather don't ask Italians why their food isn't more like what you're accustomed to so as not to offend them.
The cities were built for outdoor exploration. Because you'll be spending a lot of time in the sun, sunscreen and a hat are essential.
Despite the name, the Roman aqueducts are commonplace throughout the country and not just in Rome. This is great news for tourists because you can simply refill a water bottle with cool, fresh drinking water from the fountains located just about everywhere.