1. Italy in a nutshell
Italy is located in south-central Europe and is surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, Tyrrhenian Sea, Ionian Sea and Adriatic Sea. Italy has two independent states that are enclaves in its territory: the Vatican City and San Marino. The capital of Italy is Rome that was for centuries the political centre of Western civilization as well as the capital of the Roman Empire.
Italy is nick named ‘Beautiful Country’ (‘Bel Paese’ in Italian) for its amazing culture, ancient history and breathtaking nature. Italy hosts forty five UNESCO World Heritage Sites. High art and monuments are to be found everywhere throughout the country.
Italy is also famous worldwide for its delicious cuisine (best restaurants in Italy), luxury sports cars and motorcycles, diverse regional cultures and dialects, its trendy fashions as well as for its many beautiful coasts, alpine lakes and mountains (the Alps and Apennines). When you’re hungry you can choose from the plenty pizzarias to exclusive restaurants. Whether you like art (Florence), monuments (Rome), romance (Venice/Verona), fashion (Milan) or nature (Umbria, Tuscany etc.) Italy has it all for you!
- Almost 80% of Italy is either mountainous or hilly.
- Vatican City is the only nation in the world that can lock its own gates at night. It has its own phone company, radio, T.V. stations, money, and stamps. It even has its own army, the historic Swiss Guard.
- The highest peak in Europe is in Italy / France. Monte Bianco / Mont Blanc is 15,771 feet (4.808 m) high and is part of the Alps.
- The pre-dinner passeggiata (evening stroll) is one of Italy’s most enduring leisure activities where Italians stroll about the streets to see and to be seen.
- Many single young Italians live at home until their 30s, even if they have a job. The Italian family is the heart of Italian society.
You can also view our Flickr photo album about Italy.
2. Things to arrange in advance - How to travel to Italy
- Travel documents: Canadians and Americans only need a valid passport.
- Driving license and registration: Non-EU members must have an international driving license together with their national driving license. For Canada you can visit http://www.caa.ca/travel/travel-permits-e.cfm and for the U.S. http://www.thenac.com/idp_faqs.htm.
- Medical passport: If you are using medication, ask your doctor for a ‘medical passport’, which details your affliction and what medicines you need to use. This prevents possible trouble with customs. You need a special license to bring in medicines that count as ‘controlled substances’.
- Insurance documents (travel/health)
- Tickets and reservations
- Money and credit cards
For a combination of security and access to your money, the sensible way to travel is with a mix of cash, traveller’s cheques and plastic. The biggest fear of most travellers is losing their wallet – and thus any source of funds – miles from home. Although the increased march of ATM's over the planet makes it convenient to simply withdraw money as you go, using your debit card, and thus avoid carrying large amounts of cash at any one time, there are disadvantages. You’ll find trips to the ATM no problem in Florence or Rome, but journeying through rural Puglia you’re going to find yourself many miles between cash machines. And though Visa, Mastercard and American Express are as popular in Italy as they are at home, don’t automatically assume you’ll be able to flash the credit card to pay for your lunchtime pizza and beer. In downtown Bologna yes, in a Calabrian village café, no, so make sure you always have a day’s worth of spending cash in your pocket.
Look for an Italian Bancomat with the affiliations you need (Cirrus, Plus, etc.) In Italy, Bancomats are clearly marked and are found outside banks, or in behind a door that opens when you swipe your card. You can also find Bancomats in airports and at train stations.
Visa and Mastercard credit cards are widely accepted in larger places, hotels, car hire etc. You will find that you cannot use your debit card in stores or restaurants, just in ATM machines. Many smaller places (and taxis) deal in cash only.
Traveller's cheques are still probably the most secure way of financing a holiday in Italy. While they can be a little bit more expensive to use than credit cards, bank cards, and cash etc, they provide you with a safety net should disaster strike and you lose your belongings. It obviously makes sense to use a major provider, such as Thomas Cook, Visa or American Express who have good reputations and, crucially, speak your language. Ensure you keep a record of your cheque serial numbers separate from the cheques themselves, otherwise you could lose the lot! Traveller's cheques do carry a cashing charge of course. Minimize this by taking euro rather than sterling or dollar cheques. Encashment charges can also vary, with Thomas Cook waiving fees for cheques cashed at its own offices. If you are changing money, try to use a bank rather than a dedicated cambio as you’re likely to get a better rate. Banks open Monday to Friday from 8.30am to 1pm, then usually for a further hour in the afternoon (usually 2.30 to 3.30pm).
Tipping in Italy
In Italy service is automatically added to the cheque and must be visible on the menu. Normally, just round up the bill with a few euro. If you were given an outstanding service, a good tip (like € 5 to € 10 in cash) will make the staff happy, but you are not "compelled" to do so. Tipping cab drivers is unusual, but appreciated, especially if they help you with your luggage and provide you with useful info about getting around in that particular place. Tipping hotel porters is appreciated. Same for the hotel concierge if he/she is helpful in making your stay easier or more pleasant.
Also remember to take your receipt, even if paying cash. It is the law in Italy as you must be able to prove that you paid and the owner rang it in for tax purposes. Plain clothes police may stop you after you leave and there could be a fine to pay if no receipt can be shown. This is especially true in road markets, a couple of policemen normally patrol them for safety purposes, they also watch the sellers to give receipts to the customers.
There are no specific health risks associated with Italy. The standards of Italian health care and treatment are quite high, especially in the larger cities. If you need an ambulance or immediate police aid, the emergency services number is 113. The first-aid service (Pronto Soccorso) in the Emergency Room of the hospital is free for anyone who is in need. In many places, doctors and hospitals still expect payment in cash at the time of service. In every city you will find 24-hour pharmacies. You should not forget to bring, if necessary, your own medical prescriptions.
4. Public transport
Most of Italy's larger cities have extensive public transport networks so that locals and tourists alike can avoid the streets clogged with cars and mopeds. Public transport in Italy is cheap, safe and extremely user-friendly.
There are five main types of trains in Italy (www.trenitalia.com):
- Eurostar: linking the major Italian cities and towns - seat reservations mandatory
- Intercity: linking the major Italian cities and towns - seat reservations not mandatory
- Inter-regionali: long routes between different regions making stops at only the larger stations along the route
- Regionali: long routes between different regions making stops at the most of the stations along the route
- Locali: short, intra-regional routes making stops at all the stations along the route
In a nutshell, the faster the train, the more expensive the ticket.
Cities that are not linked by the rail system are almost certain to be served by buses. There is no national bus chain, just a lot of different local services, some of which go between regions. The main bus stop will either be located next to the train station in larger towns or in the main piazza in smaller towns. Buses run daily, except Sundays and holidays. You can buy tickets at the bus company office located next to the bus stop - or if it's closed (or in smaller towns where there isn't a company office) at the nearest café, newsstand, or "Tabacchi" (small general stores denoted with a large capital T, found on every other corner). On shorter hauls, you can also just get on the bus and buy a ticket from the driver.
Besides the conventional metros in Rome and Milan, Italian cities have recently been developing an interesting range of urban rail systems, from the VAL metro opened for the 2008 Winter Olympics in Turin, to the ‘Minimetro’ in Perugia, to the modern tram systems in Sassari, Cagliari and Florence. There are also metro systems in Naples, Turin, Genoa and Catania. It's the cheapast, fastest and most reliable way of public transport to get you around the city.
Taxi cabs in Italy are a convenient means of travel that have the capabilities to take you to the lesser travelled regions of the city or country. Most taxi cabs are government-regulated and you can recognize them by their white or yellow color. Visitors should avoid any taxi cabs which do not have a meter installed. These are non-regulated taxis, which will charge additional for everything from luggage to night service. It's usually best to hail a taxi from an official rank or depot rather then phoning the service, as some taxis will begin charging you from the time of your call.
Italy is a reasonably safe country to travel. Still, as in most countries, tourists in Italy should be vigilant as they are vulnerable to pick-pocketing and muggings in the bigger cities, particularly on public transport, in crowded areas and around tourist sites. So exercise caution when carrying large amounts of cash and valuables. If you need police help, there are two main police forces to turn to. If you are in direct need of help, call the "Carabinieri" (a branch of the military) at 112. If you want to report stolen articles or the like, call the local branch of the "Polizia Statale" (state police). They'll ask you to fill out a form called a "denuncia" (statement), which you'll need in order to make insurance claims.
Below are the emergency telephone numbers for Italy. Simply dial these numbers from anywhere in the country.
- Bring an adapter for the 220Volts/AC system to charge your phone, computer, etc. (European - two round pins, 220Volts/50 Hz.)
- Italy is in the Central European time zone (GMT +1)
- The international access code for Italy is +39. The outgoing international code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the United Kingdom). All numbers must be preceded by 0, whether originating in Italy or out, unless calling a mobile phone.
- National holidays in Italy: 6 January (Epiphany), Easter Sunday and Monday, 25 April (Liberation Day), 1 May (Labour Day), 2 June (Day of the Republic), 15 August (Assumption), 1 November (All Saints’ Day), 8 December (Immaculate Conception), 25 December (Christmas), 26 December (St. Stephen's Day) and the local Saint Day that changes in each town.
- Antonio Lucio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
- Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
- Ennio Morricone (1928)
- Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007)
- Andrea Bocelli (1958)
- Paolo Conte (1937)
- Riccardo Cocciante (1946)
- Zucchero Fornaciari (1955)
- Eros Ramazotti (1963)
- Laura Pausini (1974)
- Lasagna (wide and flat type of layered pasta and meat)
- Risotto (rice cooked in broth to a creamy consistency)
- Spaghetti (long, thin, cylindrical pasta)
- Tiramisù (dessert, ladyfingers layered with a whipped mixture of egg yolks and mascarpone topped with cocoa)
- Pizza (oven-baked, flat, disc-shaped bread, topped with tomato sauce, cheese and various toppings)
- Marco Polo (1254-1324), trader and explorer
- Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), explorer
- Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), architect, sculptor, painter etc.
- Michelangelo (1475-1564), sculptor, architect, painter and poet
- Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), astronomer, astrologer, philosopher
- Guccio Gucci (1881-1953)
- Nina Ricci (1883-1970)
- Valentino Garavani (1932)
- Giorgio Armani (1934)
- Gianni Versace (1946-1997)
andItaly Wine Tours Italy and Wine offers wine tasting tours for individuals and small groups and can organize custom-designed private tours in Italy. You can find out several itineraries along Tuscany, Piedmont and Veneto.