Italy dips down out of Europe and into the Mediterranean like a women's leg firmly planted in a sleek stiletto, so it's hardly surprising that Italians are known for their impeccable style and fashionable dress sense. They're also known for once having an empire that stretched across the globe, and for having the most spectacular churches, frescos, sculptures and Renaissance paintings in all of Europe.
Italy is a moveable feast of seemingly endless courses. Rome bristles with reminders of its Imperial past; Florence and Venice are virtually outdoor museums; Naples is full of Baroque bombast and Palermo locals view their Byzantine-Norman treasures with a shockingly laissez-faire attitude. But Italy’s riches extend far beyond the obvious. Ski in chic Courmayeur or climb the snow-coated peaks of the Sesto Dolomites; strap on your boots and take to the hills of Tuscany or don designer shades and island hop around Sicily; sleep in converted farmhouses and dine in country kitchens on food so good you’ll swear no other cuisine compares.
Full country name: Italian republic
Area: 301,230 sq Km
Population: 58,8 million
Language: standard Italian and numerous dialects, German, French, Slovene
Religion: 85% Roman Catholic, 5% Jewish and Protestant
GDP: €1475 billion
GDP per head: €25,085
Annual growth: 2,3%
Unemployment rate: 6,7% (10-13,5% in the south)
Major industries: tourism, engineering, textiles, chemicals, food processing, motor vehicles, clothing & footwear
Major trading partners: EU (esp. Germany, France, UK, Spain, Netherlands), USA
Visas: Italy, along with Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, forms part of the border-free travel zone subject to the Schengen Agreement. EU passport holders can come and go as they please. Citizens of the USA, Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand are among those who may enter Italy as tourists without a visa and stay up to 90 days.
Health risks: Rabies (only found in the Alpi), Leishmaniasis (in coastal regions) and Lyme Disease
Time: GMT/UTC +1 (+2 in summer)
Electricity: 220V (some 125V still found) 50 Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
When to go
The immediate response is ‘any time’! On a more serious note, the best period is April to June. The weather then is sunny without being stifling, the countryside bursts with spring flowers, and the flood of summer tourism, largely dictated by school holidays, has yet to crash over the peninsula. Most Italians hit the road in July and August, so those two months – in which prices soar, tempers flare and the country broils – are best avoided.
The vision of Italy as the land of eternal Mediterranean sunshine is a trifle distorted. In the Alps, winters are long and severe. First snowfalls usually occur in November and freak falls in June are not unusual. The ski season is high season in the Alps. Those mountains shield Lombardy from the extremes of the northern European winter, but cloud and rain are common – Milan comes close to being Italy’s London.
Florence’s position, nestled in a valley surrounded by hills, creates ovenlike conditions in summer. Rome experiences hot summers and mild winters. That tendency continues in the south: in Sicily and Sardinia you can expect very mild winters and long hot summers (a dip in the sea is possible from Easter to October).
Italy’s calendar of religious, local and national festivals, along with cultural events, is busy year-round but bulges with possibility from Easter to September.
The skiing infrastructure has been greatly improved in recent years, and the facilities at resorts in the Italian Alps now rival those in neighboring Austria, France and Switzerland. Ski resorts can be broadly split into four geographical areas. To the west of Turin, in the Piedmont region, major resorts include Bardonechia, Sauze d’Oulx and Sestriere.
The biennial Palio bareback horse race in Siena, held on July 2 and August 16, draws thousands of spectators and has been a special event since the 14th century.
One of Rome’s most prestigious events is its international horse show held in May. There are first-class golf courses all over Italy, from Lombardy and Trentino in the north, through Tuscany and Lazio, down to Calabria and Sardinia where the golf season is very long, owing to the mild climate.
Attractions - Rome
The stately Pantheon is one of the world's most inspiring architectural designs. Fittingly built as a temple to the Gods by Hadrian in 120AD, its perfectly proportioned floating dome rests seductively on sturdy marble columns