Stylish, cultured, good-humored, and volatile - Italy, with its golden light, stunning landscapes, and rich cultural heritage, has inspired poets and painters for centuries. Perhaps more than any other country, it has influenced the course of European development, particularly in culture and political thought.

Today, besides the renowned cities of Venice, Florence, Siena and Naples, each with its own unique identity and architecture, Italy features romantic medieval hill towns, such as San Gimignano in Tuscany, and unspoiled fishing villages, like Positano on the Amalfi coast. Operatic productions are staged in Verona's ancient amphitheater, while the influence of Federico Fellini is celebrated in Turin's museum of cinema. Throughout the country, visitors can find vineyards and cellars to taste fine regional wines, workshops where crafts are produced by hand, and friendly trattorie where simple but superb dishes are served.

The most important early settlers were the enigmatic Etruscans, but by the third century BC their culture had been displaced by the mighty city state of Rome. At its greatest extent, the Roman Empire stretched from Egypt to England and for several centuries conferred on its inhabitants the benefits of the Pax Romana: culture, law, relative peace and comparative prosperity. This sophisticated society left a rich architectural legacy - Rome is still dominated by buildings like the mighty Colosseum.
In the 15th century, Italy was at the heart of the Renaissance, an extraordinary flowering of art and culture. It produced artists such as Fra Angelico, Raphael, Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, whose works take pride of place in Italy's galleries.

Italy is situated in Europe and attached in the north to the European mainland. To the north, the Alps separate Italy from France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia. Northern Italy: The Alpine regions, the Po Plain and the Dolomites. Piedmont and Val d'Aosta contain some of the highest mountains in Europe and are good areas for winter sports. Rivers flow down from the mountains passing through the beautiful Italian Lake District (Maggiore, Como, Garda) to the fertile Po Basin, which extends as far south as the bare slopes of the Appennines, and has long been one of Italy's most prosperous regions. Central Italy: The northern part of the Italian peninsula. Tuscany (Toscana) has a diverse landscape with snow-capped mountains, lush countryside, hills and a long sandy coastline. To the east is Umbria, known as the ‘green heart of Italy'; hilly with broad plains, olive groves and pines, and Le Marche - a region of gentle mountains, rivers and small fertile plains. Further south lies Rome, Italy's capital city. Within its precincts is the Vatican City. Southern Italy: The south is wilder than the north, with mile upon mile of olive trees, cool forests and rolling hills. Campania consists of flat coastal plains and low mountains, stretching along a rocky coast to the Calabrian border. The islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida in the Tyrrhenian Sea are also part of Campania. Puglia, the ‘heel of the boot', is a landscape of volcanic hills and isolated marshes. Calabria, the ‘toe', is wild, heavily forested, and thinly populated. The Islands: Sicily (Sicilia), visible across a 3km (2-mile) strait from mainland Italy, is famed for its active volcano Mount Etna and lava fields. Sardinia (Sardegna) has a mountainous landscape, fine sandy beaches, and rocky offshore islands.

 

Italy combines art, history and contemporary fashion with stunning natural landscapes: the turquoise waters of Sardinia's Costa Smeralda offer one of Europe's most beautiful stretches of sand, sea and sunshine, while the snow-covered slopes of the Dolomite mountains are a haven for winter sports enthusiasts.

 

KEY FACTS

 
Location: Western Europe
Population: 58.9 million
Capital: Rome
Language Spoken: Italian is the official language. Dialects are spoken in different regions. German is spoken in the South Tyrol region (bordering Austria). French is spoken in all the border areas from the Riviera to the area north of Milan (border with France and Switzerland). English, French and German are also spoken in the biggest cities and in tourism and business circles.
County Dialling Code: +39
Currency & Money: Euro (EUR; symbol €)
Traveller's cheques, cheques and foreign money can be changed at banks, railway stations and airports and very often at major hotels (generally at a less convenient rate). Diners Club, MasterCard, American Express and Visa are widely accepted. To avoid additional exchange rate charges, travellers are advised to take traveller's cheques in Euros, Pounds Sterling or US Dollars.
Weather: Italy's climate varies from north to south and from lowland to mountain top. Temperatures at sea-level tend to be similar around the country, with altitudes creating steep changes between summer and winter. Winters are long and severe in the Alps, with snow falling as early as mid-September. Storms develop in spring and tend to last to autumn, making summer the wettest season. The northern regions experience chilly winters, hot summers and regular even rain distribution, while conditions become milder as you head south. The sirocco, the hot and humid African wind that affects regions south of Rome, produces at least a couple of stiflingly hot weeks in summer.
 

WHEN TO GO

Italy is at its best in spring (April-May) and autumn (October-November). During these seasons, the scenery is beautiful, the temperatures are pleasant and there are relatively few crowds. Try to avoid August, as this is the time that most Italians take their vacations, and many shops and businesses are closed as a result.

TOP THINGS TO DO

• In Rome, wander around the district of Trastevere, the city's alternative focus which is home to numerous bars, restaurants and nightclubs.

• Go shopping in Milan (Milano), Italy's most sophisticated city.

• Learn a new skill: Italian language and art courses are available throughout Italy. Language courses are often complemented by subjects such as cooking or architecture. Art courses are offered by the Palazzo Spinelli and Università Internazionale dell'Arte in Florence.

• Rejuvenate at one of Italy's thermal spas, some famous since the Roman era. The best-equipped health resorts are Abano Terme and Montegrotto Terme (Veneto); Acqui Terme (Piedmont); L'Andana, Tombolo Talassa Resort, Terme di Saturnia, Chianciano Terme and Montecatini Terme (Tuscany); Fiuggi (Lazio); and Porretta Terme and Salsomaggiore Terme (Emilia-Romagna).

• Do not miss the chance to wear an elaborate costume and mask at the Venice Carnival.

• Head to the coast: all types of watersports are available. Popular spots include the Italian Riviera in Liguria, the Adriatic and Amalfi coasts. Less busy are the beaches in Sicily, which has large sandy stretches on the southern coast, and in Sardinia.

• Get wet: many of Italy's best dive sites are located in Sardinia.

• In Capri, one of Italy's most visited islands, take a boat trip from the Marina Grande to the Blue Grotto.

• Go skiing in the Italian Alps. To the west of Turin, in the Piedmont region, major resorts include Bardonechia, Sauze d'Oulx and Sestriere. Further north, the Aosta Valley's resorts include Cervinia, Courmayeur and La Thuile. Italy's most upmarket resort is Cortina D'Ampezzo in the Dolomites.

• In the Valle d'Aosta region, go hillwalking or climbing in the Gran Paradiso National Park and Mont Avic Regional Park, home to wildlife including the chamois and ibex. The Dolomites on the Swiss border are also ideal for hiking and climbing.

• Go wildlife watching. In the National Park of Abruzzo, you might spot Marsican brown bears (unique to Italy), wolves, chamois and eagles In the Molise region, the Matese mountain range is still the haven of wolves and various birds of prey.

• Take a picture of the famous Leaning Tower, a free-standing campanile or bell tower in Pisa.

• Go truffle hunting in Umbria, a spectacularly beautiful region noted for its highly prized truffles. Black truffles are celebrated each year with a festival in the town of Norcia. Rare white truffles can be found between October and December.

• Visit wine cellars in Tuscany. The landscape of Tuscany is, typically, one of vine-covered hills, cypress woods, fields of sunflowers and remote hilltop villages. Chianti, the best-known Italian wine, is made in the area north of Siena, and several wine cellars are open to the public.

TOP THINGS TO SEE

• Be fascinated by Rome's historical sites - the Colosseum (website: www.archeorm.arti.beniculturali.it), the Forum and the Pantheon. At the Trevi Fountain, visitors guarantee their return to Rome by throwing a coin into the waters.
 
• Enter the Vatican City (website: www.vatican.va), an independent sovereign state best known for the magnificent St Peter's Basilica. Among the principal features of the Vatican Palace (the Pope's residence) are the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum.

• Explore Venice (Venezia), a work of art in itself. St Mark's Basilica (website: www.basilicasanmarco.it) and the Doge's Palace (website: www.museiciviciveneziani.it), overlooking St Mark's Square, have gained fame through Canaletto paintings. The Galleria dell'Accademia (website: www.gallerieaccademia.org) displays hundreds of Venetian paintings.

• Discover the sights of Turin. Its Egyptian Museum (website: www.museoegizio.org) is the second-largest in the world after Cairo. The city's symbol is the Mole Antonelliana, housing the Museum of Cinema (website: www.museonazionaledelcinema.org). A copy of the famous Turin Shroud (website: www.sindone.org) may be viewed in the cathedral.

• In Milan (Milano), appreciate Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, The Last Supper, which may be viewed at the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie (website: www.cenacolovinciano.org). La Scala (website: www.teatroallascala.org) remains the undisputed world capital of opera.
 
• In Genoa (Genova), the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, go and see the Galleria di Palazzo Bianco (website: www.museopalazzobianco.it). It has an exceptional collection of paintings by Genoese artists.

• Soak up the romantic sights of Verona, the setting of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The Casa di Giulietta (Juliet's House) attracts thousands of visitors each year. The Roman Arena, built in AD290, is the site of an annual opera festival.

• Discover early Byzantine and Christian monuments decorated with stunning mosaics in Ravenna (website: www.turismo.ravenna.it), including the splendid Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

• Visit Florence (Firenze) and see Brunelleschi's revolutionary design for the Duomo (cathedral) (website: www.duomofirenze.it). Cross the medieval Ponte Vecchio bridge, see the art collections of the Uffizi Gallery (website: www.firenzemusei.it) and Michelangelo's famous statue of David at the Galleria dell'Accademia.

• Admire Siena's extraordinary humbug-striped cathedral (Duomo). Go in September to see its intricate patterned floor (pavimento) which is covered most of the year.

• See the place where pizza was invented, Naples. The impressive Museo Archeologico Nazionale houses an excellent collection of Greco-Roman artefacts, including mosaics from Pompeii.

• Understand how first-century Romans lived their daily lives when you see the remains of Pompeii (website: www.pompeiisites.org) and Herculaneum, engulfed in the great eruption of AD79.

• Visit the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, the birthplace of St Francis, founder of the Franciscan order of monks.
 
• Stand in the stunning Piazza del Campo in Siena (website: www.terresiena.it), the shell-shaped heart of this walled medieval city in southern Tuscany. See it at its best early in the morning or at sunset.

• Sail to Sicily to see the remains of successive invading cultures. The most important ancient Greek sites include the temples of the Valle dei Templi at Agrigénto, said to be better preserved than any in Greece itself. The catacombs at the Capuchin Monastery contain thousands of mummified bodies
 

TRAVEL TO ITALY

Flying, all major low cost and scheduled airlines travel to the many airports throughout Italy, this opens up endless opportunities to plan your ideal holiday 
 
Main Airports
Rome (FCO) (Fiumicino) (website: www.adr.it) is 32km (20 miles) southwest of the city (journey time - 30 to 55 minutes). To/from the airport: There is a direct rail link to Termini Station in central Rome and a bus service to the city centre and to Ciampino airport. Taxis are also available to the city. Facilities: Outgoing duty-free shop, car hire, ATMs, bank and bureau de change and bar/restaurants.

Rome (CIA) (Ciampino) (website: www.adr.it) is 15km (9 miles) from the city (journey time - 30 to 40 minutes). To/from the airport: Buses are available to the underground station Anagnina and to the city centre. Taxis are also available. Facilities: Bank/bureau de change, car hire, duty-free and souvenir shop and cafe.

Pisa (PSA) (Galileo Galilei) (website: www.pisa-airport.com) is 1.6km (1 mile) north of Pisa (journey time - 10 minutes). To/from the airport: Trains and buses run from Pisa airport to the centre of Florence (journey time - 1 hour). Rail services connect with arrivals and departures of all international flights and major domestic services. Facilities: Bank/bureau de change, car hire, shops and cafe.

Milan (MXP) (Malpensa) (website: www.sea-aeroportimilano.it) is 45km (29 miles) northwest of the city (journey time - 30 minutes). To/from the airport: The Malapensa Express train connects terminal one with the centre of Milan (journey time - 40 minutes). A free shuttle bus connects the airport terminals. Taxis are available. Facilities: Duty-free shops, banks/bureaux de change, business centre, left luggage.
 
Ferry
 
Main ports: Ancona (website: www.autoritaportuale.ancona.it), Brindisi (website: www.porto.br.it), Naples (website: www.porto.napoli.it) and Venice (website: www.port.venice.it).

Main ferry operators: Superfast Ferries (website: www.superfast.com), SNAV (website: www.snav.it), Ustica Lines (website: www.usticalines.it) and Navigazione Libera del Golfo (website: www.navlib.it). The main international routes are from Greece and Croatia. There are also links from Tunisia to Sicily. Cruise ships call at ports such as Genoa.
 
Rail
 
Trenitalia runs regular services covering national and international routes (tel: 892 020 from local land lines or (199) 166 177 from mobiles or land lines; website: www.trenitalia.com). The Artesia Service is the fastest railway link between France and Italy.
Rail Passes
InterRail: offers unlimited first- or second-class travel in up to 30 European countries for European residents of over six months with two pass options. The Global Pass allows travel for a 22 day or one month period, or five days in 10 days or 10 days in 22 days across all countries. The One-Country Pass offers travel for three, four, six or eight days in one month in any of the countries except Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. Travel is not allowed in the passenger's country of residence. Travellers under 26 years receive a reduction. Children's tickets are reduced by about 50%. Supplements are required for some high-speed services, seat reservations and couchettes. Discounts are offered on some ferry routes. Available from Rail Europe (website: www.raileurope.co.uk/inter-rail).

Eurailpass: offers unlimited first-class train travel in 20 European countries. Tickets are valid for 15 days, 21 days, one month, two months or three months. The Eurailpass Saver ticket offers discounts for two or more people travelling together. The Eurailpass Youth ticket is available to those aged under 26. The Eurail One Country Pass allows travel for one month in one of 17 single countries. The Eurail Selectpass is valid in three, four or five bordering countries and allows five, six, eight or 10 travel days (or 15 for five countries) in a two-month period. The Eurail Regional Pass allows 3 to 10 travel days in a two-month period in one of 25 country combinations. Available from The Eurail Group (website: www.euraildirect.com).
 
Road
 
Routes to Italy run through Austria, France, Slovenia and Switzerland and most routes use the tunnels under the Alps and Apennines. Trenitalia runs regular daily services called auto al seguito (trains carrying cars), especially during the summer holiday season, covering national and international routes. These services operate from special railway stations and are generally bookable at the departure station. Owners must travel on the same train.

The documents required are the log-book, valid driving licence with Italian translation, passport, Green Card insurance and national identity plate fixed to the rear of the vehicle. For more information on routes, contact the Italian State Tourist Board (see Contact Addresses).

Coach: Eurolines in the UK; website: www.eurolines.com) runs regular coach services from the UK to Italy. Passes: Travellers can book a 15- or 30-day pass. Available from Eurolines (website: www.eurolines-pass.com).

TRAVEL AROUND ITALY

Alitalia (AZ) (website: www.alitalia.com) and other airlines run services to all the major cities. There are over 30 airports. For details, contact the airlines direct or ENIT, the Italian State Tourist Board (see Contact Addresses).
 
Ferry
 
Main ports: Cagliari (website: www.porto.cagliari.it), Civitavecchia (website: www.port-of-rome.org), Genoa (website: www.porto.genova.it), Livorno (website: www.portauthority.li.it) and Naples (website: www.porto.napoli.it).

Ferries: A number of car and passenger ferries operate throughout the year linking Italian ports. Regular boat and hydrofoil services run to the islands of Capri, Sardinia, Sicily and the Aeolian Islands. There are also some links along the coast. Operators include Tirrenia (te: (081) 017 1998; website: www.tirrenia.it), and SNAV (tel: (081) 428 5555 - Naples call centre; website: www.snav.it). Ferries also operate on the main lakes of Garda, Maggiore, Como and Iseo.
 
Rail
 
Trenitalia (FS) from outside Italy; website: www.trenitalia.com or www.ferroviedellostato.it) runs a nationwide network at very reasonable fares, calculated on the distance travelled, and there are a number of excellent reductions. Main routes include Turin-Milan-Venice; Milan-Bologna-Bari; Rome-Genoa-Turin; and Rome-Naples-Palermo. Visitors from the UK can book tickets with Italia Rail  (tel: 0870 084 1414, in the UK; website: www.italiarail.co.uk).
Rail Passes
InterRail One-Country Pass: offers travel for three, four, six or eight days in one month within Italy. Travel is not allowed in the passenger's country of residence. Travellers under 26 years receive a reduction. Children's tickets are reduced by about 50%. Supplements are required for some high-speed services, seat reservations and couchettes. Discounts are offered on  some ferry routes. Available from Rail Europe (tel: 0844 848 4064 in the UK; website: www.raileurope.co.uk/inter-rail).
 
Road
 
There are more than 479,688km (298,064 miles) of roads in Italy, including over 6,000km (3,700 miles) of motorway (autostrada). More motorways are under construction and due for completion by 2012. Tolls are charged at varying distances and scales. Road signs are international. More information on the Italian motorway network is available from Autostrade per l'Italia (tel: (06) 4363 2121; website: www.autostrade.it). Traffic drives on the right.

Coach: Good coach services run between towns and cities and there are also extensive local buses. SITA is a major inter-city operator (tel: (055) 294 955; website: www.sitabus.it).

Car hire: Self-drive hire is available in most cities, airports and resorts. Many international and Italian firms operate this service. Generally, small local firms offer cheaper rates, but cars can only be booked locally.

Regulations: The minimum driving age is 18. Speed limits are 50kph (31mph) in urban areas, 90kph (55mph) on ordinary roads, 110kph (68mph) on dual carriageways and 130kph (80mph) on motorways. Dipped headlights are compulsory outside built-up areas during the day. All vehicles must carry a red warning triangle. Seat belts are compulsory. Note: Fines for driving offences are on-the-spot and particularly heavy.

Emergency breakdown service: In case of breakdown, dial 803 116. The operator will inform the nearest Automobile Club of Italy (ACI) office (website: www.aci.it).

Documentation: A UK driving licence and EU pink format licences are valid in Italy but old-style green licences (without photos) must be accompanied by an International Driving Permit. Visitors must carry their log-book, which must be in their name as owner, or have the owner's written permission to drive the vehicle. A driving licence or a motorcycle driving licence is required for motorcycles over 49cc.
 
Town and City Travel
 
Travellers should be aware that tickets for public transport need to be endorsed in a ticket machine before the journey. Machines are located in entrances to platforms in railway and metro stations and on-board buses and trams. Failure to do so could lead to an on-the-spot fine of up to €60.

All the big towns and cities (Genoa, Milan, Naples, Rome, Turin and Venice) have good public transport networks. The Rome system is run by the City Transport Authority (ATAC) and MetRo. The Milanese system is run by the Azienda Trasporti Milanesi (ATM).

Underground: In Rome there are two underground lines - Metropolitana A from Battistini via Termini station to Via Anagnina and also connecting with the Ottaviano-San Pietro link; and Metropolitana B, which runs between from Laurentina, via Termini Station, and onwards to Rebibbia. Both day and monthly passes are available. Milan also has a three-line underground system, with tickets useable on both underground and bus.

Bus: Services operate in all main cities and towns. In Rome, the network is extensive and complements the underground and tram systems. In larger cities, fares are generally pre-purchased from machines or tobacconists (tabacchi). Bus tickets can be bought in packets of five and are fed into a stamping machine onboarding.

Tram: There is an extensive network consisting of eight routes in Rome; Milan, Messina and Turin also have tram services.

Taxi: Available in all towns and cities. Government-regulated taxis are either white or yellow. Visitors should avoid un-metered taxis. They are generally expensive, with extra charges for night service, luggage and taxis called by telephone. Water taxis in Venice are extremely expensive; a much cheaper public ferry service is available. Taxis can only be hailed at official ranks or booked by telephone.

POPULAR PLACES TO VISIT

 

Florence: has an overwhelming cultural and historical impact. Close up, however, the city is one of Italy's most atmospheric and pleasant, retaining a strong resemblance to the small late-medieval center that contributed so much to the artistic and political development of Europe. Its striking buildings, formidable galleries and treasure-crammed churches attest to the Florentine love of display. Even long after it had set on the political and economic horizon, Florence upheld its elegant appearance: its skyline, all russet rooftops and lofty domes, is indeed picturesque.
 
 
Milan: Europe's creative capital is a city all about worldly pleasures. Shopping is of quasi-religious significance. Theatre and cinema flourish in this fashionable milieu, as does a hopping club scene and a slew of tempting restaurants. Apart from a few gems, the city is not renowned for its looks; it's lifestyle that counts.
 
 
Naples: or Napoli in Italian, is the capital city of the Campania region and the province of Naples in the south of Italy. It has a location of outstanding natural beauty by the Bay of Naples and with Mount Vesuvius as a striking but always potentially menacing neighbour. Because of its tangled history Naples has an extremely rich heritage, given expression in its fascinating and extraordinarily urban architecture, and it has an amazingly complex culture. Add to that its culinary wealth (from the huge pizzas to the fresh seafood) and it is hardly surprising that tourists are being seduced and mesmerized by this jewel on Italy's Mediterranean coast.
 
 
 Palermo: Sicily’s largest and most cosmopolitan city boasts a long and eventful history beginning with the Phoenician conquest and going through the Roman,is a fascinating blend of Orient and Occident. The city has suffered a great deal from a bad reputation: the Mafia (Cosa Nostra) is intrinsic to the modern history of Sicily, and had for a long time its headquarters in Palermo
Palermo is safer than it has been in ages, and savvy travellers can't get enough of the place, making the most of this beautiful city before mass tourism destroys its unique character.

 
 
Rome: is a city so vast and rich in art, monuments and exquisite views, a historic city, which has preserved its charm and independence throughout the centuries. Rome's history can be read in every monument, and palazzo; in fact, each and every stone bears witness to the periods of splendour, decay, wars, and numerous architectural styles. The city could be described as a gigantic open-air museum, visited each year by millions of tourists, scholars and pilgrims from all over the world.
 
 
Turin: is situated on the mighty River Po in the far northwest of Italy, and surrounded by stunning alpine scenery. This city offers visitors a feast of baroque architecture, ornate art nouveau cafes, and museum collections covering everything from Egyptology to contemporary art.  The symbol of the city is the Mole Antonelliana, an eye-catching dome, while its most famous relic is the Holy Shroud, thought by some to be the cloth that wrapped Christ’s body after the crucifixion. It still attracts thousands of pilgrims. Other visitors come to shop under the city’s elegant porticoes, or try some of the local gastronomic specialities such as Lavazza coffee, Gianduja (hazelnut chocolate) and Vermouth.
 
 
 
Venice: or La Serenissima is unlike anywhere else on the planet, with a collage of 116 islands connected by 409 bridges, where cars are banned and everyone, including postmen and the police, goes by boat. For a thousand years, the city was one of the most enduring mercantile sea powers on the face of the earth. Today the brilliance and influence have long since faded, leaving a town of tarnished glories, out of time and out of place, so achingly beautiful it's hard not to look for the back of the set.
 
Verona: is the city of the most famous lovers in history: Romeo and Juliet. But it has much more to offer, like its Roman amphteatre, the Arena, one of Italy's largest and the home of its annual summer opera festival. Verona also boasts one of Italy's finest Romanesque churches as well as one of the country's most beautiful Renaissance gardens.  Verona is a lively city with the Old Town, framed by the River Adige to the north, east and west, as the picturesque centre for cultural activities, tourism, shopping and nightlife.