Italy dips down out of Europe and into the Mediterranean like a lady'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.
The Italy of today is littered with the relics of more than 3,000 years of history, and an atmosphere that ranges from the Armani-wearing, scooter-driving, espresso-drinking buzz of its cities to the quiet, pastoral existence of its hillside olive farms and seaside fishing villages. Italy is also home to more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other country on earth, with an incredible 47 sites of global historical significance dotted around the country.
From the depths of the canals in Venice, which floats on a series of islands in an Adriatic lagoon, and the bleached sands of San Remo on the Riviera, to the rocky crags of the Alps, Dolomites and Apennines, Italy has everything from beach holidays to luxury mountain ski resorts.
Italy's cities reveal awe-inspiring architecture from the curved arches of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence to the crumbling magnificence of the Colosseum in Rome. Home of da Vinci, Michelangelo, Carvaggio and Botticelli, its artworks are a visual delight to all visitors.
Nestled into the outskirts of Rome is the independent Vatican City, the seat of the Pope and home to the famous St Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. The influence of the Holy Catholic Church on the people of Italy is still evident today in a series of holy festivals, carnivals, and parades involving young and old alike in almost every city, town and village.
The Euro (EUR) is the official currency, which is divided into
100 cents. Those arriving in Italy with foreign currency can obtain
Euros through any bank, ATM or bureaux de change. ATMs are
widespread. Travellers cheques can be exchanged with ease in the
large cities, not so in the smaller towns. Credit cards are
accepted in upmarket establishments and shops around the cities.
Banks are closed on weekends, but tend to have better rates than
casas de cambios.
|EUR 1 =||US$ 1.27||Â£ 0.83||C$ 1.29||A$ 1.23||R 10.70||EUR 1.00||NZ$ 1.60|
Note: These currency exchange rates are not updated daily and should be used as a guideline only.
There are no specific health risks associated with travel to Italy. EU citizens can make use of Italy's health services provided they have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Cases of the deadly bird flu were found in swans in southern Italy and Sicily, but there is a low risk of human infection; as a precaution all close contact with wild, caged and domestic birds should be avoided, and poultry and egg dishes should be cooked thoroughly.
The borderless region known as the Schengen Area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. All these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entry option, and which allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all the aforementioned countries. Furthermore, all foreign passengers to Italy must hold visible proof of financial means to support themselves while in the country, return/onward tickets, and the necessary travel documentation for their next destination. Note that visitors may be refused entry, either for public security, tranquillity, order or health reasons. Extensions of stay in Italy are possible, by applying to local authorities. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Note: Passport and visa requirements are liable to change at short notice. Travellers are advised to check their entry requirements with their embassy or consulate.
Italian Tourist Board: +39 06 49711 or www.enit.it
Foreign Embassies in Italy
The eternal city of Rome, constructed of ruins and in whose name the Caesars sought to claim the world, opens for the visitor like a living museum. The centuries peel back with each new vista in this great city of gladiators, lunatic drivers and sumptuous pasta dishes. Vespas, nippy little Fiats and red sports cars speed past trendy sidewalk bistros and nightclubs, revealing the Rome of Fellini's La Dolce Vita; while the chillingly stark facades of the Stadio Olimpico complex bring back Mussolini's attempts to reinvent the architecture of the Caesars.
For a taste of the Baroque, visitors need only climb the famous Spanish Steps, walk through the Piazza Navona or toss a coin into the beautiful Trevi Fountain. Renaissance splendour is perhaps best revealed in the Pope's residence, the Vatican Palace, or in Michelangelo's efforts on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. From early Christian Basilicas to the Roman Forum, the Colosseum and the Pantheon, the sequence of history trails back to the height of the Roman Empire.
It may sound like a city of contrasts, but Rome's timeless magic lies in its ability to blend the old with the new. Empires have risen and fallen, old gods have been replaced with new ones, but Rome remains.
Tuscany's rolling hills are garlanded with cypress trees, lush vines and olive groves, that make way here and there for sleepy villages and medieval hill-towns. The area rests languidly in the middle of the Italian peninsula, with parts stretching to the coastline of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Snaking through the Tuscan landscape from Florence to Pisa and soaking its thirsty banks is the Arno River. Akin to the gentle flow of a river is the ebb of life in the region. People work in the fields in much the same way AS their ancestors did before them, producing some of Italy's finest wines and olive oils. From this same landscape emerges a profusion of art and architecture that has grafted Italy onto the world's cultural map. Tuscany was the birthplace of the Renaissance, a period of unprecedented innovation in art, architecture and humanist scholarship. The grandeur of the High Renaissance was enjoyed during the Medici family's reign, when they commissioned the art and architecture that lives on within the elegant precincts of Florence.
DH Lawrence passed through Sardinia in 1921, remarking on its geographic location as a place 'lost between Europe and Africa and belonging nowhere'. It is off the beaten track, but therein perhaps lies its appeal. The island's beaches are some of the cleanest and least crowded in Italy. The capital is Cagliari, a good base from which to explore other parts of the island. The National Archaeological Museum of Cagliari contains prehistoric tombs and other significant artefacts from the Punic and Roman periods. The resort of Costa Smeralda is a place of luxury and opulence, not suited to budget tourists, although interesting as a short stop. The Spanish-tinted port of Alghero is the favoured package destination, especially among British holidaymakers. The inland town of Nuoro is a good station from which to explore the Gennargentu mountain range and enjoy the traditional village festivals. The Sardinian landscape is peppered with constructions from the ancient Nuragic civilisation. These stone structures are unique to Sardinia and are must-see sites. They are, however, not easily accessible as they lie in isolated spots throughout the island.
The great northern lakes stretch like sparkling, glass-topped vistas within a sequence of long, cavernous valleys descending from the Alps. Lake Como, Lake Maggiore and Lake Garda emit their unique sparkle onto the magnificent surrounding landscape, and in turn, attract diverse tourists to their banks. Younger travellers enjoy the sailboarding and nightlife experience of Lake Garda, while sophisticates from Milan are drawn to the magnetism of Lake Como. Maggiore provides a tranquil, relaxed respite and can be enjoyed from the comforts of its surrounding luxury hotels.
Elegant Venetian buildings and palaces peer over the ancient maze of narrow streets and labyrinth of canals that make up this unique city. Tourists naturally flock to Venice to experience its inimitable charm. The downside of this can be felt in the narrow streets and cramped piazzas of its sought-after areas. A good way to get to know a more personal side of Venice is to saunter through its romantic back streets and residential quarters.
Venice rests on one of a series of 117 islands distributed throughout the Venetian lagoon, at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea. This strategic position conferred on Venice economic and defensive advantages over its trading rivals. As the wealth of the city increased and its population grew, the composition of the city grew ever more dense and today only a handful of the islets that constitute the historic centre are not entirely developed.
The historic centre is divided into six quarters ( sestieri). These are: San Marco, Dorsoduro, San Polo, Santa Croce, Cannaregio and Castello. The city's main thoroughfare is the Grand Canal that intersects each district as it meanders through the length of Venice, from the railway station to San Marco. An alternative to walking the bewildering streets of Venice is to cruise the waterways onboard the motorboat buses known as vaporetti. These are the less romantic but also less expensive substitutes for the famous gondolas.
Venice extends beyond its six sestierito the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello. These are known for glass and lace-making respectively, and Torcello is noted for the magnificent Byzantine Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta that rests on its soil. Trips by boat to the islands provide a pleasant diversion from the busier historic quarters.
Italy's third-largest city thrives on the chaos that prevails amid its busy streets. This is the place where pizza was invented, and its restaurants continue to serve some of Italy's finest cuisine.
Sheltered by the Bay of Naples and dominated by the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, Naples is imbued with the best of nature's bounty. The city is somewhat schizophrenic in its juxtaposition of superb museums, Renaissance and Baroque churches alongside crumbling tenement blocks and squalor. Noisy markets sell a collection of items, from high-quality fresh produce to fake designer goods. Roads are characteristically hectic with gung-ho moped drivers weaving wildly through the streets and frustrating traffic jams clogging the city's arteries. Despite these less refined elements, Naples is a fascinating destination and a great base from which to explore the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The city's transport hub is located around the immense Piazza Garibaldi, on the east side of Naples. The area's growing African population has imbued the streets with the flavours of its immigrants. Southwest from here is the Piazza Bovio, and branching to the left of it, the Piazza Municipio and nearby Piazza del Plebiscito. On the watery edges are the Molo Beverollo and the Stazione Marittima, the point of departure for ferries. From the reaches of Spaccanapoli one can explore the historic part of Naples with its numerous palaces and churches.
Sophistication reaches new levels in Milan. The financial and commercial centre of Italy, Milan attracts fashion fundis, opera lovers, the young, the beautiful and the bold. Shopping, eating and clubbing is serious business here - and it is no surprise that the city boasts the world's 'most beautiful shopping mall', the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Equally vying for admiration are the Milanese icons of La Scala Theatre (Teatro della Scala) and the Gothic Duomo, one of the world's largest churches. Milan's frenetic pace surges ahead in its drive towards progress, forsaking the lengthy siestas enjoyed in other parts of the country. The city's urban tentacles stretch for miles, although the significant historical attractions are contained between the two landmark sites - the Duomo and the Sforzesco Castle. These reside within the inner loop of the city's concentric design, which is split into four squares: Piazza Duomo, Piazza Cairoli, Piazza Cordusio and Piazza San Babila. The modern civic centre lies to the northwest, around Mussolini's colossal train station built in 1931. The skyline around here is dominated by skyscrapersm from which the sleek Pirelli Tower emerges. The Fiera district that stretches around Porta Genova station is the hub for trade and fashion fairs.
The scenic Italian Alps comprise lush valleys and pine forests set against the backdrop of jagged white peaks stretching through the clouds. Towns nestle in the valleys and ski chalets nuzzle into the crevices offered by the generous mountains. Access to the area is provided along train or bus routes snaking through the Alps, but the international cable car connection over the mountains from Chamonix is by far the most spectacular way to enter the region. Tourists flock to these parts, and the largely French influence is extended to the street names. The Gran Paradiso National Park is a sublime experience of waterfalls, cliffs and lush vegetation. Hiking is a big attraction along the scenic mountain trails, that stretch for miles and are interrupted only by mountain huts and refuges. Favourable months for walking are July, August and September when most of the snow has melted into the thirsty soil. Italy's best ski resorts are in the Valle d'Aosta, within the shadows of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. Courmayer and Brevil Cervinia are both world-class resorts and the skiing is augmented by the matchless Italian love for cuisine and fine wines.
Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, may be just a short hop from the Italian mainland, across the narrow strait of Messina, but it is a world apart in atmosphere and attitude. Everything Italian seems a little more appetising here - not only the food, but the history and culture as well.
For a long time, Sicily was ignored as a holiday destination, largely because of the Mafia stranglehold and because of the poverty of the people. Today, however, the island is experiencing a tourism boom and a surge in development as the destructive influences of the Mafia wane. Visitors discover that the Sicilian people are gracious, noble and welcoming, and that the island itself offers natural and historic attractions of great beauty and enormous interest.
The main cities of Palermo and Catania feature some of the most exquisite architecture in the world, a legacy of the many great civilisations that have vied for control of this strategically-situated island over the centuries, from the Greeks and Romans, to the Arabs and Normans, to (more recently) the French, Spanish and Italians. There are massive Romanesque cathedrals, the best-preserved Greek temples in the world, Roman amphitheatres and magnificent Baroque palaces. The continuous blue skies and temperate climate, lush vegetation and rich marine life all add to the island's appeal. Nature has given Sicily Mount Etna, Europe's tallest active volcano, a dramatic coastline and a fertile soil that gives forth much of the bounty on which the island's unique and delicious cuisine is based.
The principal Tuscan city of Florence (Firenze) nestles below the wooded foothills of the Apennines, along the banks of the Arno River. The works of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Bruneschelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Boccaccio, Alberti, Masaccio, Donatello, Vasari and Fra Angelico imbue the city with the magnificence of their contribution to art and life. The city itself is muse to some and home to many stylish citizens, who enhance the cobbled streets and fashionable piazzas with their inimitable Italian flair.
The heart of the city, where everyone from tourist to tout seems to congregate, is the Piazza de Duomo and the Piazza della Signoria. The statues dominating the Piazza della Signoria commemorate major historical events of the city's life, and the magnificent Palazzo Vecchio still performs its original role as Florence's town hall. The adjacent Uffizi is the oldest gallery in the world, with a collection of the greatest works of the Renaissance commissioned largely by the Medici family. The man who founded the great long-ruling Medici dynasty was Cosimo il Vecchio. His legacy is imprinted in the city's northern area, marked by the churches of San Lorenzo, San Marco and the Palazzo Medici Riccardi.
The western stretches of the city are formed by Florence's railway station at one end and the Ponte Vecchio at the other. The quaint Ponte Vecchio bridge was built in 1345, and was one of the few areas to emerge unscathed from the wartime bombs. Little workshops that used to belong to butchers, tanners and blacksmiths peer onto the river from their timber supports. The church of Santa Maria Novella also rises from the city's western boundaries in true gothic splendour, preserving some of the most important works of art in Florence.
The Oltrarno (meaning 'over the Arno') area became the place from which the Medici ruled from the Palazzo Pitti. The magnificent Boboli Gardens were designed and laid out around it. The area surrounding Via Maggio and Piazza di Santo Spirito boasts a collection of other palazzi built during the late-16th and 17th centuries.
The rugged southern shore dividing the Bay of Naples from the Gulf of Salerno is a restful and picturesque area. Miniature towns shelter in precipitous coastal ravines and tranquil seas calmly lap the shores of quiet pebbled beaches. The Amalfi Coast is a great relaxation spot from which to enjoy coastal Italian culture.
Stretching between the towns of Postiano and Vietri sul Mare, near Salerno, the area is renowned for its breathtaking scenery and towering mountain cliffs that plunge into the Mediterranean Sea. Precariously perched and threatening to tipple into the sea, the small town of Positano is a great attraction for tourists with its cluster of multi-coloured houses and remarkable setting. A cliffside stairway provides the perfect vantage-point from which to admire its glorious sea vistas.
Four miles (6km) down the coast is the quaint town of Praiano, framed by caves, castles and sharp cliffs. A stroll from here towards Amalfi will take you to a ramp leading to Marina di Praia, a 400-year-old fishing village nestled in the embrace of a tiny ravine. Another notable stop between Praiano and Amalfi is the Grotto dello Smeraldo.
The busy seaside town of Amalfi basks in the glory of its longevity as the first Sea Republic of Italy, and as the hometown of Flavio Gioja, the inventor of the compass. It is referred to as the 'pearl of the coast' and has a bit of everything for the weary traveller. A pebble's throw away from here is the quiet village of Atrani. Its tranquil beach rests languidly on the water's edge against a superb backdrop of mountains.
Further down the coast is Minori, notable for its lemon exports, a gentle place with villas and beaches to explore. The quiet town of Ravello retains the charm prized by Bocaccio who dedicated part of his famous work, the Decameron, to the town. The coastal road that twists its way between the rocks affords glimpses of small villages, bays and inlets, and a journey along this southern route will take travellers to towns of worldwide fame as well as to lesser-known spots of equally enchanting beauty.
Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Civitavecchia on the west coast of Italy every year, but few see anything of this port-city beyond the harbour, bus terminal or railway station. This is because the historic port has served as the port of Rome for around two millennia, and most are just keen to jump ashore from a cruise liner and head for the attractions of the Eternal City, situated about 50 miles (80km) away.
Those who are forced to kick their heels at a hotel in Civitavecchia for a night or two before embarking or after disembarking from a cruise will not find the city packed with much to see and do. Although it is an ancient port, most of the city's archaeological treasures and old buildings were destroyed during the two World Wars, thanks to its strategic importance as Rome's port. Travelling through the port gate, though, no one can avoid noticing the city's main attraction, the looming 16th-century Fort Michelangelo, commissioned by Pope Julius II and completed by Michelangelo. There are also remains of the old city walls, and a worthy fountain designed by Vanvitelli, close to the Fort and the old Roman harbour. The old part of town features another attractive fountain in the Piazza Leandra, fronting a medieval church. There is also an interesting National Archaeological Museum, which contains exhibits discovered during the harbour restorations and from surrounding archaeological sites. Along the wide seafront avenue stands the unusual Church of the Holy Japanese Martyrs, dedicated to some Franciscan monks who were martyred in Japan in the 16th century, and decorated with frescoes and mosaics by a Japanese artist. Along the adjacent coast are some enjoyable beaches and an interesting spa resort where the hot springs, known as the Taurine Baths, have been used since the days of Ancient Rome.
For most people, Verona is the setting of one of the most famous love stories ever told - William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet -making it one of the most popular holiday destinations for lovers and romantics. Shakespeare said, 'There is no world outside these walls...' and tourists will indeed feel like they are lost inside another world when they enter the gates of the historic city of Verona.
With beautiful red-tiled rooftops juxtaposed by leafy green trees and the sparkling Adige River that flows through this UNESCO World Heritage Site, Verona is one of the most picturesque destinations in the country. Sadly though, much of the exquisite ancient architecture and ancient Roman monuments were destroyed by a powerful earthquake that rocked the city in 1117, which led to a massive Romanesque rebuilding (evident in structures like the ancient parish of San Giovanni in Valle).
Visit Juliet's house and balcony and rub her statue for good luck, stroll across the Ponte Pietra bridge to admire the views over the Adige River, visit the remains of a 3rd-century Roman gate at the historic Porta Borsari, visit the statue of famed poet Dante Alighieri in the Piazza dei Signori, or marvel at the crumbling but still functional Arena di Verona, an enormous Roman amphitheatre dating back 2,000 years and still boasting the largest opera stage in the world. The best time to visit the Arena is during the 'lyrical season', in the summer, where operas take place inside this ancient theatre on balmy summer nights.
The areas surrounding Verona provide some of Italy's most breathtaking scenery, and a trip to Valpolicella or Soave to sample the renowned wines is something wine-lovers will not want to miss out on; while nearby Lake Garda to the west of Verona is a popular tourist destination, and whose shore is home to a number of exclusive hotels and resorts.
After a long day of enjoying the romance, history and splendour of the city of Verona, climb the steps on the hill above the Roman Amphitheatre to the Castell San Pietro (St Peter's Castle) for spectacular views over the city - the perfect setting for a romantic sunset picnic.
Umbria sits in the shadow of Tuscany, its better-known northern neighbour, but is becoming a favoured destination for those who want to discover rural Italy away from the crowds. The area is predominantly rural, with no major cities and a small population of under a million. Umbria is landlocked, situated in the heart of Italy, north of Rome, with the Marches region to its east, Latium to the south and Tuscany to its north.
The region is dotted with remarkably unspoilt medieval hill towns and villages, ancient castles, Roman ruins and a rolling countryside of forests, olive groves and vineyards. The famous Tuscan towns of Florence, Sienna and Pisa are all within driving distance, but Umbria also has many of its own magnificent sights. These include the cathedral facade in Orvieto, the Roman theatre in Spoleto, and the town of Assisi, whose Basilica ranks among Italy's must-see sights along with Pompeii, St Mark's Square and the Colosseum.
Perugia is the region's main city and is the place to head for shopping, bars or any nightlife, although visitors are more likely to visit Umbria to hike through the unspoilt countryside, slumber by the pool and enjoy the delicious local wine and food.
Umbria is only one or two hours' drive from either the Rome or Pisa airports, and can be accessed via the A1 toll road which runs through the region from Rome to Florence.
Those of us who remember our history books recognise Genoa as the birthplace of famous explorer Christopher Columbus. Always an important port-city in Italy, for decades Genoa languished behind Rome, Venice and Milan as the tourists passed it by.
This changed dramatically after the European Union nominated Genoa as the European Capital of Culture in 2004. Cruise ships docking in the Porto Antico are now bringing visitors by the thousands, and travellers in Italy are making time in their itineraries to spend several days on holiday in Genoa.
This tourism renaissance is well-deserved, as there are many beautiful and fascinating tourist attractions in Genoa. The medieval district is filled with stunning marble churches and stately palaces, grouped around scenic plazas like the Piazza San Matteo and the Piazza Dante. Visitors should be sure to look for the famous frescoes of the Church of Sant'Agostino and the fanciful Gothic carvings of the Cattedrale San Lorenzo. The Via Garibaldi has a number of impressive Baroque buildings.
There are many interesting museums in the city, dedicated to everything from cultural and natural history to the navy, cathedrals, and royalty of the city's past. There are no fewer than five art museums in Genoa as well.
Though it is Italy's largest medieval town, Genoa's present is just as vibrant as its past. The streets are always buzzing with life, and visitors are spoiled for choice when it comes to restaurants, shops and entertainment. The Porto Antico on the harbour front has been rebuilt from a utilitarian dock to an entertainment area with museums, cinemas, restaurants, and one of the biggest aquariums in Europe along the pretty promenade.
Genoa makes a good base to explore the other towns along the Italian Riviera, including Portofino, Cinque Terre, Rapallo and La Spezia.
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