Capital city: Rome
Population: 60.8 million (Istat.it)
Government: Unitary parliamentary constitutional republic
Currency: Euro (EUR, €)
Main language: Italian
Main religion: Catholicism
The Mediterranean nation of Italy consists of the distinctive ‘boot-shaped’ mainland peninsula, the large islands of Sicily and Sardinia, and a number of smaller islands and archipelagos. Mainland Italy shares land borders with France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia to the north, as well as the enclave microstates of San Marino and Vatican City which sit within the country itself.
For a place which lay at the heart of the ancient Roman Empire, modern Italy has a surprisingly short history. In fact, the country as it is known today only came into existence in 1861 after the unification of the various city-states which preceded it. As a result, many Italians identify as closely with their regional identity as they do with their national identity – although the majority take great pride in both.
There is plenty to see and do in Italy, from historic towns and cities, museums and cultural sites to diverse entertainment events. To experience the real Italian lifestyle though, you need to get out and socialise like the Italians do – sharing meals with family and friends, supporting the local football team and shopping anywhere from local markets to top fashion houses. Football is by far the biggest sport in Italy, but cycling, tennis and motorsports attract huge crowds too. Winter sports are common in the northern Italian mountains, while the coastline further south lends itself to watersports.
Food and drink
Perhaps the mostly widely interpreted style of cooking in the world, Italian cuisine means many things to many people. However, at its heart are simple, fresh ingredients – typically between four and eight in each dish. Don’t be deceived though, there is no lack of variety in Italian cooking. These ‘simple dishes’ number in their hundreds, and each region has its own style too. Among Italian favourites are pasta dishes, risottos, various meats, fish and seafood, and of course the world-famous pizza – all followed by gelato ice-cream desserts! Italy is a nation of wine producers and beer drinkers, although good quality coffee is always on the menu too.
Italian is both the official language and the most widely spoken in Italy, with an estimated 95% of the population identifying themselves as speaking it. However, Italy also has a many legally-recognised minority languages including French, German, Greek, Croatian, Albanian, Catalan, Slovenian, Sardinian, Franco-Provençal, Ladin, Friulian and Occitan. English is a common second language, but it is still spoken by less than half the population.
Like many aspects of Italian life, the climate shows clear divide between north and south. The northern regions of Italy reach up into the famous skiing mountains of Europe and these areas experience real extremes of temperature from harsh winters to warm, humid summers. The south of Italy is more arid, with hot summers and mild winters. In the centre of the country you find a more temperate environment with less changeable conditions.
Safety and security
Italy is considered a safe place to live and work, although tourists are sometimes targeted by petty thieves and fraudsters so vigilance is always prudent. Although the country’s longstanding issues with organised crime are yet to dissipate entirely, they are unlikely to impact noticeably on foreign visitors. While uncommon, natural disasters such as earthquakes do occur in Italy, so it is worth knowing the local emergency numbers and drills. The country also boasts several active volcanoes, including Mount Etna, so air travel can occasionally be disrupted during periods of volcanic activity.