Where to Go
Italy is high on everyone’s bucket list, and it’s virtually impossible to try and narrow down the list when every city offers something different. From history to art, food, music, architecture, culture, sacred sites, and more, this country satisfies every desire.
To make it a bit easier, we scoured and hunted for the absolute best places to go to experience all the best the country has to offer.
The capital city, no Italian backpacking itinerary is complete without a visit to Rome. Sure, it’s become a little bit of a tourist trap, but tis here that some of the most magnificent sights in the country can be found – like the Roman Coliseum, and the Sistine Chapel, to note a couple.
There is a veritable treasure trove of places to visit here, from the Forum to the pantheon, the Appian Way, Palatine Hill – where Rome was supposedly founded. Relax in the Borghese gardens, and try traditional Italian gelato on the Spanish Steps before making a wish at the Trevi Fountain.
The largest example of the Italian Renaissance – the golden era – that still exists, Florence is a cornucopia of awe-inspiring architecture that makes you feel like you’re walking through one giant art museum. From the Duomo to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, flor4ence is home to some of the most spectacular architecture that can be found anywhere in the world.
If the buildings ar4ent enough art for you, there’s also a dozen different museums and galleries dotted through the streets. The Uffizi Gallery is here with its stunning collection of da Vinci and Michelangelo artwork, as are the Bobolu Gardens where visitors can explore the artisans’ studios and workshops of the Oltrarno.
The floating city of Venice is made up of a network of canals and streams, and as such it gives the illusion of floating. The transport here is all on boats, and the gondoliers sing their way through the day – almost like something straight out of a Disney movie. The main hub is the Piazza San Marco – otherwise known as St. Mark’s Square 0 and it’s here that travellers can spit the great Basilica of St. Mark, as well as the Doge’s Palace.
A tiny little city in comparison to Rome and Florence, Milan is home to a different sort of charm. It’s a lot quieter, with most people only passing through to get to the nearby airport, but as the fashion capital of Italy it’s definitely made a name for itself.
The highest concentration of artistic and architectural attractions in Italy can be found here, and the city of Milan has been the home of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Verdi, Enrico Caruso, Giorgio Armani and so many more.
The Il Duomo cathedral is the main attraction; known as one of the world’s most magnificent churches, it’s one of the greatest examples of the iconic Flamboyant Gothic style. Plus, the La Scala is home to Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, which fills the entirety of one wall in the monastery.
Unlike anywhere else in Rome, Naples is filled with colour, noise, and above all, life. The narrow cobbled streets hide an abundance of things to do, whether that’s explore the treasure-filled churches, or lavish in the luxury of the European palaces, and discover the history of Pompeii at the archaeological museum.
What to Do
From historical sites, to cultural hot spots, museums, impressive mountains and volcanoes, and more, everything about Italy combines to make it one of the most unique and interesting places you’ll ever visit.
The Valley of Temples
Italy is known for its amazing historical buildings – just think of the Roman colosseums, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa – but nowhere showcases this more than the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, a short stop away from Sicily.
Here, there’s an incredible archaeological complex that contains some of the most intact Doric temples that still exist today, first built over a thousand years ago during the 5th century. Plus, these temples overlook the town below, so take in the incredible views that stretch along the horizon while you soak up the history.
One of the most famous volcanoes in the world, it was Mount Vesuvius that tragically destroyed the city of Pompeii over a thousand years ago, covering the unsuspecting city in ash. Today, it’s safe to climb, and there’s a number of hiking routes that take you right to the crater of the mountain at the top.
One of the best art galleries in the world, the Uffizi Gallery is nestled away on Florence, and is a spectacular visit for anyone heading in that direction. The art held here includes Italian great such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Caravaggio – all showcased in a building exquisitely designed. Plus, the palazzo here overlooks the Arno River, where visitors can stop for a breather and marvel at the landscape that inspired the greatest artwork in the world.
One for the literature lovers, the city of Verona is the setting for Shakespeare’s famous Romeo and Juliet, and visitors can marvel at the balcony that was used for Juliet’s iconic “Romeo, Romeo, Where for art thou Romeo” speech.
The balcony was officially bought by the city over 100 years ago in 1905 so it could be specifically used as a tourist attraction – which has definitely worked, couples flock here every year to declare their love for each other ion one of the most romantic spots in the country.
It’s impossible to visit Italy and not see one of the most famous sites in the world: the Roman Coliseum in Rome. Once a magnificent amphitheatre with a capacity to hold over 50,000 spectators, the Coliseum is one of the greatest historical relics left on earth. Best known for the iconic gladiator matches that took place here, crowds would come to see slaves fight to the death – against each other, and great animals such as lions.
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Best Time to Visit Italy
As usual, the best time to visit Italy depends on what you want to do. If you’re looking for good weather, then the period between May and October is hands down the best for bright sunny days, long sunshine hours, perfect water temperature for swimming, the works. However, this is also the bustiest period in terms of tourists, so everything’s a little bit more expensive and a lot busier.
If you’re looking to save a bit of money, then the two shoulder seasons either side of the peak season are best: March until April, and end of October through to November.
In terms of festivals and events, February is carnival time – for Venice in particular. In the lead up to Fat Tuesday, the streets of Venice come alive with colourful masks, while in Piedmont the annual Battle of the Oranges takes place to mark the start of Lent.
In June, there’s the annual Calcio Storico, an early form of football that has been going since the 1500s, and September is when Florence holds the Festa della Rificolona; held every 7th September, the night sky is lit up with thousands of paper lanterns.
How Much Does it Cost
Italy is one of those countries that can be as pricey or cheap as you want it to be. If you spend a lot of time partying, drinking, dining at fancy restaurants, and staying in private hotel rooms then your budget will rack up quite quickly. Alternatively, you could be very strict with your money and get by on less than €10 a day.
A daily budget here could be €50-70, if you’re staying in a hostel dorm, eating cheap meals and street food, and using public transport.
Typical costs while backpacking across Italy:
One of the quickest and easiest ways to save a bit of money is to simply skip the bread at meals. Most restaurants will offer you some as you sit down, but these will come with a cost that you might not expect – it’s not complimentary. So, simply say no, send it back, and save a few pennies every day – it soon adds up.
Alternatively, you could just skip the restaurant all together. There are tonnes of tony little boutique food stores that sell sandwiches or general picnic style food that you can pick up, eat outside, and admire the views of the city.
On a similar note, buy all your wine from shops – a typical bottle only costs about €4 – and drink tap water, which is perfectly safe and better for the environment.
What to Pack
Italy has a pretty great climate, but there will always be some discrepancies in the weather, so you need to determine when you’re visiting before you start packing – the summer will need shorts and lighter clothing, for instance, while winter and the mountainous regions will need layers.
Given all the amazing sights, you’ll want to make sure you bring a decent camera – smartphones have come a long way, but the picture quality is just not the same – and an EU adapter and portable charger is always a good shout.
Otherwise just make sure you have the essentials: jeans, shorts, a lightweight rain jacket, a sweater, a few nicer evening outfits – the Italian’s love their fashion – underwear, toiletries, decent walking shoes, and a first aid kit.
Italian’s don’t do things by halves, which means wherever you’re staying you’re guaranteed to find some incredible accommodation. However, hostels in Italy don’t come cheap, but they are available in most of the places you’ll visit so it’s worth paying a little extra.
However, a hostel isn’t the only way to go. There are a number of different accommodation types, whether that’s a quaint bed and breakfast, or a rural farm stay. If you love getting outdoors and at one with nature, there’s even the option to camp. Italian campgrounds are very well maintained, and you’ll meet a lot of amazing people.
Food and Drink
Italian food is famous around the world, with every country having their own variations on the Italian staples of pizza and pasta. Given this, it’s hard to know where to begin when you visit Italy, as the cuisine already feels so familiar.
Having said that, there are plenty of dishes that, although you may have tried at home, they will be definitely better in Italy. One such dish is risotto, which hails from the north of Italy, and the traditional dish is made from meat stock, bone marrow, cheese, and a hefty dose of saffron.
Other dishes include carbonara which is pasta made with an egg and cheese sauce and thought to be derived from the Italian word for charcoal, as it was a filling meal for coal miners, and seadas, which are delicious Sardinian pastries that are filled with lemon-infused pecorino cheese before being deep fried and drizzled with honey.
In terms of drinks, it’s impossible to visit without trying the chianti wine – so popular, it’s been forged hundreds of times, so look out for the black rooster symbol on the label to ensure you’re drinking the real thing. There’s also limoncello, which is a very sweet spirit made by steeping lemon zests in alcohol until the oil is released, and then mixing with a sugar syrup.
People from all over the world love visiting Italy; from the incredible food to the jaw-dropping sights, there’s literally something for everyone. Given that it’s a European country, it’s fairly easy to get along with the standard Western etiquette system.
However, there are still a few cultural tips and tricks to make note of to make your stay more pleasant:
- “Ciao” is typically only used by the younger generation or among close friends, otherwise the more formal “buongiornio” is used
- Maintain eye contact when speaking or Italians will think you’re trying to hide something
- Fashion is important in Italian culture, so dress appropriately – which means no torn or worn clothing
- Keep your hands above the table at all times
- In Italy, the person who does the inviting pays for the meal
- Always stand when an elder person enters the room
Although you might think that Italian is the dominant language in Italy, it’s actually only really spoken in the centre. Around the country, there are 34 languages and dialects that are all officially recognised, which means even locals can sometime shave a problem understanding other locals.
Having said that, there are some basic Italian phrases that will be universally recognised and will help you on your travels.
- Come va?
- Mi può aiutare?
- Quanto costa?
- Un caffé, per favour
- Buon giorno / Buona sea / Buona note
- Mi scusi
- Nessun sacchetto di plastica
- Come ti chiami?
- Grazie mille
- Tutto bene
- Nice to meet you
- How are you?
- Can you help me?
- How much does that cost?
- One coffee, please
- Good morning / evening / night
- Excuse me
- No plastic bag
- What’s your name?
- Thank you so much
- All’s well
The trains in Italy might be expensive, but it’s by far the best way to get around. While in the major cities there are buses and subways which will typically cost €2 a ticket, the trains are much easier – and they get you across country.
The Eurostar will typically cost roughly €35-65, although the slower regional trains will only cost €6 for a single trip. This is a great option of you want to see all that the Italian countryside has to offer, while still saving a few pennies.
Luckily, Europe also has a great budget airline system, with flights from Easy Jet and Ryanair taking passengers around the country for as little as €5. For once, flying between destinations might actually be the cheapest and easiest way to get around.
Part of the EU and the Schengen Zone, it’s possible to travel completely visa-free if you’re form one of the other European countries that is part of the zone – which is incredibly convenient when backpacking through Europe. Essentially it means travellers can cross the border from Italy into any of the neighbouring countries and receive little or no attention from the authorities.
If you live within the Schengen Zone all you need is an EU ID card to enter, while all other countries around the world will need a passport.
If you’re not from an EU nation then you can typically qualify for a 90-day visa that is then valid across the Schengen Zone. There are some exceptions dotted around the world, so it’s worth checking the official website before you jet off.
Is It Safe?
Just like much of the European continent, Italy is a very safe destination for backpackers and tourists alike. The birthplace of Western culture, the country is the 34th safest country in the world based on the safe countries index.
In some of the urban areas and more populated cities, pickpockets can be an issue so it’s worth keeping an eye on any valuables – just as you would od anywhere in the world.
One thing that is worth bearing in mind is that the risk of running into scammers is high; with a lot of scammers and con-artists looking to take advantage of tourists, the things to look out for include people offering to help you with luggage, groups of teenagers acting strangely or trying to distract you, or even fake petitions.
Ultimately, if you wouldn’t do it at home, then you shouldn’t do it in Italy, but other than that there aren’t any major safety concerns to be aware of.
A Brief History
There is evidence of human civilisation across Italy from as far back as 8,000 B.C., with thousands of rock carvings discovering the Alpine regions of Lombardy. The Roman Empire is the most famous section of the Italian history, however, taking place between 5th century BC and 5th century AD.
According to legend, the Roman empire was founded by Romulus and Remus, twin brothers descended from Greek and Latin nobility who were raised by a she-wolf, having been condemned to death by King Amulius.
Once they were of age, the brothers set out to build a city of their own, arriving in the area of the seven hills. Here the disagreed over which hill they should build, and in the aftermath of the dispute Remus was killed – either by Romulus or one of his supporters. Romulus then went on to found the city of Rome, where he reigned for many years as the city’s first king.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476AD, the country was subjected to a series of invasion from different states all over the world. In 493 the Ostorgoths, a Germanic tribe, conquered the peninsular, while in 756 the Franks from France defeated the Germanic tribes and granted the popes authority over central Italy.
The Italian Renaissance movement began in the 14th century, historically known as Italy’s “golden era” which was then followed by attacks from Spain and Germany during the 16th century. It wasn’t until the 1800s that Italy began the process of unification. Becoming the modern Italian nation that we know today – and it officially unified in 1861.
- Italy’s nickname is “Bel Paese” which means beautiful country
- Rome was originally founded in 753 B.C.
- Pizza was invented in Napoli around 1860
- In central Italy, there is a fountain that flows red win for 24 hours a day
- More than 30% of Italians don’t use the internet
- The tomato wasn’t introduced in Italy until the 1540s
- The number 17 is considered unlucky, so most hotels won’t have a 17th floor
- An Italian cat once inherited $13 million from its owner, making it the richest cat in the world
- In 2012, an Italian court ruled that telling a man he has “no balls” is a crime, punishable with a fine
If you really want to make the most of your time in Italy, then check out these useful resources. When you’re backpacking, it’s always better to be safe and prepared than winging it.
- Links incoming