NEED TO KNOW
Capital City: Rome
Population: 58 million
Area: 116,000 square miles
Telephone Calling Code(s): 39
Electricity: 230V, 50 Hz
Currency: As of Nov 22, 2011:
1 Euro = $1.36 US Calculate Other Amounts
Italy, a member of the EU, does not require visas for citizens of the United States. A valid passport is sufficient for a 90-day stay.
GOOD TO KNOW
Books and Movies
Few countries have been more written about than Italy, and travelogues—including the classic Concise History of Italy by Vincent Cronin—are numerous. For an insightful look at modern Italy, pick up any work by contemporary historian Paul Ginsborg, or The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones. Bernard Berenson's Painters of the Renaissance is the Italian art bible. For a highly entertaining account of the Roman Empire's heyday, check out the Rome series put out by HBO.
The golden age of Italian cinema produced masterpieces such as Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thief (1948), and Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1959). Among newer films, Il Postino (The Postman, 1994) La vita è Bella (Life Is Beautiful, 1997) have been widely acclaimed.
While the French slave for hours, fussily transforming modest ingredients into perfect dishes, Italians prefer to use perfect ingredients and let them speak for themselves. Pasta is a staple across the country, eaten as a first course and usually followed by a meat or fish main course. Pizza is a popular, cheap, and cheerful alternative. Often restaurant meals are finished with limoncello or another homemade digestivo; sometimes they're provided gratis.
Italian wines are among the best in the world and are priced accordingly. But in the wine regions you can always get a great inexpensive bottle. The best reds—from full-bodied to ephemeral—come from Tuscany (avoid straw-covered bottles of Chianti, which will invariably be bad), Umbria, and Piedmont. If you're celebrating, prosecco (sparkling white wine) is a bargain compared to its French cousin, Champagne.
Prices in Italy soared with the introduction of the euro, but a strong artisan tradition means that even if you won't find the cheapest, you will probably find the best. Milan, Rome, and Florence are international fashion capitals. But Prada and Gucci stores in the big cities sell items for about the same as (or more than) everywhere else in the world. The intrepid should lay ahold of a map and a car and drive to the outlets (Gucci and Prada among them) outside Florence. They're not easy to find, but for fashionistas, the bargain prices will be worth it.
Other areas of Italy have their own specialties. Venice and the island of Murano are both known for handblown glass. Tuscany is a center for marble, carved into elegant sculpture or in great slabs for the portico back home. Lombardy produces wonderful pottery and handmade violins. And from Piedmont you can get elegant handmade gold jewelry.
A value-added tax (VAT; IVA in Italian) of 20 percent is added to every purchase you make in Italy, but non-EU residents can get refunds for high-ticket items (€155 and up) purchased in shops with a "Tax-Free Shopping" sticker in the window. The shop will give you a special receipt that you should have stamped at customs before leaving the EU. For further information, see www.agenziadogane.it.
Hotels and high-end restaurants generally include service charges in their bills. Other restaurants don't, in which case a ten percent tip for good service is appreciated.
January: 1, New Year's Day; 6, Epiphany
April: 25, Anniversary of Liberation
May: 1, May Day
June: 2, Republic Day
August: 15, Assumption
November: 1, All Saints' Day
December: 8, Immaculate Conception; 25, Christmas Day; 26, St. Stephen's Day
Spring: Easter; Easter Monday (day after Easter)