What Is Italy Known For?

An Italian hill town

Italy consistently ranks as one of the most popular tourist destinations because the country’s cultural, historical, culinary, and geographical treasures lure visitors from all over the world. 

What draws people (like us) to Italy year after year? And why would you want to go to Italy, more than anywhere else in the world?

We began creating a list of what Italy is known for, which only scratches the surface. Here are a few of the standouts:

WHAT IS ITALY KNOWN FOR?

What is Italy Known For? Scratching the Surface
What is Italy Known For? Scratching the Surface

RICH ITALIAN CULTURE

Italy’s history as a unified country is relatively new (Garibaldi only unified Italy in 1861), but its culture dates back more than 3000 years. 

Visitors to Italy can easily draw connections between remnants of the past and their influence on modern culture today.

Vatican City: Home of the Pope

What is Italy known for? The Vatican is located in the heart of Rome
The Vatican is located in the heart of Rome

Vatican City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the home of the Pope, the seat of the Catholic Church, and the world’s largest religious building. 

Known for its art and architecture, Vatican City is the smallest fully independent city-state in the world.

Birthplace of Opera

Teatro di San Carlo, the opera house in Naples
Teatro di San Carlo, the opera house in Naples

Born in Italy during the Renaissance, the first opera was performed in Florence at the House of Medici. Italy still plays a vital role in the world of opera. 

The Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Teatro La Fenice in Venice, and San Carlo Theatre in Naples are among the most famous opera houses in the world, but opera houses are scattered throughout the country.

In December 2023, Italian opera was included for the first time on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Range of Italian Music from Classical to Pop

Street musicians in Florence
Street musicians in Florence

While opera plays a prominent role in Italian culture and identity, Italy isn’t a one-pony show when it comes to music. 

Italian music runs the gamut from classical to jazz to pop. Italian folk music also has a rich heritage. Think: Adriano Celentano, Mina, Lucio Dalla, Eros Ramazzotti, Andrea and Matteo Bocelli, and more.

Significant Art Treasures

Street art in Dozza, Italy, a painted city in Emilia Romagna
Street art in Dozza, Italy, a painted city in Emilia Romagna

The Mona Lisa (now housed in the Louvre) and probably considered the most famous painting in the world, was created by Italian Leonardo da Vinci. 

Art lovers will find paintings, frescoes, sculptures, street art, and other treasures in almost every city and town in Italy, especially in churches and cathedrals. 

Another da Vinci masterpiece, The Last Supper, is housed at the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

The Beauty of the Italian Language

What is Italy known for? Italian is considered the Bella Lingua (Adobe stock)
Italian is considered the most beautiful language in the world

There’s a reason it’s called the language of love and romance. People fall in love with the Italian language because it sounds so lyrical and is tied to art, culture, and history.

In her book La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language, author Dianne Hale called Italian “the world’s most loved and lovable language.” 

A recent survey by Babbel (the language learning app), reported by ItaloAmericano.org (a news publication for Italian Americans), noted that Italian has overtaken French as the most passionate language, evidenced by its pervasive influence on music.

The language is made all the more colorful because it is often accompanied by hand gestures (sometimes even substituting for words). In his book Speak Italian: The Fine Art of the Gesture, Bruno Munari writes, “A gesture is worth a thousand words…Italians are masters of the unspoken art.”

Another notable characteristic of the Italian language compared to other European countries is its different dialects as one travels from place to place, particularly in small towns and among older people. L’Italo Americano reported that UNESCO has identified 31 regional languages. Because there is some fear of them becoming extinct, efforts are being made to preserve them.

Iconic Architecture

The Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Whether governmental buildings, religious ones, or private palazzos, Italy has a rich legacy of architecture in styles ranging from classic to Gothic to Baroque. 

The Leaning Tower of Pisa and The Colosseum in Rome are so iconic that they are recognized worldwide.

Italy is also known for its beautiful piazzas. These are wide open spaces in the center of towns where people gather, make connections, and share parts of their private and public lives with one another.

Piazza Maggiore from Above
Piazza Maggiore in Bologna from Above

ELEGANT ITALIAN STYLE

Italy has had a profound influence on style ranging from apparel to shoes and bags to eyewear to automobiles and more.

It is a profound compliment to tell someone that they dress and carry themselves like an Italian, whether it is the scarf or cardigan around their shoulders that creates an aura of elegance. 

Fashion & Style

Milan is the capital of fashion
Milan is the capital of fashion

Italian fashion brands like Gucci, Fendi, Valentino, Versace, Prada, Armani, Bottega Veneta, Missoni, Etro, Furla, Dolce & Gabbana and Zegna are popular around the world.

Milan is considered the fashion capital of the country and these fashion houses are revered not only for their “Made in Italy” style but also for superior craftsmanship in apparel, leather goods, jewelry and more.

Fast Cars and Motor Races

The Enzo Ferrari Museum in Modena
The Enzo Ferrari Museum in Modena

Italy is home to some of the most famous automotive makers, including Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini.

Emilia Romagna is a mecca for motor and racing enthusiasts.  The region has been dubbed the  “Motor Valley” for its spate of automakers, racetracks, museums, motor-related special events, and car and motorcycle races (including Ducati).

MOUTH-WATERING ITALIAN GASTRONOMY

Italian food and drink is indeed regional—based on the ingredients, recipes and traditions that vary across its 20 regions. Many of the products are protected by EU law, which helps protect their quality and authenticity.

Rich Coffee Drinks

Food rule: Cappuccino is only a breakfast drink
Food rule: Cappuccino is only a breakfast drink

One might argue whether cappuccino or espresso is Italy’s most famous brew among many Italian specialty coffees. 

However, the Italian tradition of coffee bars serving fresh-roasted coffee drinks has become popular worldwide. After a trip to Italy, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz brought the idea from Milan to Seattle. (As of 2021, there were 33,833 Starbucks stores worldwide.)

The Bialetti Moka pot might be considered one of Italy’s national treasures. It’s found in almost every Italian home and is a fixture in kitchens shown in Italian movies and television.

Bialetti Moka Pot
Bialetti Moka Pot

Outrageously Delicious Pizza 

What is Italy Known For? Pizza Margherita
Pizza Margherita

Invented in Naples, pizza made its way to America with the waves of Italian immigration and is considered the most consumed food in the world.

Other regions of Italy have flatbread food specialties that are pizza-like. In 2017, the art of making Neapolitan pizza made the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage.

Rome is the place to go for pinsa,  a Roman flatbread with a light, airy crust often topped off with many of the same toppings found on pizza. Considered a staple in ancient Rome, one legend suggests that pinsa was so delicious cooked over hot coals that ancient priests offered it to the gods.

Every Shape of Pasta

Pasta can be dried or fresh, made with or without eggs
Pasta can be dried or fresh, made with or without eggs

Italy has given the world hundreds of different types of pasta, each intended to be paired with its own sauce. The shapes of both dry and fresh pasta also vary regionally. 

World Pasta Day is celebrated on October 25 each year. (See my post on everything you need to know about Pasta Etiquette in Italy).

Holiday Cakes

Fiasconaro Mandorlet Panettone from SupermarketItaly.com
Fiasconaro Mandorlet Panettone with almonds from SupermarketItaly.com

Successive waves of Italian immigrants introduced North Americans to some of the traditional specialty foods during the Italian holidays. Now, they are ubiquitous in bakeries and supermarkets abroad. 

Panettone is the famous Italian Christmas Cake that is served after dinner on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The leftovers make wonderful French toast and bread pudding.

Pandoro is another popular holiday cake. It is baked in the shape of a star and has a sugary icing on top.

On Easter, Colomba Easter Bread, baked in the shape of a dove, is on dinner tables from north to south.

Scrumptious Italian Desserts

Tiramisu (literally translating to “pick-me-up”) is made with espresso-dipped ladyfingers and creamy mascarpone covered with cocoa powder. The dish is said to hail from Treviso (in the Veneto region) but is a popular dessert all over Italy. 

Homemade tiramisu in Ponte di Nava, Liguria
Homemade tiramisu in Ponte di Nava, Liguria

Other popular Italian desserts include cannoli, panna cotta, sfogliatelle and zabaglione.

Italian Wines: Red, White & Sparkling

Gancia Pink Elderflower Spritz
Gancia Pink Elderflower Spritz made with Prosecco Rose (credit: Gancia)

Italy is the world’s largest wine producer (followed by Spain and France), and wine is an integral part of Italian culture.

Different varieties are produced in every region—from north to south. Some Italians even sip some wine for breakfast, although a far more popular tradition is the after-work aperitivo

Aperitivo time in Bologna
Aperitivo time in Bologna

Wine enthusiasts have their choice of reds, whites, and roses—both still and sparkling, such as Franciacorta, Asti Spumanti, and Prosecco.

Wine tourism in Italy has been growing in popularity too, with visitors interested in winery tours and tastings.

Delicious Gelato

Gelato is ubiquitous in Italy
Gelato is ubiquitous in Italy

Gelato (Italian-style ice cream) is another beloved Italian invention. It is generally made with more milk, less cream, less fat and less air than ordinary ice cream and is served at higher temperatures. 

Gelato is enjoyed across Italy but the Carpigiani Gelato Museum in Bologna is the only museum dedicated to this artisan specialty food.

Prosciutto, Parmigiano Cheese and Balsamic Vinegar

Carpaccio salad with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Carpaccio with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

The Emilia Romagna region is known for its PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) products that include Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma ham, and traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena and Reggio Emilia

These and other unique Italian specialty foods are savored around the world.

Italian Chocolates

What is Italy Known For? Best Italian Chocolates Online
Italian Cremino Chocolates

Italian chocolates are known for their excellence because they rely on the finest ingredients. 

“Italy was one of the first countries to get cocoa beans from the New World and has been creating fine chocolate for centuries,” says food historian Francine Segan. Segan.

She adds, “The Italians were also the first to create the sublime combination of hazelnut and chocolate into gianduia, which led to so many of our favorites like Ferrero-Rocher and Perugina Baci.”

Until the end of the 1700s, the Italian aristocracy and clergy only consumed chocolate in liquid form. In 1832, the Majani workshop in Bologna was the birthplace of Italy’s first solid piece of chocolate.

IMPORTANCE OF FAMILY (la famiglia)

 

1919 photo of Giacomo Alberti (Riva's great grandfather) and his second wife
1919 photo of Giacomo Alberti and his family

Italian families tend to be close-knit, with much of everyone’s time and attention centered around the family. Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and Sundays provide an excuse for family gatherings, usually over a big meal. 

Italians also tend to maintain strong ties with extended family members (outside the nuclear family), and even embracing non-blood relatives as cugini (cousins). Yet, they are welcoming to strangers!

Visitors with families find that Italians welcome children almost everywhere they go.

A GRAYING POPULATION

Pensioners socializing in Pieve di Cento (credit: Jerome Levine)
Pensioners socializing in Pieve di Cento (credit: Jerome Levine)

A declining birth rate

Italy has one of the lowest birth rates and highest proportions of aging adults. It’s not a problem, and in fact, it’s good news that Italians are living longer. However, the birth rate in Italy has declined to less than 1.24 children per woman, while a birth rate of two children per woman is needed to stabilize the population. 

Young adults fleeing for education and work

Many young adults leave their homes for large cities (both in Italy and abroad) where they will have more opportunities for education and work. This has led to many abandoned small towns and villages throughout the country.

Reuters recently reported that Italy has the highest median age population in the EU, 48 years old. Based on data from Eurostat, a statistics data agency, it also had the highest old-age dependency (ratio of people aged 65 and over to those of working age). 

People living longer

Another statistic reported that about one-fifth of the population of Italy was over the age of 65.

An article in The New York Times noted that Ribordone, in Piedmont, has the highest average population in Italy, 65.5 years. It mentioned another town, San Giovanni Lipioni, located in the province of Chieti in Abruzzo. Even when young families came to repopulate the town, they were faced with a nursery school that closed because of low enrollment, lack of medical care (a pediatrician only visited once a week), and children who were bored due to the paucity of friends their age.

The small town of Perdasdefogu in Sardinia is recognized in Guinness World Record as the place with the “largest concentration of centenarians,” also reported in The New York Times.  Seven people among the town of 1,780 citizens is over the age of 100.

BREATHTAKING ITALIAN GEOGRAPHY THAT VARIES BY LOCATION

The Good Left Undone is set in Viareggio, Italy
View of Viareggio (Tuscany) from the sea

Although the peninsula that is Italy is about three-quarters the size of the state of California, the country is blessed with some 4,900 miles of coastline on the Adriatic, Ionian, Tyrrhenian and Ligurian Seas, and the Sea of Sardinia and Strait of Sicily.

What is Italy known for? It’s famous for its small towns as well as its iconic cities. It’s known for its beautiful lakes, mountain chains and hills, coastal beaches, and inland waterways. 

According to U.S. News and World Report, the 20 best places to visit in Italy (ranked in order by tourists and travel experts) are:

  • Rome
  • Venice
  • Amalfi Coast
  • Florence
  • Cinque Terre
  • Tuscany
  • Capri
  • Lake Como
  • Sicily
  • Naples
  • Ischia
  • Puglia
  • Bologna
  • Verona
  • Sardinia
  • Rimini
  • Pompeii
  • Sorrento
  • Portofino, and
  • Genoa

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