Italy consistently ranks as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. 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?
RICH ITALIAN CULTURE
The history of Italy, as a single country, is relatively new (Garibaldi only unified Italy in 1861), but Italy’s 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
Vatican City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the home of the Pope, seat of the Catholic Church, and the largest religious building in the world.
Known for its art and architecture, Vatican City is the smallest fully independent city-state in the world.
Birthplace of Opera
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 through the country.
Range of Italian Music
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
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
There’s a reason it’s called the language of romance. People fall in love with the Italian language because it sounds so lyrical and is so 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.”
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.”
Whether governmental buildings, religious ones, or private palazzos, Italy has a rich legacy of architecture ranging in styles from classic to Gothic to Baroque and more.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa and The Colosseum in Rome are so iconic that they are recognized around the world.
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
Italian brands like Gucci, Fendi, Valentino, Versace, Prada, Armani, Bottega Veneta, MIssoni, Etro, 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
Italy is home to some of the most famous automotive makers including Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini.
In fact, a part of Emilia Romagna has been dubbed “Motor Valley” for its auto makers, museums and car and motorcycle races (including Ducati).
Importance of the Family (la famiglia)
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!
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
One might argue whether cappuccino or espresso is Italy’s most famous brew among the many different types of Italian specialty coffees.
But clearly, the Italian tradition of the coffee bar serving fresh-roasted coffee drinks has become popular around the world. It was after a trip to Italy that Starbucks founder Howard Schultz brought the idea from Milan to Seattle. (As of 2021, there were 33,833 Starbucks stores worldwide.)
Outrageously Delicious Pizza
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.
Every Shape of Pasta
Italy has given the world hundreds of different types of pasta, each intended to be paired with a sauce of its own. The shapes of both dry and fresh pasta also vary regionally.
Successive waves of Italian immigrants introduced North Americans to some of the specialty foods that are traditional 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, baked in the shape of a star with 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.
Italy is the largest producer of wine in the world, followed by Spain and France. 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.
Wine tourism in Italy has been growing in popularity, too, with visitors interested in winery tours and tastings.
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
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 are known for their excellence because they rely on the finest ingredients.
Until the end of the 1700s, chocolate was only consumed in liquid form by the Italian aristocracy and clergy. In 1832, the Majani workshop in Bologna was the birthplace of the first solid piece of chocolate in Italy.
BREATHTAKING ITALIAN GEOGRAPHY THAT VARIES BY LOCATION
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:
- Amalfi Coast
- Cinque Terre
- Lake Como
- Portofino, and
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