Italy's climate has marked regional variations, ranging from the more temperate northern part of the country to the Mediterranean south. Summers are hot and dry along the coastal areas (especially as you move south), cool in the major mountain areas - the Alps and Apennines. Winters are mild in the south of the country, Rome and below, but in the north they can be extremely cold. Generally, the best time to visit is in spring and autumn, as during these seasons the temperatures are pleasant, the scenery is beautiful and there are relatively few crowds.
Some public telephones are coin-operated, but most require a telephone card (carta or scheda telefonica), available from tabacchi and newsstands. To call abroad from a public or private telephone purchase an international phone card, available at main post offices. Mobile phones in Italy work on the GSM European standard; before leaving home check with your phone provider to make sure you have made the necessary roaming arrangements. Internet cafés are found in larger towns and cities, though small towns usually have at least one Internet point.
Italians are of Latin heritage. There are also small clusters of German-, French- and Slovene-Italians in the north and Albanian-Italians and Greek-Italians in the south.
Italy is a modern, industrialised nation, but it is also, to an equal degree, a Mediterranean country with a southern European sensibility. Agricultural land covers much of the country, a lot of which, especially in the south, is still owned under almost feudal conditions. The major industries are tourism, engineering, textiles, chemicals, food processing, motor vehicles, clothing and footwear
220 volts AC, 50Hz. The European plug (with two circular metal pins) is used.
Italy's instantly recognisable boot shape is surrounded by the Adriatic, Ionian, Ligurian and Tyrrhenian Seas - all of which form part of the Mediterranean Sea. The islands of Elba, Sardinia, Ischia, Capri, the Aeolians and Sicily lie offshore. Mountains run the country's length, from the Alps and Dolomites in the north right along the Apennines, which form the spine of the peninsula. Dominating the landscape in eastern Sicily, Mt Etna (3350m) is Europe's largest live volcano and one of the world's most active. Italy has a population of 58,103,000 (2005) and covers a total area of 301,230 km2. The country's capital is Rome.
Italy is served by an extensive rail system and it is the easiest way to travel around Italy. Long distance bus services can be very slow, although local buses are generally the best way to cover short distances. Ferries service all the Italian islands, in addition to routes to Greece, Albania, Croatia, Malta, Yugoslavia, Corsica and Tunisia. Air travel within Italy can be expensive, though flying is often preferable if your travel time is tight.
The official language spoken in Italy is Italian; however, you will often hear local dialects spoken. Sardinians speak Sardo, although most are bilingual in Italian and usually speak the local dialect as well. Due to the geographical position many people also speak French, German, Slovenian and Albanian. English is widely spoken in heavily touristed areas.
There are many daily Italian newspapers, available from all newstands. The Corriere della Sera (the country's leading daily) has perhaps the best foreign news coverage. Foreign press can be found in the cities and the most visited regional areas.
In big cities and larger towns most stores open between 9.00 and 10.00 and close at 18.00 or 19.00. In small towns and villages all over the country, life grinds to a halt in the middle of the day for a siesta (shops may be closed from 14.00 to 17.00). During August most Italians take their holidays and as a result many businesses and shops are closed. Most shops close on Sundays.
The correct name for Italy is the Italian Republic. In this democracy the President is the Chief of State and the Prime Minister the Head of Government.
Roman Catholics account for approximately 84% of the Italian population. Although Italian youth attend church less often these days, there is still a strong emphasis throughout the country on the rituals and traditions of the Catholic Church. The remaining 6% of the population are predominately Jewish, Muslim and Protestant.
GMT + 1 (GMT + 2 in summer from last Sunday in March to last Sunday in October).
Service charges are included in your restaurant bill, so you are not expected to tip. If service is not included, a 10-15% tip is appropriate. In bars, Italians will usually leave any small change as a tip, but this is by no means obligatory. Be aware that prices in Italian bars and cafes often double if you sit down (especially at an outdoor café). Tipping taxi drivers is not necessary, but hotel porters do expect something.
British, Irish and other EU citizens can enter Italy and stay as long as they like. Citizens of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States do not need a visa if the visit is less than 3 months. All other nationals should consult the relevant embassy about visa requirements. Legally, you're required to register with the police within three days of entering Italy, though if you're staying at a hotel this will be done for you. You must carry a valid passport at all times.
VAT is a value-added tax (approximately 20%) that visitors to Europe may recover upon leaving the country. The easiest way is to buy from a merchant who has enrolled in the Europe Tax-free Shopping (ETS) plan. These businesses display in their windows the "Tax Free for Tourists" sticker. Documentation filled out at the store must be processed at the airport custom counter before you check any luggage and you must be prepared to show the merchandise. Refunds can be credited to your credit card.