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Italy

Brief history of Italy:
Italy is a long and narrow peninsula in the south of Europe, surrounded on three sides by sea, with the ancient city of Rome near its center. From about 44 BC until 450 AD the Roman Empire dominated Western Europe and North Africa. The advanced Roman armies conquored and passed its culture and civilization to the simpler tribes of Europe. After the fall of the empire, the Lombards, a Germanic tribe, invaded the peninsula and established a kingdom with its base in the north. To this day, many Northern Italians have Germanic features, different than their fellow countrymen in the south.

In the Middle Ages Spain dominated much of the Italian peninsula. Then control of much of the peninsula was taken by the Hapsburgs of Austria until 1859.

Italy became a unified country only on March 17, 1861. Before this time the Italian peninsula was dominated by various kingdoms. For example, the southern peninsula was called the Kingdom of Two Sicilies until it was conquored by the Kingdom of Sardinia and the entire Italian Peninsula unified into the Kingdom of Italy, with the capital city Turin. Later the capital was moved to Florence and finally to Rome.

After World War I and the collapse of Austria, Italy was allowed to expand its borders north and take control of South Tyrol, a German speaking area. This area is still mostly German speaking and still part of Italy today.

From 1923-1943 Mussolini ruled Italy as Prime Minister and dictator. He led Italy into World War II in alliance with Hitler. After being invaded by the allies, Italy surrendered. In 1946 the last Italian Monarch went into exile and Italy officially became a republic.

World-War II left the country very poor. Italians emigrated in large numbers to the the US and Northern Europe. Italy was a large beneficiary of the Marshall Plan, a US funded plan to rebuild post-war Europe. The money helped Italy to have an economic rebirth, though some parts developed differently than others. The north of Italy is the industrial driver with the south being strong in agriculture. These days, Italy is a financial powerhouse in Europe with the fourth largest economy, although the average wealth per person (per capita GDP) is less than that of UK, France and Germany.

Maps
Map of Italy
Map of Europe

Transportation
From inside Europe the most common form of transportation to Italy is airplane or train. A few discount airlines have headquarters in Italy. However, a word of caution. Airline and train strikes are common in Italy, particularly in summer. Airlines may not compensate you for delays due to strikes or other causes which are out of their control. If you plan to travel to several European countries including Italy, you may want to plan a few days in another European country before heading home. That way if you get stuck in Italy due to a strike, you still have a few days to get to your destination and not risk losing your flight home.

The Italian train system is very good and efficient and is usually the best way to move around within the country. For example, a train ride from Milan to Florence takes 2.5 hours and Milan to Rome takes 4.5 hours. You will spend much more time than this with taxi to the airport, check in, clearing security, the flight and the trip to the city. The exception to this rule is that if you are traveling from the very north (e.g. Milan) to the south (e.g. Sicily) which can take around 14 hours by train. Obviously flying may be more convenient here.

General Information
* Capital City: Rome
* Languages: Italian is the native language. Other latin languages such as French or Spanish may be understood. In the region of South Tyrol, just below Austria, the main language is German. In touristic areas English may be spoken, however at this time, English knowledge is not wide-spread. If you do not speak Italian (or French or Spanish) you may find it difficult to communicate with the locals.
* Size: Italy is long and narrow. Less than 200 km (125 miles) across, but about 1600km (1000 mi) from top to bottom Italy is a relatively large country. At 300,000 sq km it is the 71st largest country in the world. For comparison Italy is larger than the UK and smaller than Germany. Italy has a shape similar to that of Florida, but has more than twice as much area.
* Population: With nearly 60 million people, Italy is one of the most populated countries in Europe. It has more citizens than Spain, but less than Germany, UK and France.
* Money: The official currency of Italy is the Euro. Other currencies such as the US Dollar are not generally accepted; however exchange booths and ATMs are widely available.
* Visas: US citizens do not require visas only a valid passport. Schengen visas, accepted by many European countries are valid here. For information about visas to Italy, see this list of Italian Embassies and Consulates.
* Religion: Nearly 90% of the population is Roman Catholic. Protestants make up 2%, 1-2%% of the population is Muslim. Jewish religion makes up less than 1% of the population.

Key Cities of Interest:

When is the best time to travel to Italy?
Since Italy is about 1600 km (1000 miles) long the weather in the north is often much different than in the south of the country. The north (e.g. Milan) is generally much cooler, cloudier and wetter than the south (e.g. Palermo). For example, the average minimum temperature in January is -2 C (28 F) in Milan, +4 C (39 F) in Rome and +10 C (50 F) in Palermo. Overall, the best time to travel to Italy will be late Spring (Mid-May through June) or early Fall (September through Mid-October). In these periods you will generally experience optimal weather and minimal crowds. Summers can be hot, yet delightful in Italy. But remember that many Europeans take their summer holidays in Italy and the crowds, particularly in touristic cities such as Venice or Florence, can be intense.

Climate Averages for Rome, Italy from World Meteorological Organization
(Values are averages, Temp Max is the average of the highest temps for the month).

   Jan Feb   Mar  Apr  May June  July   Aug  Sep Oct  Nov   Dec
 Sun (hours/day)  4  4  6  7  8  9 11   10  8  6  4  4
 Temp Max C  13  14  15  18  22  26  29 29  26   22  17  14
 Temp Min C  4  4  6  8  12  16  18  18  16  12  8  5
 Rain mm  81  75  65  55  32  16  15  33  68  93  111  89
 Rainy Days  9  8  8  7  4  2  2  3 5  7  10  9