Looking for a few facts about Italy? Italy may be our favorite country in Europe and for that matter one of our favorites in the world. It has amazing food, an iconic countryside, fantastic wine, a rich history, and strong culture.
Italy is a fantastic place to learn about and visit one day. There are so many interesting Italy facts to learn – let’s get started with a few!
Amazing Facts About Italy
1. Italy is where you will find the oldest university in the world
Founded in 1088, the University of Bologna is the oldest university in the actual world, beating Oxford University by a decade or so. This university even coined the word “university.” As you’d expect, today it’s still a prestigious university. The University of Rome is also old, dating back to 1303.
2. Italy has a fountain that flows with free red wine 24/7
This is actually true. The Fontana del Vino (or ‘Free Red Wine Fountain,’ as it’s more clumsily known in English) has been set up in the Abruzzo region. Specifically, it’s located in the town of Caldari di Ortona. It lies on the Camino di San Tommaso pilgrimage. People have walked the path for years, so it’s about time they got themselves a free red wine fountain. Jeez.
3. When McDonald’s opened in Rome, the local Italians weren’t happy
Taking the spot of the treasured old bar which closed its doors, right near the Spanish Steps, opposite the Spanish embassy, and next to fashion house Valentino’s head office, McDonald’s wasn’t made to feel welcome when it arrived in Rome in 1986. People handed out free spaghetti at the entrance. Valentino said the fried food smell was ruining his clothes. Harsh times.
4. Ancient civilizations existed in Italy before the Romans
Namely the Etruscans, but there were others too. Who were the Etruscans? A pre-Roman civilization that popped up around 900 BC, fought wars with Rome in 400 BC, and were subsequently consumed by the growing city-state. The Etruscans give their name to a very famous Italian region – Tuscany, of course.
5. Italy gets some pretty big earthquakes
Since 1905, there have been a total of 15 notable quakes in Italy. The country actually lies on a faultline between the Eurasian and African tectonic plates. This is a recipe for destruction, with many serious earthquakes over the years. No other European country gets quite as much tectonic activity as Italy. Heard of Pompeii? Exactly.
6. The Roman Empire covered around 2.3 million miles
With humble beginnings as an upstart city on the Italian peninsula, Rome just kept on conquering. At the height of its power (and landmass), this colossal empire was well over two million miles, encompassing dozens of different cultures and leaving a lasting impact on Europe. At this time, around 117 AD, the Roman Empire is estimated to have had a population of 56 million. Wow.
7. An evening stroll is a national pastime in Italy
You might think having a walk around after an evening meal is something you do, but do you have a word for it? Didn’t think so. Italians, however, do have a word for it: passeggiata. It literally sums up a leisurely evening stroll. We love this fact about Italy.
8. Mussolini actually changed the name of Mickey Mouse because he wanted to get rid of foreign words
True story. Everything from Disney characters to soccer terms was banned and given an Italian name during the 1930s and ‘40s by fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Mickey became “Topolino.” Donald Duck was “Paperino.” Goofy is “Pippo.” A “goal” was “meta.” Even the five letters of the alphabet not used in Italian were banned – J, K, W, X, and Y – to avoid polluting the Italian culture.
9. During WWII, the Nazis used the Leaning Tower of Pisa as a watchtower.
We imagine that, back in the 12th century, the builders of the Leaning Tower of Pisa never intended it to lean. We also imagine that they probably never intended it to be used as a watchtower by Nazis. But it does, and it was.
10. Italy has only been a country since 1861
Before 1861, Italy was a collection of city-states, principalities, and foreign-controlled regions. Venice was a pretty famous one, once boasting its very own colonies on the Dalmatian Coast (present-day Croatia). Though beginning in 1861 when King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia, it took a few years for all 11 states to unify. Very complicated.
11. Tomatoes were introduced to Italy from Peru in the 16th century
Italian food is basically all about tomatoes. From ragu to Caprese salad, there’s about a bazillion uses for tomatoes in Italian cuisine. But they have the Spanish to thank for that. Bringing them back from the ‘New World,’ the tomato was first written about in 1548 when it was referred to as a Pomodoro. Who can imagine Italy without the humble tomato, seriously?
12. San Gimignano in Siena, Tuscany was a town of 72 towers
Built by wealthy families to showcase said wealth, the towers in San Gimignano were once said to have numbered 72. Some say 44. Either way, there are only 14 towers remaining, still making for an intriguing Lord of the Rings-esque skyline. The taller, the richer.
13. Italy is home to the largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Europe
That’s right. But then again, this fact about Italy isn’t really that surprising. Think about it – Pompeii, the historical center of Florence, the Colosseum in Rome, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, early Christian monuments at Ravenna… There are 55 amazing Italian landmarks in all. China also has 55, so these two cultural giants are tied for first place globally.
14. The word ‘Italy’ actually means “Land of Calves”
Weird, right? But, honestly, the pre-Roman civilization (the Oscans) called it víteliú, which literally means “Land of Calves.” Interestingly, the bull was symbolic for many tribes in southern Italy; during a brief social struggle against Roman rule, other Italian tribes used the symbol of a bull goring the wolf of Rome (another symbol).
15. Cappuccinos should only be drunk in the morning and never after dinner
An important fact about Italy: never drink a cappuccino after a big meal here. It’s just not the done thing in Italy. It’s not an etiquette thing, it’s a digestion thing. Having milk after a meal will screw with your digestive faculties (apparently – but cheese doesn’t count in Italy I guess). Breakfast doesn’t count because breakfast is usually just one pastry.
16. There are local witches on Sardinia who concoct health potions
Witchcraft, strangely enough, has a long history on the island of Sardinia – the second-largest in the Mediterranean. The town of Bessùde still has an active, um, witching community that uses charms, spells, and potions to cure illnesses.
17. In Matera, people live in the same cave dwellings as their ancestors from 9,000 years ago
It’s crazy to think about living in the same place your grandparents lived in, let alone your ancient ancestors. Well, in a remote region of Basilicata, there’s an extensive network of cave dwellings that have been inhabited for centuries. After becoming malaria-ridden pits of squalor, people were removed from the caves in the 1950s. Years later, well-to-do ex-residents returned and renovated their old caves. In 1983, it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Amazing.
18. Acciaronli is a village on Italy’s south coast that has one of the world’s highest concentration of centenarians
Acciaroli is no ordinary place. This remote coastal town in the Campania region has a population of around 2,000 people… 300 of whom are over 100 years old (20% of these are over 110). Despite many being smokers or overweight, there are low rates of heart disease and Alzheimer’s. These centenarians are literally being examined for the good of humanity.
19. Pizza was first invented in Naples
While there are ancient accounts of people eating various cooked stuff on round bread, none have been the authentic pizza that we all know and love. It was the city of Napoli – Naples, to you and me – that gave the world its first actual pizza, sometime in the mid-19th century. A Margherita was specifically described, but not named, in a book in 1830 as having tomato, mozzarella, and basil. Sounds about right to us.
20. Italy boasts the most cheese varieties in the world
You’d think a country with a dozen cheeses has a lot. Maybe hundreds. But Italy literally boasts over 2,500 varieties of cheese. Five hundred are commercially recognized, 52 of which are “protected.” The most well-known have got to be Parmigiano Reggiano, gorgonzola, mozzarella, and ricotta, but there are thousands more. This is a high-level food fact about Italy.
21. Italy has a super low birth rate
Japan is popularly seen as having an aging population and a low birth rate, but Italy’s basically in the same ballpark. In 2016, there were 1.44 births per woman in Japan, while during the same year in Italy, there were only 1.35.
22. It was the Italians who made the fork fashionable
In Europe, the fork didn’t catch on for a long time. People used a knife, to cut stuff, obviously, and instead of a fork, they used a spike. Yes, a spike. A spindly wooden stick to stab stuff with. Seen for a long time as the tool of the devil (possibly because it came from the heathen Ottoman Empire), forks weren’t used till people got sick of trying to eat their spaghetti with one single stick. This happened around the 14th century. The rest of Europe followed a long time after, in the 18th century.
23. 60lbs: the amount of pasta per person per year eaten by Italians
Italians are by far the world’s top consumers of pasta. That’s a pretty obvious fact about Italy (maybe you could have guessed it), but now you know for sure – no guesses. Three million tons of pasta are produced in Italy every year. And someone’s got to eat it.
24. Florence was Europe’s first city to have paved streets
After the Roman Empire began failing hard throughout Europe, getting invaded all over the place, they decided to abandon paving their roads because, you know, if it makes it easier for your citizens to get around, it’s going to make invading you a lot easier too. Paving fell out of favor for centuries. It wasn’t until 1339 that the city of Florence bravely paved its streets, becoming the first city in Europe to do so. What a way to enter the Renaissance.
25. Within Italy’s borders, there are two independent states
Vatican City, at just 0.44 square kilometers, is the world’s smallest independent state. You’ll even need a Vatican City stamp to send a postcard from here. The microstate of San Marino is also quite small (61.2 square kilometers), one of the smallest countries in the world. Founded in 301 AD, it’s also easily the oldest republic in the world. Both of these are surrounded by Italy.
26. In Marostica, locals play real-life giant chess
You may think human chess is just some Harry Potter level madness, but honestly, in Marostica, it’s totally real. Every two years in September, the locals get together, don historic clothing, take their positions on a chessboard, and play through the moves of a legendary 15th-century chess battle between two local aristocrats. A tale of forbidden love and chess.
27. More than three-quarters of Italy is either mountainous or hilly
The Alps, the Dolomites, the Apennines – just three of the mountain ranges that make up Italy. This makes the country a bit of an adventure playground, with climbable pinnacles asking to be scaled in the Dolomites and prime snowboarding in the Alps. There are also the hills, don’t forget those; Rome is famously all about its Seven Hills.
28. Venice is sinking
It’s been said a lot, for a long time, so you might not believe it. But this is one fact about Italy that won’t change anytime soon: Venice is sinking. Not only is it sinking, but the Mediterranean Sea levels are rising. Every year in winter, the city floods. By 2100, it could be underwater. That’s the struggle of building a city on mud and reclaimed land.
29. Arab invaders introduced dried pasta to Italy
It’s not like Italians didn’t have pasta before that. A dish of thin sheets of fried dough with meat on it has been recorded since antiquity as lagana (the ancestor of lasagna, of course). But dried pasta? That came from a late 7th-century Arab invasion of Sicily. Long journeys in the desert needed food you could rely on, and dried pasta did the job nicely. The techniques of drying pasta arrived, stayed, and spread throughout the Italian peninsula.
30. €3,000 is thrown into the Trevi fountain daily
In 2016, the year total of around €1.4 million ($1.5m) was thrown into the famous Roman fountain. That’s a whole lot. Around €8,000 is netted every few days and used for charity. In 2008, it was used to subsidize a low-cost supermarket for Rome’s needy. There was a scare in 2019 that the Trevi Fountain money would go to Rome City Council, but nope, it’s still for charity.
Quick Travel Tips for Italy
- ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank You’ in Italian: “Buongiorno” (formal) “Ciao” (informal) and “Grazie”
- Currency: Euro – (EUR) – €
- Visa: Schengen visa. Which is 90 days in Schengen countries visa free for most nationalities. Make sure to check with your embassy to see if this is you or not.
- What to Pack: All depends on the season – Style is key to Italians – Read what to pack for Italy
- Stay Connected: Tim and Vodafone sim cards are cheap and you can pick them up at the airport.
What to Pack for Italy
What to wear in Italy is one of the first things to consider once you plan the basics of your first trip to the country. Packing can be simple.
Generally, Italians are stylish and we recommend dressing casually that way you’re comfortable when hanging out with locals.
We love to have a guidebook when traveling. We spend enough time attached to our phones in everyday life and planning our trips. Once we reach a destination like Italy, we put the phone away and pick up a guidebook to help with our trip.
We don’t travel without travel insurance and neither should you. You never know what can happen in a foreign country and it’s best to be prepared. World Nomads provides good short term coverage.
Travel in Italy
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- (2020) What to Wear in Italy • The Ultimate Italy Packing List