What is Italy famous for Image of Ravello on the Amalfi Coast Italy

What Is Italy Famous For?

WHAT IS ITALY FAMOUS FOR? 

What is Italy famous for? is one of the most popular countries in the world, crammed with thousands of places to see and things to do.  With some of the best food, architecture and design on the planet, let’s explore why Italy is so famous.  

What is Italy famous for? From Venice to volcanoes, pizza to Pinocchio, mosaics to Maseratis, Futurism to fashion and Chianti to the Colosseum, Italy has enough to pack in a lifetime of exploration.  From its immense contributions to design, art and architecture to stunning places to visit, discover what makes Italy famous for in our guide below. 

What Is Italy Famous For – Food & Drink

Pizza 

Image of a pizza
Pizza, one of the most famous Italy food exports of all

Pizza is one of the most famous things from Italy, a delicious more-ish concoction that originated in Naples and has become a universal favourite, albeit in many varieties and forms.  In Italy pizza is made by a specialist chef called a pizzaiuolo, who mixes and flattens the dough before spreading and sprinkling on the topping and cooking it in a wood-fired oven.  Pizza purists should head for Antica Pizzeria da Michele on Via Cesare Sersale to try one of two varieties, margherita (mozzarella and tomato) or marinara (tomato and herbs).  The one was so good I ordered the other at the same sitting. 

Pasta 

Image of a pasta maker
Making sheets of fresh pasta for lasagne

A great many famous Italian dishes include pasta, and like pizza, it has become a staple of kitchens across the world.  Pasta comes in hundreds of shapes and sizes, from long, thin spaghetti to navel-shaped tortellini, and from butterfly-link farfalle to sheets used in lasagne.  Pasta is usually high in carbohydrates, and some varieties are made with grain to add nutritional value. 

Gelato 

Image of a gelato and coffee at a cafe in Ortigia Sicily
Incredible gelato and what a view – Piazza del Duomo, Ortigia, Sicily

When I asked my seven-year-old son what Italy is famous for, the answer was immediate: “Gelato!”  Its origins may go back to ancient times, when the Romans flavoured ice from volcanoes with honey. Gelato is different from ice cream in that it is made from more milk, less cream and therefore less fat.  One lady who served us gelato in Prague told us she had recently completed a course at the Gelato University in Anzolo dell’Emilia, on the outskirts of Bologna.  

Italian Cheeses 

Image of a selection of Italian cheeses in Sicily
Local cheeses in Ortigia market, Siracusa, Sicily

Most of us will have tasted Italian cheese at one time or other, whether it’s mozzarella di bufala on a pizza, Parmigiano Reggiano (also known as Parmesan) grated on a pasta dish, ricotta or mascarpone in a dessert, or a piquant blue Gorgonzola from Lombardy or Piedmont. Italian cheeses tend to have protected status, so if it wasn’t made within a specified area, it’s not the genuine article.  

Ragu – or Spaghetti Bolognese 

After pizza, ‘spag bol’ (how it pains me so to abbreviate it) is the most famous Italian dish you’re likely to have tried. I always used to enjoy it, until I had it one night in Bologna, the home of the ragu (meat) sauce from which it is made. For three days I couldn’t eat anything else.  Done the true Bolognese way, a mixture of beef and pork mince is used, with finely grated carrots and celery giving you the vegetable quotient.  Banished forever were memories of school dinner stodge – this dish was light, utterly delicious and addictive. One for the Europe bucket list, unquestionably. 

See Also: Things To Do In Bologna  

Italian Coffee – Espresso 

Image of a cup of espresso coffee
Just what you need first thing in the morning – a shot of espresso

One of the things Italy is best known for is its coffee, especially the espresso variety. Espresso is one of the more famous Italian coffee varieties, served in a small cup with near-boiling water pressed through finely ground coffee beans, leaving an unusual texture with remnants of coffee solids and a tiny layer of bubbles on top. Espresso originated in Italy and is popular right across southern and central Europe. Make mine a double, and maybe I’ll have another. 

Italian Wine 

Another extraordinarily broad subject, wine is produced all over Italy, with the earliest evidence of grape cultivation going back around 6,000 years in Sicily. Examples of famous Italian wine are manifold, but we can recommend Chianti reds and Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany, Taurasi from Campania in the south and Marsala dessert wine from western Sicily. Two Italian wine-producing regions – the Langhe-Roero and Monferrato vineyards in Piedmont and the Prosecco Hill in Veneto – are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 

What Is Italy Famous For – Landmarks and Places

It Has More UNESCO World Heritage Sites Than Any Other Country 

Italy has an astonishing 58 World Heritage Sites, by far the most of any country in Europe, and two more than China. These range from landscapes such as the Dolomites and Po Delta to ancient cities such as Rome to the 14th century frescoes of Padua to the 20th century industrial town of Ivrea. 

Grand Canal Venice  

Image of Santa aAria della Salute church and Grand Canal Venice Italy
Santa Maria della Salute from the San Marco end of the Grand Canal

The Grand Canal is one of the most famous and beautiful streets in the world. The city of Venice is built on over a hundred muddy islands, and the Grand Canal is by far its best-known thoroughfare, leading from the bus station at Piazzale Roma on a reverse-letter-S through the core of the floating city. It’s lined with grand palaces, hotels and churches, with four bridges providing a way across. The journey culminates at the Bacino di San Marco, where it opens out into the Venetian lagoon. 

The Leaning Tower of Pisa 

Image of the Leaning Tower of Pisa Italy
The LeaningTower of Pisa

The Torre Pendente di Pisa is probably the most famous of all landmarks in Italy, and one of its main national icons. Had it not been built on unsuitable ground, it would simply have been a stunning Romanesque belltower for the cathedral a few metres away, and part of the magnificent ensemble of buildings in the Campo dei Miracoli, one of the finest squares in Europe. However, with that 4 degree lean out of the perpendicular, it’s one of the most famous buildings on the planet. It’ll be over-touristed as things return to near-normality, but don’t be put off, it and the other buildings around the Campo are breathtaking. 

Ancient Rome And The Roman Empire 

Image of the ancient Roman Forum in Rome Italy
The Roman Forum in dramatic light

You may well know the scene from the movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when a character asks, ”What have the Romans ever done for us?” Apart from invading and colonising much of the known world, they also spread their highly advanced civilisation.  The answer to the question included irrigation, roads, education and much, much more. Rome is the obvious place to start, but you’ll find Roman footprints and frontier posts all the way across the Mediterranean basin and across northern and western Europe. 

Italian Coast 

Image of the Amalfi Coast from Ravello Italy
The Amalfi Coast from Villa Rufolo, Ravello

The Italian coastline has everything, from the sheer mountains rising out of the sea along the Amalfi Coast (Costiera Amalfitana) to the wide beaches of Viareggio and Rimini, or the picture-perfect villages of the Cinque Terre in Liguria to the spectacular cliffs and rock formations of Puglia, there’s another lifetime’s worth of highlights to explore. That’s before we even start on coastal towns and cities like Cefalu and Siracusa (and its gorgeous island of Ortigia) in Sicily.   

See Also18 Of The Most Beautiful Beaches In Europe 

Italian Islands 

Image of Cala Rossa beach Ortigia Sicily
ClaRossa beach on Ortigia, the ancient island part of Syracuse, Sicily

Italy is also famous for its many islands.  Stunning Sicily and Sardinia are the largest, and many of the smaller islands of Italy are worth seeking out. These include Capri, Ischia and Procida in the Bay of Naples, Ponza in the Pontine Islands and sublime Elba, off the coast of Tuscany. And then there’s Venice, built on an archipelago of muddy islets, and nearby Burano and the other islands of the Venetian lagoon. 

See AlsoThe 24 Most Beautiful Islands In Europe 

The Tuscany Landscape 

Image of the Val d'Orcia landscape in Tuscany Italy
Tha famous Val d’Orcia landscape of Tuscany

Not all of Tuscany is rolling hills, vineyards, and twisting roads lined with cypress trees, but the parts that are like this are among the most famous landscapes of Italy.  The classic Tuscan landscape can be found in the Crete Senesi hills to the south-east of Siena, especially around Asciano and the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore.  Around 10 km (6 miles) south of there, the exquisite Val d’Orcia is exceptional,  and the panorama from the village of San Quirico d’Orcia is among the most famous views in Italy. 

See Also: 17 of the Most Beautiful Landscapes In Europe 

Volcanoes

Image of Vesuvius and Naples Italy
Vesuvius looms ominously above Naples

 

Italy is unique in mainland Europe in that it has volcanoes.  The most famous Italian volcano is arguably Vesuvius (Vesuvio), which erupted in AD 79 and destroyed the nearby towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, killing everyone in both.  The most active volcano in Italy is Mount Etna in the east of Sicily, which erupted (yet again) earlier in 2021. It’s also the highest volcano in Italy, its summit 3,350 metres (10,991 feet) above sea level. In the Aeolian Islands (Isole Eolie) to the north,  Stromboli and Vulcano – the latter gave its name to the type of mountain – are also active. 

There Are So Many Historical Sites In Italy 

Image of the Temple of Hera in Paestum Campania Italy
The magnificent Temple of Hera in Paestum

It is phenomenal how many ancient cities and temples, medieval churches, thousand-year-old villages, historic buildings, castles and palaces there are in Italy. It is absolutely staggering. I recall first visiting Padua over 20 years ago, being blown away by the treasures I saw there, and amazed that it’s so off the beaten path compared to places like nearby Venice. It’s all because there is so much to see in Italy, such a wealth of history. It was home to one of the greatest empires of all time,  then many of the richest city states in Europe. A truly stupendous country. 

What Is Italy Famous For – Culture And The Arts

Italian Language 

Image of a gondola sign in Venice Italy
Servizio Gondole – two words of Italian you’ll soon learn in Venice

Italian might not be one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, but it’s one of the most recognisable and distinctive on the planet. It’s a wonderfully expressive language, largely down to the strong emphasis on one syllable in each word, and of course its vocabulary – especially culinary – has spread into many languages around the world.  Everyone understands standard Italian, but dialects around the regions differ greatly, so someone from Palermo might have difficulty picking up Pescara dialect, and vice versa. 

Michelangelo’s Statue Of David  

Image of Michelangelo's David in Florence Italy
Michelangelo’s David outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence

Michelangelo’s David is one of the most famous Italian art works, a 5-metre marble colossus of the Biblical king. It was originally meant to be on the roof of the Duomo in Florence, but was placed outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria. You’ll still find him there to this day, but it’s a replica, the original having been moved indoors to the Galleria dell’Academia, where it has been since the late 19th century. Another David replica looks out over the city from the hilltop viewpoint at Piazzale Michelangelo. 

See Also:  Photographing Florence – How To Capture One Of The Most Beautiful Cities In Italy   

Italian Literature 

Image of a statue of Dante Alighieri in Verona Italy
Dante in the Piazza named after him in Verona

Medieval Italian literature went along way towards standardising the Italian language across the peninsula and offshore islands. Poetry developed before prose, with the likes of Dante Alighieri – author of Divine Comedy – writing in the Tuscan dialect, which closely resembled Latin, and gradually became the exemplar.  Later, Tuscan poet Petrarch and his contemporary, Giovanni Boccaccio continued to set the standard, with Boccaccio’s collection of short stories, The Decameron, breaking new ground in the field of prose. 

Italian Art 

Image of Canaletto's painting of the Grand Canal Looking North-East
One of many Canaletto Venice paintings – this is Grand Canal Looking North-East From Palazzo Corner-Spinelli Towards Rialto

Now here’s a broad subject, worthy of whole websites rather than just a few lines. We mention Giotto, Leonardo and Michelangelo elsewhere in this article, so here are a few more examples to seek out – Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, Giusto de’ Menabuoi’s ceiling in the Baptistery in the Duomo in Padua, Tintoretto’s The Last Judgment in Madonna dell’Orto church in Venice, and Masaccio’s fresco cycle in the Cappella Brancacci in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence. 

The Renaissance  

Image of the Duomo or Cathedral Florence Italy
The Duomo in Florence is one of the great works of the Renaissance

Italy is famous for the Renaissance,  a cultural, artistic and philosophical rebirth and re-discovery of ancient Classical culture. The Tuscan capital Florence is often called the ‘cradle of the Renaisssance’, and the artist Giotto da Bondone and Dante Alighieri helped pave the way in the early 14th century. Florence, with its immense artistic wealth, is still the place to appreciate it most, but it’s also worth seeking out Giotto’s incredible fresco cycle in the Cappella degli Scrovegni – see our article on Things to do in Padua for more information. 

Leonardo Da Vinci  

Image of Leonardo da Vinci's painting the Mona LIsa
Leonardo’s La Gioconda, better known as Mona Lisa

Possibly the most famous Italian of all, Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) was the ultimate Renaissance man. He is recognised as one pf the greatest painters of all time – the Mona Lisa is one of the most famous paintings in the world, and The Last Supper one of the most influential. Painting was just one of numerous disciplines which he studied, which also included anatomy, engineering, sculpture, geology and architecture. The Museo Leonardino in his home town of Vinci, to the west of Florence, is the ideal place to learn more. 

See Also: 15 Tuscany Hidden Gems To Discover 

Baroque Architecture 

Image of the Baroque Duomo in Ortigia, Syracuse, Sicily
The exquisite Duomo in Ortigia, Sicily

You’ll find Baroque architecture, which emerged after the Renaissance in the 17th century – right across Europe, but Italy is where it all started.  Baroque used similar elements to Renaissance buildings, but made things more florid and decorative. The colonnade of St Peter’s Basilica is an early example of Baroque in Italy. There are also many Baroque churches in Venice, including Santa Maria della Salute and Santa Maria del Giglio. The best places in Italy to see later Baroque buildings include the lovely city of Lecce in Puglia and Noto, Modica and Ragusa in Sicily, all of which were rebuilt in the style after the devastating 1693 earthquake. 

Italian Cinema 

The history of cinema in Italy goes back over a century, with Quo Vadis (1913) one of the earliest epics.  Futurist cinema followed during the First World War, though sadly, little from this period survives. The 1950s and 1960s are regarded by many as the golden age of Italian cinema, and one of the best films from this era is Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (see below).  Epics including Ben Hur and Cleopatra were made in Cinecitta studios near Rome in the early 1960s, and Sergio Leone essentially invented the spaghetti western genre.  More recently, 1995’s poignant Il Postino (a personal favourite) and Life Is Beautiful (one of Faye’s) also made the crossover to international success. 

La Dolce Vita  

La Dolce Vita is one of the most famous Italian movies of all time. This 1960 masterpiece directed by Federico Fellini is a portrayal of a week in the life of a gossip columnist in his search for love and happiness.  Best-known for the scene with the late, great Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain, the film inspired many with its depiction of glamorous Italian lifestyle, while others looked on it as a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of a shallow, unfulfilled life of superficiality, decadence and ennui. Its title translates as ‘the sweet life’, but it isn’t quite that way beneath the surface. 

Pavarotti & Italian Opera

Image of La Fenice Opera House Venice Italy
The magnificent restored La Fenice Opera House in Venice

Luciano Pavarotti was one of the best-known Italian opera singers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Born in Modena, this tenor went on to cross over from opera into the realms of popular music, especially as one of the Three Tenors who performed together with Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo from Spain. Their concert in Rome on the eve of the 1990 World Cup Final was watched by over 800 million people worldwide. 

Italian Fashion 

Image of an Emporio Armani fashion store
Emporio Armani is one of the biggest fashion brands in the world

Milan is one of the big four in global fashion, along with Paris, London and New York. Milan Fashion Week – held every February/March and September/October, showcasing the spring/summer and autumn/winter collections – is one of the main events of the fashion year, along with those at the aforementioned three cities. Milan is home to many of the world’s top luxury fashion houses, including Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada and Moschino, while Gucci and Stefano Ricci are based in Florence and Fendi and Valentino are based in Rome.  

Italian Jewellery 

Italy is also famous for its fashion accessories including jewellery.  The bar for jewellery in Italy was set high in the 1880s by Bulgari, founded by a silversmith from northern Greece named Sotirios Voulgaris, and standards are kept high by stringent regulations.  Buccellatti was founded in 1919 in Milan, and other famous brands include Palmiero, Verdi and Oro Trend.  Roberto Coin, based in Vicenza, Italy’s gold capital, have been producing world-class jewellery since 1977, and include a tiny signature ruby in each piece.

What Is Italy Famous For – Design

Fast Cars 

Image of a Ferrari badge and logo on a red sports car
Ferrari is one of the top car brands worldwide

Sleek, super-fast sports cars are one of the most famous of all things Italian. Several high-end Italian car brands are based around the city of Modena in Emilia-Romagna, and include   Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati. Ducati motorbikes are also made in nearby Bologna. 

Apecar Trucks 

Image of a Piaggio Apecar truck in Italy
So Italy – the quirky Apecar

Forget the Ferraris, Bugattis and DeTomaso Panteras, the only Italian vehicle that has ever really captured my heart is the quirky Piaggio Ape. The Ape (pronounced ah-peh, meaning ‘bee’) is a quirky little truck or utility vehicle that you’ll see all around Italy. I first noticed them outside stadia in several cities where I went to see Serie A football matches, where they would be used to sell roast chestnuts and other snack foods.  We’ve always found them incredibly cute and characterful, and they’re used for everything from selling coffee to transporting building materials. They should be to Italy what the Citroen to CV is to France, a national icon. 

Vespa 

Image of a Vespa motor scooter outside a shop in Italy
A Vespa outside a shop somewhere in Italy

The Vespa motor scooter is another of the things Italy is famous for. In many an Italian city you’ll see rows of tightly packed parked Vespas, which will alter buzz their way through the narrow streets. The word ‘vespa’ means ‘wasp’, and these-two-wheeled icons are also produced by Piaggio, based just outside Florence in Pontedera.  Their distinctive design is much loved the world over – I often used to see masses of them parked outside cafes around my home city Cardiff when this local group convened on weekends – they had started up a local fan club in 1953, just seven years after production started. 

Fiat Cars 

Image of a vintage Fiat Punto car in Italy
A wonderful vintage Fiat Punto

One of the things Italy is best known for is its car industry. The Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili di Torino has been manufacturing cars since 1899, and has factories and assembly lines in several countries worldwide.  They are still the largest Italian car manufacturer, with models including the Fiat Punto and Fiat 500 among their most popular. Readers of a certain age may remember the angular boxcar that was the Fiat 128 in the 1970s – our neighbour had one back then, and it was always my favourite car in the street.  Fiat now produce the cars emitting the second least CO2 of any of the major car manufacturers. 

Other Things Italy Is Famous For

Football  

Image of the Allianz Stadium Turin
The Allianz Stadium is home to Italian giants Juventus

Called il calcio in Italian, Italy has just won the delayed Euro 2020 championship – the second time they have won this tournament. They have also won the FIFA World Cup four times – second only to Brazil with five, and club side AC Milan has won the European Cup / Champions League seven times, second only to Real Madrid.  

The Mafia And Organised Crime 

Image of a shadowy criminal figure purportedly from the Mafia organisation in Italy
A shadowy mafioso

In popular culture Italy is famous for its organised crime, particularly the Mafia, whose origins are in Sicily.  They are known to many because of their portrayal in The Godfather films and later movies such as the remake of ScarfaceMean Streets and Goodfellas. The Mafia have largely been forced underground as a result of law enforcement operations over the last few decades, but their neighbours from mainland Calabria, the ‘Ndrangheta, have assumed greater prominence. 

America Is Named After An Italian 

The name ‘America’ was first used in the early 16th century, in recognition of Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci’s assertion that the recently discovered ‘New World’ across the Atlantic Ocean was a separate continent – indeed two continents, as we would later learn. 

Roman Catholic Faith  

Italy has changed and diversified greatly in recent decades, but many still adhere to the values of the Roman Catholic church.  Seeing Italian players crossing themselves as they came onto the pitch during the recent Euro 2020 tournament was a reminder of this.  If you want a full immersion in the fervent faith , superstitions and theatre of Catholicism then try to visit the Duomo (Cathedral) for the Festa di San Gennaro, Naples. Three times a year, the congealed blood of a 3rd century AD martyr, San Gennaro (St Januarius), liquefies, ensuring – according to popular belief – that Naples will be protected from disaster for the next few months.  

Mussolini And Fascism  

Image of the fascist-era Palace of Civility and Labour in EUR Rome
One of the most famous fascist-era buildings in Italy, the bombastic ‘Square Colosseum’ in EUR, Rome

Even though Fascism – in its various guises – rose in Europe in the early 1920s, Italy is known for being the first country where such a regime rose to power.  Benito Mussolini, a former socialist and schoolteacher, led the movement, intent on national aggrandizement and sweeping all opposition away. He became Duce – essentially dictator – in 1925, and invaded Libya and Abyssinia to build a new empire. He also led Italy into World War II on the side of Nazi Germany, and joined his ally in deporting Italian Jews to the death camps. 

Remarkably, the name Mussolini isn’t quite as beyond the pale as Hitler’s is in Germany, and several right-wing movements have recently referred to him in a positive light. His home town of Predappio – see our article on day trips from Bologna – still attracts admiring visitors, to the great discomfort of many locals. 

Default image
David Angel
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing Europe for over 25 years.  His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.