In addition to being one of our favorite travel destinations of all time, Italy is also an endlessly fascinating place to learn about. With a history as deep and complex as Italy’s, it’s no surprise that there are plenty of interesting facts about Italy out there!
We rounded up these fun facts about Italy to help get you excited about traveling there: with every tour taken, history book read, and nugget of context gained, we’ve found that we appreciate our travels in Italy more and more.
Here are some of the most interesting facts about Italy!
Table of Contents
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Interesting Facts About Italy’s History + Government
Italy became a unified country in 1861.
Up until that point, parts of Italy were entirely distinct from others in not only government but also frequently habit and language.
… but didn’t gain its current borders until after WWI.
In the aftermath of the first World War, Italy’s current borders were finalized, which included gaining control of part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
… which is part of why you can find German speakers in Italy.
Head up to South Tyrol, and you’ll find plenty of German being spoken, as well as the local language of Ladin. You’ll also see a lot of Wienerschnitzel on menus, listed right next to pasta!
Italy’s monarchy was dissolved in 1946.
After WWII, Italians voted on a referendum to decide whether to establish a republic or continue with an (increasingly unpopular, especially post-fascism) monarchy.
Establishing a republic won with 54% of the vote.
The first capital of a unified Italy was Turin.
… because it was the home city of the royal family.
Rome became the capital of Italy 9 years later.
They weren’t the only two capitals of Italy, though: Florence briefly acted as the capital city for 5 years, from 1865-1870.
King Emmanuele II of the House of Savoy was the first King of a unified Italy.
This is why you’ll find his name all over the country (a couple of notable examples include the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II shopping mall in Milan and the Vittorio Emmanuele II Monument in Rome, aka the Altar of the Fatherland).
Italy would go on to have 4 Kings.
Monarchs ruled various pieces of Italy for centuries, of course, but the unified Italy as we know the country today only had four before the monarchy was dissolved.
Ancient Greeks once ruled parts of Italy.
This includes parts of Sicily (Archimedes, the famous Greek mathematician, was from Sicily) and parts of southern, mainland Italy.
Modern-day Italy is home to about 60 million people.
… with 2.8 of them living in Rome.
… but in the 19th and 20th centuries, nearly 30 million Italians emigrated from the country.
Emigration happened in significant waves due to various factors, including economic opportunity and war.
Fun Facts About Rome
Rome is home to more than 900 churches.
From the gigantic St. Peter’s Basilica to blink-and-you’ll-miss-it small chapels, you’ll absolutely never run out of churches to visit in Rome–and every last one of them is home to at least a few interesting facts about Italy!
… and arguably, the most important of them is not St. Peter’s Basilica.
That honor, depending on who you ask, belongs to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, which is built on the site of the death of the apostle St. Paul.
The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls is far less visited than St. Peter’s Basilica, in part because it is (as you might have guessed from the name) not as conveniently located to central Rome for most tourists.
Rome is nicknamed the Eternal City.
… and walking through it, you can definitely feel the truth to the nickname–Rome absolutely feels as if it is a place that has always been and always will be.
You can adopt a cat from the same place where Julius Caesar was once murdered.
Torre Argentina is an archaeological site in central Rome that once held the Senate building where Julius Caesar was murdered, and it now operates as a cat sanctuary where you can regularly see cats sunbathing and relaxing among the ancient ruins.
The cats are also adoptable! A non-profit cares for them and runs a small adoption center located at the corner of the ruins.
This is one of my personal favorite Italy fun facts because it displays so much of what makes Italy special: the melding of the ancient with the modern, and the repurposing of spaces and objects along the way.
… and cats are free to roam other parts of the city, too.
Around 300,000 “feral” (and I use that word loosely) cats call Rome home, and they are more than welcome to stay–in fact, the cats have been officially designated as a piece of Rome’s bio-heritage.
You’ll see the letters “SPQR” all over the city–including on manhole covers.
These letters stand for the Latin phrase Senātus Populusque Rōmānus (or in English, “The Senate and People of Rome”).
The phrase is a reference to the republic of Ancient Rome, but it continues to be used today by the modern municipality–hence why you’ll see it all around town.
There is a secret passage leading from Vatican City to Rome.
The Passetto di Borgo connects Vatican City with Castel Sant’Angelo through an 800-meter long passage.
Built in the 13th century, the passage has been successfully used at least twice to evacuate popes who were in danger, most notably during the 1527 Sack of Rome (the pope at the time, Pope Clement VII, successfully fled all the way to Orvieto in Umbria).
If you’ve watched Angels & Demons, you may already recognize this interesting fact about Italy, as the passage was used as a plot point during the movie.
Rome was founded in 753 BCE.
According to legend, a pair of young, orphaned, demigod brothers who were brought up by wolves (seriously intense backstory, right?), Romulus and Remus, went to found the city on modern-day Palatine Hill, argued over who would rule the city, and Romulus killed Remus in the resulting fight–and then named the city after himself.
Around 700,000 Euro is thrown into the Trevi Fountain each year.
The money is then donated to Caritas, a Catholic charity.
Wake up early enough in the morning, and you just may spot the municipal workers cleaning yesterday’s coins out of the fountain!
At its height, the Roman Empire stretched far beyond Rome.
The empire ruled from southwestern Europe to the Middle East, as well as across northern Africa.
… and built around 50,000 miles of roads throughout their empire.
Hence the phrase “all roads lead to Rome”–and while all of them didn’t, it’s certainly true that a surprising number did.
Fun Facts About Venice
Venice is comprised of 118 islands.
Of course, many of these are positively minuscule!
The city is home to around 150 canals.
These criss-cross across the islands, giving the city a unified feeling without the need for one central landmass.
… and over 400 footbridges.
Some of the bridges have their own stories to tell: for example, the Ponte dei Pugni (Bridge of Fists) in Dorsoduro was once used for fistfights, with the goal of knocking your opponent into the canal below.
There is an island in Venice that acts purely as a cemetery.
San Michele Island is an active cemetery to this day.
The Venetian Empire used to rule all the way to Crete.
Venice ruled Crete for roughly four hundred years, and it was an extremely important port for the empire.
Modern-day Zadar, Croatia was also an extremely important port for Venice–in fact, you can find Venetian architecture across much of the Balkan coast today.
Venice was once one of the wealthiest cities in Europe.
… in part, because they simply had to be to survive.
Venice, for obvious reasons, was never a huge agricultural hub. By virtue of its topography, Venice needed to survive and thrive with trade, ship-building, and excellent business sense, all of which the empire excelled at.
However, this often led to a contentious relationship between Venice and Rome!
Marco Polo was Venetian.
… but another incredibly famous Italian explorer born 200 years after Marco Polo, Christopher Colombus, was from Genoa–the arch-rival of Venice.
Over 10,000 gondolas used to fill the city’s canals.
These days, it’s down to around 400, virtually all used for tourism purposes.
Today, a gondola ride will set you back at least 80 Euro.
… with additional charges for a ride at night. As bucket-list-worthy experiences go, though, taking a gondola ride in Venice is definitely pretty incredible!
Fun Facts About Florence
Florence is considered the birthplace of the Renaissance.
And as the home city of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and many others, that’s no surprise!
… but enormous amounts of Renaissance art was burned in the city.
In the late 15th century, a Dominican friar named Girolama Savonarola briefly enjoyed widespread power and support in Florence, where he preached against “vanities”, including cosmetics, fine clothing, and Renaissance art–in essence, all signs of wealth and in Savonarola’s view, excess.
Several bonfires were held in Florence to rid the city of these signs of sin, most notably the Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497, which was held in the Piazza Signoria.
No one knows exactly how much art and history was lost there–but it is considered a possibility that Boticelli, prized Renaissance artist and creator of the Birth of Venus painting that is arguably the most beloved painting in the Uffizi Gallery today, may have been convinced to throw in some of his work.
Look closely: there is a carving of a bull on Florence’s Duomo.
If you are standing in line to climb the cupola of Florence’s Duomo (or if you just walk by the line), you’ll be able to look up and spot an unusual sight. Underneath the dome, among the many carvings, one sticks out more than the rest: a bull.
No one is quite sure why this bull was carved into the third largest cathedral in the world, but rumor has it that it may have been either a tribute to the working animals who contributed to the building of the Duomo, or an act of petty revenge by a spurned lover.
Personally, I find the second version of this Italy fun fact more entertaining!
Florence’s currency used to be one of the most powerful in Europe.
The Florentine florin was first used in 1252, and its wild success as the first major international currency is part of what led to the enduring power of the Medici family, who owned the banks it hailed from.
The modern Italian language descends from the Tuscan dialect used in Florence.
This is in part to the wide exposure the language got from Renaissance writers like Dante.
There’s a secret passage across the Arno, and you can spot it today.
The Vasari Corridor was built by the Medici to connect the Palazzo Vecchio in Piazza Signoria to the Palazzo Pitti across the Arno, and today you can see pieces of it around town–it goes right across the Uffizi and across the Ponte Vecchio!
The Ponte Vecchio wasn’t always populated with jewelry stores.
Originally, the bridge (which used to be the only one on which to cross the Arno in Florence) was populated by many kinds of tradesmen, and then eventually primarily with butchers and tanners.
In 1593, Grand Duke Ferdinand I had the butchers removed and gold and silversmiths installed on the bridge instead, and the arrangement has remained so to this day.
Though Florence was never a monarchy, the Medici were incredibly important to the city.
For around 200 years, the Medici were enormous patrons of Florence, and though they didn’t “rule” it in the traditional sense, they were extraordinarily influential.
They were patrons of the arts (including Michelangelo), they were consistently working to influence Tuscan politics, and they were even involved in politics beyond Tuscany (four popes were from the Medici family).
You can’t wander far in Florence today without stepping into a building or looking at a piece of art that the Medici were involved with!
The dome of Florence’s Duomo is one of the largest on a church in the world.
Within Europe, the only churches with larger domes are St. Paul’s in London and St. Peter’s in Rome.
… and it took more than 100 years after construction began on the cathedral to complete the dome.
Florentines started building the cathedral that would become Santa Maria del Fiore in 1296, and in 1418, the dome was still not completed–and no one even knew whether it was structurally possible to build a dome of the size that the project would demand.
A public competition was held to see if anyone could master the project, and Filippo Brunelleschi rose to the challenge, designing and overseeing the building of what was then the largest dome in the world–the same one we admire when overlooking Florence today.
The dome was consecrated in 1436, 140 years after ground was broken on the cathedral, and Brunelleschi died less than a month later.
Interesting Italy Facts About Other Places in the Country
The legend of Romeo & Juliet is based in Verona.
… and it may even be inspired by a true story, as an early version claims to be based on a couple from the 13th century, and at that time, there were indeed two politically opposed factions in Verona that would fit the story, the Capelleti and Montecchi.
The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet was absolutely not, however, original to Shakespeare: one of the most fun facts about Italy is that the story had already been popularized many times by the time he came around, and as early as the 14th century.
In Palermo, you can visit mummies.
They’re housed in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo and are incredibly interesting (and a bit disturbing).
Created from the 17th to the 19th centuries, these mummies are preserved as themselves, wearing their own clothing and often displayed with their names and/or occupation listed.
Italy’s tradition of aperitivo was invented in Milan.
… and while you can find the tradition across Italy now, even today, it is more popular in the north of the country.
Inhabitants of Sardinia live an exceptionally long time.
Sardinia is one of five “Blue Zones”–or places where people live, on average, exceptionally long and healthy lives–on the planet, with an unusual number of residents living more than 100 years.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa started to lean very soon after its construction.
The good news, though, is that engineers say it should be stable for at least another couple of centuries!
In Bologna, you can find Europe’s oldest continually-operating university.
The University of Bologna was founded all the way back in 1088.
… and several hidden canals.
Bologna is home to several canals that date back to the Middle Ages, but it’s impossible to spot all of them these days, as some have buildings built around them.
However, you can still see several–and in the case of one, you can spot it by peeking through a window!
The sonnet was invented in Italy.
While sonnets may be most typically associated with Shakespeare these days, one of the most interesting facts about Italy is that the poetry form was initially invented in Palermo, Sicily by 13th-century poet Giacomo da Lentini.
Milan has more skyscrapers than any other city in Italy.
The city is home to around 25 skyscrapers.
Italy is home to unique architecture, including the “sassi” of Matera…
“Sassi” are cave dwellings in southern Italy that are associated, these days, with the city of Matera in Basilicata–and they have been inhabited since the Paleolithic period.
… and “trulli”.
These stone huts are found exclusively in southern Italy, especially in Puglia, and the most popular place to see them today is in the town of Alberobello as part of a Puglia itinerary.
Pompeii wasn’t the only city destroyed by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption.
Several cities and towns were destroyed by the fateful 79 AD eruption, and in addition to the city of Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius itself, you can also visit Herculaneum while in the area.
Fun Facts About Italy’s Nature + Topography
Two of the smallest countries in the world are surrounded by Italy.
Most people have heard of tiny Vatican City, but one of our favorite interesting facts about Italy is that it’s not the only microstate surrounded by Italy: there’s also San Marino, located in eastern Italy between Emilia-Romagna and Marche.
San Marino is the oldest republic in the world, stunningly beautiful, and absolutely worth visiting!
Italy is home to over 450 islands.
… which include the two biggest islands in the Meditteranean, Sicily, and Sardinia.
Italy is home to 3 active volcanoes.
They include Mount Etna on Sicily, Stromboli on the Aeolian Islands (off the coast of Sicily), and of course, most famously, Mount Vesuvius in Campania, which was responsible for the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, among other places, in 79 AD.
Two mountain ranges cut across Italy.
These include the Alps in the north and the Apennines in the south–in fact, over 80% of Italy is mountainous or hilly!
Tuscany isn’t the only part of Italy suitable for creating excellent wine.
This certainly counts as one of the most fun facts about Italy for wine lovers: Veneto and Piedmont are also well-known for their wines, but tasty wine is grown and produced all over Italy, including in South Tyrol, Sicily, Lazio, and Campania.
Lake Garda is the largest lake in Italy.
… but, while it is very popular with Italian vacationers and gets some tourism from foreign tourists, Lake Como, located north of Milan, is arguably the most world-famous lake in Italy.
Interesting Facts About Italy’s Culture
Italian is not the only language spoken in Italy.
Not only are regional dialects, such as those from Naples and Rome, still used in Italy, entirely separate languages, including Sicilian, Ladin, and even German are spoken in Italy today.
The public drinking fountains visible throughout Italy are still used today.
Those beautiful fountains you see across cities like Rome and Venice? That water is still potable and can be used to fill your water bottle today!
Italy is divided into 20 regions.
These include Tuscany (with its capital in Florence), Veneto (with its capital in Venice), and Sicily (with its capital in Palermo), as well as 17 others.
The story of Pinocchio is from Italy.
Pinocchio originated in Tuscany in the 19th century, and like with many of Disney’s creations, the original is far darker than the Disney version.
Food is extremely regional in Italy.
In other words, ordering pizza in Venice or carbonara in Naples is likely to result in disappointment!
… and rice is popular in the northern parts of the country.
In Veneto and Lombardy, risotto is a popular dish, as is polenta (made from cornmeal).
Italy produces incredible chocolate.
Chocolate may be more readily associated with France and Belgium today, but one of the many fun facts about Italy is that they create some incredible chocolate as well, especially in the region of Piedmont in the northeastern part of the country and in the town of Modica in Sicily.
If you’re looking for “traditional” Italian food, try Emilia-Romagna.
Emilia-Romagna is the origin of many of the incredible dishes foreign visitors most associate with Italian food, including tagliatelle al ragu (aka spaghetti Bolognese), mortadella (aka bologna), traditional balsamic vinegar, and parmigiano-reggiano cheese.
The region is an absolute delight to eat your way through, and definitely belongs on your Italy bucket list!
… or for pizza, Naples.
Classic Neapolitan pizza, in Naples, is truly remarkable enough to be worth any foodie visiting the city in the first place–and not only is it not often able to be duplicated outside of Italy, but it’s also rarely duplicated well within other parts of Italy!
Modern opera hails from Italy.
The art form dates to the 16th century, and as many of the most famous operas hail from Italy and opera is always performed in the language it was written in, opera is still commonly performed in Italian around the world today.
The wolf is Italy’s (unofficial) national animal.
This is a callback to the legend of Romulus and Remus, the twins raised by wolves, who were the founders of Rome.
Italy and China are tied for having the most UNESCO sites in the world.
Each country boasts 55 UNESCO sites, and in Italy’s case, 50 are cultural (including the historic centers of Florence, Rome, and Naples, and archaeological sites like Pompeii, among many others), and 5 are natural (including the Dolomites and the Val d’Orcia).
With so much history and culture to explore, it’s no surprise that there is no shortage of interesting facts about Italy!