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Italy

Known for its exceptional cuisine, fantastic wines, amazing cultural and architectural sites, fashion, and stunning landscapes, Italy is a varied and exciting country located in southern Europe. Italy is home to 42,536 named mountains, the highest and most prominent of which is Monte Bianco (or Mont Blanc in French) at 4,808m (15,774ft).

Cortina D' Ampezzo panoramic view, Italy

Geography

Located in the southern part of Europe along the Mediterranean Sea, Italy encompasses an area of some 301,340 square kilometers (116,350 sq. mi). It covers all of the Italian Peninsula (also known as the Apennine or Italic Peninsula) as well as the islands of Sardinia and Sicily.

Despite being mostly a peninsula, Italy shares its northern land border with a number of different countries. In particular, it is located to the east of France (a small section of the Côté d'Azur separates Italy from Monaco), to the south of Switzerland and Austria (a small section of Switzerland separates Italy from Liechtenstein) and to the west of Slovenia.

Moreover, Italy’s uniquely shaped peninsula and its 7,600km (4,700 mi) of coastline also shares a maritime border with a number of different countries in the region. This includes a shared border with Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania in the Adriatic Sea, Greece in the Ionian Sea, and Malta, Tunisia, Algeria, and France in the northern and southern Mediterranean.

Additionally, Italy is home to 2 enclave microstates within its borders - San Marino in the north and Vatican City near Rome. It also has its own exclave called Campione d'Italia in Switzerland which is completely surrounded by the Swiss canton of Ticino.

Italy is also a highly mountainous country, with approximately one-third of the country’s terrain home to mountains. In fact, the country contains part or all of some of Europe’s most notable peaks, including Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc), Monte Cervino (the Matterhorn), Monte Rosa, Bernina, and Gran Paradiso. Italy also contains 22 Ultras, or mountains with more than 1,500m of prominence.

Dolomites, Italy

The country is technically broken up into 20 different regions of various sizes. Each of these regions is further divided into a handful of provinces, with the country currently containing a total of 107 provinces, decentralized entities, cities, and municipal consortia.

Although this is more of a statistical definition than an administrative one, the country’s regions can be grouped up into 5 different macroregions which combine areas of similar geography or culture. Each of these regions has their own unique set of mountain ranges, parks, and hiking places to check out.

North-West (Nord-Ovest)

The North-West (Nord-Ovest) region of Italy is the country’s most heavily populated area. Home to about 16.1 million people, the North-West macroregion encompasses 4 the country’s most mountainous areas, including the regions of Aosta Valley, Lombardy, Piedmont, and Liguria.

Medieval castles of Italy - beautiful Castello di Fenis in Valle d'Aosta surrounded by Alps mountains

Medieval castles of Italy - beautiful Castello di Fenis in Aosta Valley surrounded by Alps mountains

Each of these regions is quite rugged and boasts hundreds, if not thousands of mountains. Here is the breakdown of mountains per region:

Milan is the North-West macroregion’s most populous city with over 1.4 million people living in the city proper and nearly 3.3 million living in its metropolitan area. The North-West macroregion is perhaps best known for its stunning mountainscapes as it contains a significant portion of the Italian Alps and a small section of the Apennines.

View of Apricale in the Province of Imperia, Liguria, Italy

View of Apricale in the Province of Imperia, Liguria

Moreover, the North-West macroregion encompasses parts of a number of Alps subranges, such as:

Gran Paradiso National Park, Alps, Italy

Gran Paradiso National Park

The North-West region is also a veritable treasure trove of hiking opportunities, thanks to its many parks, such as:

Cinque Terre National Park, Italy

Cinque Terre National Park

North-East (Nord-Est)

The second of Italy’s highly mountainous macroregions (the other being the North-West), the North-East (Nord-Est) is the fourth most populous macroregion in the country with about 11.7 million residents.

It contains the major city of Bologna, as well as the regions of Emilia-Romagna, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, and Veneto. Each of these regions contains thousands of mountains, such as:

Monte Antelao, Italy

Monte Antelao

Like its western neighbor, the North-East region also contains parts of the Alps and the Alpennies, as well as a number of the Alps’ major subranges. Perhaps the most notable Alps subrange in the region is the Dolomites (including the West Dolomites and East Dolomites).

Punta Sorapiss, Dolomiti Bellunesi, Italy

Punta Sorapiss

Other notable subranges include:

Stelvio National Park. Famous road to Stelvio Pass in Ortler Alps, Italy

Stelvio National Park. Famous road to Stelvio Pass in Ortler Alps

The North-East macroregion also contains a number of different parks, such as:

San Giuliano Lake area, Adamello Brenta natural park, Trentino Alto Adige, Italy

San Giuliano Lake area, Adamello-Brenta Nature Park, Trentino Alto Adige

Central Italy (Centro)

Italy’s third most populous macroregion, Central Italy or Centro, is home to the country’s capital,

Rome (Roma), and many of its most important cultural and historical sites. Central Italy is generally regarded as containing the regions of Lazio, Marche, Tuscany, and Umbria, though this is a statistical definition, rather than a cultural one.

The macroregion contains a significant portion of the Apennines, which extend down much of the Italian Peninsula. Each region contains thousands of mountains, including:

Monte Vettore, Italy

Monte Vettore

Although Central Italy isn’t as mountainous as the northern part of the country, it does still contain quite a few popular national and regional parks, such as:

Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga National Park, Italy

Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga National Park

South (Sud)

Encompassing the entire southern half of Italy, as well as nearly 25% of the country’s land area, South Italy is home to the city of Naples (Napoli) and nearly 14 million people.

However, it’s important to note that South Italy, which officially includes the regions of Abruzzo, Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, and Molise is defined for statistical purposes and shouldn’t be confused with the historic region of the Mezzogiorno, which included these regions, as well as Sardinia and Sicily.

Although it’s best known for its stunning vistas, great vineyards, and beautiful coastlines, South Italy does contain a decent number of mountains. This includes:

Castelmezzano village in Apennines Dolomiti Lucane, Basilicata, Italy

Castelmezzano village in Apennines Dolomiti Lucane, Basilicata

South Italy’s mountainscapes are dominated by the Apennines and there are many excellent hiking areas to check out, including:

Gargano National Park, Italy

Gargano National Park

Insular Italy (Isole/Insulare)

The final macroregion of Italy, Insular Italy (Isole/Insulare) include the major islands of Sardinia and Sicily, as well as their associated archipelagos, which are separated from the mainland by the Tyrrhenian Sea (Mar Tirreno).

While the macroregion covers just 16.5% of Italy’s land area, it is home to about 6.7 million people. While Sicily is actually quite densely populated, Sardinia is one of the least densely populated parts of the country.

While the mountains in Italy are not part of either the Alps or the Apennines, there are thousands of high points throughout both islands. In fact, Etna in Sicily is the highest non-Alpine mountain in Italy. In particular, each island contains the following mountains:

Medieval town of Castelsardo, Province of Sassari, Sardinia, Italy

Medieval town of Castelsardo, Province of Sassari, Sardinia

Each island is also home to a handful of great parks and hiking areas, such as the following parks in Sicily:

Mount Etna Park, Italy

Mount Etna Park

While Sardinia has fewer parks than Sicily, there are still some excellent places to check out, such as:

Geology

In a highly mountainous country, like Italy, a complex geologic history is to be expected. As a result, it’s easiest to discuss the country’s geology based on mountain range.

Alps

Comprising the northernmost part of Italy, the Alps are western Europe’s highest mountain range. The range itself covers parts of France, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, and Slovenia, though it is found just in the North-West and North-East macroregions of Italy.

Cimon della Pala, Dolomites, northern Italy

Cimon della Pala, Dolomites, northern Italy

In particular, the Alps formed during a major mountain building event known as the Alpine orogeny, which started due to the collision of the Eurasian, African, Indian, and Cimmerian tectonic plates during the Cenozoic.

The orogeny actually formed mountains throughout a region called the Alpide Belt, which includes major mountain ranges such as the Himalaya, the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram, the Caucasus, and the Pyrenees.

Much of the range is home to heavily metamorphosed rocks as well as some sedimentary layers and occasional igneous intrusions. In Italy, one of the most notable subranges of the Alps is the Dolomites (Dolomiti), which is known for its dolomite rock. The range has also been extensively mined throughout the last few thousand years for precious metals and crystals.

Moreover, the Alps owe much of their current appearance to repeated eras of glaciation. Indeed, the range still contains a number of major glaciers, and many of its most notable features formed as a result of extensive glacial erosion.

Apennines

The Apennines is a mountain range that extends down the length of the Italian Peninsula from its junction with the Ligurian Alps to the coastal city of Reggio di Calabria. It’s believed that the range formed over a number of different phases.

During the Alpine orogeny (the orogeny that formed the Alps) in the Cenozoic, the region that is now the Apennines experienced substantial uplift. Later on, during the Pliocene, the range experienced yet another period of uplift.

Vesuvius, Italy. Video from PeakVisor App 3D Map
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Vesuvius, Italy

Vesuvius and Pompeii, Italy

Vesuvius and Pompeii

Furthermore, the Apennines experienced repeated ingression and regression of the nearby sea, which led to the deposition and formation of various sandstones, clays, and conglomerates. Additionally, the range is known for its volcanism, which includes major peaks such as Etna, Mount Vesuvius, and Corno Grande.

The range is also quite seismically active and earthquakes are fairly common. Rockslides and landslides are also quite common in the range, thanks to its many brittle sedimentary rocks, which include limestones, sandstones, and mudrocks.

Ecology

Due to its large area and diverse topography, Italy is home to a wide array of different ecoregions. In fact, it is one of the most biodiverse countries in Europe.

Italy is home to over 57,000 different recorded species, which is about one-third of all of the species on the continent. It is also home to over 4,700 endemic species which are native to the country.

Ecoregions

Although Italy is home to a number of different ecosystems, there are 2 primary ecoregion divisions in the country: the Temperate Division and the Mediterranean Division.

Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Dolomites, Italy

Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Dolomites

Italy’s Temperate Division encompasses about 64% of the country, including the Po Plain, the majority of the Apennines, and the alps. Here, the dominant vegetation is woodland with many oak, beech, and birch trees.

Meanwhile, the country’s Mediterranean Division includes the southern portion of the Apennines, Sicily, Sardinia, and the country’s Ionian, Tyrrhenian, and southern Adriatic coasts. In this ecoregion, the climate is hot and generally dry in the summer. It is mostly characterized by mixed woodlands and shrublands.

Wildlife

Italy is home to a truly incredible collection of wildlife, which can be found throughout the country. In addition to over 4,700 endemic animal species, the country contains tens of thousands of other mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish.

Some of the most notable animal species in the country include Eurasian lynx, Italian wolves, Alpine ibex, Pyrenean chamois, Mariscan brown bears, axis deer, mouflon, European snow vole, Etruscan shrew, and the Alpine marmot.

Alpine ibex, Italy

Alpine ibex

Human History

The land that is now part of Italy has a long and storied history of human and archaic human inhabitation that dates back tens of thousands of years.

Prehistoric Italy

It is believed that the first neanderthals arrived in Italy no later than about 50,000 years ago, though anatomically modern humans are believed to have arrived a few thousand years later and have lived in the region ever since.

In fact, Italy is a veritable treasure trove of prehistoric remains and archaeological sites. Perhaps the most famous human remains to have been found in Italy is that of Ötzi the Iceman, which is an impressively well-preserved mummy that was found in South Tyrol and is believed to date back to about 3,400 BCE during the Copper Age.

The 3rd to 2nd millennials BCE saw a number of waves of arrivals of peoples from Indo-Europe, including people of the Remedello culture, the Beaker culture, the Terramare culture, and the Urnfield culture, among others.

By about 800 BCE, the Etruscan civilization was one of the most dominant in what is now Italy, though it isn’t wholly clear where the Etruscans came from or who their ancestors are. Around the same time, much of southern Italy was colonized by the Greeks, particularly around Sicily. The Greeks also established a number of major cities, such as Naples (Napoli).

Atrani town at famous amalfi coast, Italy

Atrani town at famous amalfi coast

Not long afterward, Rome was founded, according to legend, in 753 by Remus and Romulus. The founding of Rome led, of course, to the growth of the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire, which spread throughout what is now Italy and much of Europe.

After the fall of the Roman Empire and the split into the Eastern and Western Empires in the 300s and 400s CE, the region was then split up into several kingdoms. Interestingly, this would be the last time that Italy was mostly unified until well over 1,000 years later.

Medieval Italy

The Middle Ages were a tumultuous time in what is now Italy. This period saw a succession of different invasions, conquests, and wars between rivaling tribes and the establishment of a number of different independent city-states.

Perhaps the most important event of the early Middle Ages in Italy was the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 at Saint Peter’s Basilica. However, after his death, Charlemange’s empire quickly weakened, paving the way for the establishment of city states and Maritime Republics which relatively quickly became merchant republics rather than feudal societies.

Renaissance Italy

Often considered the center of the Renaissance, Italy saw a boom in the arts, literature, sciences, and architecture after the Middle Ages and the arrival of the Black Plague.

Florence, Italy

Florence

At this time, however, Italy was still not a single country, but rather a collection of independent city-states, such as Genoa, Venice, Florence, Milan, and Pisa. The states fought frequently, particularly in the early Renaissance.

France then invaded Italy in 1494, leading to the start of the Italian Wars. Eventually, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, defeated the French multiple times, and after the signing of the PEace of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559, France renounced its claims to mainland Italy.

Modern Italy

After the Peace, the northern part of Italy was indirectly ruled by the Habsburgs of Austria and the south was indirectly ruled by the Habsburgs of Spain.

During the 17th century, however, Italy was a very tumultuous place, particularly as the region’s ports became less important after the start of European colonization in the Americas.

In the 18th century, Italy experienced further political turmoil as an indirect result of the War of Spanish Succession and then as a direct result of Napoleon’s invasion of Italy. Napoleon conquered much of the region during the French Revolution, changing the administrative layout of the region.

Castelsardo port on Sardinia island, Italy

Castelsardo port on Sardinia island

By 1861, however, Italy was unified into a single nation, thanks to the work of Giuseppe Garibaldi. The period after unification also saw widespread emigration as part of the Italian diaspora, where many Italians left their homelands and went to the United States and South America.

Throughout the 20th century, Italy was a part of both world wars and was a major player in the second during its fascist rule under Benito Mussolini. The fall of fascism after World War II and the birth of the Italian Republic in 1946 led to the start of a new age for a unified Italy.

Since the establishment of the Italian Republic, Italy has become a major hub for culture and commerce in southern Europe. It remains a popular tourist destination, thanks to its cuisine, historic sites, and many outdoor recreation opportunities.

The country also has a long and storied history of mountaineering, which dates back to the establishment of the Italian Alpine Club in 1863 in Turin and the Golden Age of Mountaineering in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Main Hiking Areas

Italy is known for its hiking trails, and there are many notable treks in the country. There are several types of hiking trail markers in the country, including:

  • Red Striped Blazes. A trail sign consisting of two horizontal red stripes with a white stripe in the middle. Usually, one can find the path number on the white stripe. Along the paths you can sometimes see a simple red or red and white signs drawn on stones or tree trunks.
  • Painted Triangle Blazes. Less commonly, you may find a painted triangle with a high altitude trail number inside.
  • Trail Signs. Alternatively, you may find wooden trail signs on fixed poles in alpine locales.

Passo Giau is one of the most popular and most spectacular mountain passes in the Dolomites, Italy

Passo Giau is one of the most popular and most spectacular mountain passes in the Dolomites

Some of the signs also list a “trail difficulty” for visitors to take note of. Here is the meaning of the primary trail difficulty indicators:

  • T. A tourist path. Generally, an easy and not very long path or road with a clear direction.
  • E. A hiking trail without technical difficulties on variable ground. It may be rough and steep sometimes and it can include traverses, but you shouldn’t need any special equipment.
  • EE. Scrambles for expert hikers. Usually a marked trail over more treacherous ground, at higher altitudes, with exposed sections.
  • EEA. High-alpine scrambles for equipped expert hikers. The routes in this category have a lot of exposure. They are usually very difficult due to long distances and significant elevation gain at high altitudes. They require some safety equipment such as helmet, ropes, and carabiners.

PeakVisor app photo, Parrotspitze, Italy

Looking for a place to adventure in Italy? Here are some of the best parks to check out:

Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park

Located in central Italy, just to the southeast of Rome, Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park (Parco Nazionale d'Abruzzo Lazio e Molise) is the second oldest national park in the country. It contains 172 named mountains, the highest of which is Quota and the most prominent of which is Monte Petroso.

The park is best known for its exceptional collection of wildlife. In fact, it was initially designated to protect the region’s remaining population of Italian wolves and Marsican brown bears. It also offers excellent hiking, cycling, canoeing, skiing, and horseback riding opportunities.

Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park, Italy

Gran Paradiso National Park

Gran Paradiso National Park (Parco nazionale del Gran Paradiso) is located in North-West Italy in the Graian Alps between the Piedmont and Aosta Valley regions. It contains 237 named mountains, the highest and most prominent of which is its namesake, Gran Paradiso.

Boasting exceptional mountain views, Gran Paradiso is contiguous with Vanoise National Park (Parc national de la Vanoise) in France. It was originally established to protect the Alpine ibex, but it is also an exceptional place to visit if you’re looking to hike or climb in the Graian Alps.

Lago Agnel and Lago Serru in the Gran Paradiso National Park , Italy

Cinque Terre National Park

Cinque Terre National Park (Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre) is a small but stunning coastal park located in the Liguria region. It contains 23 named mountains, the highest and most prominent of which is Monte Malpertuso.

The park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it encapsulated a collection of 5 towns that are located on cliffs along the Ligurian Coast. It is an exceptionally popular ecotourism destination as the park’s trails - especially the Blue Path - offer a great way to visit the region’s historic towns and to experience its rich culture.

Cinque Terre National Park, Italy

Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park

Featuring towering peaks and stunning alpine landscapes, Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park (Parco nazionale delle Dolomiti Bellunesi) is a small national park in North-East Italy. It contains 219 named mountains, the highest of which is Schiara and the most prominent of which is Piz di Mezzodi.

The park is also part of a larger World Heritage Site and it was designed to protect the Dolomite’s beautiful mountainscapes. Much of the park is located at very high elevation, though the hiking and climbing opportunities in the park are second to none.

Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park, Italy

Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park

Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park (Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga) is one of the largest protected areas in all of southern Europe, with over 1,400 sq. km (545 sq. mi) of land within its borders. It contains 410 named mountains, the highest and most prominent of which is Corno Grande - Vetta Occidentale.

The park is very rugged and it contains a very biodiverse ecosystem. There are thousands of plants in the park and some, like the Abruzzo Edelweiss, are endemic to the region. Moreover, there are about 300km (190mi) worth of hiking trails in the park for visitors to enjoy.

Gran Sasso National Park Abruzzo with crocus flowers, Italy

Gran Sasso National Park in Abruzzo with crocus flowers

Major Cities

Italy’s many cities are famous for their stunning architecture, amazing culture, and fantastic food. Here are some of the best places to visit if you’re planning a trip to Italy:

Milan

Located in northern Italy, Milan is the capital of Lombardy and the second-most populous city in the country. Milan is located close to the Italian Alps and it is a national hub for commerce, entertainment, and tourism. Moreover, Milan is a major capital for fashion and it hosts a fashion week each year. The city is accessible by air, rail, and road, and it has an excellent public transportation network.

Milan, Italy

Rome

The capital of Italy and one of its oldest continuously inhabited cities, Rome (Roma) is located in Lazio near the country’s central Tyrrhenian coast on the Tiber River. Rome has been continuously inhabited for the better part of 3,000 years and it’s home to some of the country’s most important cultural sites.

Rome is a transportation hub for the country and it is easy to get to by road, air, and train, especially if you’re looking to also visit other parts of Italy.

Milan, Italy

Bologna

Situated in North-East Italy, Bologna is the capital of Emilia-Romagna and is home to around 400,000 people. A truly international city, Bologna is home to a large concentration of immigrants and it is a European capital of Culture. Additionally, Bologna is home to the world’s oldest university, the University of Bologna, which was established in 1088 CE.

Bologna, Italy

Naples

Naples (Napoli) is the capital of Campania and the largest city in South Italy. With nearly 1 million residents, Naples is a major metropolitan area for the country. Its city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it offers excellent transportation connections to many of the nearby islands, as well as the southern part of the country.

Naples, Italy

Palermo

The capital of Sicily, Palermo was founded in 734 BC and has been inhabited ever since. It currently has around 900,000 residents and it's a major hub for Sicily’s tourism industry. Palermo is accessible by air, bus, road, train, and sea both to the rest of the island and to mainland Italy.

Palermo at sunset, Sicily, Italy

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