No matter where you go in Italy, there is no bad destination choice, but it’s normal to ask – north Italy or south Italy?
However not to diminish each region’s own unique cultures, food, and history, if you want to choose between north Italy vs south Italy, it’s best to look at what kind of holiday you’re looking for.
That’s because both of these destinations are actually quite different from each other, despite being part of the same country.
Luckily we know Italy like the back of our hand, so here we compare north Italy with south Italy.
We look at what to expect in each, the cultural differences, as well as the beaches, nature, food, cities and more. All so you can make the right decision for your vacation.
North Italy vs South Italy: The Cultural Differences
In north Italy the pace of life is more immediate, the cities are cosmopolitan, and tourism is rife.
South Italy is much more relaxed, and the investment in tourism infrastructure is less. But with more consistently sunny weather, its coastlines are popular.
Below we look at Northern Italy first and why it may suit your vacation, then Southern Italy.
Northern Italy: Why it Could be the Best Destination For You
North Italy has sweeping mountain views, beautiful lakes, boisterous coastlines, and major cities rich in history and culinary delights.
Northern Italy: City Breaks
Northern Italy has the most popular city break destinations in the world!
So if you’re looking for a holiday that involves exploring world famous cities, museums and urban culture, then it’s likely the north will suit you more than the south.
Let’s break down the tourist hot-spots and cities that may be off your radar.
Less visited than its northern counterparts, Turin has an industrial history but still has beautiful boulevards and colonnades to revel in.
It’s also most famous for the contested religious artefact, the Turin Shroud, on show inside the Duomo di Torino and it makes the perfect winter city break for people looking to enjoy the slopes in North Italy.
Another northern Italy city near the Alps is Trieste, the birthplace of the aperitif tucked away on the border of Slovenia.
This port city has been owned or occupied by the Romans, Habsburgs, Italy, and Germany and is a jumble of various cultural influences noticeable in its architecture, galleries and diverse array of eateries, piazzas, and sandy beaches.
Face the tourists and head to Venice, but take your time strolling its hidden side streets, canals, piazzas and local shops and cafes.
Discover a treasure trove of history in its museums, visit St Mark’s Cathedral and Venice’s ornate churches, the exquisite old theatre Teatro La Fenice and the sprawling art museum Gallerie dell ’Accademia or take a boat to see the colorful island of Burano.
Made famous by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Verona is another tourist hotspot for star-crossed lovers.
There’s more to Verona than just Juliet’s balcony though. There are roman sites to explore including the Arena di Verona amphitheater and medieval buildings to admire. Get out of the historical centre and visit Veronetta on the right bank of the Adige, home to cheap and lively bars, restaurants, and Roman archaeological museum.
Bologna is a gorgeous medieval city in North Italy that has thrived with a steady flow of students that has kept this city a vibrant place to visit.
Food lovers can delight in the city’s food festivals like Eataly and a slew of food markets where you can learn more about its cuisine. This is also an excellent choice for art, music and Italian film enthusiasts who are all catered for inside Bologna’s galleries and museums.
The cosmopolitan city of Milan is not known for being incredibly ‘Italian’, it lacks the cobbled streets and ochre buildings that Italy is best known for, but it has a wealth of culture to discover.
The main sights include the majestic Sforza Castle, the incredibly detailed Duomo where you can climb up onto the roof and the ornate Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II – a shopping center with beautiful mosaics and designer stores.
Outside of this, the canal area offers chic eateries, all-you-can-eat sushi, street art galore and vintage shops plus bars to enjoy the city’s lively aperitif culture.
Northern Italy: Beaches and Beach Holidays
Alongside its world famous cities, Northern Italy has fantastic beaches. And the capital of all seaside tourism in the north is Rimini on the Adriatic coast – famous for its fine sandy beaches and promenade of bars, restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs.
Located in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, it’s also within an easy distance from Ravenna, the Republic of San Marino, and Le Marche region.
Within Rimini is a beautiful historic center, Roman ruins, and interesting museums. Most tourists flock to Marina Centro and Lungomare Augustore but beaches up and down North Italy’s coastline offer beach chairs for hire for a daily fee and are more family-friendly than the boisterous tourist beaches.
Northern Italy: Nature, Hiking and Countryside Escapes
Northern Italy also offers some of the country’s best-known landscapes.
One thing worth looking up is the food train that runs around these lakes serving up local food from the lakes as you take in the breath-taking views!
Further north are the Italian Alps and the Dolomites in the east, Europe’s most easily recognizable mountains.
Winter sports enthusiasts and hikers are best to base themselves in Molveno or Madonna di Campiglio to scale the Brenta massif.
A Taste of Northern Italy
The eight provinces of Northern Italy all offer unique culinary traditions, influenced by neighbouring countries such as France, Austria, and Slovenia.
The varying landscapes give different flavors, from alpine cheeses to stuffed pasta.
In the Aosta valley try Fontina cheese, with its milky and sweet flavors. In Emilia-Romagna you’ll come across piadini sandwiches, a flatbread stuffed with cheeses, hams, or salad.
Of course, this region is most famous for prosciutto di Parma (from Parma); balsamic vinegar (from Modena and Reggio); and Parmigiano Reggiano.
Tortelli (stuffed pasta parcels) is another famous offering from this region, especially the pumpkin variety.
In Venice, sample, Risotto al Neri di Seppi, risotto flavored with cuttlefish and colored with its black ink.
Piedmont is best known for antipasti and you can’t visit Milan without trying Panettone which you can still get from artisan bakers in the city.
Southern Italy: Why it Could be the Best Destination For You
South Italy is rustic, rich in sun-drenched coastlines and island escapes, with idyllic coastal towns and interesting historical sites.
It’s very different from northern Italy, and tends to be a little more laid back too.
Southern Italy: City Breaks
While Southern Italy doesn’t quite have the big cities that Northern Italy has, there are a whole host of hidden gems and great city breaks in South Italy.
Located on the Western coast is the city of Naples, which is one of Italy’s largest and most populous cities.
Historical sites include Castle Nuovo and the San Gennaro Catacombs. Close to the city are the legendary ruins of both Pompeii and Herculaneum and the domineering Mount Vesuvius.
See the Bay of Naples from above by taking the funivia or cable car up to the 1150m-high summit of Monte Faito.
Naples is sometimes described as unsafe, but stay vigilant and revel in its edgy, non-touristic atmosphere.
The port city of Pescara is on the Adriatic coast. It has an impressive suspension bridge, Ponte del Mare, which spans part of the harbor and it offers gorgeous beaches for a city break with a bit of sun lounging.
In the heel of Italy’s boot is the region of Puglia which is home to the charming city of Lecce.
The streets in Leece are perfect for wandering hidden piazzas and exploring beautifully detailed buildings and churches including the baroque Santa Croce.
The city’s main square is Piazza Sant’Oronzo, the site of a Roman amphitheater and in the evening join in with the local tradition of strolling down the evening passeggiata before dinner. Day trips include the lovely seaside towns of Otranto and Gallipoli for moreish local flavors.
Then there’s Bari, the metropolitan city of southern Italy, with it’s authentic Italian street food, an ancient old town, and elegant buildings.
It’s best to meander around the colourful Murat district and find Bari’s hidden alleys and archways. Visit the bones of St Nicholas (aka Santa Claus) in its Basilica di San Nicola and its archaeological museum.
Catanzaro is another hidden gem in a less affluent region and it’s most famous for its Biodiversity Park which has extensive botanical gardens, a military museum and a children’s playground. It’s the capital of the Calabria region and is also a beautiful place to find lesser-known beaches.
Further north is Foggia in the Apulia region which is within an easy distance from Rome and is in prime position to visit Gargano national park and the enchanting Tremiti Islands.
The city itself is easy to walk around. Stop to visit the Baroque-style Cathedral of Foggia, Palazzo Dogana for modern and contemporary art and the unusual Chiesa delle Croci church.
Southern Italy: Islands and Coastal Holidays
South Italy also offers travelers the opportunity to explore Italy’s coastline and islands.
Sicily has an attractive climate, historic cities such as Palermo and Catania, miles of fine sandy beaches, vineyards, Greek temples, Roman sites, and gorgeous baroque towns. The food alone is reason to visit.
Capri, close to Naples is hugely popular with tourists for its beautiful landscapes. Explore the fantastic Blue Grotto cave network and hike to Monte Solaro.
Back on the mainland of Southern Italy is Cinque Terre – the postcard-perfect collection of villages on the Liguria coastline.
This National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site receives 2.4 million visitors a year, why? It’s gorgeous! From north to south the villages are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, each with unique character and superb sea views. This is mostly a holiday for beaches, outdoor activities, and water sports.
Sardinia is another island escape with its own culture, quite different from the rest of Italy – it’s beautiful, mysterious, archeologically rich and the food is exquisite.
Southern Italy: Nature, Hiking and Countryside Escapes
South Italy has an abundance of national parks to explore, and so a Southern Italy holiday may suit nature enthusiasts more than one in the north.
Gran Sasso and the expansive Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park are great hiking territory.
The rocky mountainside of Aspromonte National Park in Calabria has the abandoned ghost town of Pentedattilo and wild, untouched landscapes.
You can hike on foot between the Cinque Terre villages and discover the immense beauty of Parco Nazionale del Gargano with its hiking trails, mountains, and lakes.
A Taste of Southern Italy
South Italy is the birthplace of the pizza – which may help some decide the winner in the North Italy vs South Italy battle!
Go to Naples for an authentic classic Margherita pizza and fried pizza calzone style.
Potato Gnocchi is a dumpling that originates from the south and is typically served with tomato sauce.
The Amalfi coast offers fresh seafood while you sip your Limoncello lemon liqueur – which also tastes good in cake form!
On Sicily, sample Nero d’Avola red wine, a native grape to the island and don’t leave without trying the wonderful couscous of Trapani or the pastries of Noto.
Puglia offers egg-free pasta, amazing street food, durum wheat bread and their famous olive oil.
North Italy vs South Italy: Getting Around
The number of cities around Italy means it is easy to get around and get to in the first place!
Cheap airlines and international flights operate to major airports, and once in the country you can use the local train line Trenitalia, or local buses for day trips.
You can use ferries to get to and from the islands, whilst hiring a car is easy to do from most cities to get to rural locations.