It might only be the size of Arizona, but Italy and its long Mediterranean coastline have left a defining mark on western culture. From priceless Renaissance art and medieval ruins to the romantic visions of the Amalfi Coast and the beloved cuisine, there’s just so much to get through here. But there’s also a HUGE competition going on: North Italy vs South Italy. They’re so different that you might as well be comparing two entirely different countries!
Yep, the top and bottom ends of The Boot are heavily divided and vastly different. Ruled over by the Arabs, the Greeks, and even the Spanish at varying times in its history, the South is typically Mediterranean and influenced by the all-surrounding sea. The North, meanwhile, is generally more industrial, more affluent, and draws its historical riches from the French, the Celts, and Germanic tribes.
Look, no matter where you go in Italy you’re in for a treat. From the Apennine summits to the alabaster beaches of Puglia, the soaring Dolomites to the sparkling Tyrrhenian Sea, there’s endless adventure and breathtaking scenery to absorb. But how do the North and South compare? Let’s find out…
North Italy vs South Italy: General Vibe
Everything north of Rome is considered Northern Italy, from Sanremo to Lake Como, down to Bologna, and along the coast to Venezie (the region that’s home to Venice) and the Slovenian border. It’s the country’s industrial powerhouse, responsible for producing 90% of exports and home to several of the largest urban conglomerations – Pisa, Milan, Florence. But North Italy is much more than its cosmopolitan cities.
As topographically diverse as it is breathtaking, the scenery ranges from the snow-capped peaks of the Dolomites to the crystalline lakes, vineyard-scored hills of Tuscany, not to mention the yellow-hued shores of Marche and Liguria.
Tourism is rife and the North is the richer of the two regions. Closer to the European heartland, you’re more likely to find people wearing German lederhosen and speaking French than eating pizza slices the size of their head. It’s a gateway into the bordering nations, but you’ll still find quintessentially Italian towns and some of the most iconic Italian destinations, especially near Rome and along the Adriatic.
South Italy is much more traditional and rustic. With no land borders, it’s influenced mainly by the Mediterranean Sea and often compared to Greece and Spain. In these parts, the coastline and the coastal towns are in a league of their own – we’re talking frenetic Catania, gritty Naples, jaw-dropping Tropea.
The land of Amalfi and Puglia, internationally famed amongst travelers on the hunt for beaches and sun, the South is authentic and adventurous. But South Italy is also more relaxed than the North, and the investment in tourist infrastructure is less. That doesn’t stop crowds coming, though. They arrive by the millions in the summer, to see historic sites like Pompei, laze on the shores, and – of course – to dine on pizza and pasta (the South is Italy’s culinary hub).
Winner: South Italy – the rich traditions of old Italy die hard here.
North Italy vs South Italy: The coast
Italy’s pristine beaches, charming towns, and impressive coastal roads are a huge pull factor, no matter where you go in the country. But between the North and South, you’ll find some significant differences in the seaside scenery…
The sun-scorched southern coast might first come to mind when conjuring images of Italy’s beaches, but there are more than 400 miles of coast along the Ligurian and Adriatic seas further north. Yep, the North is peppered with charming destinations on the water. Chief among them is the Cinque Terre, a series of five irresistible fishing towns that’s Liguria’s answer to the Amalfi Coast. There’s also Duino in the northeast, where you’ll find a dramatic castle gazing over the Adriatic.
Rimini is a sparkling jewel on the Adriatic Sea, too. It has fine sandy beaches and a charming promenade of restaurants, hotels, and bars. In the Emilia-Romagna region, the historical center is just a stone’s throw from Ravenna, the republic of San Marino, and the Le Marche region. Still, when it comes to eastern attractions on the aqua, the world-renowned floating city of Venice is an undeniable highlight of the North. The major seaport comprises more than 100 small islands connected by crumbling bridges over narrow canals. There’s also the Venice Lido there for your beach lazing needs.
Then comes the coastline of the South. This is the home of Sorrento, Capri, Sardinia, and Sicily to name just a few. The UNESCO-tagged Amalfi Coast usually takes the biscuit. It’s a long and winding run of shore that’s beset by huge mountains dressed in citrus plantations and forests, dropping into a cobalt sea and punctuated by idyllic towns of pastel mansions.
Puglia, the heel of Italy, is home to 500 miles of coastline. That’s famous for its whitewashed old towns that rival that of Santorini (it can often feel more Greek down here). At the same time, the islands offer a whole other wonderworld of coastline to get through. The east of Sicily has gorgeous bays like Spiaggia di Calamosche while the south of the isle is all salt pans under hazy mountains. Then there’s Sardinia, which hosts the Caribbean-esque Costa Smeralda – arguably Europe’s most stunning beaches.
Winner: The South.
North Italy vs South Italy: Cost
One of the main reasons for the stark differences between North and South Italy is the economic divide. Italy has a diversified industrial economy. The North is dominated by private manufacturing companies, while the country has a less-developed and highly subsidized South. There, agriculture is relied upon for exports, unemployment remains high, and poverty persists.
Italy is the world’s ninth-largest economy, but the economic structure relies on services and manufacturing, which the North mainly provides. This has created a massive divergence in living standards, with the average GDP per capita in the North greatly exceeding Europe’s mean as the South continues to sit significantly below.
Milan, the economic capital of the North, is more affluent than Sweden and more than twice as prosperous as Naples. That has a knock-on effect on what things cost. For example, a three-course meal in a mid-range restaurant in Naples could set you back as little as €20 per person, compared to €35 in Milan!
Although utilities are essentially the same, local transport and amenities are around 30% cheaper in the South. On top of that, monthly rent and property prices, whether it be for a one-bedroom city center apartment or a three-bed house in the outskirts, will set you back twice as much in the northern fashion hub compared to the birthplace of pizza.
Big discrepancies in living standards are often a cause for conflict and a problematic relationship between the two polarized areas of the country. But for travelers, this makes the South noticeably more affordable. You might find steep accommodation to rival the north in places like Amalfi. Still, there’s no shortage of sleepy untrodden towns in the South with €1 cappuccinos and €2 glasses of wind, and getting around is always inexpensive.
Winner: For better or for worse, it’s South Italy.
North Italy vs South Italy: Weather
As is usually the case when you go down south, Italy’s Mediterranean peninsula is characteristically sunny. From April to October, the climate is warm and dry, and if you avoid the peak summer months, you can still enjoy pleasant weather with little rain and fewer crowds well into November and as early as April.
Winter sees the most considerable discrepancies in temperature between the North and South of Italy. Winter days usually dip below freezing in Milan, and snowfall isn’t uncommon. At the same time, it can be closer to 10 C (50 F) at the same time of year in Rome and as high as 20 degrees in Palermo, Sicily! Still, these differences are less extreme in summer, and the North can be just as hot and dry as the South during July and August, although thunderstorms are common in the mountains.
This makes the North much more diverse in climate and not just a destination for sun-seekers. You can travel from snow-capped mountains to sunny coastline in a matter of hours in North Italy. The coast of Liguria and Tuscany still boasts a Mediterranean climate with mild winters, but the North is also home to some of Europe’s best ski towns – check out Val Gardena in the Dolomites, or the Aosta Valley.
Winner: North Italy because it gets snow!
North Italy vs South Italy: Food
It wouldn’t be right to mention Italy without talking about the food. Widely considered to have one of the best gastronomies in the world, the nation that bought us pizza and pasta has a soft spot on everyone’s palette. But despite its relatively small size and the general stereotypes bestowed on Italy for its national eating habits, you can find very differing diets in the North and South.
The provinces of Northern Italy vary greatly in culinary traditions, with influences from France, Austria, Slovenia, and Germany creeping in. The landscape has a lot to do with the cuisines, from the Alpine cheeses of the mountainous regions to the gnocchi of Lombardia and Piemonte, where potatoes thrive in the cooler climate. Northern Italian cuisine is hearty, starchy, and rich. The land is ideal for raising cattle, and tomato sauces are replaced with creamy alfredo, olive oil with butter.
In contrast, Southern Italian cuisine wholly embraces the sea and the sun, from the fresh seafood to the warm Mediterranean climate, perfect for growing eggplant, tomatoes, and fresh herbs. Abundant tomato growth in the south was a catalyst for Italy’s most notable creation: Pizza (Naples is the place to sample that if you’re wondering).
When you get as far down as Sicily, you might notice a distinctly exotic edge making its way into the cooking. Chickpea stews, arancini balls, risottos, and broths in the southern island display a distinct touch of North Africa on that side. Then there’s Puglia. It’s considered a bit of a breadbasket for the country. There, the locals eat bread, bread, and more bread. Sample the taralli dough that’s fried, or the hardy local loafs with some Apulian olive oil. The South is also responsible for Sicilian Limoncello, olive oil, cannoli, and world-class gelato.
Winner: South Italy.
North Italy vs South Italy: Things to do
North Italy is often hailed as an adventure lover’s dream come true. That’s mainly thanks to the mountains. They halo the whole top end of the country, running from the Julian Alps close to Slovenia to the Haute Alps of France in the west. Perhaps the most iconic area is the Dolomites, where daring via ferrata routes open in the spring and summer and skiing is on offer throughout the winter months.
North Italy is also a wine lover’s haven. Monied folk can hit the cellar doors of Piedmont to sample Barolo reds, and there’s always Chianti and the Val d’Orcia down in Tuscany. On top of that, the regions here are filled with harvest festivals, hot springs, and hill towns, while the cities offer the world-class exhibits of the Vatican Museum (Rome) and the Uffizi (Florence).
Southern Italy is more about simply soaking up the culture and character of the place. There are some must dos, though. Top of that list for us would be the legendary UNESCO site of Pompei near Naples (a whole ruined Roman town that was frozen in time by the eruption of a volcano in the first century AD). Oh, and there’s Mount Etna and the Valley of the Temples down in Sicily.
After that, you can tour the lovely trulli house villages of Puglia, hike empty trails in the hardly-trodden Sila National Park, wonder at Baroque buildings in Lecce, and explore the chalk-white coves of the Gargano reserve. It’s all pretty awesome but perhaps not quite as bucket-list-worthy as the north.
Winner: North Italy, where Rome, Florence, and the Alps beckon.
North Italy vs South Italy: City breaks
Although mainly seen as a sun-soaked beach haven and foodie destination, South Italy provides for some well-loved city getaways, as well as some hidden cosmopolitan escapes. On the west coast is where you’ll find Naples. It’s a gateway to the Sorrentine coast and some legendary historical ruins like Pompeii, but Naples is trendy and non-touristic, with vibrant street culture and authentic Southern community, although some consider it a little too gritty and edgy for a family trip.
You’ll find Lecce in Italy’s southern heel. It’s a perfect place for getting lost in architecture and piazzas. But the university town is also one of the best party destinations in the country. Further north in the Puglia region is Foggia, within easy reaching distance of Rome, the Gargano National Park, and the Tremiti Islands. That Baroque-style city itself is a feast for the eyes and senses, with charming bazaars and authentic street food.
But South Italy struggles to compete with the elegance and mood of the iconic city break that the North offers. From Genoa to Venice, Florence to Milan, the tourist hotspots here are second to none…
Let’s start with Turin. Less visited than some of its northern counterparts, the town is rich in industrial history, has spectacular colonnades and boulevards to explore, and views of the Alps. The city is also renowned as the home of the Shroud of Turin, a religious artifact housed in the Duomo di Torino (it’s thought to have been the burial cloth of Jesus Christ himself!).
A vantage point to Venice, the Alps, and Slovenia, Trieste is another unmissable coastal city tucked away on the border. The birthplace of the aperitif, the port city has been occupied by the Germans, Romans, and Habsburgs. North Italy also has Verona, with Juliet’s balcony, and the medieval city of Bologna, which is now a thriving student hub with food and music festivals aplenty.
Still undecided? There’s always the bucket-list hubs of Rome and Florence. Those are the North’s most sparkling jewels. You can ride between them on high-speed trains real quick, to see the Colosseum one moment and Giotto’s Tower the next.
Winner: North Italy.
Is North Italy richer than the South?
North Italy is massively richer than the South for several reasons. The North is characteristically wealthy with a prosperous trade, industrial economy, and developed tourist infrastructure. Milan is the wealthiest city in Italy, and living expenses and income are almost twice that of the south.
Is it better to live in North or South Italy?
There are benefits to living in both the North and South of Italy. Many holidaymakers are pulled to the sunny shores of the Mediterranean peninsula, which has a slower pace of life and cheap living costs. But the North offers more diverse and lucrative employment opportunities, a more progressive society, and a higher quality of life. The climate is also more varied, as is the landscape, and most Northern regions benefit from cool, dry summers and mild winters. Out of the 400,000 ex-pats that call Italy home, around two-thirds choose to live in the North.
Is Northern Italy safer than Southern Italy?
Even though Southern Italy is home to some poverty-stricken regions, gritty urban hubs, and mafia-dominated towns, it demonstrates far lower crime rates than the North. The main reason being that Northern Italy is far more densely populated and full of tourists, with most crimes being of an opportunistic nature. The North also has more cities and less rural communities, unlike the South, where the laidback attitudes have an adverse effect on crime. Generally, North and South Italy are both very safe for all types of travelers, and most crimes are petty.