Stretching from the sun-baked plains of Campania to the toe and boot heel of the peninsula, southern Italy is where some of the most famous tourist attractions in the country are to be found. The region is famous for its sunny, warm weather and beautiful beaches, it's ancient history and rich culture, and its famous and influential cuisine.
At the centre of southern Italy's attractions is Campania. The region's long, sunny summer made it the breadbasket of Italy in ancient times, and creates a pleasant climate that draws visitors from around the world in times both ancient and modern. Foremost among the region's attractions are the ancient ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, nestled in the suburbs of Naples. Famously buried under tons of volcanic ash during the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius, these two towns stand as the best-preserved ruins of the ancient world, and virtually the only place where a genuine physical feel can be had of what life was like for the ordinary Roman citizen living in Italy. Southern Italy was also once the home of numerous Greek colonies, and in Campania's Paestum there are some of the best-preserved examples of Doric temples to be found anywhere in the Mediterranean. Paestum might not be as famous as Pompeii, but a visit there should be just as important to anyone interest in classical tourism.
However, there is more to Campania than just ancient ruins. The Amalfi Coast with its beaches, rocky cliffs, lemon groves and azure seas rank easily as one of the loveliest places in Italy. In the Bay of Naples, the island of Capri has been a playground for the rich and famous for centuries. Its reputation began when the Roman emperor Tiberius moved into seclusion there during the waning years of his reign. The modern island is home to luxurious villas and wonderful sights such as the Blue Grotto. Finally there are the towering heights of great Vesuvius itself. Climbing to the top of the mountain is a challenging hike, but for those not so inclined there is a bus that will take visitors about 2/3s of the way up to the top.
Farther afield are the other regions of the Italian south. Calabria makes up the "toe" of the Italian peninsula, and offers outstanding beaches in the summer and skiing slopes in its mountainous interior during the winter. Basilicata, which is Italy's "ankle," is one of the least visited places in the country, but is blessed with a charming countryside that makes it a natural destination for a quiet dose of rural tourism. Apulia, with both Mediterranean and Adriatic coastlines and the ancient Greek city of Taranto, has history, beaches and some of the best seafood in Italy.
One of the most interesting and attractive things about Southern Italy is the food, which will be familiar to diners from around the world. The reason for this is simple: most of the immigrants who left Italy for the United States, Canada, South America and even Britain and Australia came from the south. The result is that when most people think of Italian food, they think southern Italian. Mozzarella cheese, for example, is Campanian in origin. Although most of the mozzarella that comes on pizzas outside of Italy is made from cow's milk, the real stuff is made from water buffalo's milk and was made precisely because Southern Italy is such poor dairy country and has few cows. Likewise, the pizza and pasta that come smothered in tomato sauce are developments of Neapolitan dishes.
Not all the food of southern Italy is as familiar. The shellfish and octopus dishes of Apulia rarely appear in the Italian-American menu, for example. Basilicata is well known for its heavily seasoned, spicy and sometimes downright incendiary dishes. If one wants to sample something as hot as any vindaloo but with a squarely Italian style, Basilicatan cooking is the way to go. As every region has its own rich gastronomic heritage, one could spend months in cooking classes across Southern Italy and still come away with a general understanding of southern Italian cooking.
Southern Italy has a lot to offer to the outdoorsman as well. The heights of Vesuvius have already been mentioned, but that is a city-side mountain, being hugged closely by the urban sprawl of Naples. Farther afield and in more rural settings are the Apennines, running down the spine of Italy, as well as the rugged mountains that dominate much of the landmass of Calabria. The seas and their many ports and fishing towns are natural bases for anyone looking to rent a sailboat for either a day's excursion or as the base for their entire holiday. Those same waters offer activities like snorkelling, scuba diving and para-sailing.
The Italian south is a diverse region that has so much to offer. Its cuisine is famed and familiar around the world, the land is endowed with a gorgeous coastline and scenic countryside, and its history embraces the classical heights of Greek civilization, the Roman world that followed it, and much else besides. To find the ideal holiday in southern Italy, one only needs to look around for the sights and flavours.