Southwestern Europe is a region in western and southern Europe. It can be referred to as Latin Europe as, generally speaking, Romance languages and Roman Catholic Christianity are endemic, through the heritage of the Roman Empire. The region contains Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Malta as well as some of Europe's smallest countries: Andorra, Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican City. These countries have around 180 million inhabitants all told.
Southwestern Europe's cultural attractions, including archaeological sites, architecture and art museums, are among the most visited in the world. The countries are also famous for their beaches, their cuisines, and their wine.
|Portugal (including Azores and Madeira)|
Facing the Atlantic, and a trailblazer of the Age of Discovery.
|Spain (including Canary Islands and Spanish North Africa)|
Once the core of a world-spanning empire, Spain is known today for its diverse nature, beaches and nightlife.
France receives more tourists than any other country in the world, and is the largest European Union country by land area.
The boot-shaped Italian peninsula was the cradle of both the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, and has attracted tourists from afar since before the country was unified in 1871.
A Mediterranean island nation, always at the crossroads of history. While the Maltese language is Semitic with a lot of Italian loanwords, Malta has a clearly Roman Catholic heritage, having been ruled by the Maltese Order and still enjoying strong links to Italy.
Microstates and dependencies
A landlocked principality in the Pyrenees mountains between Spain and France, popular for skiing and shopping.
Britain's stronghold on the Spanish coast since before the days of Napoleon, home to the only population of wild monkeys in Europe.
A principality on the French Riviera, known for Formula One, gambling and being one of the world's most popular playgrounds for the rich.
|San Marino |
A microstate claiming to be the world's oldest republic, and the sole remaining independent city-state of the Italian peninsula. It has a historic hilltop capital with three old fortresses.
|Vatican City |
The world's smallest country, and the seat of the Roman Catholic church.
- 1 Barcelona — Capital of Catalonia and home to Gaudí's famous Sagrada Família this place is much more than "Spain's second city".
- 2 Florence (Italian: Firenze) — the Renaissance city known for its architecture and art that had a major impact throughout the world
- 3 Lisbon (Portuguese: Lisboa) - Portugal's capital with a natural harbour and white limestone buildings
- 4 Madrid — the vibrant capital of Spain, with fantastic museums, interesting architecture, great food and nightlife
- 5 Marseille – one of France's oldest cities, and its largest port
- 6 Paris — the "City of Lights", famous for the Louvre and several other art museums, overlooked by the Eiffel Tower.
- 7 Rome (Italian: Roma) — the Eternal City has shrugged off sackings and fascists, urban planning disasters and traffic snarls and is as impressive to the visitor now as two thousand years ago
- 8 Seville (Spanish: Sevilla) — a beautiful, verdant city, and home to the world's third largest cathedral
- 9 Venice (Italian: Venezia) — the city of Renaissance merchant palaces, where canals function as streets
- 1 Algarve — long beaches at the southwestern edge of Europe
- 2 Azores — out in the Atlantic half-way to North America, these beautiful volcanic islands have a lovely climate year-round
- 3 Cinque Terre — a gorgeous national park, which connects five picturesque villages
- 4 Corsica — the birthplace of Napoleon, a unique island with a distinct culture and language
- 5 French Riviera (French: Côte d'Azur "Azure Coast") — Glamorous Mediterranean coastline with upper class seaside resorts, yachts and sunbathing celebrities
- 6 Gran Canaria — the most populated of the Canary Islands is also the most diverse, with verdant forests and sun-washed deserts
- 7 Mallorca — a Spanish island famous for seaside resorts, nightlife, and spectacular landscapes
- 8 Mont Saint Michel — a monastery and town built on a tiny outcrop of rock in the sand, which is cut off from the mainland at high tide
- 9 Vesuvius (Italian: Monte Vesuvio) — the famous dormant volcano with a stunning view of the Bay of Naples, and the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum
Homo Sapiens reached Europe from Africa through the Middle East roughly 40 000 years ago, and displaced the Homo Neanderthalensis, which died out around 30 000 years ago.
Rome was originally a city-state; the Roman Republic seized the Italian peninsula during the 4th century BC. The Romans first invaded the Iberian peninsula (Hispania) in 218 BC; though it took them 200 years to capture it all. The Gauls, who resided in present-day France, were rivals of Rome, until Julius Caesar (who had yet to become Roman dictator) conquered them in a ten-year campaign, ending in 50 BC.
These western provinces were quickly Romanized, and Latin soon became the dominant language. Christianity spread across the Empire in the first centuries AD. The Empire's northern border, limes, was parallel to the Rhine and Danube rivers. Up to modern times, the Rhine has remained a cultural divide between Latin and Germanic Europe.
From the 3rd century, the Roman Empire was effectively divided between the Western Roman Empire, ruled by Rome, and the Eastern Roman Empire, ruled by Constantinople (today's Istanbul).
The western Roman Empire fell to Germanic invaders of the 4th and 5th centuries, such as the Goths, who founded short-lived kingdoms in the region. The Eastern Roman Empire, known to posterity as the Byzantine Empire, survived until the 15th century, While the Roman administration was lost, Christianity remained a unifying force. Many later monarchs tried to claim the glory of Rome; Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800, ruling Francia, which included most of Western and Central Europe. From the 8th to the 15th centuries, during and past the Islamic Golden Age, much of the Iberian peninsula was part of the Islamic Al-Andalus; Malta, Sicily and parts of southern France have also been under Islamic rule. Through centuries of illiteracy in medieval Europe, Byzantine and Islamic scholars preserved much ancient knowledge.
Much of eastern Europe became orthodox in the Great Schism of the 11th century, and many northern European congregations broke with the Holy See in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The Latin European nations remained largely Catholic, loyal to the Roman Pope. All countries in this region retain a Roman Catholic majority to this day. The Protestant congregations which arose in these countries, including the French Huguenots, have been expelled or suppressed.
The Renaissance was an intellectual movement which began in the Italian city-states, with promotion of European art. It preceded the Age of Discovery, when European explorers found their way around the world. While Christopher Columbus was a Genoese Italian sailing for the Spanish Crown, Vasco da Gama (who found the Cape Route to India) and Ferdinand Magellan (who led the first expedition around the world) were Portuguese.
Spain, Portugal and the Kingdom of France began colonizing the New World. The Italian peninsula came to be dominated by foreign powers; especially Spain and France, but remained a cultural hotspot, and the main destination of the Grand Tour of Europe's young elite. Italy would only become a colonial power following its unification in the late 19th century, though many of the early European explorers were Italians working for other countries.
Spain united with Portugal in 1580, creating the largest empire in its time, until its decline through the Thirty Years War, and the War of the Spanish Succession. In its place, France came to dominate Europe, with the French House of Bourbon remaining on the Spanish throne until today.
The 1789 French Revolution was the beginning of the end of feudal monarchies in Europe, and led to a series of wars, where the Napoleonic Empire ruled France, Spain, and the Italian peninsula for a few years before its dissolution in 1815. The 19th century saw the gradual fall of empires and city-states to nation-states, united by a common language and historical identity; Italy was unified only in 1871.
Scarred by two world wars, France and Italy became founding members of the European Community through the 1957 Rome Treaty. As the dictatorships in Spain and Portugal ended in the 1970s, they joined the European Community in 1986, which in 1993 became the European Union. Malta joined the EU in 2004, and the smaller countries are EU associates. While the violent insurgencies and Basque Country and Corsica have ended, the region has secessionist movements, especially in Catalonia.
Most EU institutions are seated in Brussels, but the EU Parliament holds some sessions in Strasbourg and other institutions are to be found throughout the Union.
France (except the south) and inland Italy have a temperate climate, with warm summers and cold winters.
Iberia, southern France and coastal Italy have a Mediterranean climate, where July and August can be unbearably hot, while spring and autumn are milder. Winter is the wettest season.
Madeira and the Canary Islands have a tropical climate, with warm weather year round.
As in the whole world, the inland regions see less rain and more difference between seasons than the coast, while highland regions are cooler than the lowlands.
Electricity is stable and ubiquitous, and supplied at 220 to 230 V 50 Hz. France uses the type E wall socket. All other countries use type F.
The Schengen Area includes France, Italy, Malta, Spain (with the Canary Islands), and Portugal (with Madeira and the Azores). Monaco, San Marino and the Vatican are not signatories of the Schengen agreement, but they have no border controls, and a Schengen visa is still acceptable for entering them. Andorra has border controls, and accepts Schengen visas for entry.
All land neighbours of these countries are part of the Schengen area.
The countries are well served by international aviation; France, Spain and Portugal have extensive service from their former colonies in Africa and Latin America. The major international airports are Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport, Milan Malpensa Airport, Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport and Barcelona El Prat Airport. Paris Orly Airport has a number of flights from Francophone countries and territories.
Flying is also the most practical route to the islands. Resort islands such as Mallorca and Gran Canaria have flights from many European countries.
The Channel Tunnel connects France to England.
France, Spain and Italy have great rail networks, where many cities are connected by high-speed rail. Portugal's network is also fairly good, but a bit behind that of its neighbours. The smaller countries of the region don't have any railways, with the exception of Monaco, which is served by one station on the French network. In most cases, however, the train is the fastest and most convenient option between major cities in the same country. There are some international rail lines.
On large distances (more than 500 km), flying is usually the fastest option. The business has become more competitive over the 2000s, and budget airlines, and occasionally flag carriers, can offer bargains.
Intercity buses have expanded service in the 2010s, and are now the cheapest option on many routes. Flixbus is active in Italy and France and serves some international routes into Spain but has not yet expanded into Portugal or any of Europe's island nations.
Driving is the most practical method to get around the countryside, but is usually costly. Fuel costs around €1.20 per litre. Cities are not built for the car, and cars are prohibited to enter some old towns; most cities however have good public transportation. All countries, including Gibraltar, have right-hand traffic.
The main languages in this region are descended from Latin and are often termed Romance languages, with French (France, Monaco), Italian (Italy, San Marino, Vatican City), Castilian Spanish (Spain), Catalan (Andorra, north-eastern Spain and parts of southern France and Sardinia) and Portuguese (Portugal). There is also a number of minor Romance languages and dialects.
Speakers of one of these languages might understand other ones at some level, and even beginners will recognise some cognates, particularly in written form. In particular, a Spanish speaker should be able to understand some Portuguese and Italian.
Latin remained a European lingua franca until the 17th century, and is still nominally the official language of the Vatican City and the Catholic church. Today, Latin is taught in some schools as part of a classical education and some scholars need the language, but otherwise only clerics and language enthusiasts tend to be conversant in it. The language is still used in inscriptions and other special contexts.
Whilst schools in all countries teach English, proficiency and the desire to speak varies. Generally speaking, most locals in France, Italy and Spain are unable to converse in English, while in Portugal, many younger locals speak a basic conversational level of English. As anywhere else, younger people and those employed in the tourism industry are more likely to speak some English.
Italy, Spain and France are in first, third and fourth place respectively on the table of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In total, there are more than 160 such sites in these countries.
The region is home to an abundance of world-class museums featuring visual arts from all eras up to modern and contemporary art, such as the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, and Uffizi in Florence.
The most famous sites can get extremely crowded during summer and major holidays, and have long lines or waiting time.
While much of southwestern Europe's land area is used for farming, each country has impressive natural attractions with Eurasian wildlife, including mighty mountain ranges such as the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Apennines. The islands are good for birdwatching. Spain and Italy have some of the Beech forests of Europe.
Spectator sports draw huge crowds, domestic and foreign.
Many of Europe's greatest association football clubs can be found here; Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Roma, Benfica and Paris Saint-Germain, to mention a few.
Southwest Europe has some of the most famous Formula One races, with the classical Monaco Grand Prix being the only remaining street race in the circuit.
The region is also the home of the Grand Tour of cycling; Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España.
All major countries have opportunities for outdoor life. Winter sport is the main attraction of the mountains, with the Alps being the birthplace of Alpine skiing. The Pyrenees and Portugal's mountains also have ski resorts.
Millions of visitors flock to the Mediterranean beaches. The Atlantic can be a bit cold at winter, but is great for bathing at summer.
The region also has a rich classical music tradition, with France and Italy in particular having given rise to numerous great composers over the years, such as Claudio Monteverdi, Antonio Vivaldi, Gioachino Rossini, Giuseppe Verde, Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Georges Bizet, Maurice Ravel and Giacomo Puccini, just to name a few. It was de rigueur for all European composers of any stature to spend time touring Italy to study music during the 16th-19th centuries, and most terms used in modern Western musical scores were derived from Italian.
All countries use the euro. Gibraltar uses the Gibraltar pound which is pegged 1:1 to the British pound. Bank of England notes are usually accepted without issue in Gibraltar but the reverse is not necessarily true.
While prices in France tend to be on par with western Europe as a whole, they get lower the further south you go; especially for services such as dining and hairdressing.
While customs for tipping differ between countries, it is usually appreciated but not mandatory.
Dining, including fine dining, has been a cornerstone of the countries' cultures since Roman times. As a testament to this, France, Italy and Spain have some of the most revered cuisines in the world. However, many stereotypical dishes of each country's cuisine are actually regional specialities in their respective countries of origin (for instance, pizza is a local speciality of Naples, and paella is a local speciality of Valencia), and there are numerous other regional specialities that are less well-known or widely available outside their countries of origin.
While fast food and ethnic restaurants are less ubiquitous than in English-speaking countries, they can be found in most sizeable towns.
The region is great for agritourism.
Tap water is chlorinated and usually safe to drink in major cities, though bottled water is preferred for taste.
- See also: Wine
France, Italy, Spain and Portugal are famous for their wines. Each country also has a great selection of beers and distilled beverages.
Drinking laws are generally liberal, and especially Spain and Portugal are famous for their bustling nightlife. While a glass of beer or wine for weekday lunch or dinner is common, excessive drunkenness is frowned on.
Southwestern Europe has a wide variety of accommodation. The resort towns are dominated by tourist hotels, which are practical, but far from genuine. Hotel star ratings are not universal; check out online reviews. Hospitality exchange services such as Airbnb are widespread, especially in the more touristed cities.
While all countries are relatively safe, they are not devoid of crime. Visitors should use common sense, and be wary of pickpockets in crowded areas. At summer, heatstroke and sunburn can be issues.
In all countries, the emergency phone number is 112.
Separation of church and state is a cornerstone in each country (except the Vatican, obviously), especially in France, where the concept was first introduced to Europe by Napoleon Bonaparte, and secularism remains an integral part of the French national identity. While elderly people in the countryside tend to be devout Catholics, most younger people and city-dwellers are not actively religious, and have a liberal attitude towards the LGBT community.
Romance languages have the T-V distinction, where the pronoun "you" has an informal and a formal variant (French has tu and vous, etc). While pronoun etiquette has been relaxed in some countries, you should probably keep to the formal form until you have reason not to.
Regional patriotism is strong, especially in Italy, and minority-language regions of Spain (not least Catalonia and the Basque Country). There are active independence movements in Catalonia and the Basque Country, and many people from those regions do not identify as Spanish.
While dress code has become more informal over the last decades, dressing too casual is a common mistake among visitors. Local adults wear beach clothing only at the beach, and athletic clothes (including baseball caps, sweatshirts and trainers) only when practising or watching sport. Full-covered clothes are recommended in religious buildings.
Cheek kissing is a common greeting between friends in all countries, male-to-male kissing mostly limited to close friends and family.
While tobacco smoking was prevalent in these countries up to the 2000s, it is now prohibited at most indoor premises.