Southern Italy, sometimes known as the Mezzogiorno ("Midday"), is arguably as much a state of mind and a culture as a location, but for the purposes of this guide, it starts south of the boundaries of the Molise and Campania regions.
Southern Italy is one of the least visited regions in Italy, but in a worldwide context, it is still a significant draw for tourists. In particular, the Campania region, including the city of Naples, the Amalfi Coast, the islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida and the archeological sites of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Paestum, is a world-class destination.
Southern Italy, including the region of Sicily, which is covered separately in this guide, was suffused with Greek influence and, in large part, constituted Magna Grecia in ancient times. It was during the Hellenistic period that the city of Neapolis (Greek for "New City," and now called Napoli in Italian and Naples in English) was founded and that the ruins of Paestum date from. The area was also a very important part of ancient Rome, during which period the port city of Brundisium (now Brindisi) flourished, Naples had bustling suburbs like Pompeii and Herculaneum that were preserved under the ash of a disastrous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius — a volcano which is still active and dominates over that area to this day — and the island of Capri was where emperors like Tiberius had their holidays and orgies. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the southern part of Italy came under the sway of various foreign powers, most notably Spain, whose Bourbon rulers presided over the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies for centuries. These largely absentee rulers left a local power vacuum, which was filled by regional enforcers, such as the Camorra in Campania and the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria, that wielded local power and enforced a type of rough discipline. Southern Italy's economic development was neglected by the foreign rulers, and following Italy's unification in the 1870s, the power and influence that the local enforcers — increasingly seen as organized crime syndicates — had attained was difficult to counteract and served as a continuing brake on the advancement of the area. Following World War II, the Italian economic miracle had much less effect in the south than in the regions further north, as money from the central government continued to be siphoned into the pockets of the organized crime families, with collaboration from the Christian Democrat-led local and national governments. In recent decades, with the Christian Democrats and their coalition partners defeated and in some cases replaced by officials who have spent more money on behalf of the people, conditions have improved in some areas of the south, with examples of decreases in crime, poverty and unemployment and improvements in infrastructure and order, but depressing counterexamples, such as repeated garbage crises in Naples, have persisted. Today, Southern Italy still has a lower standard of living, higher unemployment and poorer infrastructure than Northern Italy.
Southern Italy is proud of its role in the history of the arts. It is perhaps particularly noted in the field of music, in which traditional Neapolitan songs are beloved worldwide. Naples is also important in the history of opera, as many important operas were premiered at Teatro di San Carlo, which was completed in 1737 and is the oldest opera house still standing in Italy.
Southern Italian dialects (at least some of which are considered separate languages by linguists) can be very hard for people used to Tuscan or other Northern Italian dialects to understand. Even when locals speak standard Italian, you may find their accents difficult. Never fear: Just ask them to repeat things more slowly (Ripeti più lentamente, per piacere=Repeat more slowly, please).
Some people speak some English, but do not expect to be able to get by easily with English alone. Spanish-speakers will have a much easier time, because centuries of Spanish rule as part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies has infused local speech with a good deal of Spanish influence.
Southern Italian cuisines are fantastic, and part of the draw of this part of the country. In general, they are based on extra-virgin olive oil, tomatoes and garlic, and feature plenty of seafood, given the area's long sea coast and history of fishing and maritime trade.
In addition, the pastries of Southern Italy, especially Campania, are legendary and much appreciated throughout the world. This is the land of cannoli, baba au rhum and many other delicious sweets.
A special word about pizza is merited, as pizza margherita — whose colors of red (tomatoes), white (mozzarella di bufala: fresh mozzarella cheese made from European buffalo milk) and green (basil) correspond to the Italian flag — was invented in Naples, and the protected designation la vera pizza napoletana ("real Neapolitan pizza") is considered a mark of quality both within and outside of Italy.
Southern Italy has been a wine-growing area since ancient times, and many of the wines produced in this part of the country are famous today.
There are also some excellent mineral waters from this region. Perhaps the most interesting is a naturally lightly-carbonated mineral water from the slopes of Vesuvius.
Parts of Southern Italy have a bad reputation for purse-snatching and other property crimes, so make sure to be alert and take sensible precautions.