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Moving To Italy? Get On The Right Side Of The North-South Divide

The boot-shaped country of Italy is referred to as the birthplace of western civilization and a cultural hub. It is the home of exquisite art, grand architecture and fine food. From the leaning Tower of Pisa to the Colosseum, Italy is a treasure trove of culture and heritage.The country has a thriving population of 60 million and even though it has undergone considerable globalization, there remains a regionalized division in terms of economy, cultural norms, dialects, traditions and cuisine. The more affluent and industrialized city-states are situated in the north of Italy, while the poorer, underdeveloped regions are centered in the south.

Of all the countries in Europe, Italy is the most economically divided. The northern region of Italy, which includes the big cities like Turin and Milan, is the major contributor to the nation’s GDP. The south, which is often considered by outsiders to be a more laidback region with high crime rates, is also a place of underdeveloped resources and poverty. Here’s a closer look at the northern and southern regions that make up the country of Italy, and why there has always been a divide between the two.

Northern Italy

The geographical and cultural territory of Northern Italy does not have an administrative purpose; it only denotes the northern part of the country. It includes eight regions: Aosta Valley, Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol. Set on the basin of the River Po, and extending from the base of Apennines to the Alps, the north of Italy is the most developed part of the country. It is also the most productive region and has one of the highest GDPs per capita of European countries.

Industrialization first took place here towards the end of the 19th century, when the manufacturing hubs of Milan, Turin and Genoa transformed into what is known as the industrial triangle. As development moved eastward, the industrial triangle also shifted and today consists of Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia-Romagna. As a result, the eastern parts became wealthier. Northern Italy accounts for just 45.8 percent of the nation’s population but contributes up to 54.8 percent towards Italy’s economy.

Southern Italy

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The traditional name for the south of Italy is mezzogiorno. It consists of the southern regions of the Italian Peninsula, and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, and also contains the administrative territory of Abruzzo, Apulia, Basilicata, Campania, Calabria, Molise, Sicily, and Sardinia. Southern Italy is a culturally rich region and is home to a number of important landmarks such as the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii and ancient Greek cities like Sybaris. It is also where many national parks are located. Most people travel to southern Italy when they want to escape the crowds. The entire region constitutes less than half of the country’s total landmass.

Due to its many beaches, many Italians visit there on holiday. For outsiders, travelling to southern Italy may prove to be a bit of a challenge. But south Italy is what many refer to as the ‘real Italy’. Few people speak English here and most speak in local dialects, rather than Italian.

The divide

Southern Italy has always lagged behind Northern Italy in areas such as economic development and literacy. It has also not been able to attract outside investments. While the individual city-states in the northern areas became prosperous, much of the attention in the south was centered on the area around Naples. The south has historically been primarily agricultural, without much trade. The areas that were further away from Naples experienced very little economic growth. The term ‘mezzogiorno’ is even considered to be a derogatory term today, even though its origins are innocuous.

The divide between northern and southern Italy is very apparent even today. There have even been political voices that expressed a need to separate the northern region from the south. The recent governmental measures to focus more tax revenue on the south led to a disapproving response from the north, as the northerners felt that ‘their’ money was being directed to the south. These initiatives have contributed to the economic growth of the south, but some argue that they may have also kept the region from developing on its own. Debates about dividing Italy into two countries crop up frequently, with the north believing that their earnings are being sent southwards; and the south feeling a sense of discrimination and a lack of belonging. However, Italy is a composition of a number of city-states rather than a unified nation, and hence the possibility of an actual separation is unlikely.

History of the north – south divide

The economies of northern and southern Italy have been growing at different rates, with a vast difference between the two. The south’s poor performance dates back to more than a century ago. Italy used to consist of different republics and principalities, each an independent area with connections to other European powers. Almost half a century before, the south was unified in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and protested national unification on northern terms. The northern dialect and other laws created on northern terms were an unpopular move. The newly formed central government in Rome did not do much to mend the gap or to create a unified cultural and political whole.

Currently, the areas to the north of Rome form part of Italy’s industrial base, while the southern region remains mostly agricultural. The south also faces the problems of corruption and organized crime. The southern provinces have a GDP per capita that is less than 70 percent of the European average. The region is also industrially under-developed. In sharp contrast are the central and northern provinces where incomes are almost double the European average.

Pertinent points for expats moving to Italy

Visas and citizenship

Citizens of the EU are permitted to enter and stay in Italy without a visa for a maximum of 90 days. This also applies to countries listed in the visa-waiver agreement. Other citizens are required to obtain a visa before entering the country. EU citizens who wish to remain in Italy for more than three months must obtain permission to stay or Permesso di Soggiorno, while non-EU citizens require a certificate of residence or Certificato di Residenza.

Public services are of a higher standard in the northern part of Italy than the south. The national health service of the country provides healthcare and medicines at reduced costs to Italian residents. This includes emergency care for visitors. Healthcare is free to expats who are residents as well as those who are citizens of EU/EEA member states. Most Italians also have private health insurance for services that are not covered by social security. While northern Italy has good healthcare, the waiting times at public hospitals are often long. Expats are advised to consider taking out a private health insurance policy so they can get treatment faster.


The job market in Italy varies a great deal from north to south. The north is far more developed and prosperous than the south and offers more job opportunities. The nation’s economy is heavily dependent on the automotive, industrial, food processing and fashion sectors, but it is the tourism, media, communications, and education sectors that traditionally offer jobs to foreigners.


Almost 70 percent of Italians own their own homes. It is traditional for houses to be passed between family members. In the south, most young Italians live with parents until their late twenties. Modern housing options are available in the north, especially in the suburbs of big cities like Turin and Milan. In the older parts of the country like Rome, Venice and Florence, the age and quality of houses may not be up to modern standards. The recent economic low has led to a fall in property prices, which have just begun to stabilize again. The property market in the south, however, remains slumped. House prices are higher in the north, with a greater number of sales taking place.


Rental prices vary depending on where expats choose to reside. In the southern city of Naples, a one-bed apartment in the city center can cost between €400 to €800; while in the northern cities such as Rome, Florence and Milan, an equivalent apartment can cost up to €1600.

Cost of living

Italy is considered one of the most expensive European countries. Due to the north-south divide, the cost of living varies considerably between the two regions. Along with rent, the costs of transport, groceries and entertainment is much higher in cities like Rome and Milan than Naples and other southern cities. Living in Italy, in general, is cheaper than living in countries such as Australia, France, the USA and the UK. But average monthly disposable income in Italy is also lower than that of these countries. In the north, it is approximately €1270 per month, while it is €1000 per month in the south. Prices can be rather high in the most popular cities such as Venice, Florence and Rome, as Italy is the fifth most visited country in the world.


Primary schools, secondary schools and some universities in Italy are free for locals and foreigners who are not official residents. Schools follow a centralized system that sets uniform standards for school curricula and examinations. Even though measures have been taken to improve schooling standards in the south of Italy, it is widely known that northern Italy offers a higher standard. Standards are also much lower in the rural areas.

Expat communities

Italy has a diverse expat population of over 400,000 people. Of these, most choose to live in the north where there are more job opportunities and society is more progressive. The south tends to have a more laidback vibe and is mainly a popular holiday destination for locals and expats. Italy, in general, is a hospitable country and locals enjoy extending a warm welcome to foreigners, especially when it comes to food. Expats in the south, in particular, may receive frequent invites to a four-course lunch.


Expats living in the north will get to feast on specialties such as focaccia in Liguria and pesto in Genoa. Bologna is also a hub for foodies due to its famous staple sauce, Bolognese. In the south,restaurants in Sicily are famous for delicious seafood, especially swordfish from the Straits of Messina. Sicily is also popular for its sweet treats such as cannoli and granita. Naples, also in the south, is the place to go for some of the best pizza in the world.


The north of Italy is known for the Venice Carnival, held every year. Viareggio, along the coast, also has a carnival. In winter, Venice plays host to the Venice Film Festival, the Venice Biennale, a horse race called Palio di Siena, and the white truffle season, due to which a number of food fairs are conducted. Easter is the main celebration in the south. In Sicily, parades take place in Trapani and Enna. There is also a tuna fishing ritual practiced between May and June and a celebration in honor of Santa Rosalia, in Palermo.


When it comes to beaches, the south has the upper hand due to its famous Amalfi Coast, a spectacular stretch of coastline that attracts visitors from across the world. Puglia also has some pristine, clear beaches, especially the region of Salento which is home to rocky caves in the east and tranquil resorts in the west. Other noteworthy beaches in the south include the volcanic Aeolian archipelago, Cefalù and Mondello in Sicily. Since much of the population is concentrated in the northern regions, the beaches tend to be crowded. Viareggio and the Ligurian coastline have some great facilities, but these may come at a high price, such as Monterosso, which has the largest beach.

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