Stretching from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Mediterranean Sea in the south, from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Ural Mountains in the east, Europe is the world's second smallest continent (after Australia). It is comprised of 47 countries, including independent mini-states such as San Marino, Andorra, Vatican City, and Monaco. In 2005, Europe had an estimated population of 728 million people.
The largest political and economic entity in Europe is the European Union (EU), which currently includes 27 member states. Italy was one of the founding members of the European Union. The EU has the world's largest economy, and it accounts for approximately 35% of the world's gross national product.
Given its rich cultural and geographic diversity, no other destination approaches the popularity of Europe. As a travel and vacation destination, Europe offers virtually unlimited opportunities for exploration and discovery.
Within the context of travel in Europe, Italy has the fourth largest population within the European Union. It has a population of about 60,000,000 people, and it is one of the world's major economic powers, having the seventh largest gross domestic product. Italy is in the southeastern part of Europe, bordered by the countries of France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia.
Italy is a young country, having been unified into a single political entity in 1870. The country is divided into 20 regions, such as Tuscany, Umbria, Veneto, etc. Five of the regions enjoy special autonomous status. Regions are divided into provinces, with the smallest political entity being the municipality. Within the modern Italian state are two independent states, Vatican City and San Marino. Given the historical development of the area now comprising the modern Italian state, vast diversity exists among the various regions. This diversity, together with the warmth of its people, its rich cultural heritage, its wonderful scenery, and the popularity of its very varied cuisine, makes Italy the popular tourist destination that it is.
Travelers to Europe should definitely consider including a visit to Italy in their vacation plans.