Italy Travel Tips; whether you are planning your first visit, or you are a regular traveler, here are some tips to help plan your trip and make the most of your time.
Regional Identity & Different Languages
There are twenty regions in Italy, each with a different language. Inside each area, each town can also have a different dialect. Standard Italian you would learn in school is spoken on television or in government, but they speak their local dialect between family and friends. An Italian traveling from one part of Italy to another would have no idea what the locals say.
Italians are very proud of their origins, especially the town region. Local traditions differ from area to area, so it's a great idea to take your time to visit and try to see some of the local festivals and fairs. Enjoy the different food in each region; try to pick restaurants that serve traditional meals and not eat in tourist traps.
I recommend using Google Translate to help navigate the country or whatever app you like. It helped reading menus, timetables, etc.
Italy Travel Tips: Clothing
Italians have a timeless, classic style, paying attention to how they dress whether they go to church, out with friends, or shopping. They wear minimal color and tailored clothes that fit just right, nothing baggy or loose. They wear lovely coats and shoes.
When visiting churches or any religious place, dress appropriately. Both men and women will not be allowed to enter if they wear hats, shorts, flip flops, a tank top, or any revealing clothing. Cover up even in summer.
Wear comfortable shoes no matter what. You will walk in Italy and walk a lot. Most cities are walkable, and there are a lot of cobblestones and uneven pavements. When I visited, we were doing between 14,000 to 18,000 steps daily; while it was exhausting, it's the only way to get a feel for any city.
Besides shoes, wear comfortable clothes because you will need to feel good on a trip to Italy due to the amount of walking you do. Don't wear leggings and runners or flip-flops. No one in Italy would wear any of those except at the gym or the beach.
I bought the Athleta Steller straight crop pant, and I had a black pair from a few years ago that was amazing during my trip. They have travel and work pant options that are dressy but very comfortable. They did not wrinkle or have baggy knees even though I wore one pair in a four-hour drive. Whatever the material is, it feels so lovely, and you can wear them three days in a row, and they still look great (fabric: Nylon/Lycra). They might be the only pants I buy in the future.
Italy Travel Tips: Food & Drink
Cappuccino, a famous Italian drink, is traditionally a breakfast drink usually accompanied by a pastry, and Italians will never drink one after 11 am or after meals. Italians believe having milk later will upset your digestion; hence it's only consumed in the morning.
It's 7 pm, and you are starving from sightseeing all day, so you head out to find a lovely restaurant to have dinner. Every restaurant you come across is empty. You eventually decide on a place and feel weird because you are the only two people there. Italians eat late, so to help you, below are some pointers for dining in Italy.
Being Irish, what I found unreal in Italy is that they serve bread on its own with no butter or olive oil. Just plain, dry bread. They eat bread with cured meat and cheese and no butter. How strange!!! In Ireland, we eat bread with our butter, one slice of bread with half a pound of butter. Garlic bread doesn't exist in Italy.
- Aperitivo is from 6 pm to 8 pm when Italians have a drink and a small snack with friends.
- Dinner is from 8 pm to 11 pm. The only reason restaurants open earlier is to cater to tourists.
- In bigger cities, make dinner reservations.
- Water – “Acqua naturale” is flat, and “acqua passata” is carbonated; water comes in a bottle and is usually the same price.
- Slow service – meals are eaten slowly in Italy; slow service is not bad service, and the waiter will not bring you the check until you ask for it.
- Learn the twirling technique without using a spoon.
- Never cut or break pasta – ever; it's a culinary sin; only use a fork.
- Never put cheese on seafood pasta; it's a big faux pas.
- Pasta is usually served on its own with other dishes to follow.
- Spaghetti and meatballs do not go together in Italy. Also, Italians never put chicken in pasta or on pizza. Usually, they do not have meat with pasta, although there are some exceptions.
Additional Charges on the Receipt (dining)
Restaurants, cafés, and bars charge a fee when you sit down to eat. It is a charge for table linen, tableware, oil, vinegar, and bread, although sometimes you don't get bread. All tourists and locals alike must pay this additional fee. The fee can differ from region to region and is usually between one to three euros. It is not a tip and will show on the receipt. Standing for coffee at the bar is cheaper than sitting down; you will see many Italians doing that.
In the region of Lazio, where Rome is located, there is no Coperto charged; but they charge for bread, which will be marked on the receipt as Pane and a little over one euro.
You will see a service charge added for groups of eight or more, called Servizio. You don't need to leave a tip if you see that. Tipping is not the standard 20% you would see in the US. Generally, you can leave a tip of one euro per person or don't leave a tip if you don't like the service.
Water Fountains in Rome
Rome has more than 2,500 drinking fountains that provide free, ice-cold, fresh spring water. The water for these drinking fountains comes directly from the mountains above the city, uncontaminated with chemicals and salt-free. The City of Rome tests for purity 250,000 times yearly, so it's safe. Don't buy water from street vendors; bring your water bottle and fill up from these water fountains.
When planning your trip, make a realistic itinerary. Although Italy is a small country, there is so much to see in each city that you can't do it all in one trip. Seeing a town for one day so you can travel the whole country is not worth it. Give yourself time to enjoy each place.
Be organized, figure out each day in your trip, and book as many things before you leave as it will take the stress out of doing it while you are on holiday.
I recommend buying skip-the-line tickets or pre-book tours before your trip to Italy. In January 2022, I booked a tour of the Colosseum & the Pantheon. Tours are always great as guides will tell you history or stories you would never know if you were on your own, even if you have an audio tour.
When we arrived, the lines were long with people waiting over an hour to enter, in January! Imagine the summer.
Italy Travel Tips: Hotels
Italy is the place to find unique places to stay; choose hotels with character and charm. Some differences you will see when staying in hotels in Italy are:
- Passport – law requires hotels to take a copy of your passport when you check-in.
- City or Tourist Tax – they are also required to charge a tourist tax which is not included in your quote and paid separately.
- Do not expect elevators everywhere; double-check before booking if this is a concern.
- Air conditioning is not standard, and if they have it, don't expect it to work as well as in the US.
- Ask for mosquito nets on the windows if traveling in the summer.
- Look for fun accommodation – don't miss the chance to stay in a Sasso in Matera or a Trullo in Alberobello!
Italy Travel Tips: Getting Around
Trains are the best way to travel around Italy. The high-speed trains are comfortable, and if you are traveling for more than two hours, upgrade to the next class, especially if you have a lot of luggage. We booked business class, and our carriage was half empty and quiet, which was nice. Trenitalia is Italy's national train service; they have the most routes and usually the best prices.
You can purchase tickets online or at the station. For high-speed trains, buy those earlier as the price escalates the nearer the travel date. Regional trains you can buy at the train station. On Saturdays, you sometimes get a two-for-one ticket offer, and if you have a group of over two people, you can sometimes get a 30% discount.
“Always” validate your printed train or bus tickets; you can find those machines either at the start of the platform or on the train or bus. If you don't, you can be fined up to one hundred euros, even if you are a tourist and say you didn't know you had to do it.
If you download the Trenitalia app – this will allow you to purchase train tickets on your phone, and the conductor can scan your ticket – no validation required.
*** However, you'll need to download or screenshot your tickets immediately after purchase. If you do not have an Italian tax ID, you use the Trenitalia app as a guest, and your tickets are not saved in the app. It's super easy to use.
Trenitalia – official Italian Rail network ticket provider – Trenitalia.com
Italo Treno – official seller for Italo high-speed train – https://www.italotreno.it/en
You don't hail a taxi on the street as you do in the US, you can try, but they won't stop for you. You go to special stops where there is usually a line of taxis waiting; you can also hail them via an app called myTaxi. I found the app excellent when in Rome. You don't need to tip taxi drivers. Lyft is better than Uber in Italy, but most people book taxis.
A mad fun option is an app called Scooterino Scooter ridesharing. You don't rent a scooter; you get on the back of a scooter, and the person drives you where you want to go. I didn't do this, but it has excellent reviews in the Apple app store. Next time I'm there…
You can visit all the big cities by train, but you need a car to see the countryside and smaller towns. Many Italian cities are not car-friendly; the streets are small, and it's hard to park. I would find a parking garage at the edge of the town and then walk.
- Rent the smallest car you can fit your luggage, remember the roads are small.
- Your car insurance may not cover you in Italy; verify what you need before leaving the US.
- Most car rentals are stick-shift; automatic cars are more expensive.
- Have all documents readily available. US drivers can find what you need here.
- Smaller car rental offices close on weekends; check their opening hours.
- It is forbidden to drive in most historical centers.
- Look out for signs that say ZTL, which means ‘Zona Traffico Limitato'; areas only open to permit holders, and you can incur steep fines.
- If you break traffic rules, expect fines to reach you months later. It happens very often and usually to people who didn't even realize to have overstepped the mark in towns with ZTL.
- Blue parking lines mean you must pay to park – have coins as most parking machines do not accept cards.
- Bring cash for motorways (Autostrade), which in Italy are expensive.
Time is Relative
I found it challenging to figure out when things were open in Italy and closed days. I visited for five weeks in January 2022, traveling all around the country. Some of this was due to the country slowing opening after the lockdown. It is advisable to double-check when you are due to visit or travel to make sure the times are what you think.
You will see places open all day in tourist areas; however, you can still show up somewhere and find it closed. Here are some general opening hours, but again, always double-check:
- Shops will generally open 10 am-1 pm and then 4-7 pm.
- Museums close on Mondays, including the famous ones. The Vatican Museum is the only one that closes on Sunday instead of Monday.
- Grocery Stores usually close on Wednesday afternoons.
- Pharmacies open 9-1 pm and then 4-7 pm
- Banks – generally open 8:30 am – 1 pm and then 2-3:30 pm.
Italy Travel Tips: Strikes in Italy
Strikes are usually transportation-related and paralyze Italian cities. However, the trade unions ensure they operate during commute hours, 6-9 am and 5-8 pm, Monday through Friday. Nearly everyone I know has experienced a strike in one form or another while visiting Italy, so have a backup plan if something like this happens.
While visiting Venice in January 2022, we left our hotel with our suitcases to get the waterbus to the train station. It should have been easy as the stop was right outside our hotel. When we got there, a big sign said they were on strike and would not run until 2 pm, too late. We then tried to find a water taxi and couldn't find any, so we decided to walk fast to the train station, it didn't seem that far away.
It was exhausting! You don't realize how many small bridges are in Venice until you drag a suitcase up and down them all. We were dripping in sweat when we reached the train station and not in the best mood. I wrote a review on this suitcase when I wrote it; I took the suitcase on a few trips and loved it. I beat it to death on that five-week trip to Italy and dragged it up and down all those bridges in Venice. It survived it all with only a few scratches and was very dirty. I thought the wheels would fall off with all the cobblestones and stairs.
No matter how organized and prepared you are, things like this will happen when you travel. Something always goes wrong; you roll with the punches, laugh, and make the best of it.
Cash | Cards
Most places accept credit cards but always carry cash. Shops in smaller cities, some car parks, and most parking meters only take cash. Use Visa or Mastercard with no foreign transaction fees in Italy. Discover, Diners Club and American Express are not commonly accepted. ATMs are the best way to get cash.
Some public toilets will charge a fee for use, usually no more than one euro, another good reason to always carry cash. Always bring a few tissues as they sometimes do not have toilet paper.
GPS & Maps
You will get lost whether you are driving, walking, or getting the train; it's part of the experience. Pick up a paper map at the local tourist office when you arrive and keep it with you as a backup. The GPS apps are easy in the US, but in Italy, I got lost. I used Apple and Google maps, but it didn't quite work, especially walking. If you look the route up online, take a screenshot, so you have it handy.
Italian, although each region has its dialect.
Cash | Cards
Most places accept credit cards but always carry cash. Shops in smaller cities, some car parks, and most parking meters only take cash. Use Visa or Mastercard with no foreign transaction fees in Italy.
Discover, Diners Club and American Express are not commonly accepted. ATMs are the best way to get cash.
The standard voltage in Europe is 230 V; buy a travel adapter before leaving the US.
113 Italian National Polizia
115 Italian Fire Brigade
118 Health Emergencies
EU Emergency Number
Dialing 112 from any country in the European Union will connect you to emergency services, such as police, fire, and ambulance services. Dialing 112 is free; you can dial from any mobile phone, landline, or payphone.
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