Italy is one of the most beautiful countries to visit in the world. Filed with iconic ruins to explore… Tuscan back roads… mouth-watering pizza… freshly made pasta… and some of the most delicious wines, it is a must to visit at least once in your lifetime. A friend and I decided to celebrate our 10-year friendship by road tripping through Italy and what an adventure it was! Of course, as with all my trips, I usually pick up some essential tips on the road (literally) that I wish I had known before venturing into the unknown, and as always, I share them here for other adventurers to pick up on. Here are 30 travel tips you need to know before visiting Italy.
1. You will get lost and its okay (just be prepared)
Okay let’s be honest, sometimes, it doesn’t matter how many maps you have or may travel guides you’ve read – you still get lost. Then the signal on your phone cuts out and you can’t reach the internet… and…. you’re lost again. It will happen and that’s okay. Ensure you’re always prepared for your wanderings through Italy by downloading some offline maps beforehand, doing research into road names and the direction you’re expecting to be headed. Fortunately, all the Italian road signs are pretty easy to decipher so it’s easy to find out where you’re headed.
2. Italy is more than just mainland
Most travelers come to Italy to see the bigger cities of Rome, Florence and Milan (all of which are beautiful) but truth be told, there is so much to see in Italy that travelers just don’t know about. Try exploring some of smaller islands – Sicily, Cinque Terre and Sardinia all have a completely different vibe to the bigger Italian cities.
3. You HAVE to try Gelato
It’s a given. You can’t come to Italy and not try gelato. In fact, everywhere you turn there is a little gelato store serving the most delicious (and random) flavors of gelato. Try some of the flavors you wouldn’t normally try – cinnamon and pumpkin for example…
4. Enjoy your dinner
Dinner is never rushed in Italy and usually starts somewhere around 8 – 9 pm. The more south you go, the later dinner is eaten. It’s usually a very relaxed affair in Italy so sit back, enjoy your wine and of course, your food.
5. Cappuccino’s are only ordered before 11 am
Cappuccino is strictly a breakfast drink in Italy! Who would have thought…? I mean I drink them all day, every day and at every hour back home but not in Italy! It you do happen to order one in Italy after 11 am, the locals will look at you weirdly or… know you have no idea about the coffee etiquette in Italy!
6. Card payments are accepted almost everywhere
Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere in Italy and that’s a good thing, but not all of Italy has they facility available. There are some smaller shops or pizzerias that still require cash so be sure to keep some on you. There are ATMs all around and most accept Visa and Mastercard.
7. Don’t forget to validate your train and bus tickets
Don’t forget to stamp your bus / train tickets in the little machines onboard buses and trains when travelling. I ticket validating machine is present on all public trains, buses and usually at the start of the platform. Don’t forget to do this as you will get fined if an inspector catches you with an unvalidated ticket!
8. Italy has some beautiful beaches
There is more to Italy the the big cities of Rome, Florence and Milan. There are tons of beautiful beaches lining the coastline so be sure to work these in to your adventure.
9. The north and south of Italy are very different
Its almost as if there were completely different countries! The north of Italy is known for me more industrialized and commercial while the south of Italy has a much more laid-back Mediterranean feel to it.
10. There are volcanoes in Italy!
Isn’t that an adventure in itself? There are some pretty active volcanoes in Italy that you can still explore and even hike to the top of like Mt Etna and My Vesuvius.
11. You will need to cover up when visiting religious sites
Many religious sites will ask ladies to cover up shoulders and legs when visiting. It’s a sign of respect so be sure to dress appropriately or carry a shawl with you.
12. Cinque Terre is pronounced as…
Oh yes… we went through almost half of our Italian adventure pronouncing it wrong. In fact, every local we asked had no idea where we were going! Cinque Terre is actually pronounced as Cheen-Kwah Tehr-Reh and roughly translated means the “five islands” or “five lands”.
13. A gondola can be costly
Hiring a gondola can be pretty expensive in Venice. In fact, there are standard rates that are charged but you can haggle with the gondoliers to get a cheaper price. They are usually priced per boat and not per the number of people on board.
14. Pizza everything
Um… yes please! Italy is known for its freshly baked pizza! Imagine piping hot doughy goodness with oozing cheese… mmm! Try the quiet side streets away from the busy tourist squares for some of the best pizzas. If you’re in Naples on the other hand, then you have to try….
15. The Vatican is its very own country
The Vatican is the smallest country in the world, encircled by the Italian capital city of Rome. In fact, it has a population size of just under 1000. To put its size into perspective, it’s about one eighth the size of New York’s central park. Much of Vatican City is hidden by walls and it is almost impossible to enter as a non-citizen or invited guest. The best way to get inside is to visit the Vatican Museums.
16. Fare la scarpetta
No pasta-based meal is complete without the act of fare la scarpetta! This means you use your bread to mop up any leftover sauce on your dinner plate.
17. Learn the espresso culture
There are a handful of ways to order coffee in Italy and its essential to learn some of the coffee know-hows before you arrive. Almost all the coffee in Italy is espresso based. While it might be common for us to walk around with a paper cup of coffee on the go but Italians never do this. They usually take a single shot of espresso at the counter and then get on their way.
18. Be careful when crossing the street
First impressions of Italian drivers are that they are somewhat ruthless on the road! Italy is well known for having many drivers on the road who don’t always obey the rules of the road. It’s not uncommon for people to get hit (or grazed) by cars when walking so be cautious when crossing the street and even standing on the edge of the sidewalk.
19. Expect crazy drivers on the road when renting a car
It’s true… driving in Italy can be a nightmare if you’ve never driven in a country where traffic rules are not taken so seriously. Yes, there are lines painted on road to create lanes but very often you will tiny Italian cars driving wherever there is space on the road! Italians love pressing their hooters and often you will find yourself driving down narrow roads with cars parked on either side of you. If may seem like you can’t fit… but somehow…. You’ll make it!
20. You’ll need to pay a tourist tax in each city that you visit
A tourist tax is generally charged by your hotel for each city you visit. This fee is set per person, per night and is usually around 2 euros per night though it does vary and some cities are more expensive than others.
21. Not all hotels and apartments have elevators
If you’re an off-the-beaten-path traveler and don’t always stay in 5-star hotels then it’s wise to say, choose your accommodation carefully when visiting Italy. Not all places have elevators and, in some instances, the elevators may not stop on the level of your particular room. Narrow, steep staircases are also common in Italy – in fact we had to climb three staircases with heavy suitcases, to reach out apartment in Cinque Terre.
22. You can order wine by the litre
House wine is usually sold by the liter and you’ll have your choice of red (vino rosso) or white (vine bianco) at dinner. What a beautiful thing that is to order a liter of wine for yourself at dinner!
23. It is forbidden to drive in most historic centres
Driving around Italy is an adventure itself, but the closer you get to the historic city centres, the more likely you are to come across ZLT zones. These ZLT zones are abbreviated for Zona Traffico Limitato or Limited Traffic Zone. Traffic in these areas are limited to those vehicles who have a permit. There may also be designated times which tourists can enter so be sure to read the signs carefully. If you accidentally do drive here without a permit or in the wrong time, you may just come home with a hefty ticket to pay.
24. Rent a tiny car that can still fit your luggage
The best thing about driving in Italy is that you can rent the smallest and cutest of cars to adventure in! Some of these cars may actually be so small that your luggage doesn’t even fit! That being said, renting a small car is actually a better option because of the narrow street,s tight parking spots and crazy drivers.
25. Tabacchi are not as scary as they sound
Yes they sound like some scary Italian tobacco shop but really, they are like little convenience stores selling the essentials, cigarettes, bus tickets, sim cards and cheap snacks. It’s also important to remember that many Tabacchi are closed on Sundays so make sure you buy your bus tickets early.
26. Uber does exist in Italy but it is limited
Currently the only form of Uber that exists in Italy is Uber Black and it only has a presence in Rome and Milan. MyTaxi is a great alternative but it does take some getting used to.
27. Keep an eye out for pickpockets
The bigger Italian cities tend to have a larger number of pickpockets so be extra careful when exploring. This is especially the case in busy train stations, crowded buses and well-known tourist areas.
28. You can drink wine in the streets
Yes, you can take that gorgeous glass of wine in to the streets and people watch in the piazza. It isn’t in Italian culture to get drunk and be disorderly in public so that’s why drinking wine in the streets is allowed.
29. You can buy museum tickets online
There are always long queues to visit the Italian museums and while you’ll still have to wait in line to have your security checks done, you’ll certainly cut down your wait time by booking tickets online.
30. Spaghetti Bolognese does not exist in Italy
Yes you read right. Not even Bologna has Bolognese style sauce. In fact nowhere in Italy will you find Spaghetti Bolognese! Instead try ordering tagliatelle al ragu which is a flatter wide style of pasta served with sauce that’s creamy and tomato based with some meat.