You have always dreamed of exploring Italy. You’ve imagined yourself indulging in the delectable dishes offered at every restaurant; in the wine that will feel like luxury to your taste buds, but will keep your wallet feeling full; of exploring the canals of Venice, the historical sites of Rome, and the delightful city of Florence. But now you have a few hesitations and aren’t quite sure what you need to know. So I am here to provide you with some Italy Travel Tips that will make you feel more confident when you get off the plane and order your first gelato.
Italy is the most beautiful country in all of Europe; or perhaps the world! I have loved Italy since I was a little girl, as I grew up surrounded by my Italian American family, their amazing cooking, and our yearly family reunion weekends with all the extended cousins. My love for Italy even surpasses my love for pizza…although they are quite synonymous, and I am thankful that they are basically one in the same.
I wish everyone would allow themselves the opportunity to explore this magnificent place that overflows with romance, beauty, fascinating history, diverse landscapes and a way of life that I wish was emulated throughout the rest of the world. They take things slow and they know how to enjoy life. They have a saying, “Il bel far niente” which translates to “the beauty of doing nothing” and that’s not something many people do well these days, but is something we should all strive to find beauty in.
Now that I am smitten as a kitten and dreaming of my next adventure to Italy, I’ll share some Italy Travel Tips with you all.
Lucky 13: Italy Travel Tips
If you have a couple of weeks to explore this beautiful country, you can cover more ground and venture farther into the countryside of Tuscany or perhaps head south to the Amalfi Coast.
- 1) You WILL get lost
There is so much beauty in getting lost and stumbling upon restaurants or parks or cobbled streets that weren’t on your itinerary. Embrace the journey and make it an adventure. When you are in Italy, there really isn’t a “wrong turn” as every corner has some story to tell.
And if you are brave enough to drive there, then I can ensure you that you will make several turns that will keep you further from your destination, but with a calm co-pilot and a sense of wonder, the adventure will bring you to somewhere special.
- 2) You Cannot Deny Yourself Gelato
Don’t hold back. Gelato is too delicious not to have. Eat it daily if your heart desires! There are so many amazing flavors and each one is somehow better than the last. The serving sizes are quite manageable and won’t make a daily dose feel too overwhelming. Pistacchio and Tiramisu are my top choices, but on a hot summer day I will go all in on a Limone!
- 3) Bring a Sweater for Churches
No bare shoulders allowed in the churches; so if you plan to enter any be sure to be dressed appropriately and have a shawl or sweater to cover your shoulders, even if it’s 100 degrees outside.
- 4) Plan for a Long Dinner
When in Rome…or any of Italy, expect your dinner to start late and be much longer than you anticipated. Most restaurants don’t even open until 8pm for dinner. It’s common to go out for an apertif between 6-7pm and then head over to dinner around 8pm. Then the service is slow; not because the staff is lazy, but because this is the culture. There dinner is an experience; a time to talk with those at your table; to sip wine and share stories; and to relax in good company after a full day.
The food is all prepared in-house and you wouldn’t want to rush the process, as the wait will always be worth it. Some people opt for a primi piatti (first dish of pasta, soup, salad, or rice) AND secondi piatti (second dish, usually meats or fish and more hearty), which makes the experience a bit longer.
After dinner, you may have a dessert or un caffe (espresso) or some grappa. Try to relax, unwind, and revel in the tranquility of it all.
- 5) Trains are Great; (unless there is a strike, but let’s not talk about that today :))
Seriously, the train system is wonderful in Italy and isn’t as nerve-wracking as some may believe. It’s become much easier now, with apps like “Trenitalia” where you can purchase your tickets and have it there, with no need to validate. (see #6 for validating information).
You can purchase tickets day of at the station, but after COVID regulations lightened, the trains do seem to be busier and can sellout, so if you know for sure when you plan to go somewhere, an advance purchase is a good idea. Learn more about the different types of trains here.
- 6) Validate Your Train Ticket
Regional Train tickets that are purchased at the station and printed MUST BE VALIDATED at the machine on the departures concourse before boarding or risk a large fine. With more stops and a slower pace, regional trains in Italy are much cheaper. These services connect with smaller cities and towns and are useful if you want to discover Italy’s hidden corners. Most visitors to Italy will experience the high speed trains but if you want to go to the Cinque Terre or travel by train from Naples to Sorrento you will need to travel on the regional rail network.
- 7) The North and South are Quite Different
Besides the geographical differences with the Dolomites dominating and the wine regions a bit more prominent in the North, there is also more industrialization (and jobs) in the North. People of the south with often tell you that the people of the north are less friendly, more uptight, and don’t get them started on the food comparison.
In the south you have a much more laid-back Mediterranean feel. People are more likely to embrace you, to share their life story with you, and to invite you over for a coffee or glass of wine, which might even turn into a full blown 3 course meal!
Both the North and South are stunning and well worth the visit.
- 8) Learn Some Basic Italian
Nobody will expect you to be fluent, but if you show even a tiny bit of effort using their language, you will be amazed at how much more open and friendly the locals will be with you.
I always laugh when I say a single sentence and the Italians are praising me for how well I speak, despite my awful midwest accent. Remember, they may speak English, but they too might be nervous to use it with a native speaker; and you are, after-all, in their country.
Check out my previous blog about Italian Phrases to Learn before your trip.
- 9) Drink The Water in the Square (Piazza)
Those water fountains you see spring up in various piazzas around the country are for drinking, or even for a quick splash on the face or neck to cool off on a hot day. The water, especially in the main cities, is clean, safe and FREE. Fill up your water bottle and save yourself some money, which you can then spend on something more delicious, like wine, gelato, gnocchi, pizza…this list could easily go on.
- 10) Get Off the Tourist Trail
Sure Rome, Florence and Venice are amazing and great places to visit, but don’t forget to enjoy the smaller towns, which make up much more of the country and give you a great insight into how many Italians live day to day and how they continue to embrace the simple ways of living and the ways of cooking from their nonnas, which was so great, it never needed a “makeover” or “upgrade”
Be sure to take a stroll in the local piazza around 5pm to see the small town come to life and the community join together for a daily passeggiata (stroll)
- 11) Shop the Markets
Food is everything in Italy and for those in the smaller towns with ample room for gardens, it’s typical to walk outside, pick a ripe veggie and add that to the days pasta dish. I’ll never forget sitting at a family’s home near Napoli when the mom told the son to go pick some lemons and make us all lemonade. He got out a flashlight and small ladder and just 100 feet from us started plucking giant, ripe lemons right off the tree. Sure, it took more than 20 minutes for the lemonade to arrive, but OH MY GOSH, it was delicious and such a cool experience. Remember, they don’t rush things there, and that’s often a GREAT thing.
For those who live in the city, don’t have room for a garden or are in need of something not in their garden, the markets are the place you will find locals gathering all the freshest ingredients.
- 12) Don’t Overbook Your Trip
Listen, I get it. For some people you will only have ONE opportunity to go to Italy, so you “want to see it all!” Well, “seeing” all the monuments in Italy and EXPERIENCING Italy are two very different things.
Obviously, it’s an amazing experience to see the historical sites, the art, the architecture, and to drink the wine and eat all the food. And you should do this, BUT, you don’t have to see everything. Make sure you take the time to get lost, to stumble into a restaurant that wasn’t on your radar (the best ones are often outside the tourist areas), to watch the community gather in the piazza, to sit on a bench and just take it all in.
- 13) Don’t Drink a Cappuccino After Lunch
Coffee drinks with milk are a drink to be enjoyed in the morning in Italy and you will receive strange looks if you try to order them anytime after lunch. For your afternoon pick-me-up stick with “un caffe” (espresso).