La Dolce Vita: Essential Tips For Visiting Italy
Updated: Dec 20, 2020
Heading to Italy for the first time?
Italy is one of my favorite countries, a special place and dream destination I could return to time and time again. Italy has Europe's richest and most ancient culture. After all, Italy is the cradle of European civilization — founded by the Roman Empire and embellished by the Roman Catholic Church. Not to mention the pasta and gelato!
To keep your trip humming along smoothly, you'll need some information and tips about Italy. Here's everything you need to know about visiting Italy and what mistakes to avoid.
Mama Mia! It's a long list of tips for "the Boot."
Italy Travel Guide: Essential Tips for Visiting Italy and Planning Your Trip
1. Know a Little Italian
Learn some basic words and phrases. English is fairly widely spoken. But you'll get off on a better foot and earn respect if you use a few common phrases.
Please -- Porta favore
Thank you -- Grazie
One espresso -- un (OON) espresso
Hi/bye (informal) -- Ciao
Good Morning -- Buongiorno
Good evening -- Buon sera
2. Learn More Italian
If you have time before your trip, learn a little more Italian. It will likely enhance your visit. I use Duolingo to pick up some Italian or French. Download the app on your phone. You can practice in tiny manageable chunks.
3. When To Go To Italy
The best time to visit is shoulder season, spring or fall. May, September, and October are the best months weather wise. I can say from experience that summer is dreadful and best avoided, unless you're headed to northern Italy. In the summer, Italy's extremely hot and extremely overrun with tourists.
I've recently visited Italy in late Feb through early March. Aside from a few rain drops, it was pretty darn pleasant and I had museums and main attractions mostly to myself.
4. Most Italian Cities are Walkable
Walking is decidedly my favorite way to get around when I travel. I'll only deviate from this approach if I'm somewhere very large, like Paris.
In Italy, you can walk basically everywhere. Even in Rome, I never used the metro and only took a cab once. Walking is also the best way to explore Italy's small cities and towns. You see more that way and can get happily lost meandering through atmospheric cobbled lanes.
5. Buses in Italy
If you're taking the bus in Italy, be forewarned. You'll need to validate your ticket or risk a fine. You should pre-purchase a ticket at an electronic machine at the bus station or a "Tabacchi" shop. Don't rely on being able to buy a ticket once you're on the bus. The machines might not work.
6. Trains In Italy
Trains are an efficient way to get around Italy. You likely won't need a rail pass. Most train travelers in Italy take relatively short rides on the Milan–Venice–Florence–Rome circuit. For these trips, it's cheaper to buy point-to-point train tickets than a rail pass.
You can buy tickets online here or at the ticket machines at the train stations. If you use a ticket window instead, be sure to get in the right (and likely slow moving) line. For a complete guide to taking trains in Italy click here.
When you buy a train ticket in Italy, it doesn't have a time or date on it. Before you board a train, you need to validate your ticket. Claiming you forgot isn't a sufficient excuse to avoid a fine. The yellow validation machines are usually on the train platforms. And you can't buy your ticket on the train either.
Train travel isn't like air. You don’t need to be there well in advance of departure, if you've already purchased your tickets and reserved your seat. The train won’t be listed on the master departure board until about 20 minutes before it leaves.
7. Renting Car is a Great Option
I am a huge fan of road trips by car. It gives you so much more freedom than a bus or tour would. And you don't have to stick to an inflexible schedule.
Plus, renting a car lets you explore off the beaten track destinations or under the radar villages that aren't accessible by public transportation. The small towns aren't car friendly though. So you'll want to park outside the town center or in a lot at the town entrance.
I usually use AutoEurope to rent cars. Make sure you rent a small car. It'll help squeezing into medieval lanes or tight parking spots. If you can drive a manual stick shift, you'll find that rentals are very cheap.
Just be sure to learn how your car goes into reverse before you leave the rental car lot. It's always different. Once, I had to google YouTube videos to figure out how to put a car in reverse.
You don't want a car in Rome, Venice, or Florence though. So if you're starting your trip in one of these cities, pick up the car when you leave. Be sure to have cash for tolls.
8. Wifi in Italy
You'll likely have decent wifi at any hotel or Air Bnb you stay at. There are a few free wifi hotspots. But generally if you want phone service to use your apps or search google, you should either buy a sim card on arrival or arrange service in advance with your cellular service.
9. Carry Cash
Credit cards are widely accepted at hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions. But not everyone takes credit cards, especially for small purchases like a coffee or souvenir.
Carry cash at all times. That is, if you want a gelato. You may need it for the loo as well. Try to carry small bills. No one wants to make change for a 100 euro note.
10. Where To Stay in Italy?
Italy has plenty of beautiful 5 star hotels. But generally, in Italy's cities, I prefer to stay in an apartment or Air Bnb. When you're doing urban sightseeing, it pretty much eats up the day. You won't have time to enjoy the facilities of a fancy hotel.
11. How Long To Stay in Venice?
Historic Venice is an overwhelming beautiful city. But it's also overwhelming crowded. If you don't like crowds, you may just plan one day in Venice and base somewhere else, like Verona. Unless you're there off season, when the crowds ebb.
Last time I was in Venice, I stayed 5 days and preferred it over my first slap dash visit. I also spend quite a bit of time outside the San Marco area where most tourists congregate. If you stay in Dorsoduro or Cannareggio, you'll have a more pleasant experience and enjoy the charms of a laid back Venice.
Also, like most popular tourist sites, it's best to avoid Venice in the summer. And unless you have deep pockets, don't bother with a gondola ride. Instead, take the traghetto across the Grand Canal for 2 euros. Or take a vapporetto ride and see all the must see sites along the Grand Canal.
12. How Long To Stay in Rome?
I can't overemphasize how much there is to do in Rome. Rome is overflowing with archaeological sites, must see landmarks, exquisite churches, and art at every turn both inside and outside. I was recently there for a full week and still felt like I missed too much.
If you really want to see Rome's hidden gems and newly opened archaeological sites, you need more than 1-2 hectic days dashing through the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and the Vatican Museums. But if you have plans to travel through Tuscany or Umbria a few days may be all you have. If so, click here for my 3 day itinerary for Rome.
When you arrive in Rome, you'll likely fly into Fiumicino Airport. The cabs are notorious for ripping off tourists. The best thing to do is arrange a private transfer (my pick) or take the Leonardo Express, which takes you to Rome's Termini Station.
13. Don't Skip Bologna
I loved underrated Bologna. Compared to Venice or Florence, it's crowd free and laid back. It makes a good base for day trips to Parma, Ferrara, Ravenna, Modena, and even Florence or Venice.
But the main reason to stop here is the food. Bologna isn't nicknamed La Grassa, the Big Fat, for nothing. It's a true foodie hub. And isn't that part of the joy of traveling in Italy?
14. Follow the Italian Eating Schedule
Meals times vary from the US. In Italy, lunch is from noon until 3:00 p m. Dinner is from 7:30 pm to 10:00 pm.
Don't expect a hearty American style breakfast either. In Italy, breakfast consists of espresso, cappuccino, and a sweet pastry.
15. A "Bar" in Italy Isn't a "Bar" in the US
In the US, a bar is where you drink beer and cocktails. In Italy, a bar is where you get coffee. Most Italians stand up to drink their coffee because it's cheaper than sitting down at a cafe.
One thing to consider is that, for Italians, its verboten to order a cappuccino after 11:00 am. Italians believe that milk is bad for the digestion and so stick with espresso for the rest of the day.
16. How To Order Coffee in Italy
Italy has some of the world's best coffee and a serious coffee culture. Here's a breakdown of the different kinds of coffee you can order, so you don't make a mistake:
Espresso: a shot of dark coffee
Caffe Normal: another name for a shot of espresso
Caffe Doppio: 2 shots of espresso (mostly for tourists)
Coffee Americano: basically espresso diluted with lots of water
Cappuccino: equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foamed milk
Caffe Lungo: a "long coffee," which has more volume and is milder than espresso
Caffe Corto: the densest for of coffee, even stronger than espresso
Caffe Latte: coffee served with hot milk and less foam
Caffe Macchiato: a shot of espresso with a dash of steamed milk
Latte Macchiato: a shot of milk with a dash of coffee
Caffe Corretto: spiked coffee, usually with a shot of grappa
17. The Italian Happy Hour is the "Apertivo"
Apertivo is the Italian version of happy hour. It's a ritual of indulging in a pre-dinner cocktail or apertivo and small nibbles of freefood. It's a luxe version of our happy hours.
Unlike the American happy hour though, the Italian Apertivo may last from 6:00 to 9:00 pm. For their Apertivo, Italian like traditional cocktails like a Bellini, Negroni, Campari, or Apersol Spritz.
18. Eat the Local Specialty
Italian cuisine varies widely by region. As you plan your trip, learn about what to eat where. Each region is known for specific dishes. Rome is known for pasta carbonara, Milan for risotto, Bologna for pasta ragu, Naples for pizza, etc. Don't ask for things you might eat at home, like a pepperoni pizza.
You'll need to ask for the check at the end of your meal. In general, Italian meals are a relaxed affair, not to be rushed. Service isn't as quick as you're used to. So the waiters won't bring the check at the end of your meal unless you ask for it. You can ask for the check by saying "Il conto, por favore."
For small, popular or Michelin starred restaurants, you'll need a reservation. This is especially true if they've been featured in Tripadvisor or other sites.
19. Hidden Charges For Meals
Don't be surprised when you're given bottled water with your meal. Italians generally don't drink tap water. It's not really a thing. You'll have to pay for water.
There's also often a coperto, which is a cover charge. Don't be shocked. It's not a scam. It's usually a service charge for the bread served, which is pretty tasty. You'll be charged even if you didn't order bread. It'll be listed as pane on your bill.
20. Don't Eat Near Popular Tourist Sites
Not every restaurant in Italy is a food haven or life changing experience. This is a utopian fantasy. You should do your research, not just walk into any random restaurant.
Since Italy is a tourist magnate, there are scads of lower quality restaurants catering to fast moving tourists, especially in touristy areas in Rome, Florence, and Venice.
A restaurant is likely a tourist trap if:
There's a host outside trying to lure in guests
If you see a lot of tourists eating there
If an English menu is posted outside
You'll have more luck with a tucked away off the beaten path family-owned restaurant filled with locals. If you haven't made a reservation, follow the Italians.
21. Drink the Local Specialty
As with food, you should drink the local wine. The wine varies by region, and generally the local wine pairs well with the local food. Click here to see an Italian wine map by Wine Folly.
As a general rule, drink red wine when eating meat, cheeses, or hearty pastas. Drink white wine with seafood on the coast. The "house" wine is often an affordable tasty option.
22. You Don't Need To Tip ... Much
You don't need to tip in Italy, unlike the US. The waiters make a good living wage. However, it is customary to round up if you've had good service with a few euros.
23. The Midday Break called Riposo
Shops are often closed during the lunch and dinner hours, so that the owners can enjoy the midday Italian riposo, or siesta. Don't plan your shopping for that time.
24. Dress Appropriately For Church Sightseeing
Many of Italy's churches, basilicas, and cathedrals are must see sites in Italy. Not only are the marbled facades dazzling, but the interiors are also incredible. Many of them were decorated by the most famous artists of the time, including by Caravaggio, Bernini, and Michelangelo.
But if you want to see the art inside, you have to follow the dress code. For women, that means no showing of shoulders or legs above the knee. Bring a scarf to cover yourself on warm days. For men, it generally means no shorts above the knee. Generally, short shorts or mini skirts are a no no.
25. Restroom are Scarce in Italy
Restrooms in Italy, like much of Europe, are scarce commodities. Public restrooms are extremely rare. If they do exist, you'll likely have to pay a euro to use them.
To combat this problem, you have three methods: (1) stop in at a bar for a quick espresso so you can use the facilities (you can't just walk into a bar); (2) plan your day to include a museum or major attraction that has facilities for its customers; (3) be on the lookout for a McDonalds. Sometimes they're unlocked. Sometimes you have to pay to use them.
26. Bring a Water Bottle
Bring a water bottle with you for your day of sightseeing. In Italy, you can often refill your water bottle at the many public fountains. Just make sure it doesn't say "non-potable."
27. Buy Skip the Line Tickets for Major Attractions
Don't waste your precious time in Italy standing in long lines. Buy skip the line tickets for the popular attractions, especially in Rome and Florence.
In Rome, you can buy a trifecta pass for the big three -- the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill. You'll also need to make a time reservation for the Colosseum. Or click here to get all the information on Rome's Omnia and Roma Passes.
Many of Rome's newest (and fabulous) archeological sites can only be accessed with a special pass, called the S.U.P.E.R. Pass. Click here for a guide to that pass and what sites it covers.
You'll also want skip the line passes for places such as the Vatican Museums and the Borghese Gallery in Rome, the Uffizi Gallery and the Duomo complex in Florence, and St. Mark's Basilica and the Doge's Palace in Venice. Click here for my guide on the 7 sites you should make advance reservations for in Florence.
28. Book Accommodations Outside the Noisy Central Areas
Most Italian cities can be lively, with people staying up well into the wee hours. This is great when you're out having fun. But, if you're a light sleeper like me, you may want to stay off center to keep the noise out of your bedroom when the sandman comes.
It's easier to stay away from the hotspots. Usually, you're never too far from them anyway. For example, last time I was in Rome, I stayed in an Air Bnb in the Trastevere neighborhood across the Arno and away from centro historico.
29. It Helps To Be an Early Riser
Most Italian cities reward early risers, from gorgeous sunrises to empty streets for frolicking in peace. If you save all your sightseeing for early to late afternoon, that's a sure fire recipe for crowds. Especially if you haven't pre-purchased skip the line tickets.
30. Do Some DIY Prep Before You Go