If you are thinking of traveling to Italy one day -- land of pasta, the Renaissance, crazy amazing architecture, and some of the friendliest people in the world -- this post is for you. We just spent a month living in Tuscany and exploring many areas to the north and south. It has become one of our favorite countries for so many reasons. However, there are some things that may surprise you. I put together a quick list of a few things you should know before packing your bags. Be sure to bookmark this and return to it as needed. Here we go...
1. Phrases to Know
Although many Italians in the tourist centers will know a bit of English, there are many who do not know any English at all. We used the Conversations function in the Google Translate app a lot in Italy, especially when we visited smaller cities and towns. Putting in the effort to speak their language shows them you are interested in their culture and them -- the Italians are such warm, friendly people. Don't be surprised if they end up wanting to talk to you and teach you more Italian.
Here are some basics:
Hi & Bye = Ciao
Thank You = Grazie
Excuse Me = Per Favore
Molte Bene = Very Good
You're Welcome = Prego
2. Don't Be Afraid to Get Off the Beaten Track
There is so much more to Italy than the big cities of Rome, Florence, and Venice. Yes, these cities are amazing but they are so crowded and can be very expensive. Also, most of the people you see there are tourists just like you. When you only focus on the major tourist cities, you don't have as much of a chance to interact on a deeper level with locals. TIPS: When visiting the big cities, try to spend a whole day (or at least half of your day) off the beaten, tourist path by heading out of the crowded centers. Find a locals spot to eat and strike up a conversation with a local restaurant or shop owner. Ask your hotel host for local recommendations and don't be afraid to strike up conversation with them. We have had many interesting conversations with our house hosts, and even ended up making traditional, homemade pasta with our host family in Italy. What a special memory.
I really recommend staying in a smaller, less crowded city just outside the bigger cities. For example, you could stay in Lucca instead of Florence and easily take the train into Florence when you want to do your sightseeing. We absolutely loved Lucca - it has a more modern city area and a beautiful historic city center to enjoy. We especially loved the walking path on the old wall that surrounds the historic center. The views are awesome!
Keep a look out for future posts about the out of the way places we loved most. Here is a picture of me in Lucca enjoying the lake at Villa Reale di Marlia on Easter after the egg hunt.
3. Restaurants and Eating
Usually you will seat yourself and tipping is not mandatory. In fact, most restaurants include a "Coperto" (cover charge) to the bill, so you really don't need to tip. However, if you really had amazing service and really want to leave a tip, by all means do. You could round the bill up or leave 1-2 euro on the table. It will always be appreciated.
To find the best food, avoid places right in the touristy areas. Tourist restaurants are not as authentic, not as tasty, and will always be more expensive. TIP: It is usually a tourist spot if the restaurant has signs with pictures of food on them, or if the staff is hanging out in front trying to lure you in. We suggest taking a look at reviews and walk a few blocks off the tourist path to find a more authentic and delicious experience.
Hours for lunch are typically between 12-3 and then restaurants close until 7 or 8. You may be able to sit and have drinks earlier, but dinner won't start until later. So, be sure to eat during the lunch time. There may be some grab and go places but they can be hard to find. We always carry healthy snacks and water in our daypacks.
4. Some Cultural Differences
Italians are a very friendly and passionate people. Compared to Americans, Italians tend to talk a bit louder and like to make larger gestures with their hands. They stand closer than Americans do and will often touch a shoulder or pat your back when talking to you. It is not meant to be an invasion of privacy but instead, it is a sign of warmth and friendship. TIP: When you are on crowded trains or in busy museums, it is not uncommon to be packed in like sardines and touching other people. Italians are also not afraid to gently push their way into and/or through a crowded area.
When meeting new people, a handshake is best and it's polite to address them with their formal title ("Signore" for a man and "Signora" for a married woman) until given permission to use their first name. A kiss on each cheek is reserved for closer acquaintances.
In general, Italians tend to have a more relaxed feeling about time and schedules. They know how to enjoy life with long lunches and dinners and they love their evening walks around town, La Passeggiata. TIP: If you schedule a tour though, don't be late. Tour companies tend to be right on time so be sure you pay attention to deadlines.
Also, just know - if you cook with an Italian - you may be taken in as part of the family. Nonna Guliana (our house host) taught us how to make traditional, homemade past and pizza. It has been one of our favorite experiences so far!
5. Bathrooms Can Be Hard to Find in Tourist Areas & Often Charge a Fee
Public restrooms in cities/towns can be difficult to find and usually charge a small fee. The museums and archaeological sights will usually have a bathroom - some will be free and some will charge 1 euro. So, it is always good to have a few 1 euro coins with you. If driving, you can find free and clean restrooms at the many rest stops along the Autostrada.
TIPS: When sightseeing, we usually plan to eat lunch at a restaurant so we can all use their bathroom for free. Also, at the Coliseum, many people try to go to the restroom at the main ticket area/cafe, but the lines are crazy long and you have to get a ticket at the cafe counter first (two lines to stand in). Keep walking past the ticket area and around to the other side of the Coliseum and you will find another restroom. When I went, there was no line at all!
6. Getting Around
Public transportation is a great, cheap alternative to an Uber but they sometimes run late. You can purchase tickets at a Tabaccheria (tobacco shop) but be sure to validate them at the station or on the bus/train. Take the inexpensive regional trains if traveling to nearby cities and take the faster, more expensive train only when needing to cover long distances.
7. Traveling by Car is a Breeze BUT...
If you plan to drive into cities, do not drive into ZTL (Zona Traffico Limitato) zones. You will be fined. There are signs indicating where the zones are but the signs can be small and confusing to decipher. Be sure to use the Waze app to plan your route ahead of time and park in parking areas outside of these ZTL zones.
There are speed traps and cameras everywhere. The tolerance level is very low and you could get a ticket even if you drive just 5km above the speed limit. They have up to a year to issue you a speeding ticket and if you don't pay within 60 days, the fine doubles. Don't speed - even if others are speeding.
As an American, you need to have an International Driving Permit (IDP) with you along with your passport. Be sure to get this at AAA before you head out, or you can easily obtain one online for a bit more money.
Italy has more rest stops on the Autostrada than any other country in Europe. These rest stops will have gas, an eatery (usually an Autogrill), and bathrooms that are clean and FREE! This was a very important thing for me to know. ;)
Last, you will pay more if an attendant fills up your car at a gas station. Look for self-serve pumps if you want to save money.
Some other things to keep in mind:
Always drive with headlights on
No turning right on red
Keep right except to pass
Vehicles approaching from the right always have the right of way
White parking spots are free, blue are paid
8. Don't Shop for Authentic Italian Items in Tourist Areas
Sadly, many of the leather and other shops in tourist centers do not sell items made in Italy. So, if you want to do some shopping for authentic Italian items, ask your hotel host where to go. Also, don't expect the prices to be any cheaper for Italian brand names like Gucci - they can sometimes be more expensive depending on the strength of the euro.
9. Italians Look Good -- Don't be Intimidated ;)
Whenever we were out and about, we noticed that Italians always look good - I mean, they look so put together with nice outfits and shoes. We felt a bit out of place with our t-shirts and keens but we were definitely comfortable. ;) The good news is, they don't really care how we look. They can probably spot us tourists a mile away. So, don't worry about dressing up just be aware that you do want to follow dress codes in nicer restaurants and churches. And, if you don't want to stand out as a complete tourist, plan to dress it up a bit when in Italy. It may be fun and you will look good in your pics!
10. Tours in Rome ARE Worth It
We hardly ever buy tickets for an organized tour, but in Rome it was wonderful to be able to skip the lines. Lines to get tickets for the Vatican can sometimes be 2-3 hours long! We appreciated being able to go right in, have a very knowledgeable tour guide, and know we had tickets in hand. Here are some other tips:
Reserve your tickets way ahead of time for the Coliseum and the Vatican. They are two of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe and will be very busy, especially during the summer.
Be sure to go to the bathroom before the tour and keep water and non messy snacks in your bag. The Vatican tour took 3 hours, and that was a good day! Our tour guide said that on busy days, getting through the tour can sometimes take up to 4-5 hours!
If you have young kids, I suggest you save those longer tours for when they are older. Our tween and teen barely survived - actually, Arlo and I barely survived the Vatican ;) Maybe opt for the Coliseum instead, although much of it can be enjoyed from the outside while walking around the grounds.
Try to see the Coliseum lit up at night -- it is fantastic!
When going inside churches, you need to have long pants/skirts and your shoulders need to be covered. In the summer, my husband and boys wear zip off pants. I like wearing cotton capris or a long, light skirt. If wearing a tank top, just be sure to bring something like a light scarf with you for covering your shoulders.
Yes, the sights in Rome can be very crowded but there is a reason -- they are truly amazing! Keeping a positive travel mindset, knowing what to expect, and staying focused on the architecture, paintings, and scenery is important for enjoying all that Rome has to offer. When in Rome...
Wow! I guess I squeezed in more than 10 things, but now you are definitely ready to get sidetracked in Italy. Italy will always hold a special place in my heart. It is my favorite because of the people, the scenery, the art, the history, okay -- I just love it all!! Chewy, our dog, loves it too!
Nancy and fam