Italy is a country of juxtapositions. The country can simultaneously make us want to swoon and pull our hair out as we admire its beauty and get frustrated by its quirks. While traveling to Italy for our group trips, we’ve long learned to embrace it for all that it is, both good and bad. And we’ve learned a few key things along the way.
We’ve already shared ways to not stand out like a tourist when you travel to Italy and our best tips for eating in Italy. But, to make sure you’re fully covered, here are more than 20 good-to-know essential Italy travel tips to make your next trip all that much better:
More Than 20 Essential Italy Travel Tips
Read on for essential tips to know before traveling to Italy:
The Country Is Younger Than You May Think
Italy had some commitment issues as it remained a collection of independent states until the late 19th century. It wasn’t until 1861 (way more recent than most people think) that the peninsula started to unify as the Kingdom of Italy. And the country didn’t become a republic until after World War II!
The North And South Are Rather Different
Another of our top Italy travel tips? If you travel to Italy, you’ll notice that Northern and Southern Italy are very different places. They are so different in many ways (culturally, linguistically, historically, geographically, and culinarily) that some say they might as well be two different countries.
Northern Italy has vibes that are more “continental” or classically European in everything from the architecture to the way of doing business, not to mention that the weather is colder, and the land is more rugged. It is the country’s industrial center. Meanwhile, Southern Italy (we’re talking roughly Rome and south) is warmer, has more beaches, is more traditionally agriculturally based, and is less populated.
So Much So There Is A Divide In The Food
That divide in the country can even be seen in the food traditions. Yes, every region of Italy has food traditions that it’s known for, but one of our essential Italy travel tips is that there is a distinct difference between the food in the north and south of Italy.
In step with its colder climate and the neighboring countries of France and Switzerland, Northern Italy uses more dairy and heavier meats in its cooking. Also, they don’t just eat pasta but also cook grain dishes like risotto and polenta. Meanwhile, Southern Italy is all about food that’s fresh and seasonal and uses olive oil, tomatoes, and more seafood.
Italians Don’t Eat A Ton Of Food
On our Italy group trips, guests often ask how Italians eat that delicious food without gaining weight. The answer is it’s all about portion control. And with that, here are some Italian travel tips related to meals.
You’ll notice breakfast is very light (often a coffee and a pastry), lunch maybe just pasta or a salad (and even then, the pasta portions aren’t the size of those found in the States), and dinner tends to be a few courses. Head here for more about dining etiquette and tips for eating in Italy!
Lines Are More Of A Concept Than A Rule
One thing I had difficulty getting used to when I moved to Italy? How they queue up for lines, which is to say not at all. So, instead of getting frustrated, we follow this Italy travel tip and embrace it.
Rather than file into (and remain in) an orderly line the way English or Americans would do, Italians usually stand around in a crowd near the counter or place where they’re waiting for service. Though it may seem like no real rhyme or reason, rest assured that those around you are keeping tabs on their place in line, so be sure to do the same!
Trains Are The Easiest Way To Travel Around Italy
Italians are given a hard time about how things don’t run on time there (and, tbh a lot of things do run late), but the Italian trains are not one of them. Okay, yes, some of the multi-stop local and regional trains often run behind, but the high-speed trains are very prompt. With more than 200 trains daily connecting the country’s major cities, we use the trains whenever we’re traveling between the big cities. Not to mention, it’s one of the major ways you can commit to traveling more sustainably in Italy.
Pro Italy Travel Tip: You sometimes have to validate your train ticket before you board the train (especially with regional and local trains) so be sure to ask when you buy your ticket or you may get fined!
But You Can Drive In Italy Too
Even though we adore train travel in Italy, we also drive there a lot. That’s because it’s often more efficient when you’re going to smaller towns or if you’re doing a lot of day trips.
Before you drive in Italy, there are a few key Italy travel tips. First, you are legally required to have an International Driver’s License to drive in Italy (and in many parts of the European Union). Many European-based rental car agencies (like Europcar or Sixt) often won’t rent you a car unless you can show proof of the IDL.
Second, keep in mind that the majority of cars in Italy are manual transmissions and that they tend to be small (like the size of a Honda Civic or smaller), so triple-check the kind of car you’re renting before you hit the “confirm” button.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the main highways in Italy are in great shape, but the drivers do drive faster and more aggressively than in the United States. Finally, driving between big Italian cities and smaller towns is more manageable. Still, we don’t recommend driving in the major cities (especially Milan, Rome, and Naples), where you’ll likely waste your day getting lost or stuck in traffic.
Just Know Where You Can (And Cannot) Drive And Park
Yup, we have a few more Italy travel tips about driving. A lot of city centers are pedestrian-only zones (known as ZTLs or zona traffico limitato). In other words, you cannot drive there unless you are a resident are renting an apartment, or are going to a hotel in that area. Also, know that GPS is not 100% reliable, as it may take you down streets that are too narrow for your car.
Finally, know where you can and cannot park. Here is a rundown of the most common types of parking spots in Italy: white-lined parking spaces are free, blue-lined spots are paid (there’s usually a nearby kiosk), yellow-lined spots are for impaired motorists, and pink spots are for expectant mothers.
Don’t Expect Cars To Stop When You Use The Crosswalk
Our last note about driving: Italians often don’t yield to pedestrians. So, if there’s ever a time to stop looking at your phone and pay attention when you cross the street (yes, even if you’re in the crosswalk!), it’s in Italy.
Don’t Travel To Italian Cities In August
Speaking of travel, our number one tip of all our Italy travel tips for summer travelers is to avoid Italian cities in August. The country’s major summer holiday known as Ferragosto (basically like Italy’s 4th of July) happens on August 15th and a huge amount of the country takes off for a few weeks before and after that date. Everyone from boutique owners to restaurants will close shop during this time so you will end up in a relative ghost town if you travel to many a big city.
Dressing Well Will Get You Far
As the birthplace of so many fashion houses, Sophia Loren, and chic towns like Positano and Taormina, it’s no surprise that looks matter in Italy. A lot of people chalk that up to mean that Italians only care about model-perfect looks but really it’s more about dressing and presenting yourself well.
That means it’s much more about putting the effort into looking presentable – polished shoes, tailored clothing, etc – whenever you go out in public, and that Lululemons and flip flops are not a look that goes over well in Italy.
Try To Fare La Bella Figura
Speaking of, a lot of people think the term fare la Bella figura is about looking beautiful, but really, it’s about putting your best foot forward. From your manners and the way you conduct yourself in public to the way you dress, it’s considered a sort of art to make a good impression when you’re in Italy. Along those lines, if you fare la brutta figura you have failed and have in fact made a bad impression.
Work-Life Balance Is A Priority
Yes, Italy has been a country of business owners dating back to the guilds of the Renaissance, but that doesn’t mean they’re all about their jobs. Americans who move to Italy lament that it’s harder to do business in Italy because there’s a lot of bureaucracy, people aren’t particularly punctual, and things don’t move as fast as in the United States.
The major advantage, though is that there’s generally fewer keeping-up-with-the-Joneses going on and a big priority placed on family time and downtime, be it for an aperitivo with a friend, a passeggiata in the evening or a weekend road trip to get away from the city.
Italian Politics Are More Dynamic Than The United States
Start discussing with an Italian, and sooner or later, it will turn to politics. Italians take a lot of interest in their politics — so much so that it might as well be a national sport. It should be said that Italian politics are more volatile than those of the USA. Rather than get into everything you need to know about Italian politics, suffice it to say that we tend to listen more than talk when the subject of Italian politics arises.
Suppose you want to learn more about politics in Italy. In that case, we highly recommend you read the book The Italians by John Hooper and/or La Bella Figura: A Field Guide To The Italian Mind by Beppe Severgnini.
Strikes Are A Regular Occurrence
The bad news is that strikes and demonstrations are pretty common in Italy. The good news is that they’re usually announced in advance and don’t tend to last longer than a few days. Transportation strikes are the most common strike that interrupts travelers to Italy, so be on the lookout for them by checking up on the news or asking your concierge for updates before your travels.
Also, Italians are very politically vocal, so that you may come across a demonstration or two. They are almost always non-violent, but they may cause general chaos as big crowds tend to do!
Greet Those Around You
Italians are, for the most part, more social than Americans, and, as such, they tend to greet strangers regularly. Be it when you’re walking down the street, entering an elevator, or a store, get in the habit of saying “Buongiorno (or Buonasera if it’s the evening).” Also, we almost always say “Grazie” after leaving a business, even if it’s a boutique where we didn’t even buy a thing.
Trying To Speak Italian Goes A Long Way
Yes, many younger Italians speak English, especially in the bigger cities. However, the majority of Italians do not speak English, and that’s especially the case in smaller towns. So pull out your Google Translate app and learn a few key phrases of Italian, and you’ll get by a lot better. Even if they don’t understand you, people will be more apt to help you because you put the effort in — promise!
But There Are More Than 28 Languages In Italy
Italian as we know it today originated in Tuscany. After the country’s unification, it was decided that Italian would be based on the Florentine dialect since writers such as Dante Alighieri, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Machiavelli used it in their works.
Before the 1861 unification of Italy, each independent state on the modern-day Italian peninsula had its regional language, some of which were dialects of Italian, while others, such as those from Naples, Venice, and Sicily, were technically their languages. All told, there are nearly 30 languages spoken across the Italian peninsula, some of which are considered endangered since they are not actively used as they once were.
Have Change (And Tissue) On Hand For Bathrooms
The good news about Italy? There are a good amount of public bathrooms. The bad news? They’re not always in the best condition, and you often need a few euros to enter. So always carry some change and a few tissues with you so you’re covered no matter the situation.
Bring Walkable Shoes
Italians walk a lot and we encourage our guests to do just that when they travel to Italy because it’s a great way to get to know a city better. However, the streets in Italy can vary from freshly-paved piazzas to centuries-old cobblestones.
Our advice is to bring walkable flats for the majority of your trip (be it a stylish sneaker or a walkable flat) and, if ladies do want to wear heels, stay away from stilettos which risk getting trashed by stone walkways or the like.
The Smaller The Suitcase The Better
Our final piece of advice for our list of essential Italy travel tips? Unless you’re staying put in one city for a week or more at a time, you’ll likely be bouncing around Italy from cities via trains, planes, or cars. Make it easier on yourself by bringing the smallest suitcase you can manage and by packing your suitcase like a pro.
As we said, rental cars tend to be smaller (and thus not have big trunks), and the trains get busy in the high season, so you may have to stash your suitcase at your feet, which is nearly impossible if you have a massive piece of luggage!
Let Us Plan Your Trip
Traveling to Italy and wondering which tours and activities to do? Need help with reservations? Or with crafting a custom itinerary? Sounds like you’re in need of our Travel Planning Services!
After discussing your preferences during a short consultation call, we’ll plan your perfect itinerary. Whether you’re looking for custom travel planning or a small group trip, the Salt & Wind team is here to help. Contact us to learn more!
Photo Credit: All photos by Christine Davis