Salt & Wind Travel

Essential Italy Travel Tips To Know Before Your First Trip

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:

Essential Italy Travel Tips
Table of Contents

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. 

Victor Emmanuel Gallery Milan Italy

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!

Train Reservations A common question we get from clients is, "Is It cheaper to buy train tickets in advance or day of In Italy?" We strongly recommend buying tickets in advance for the following reasons: Ticket Prices Are Based On Demand Train ticket prices are based on demand, so waiting until the last minute will often result in a more expensive fare. Also, seating is limited so high-speed trains can sell out quickly. Booking Ahead Is More Flexible If you want the option to change your ticket, you can book ahead and select a ticket that allows for refunds and changes. Much like when booking a plane ticket, if you pay a little more, you can opt for a ticket with more flexibility. The one exception are inner-city trains and other commuter lines. These train lines usually don’t sell out (although they may be full when you board) and so they have more flexibility. What if I really want to buy my ticket at the station? We highly recommend booking train tickets online as the process is easy and straightforward. Everything is digital including your check in on the train, so it’s contactless. Also, it eliminates the risk of lost or stolen tickets. However, if you really want to buy tickets in person, know thee following: Tickets sell out fast, so book your later travel dates as soon as you arrive in Italy. The lines at the counters can be long so don’t arrive last minute. There are self-service machines where you can buy your tickets without waiting for the agent; however, these are hotspots for pickpocketing. People distracted buying tickets are an easy target, so it's where most petty theft in the train station happens. Mind your belongings keeping everything directly in front of you, while using the machines.And do not accept help from anyone that isn’t wearing official Trenitalia or Italo Treno badges. How Do I Book A Trenitalia Ticket Online? Here are a few tips for booking a train ticket for Italy online: Book Directly Through Trenitalia.com We recommend booking your train ticket directly through the Trenitalia website but know that tickets are not for sale for more than 60-days in advance. To find the route for your trip before then, use a site like Rome2Rio; however, book directly through Trenitalia or Italo Treno. The reason is the same as for air travel: namely, if there is a cancellation or a strike (which happens!), it will be easier to deal with ticket changes if you booked it direct. Choose Your Travel Details At this point, it's like booking a flight as you'll choose your departure and destination, date and time, and number of passengers. The destinations will be the Italian names of the city so look for Roma instead of Rome. Also, bigger cities often have more than one train station so be sure to double the station before booking. After you hit "search," you will see all the available trains an you can click the fare option to choose the option that best serves you. Pro Tip: If you were looking for a particular fare, and it’s not showing up, it’s no longer available. You can try changing dates or times to see if it is available at another time. Purchase Your Ticket Once you’ve selected your fare, you will proceed to seat selection and ultimately payment. If you don’t want to create an account you can check out as a guest. Once you’ve made the purchase, you will be emailed a PDF of your train ticket. Show this PDF at the train station (if required) and again onboard the train. These types of tickets do not need to be validated as they are limited to the journey you selected. How Do I Book An Italo Ticket Online? You should use their official website to book a ticket with Italo Treno. The steps for booking are the same as booking with Trenitalia and they will also send a PDF with your ticket via email. Before you book, just be sure to check the arrival and departure stations, and that the fare is the one you need (refundable etc) and then proceed to checkout! Reservations For Other Types Of Trains If you’re booking a smaller and slower train, like a commuter train, an express train, an inner city train etc, these tickets can easily be purchased at the station. Since these types of trains are usually short rides, with standing room available, they rarely sell out. Usually they will simply jam in as many people as possible and if you miss the first train, you just wait on the platform for the next one. How To Buy A Regional Train Ticket These types of tickets can be bought at the counter with an agent, or via the machines in the station and occasionally, they will allow you to book them online when booking the rest of your travel. These types of tickets, without assigned seats or a set departure time, also often need to be validated. How To Validate An Italian Train Ticket Validating involves putting your ticket into a small machine located in the train station, usually found at the front of each platform, that will stamp the date and time. Failure to do so will result in a hefty fine. High-speed trains do not require this, so it’s just for certain trains with certain fares. If you’re unsure, ask a train station agent for help.

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. 

Sardinia Beach Italy

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

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