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 as well as our best tips for eating in Italy. But, to make sure you're fully covered, here are some just good-to-know general tips to make your next trip to Italy all that much better:
The Country Is Younger Than You May Think
Italy has had some commitment issues as it remained a collection of independent states until the late 19th century. As in 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
If you travel to Italy you'll notice that Northern and Southern Italy are very different places. So different in so many ways (culturally, linguistically, historically, geographically, culinar-ily) 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, the land is more rugged, and it is the country's industrial center. Meanwhile, Southern Italy (we're talking roughly Rome on 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 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
You'll notice breakfast is very light (often a coffee and a pastry), lunch may be just a 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 a hard time getting used to when I moved to Italy? They way in which they queue up for lines, which is to say not at all.
Rather than file into (and remain in) an orderly line the way English or Americans would do, Italians usually just stand around in a crowd near the counter or place where they're waiting for service. Though it may seem like there is 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 The Country
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 a few minutes behind but the high speed trains known as the Frecciarossa are very much 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.
Pro 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 things to know. First, you are legally required to have an International Drivers License to drive in Italy (and in many parts of the European Union by the way). In fact, 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 transmission 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, the driving between big cities and in smaller towns is more manageable but 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 thoughts about driving in Italy. A lot of city centers are pedestrian-only zones so you cannot drive there unless you are a local resident or are renting an apartment or going to a hotel that is 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: Italian drivers 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 for summer travelers is to avoid the 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 a big city during that time.
Dressing Well Will Get You Far
As the birthplace of so many fashion houses, Sophia Loren, and towns like Positano, 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 less keeping-up-with-the-Joneses going on and a big priority placed on family time, and down time, 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 having a discussion 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.
If you want to learn more about politics in Italy, 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 Occurence
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 type of 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 prior to your travels.
Also, Italians are very politically vocal so you may come across a demonstration or two. They are pretty much always non-violent but they may just 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 say greet strangers on the regular. 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 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, a lot of 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 actually 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 own regional language, some of which are dialects of Italian while others such as those from Naples, Venice, and Sicily, are technically their own 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 Euro 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? 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 packing the smallest suitcase you can manage and by packing your suitcase like a pro.
Like we said, rental cars tend to be smaller (and thus not have big trunks) and the trains get busy in high season so you may have to stash your suitcase at your feet, which is nearly impossible if you have a huge piece of luggage!
Those are some of the most important things to know before you travel travel to Italy. Have a few others tips? Drop them in the comments below!
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Photo Credit: All photos by Christine Davis