It can be a little scary traveling to a new place, let alone a new country! The culture and etiquette are different, not to mention the road, laws, and food. It's only natural that you want to fit in and have a good time, and that comes with knowledge. So, here's what to know before traveling to Italy so you can have a successful and amazing trip!
What to Know Before Traveling to Italy
I've been to a couple of different countries in Europe (Spain, Italy, & France), and in Italy, I've been to Tuscany, Positano, and Rome (twice), but I'm not an expert! These are just things I was grateful I knew before I went and even things I picked up on while I was there! This guide on what to know before traveling to Italy is based on those cites!
My husband, Titus, and I make a great team. I find all the cool things we want to do, and then he gets it mapped out efficiently and researches a lot of the nitty-gritty travel details. You know, the boring stuff 😉
Because of his skillz, I picked his brain for the transportation info in this post!
Obviously, a private driver would be the easiest and least tiring way to get around. But if you don’t have that luxury (nor want it) then public transportation and walking is your best bet!
Titus used Google Maps (he's with Verizon and got a flat-fee data plan) to navigate the Public Transportation systems and found that it made navigating very easy.
Sidenote: If you plan on using your phone for directions, don't just assume you'll find wi-fi everywhere. I didn't necessarily find it to be "everywhere" and when it was, my phone (US Cellular) only connected maybe 25% of the time. We also printed out paper maps for backup.
Google Maps has the schedules and stops for the bus systems and metro (we tried this in Rome- can't speak for all of Italy) so you don’t have to memorize it all. You only need to have a working and charged phone. We used this handy charger device for our phone and it was a travel lifesaver. LIFESAVER, I tell ya!
The public transit system in Rome is laid out pretty well. It is mostly based on buses with a very small metro system with three lines.
I actually loved taking the bus. You usually got a seat and you could still see everything outside as you drove around. The downside is that sometimes you would wait and wait and wait. But I much preferred it to the metro. It's kinda dark and ick and I didn't like feeling so closed off.
But before you take a bus, you must purchase a ticket! Between you and me, it's not actually all that enforced, but you don't want to be caught without one! They can be purchased at the metro stations and also at the local Tabacchi stands.
We purchased a 7-day pass (24 euro each) so it was unlimited rides on the metro and bus for us. You also need to validate the ticket as well before getting on the bus. This website is a great resource.
Because we used Google Maps to get around, we just had to input the final location. Then we'd get walking directions to the correct bus stop.
Each bus stop has large signs that give you the bus that runs through and all their stops.
Once you get the hang of it, it is an inexpensive and easy way to get around!
Though another great thing about Rome is that a lot of the iconic spots are pretty close together, making walking one of the best ways to get around too. As long as your feet can handle it!
In Rome, it seems that people rely more on the bus than the metro. The metro seems to be taken more if you are traveling from the outskirts of Rome to get to the main hub.
Like I said earlier, I didn't love the metro because it felt icky and dark. But it's similar to the metro that I've taken in New York City or Washington, DC. Not picturesque, but way faster than most things!
We got tickets at the metro station and you need to pay in euros. Like I said earlier, the bus tickets work for the metro as well, but there are different options depending on your needs.
We rented a car to drive around Tuscany and if you're going to rent a car in Italy, you need a special license. It's called the International Driving Permit and it's required to have that and your US license. We went through the AATA and it cost about $20. We expedited it and the process was a couple of weeks from start to finish.
If you don't get this in time, don't worry, you don't have to cancel your car rental. The permit is not required to give to your car rental company. You would just get fined if you get pulled over and you don't have one.
To be honest, I don't think we ever saw a single police car, but still, better safe than sorry.
And on that note, make sure you keep your passport on you while driving, otherwise you'll get a big fine for not having that as well!
Titus actually forgot his passport when we picked up our car and it was fine. Like I said, there are barely any police cars. Hopefully, you will be that lucky if you forget yours too!
The train system in Europe is really great to use too. It's efficient, nice, and prices are reasonable. I loved taking the train! It's so fun to ride and it's a great way to visit other cities. We used the train to travel to Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast from Rome.
We used ItaliaRail to book our tickets. The website is really easy to use, but you can also buy your tickets in person.
Dinner is a long and late affair. Places don't usually open until 7 pm and 8:30 pm is considered a normal eating time. Not normal for this American though! At 8:30 I'm thinking about turning into bed haha, so what are you going to do so you don't starve?
In Italy, they do what is called "aperitivo", basically a happy hour from 6 or 7 pm to 9 pm. It's something to do, a way to connect with friends, and something to tide you over till dinner.
Though it's mostly just drinks, some places have little chips and some places provide small bites. I much prefer the places that give you some food to nibble on!
Waiters do not check on you a ton. They want to leave you alone so you can enjoy your meal! This also means you will have to ask for your check when you are ready to go.
Tipping is not expected either. Most places already include the service price in the bill, but waiters aren't living off their tips like they do in America. You can add a couple of euros if you're pleased, but tipping 20% would be crazy. Because they're not necessarily "working for it", they don't check how you are or refill water for you.
Make sure you request water (sparkling or still) because it's not a given. Once you order water, they usually just bring you a glass pitcher and if it's gone, they don't automatically bring you a new one. I don't actually mind the lack of attention though, because sometimes servers in America will keep coming to my table asking how it is and it's like, "umm sir, I have not even had one bite yet." haha
If a place is advertising to-go cups for coffee, they're pretty much aiming at tourists! Coffee is usually had while standing at the bar (costs more to sit at the tables), and very rarely to go. And by coffee, I don't mean what you would get at Starbucks. No venti caramel low-fat double whip frappuccinos with soy milk here, folks!
Oh, and if you ask for a latte in Italy, you will get a glass of milk. Latte just means milk! Make sure you add "caffè" before "latte" if you want coffee in it.
Also, americano means "aperitivo", so make sure you specify with "caffè". The default word for espresso is "caffè".
Have all the cappuccinos you want, as long as it's not past 11 pm. Italians believe that milky drinks will mess with your digestive system. It's a dead tourist giveaway if you order one past this time!
It's hard to feel full for breakfast because a typical Italian breakfast is an espresso and a pastry. You'll see signs from restaurants advertising an "American breakfast" with eggs, bacon, etc. Go ahead and eat here if you're really hungry, but just know it's a tourist trap and it will probably be very expensive and not that good. Try to hold out for an authentic Italian lunch!
After dinner, some places may provide you with a "digestivo" on the house. There are a couple of different drink options, but it's basically pure alcohol and it's meant to help with digestion. I only had it once and oh man, it was strong. It was like drinking cold syrup. But hey, do as the Italians do!
I know it's not just Italy, but free, clean, and public bathrooms are really hard to find in Europe! You certainly won't get all 3! If it's clean, then you gotta pay for it. If it's free, then it was probably really hard to find and really gross.
Don't be surprised if you have to pay for bathrooms at public places, like train stations.
If you eat at a nicer restaurant they'll probably have one for you to use, otherwise public places like cafes will have you walk down some weird stairs to use the bathroom. It might not even have toilet paper!
If you see a bathroom, even if you have to pay, take advantage of it!
WHAT TO WEAR
I go into how the Italians dress and what to wear so you don't look like a tourist here, so make sure you check that out!
I haven't had any experience with pickpocketing (thank goodness), but I do have experience with people trying to scam you. Definitely beware!
You'll find this the most in the heavy tourist areas, but short story: people will strike up a conversation with you, asking you where you're from, only to try to give you roses or trinkets. If you don't accept they'll keep pushing and telling you that it's free. It's never free! As soon as you take it, they'll ask for some money for coffee. Their goal is to make a big scene and make you uncomfortable enough that you end up paying them for the bracelet (or whatever it is).
Stand your ground and be firm. These people can also be pretty persistent, on the edge of aggressive. Thankfully I read about this scam ahead of time so I knew what was coming when someone tried to pull it on me, but they don't stop! They will force it on you and even try throwing it on you. Basically, the only way to get out of it is to throw it at them and walk away.
The best way to avoid these scams altogether is to stop the conversation from ever happening in the first place. Avoid eye contact and don't reply. I know. You may feel like a jerk. We did too. But just know that 99% of the time, if someone is being friendly they are trying to engage you in a scam or get you to buy something. The "real" Italians just ignored us haha.
ODDS & ENDS
Don't forget that you'll need a travel adapter.
Consider getting this battery pack for your phone that I mentioned earlier. Even if you're not using your phone for transportation help, you don't want to run out of a way to take pictures if your phone is your main device!
I'd strongly recommend learning the main Italian words and phrases. You can get along just fine if you don't. For instance, Titus tried to learn and he forget it all by the time we got there and he did just fine haha. I made it a point to learn (I even made flashcards for the plane) and not trying to brag or anything, but I even fooled an Italian woman into thinking I was Italian! I was ordering gelato and was doing pretty good, but got stuck when she asked me if I wanted it in a bowl or cone. When I said, "non capisco,
io parlo inglese" she genuinely looked shocked!
Learning the language is not required, but the Italians appreciate the effort and hey, it feels even more like you're soaking up the culture!
There's always a lot to learn and remember, and don't worry, you probably will make mistakes or rub some locals the wrong way. But don't focus on all the dos and donts. Focus on having the best time you can and getting the most out of Italy, because it is seriously amazing.
I know this isn't the full list, so if you have anything to add about what to know before traveling to Italy, leave it in the comments so the other readers can benefit from it!