Italy, one of my favourite places to visit and an easy country in Europe to travel. But like any country, there are some things to know if you are a first time visitor that will save you time, money, and make your life easier. Here’s what I’ve learned during my travels to this beautiful country.
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Buy tickets in advance
Wanting to visit some of the more popular sites such as the Colosseum, Vatican Museums/Sistine Chapel or the Statue of David? Buy tickets in advance to (mostly) skip the horrible lines! You’ll usually have to book a time slot (I go for the earliest possible to avoid as much of the crowds as I can). Often, these are best purchased through the official website for the site you want to visit before your trip (as often they will need to be printed). For the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, we booked a tour through Get Your Guide, which meant we went in as a group at a set time without waiting in line but were then left to our own devices to explore.
Italian trains are great
In Britain, I’ve become accustomed to trains that are often delayed, very basic, and not air-conditioned. The long distance trains in Italy put the British ones to shame. Clean, modern, air-conditioned, and even entertainment screens, they are a great way to travel if you are travelling from place to place. I’ve used them travelling between Venice, Pisa, Florence, and Rome and had zero inconveniences.
Authentic Italian food can be harder to find than you may think
There’s pasta and pizza everywhere, but in well-visited city centres, nine out of 10 restaurants will be aimed at tourists. And it can be easy to fall into the ‘I’m starving, I’ll eat anything nearby’ trap that often ends in a substandard or overpriced meal. A little research and patience beforehand can go a long way towards having a really great meal.
And avoid anywhere right next to tourist sites and famous square
Restaurants in famous squares such as Piazza San Marco in Venice and Piazza Navona in Rome have inflated prices compared to other restaurants. Avoid obvious places like the gelateria next to where tour groups meet for the Sistine Chapel, or anywhere too convenient that suspiciously doesn’t have their prices listed. You’ll pay much more than if you walked a street or two away.
The sandwiches are incredible
One thing I did find in abundance: amazing sandwiches, especially in Tuscany. Fresh meats, homemade spreads and fresh bread made for some of the best lunches ever. One in Pisa even broke my recommendation above: it was right next to the Leaning Tower. Another in Florence was so good we went back a few times during our stay!
Nothing beats aperitivo
Why aperitivo hasn’t caught on elsewhere is a mystery to me. In case you aren’t aware of what it is, Aperitivo is the Italian version of happy hour where when purchasing a cocktail, you get nibbles or sometimes even access to a buffet of snacks (one we visited was even serving up pizza). Grab an Aperol spritz and settle down with some food. It ended up being our dinner a few nights as we were travelling on quite a budget!
Make sure to taste the wine
One of my favourite things I did when visiting Florence was to go wine tasting in the Tuscan countryside. I’m not even much of a wine drinker! The deep red Chianti was lovely, and I’m not much of a wine drinker but still ended up leaving Italy with a few bottles.
The mosquitos are vicious
In my Carolina hometown, we used to joke that the mosquito was the state bird, and humid summers always meant walking around with a few itchy bites. They had nothing on these little suckers in Italy. Between Venice, Pisa, Florence and Rome, I was so bitten up, I looked worse than when I had the chicken pox, and no amount of spray seemed to keep them at bay. I’ve travelled around Southeast Asia and barely gotten bitten, but in Italy it was awful.
I’d suggest protecting yourself with repellent whenever you go, but if anyone has any suggestions of a repellent that actually works to really ward off these buggers, I’m all ears.
Take something to cover up with
If you plan on visiting any religious sites like any of the churches, shoulders and legs will need to be covered. This includes all of Vatican City when you briefly leave Italy to explore. I usually took a cardigan in my bag as it’s been quite warm every time I’ve travelled to Italy and planned ahead by wearing midi or maxi skirts if we were planning to visit any churches and when I’ve been to the Vatican.
Learn a few Italian phrases before you go
Always a travel tip for wherever you visit: try to learn some phrases in the local language. At most, it might get you by where there’s a language barrier, but at least the effort and politeness will be recognised. A handy guide to common phrases can be found here.
Avoid summer months if possible
It is really hot and with the millions of tourists that visit this country each year, the peak season of June to August is best avoided. I’ve been in March and a few times at the end of September/beginning of October. Venice was actually enjoyable in March with few crowds and while autumn was still hot, the crowds were lessened than what it would have been even a month before, although there were still big crowds at Rome‘s main sites.
You need to watch your stuff in cities
Pickpockets are almost as prevalent as the mosquitoes, and while I haven’t been a victim, I’ve seen/heard about others have their stuff. Rome, like other heavily visited European cities, is where you need to watch it the most in Italy.
Validate your tickets
It’s not always clear for a first-time traveller that it isn’t enough just to buy a ticket for the buses and other transport, it has to be validated. On buses, this is a yellow machine towards the front which stamps your ticket with the time and date. And you cannot forget as you never know which journey will be the one inspectors come to check.
On my third trip to Italy, I was with my grandfather and mom in Rome and after putting myself in charge of the tickets for the first few days, we got on a bus on our last day and while I grappled with my grandfather’s wheelchair with breaks that were stuck among the crowds, I handed the tickets to my mom towards the front of the bus, who hadn’t understood what I meant by validating them. At the next stop, the inspectors got on and we were each left with a €50 fine. They won’t care that you didn’t know how (in my mom’s case) or any other excuses (that I couldn’t physically get to the machine without letting poor granddad roll freely around the bus), you’ll be held to the rules.
If you’ve been to Italy, what lessons did you learn? If not, what would you want to know before you go?