So you have booked your first trip to Italy and are really excited at the prospect of exploring this wonderful country – and you can be sure you are going to have a great time. But if it is your first time, there are a few things you should know that will make your trip go without a hitch. To help you plan your trip, take a read of this guide to essential tips for your first trip to Italy.
If you are going to be spending your vacation visiting the major cities, it is highly unlikely that you will need to hire a car. Public transportation in urban areas is generally of excellent quality, so this will be sufficient to get around. However, if you are going to be traveling to more rural areas, a car is handy.
The most important thing is to check whether you are eligible to drive in Italy. If you are from outside the EU, you will need to carry an International Driving Permit as well as your driving license. You should keep it with you at all times in case you get stopped by the police. Secondly, you should familiarise yourself with Italian driving laws. Next, you should make sure that you can use a GPS system this is the most efficient and easiest way to find where you are going. You should be aware that roads in the north of the country tend to be of better quality than those in the south, but if you drive carefully this should not pose too much of a problem.
If you are going to be traveling around Italy by train, you will find that most services are frequent and excellent value for money, if a little unreliable at times – but no more so than in other European countries. There are three main types of train:
- High-speed: the most expensive of the three, they are also the fastest and only stop at major stations;
- Intercity: the quality of Intercity trains sits between the high-speed and regional, but they are generally very reliable;
- Regional trains: the slowest of the three, they are also the slowest as they stop at every station and the most unreliable.
High-speed trains usually fill up quickly, so it is best to book them in advance. For most trains, you will need to validate your ticket before boarding by stamping it in the yellow boxes; the conductors are not tolerant of those who forget to do this, so it is vital you remember.
While it may seem like an obvious thing to say, it is important that you only use official taxis if you need to hail a ride anywhere. Outside airports and train stations you may be approached by a number of people offering a private taxi service. This may seem tempting – after all, it is quick and efficient – but more often than not, these drivers are not official taxi drivers and will not have a meter in their cars. Also, as they are not official taxi drivers, you run the risk of something untoward happening. It is better to wait for an official taxi, and even then you should make note of the license number written on the car door, just in case. When you do use taxis, make sure that the driver uses the meter so you do not get overcharged.
4. How to Dress at Religious Sites
A whole article could be written about Italians and clothes, but generally speaking, you can wear pretty much what you want and no one will bat an eyelid. The only time you really need to think about what you are wearing is when you visit religious sites. Like in many other countries, modest dress is required at churches or any other religious building. Make sure that whatever you are wearing covers at least your shoulders and knees, and it is considered impolite for men to wear hats inside Catholic churches. While some churches may hire out sarongs so you can cover up any flesh you may be showing, it is a good idea to carry one – or something else which you can use to cover yourself up – around with you just in case they do not.
There are only written rules about dress codes in religious buildings, but common sense should prevail wherever you are. For example, swimwear is fine for the beach, but it is obviously not considered polite to wear it in the middle of the city.
If you’re into religious sites and art, you have to visit Rome and its stunning churches.
5. Tipping in Restaurants
Tipping in restaurants is not customary. However, many restaurants do add a service charge onto the bill. This can either be between one and three Euros or 10-15% of the bill. If the restaurant observes this practice, they must state it on the menu, so double-check this. Some restaurants also charge for what they call extras, such as bread, a tablecloth, plates, etc. This is quite normal, so do not be surprised by it.
If the restaurant does not include a service charge, it is common practice to round up the bill. For example, if your bill is 17 Euros, you would round it up to 20. Of course, if you do want to tip for excellent service, this is absolutely fine, but it won’t be expected of you.
Some of the best value for money restaurants in the country are located in the Maremma region of Italy.
In Italy, lunch is considered to be the most important meal of the day, and not just from a culinary perspective. It is a chance for friends and family to get together and socialize, as well as savor some of the best home-made food you will ever taste. Lunches usually consist of a primo, a first dish of pasta or rice, secondo, a meat or fish dish which is served with a side dish of vegetables or salad (known as contorno), and then finish off with fruit, dessert, and coffee. Outside the major cities, locals take a couple of hours to enjoy their lunch, so to really get the full Italian experience, take your time and savour every moment.
When you order wine at a restaurant in Italy, you will normally get the choice of the house wine or a regular bottle. If you are unfamiliar with the term, house wine is an inexpensive wine that can come by the glass or in other forms, such as half a liter. While in many countries the house wine is not usually of good quality, Italy is an exception. As you probably know, Italy has an excellent reputation when it comes to wine, so even the house wine is going to be quite nice. The biggest advantage of drinking the house wine is that it is the cheapest on the menu, so if you know you are going to be drinking quite a bit, it is the best option.
Everyone loves pizza and pasta, and it may be tempting to just eat these things during your vacation. But there are actually so many delicious things to try when you holiday in Italy. From fresh fruit and vegetables to vast amounts of cold cut meats, you will be delighted by everything you try. Some top things that you should definitely sample when on your first vacation in Italy include:
- arancini, a creamy rice, cheese and sauce balls fried in breadcrumbs
- panini, the famous Italian grilled sandwich which can have many fillings
- risotto, a creamy rice dish often served with cheese or mushrooms
If you are a fan of meat and fish, there are plenty of tasty dishes to choose from, so you can guarantee that you will not go hungry.
Another Italian staple, grabbing a coffee as part of your breakfast or after your main meal is an essential part of Italian culture. There are many ways you can take your coffee, but what you should not expect is the huge choice of beans you may find in other countries. This is hardly important; wherever you go, you will still get a great cup of coffee.
The most popular coffee is caffe, known to most foreigners as espresso, which is a shot of coffee in a small cup. Other popular types of coffee include: cappuccino, usually consisting of a double espresso and hot milk then topped with foamed milk; caffe latte, a shot of coffee topped with hot milk (make sure to add the word caffe at the beginning, as latte on its own is a glass of milk); and caffe americano, like an espresso but with more water. Trying the cappuccino in Italy is highly recommended as you can be sure it will be the best one you will ever have.
If you are traveling to Italy during the height of summer, you will probably eat at least one gelato a day. But while you may think that all Italian gelato is of excellent quality, you will be surprised. Not every gelato maker is an expert in their trade, but there are a few things you can look out for to make sure you get the best of the best. Of course, the best way of finding the perfect gelato is by asking a local for recommendations, but if you cannot do that, the first thing you should do is look at the color. Good quality gelato is made from mostly natural ingredients, so it is unlikely that they would be brightly colored. If it looks shiny, this means that there is a large amount of sugar in it, so this is also best avoided.
Other things to ensure the best gelato is sticking with natural flavors, particularly those using seasonal fruit, checking out the ingredients to make sure they do not include artificial colorings and vegetable oil (gelato makers will often proudly display the ingredients of their products; if they do not, do not buy there); and checking that the texture is pretty dense.
11. Water Fountains
As you walk around Rome, you will undoubtedly spot a number of water fountains. Known as nasoni, there are around 2,500 to 2,800 in the city. If you are in doubt about using them, do not be; they have provided clean and fresh water to both locals and tourists for many years. They are the perfect place to top up your water bottle on a hot day.
Pickpockets are, unfortunately, as prevalent in major Italian cities as they are in other European countries. They often work in pairs or groups, so you should keep an eye out. All the usual precautions should be taken to prevent anyone taking your belongings: carry a bag which can be closed fully, do not flaunt your valuables and cash, and use a money belt if you are really concerned.
Scams are an unfortunate part of traveling and Italy is no exception, usually occurring in the major urban centers. One popular scam is when a person comes up to you in the street, begins a conversation with you and attempts to tie a bracelet onto your wrist. If they manage, they will suddenly charge you an amount for it, often €20 but it can be more. If you see someone reaching for your wrist, pull your arm back. If you do not manage to do so, you can refuse to pay them but if you are in a place with not many people, this could result in a dangerous situation. In this case, it is a good idea to keep a small amount of change in your wallet and then just tell them you only have a few coins on you to pay them.
A similar scam is where people, usually around popular tourist attractions, will offer you a rose. They claim that this is a gift, but once it is in your hand they will charge you an exorbitant amount of money for it. Obviously, the key is to say no, but you may have to repeat this a number of times as they can be extremely insistent. This and the bracelet scam are the most common, but the basic principle is that if anyone offers you anything for free, do not accept it.
Other scams you may come include:
- ‘plain-clothed’ police officers asking to see your ID or for stolen items; you can usually scare them by asking for their ID or to take you to the nearest police station;
- people claiming to be porters or train conductors on train platforms who will offer to help you find your carriage or to carry your baggage and then try to charge you for the privilege; the best way to avoid this is to just ignore anyone that is not wearing an official uniform;
- People approaching you in the street asking you to change a large banknote; the note is most certainly fake, so don’t give them any money.
It is quite possible that you have never heard the word riposo before – but you will certainly have heard the word siesta. They are essentially the same thing, except siesta is used in Spain and riposo in Italy. If you are still unfamiliar with the concept, riposo refers to an extended lunch break – which can be anything between two and four hours – and gives locals a chance to spend time with family or friends, have a nap, or do something else relaxing with their time. It should be noted that if you are traveling to Italy’s major cities, such as Rome, Florence, and Milan, you are unlikely to encounter people taking riposo. However, if you are traveling in the much smaller towns or more rural regions, riposo is still a commonplace activity. In the places where riposo is observed, shops and other businesses will be closed, so you will need to keep this in mind when you are planning your day.
15. Entrance Tickets for Tourist Attraction
As we all know, Italy is home to some of the world’s most famous tourist attractions, such as the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Florence Duomo. Because these attractions, among many others in the country, are incredibly popular, it is advisable that you book your tickets in advance. Doing this has a number of advantages. Firstly, you guarantee your spot for the day rather than turning up and finding out there are no spaces left. Secondly, in many cases, you will not have to queue for as long, although it is worth noting that some of the most popular sights will have rather large ‘skip the queue’ fast-track queues.
16. Festivals – summer and Venice
Festivals are incredibly important in Italian culture, so it goes without saying that if you are traveling during these times, make sure you book your accommodation and transport well in advance. This is particularly true of Venice Carnival, the most popular festival of the year, although you will also find it is true of other regular holidays such as Christmas and Easter. Summer is also a popular time, so if you are planning your first trip to Italy then, make sure you start looking early; booking early also has the advantage of getting cheaper prices.
Hopefully, this guide has given you more information which will understand the country more and help you enjoy your first trip to Italy. Other than that, the only other thing to tell you is to have a great time!