Based on my experience traveling to unknown countries with strong cultural heritage and traditions I thought I should write this list of things you MUST know before traveling to Italy. If you are wondering how you should prepare for a trip to Italy, I am sure this post will help.
In this guide, I share everything you should know before traveling to Italy.
Believe it or not, it was quite a difficult task because coming from Italy, I take many things for granted, but I tried to e as thorough as possible.
But I think I did a good job and here I am offering a few practical tips on how to handle certain situations on how not to miss a few important Italian MUST-DO and MUST-NOT do in Italy.
If you want to fully immerse yourself in the Italian culture before visiting all the places to see in Italy, and you are a movie freak like me, you will also enjoy this list of 73 movies set in Italy.
I find they are pretty realistic most of the time.
The “bel paese” has been enamoring so many travelers over the years including artists and writers from whom you can now read brilliant and inspiring quotes about Italy and enjoy learning what Italy is about for famous authors.
Anyway, going back to my list of things you must know before traveling to Italy, I am sure you will find it useful, and you will love the pictures.
Please also note that the points on the list don’t come in a particular order…scroll down to see the most important point, for Italians 😉 I saved it for last!
Cover up when visiting a church, let alone the Vatican!
I believe this is an international thing but I am not sure because I was always well covered when visiting a church. In doubt, I have included this important information, which you will need in case you visit Italy in the summer and you are showing off your best sexy outfit.
In this case take a pareo with you to wrap yourself in when visiting a church.
Gentlemen also cannot wear shorts, and long pants are required to enter a sacred place.
NO TIP is required, nor should be expected
Now you will finally realize why Italian never tip when we travel abroad.
It’s not because we are tightwads, it’s just our culture.
Waitresses and waiters, porters, and other workers of the service industry have full wages so they don’t need the tip to round up their salary.
Ok, maybe porters do.
Of course, in some cases, tips will be welcomed, but not expected.
NO SPEAK ENGLISH, sorry!
Do not expect people to understand and speak English all the time.
Sadly, there are many people even of my generation, and even those who work in a tourism-related business that didn’t make the effort to learn English, for many different reasons.
So if you explore more off the beaten track places, normally the most spectacular, you might want to grasp some Italian if you want to communicate with the locals.
Hopefully, this language barrier is in the process of disappearing but it will take some time.
However, take it as an incentive to learn a new language.
I assure you it can be frustrating at the beginning but also lots of rewards.
It’s always fun to be able to say a few words in the language of the country that you are visiting and it’s most of the time appreciated and a conversation starter.
Make sure you eat one gelato per day
Eating gelato in Italy is a must, and no matter how much you love your Ben&Gerry, after you have tried the Italian gelato, oh well, I am sorry to say but any other ice-cream will disappoint you.
Italians debate on which one among different Italian Gelateria are the best.
For me, they are all delicious. Please let me know which one you loved the most.
Traveling around by train is super easy
Italy has a great network of trains that will take you almost everywhere in the country.
It’s very common and easy to move around by train in Italy.
You will find that most of the time you can reach even the tiny village by train, with many exceptions of course.
However, remember a couple of things about traveling by train:
- Where to purchase your train ticket in Italy:
- At the ticket counter
- In an authorized shop (Tabaccheria – you will see a vintage gray T sign by the door)
- In the ticket machine at the station.
- In the above cases, you will have to validate the ticket before getting on the train. There are dedicated machine by the train platforms.
- You can also purchase your ticket on the train but you will have to pay an extra fee unless you caught the train in a station where there was no ticket office.
- I normally use the app Trainline to book my ticket which is very convenient and allows me to purchase at the very last minute. However, mind that if you have an issue they won’t refund you the cost.
Renting a car is the best option to move around
Having said that (see above), renting a car in Italy would always be the best option, because, as everywhere, by car, you can reach the most amazing places in countryside areas where transportation doesn’t get.
I went on a 3 days road trip with my sister in the Tuscany countryside and if we didn’t have a car we wouldn’t have been able to drive around the spectacular hilly roads through vineyards and historical towns.
5 Terre is a must-see, but do not miss Levanto
Ok, I am being sentimental here, but Levanto is a beautiful beach town, very close to the most Instagrammed 5 Terre (5 lands), where I used to spent my summer holidays with my family and extended family from when I was born until I was 5, and it holds a special place in my heart.
I went back a few times afterward and there is still something about it, the mountain backdrop, the colorful old villas, the salty scent of the mediterranean sea, the fish vendors at the port, the smell of the focaccia in the morning, and of course my childhood memories.
Go and check it out yourself and then tell me if I was wrong.
From there you can catch the train to Monterosso, the first of the 5 Terre.
Watch the climate!
Aka, when is the best time to visit Italy? Always, but remember:
Summers are super-hot everywhere, while winters are extremely cold in the north and milder in the south. Dress wisely.
The best time to travel would be April through June and September through October.
However, if you want to enjoy some beach time, water will be very cold in spring and more enjoyable from July through September.
Vegan options in Italy? Oops!
Producing the best food in the world (according to Italians) is a blessing and a curse. If you are a vegan it’s more like a curse. It is true that nowadays more and more restaurants are offering vegan options or are exclusive vegan.
However in very traditional restaurants, even in touristy cities and towns, they will give you the look if you say that you are vegan. Just live with it.
We are a very old country with a strong resistance to change and many people just don’t think there is a whole world that cannot or don’t want to eat salami or prosciutto.
Also please know that plain Focaccia looks vegan but many bakeries make it with “strutto”, which is animal fat.
So you should ask before purchase it, but I warn you, it’s difficult to resist.
You can ski in Italy, did you know?
All over the Italian Alps, there are many popular ski resorts where you can enjoy snow season from December 7th through Easter. My favorite place to ski is Ponte di Legno, where I used to spend my weekends when I was a teen and where I learned how to snowboard. Summers are beautiful too for long hiking and trekking trips.
North and South are two worlds apart
There is this common belief that there is a huge difference between north and south of Italy and I am afraid this is somewhat right.
There is no better or worse, it’s just a very different mentality and lifestyle. If you allow me some stereotypes we can say, generally speaking, that people from the north tend to be more introverted and cold, and more accelerated, whereas in the south they are more laid back and warmer.
I don’t go any further because I would need some research and another post, however, I believe that the differences in Italy tend to be regional rather than by latitude.
The best way to understand what I am talking about is to go and check it out yourself.
So when you plan a trip to Italy make sure you will travel from north to south so you won’t miss anything.
We don’t have dinner at 6 pm nor at 10 pm… oh maybe in the south they do.
Spanish are known for their super late supper normally consumed after 10 pm.
We don’t go that late, but also it’s rare to have dinner any time before 7.30.
As a tourist, it’s easy to be caught up in site visits and skipping lunch so that by 5 pm you get hungry and want to go straight to dinner.
Nowadays it’s common to find restaurants that are ready to serve you food at any time of the day, especially in touristic places.
I am just letting you know that in Italy the most common time for dinner would be from 7.30 through 9.30. (as usual, it’s just a general rule with many exceptions).
In the south, they tend to eat even later.
In the restaurant bill, you will find an item “coperto” which is normally around 2 € per person.
It’s ok, you haven’t been ripped off.
It’s basically the service, which includes bread and the table set.
You cannot skip it by saying that you don’t want bread, you will be charged anyway.
But then you don’t need to leave the tip, so, one country one culture. 🙂
Watch out for scams
Like every touristy places, big cities like Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan, are fertile grounds for scams.
Don’t fall into the trap. Italy is a safe place but petty theft and other minor accident can happen. So be mindful and use commonsense.
To give you a hint:
- Don’t buy food to feed pigeon.
- If somebody wants to help you carry your bags or with the ticket machine in the tube station it’s not because they are being nice, it’s because they want a tip.
- Not all the volunteers asking for donation are legit (this is valid everywhere in the world)
- If you rent a bike, maybe use a double lock
You can skip lines
Most of the tourist attractions that require a ticket can be prebooked online so that you can skip the line. Sometimes you still have to cue up anyway to validate the online ticket but it will be faster.
Watch out for free entrances or heavy discounts in museums
Always make sure you check out the museum website or the local tourist office as sometimes they offer a free entrance or a discount on certain days and hours of the week.
In Milan for example, the Pinacoteca di Brera museum was free on Thursday evenings. It’s nice to be able to save a few Euros when it’s possible.
Use some Italian greeting etiquette
Everybody knows the word CIAO, maybe you didn’t know how it’s spelled, so here it is. C I A O, and also now you know that we use “Ciao” both to say Hi and goodbye, BUT only among friends and people that know each other for long and also among young people.
However, between adults who don’t know each other and from young to adult we use Buongiorno (good morning, morning until midday) or Buonasera (good evening from the late afternoon).
I never understood what is the formal way to say hello from 12 pm to 4 pm.
But it would probably correct to say Buonasera as well.
When you enter a shop or go to a restaurant or meet somebody you would say Buongiorno or Buonasera, and you will be very much appreciated even more if you feel you have your awkward pronunciation, it will sound cute to us, and we appreciate the effort.
Here below you will find some useful vocabulary.
“Prego” has two meanings.
You will hear Prego so many times.
It means you are welcome first of all.
But it is also used in a very formal way when somebody wants to let you pass before them, or when the waiter offers you a seat or the menu.
It a sort of “please” or “here you go”.
Shops tend to be closed from 12.30- 1.00 pm to 4 pm
It’s been like this forever and although they are now changing it in touristic places and it’s more common to see them open all day long, in small towns they are still using the traditional schedule.
Also, Grocery stores are open in the morning only on Mondays, while hairdressers or electronics other regular shops that don’t sell food open in the afternoon.
So plan your shopping accordingly.
Italy is not a country for digital nomads
The working from home culture is still to become a thing in Italy.
As I mentioned many times we are a very old population and quite resistant to change, I am afraid.
Homeworking is definitely not very welcomed by Italian companies and I believe this is one of the reasons it’s difficult to find cafes with good wifi.
Now the situation is slowly changing, and it’s becoming more and more common to find people working from cafes, but still rare.
Starbucks has just made its way in Milan for the first time but it’s rare to find people working from their laptop, rather groups of teenagers chatting and mingling, which is good too if you think about it. I remember a few years ago when returned home to see my family and I was asking for wifi in a cafe in Milan they would look at me as if I was asking the moon.
Now it’s becoming more the norm.
It’s even more common instead to find co-working spaces where for about 10 to 15 USD per day you can sit there and use wifi all day long.
I find it quite expensive, though.
Do you have wifi? Ehm….
Related to the above point, even though hotels and restaurants will tell you they have wifi, it is normally restricted to a certain area or very weak in general. It’s rare to find good WIFI in regular hotels. We simply don’t have the culture yet. Although it’s slowly changing and improving.
2 kisses for greetings.
We normally say hi with 2 kisses on the cheek which are not a real kiss, we basically touch each other’s cheek and make a kiss sound. That’s between women or men and women.
Men usually shake hands. Hugs are normally among close friends and family.
Not all restaurants are good
The fact that we have the best cuisine in the world does not mean that all Italians know how to cook (see who’s writing this for example) and unfortunately also not all the restaurants serve good Italian food.
Most of the restaurants in the most touristic spots are crap.
What I do when I travel in Italy is asking locals where they would go eat and that always took me to the best restaurants.
Watch out for the “aperitivo” prices
If you are in a big city and want to have a beer or a glass of wine from 6 to 9 in a bar, ask the rates first.
Most probably you run into an aperitivo, where a beer can cost 10 EURO.
Do not panic.
It’s because you will be served a whole lot of food with it, normally it’s laid out at the bar and you can refill your plate as many times as you want.
It’s basically a dinner, and normally full of carbs.
It’s a trend that started in Milan and it’s been spreading around the country.
It’s a time when people go out of work and want to distress and chill out with friends, without staying up too late.
You don’t want to pay your coffee by credit card
Although credit cards are most commonly accepted in restaurants, hotels, and shops, we still love cash especially if you pay as little as for a coffee or a coke.
Let’s say, generally speaking for small expenses below 30 Euro cash is more commonly used.
You cannot purchase a ticket on city busses
Although it’s ok to purchase your ticket on intercity busses, it’s not possible on busses or tram that circulate around a city.
You can purchase your ticket in an “edicola” Newsstand or Tabaccheria (Tabacco shop).
lease note that it’s common to find a “TABACCHERIA” within a coffee shop.
You will know for the sign T outside by the door.
Use google map to check your bus schedule in the cities
Although I reckon it’s not always correct and accurate, it’s still my main help when I want to find my way around a city by local transportation. Google map will tell you the options you have to reach your destination including what bus number, or train and schedules.
I used it also during my 15 days in Rome and I didn’t get lost thanks to google map, which is now available offline too, but you need to download it when you are online.
Otherwise Maps.me is another option but I didn’t find it as straight forward.
Plan ahead but be flexible
So many amazing unmissable places in such a tiny country that not even a year is enough to see it all. T
Therefore if you are not thinking of coming back multiple times, I would suggest you stay at least two weeks in order to see some of the highlights of Italy and get the taste of it.
In any case, I would suggest you plan ahead and decide what you absolutely MUST see and build your itinerary around it.
You might want to have a quick look at the most popular cities or you prefer to pick a city and see as much as you can in that very same region.
There is no right or wrong, but good planning is always helpful to make the most of your time and most of all to change it on site.
You can drink tap water
One of the things I miss about Italy is the freedom to drink water anywhere and for free.
So my advice is to get a water bottle and fill it in anytime you can.
In the big cities, you find fountains all over the places or in small-town you can ask the restaurant or the Caffe to refill it for you while you are getting your espresso shot.
Never travel without travel insurance.
This is a general tip to be followed always, not only in Italy. Although we want to stay positive, things happen and you want to be covered and able to get attended in the best hospital or get refunded for that unused plane ticket.
Luckily I have never been in a life-threatening situation but World Nomads was super efficient in refunding my hospital expenses when I ended up in hospital in Peru.
Never order a pineapple pizza
We just don’t find it edible 🙂
Check out more Italian Taboos on food on my Things you must not do in Italy! You will be surprised!
I hope these few tips will help you at least to know what to expect and if you think I have missed anything or you have any questions please feel free to ask.
Enjoy my beautiful country!
For Further Reading
- 5 days in Palau, home of the best Sardinia beaches
- 29 Things You MUST Know Before Traveling To Italy
- 11 Things NOT To Do When Visiting Italy
- How to move around in Rome, the eternal city
- What to see and do in Rome?
Your Basic Travel Resources
- Book your transfers between destinations on the trusted booking platform Bookaway
- Store your bags in the main cities and walk around freely hands and weight free with Bounce
- Check if you need a visa and get help processing it with iVisa
- Never ever leave without travel insurance. Get complete coverage from World Nomads or long term insurance from Safety Wing
- I find all of my flights on Skyscanner, Kiwi.com, Google flights, Scott’s Cheap Flights, and always remember to compare
- Book your daily tours locally to support local businesses, or if you don’t find any reliable company, or you prefer to book in advance, check out GetYourGuide or Viator. Some of their tours are refundable up to 24h in advance.
- I rent my long and mid-term apartments on VRBO
- Book hotels with Booking.com or Hotels.com
- Compare car rental prices at Auto Europe, Discover Car Rentals
- Check out my travel planning guide if you are planning your trip and feeling overwhelmed