Ah, Italy…a must-visit, over and over again, kind of country. Everything about it is wonderful, so it’s no wonder it is one of the most traveled to destinations in Europe. I remember commenting to someone in France about how fortunate they were to live where they do and they replied “France is where you live, but Italy is where you holiday.” And, I couldn’t agree more. From the canals of Venice to the Arno river running through Florence to the gently rolling hills of Tuscany to the cobblestone streets of Rome and to the pastel coloured houses perched high on cliffs of Amalfi coast, the picture postcard list of destinations goes on and on.
That makes planning a vacation to Italy a daunting task. There are so many things to see and do in this relatively small country, so it can be deceiving to think that you can see it all in one trip. Trying to do too much in a short time defeats the purpose of going to Italy in the first place.
As a holidaymaker, a great way to look at Italy is in two halves. The northern half, from Rome up or the southern half from Rome down. Another way you may consider planning your trip may be to follow your passions – whether it be eating or drinking your way through Italy or seeing the ancient ruins and historical sites or relaxing and soaking up the sunshine in many of the coastal villages. The list is endless, all you have to do is choose what’s right for you.
So now that you have chosen your itinerary, wouldn’t you like to know a bit more about Italy before you go?
Breakfast in Italy
Italians eat a light and quick breakfast, usually standing up at the bar top and it only consists of a coffee or a caffè. A caffè means an espresso (there is no such thing as dripped coffee in Italy). You could also order a cappuccino (espresso with a good dollop of foamed milk) or caffè latte (it is not as strong and has a lot more milk) – but no later than 11am. Italians believe that adding milk to your espresso is reserved only for the morning.
When to eat
Lunch is served between 12:00 to 2:30 pm. If you happen to miss it, you are out of luck as many restaurants close and don’t reopen until 7:00 pm.
Italians, like most other European countries, eat late, well maybe not as late as the Spaniards. They usually start to dine at 8:00 pm, and any earlier than that you will likely have the restaurant to yourself. The best time for dinner reservation is 8:30 pm.
Order like an Italian
A typical Italian menu is divided into sections: Antipasti (appetizers), Primi (pasta first courses), Secondi (meat second courses) with Contorni (side dishes) and Dolci (desserts). Don’t worry, this type of dining is usually saved for special occasions and most Italians don’t eat all those courses at every meal, and you don’t have to either. Feel free to pick, usually a Primo for lunch and Secondo for dinner. But if the restaurant offers a daily special (sometimes you will find it on a hand-written note) ignore the menu and trust your server.
Eat like an Italian
Bread will always be on your table at every meal, and it is meant to be an accompaniment to your meal and not eaten before your meal. No pasta-based meal is complete without fare la scarpetta, which means you use your bread to mop up all the leftover sauce on your plate.
Do as the Romans do
In Italy, being too fast is considered rude. Italians are passionate about life’s simple pleasures, food being one of them. So, take things slowly, enjoy your meal, do not rush. Servers do not bother you while you are eating, if you need something, you’ll have to make eye contact and that includes asking for the bill (Ill conto, per favore) when you are ready to leave. Otherwise, you have the table until closing.
There is no expectation to tip in Italy.
In restaurants, you will receive a coperto servizio which acts like a cover charge and is almost always added to the bill when dining out. This is normal and applies to everyone. This fee is typically between 1 to 5 Euros. If service was exceptional you could round up your bill.
In hotels, when you receive exceptional service you can tip the porter and concierge 1 or 2 Euros. In spas, it would be no more than 10%. Your tour guide would be 10 Euros for a full day and per person. Taxi drivers don’t receive tips, but you should agree on a fare upfront. If they are extra helpful, then you could tip 1 to 2 Euros.
Validate your ticket
Train travel is so easy, inexpensive and incredibly fast (especially the high speed trains), so why not ditch the car rental or the short domestic flight and take the train instead. The most important thing to know about traveling by train is to make sure you validate your ticket before boarding. Validation machines are scattered all along the train platform, if you don’t you will be fined if you do not have a “validated” ticket. The same applies to bus/tram transportation.
If you are renting a car in Italy (especially needed if you are in the countryside) watch out for the Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL) signs. It means it is limited traffic and most cities and small towns, especially in the centro storico (historic centre), you will see them. A special permit is needed to drive in these zones, and car rental companies do not provide them. There is a camera that takes a photo of your license plate as you enter and you will get a fine in the mail, even tourists. It is not really a problem, ditch the car in big cities, and when touring small towns, look for a parking lot outside the city center—you’ll often find one within walking distance to the center of town.
What to wear
Italians care about their appearance and this is a country where first impressions count. Even for occasions for just “popping into shops” you will find most Italians will be dressed immaculately. Generally, they wear the highest quality, coordinated clothing with simple make-up and accessories; and always sunglasses. As well, many religious sites will enforce covered shoulders and legs.
Best time to go
July and August tend to be very hot with no respite, so the best time to go is spring (March-May) and fall (September-November), when the weather is warm and pleasant. The shoulder season is a bit cheaper and has a lot less tourists.
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Learn the basics
While many Italians do speak some English, especially in the larger cities, it is still a good idea to learn a few key phrases in Italian.
- Buon giomo (good day)
- Buona notte (good night)
- Arrivederci (goodbye)
- Grazie (thank you)
- Per favore (please)
- Si (yes)
- No (no)
- Prego (you are welcome)
Lastly, it is a European custom and something I always like to know, the meeting and leaving is always with a kiss on the cheek when greeting acquaintances and friends alike. Kiss the person’s left cheek first and then the right.