Things you need to know before you go...to Italy!
Italy

Things you need to know before you go…to Italy!

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.  

Things to know before you go…to Italy!
Photo Credit: World map Collection

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.

Things to know before you go…to Italy!

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.

Things to know before you go…to Italy!

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.

Tipping etiquette

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. 

Things to know before you go…to Italy!

Driver's beware

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.

Things to know before you go…to Italy!

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.

Don't forget your travel insurance

Travel is so unpredictable. As much as I would like to carefully plan the perfect itinerary, there is always something bound to happen. That is why I use SafetyWing Travel Insurance as the most affordable option on the market. Perfect for those digital nomads or those who just want to go on vacation.  To find out more read about them or get a free quote click SafetyWing Travel Insurance.

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.

Ciao!

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Things you need to know before you go...to Italy!
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24 Comments

    • The.Holidaymaker

      Thank you for your comment. Tips for beating the lines, go in the shoulder season, we toured in April, and for the main attractions we always tackled first thing in the morning leaving the afternoon free to wander and spontaneously find hidden gems.

  • Sally

    Definitely pinning this one for later!

    We haven’t made it to Italy yet but I can imagine there are so many things to learn. I did italian in high school so think I’ve got the basics down pat but great tip about the ZTL zone, that’s definitely something we wouldn’t have known.

    • The.Holidaymaker

      Thank you for your comment Sally! I am sure if you studied Italian in school it will come back to you very quickly! I hope you get there one day soon!

    • The.Holidaymaker

      Thank you for your comment Delphine. Definitely when dining out, it is a time commitment of a couple of hours, it is a great way to wind down and reminisce about the highlights of the day.

  • Sandra Papas

    I just returned from my 3rd trip to Italy and in fact, it was to Sicily which I have to say is different to the rest of Italy in many ways. For example, a popular breakfast for them is gelato on brioche! Not what I was expecting at all.

    • The.Holidaymaker

      Thank you for your message. Glad to hear you love Italy like I do to return 3 times, and likely have more trips planned for the future. Yes, every region has its slight differences, especially when it comes to food. But breakfast is still relatively light and quick, as they save room for a big lunch and then riposo (rest time) in the afternoon.

  • Laura Pedlar

    Italy is a wonderful country that I’ve visited a few times but would definitely like to see more of. Reading your post I was quite pleased that I knew quite a lot of the info, so I must have learnt a bit on my travels. Eating late is definitely a thing as restaurants don’t come alive until later, everyone goes for pre-dinner drinks before eating. I enjoyed visiting a cafe during breakfast time and watching the locals pop in for their espressos. I’d like to learn more of the language before I return for sure.

    • The.Holidaymaker

      Thank you for your comment Laura. Glad to hear I hit on all the key points of information for first time travelers to Italy! Yes, definitely the morning ritual of the locals who come in for their quick stand up at the espresso bar is fascinating to watch. It only took my husband a couple of days to master the art of their coffee culture.

  • Jeremy

    Oh, I love Italian food ! And yes, you shouldn’t rush yourself through good food ! I had the best pizza and gelato in Rome ! Have been wanting to return again, hopefully soon ! =p

    • The.Holidaymaker

      Thank you Jeremy for your comment. Glad you agree that Italian food is delicious and meant to be savored.

  • Yukti Agrawal

    A very useful post on tips to know before traveling to Italy. I have covered norther Italy and Rome but have not gone to southern Italy. Apart from historic sites, I would now love to go for coastal areas in southern part. Yes I agree the restaurants close early and they eat a very light breakfast. Covering shoulders in religious sites is quite common in other religious sites too, That is why I always carry a jacket and scarf with me while traveling to historic sites.

    • The.Holidaymaker

      Thank you Yukti for your comment. I found it hard to eat so light in the morning, I am used to having more for my breakfast and less of a meal at lunch time. It took a couple of days to remember that. I want to see more of the south as well, we have focused on Rome and north.

  • Jing

    I haven’t been to Italy so this post are really helpful tips. Sometimes, we tend to overlook the basic must-knows and get inconvenienced by doing so. Grazie! 🙂

    • The.Holidaymaker

      You are most welcome Jing, I am glad they might be helpful. Hope you get to travel to Italy one day soon.

  • Maggie

    I LOVE Italy, have been several times! These are all excellent tips. I remember the first time I went, my family got ready to go to dinner around 5/5:30 and we were so upset (because we were hungry lol) when we discovered no restaurants are open that early!!

    • The.Holidaymaker

      Thanks for your comment Maggie! Yes, adjusting your mealtimes is sometimes a challenge. I remember we were in a tour over the main lunch hour and when we were ready to eat at 2:00, no restaurant would serve us. That day it was a stop at the grocery store for a pre-made sandwich.

  • Michael Hodgson

    Fun and useful tips. We have traveled to Italy a fair amount, and will never forget the horror on our host’s face once when we asked for parmesean to add to our pasta — pasta with fish. Also, I like a cappuccino in the afternoon, so I always order one, knowing full well I will get eye rolls and head shakes. 😉 Yeah, I’m a contrarian.

    • The.Holidaymaker

      Thank you Michael for your comment! Yes, there are some habits we sometimes can’t let go of. My husband is the same, will order a cappuccino in the afternoon too.

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