WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU TRAVEL TO ITALY: TIPS & TRICKS

Landscape view out over the hills of the Prosecco region of Italy

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ITALY

Before you travel to Italy, be aware of these travel tips and tricks. Italy is on so many travelers bucket lists and it’s no surprise why! The people, the landscape, the food and culture are all amazing. I would have to say undoubtedly it’s one of my favorite countries I’ve been to. (And to be honest, I don’t like to say that because there usually is something beautiful and unique about every country or destination that draws me to it.) But, Italy really is a place that most people should go at least once in their lifetimes. Heck, I just went and I’m already scheming the cities I would visit on a return trip. (Just don’t tell my husband that!) Actually, I’m certain he already knows because I was already creepin’ on some flight deals to another city in Italy.

ITALY TRAVEL TIPS & TRICKS

Currency

The currency used in Italy is the euro. Not only as an Italy travel tip, this is a general travel tip for international travel that it’s always a good idea if possible to at least have some currency on you when you arrive. It’s best to avoid exchanging currency at the airport because rates are higher and you don’t necessarily know when you’ll have access to an ATM. My bank has a service where you can order currency in advance. I would check into that at least a month before you leave. If you’re able to do that, you will usually need to request it at least a week before you need it but it could be different depending on your bank’s policies. Do your research on your specific situation!

Lastly, be sure to carry at least some cash with you as not all places (especially the smaller locally owner ones) don’t process card payments or you have to have a minimum purchase to use a card.

Card Payments

Be sure you check with your credit cards to be sure you don’t have any foreign transaction fees. If you’re planning on taking any money out using your debit card via ATM be sure you understand if your bank partners with foreign branches and what your fees will be. You should have at least two cards that don’t have foreign transaction fees to use on your trip. For example, we like to use an AMEX (American Express) as our main travel card but AMEX isn’t as widely accepted in Europe so we also have a travel VISA card as well.

Electricity (adapters and converters)

Traveling to other countries, you want to be sure you have the appropriate electricity adapters and converters. This is largely dependent on the country you’re traveling to and your country of origin. Electricity in Italy helps to lay it out really well. So another Italy travel tip, be sure to pack a converter & adapter combo!

Italy’s electricity comes out of the socket at 220 volts alternating at 50 cycles a second where in the United States it’s 110 volts at 60 cycles a second. Given this difference, you will need an adapter (the plugs that go into the wall are completely different). You will need a power converter (if your device cannot handle the voltage and it needs to be stepped down) so you don’t fry it. Many adapters you will find these days are also converters but you need to be aware if it’s just an adapter or if it’s both before you go plugging in your devices while traveling to Italy.

Having a combo adapter/converter with multiple plug in’s and USB ports is very handy!

Crossing the Street

This might be somewhat of a weird Italy travel tip but it definitely is worth mentioning! It took me a while to get used to this so I wanted to be sure to call it out. But, by the time we left it still made me nervous. Knowing this in advance I would have felt a lot less lost once arriving in Italy. When you cross the street in Italy, especially in the larger cities was incredibly unnerving at first. I was very unsure of myself and really just followed the lead of some locals. To put it quite bluntly you really just start walking across the street and assume that the traffic will stop for you. They’re not going to stop prior to you starting to cross the street so you really need to take the initiative and just go!

Eating Dinner

This was one of the hardest things to adjust to in Italy! Typically restaurants won’t even open in the evening for dinner until 7 PM maybe 6. But, if you’re there at that time it will likely be dead with no other patrons in sight. This is a good tactic though if you don’t have reservations to try to get into your coveted restaurant right when they open for dinner. But after a full day of walking around and sight seeing having to wait until 8 or later to eat dinner was difficult for me. There were many occasions where I was so exhausted we opted for an easy takeaway pizza dinner (and usually gelato afterwards) as we made our way back to the hotel.

Seafood Risotto in Positano Italy with house white wine
Seafood Risotto in Positano

Apertivo

Another reason that Italians eat later is because of their happy hour or culture of apertivo. I was very much a fan of how Venetians did apertivo (happy hour or before dinner drink) with small bites called Cicchetti. Most cicchetti you eat with your fingers but some will be skewered with a toothpick. Different bars will offer up varying types of delicious local snacks to enjoy along side a glass of wine or cocktail. I mean who doesn’t love a snack with their after work/pre-dinner drink? Whether you call it an apertivo like Italians do or happy hour, I’m all in!

Blackboard with cicchetti offerings at Il Santo Bevitore in Venice Italy
Cicchetti offerings at Il Santo Bevitore in Venice

Driving in Italy

Driving in Italy definitely is not for the faint of heart! Especially in certain areas such as the Cinque Terre and Amalfi coast where there are really narrow and winding roads. Specifically, while in Positano the driving etiquette is something you should be aware of. As, you’re rounding the sharp corners there are typically large traffic mirrors so the driver can look to see if there is another driver coming. Another tactic that was used was honking as you got close to the corner as an alert to any oncoming traffic. With the combination of cars parked alongside the already narrow roads and a lot of traffic many times one car (or bus) would have to back up far enough to allow the other vehicle to pass. I’m not saying not to drive in Italy. Just to be prepared for narrow roads depending on where you’re going.

Public Transportation

For the most part public transportation is pretty reliable, although at times it’s not right on schedule. Most of the trains are great and there are many different types of trains throughout Italy. If you know your plan and schedule, pre-book your train tickets between the major cities in advance. For both convenience and it will likely save you money. I used TrenItalia and Italiarail to research and pre-book my tickets.

One huge lesson learned though is to not count on the Amalfi coast buses, especially on Sunday! As you can probably gather, we totally overlooked the fact that we were traveling on a Sunday and after our train arrived in Sorrento we waited for nearly 4 hours to catch a bus to Positano. The other thing, once we were on the bus to Positano it was starting to get dark and it was hard to tell where the bus stops were and which one we needed to get off on. That’s a whole other story in itself! It was a very frustrating moment in our trip and I can confidently say if we travel to the Amalfi coast again, I will secure other transportation from Sorrento or Naples or choose to stay in Sorrento and do day trips to other locations along the Amalfi coast.

Picture of a bright red TrenItalia train sitting on the tracks in the train station in Florence, Italy

Water buses in Venice

When purchasing water bus tickets in Venice from someone, be specific about what your plans are. We learned this the hard way as we should have just purchased a day pass as we were planning to take multiple trips. (From Venice to Murano and Burano as well as in between.) The self serve kiosk when we were coming back was a huge hassle and luckily they actually had some people there that could help us at the time.

Packing

Depending on what your itinerary entails and your methods of transportation much like other European trips, I always choose my luggage wisely. Usually, I end up bringing a smaller to mid size roller (depending on the length of the trip) and a backpack. It’s way easier to navigate in train stations and airports when you can tote half of your belongings on your back and the rest in a reasonably sized roller bag.

I will say, in regard to your roller bag be sure you can pick it up and tote it up stairs yourself because there aren’t always readily accessible escalators or even elevators (lifts) in train stations and hotels. So don’t pack everything but the kitchen sink! I’ve definitely refined my packing abilities due to frustrations on past trips and Italy was no exception. Funny story we had a random girl approach us (actually my husband) and ask if he would carry her ginormous rolling luggage up the stairs. So, word to the wise don’t be that person! We already had all of our own luggage to tote. I then came up with a new travel mantra if you can’t carry it yourself, don’t bring it!

Secure Tours or admissions in advance

This trip to Italy was a little bit more haphazardly planned in regard to tours. Usually, I secure these way in advance to ensure we get the time we want and if there are limited amount of tickets etc. But, we weren’t even sure we’d get to go because of the good ol’ C dawg pandemic so it truly bit us in the butt a few times. I wasn’t able to get tickets for the secret itineraries tour at Doge’s Palace in Venice and the number of slots to hike Mt. Vesuvius were already spoken for. Learn from me and plan ahead (if you can). Especially if you’re traveling during a busier time (June-August) or it’s an activity with limited spots.

Picture out into Venice Italy from the Bridge of Sighs while at Doge's Palace
Picture from Doge’s Palace while crossing the Bridge of Sighs

Coperto

When dining in a restaurant you will notice a coperto charge on your bill. It’s a per person cover charge. This charge will be published on the menu to notify you of the specific amount. (Just look at the fine print!) Each restaurant charges a different amount (it’s not a set fee). There’s actually no legal limit to what this fee can be but normally it’s around 1-3 euros per person.

Water

While dining at a restaurant you will be asked if you’d like water. Then still or frizzante (sparkling). It always comes in a bottle and it isn’t free. You won’t see Italians ever offering or drinking tap water in a restaurant.

On the other side of the coin, most cities will have extremely fresh water available free in water fountains around the city. I saw these in Rome, Cinque Terre, Venice & while at the Pompeii ruins. So definitely be sure to pack a reusable water bottle to bring with you for the duration of your Italian Adventures!

Drink the house wine!

If the restaurant you’re at is offering a house wine option it’s usually local. The wine will be offered in a liter or half liter option with the choice of red or white. The best thing about the house wine is the fact that it is very affordable. A liter option many times will be 10 Euros or less where as some of the other wines by the glass are that cost just for one glass. I’m no sommelier but the house wine to me tasted just as amazing as the wine we had in tuscany at our wine tastings.

Woman drinking red wine seated at a table with a tank top and sunglasses on in Italy

Eat the Gelato

There are gelaterias everywhere! Make sure you sample some while you’re in Italy. My mouth waters just thinking of a few of the delicious cups of gelato I enjoyed while there. No joke, I kept a running list of all of the different flavors of gelato that I tried. My top three favorites were: ricotta fig and honey (pictured below), biscotti & tiramisu.

Be weary that not all gelato is created equal. The best gelato won’t be super dark and vibrant colors (for fruit gelato) and typically the best quality product is stored in tin containers. I remember one peach gelato I had was so faintly colored but it was literally bursting with flavor.

And since dinner can be later, it’s definitely encouraged to get gelato prior to dinner and after. (I made that rule up.) But, hey when in Italy, am I right?

Holding up a cup of light colored gelato in Riomaggiore Italy with the buildings of the city behind it
Gelato in Riomaggiore

Try different foods

The food was phenomenal! All of the homemade pasta, delicious desserts, their coffee, and cocktails. Italians really pride themselves on using locally sourced ingredients and the freshness and quality truly comes through in how delicious it is. One thing I really regret not doing while in Italy was either a food tour or a cooking class to make some home made pasta with a local. But after spending 15 days in Italy we really packed it in and I’m not sure I would have even had time.

Different regions of Italy are known for their specific food specialties and sometimes have a dish that you absolutely have to try there. For example, in Rome it’s the cacio e pepe. Which literally means cheese & pepper. It’s a more rich “grown up” version of mac and cheese with a little kick with the pepper.

When we were closer to the coast I ate a lot of seafood pasta and dishes while my husband ordered what I would consider more “classic italian” or basic dishes. (Mostly red sauce dishes that sounded boring.) But, I swear his was always better! So, word to the wise DO NOT overlook these dishes because they’re done so well.

a cone of fried seafood in Riogmaggiore Italy with the sunset and ocean in the background from the balcony
Fried seafood in Riomaggiore

Italian dinners

I know I already covered the time of dinner above, but, it’s also important to point out that Italians eat multiple courses. A traditional Italian dinner structure will consist of the following courses: an apertivo , an antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni, insalata, formaggi e fruta, dolce, caffe, digestivo.

An apertivo is typically wine or a bubbly drink like prosecco served alongside a small bite such as nuts or olives.

Antipasti is what i would consider an appetizer. Common antipasti courses are a charceuterie plate or bruschetta.

The primi is usually the first warm course. It typically doesn’t consist of meat but it often times will contain truffle or seafood. (Insert drool emoji!) I ordered a lot of seafood and truffle dishes.

Secondi is dependent on what region you’re in but there will be more expanded meat options.

The Contorni is actually served at the same time as the secondi but on a separate plate. Typically these dishes are vegetable based.

Insalata is a more leafy salad type vegetable and depending on what the contorni is it may not be offered.

The next course formaggi e fruta (cheese and fruit) is usually regional cheese with complimenting fruits to accompany it.

Toward the end of the meal you will have dolce which is dessert. Tiramisu and also lemon ricotta cheesecake were some of my favorite offerings.

After dessert, you will have caffe (an espresso) and a digestivo. The digestivo is usually an alcoholic drink that aids with digestion such as limoncello or amaro. Funny story about amaro, I am not a fan of the famous italian drinks Aperol spritz (gasp!). So I googled other spritz drinks to try. I came across an “Amaro Spritz” so I asked to try it when we were at lunch in Rome. They looked at me like I had three eyeballs. She explained to me it’s an after dinner spirit and served it to me then. I really enjoyed it! But, I’m sure after my blunder she told multiple people about my silly request. Italians are very particular about the right time to drink certain drinks or enjoy certain foods so I just went with it. But, when in Rome well Italy, right?

tablescape at lunch in Rome Italy showing pasta dishes, white wine and water
The best cacio e pepe (with truffles) in Rome (bottom dish)

Learn some of the language

While Italians are very hospitable and welcoming in general it definitely goes a long way to make an effort to learn some basic phrases in Italian.

Ciao= hello or goodbye (used interchangeably)

Buon Giorno= Good Morning

Buona Sera= Good Evening

Buona Notte= Good Night

Grazie= Thank you

Lei parla Inglese= Do you speak English?

I found myself being able to assimilate to Italian rather easily as it has a lot of similarities to Spanish. I took Spanish and did a Spanish language immersion program as a part of my formal education. I’m by no means able to speak conversational Spanish but it’s the only other language besides English that I know more than just a few phrases. Feeling like I caught on to several Italian words because of the similarity to Spanish was a great feeling and I’m sure just one of the reasons Italy gave me the warm fuzzies. (I mean the wine probably was another one, maybe?) Another Italy travel tip, wine will definitely help with your courage to speak Italian!

You could always purchase a phrase book if you really want to impress the locals!

Hiking

This Italy travel tip is more specific to the Cinque Terre region of Italy. However, it was definitely something that I learned! If you’re planning on hiking the Cinque Terre be sure to break it up into 2-3 days. My husband and I tried to hike the whole thing in one day and it wasn’t easy! We aren’t what you would consider seasoned hikers. Upon our return, people who hike a lot and that I would consider more experienced confirmed those hikes are hard! So, keep that in mind if that’s something you’re planning on doing during your time in Italy. Read more about the Cinque Terre and where else we went during our 15 days in Italy here. (Coming soon!)

Hiking along the Cinque Terre National Park In Italy
View hiking in the Cinque Terre of Italy

Mama Mia!

This really isn’t an Italy travel tip, but I wanted to include it anyway because it’s fun. Yes, it is true they really do say Mama Mia (always very exasperated and annoyed.) The first time one of our tour guides said this it really made me smile. Well actually who am I kidding it made me smile every time!

MORE ABOUT ITALY

Now that you’re versed in travel tips for Italy and you really want to visit NOW, lets get planning! I have some other Italy articles that you will enjoy. Italy is well known for wine, but we sampled a lot of great craft beer. Check out my Italy Guide to Craft Beer for some great Italian brew pubs and breweries you have to visit. Coming soon, 15 days in Italy highlighting what we did in a little over two weeks in the amazing country of Italy.

Really ready to dive into planning? Aside from travel resources (like my blog!) I always like to purchase travel books too like these ones to inspire me:

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Published by WanderLust in Real Life

I'm a 30 something living in the Midwest of the United States that loves every aspect of travel. Researching, planning, & of course actually going on adventures whether near or far.

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