There are definitely some things you should know before going to Italy that will help you tremendously and make your trip a little smoother. From big cultural faux pas to seemingly minuscule things, here are the top tips you must know before travelling to Italy.
Want to visit Italy but not sure where to start with planning your itinerary? Consider joining Culture Trip’s specially curated 10-day Northern Italy tour – or our action-packed 10-day Sicily adventure – led by our local insider.
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Learn basic phrases before you go
This is a must for any country you visit. If you can, it would be useful to learn at least a few phrases such as how to ask for directions, how to ask the price of something, the correct forms of excuse me, please and thank you, and perhaps even how to say you have an allergy to certain foods or medications in case of an emergency. Although most large tourist cities in Italy have plenty of English speakers, never underestimate how something as small as a courtesy in the local language can go a long way.
Beware of pickpockets
This one is obvious, but what isn’t obvious is how to spot them. They’re good – really good. Keep your bag zipped, and always keep a hand on your personal belongings while in crowds, even if you can see it, or you think no one could get to it without you noticing. They are professionals and they strike when people least expect it. Even when shopping in a store, people can easily squeeze by and reach their sticky fingers in the bag you’re not focused on, or prep your backpack to be worked by their partner unbeknownst to you.
Italians drink a lot of espresso
There are a handful of ways to order coffee in Italy, but no matter how you order it, it’s still espresso based. The American cup of Joe you might be craving and want to carry around in a paper to-go cup is hard to come by, unless specifically advertised in a bar’s window. You will almost never see an Italian carrying one of those to-go cups. They take their single shot of espresso (known as a caffè normale) at the counter or bar, and they get on their way. It may seem silly, but as a rule of thumb, no cappuccinos past 11:30am (it’s only for breakfast), if you order a double shot you will get two caffè normali (so order a caffè lungo, long espresso, instead).
Always buy (and validate) your train and bus tickets
Whether you’re riding the train, bus, or tram, simply having a ticket in hand is not enough. You need to validate your ticket as soon as you enter a vehicle so that authorities know that you’re not using the same ticket for multiple rides, thus manipulating the system. Although the transportation authorities are not always checking, they do hop on and off at random to do a sweep. If you are caught without a valid ticket, be prepared to be taken off the bus, asked to sign a document, or pay in cash for the ticket fine. You can request that the ticket be mailed to your home address that is listed on your home country’s documents and avoid paying in person, thus forcing them to have to write you a proper receipt which you sign. Just validate your ticket.
Buying fake designer brands is illegal
Italy is known for its high fashion brands such as Prada, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and the likes. It is tempting to want to bring home an Italian souvenir, especially if you can find a great copy at nearly half price. You will see plenty of foreigners peddling fake designer bags, but in Italy it is illegal. Many merchants carry the bags on their arms, or lay them out on a sheet with a chord around that they can easily pull and run when they police are nearby. It happens all the time. It is such a problem in Florence that the city has undercover police surveying markets and tourist attractions for these illegal merchants. People get away with it most of the time, but better safe than sorry.
Always look both ways before crossing the street, then check again
Be aware that Italian drivers may seem more ruthless than what you’re used to back home. Rome is notorious for having many drivers and lots of traffic, and even more known for being dangerous to pedestrians. It is not uncommon that people get hit by cars who refuse to stop for people crossing the road. Although not every city in Italy is like Rome in that way, there is a balance to be had when walking in the city between caution and confidence when crossing the street.
Sturdy shoes are a must
Common sense suggests that you should wear comfortable shoes when you will be walking all day in a new place. Then there’s Italy with all the cobblestone streets, uneven pavement, potholes, and narrow sidewalks, not to mention dodging cars and scooters. If you can, find a great balance between comfort and style.
Skip the currency exchange desk
This is something all avid travellers know, but worth a mention for everyone else. Skip the currency conversion desk at the airport and head straight to the ATM (in Italy called a bancomat) to grab some local currency. You will avoid overpaying fees for the currency conversion, along with the fees for using their services, and come out with more euros in hand. Always be sure to keep your money concealed, and divide large amounts in multiple safe places while you travel.
Know the difference between Northern and Southern Italy
This is a big one many people don’t realise. Italy, like any country, has many different lifestyles and types of people depending on geography. Northern Italians tend to be more refined, stylish, modern, and white collar. Southern Italians are the more traditional, hospitable, blue collar types. The descriptions are a bit generalised, but for the most part, that’s what you can expect to notice immediately. The food varies greatly region by region, and so does the mentality. It is said that northern Italian cities function better (government-wise) and southern cities are more of the laid back mentality. You will notice an immediate difference if you travel to different parts of the country.
Don’t ask for substitutions at restaurants
You will insult the chef, and make everyone’s job more difficult by asking for a substitution for something on the menu. Food is taken seriously in Italy and is not to be altered. If you have an allergy, let your server know and they will help you choose something else. Don’t be that entitled tourist who wants a specialised dish from an Italian kitchen.
It is legal to drink in the streets
Go ahead and take that glass of wine to go and enjoy it people watching in a piazza. Perfectly legal. It is not in their culture to be drunk and disorderly in public, so if you do drink, try to maintain composure as the Italians do.
You will be charged more if you’re an obvious tourist
No, it’s not fair. Yes, it does happen all the time. Be sure to check the menu before ordering something, and also remember that the same pizza will cost you a few euros more in the tourist areas. Most places in Italy are small businesses, so tourist season is important for them. Unfortunately, their verbal answers and what they charge you could be different than the prices listed on the menu, so always double check that you’re not getting taken advantage of, especially if you’re drinking.
Avoid shopping and dining in the main tourism areas
This one may seem obvious, but unfortunately the prices are high and quality is low. This goes for almost every tourist city in the world, but if you can, try to head away from the main attractions. Not only will you get better food and shopping, but also a different experience with the culture.
Mosquito spray will save your life
In many parts of Italy, there are mosquitoes everywhere. If you’re not used to them, you could end up with big red splotches all over your body in the summer, so be smart and bring some repellant.
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