Ohhhh where to start?? Italy is one of my favorite countries to visit…where I spent a summer studying the Italian language in college, and what I consider the “home of my heart”. And over many trips I’ve picked up quite a few Italy travel tips that help me feel prepared, like I can “blend in” with the locals better, and help avoid common tourist pitfalls.
Here are some great things to know before traveling to Italy, whether you plan to stick to the big cities, or explore some of the beautiful small villages.
Planning a trip to Italy? Here are some more resources for your itinerary!
27 of my best Italy travel tips
I’ve tried to group various things I’ve learned while traveling in Italy below, and will continue to add to the list as I discover new tips! The first couple are kind of miscellaneous. Then I dive into train travel, food and drink, shopping (or sightseeing), and social etiquette.
Cards are great, but always have a bit of cash.
In general I’ve found credit cards widely accepted in Italy (though it can be a bit of a pain and add extra time). However, if you’re just buying a cappuccino and pastry or other small things, it really is better (and considered polite) to pay with cash.
Also, sometimes credit card machines are down, they can’t get phone signal, or whatever and you just need to have some cash on hand. I have a post on dealing with money overseas if you want to learn more.
August is the worst. Don’t go.
Now, one major caveat…I’m writing this just after the coronavirus panic and the entire global travel industry being shut down, as countries begin to open back up. So no idea what August 2020 will look like.
But IN GENERAL August is when Europe overall and definitely the people of Italy go on vacation. Many stores and restaurants are closed for the month as the locals go on their own vacations. So it’s not my favorite time to be there.
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Train travel tips in Italy
The train system in Italy is a great way to get around many parts of the country. The rail network crisscrosses all over the country, the rail stations are super central in major cities, and it’s generally pretty affordable. You’ll see a ton of great scenery from the window. And boy, does it beat the traffic in cities like Rome and Florence! But you need to know some important things to make it go smoothly.
Validating train tickets for regional trains
I cannot stress this enough! Many train tickets have to be validated in a little machine outside the train BEFORE boarding. Any regional train (regionale) or local would fall under this, and there’s a big fine when the conductor comes by and checks your ticket, and it’s *not* validated.
Not sure if you need to? Find one of the train employees and show them your ticket and say “Devo validare?” (hand gestures help too…). If you have a car and seat number, you probably don’t have to. This article has some great info on types of train tickets.
It can be a good idea to book tickets ahead
For local and regional trains it’s probably not a big deal (they’re not assigned seats and are rarely complete full). But for more major routes and fast trains (e.g. Rome to Florence) it’s best practice to book ahead if you can…you’ll get the best price and make sure you get the time you want. I’ve still bought day-of many times and rarely had issues, though.
One thing that you absolutely MUST do is book any international train travel (crossing country lines) as far ahead as possible. Learned this the hard way when I had to pay over $300 for a night train to a different country!
Don’t feel like you need to spring for first-class on trains
Second-class tickets are generally fine due to the cost difference, the main difference is just more space. There are more similarities than differences though. I’ve always bought second-class train tickets UNLESS I’m doing a long trip or overnight train.
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Italian trains do their own thing
The Germans and Swiss are known for being incredibly punctual, and the Italians are…not necessarily. For the most part, trains run on time-ish (maybe 5-15 minute delays) but sometimes you’ll run into issues with much longer delays. Might be an hour, might be seven (has happened to me). You might miss connections.
Just be patient and don’t be afraid to ask the ticket sellers to help you find something else. The Trenitalia app is super helpful to see other routes as well.
Make sure you check the exact name of your station/stop
Many towns and all cities have multiple train stations and stops, and they typically have the name of the city. This makes it easy to get off at the wrong station if you’re not paying attention, and that can be…awkward.
The biggest one will often have “Centrale” or “Termini” in the name to let you know it’s the main one, but not always (like Firenze Santa Maria Novella).
If you decide to brave driving, get an international drivers license
So I’ve never done this and it didn’t used to matter, but I’ve read recently that they’re really cracking down and it could be a massive fine. Research ahead of time and it may just be easier to go ahead and get one. They’re like $20 from AAA and very easy to get. Here’s an article for U.S. drivers on how to do it.
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Food and drink in Italy
One of my favorite things about Italy is how amazing the food and drink is! I tend to spend…lot of my time eating my way through this country, and have learned a lot of handy things along the way. These are some of the things you should know before traveling to Italy in my opinion, to make the most of the gastronomic experience.
You’ll sometimes pay more for sitting down
If you’re in a cafe (what Italians call a “bar”), there is typically an extra charge for sitting down. Italians will sip their cappuccino and eat their cornetto standing up at the bar, pay their cheap bill, and move on. There’s usually a charge for sitting down for table service.
If you really want to sit down, look at the menu for banco and tavolo. Banco is the price if you stand at the bar, while tavolo is if you’re sitting. That way you can decide if it’s worth it.
Tipping isn’t really a huge thing
You can round up or leave a euro per person or round up your bill as tip (e.g. €70 to 75) if the service is great, but it’s not a culture of tipping like in America (partly because they get paid a living wage). American tourists in super touristy areas have kind of gotten locals used to big tips, but overall it’s not part of the Italian culture. There’s also sometimes a servizio (service) charge, usually for groups of 8 or more and stated on the menu…this is a tip, basically.
Outside of restaurants, it’s not common or expected to tip taxi drivers and definitely not appropriate to tip business owners (they don’t need your charity, they set their prices). If you want to tip hotel porters, tour guides, and the like if they do a great job or go above and beyond, it would be appropriate to tip but not the 20% that Americans usually do…though a note is easier to subtly slip someone than coins.
Bread often costs at your restaurant table
You may pay a kind of “cover” charge called coperto (usually €1-3) that covers bread, oil, salt, etc. If you’re paying a coperto then bread should be included in that. Otherwise you might see a pane charge. If they bring bread to the table, don’t just assume it’s free.
You won’t be rushed along by waiters
Italian culture values long meals with friends and family, and waiters won’t rush you along. if anything, you’ll often have to flag them down and ask for the bill. This isn’t as true at super touristy restaurants that are crowded and they need to funnel as many people through as possible.
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Finding the best gelato should be your mission
One of my all-time Italy travel tips!! Gelato is amazing (better than ice cream in my opinion)…but it’s not all uniformly excellent. To find a good gelato place that makes theirs fresh and from real ingredients (not powders), here are a few tips. First, look at the colors…the fruit especially. If they’re super bright or neon, run away. Lemon should be a super pale yellow, banana should be beige.
A couple other things to look out for are plastic containers (a no-no) and gelato that’s piled up in a mound above the edges of the container…run, don’t walk, from these places.
Avoid menus with photos or like…four languages
If you’re wanting to avoid tourist trap restaurants and looking for authentic food, avoid restaurants that have glossy menus with photos and translated into three or four languages. These are totally geared toward tourists.
Most great local places have fairly small menus (many of which change frequently based on seasonal ingredients), are in Italian and occasionally a bit of English, and will never have someone outside trying to get you to come in.
Do a little research on what food is authentic
Spaghetti bolognese isn’t Italian so run if you see it on a menu. It would be spaghetti al ragu instead. There are regional dishes that are definitely best where they’re from…carbonara and cacio e pepe in Rome, pesto Genovese in Liguria, risotto in Milan, cannoli and arancia in Sicily, etc.
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Vino della casa is actually good!
So is a lot of the boxed wine…you can get a really decent 3 euro box! There’s so much good wine in Italy that it’s hard to go wrong. And the Italians take wine seriously, so they would never be okay with crappy house wine. So order up.
If you’re a coffee drinker, read up on coffee etiquette
I’ve written an entire post on coffee culture in Italy to give you the lowdown on how to order and what to expect. First off, latte is milk. So if you order a latte, you might get some good ol’ cow juice 🙂 It would be a caffe latte, or you can order dozens of other specific coffee drinks. Read up a little ahead of time and figure out what drinks are up your alley.
There really isn’t “tap water” at restaurants
You can ask, but it’s generally not something they’ll do. So if you order water (and I always do because I’m crazy about hydration), they will always bring bottled (and you will usually pay a little). It’s worth it. Hydrate hydrate hydrate.
There are a ton of drinkable water fountains around
Tap water is safe in Italy overall, but there are certain pretty fountains throughout many cities that are also drinkable. Look for an “aqua potable” sign to know it’s safe.
Shopping & sightseeing tips
I’m not a big fan of shopping OR tours, but Italy is one place I make an exception. It’s worth it to seek out a few interesting mementos to take home, whether that’s leather, ceramics, or delicious olive oil. And you definitely have to experience some of the many amazing sights or tours. These tips will make your shopping and sightseeing go a bit more smoothly.
Don’t be afraid to haggle in markets
Haggling is pretty common at markets and stalls (especially for higher-ticket items like leather, or if you’re buying multiple items), though tougher these days when many of the vendor stalls aren’t manned by their owners. But give it a try, maybe looking up tips ahead of time on the best strategy.
But in actual stores it’s much less common and in general I’d avoid it…certainly not things like grocery stores, department stores, or the like. Learning a few words and some key phrases of Italian can help.
Plan your day’s plans carefully
If you’re in a major city then things will open early, and you can also get to tourist sites when they open. Then you should expect a “siesta” of sorts for many businesses, including many restaurants, starting around 2pm or 3pm. Shops will only be closed a couple hours, while restaurants may not open again until early evening. This is especially true in smaller towns and even residential areas of bigger cities.
If you miss that window and don’t have lunch in a normal window, you may have a tougher time finding a place to eat (except in more touristy areas).
Watch out for pickpockets and scams
This is a no-brainer, but always bears repeating. Be aware and alert of what’s going on around you—especially if there’s a commotion, if people come up and try to show you something or talk to you, or if you’re in a really touristy area.
Don’t be afraid to be a little rude or dismissive to people trying to get your attention, especially if they’re persistent (and not clearly in major distress)…it often is a scam, to distract you while a partner relieves you of your belongings. Here and here are a couple good articles on things to look out for.
If you want to visit the most in-demand museums or sites, book in advance
I am not a museum person, but did learn this the hard way at Barcelona’s La Sagrada Familia. The highest-demand places (like the Uffizi or Vatican Museum) book up ahead of time or have insanely long lines. Better to plan ahead and secure your tickets and time, or at least be okay with the idea of missing out entirely.
You don’t have to wait in a looooong line for the Colosseum
Fun fact (that I just recently learned): In Rome, you can avoid the free ticket line at the Colosseum and instead get yours from the Palatine Hill/Forum. It’s just a 5-minute walk away and is a MUCH shorter line, then you can just go to the Colosseum and skip the long line of people…just scan your ticket (which is a combo) and enjoy!
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Social etiquette to be aware of
The Italian people as a whole are warm and welcoming, full of just…life! But there are things that help to know in order to feel comfortable and know what to expect.
Learn a few greetings to be polite
Many Americans automatically think of “ciao!” when they think of Italy. But “ciao” is really informal, something you’d use for friends or family, like “hey” or “bye”, but not as a normal greeting or goodbye.
You’d typically said “buongiorno” in the morning and through most of the day to greet someone, and “buonasera” in the evening. You can learn more about easy Italian phrases and some helpful words to know in these posts!
Up in your personal space
Many Italians are very physical, affectionate people. It’s a normal greeting to hug and do the double kiss on the cheese (baci, at least one on each cheek and sometimes you’ll get a bonus). I often find that my personal space doesn’t mean as much, so it’s just good to be prepared ahead of time.
They’re not really all about politely waiting in line
Don’t be offended if you’re politely waiting in a queue and someone just brushes past you to go first, this is just their culture. Not as bad as somewhere like Israel (pretty aggressive), but still not as polite and process-driven as Americans.
So hopefully these Italy travel tips will help you plan an amazing trip. It is one of my favorite places in the world, and each time I go I learn something new!
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