Remember your first day of high school? Your initial experiences at a new job? Traveling to (or living in) a country where you don’t speak the language is something like that. Your emotions are a stew of excitement, nerves and anticipation. Each day another feeling or question bubbles to the surface. For instance, what practical things should I know before going to Italy? Will my phrase book be enough to help me navigate this new and foreign territory? What should I put on my itinerary? This post will help get you started on your Italian voyage, as it covers everything our family wished we would have known about this Mediterranean gem.
First, a bit of background on why we’re in Italy. My husband and I firmly believe travel is one of the most formative and educational experiences you can get. Consequently, when an opportunity to teach study abroad courses in Tuscany came knocking, we didn’t hesitate. We packed up our two-year-old and boarded a flight to Italy. While we have fit in plenty of sightseeing, our five-week stay is primarily a work trip. Therefore, we’re trying to live as “Italian” as possible. That means apartment dwelling in Siena, taking public transportation, doing laundry, grocery shopping vs. dining out, etc. We may not be travel experts, but we are dedicated learners, absorbing as much of this culture as we can. Now, let’s dive in to some must-know information!
Beach exploration in Positano | Polka Dot Maxi Dress (my go-to for travel)
While supermarkets and larger retailers accept credit cards, Italy remains a rather cash-based society. Make sure you have plenty of euros for dining out, shopping, activites, etc.
As you probably can tell from this blog, I love clothing and fashion. Packing light isn’t my usual style, but practicality comes first when traveling in Italy. Before overstuffing your bag, consider there’s a strong chance you will be lugging it up narrow staircases, onto crowded trains and along uneven cobblestone streets. Our family shared one suitcase and packed the rest of our stuff in laptop backpacks (we needed a carry-on that would protect our computers). We also left our larger, heavier jogging stroller behind, in favor of the GB Pockit Stroller. It folds down into a tiny, purse-sized package in seconds. I seriously want to give the inventor of this model a hug. The packability of the Pockit was a godsend for darting between the street and museums/shops without accessible entrances.
Yes, lots of Italians speak English. On the other hand, plenty of them don’t. You will need to know a few basics if you plan to visit less touristy areas. I picked up a pocket phrasebook written by travel guru Rick Steves and found it super helpful! It’s small and portable, provides pronunciation help, and is written for those with zero knowledge of Italy and the Italian language. Non-verbal communication goes a long way, but you still need to be able to ask for the bill when eating at a restaurant! (Il conto per favore)
You see a lot of people in Italy wearing their backpacks on their chest and ticketing kiosks at the train stations warn you to watch for pickpocketers. Be aware of your surroundings and keep a firm grasp on your belongings.
If you have mobility issues, you will find Italy a challenging place to navigate. Since we are traveling with a toddler, we are usually pushing a stroller. Let’s just say we have been carrying it up steps – a lot! Ramps and elevators are not nearly as widespread in Italy as they are in the U.S. You will have better luck with accessibility issues in major cities (e.g. Rome & Florence), than in a medieval town like Siena, where we are based.
Italians call it riposo and they are serious about it. For a traveler, this means you will be hard pressed to find small shops and stores open between 1-3 p.m. (although the time varies). Riposo can be anywhere from 2-4 hours long. However, touristy areas don’t generally observe it. Most restaurants, retailers and supermarkets stay open too.
You can’t just buy a ticket and board the train. First, you must validate it using the small machines nearby to prove you are using the ticket then and there. Skip this step and you will be dealing with an unhappy train inspector on your voyage.
When you visit churches, like Siena’s Duomo, site guides will ask you to cover your shoulders and will ask men to remove their hats. Some religious areas do not allow shorts, others permit them.
White Crochet Top | Woven Clutch (just $15) | Skirt (similar) | Wedges
Enter a restaurant at 6 p.m. and the proprietor will laugh at you (I’m not kidding). In contrast to the U.S., where meal times come early, Italian eateries don’t open until 7 p.m. or later. Also, don’t be shocked if your meal takes 3 hours. Dining is a much more leisurely activity in Italy. Side note: If you like pasta, prepare to feel like a kid in a candy store in Italian grocery stores. The variety is unlike anything I’ve seen before! Make sure you cook a few meals at home, so you get a chance to experiment with the bountiful options.
If you want to sit down at a restaurant in Italy, you will generally need to pay a “coperto” or cover charge. This service fee is usually between 1-5 euro and typically includes the table and bread.
They are very particular about taste and want the “good” water, especially in urban areas where it can be rather hard. As a result, you will see bottled water everywhere in Italy, including the restaurant table. Sure, you can ask for tap water, but it is considered an odd request and you’ll garner some strange looks. Bottom line: The tap water in Italy is perfectly safe to drink. In fact, it actually tastes pretty darn good (and I’m picky about water too). We drank tap water in our apartment.
The Tuscan scenery will stop you in your tracks. The colors are so vivid.
If you’re lucky enough to find one, you will most likely need to pay to use the facilities. Therefore, make it a habit to always carry around a euro or two.
Unless you have a dual voltage appliance (here’s an example) or a voltage converter, your U.S. hair styling tool will be a fire hazard in Italy. Why? Electricity here comes out of the wall socket at 220 volts, versus 110 volts in the U.S. **Important note: An adaptor is not the same thing as a voltage converter** Your appliance will note its voltage settings right on the device.
Can’t live without your flat iron or curling wand? I feel you! My unstyled, natural hair quickly takes on a Chia pet look. The best/cheapest option for heat styling is buying an appliance in Italy, but finding one can be tricky. In contrast to what you might expect, department stores like OVS (similar to a Target) and Coin don’t carry heat styling tools. Instead, you will need to seek out an electronics store (e.g. Euronics or this Elettricita shown below) where they might sell washing machines, refrigerators, TVs etc. I found a Revlon model for 23 euros. It’s not the best ever, but does the job. Most hotels (and even Airbnbs) supply hair dryers, so you can skip that.
I spent 20 minutes staring at bottles in the hair care aisle trying to figure this out. Google translate isn’t much help.
Dryers are pretty much unheard of in Italy. Power is expensive and controlled, so Italians hang their clothing to dry. Most apartments and Airbnbs will have lines outside the windows and offer indoor drying racks for you to use. They also typically have irons. This is such an asset for travelers! I was very eager to get rid of the wrinkles my clothing picked up in transit to Italy.
This list is by no means exhaustive. We pick up new and valuable information each and every day, so consider this a living document of helpful info. I have a strong feeling I’ll be adding to this list regularly.
Have you traveled to Italy before? What must-know tips should we add to this list?
Are you CRAZY? That’s awesome! Good luck, you’ll need it……
Normally, I would consider myself a fairly light packer. I can fit everything I need…
Victoria Martin | 10th Jul 19
Great article Lindsay!
laveremis | 10th Jul 19
It’s always so fascinating to explore the cultural differences around the world! Thanks Victoria!
Tracy Albiero | 10th Jul 19
Thank you for putting the part about dressing for religious touring. I think respecting the culture is so important.
laveremis | 11th Jul 19
I so agree Tracy! Some of the religious sites we visited have sadly taken on a “circus-like” atmosphere, because some tourists are completely unaware of (or choose to ignore) the cultural and religious significance these places have.
Whitney | 10th Jul 19
It is my dream to go to Italy one day (in the near future I hope). I love articles like yours that give an insiders perspective on travel and helps to decrease some of the culture shock. Thanks for sharing this.
laveremis | 11th Jul 19
I truly hope you get the chance; it really is a beautiful country! We never really expected to experience that sense of “culture shock” in Italy, as it is such a frequent destination. However, we definitely did – and it was eye-opening in a good way. Appreciate you stopping by the blog!
Adriana | 11th Jul 19
So many tips and tricks. Some I would have never thought of. Looks like you and the family had such a wonderful time.
laveremis | 11th Jul 19
Glad you found this one useful! That’s my goal with every blog post – to provide a bit of insight to make life easier. We sure did!
Amanda J | 11th Jul 19
Such beautiful photos! And great tips! Thanks for sharing 🙂
Kuntala Banerjee | 11th Jul 19
Very useful article. In fact this type of guidance is very essential before visiting any place.
Ritu Sharma | 11th Jul 19
Italy is just a dreamy city. It is full of themes everywhere, I would love to live there. It looks like so much fun
Erika Tiara | 11th Jul 19
I never imagined my self going to Italy to be honest. But I really want to go there after reading your tips, Italy must be an interesting country. Thanks for enspiring me!
GiGi Eats | 11th Jul 19
I loved when I went to Italy – loved it!!!! And yes, pick-pocketing does definitely happen. I wore a money belt, which helped me get through… Plus it enabled me to have both arms free as opposed to having to carry something! Oh and I think more than 1/2 of the reason why I loved Italy so much was because of the FOOD – haaha!
Chad | 11th Jul 19
I’ve been to Italy before and in all honesty i wasn’t well prepared for it. These tips are awesome and very very helpful. Thank you.
Norma Nikutowski | 11th Jul 19
Great advise! It’s important to learn some basic Italian words. A pocket phrasebook sounds like a great idea. I’ve heard from other people who visited Italy how crucial it is to be aware of pickpocketing especially in places where tourists go like the colosseum as there are organized kids to distract you with newspapers and get their little hands all over you.
Lavern Moore | 11th Jul 19
I will be sure to refer to this list for my trip to Italy. It’s good to know that there are few public restrooms.
That Dog Momma | 11th Jul 19
This is really pretty! I would love to visit here! I research pretend vacations all the time lol
Suzanne Nuyen | 11th Jul 19
Definitely wish I knew some of these tips when I was in Venice and Rome a few year’s ago! Your tips are spot on.
Ashli Ferguson | 11th Jul 19
MY parens are going to italy soon – I will share with them!!
Catherine Santiago Jose | 12th Jul 19
These are great guidelines to everyone who are planning to visit Italy in the future. I will also share this with my Aunt who is planning to visit this place this year.
twinspirational | 12th Jul 19
These are great tips for traveling in Italy. I agree, we should always pack light even in other countries.
Brandy | 12th Jul 19
I had a friend go there a few years back and she said some of the same things you did. Its a beautiful place to go though and would love to get some of their beauty supplies!
aisasami | 13th Jul 19
Japan used to be like Italy as being a cash-based society. But, since the boom of chips in cards and paying with smartphones, Japan is moving away from the cash as they want more money from tourists. I wonder if Italy will do so in the future too.
laveremis | 14th Jul 19
I bet they will since tourism is such a huge industry there! The bigger cities are already trending that way. I’d love to see Japan some day!
Dalene Ekirapa | 14th Jul 19
Italy is second on my bucket list so the tips really come in handy. But what I always try my best to do is have a language app where I can learn a couple of words , depending on where I’m going to. Anyway, the idea about carrying cash is great…wouldn’t forget that!
laveremis | 14th Jul 19
I sure hope you get the chance to go Dalene, it is so packed with history and gorgeous architecture. The language app is a wonderful idea – we used Google translate a lot and found it very helpful. Thanks for visiting the blog and happy travels!
Christopher Mitchell | 16th Jul 19
These are a great selection of tips, and tips that people can hold to heart. I think it’s so important that people dress respectfully for religious sites because, regardless of your religion, it’s important to have respect for everybody’s house of worship.
laveremis | 19th Jul 19
As a seasoned traveler, I’m sure you have quite a list of helpful tips yourself. Thanks for taking the time to visit the blog. Yes – respect for religious sites is so important. Demonstrating respect for the beliefs of others is not only the “right” thing to do, but it allows you to immerse yourself in an authentic experience.
Enok Suyitno | 21st Oct 19
I love articles like yours that give an insiders perspective on travel and helps
laveremis | 22nd Oct 19
Thanks for the kind words Enok – glad it is helpful! You must be a font of knowledge yourself running tours out of Bali. I have always dreamed of going there.
Enok Suyitno | 22nd Oct 19
Bali is welcome to you, We are always waiting for you to visit Bali
Majid Khan | 1st Jun 20
Always get a receipt (even for just a postcard or two) in case the “tax police” are lurking. They have the right to see your purchases and your receipt.
laveremis | 3rd Jun 20
Wow – I didn’t even think of that or realize it. What a great one to add to the list! Appreciate your insight.
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