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.
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?