After two decades of giving Italy travel advice and planning Italy trips for independent travelers, I sat down and put together my top 100 Italy travel tips for the cities of Rome, Florence, and Venice, and in the categories of Food, Transportation, Packing, Technology and Money.
Italy Travel Tips: General
1. The language spoken in Italy is Italian. Don’t assume Italians will speak English unless you are hiring them to provide an English-speaking service like as a tour guide. Don’t expect road signs to be written in English. Bring a phrase book with you so you can communicate with Italians.
2. Italy is 6 hours ahead of US eastern time, so it will take your body time to adjust to the difference. Make sure you allow time at the front end of your trip in order to rest and recuperate otherwise you will be exhausted during the trip.
3. Although they can be very busy with tourists, the main sights are famous for a reason and are worth visiting.
5. Check the weather and the sunset time. Northern Italy gets snow in the winter. Southern Italy is not hot year-round, and some parts even get snow. Shoulder seasons are a great time to go, but pack for rain and fog.
6. Be aware of Italian holidays, when many shops, restaurants, museums and sights will close.
7. Museums are usually closed on Mondays.
8. Many stores are closed on Sundays, so it’s not an ideal day to plan to shop.
9. Flights from the USA arrive at only 3 Italian airports: Milan, Venice, and Rome. It often makes sense to fly into one of those airports and out of a different one. If you are flying via another European city then there are many additional Italian airports you can fly to or from.
10. For flights within Italy, consider booking on a budget airline. A great way to search for flights within Europe is on momondo.com
Italy Travel Tips: Food
11. Italians eat breakfast about 8 am, lunch about 1 pm, and dinner about 8 pm. But, the further south you go, the later people eat.
12. The vast majority of restaurants do not open for dinner earlier than 7.30 pm.
13. If you’d like to eat dinner before 7.30 pm, find a wine bar with a menu. Wine bars are usually open by 6 pm and you can bring the kids.
14. Although cappuccino is considered to be a breakfast drink and most Italians do not drink it after about 10.30 am, feel free to order a cappuccino whenever you wish.
15. Italian menus are organized into antipasti (appetizers), primi (pasta, rice, and soups), secondi (protein including meat and fish and eggs), contorni (side dishes like vegetables), and dolci (desserts). This means if you’d like vegetables with your chicken, you need to order the chicken from the secondi part of the menu and the vegetables from the contorni section of the menu. It also means that if you order a pasta dish and a meat dish, you’ll get the pasta first, and the meat dish when you’ve finished the pasta, unless you specify otherwise.
16. As a general rule, Italians eat local, seasonal food. This means that food in Sicily is very different from food in Venice, and winter menus vary significantly from summer menus.
17. Italians use few ingredients in food and there is minimal processing. This means Italy is an ideal destination for anyone with food allergies or restrictions.
18. There is no need to tip, but if that makes you uncomfortable you can tip 10%.
19. Water is not free, unless you specify that you want tap water, which is acqua dal rubinetto
20. If you sit down anywhere, you can expect a small per-head cover charge. This is called a coperto, and is not a tourist scam.
21. Do not eat anywhere with a menu in four languages.
22. Do not eat anywhere that displays the menu on an easel in front of the restaurant, featuring colored photos of the dishes.
23. Do not eat anywhere that has a person standing outside trying to convince you to come in and eat.
Italy Travel Tips: Transportation
24. The trains in Italy are extremely efficient, very cost-effective, very comfortable, and run frequently. If the train works with your itinerary, you should take it.
25. Trains and buses do go on strike quite regularly. The good news is that strikes are communicated in advance.
26. Do not rent a car in Rome. More on that in the Rome section, below.
27. Do not rent a car in Florence. It’s a small city with lots of pedestrian zones. Plan on getting around on foot.
28. You cannot rent a car in Venice because Venice is made up of islands surrounded by canals. You can get around Venice by foot or by boat, that’s it. There are no other options, so remember that when deciding how much luggage to bring.
29. Traffic in Italian cities is terrible, so avoid driving in Italian cities if at all possible.
30. Many Italian cities have Limited Traffic Zones, which is Zona Traffico Limitato in Italian, and shortened to ZTL. If you enter the zone you’ll get a fine in the mail. This is not a tourist scam. Another reason to avoid driving in Italian cities.
31. Parking in Italian cities can be a nightmare. If you must park in a city, use a paid parking garage.
32. Having a car in the Italian countryside gives you more independence and trains often don’t go to small countryside towns, therefore renting a car for the countryside part of your trip is often a good idea.
33. If you rent a car, it’s the law to have an International Driving License. In the US, you can get one quickly and easily at AAA offices. But, you cannot use your IDL to rent the car so bring your valid driving license.
34. Study up on Italian road signs before you go.
35. If you don’t have experience driving in roundabouts AKA traffic circles, familiarize yourself with them by watching videos and reading the rules before you go. They are extremely stressful to try to figure out on the fly.
36. You cannot flag taxis in Italy. You must either call the taxi to come and pick you up (and the meter will start running the minute you put down the phone) or find a taxi stand and take the first taxi in line. Make sure the meter is on – do not accept driver-dictated fares. If a driver refuses to turn on the meter or insists on dropping you off somewhere other than where you requested — especially in Rome — report them to the Italians at your destination (restaurant, hotel front desk, tour guide).
Italy Travel Tips: Packing
37. Make sure you bring a bag with a cross-body strap. No over-the-shoulder bags. Make sure your bag zips closed. No snaps and no open bags. And inside your zippered, cross-body-strapped bag, your wallet and valuables should be behind another zipper.
38. If you are traveling by train, remember that you need to be able to transport your luggage to the train, and lift it on to the train – so pack light.
39. If you are traveling by car, make sure your luggage completely fits inside the luggage compartment of your car. Car break-ins in Italy are common, but thieves are opportunistic. If a car appears to be completely empty they will not bother breaking in.
40. Consider bringing laundry detergent with you to wash small items in hotel sinks. Heated towel racks in hotel rooms are perfect for drying socks. Higher end hotels will have laundry service, which is expensive but may be worth it. Don’t plan on going to a laundromat, it will consume an entire day of your vacation, mainly because Italian washing machines have long cycles.
41. Make sure shoulders and knees are covered on days you plan to enter churches. Throwing a scarf (or even a plastic bag, if you have nothing else) over your shoulders is fine. Shorts and skirts that hit right at the knee are fine.
42. Flip-flops are only for the beach or the shower in Italy.
43. Hats and t-shirts with sports teams or college logos are not worn by Italians. If you want to fit in, leave them at home.
44. Layers are an excellent packing strategy in any season.
45. Don’t bring heels, unless you are sure you can walk on cobblestones in them.
46. Italians dress by the calendar, not by the weather. This means that regardless of the temperatures, wardrobes start to transition from summer to fall at the end of September and from winter to spring in March. We recommend you pack for the actual weather that is forecasted, but if it’s unseasonably warm in December, don’t be surprised if you see locals wearing fur coats.
Italy Travel Tips: Technology
47. Definitely bring your smartphone, but contact your provider to sign up for an international plan that includes talk time, text messages, and data. International plans are so good these days that there really is no longer a need to buy an Italian SIM card for a trip of a week or two. If you’re going for longer than that, and you have an unlocked phone, you may want to buy an Italian SIM card when you get to Italy.
48. Wi-fi is not as widespread in Italy as it is in North America, and it’s not as reliable. The vast majority of hotels these days have free wi-fi for guests, but sometimes it works and sometimes it goes down or is overloaded. Even in 4 and 5 star hotels that advertise wi-fi, expect it to be slow or go down during your stay. If you absolutely must have internet during your trip, consider bringing your own MiFi device.
49. Bring paper maps as a backup to your technology, and load offline google maps on to your device before you go.
50. Useful apps for your Italy trip include WhatsApp messaging and calls using data, widely used by Italians), Word Lens (point your phone’s camera at written Italian for instant translation), Skype (for calling home over wi-fi from your hotel, but install it before you go.)
51. Be aware that iPads and smartphones are attractive to thieves. If you bring one, when you are not using it, put it back in your bag, behind a zipper.
Italy Travel Tips: Money
52. The currency of Italy is the Euro.
53. Italy is a very cash-oriented culture. Plan to carry enough cash with you to get through the day. Assume local guides and drivers will need to be paid in cash, and be aware that some restaurants do not accept credit cards. In general, Italian businesses prefer cash over credit cards, and even those who accept credit cards will not do so for small purchases.
54. You cannot pay anybody in US dollars.
55. To get cash in Italy, you can use your US ATM card in Italian ATM machines, called Bancomat. But check with your bank first that your ATM card can be used internationally.
56. However, assume that the first ATM machine you try to use to get cash will be out of service, so don’t wait until your wallet is empty to find a bancomat.
57. It’s always better to use a bancomat attached to a bank rather than a standalone one.
58. Before you leave for Italy, tell your bank that you’re going to Italy so that Italian transactions do not show up as suspicious, resulting in a blocked ATM or credit card.
59. If you have a credit card with a chip, bring it. Italians no longer use signatures with credit cards, although they do have the machines to print a receipt for you to sign if you don’t have a credit card with a chip.
60. Remember that you’ll be getting out cash in Euros, not dollars, so if your maximum daily ATM withdrawal limit is, for example, 400 dollars, that is less in Euros, so you won’t be able to withdraw 400 Euros a day.
61. Have a backup credit card with you, just in case.
62. Spread out your cash, do not keep it all in your wallet. If your hotel has a safe, keep some cash in there. Even if you must keep it all on your person, put some in your wallet, some in a zippered pocket in your bag etc. You don’t want the person standing behind you in line to see a wad of cash in your wallet when you are paying for a coffee.
63. If you want to bring US dollars to exchange into Euros, remember that it’s always cheaper to buy Euros in Europe compared to buying Euros in the US.
Rome Travel Tips
64. Rome is a big city and very hilly, so you probably can’t visit the entire city on foot. Don’t rent a car because traffic and parking will make you go mad. Either take taxis or learn to use the buses or the metro. Or, if you love walking, just wear good shoes, group sights based on geography, and factor rest stops into your day.
65. Don’t visit the Colosseum and the Vatican museums on the same day or your brain will hurt.
66. Eat cacio e pepe, pasta all’amatriciana, and pasta alla carbonara.
67. Although museums in Italy are usually closed on Mondays, the Vatican museums are closed on Sundays.
68. December of 2015 marks the start of a Jubilee year in Rome, so plan for crowds.
69. Buy tickets to the Vatican Museums ahead of time or risk not getting in.
70. Don’t go to the Vatican museums or the Colosseum on free Sundays, the lines and the crowds are not worth it.
71. Book your accommodation in the historic center. It’s not worth staying on the outskirts of town and going back and forth twice a day.
72. Great neighborhoods to stay include: the area near Piazza Navona, the Monti neighborhood near the Colosseum, and the area near the Spanish Steps (also the most expensive area). The area near the Vatican is great too, though it’s not as central as the others, so you get better value for money.
73. A good local tour guide is worth their weight in gold. It’s worth getting a guide for the Vatican Museums.
74. Sights you can see on your own with the aid of a guidebook include: Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, Piazza del Popolo, the Campidoglio, the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele, the Baths of Caracalla, the Mouth of Truth… for a start.
75. It’s a long day, but possible, to visit Pompeii as a day trip from Rome.
76. Even though there’s a river running through Rome, and it seems like it should be a good idea, the river is not attractive, so do not book a river boat cruise.
Florence Travel Tips
77. Florence is a small city but with a lot of history, so allow a couple of days at least.
78. Florence was where the Renaissance started, so don’t leave without understanding more about that.
79. Book tickets for the Uffizi Gallery in advance. Same goes for the Accademia Gallery (where David lives).
80. A private guided walking tour of the city and Uffizi Gallery is well worth the money.
81. You can get around Florence on foot or with the electric buses. No need to rent a car.
82. Stay in the historic center, or somewhere walkable to/from there.
83. There are a lot of foreign students in Florence, which makes it seem like it’s always packed with English-speaking tourists.
84. If you like beef, Florence is the place to eat bistecca alla Fiorentina .
85. Florence is a great base for visiting the towns of Lucca, Pisa, Siena, San Gimignano, and the Chianti countryside. All of these can easily be done as day trips, and the first three can be done by train.
86. It’s possible, but a long day trip, to visit the Cinque Terre from Florence.
87. Other great things to do in Florence: Walk over the Ponte Vecchio, visit the Duomo or cathedral and climb to the top of Brunelleschi’s Dome, go up Giotto’s Bell Tower, visit the Central Food Market (open only in the mornings; closed Sundays) visit artisans in the Oltrarno neighborhood, go up to Piazzale Michelangelo to see the iconic views over the city (photo above).
Venice Travel Tips
88. Stay in Venice proper, not in Mestre or other towns outside of Venice. Much of the magic of Venice is in the evenings, when it’s quiet and all the day trippers have left. It’s an incredibly safe city, even at night.
89. Pay attention to the logistics in Venice, because it takes twice as long to get anywhere as you think it does. Get a good map.
90. Think carefully about the location of your Venice accommodation. You’ll drop off your rental car in Piazzale Roma, or you’ll arrive at the train station and either way you’ll be standing in front of a canal. You can get a private boat to your accommodation for about 120 euros. You can get a public boat if you know which boat goes there. Or you can walk. Those are the only options. If you walk, remember there are cobblestones, bridges, and stairs.
91. Venice has some of the most expensive hotels in all of Italy. As a general rule, you get less for your money in Venice compared to anywhere else in Italy, so you may want to think about an average hotel budget and spend more in Venice and a bit less everywhere else.
92. While there is some incredible art in Venice, including inside its churches, the best thing to do in Venice is to explore.
93. See Venice from above: go up the campanile in the main square or for fewer crowds, take the boat to the nearby island of San Giorgio Maggiore and go up that bell tower instead.
94. See Venice from the water: ride the public vaporetto, take a rowing lesson, ride a gondola, or another boat.
95. See Venice from its small streets: allocate some time to just getting lost.
96. For meals in Venice, do some planning ahead of time: there are a lot of overpriced touristy restaurants, and the great places require reservations a week or two in advance in high season.
97. Definitely eat Cicchetti, Venice’s small plates. They can be eaten for lunch or as an early dinner. Try a Bellini drink, a Spritz drink, and eat fish.
98. Venice is a great place to listen to Vivaldi. If you listen to the orchestra in St. Mark’s Square, remember that although the drinks are ridiculously expensive, you can buy one drink and occupy your table as long as you want.
99. If you’re traveling to Venice in the winter time, you might hit acqua alta, which means high water. The city floods, and wooden walkways appear. If you’re going to Venice during the acqua alta period, consider bringing rain boots.
100. Consider visiting the islands of the lagoon, including Murano and Burano. Keep in mind that the glass-blowing island of Murano is extremely touristy, so have a plan ahead of time. Do not accept a “free” boat to Murano unless you are prepared for a hard sell by a glass vendor. If you want to buy a piece of glass to bring home, they do ship.
Aaand, that’s 100 Italy travel tips!
Let me know in the comments what I’ve missed!
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