Updated: Dec 24, 2019
Most first-time visitors to Italy come with pre-conceived ideas about what their experience of the country will be. After all, it may be halfway around the world but it’s not like Italy is completely unknown or alien to us. You'll find traces of Italy almost everywhere you go in your home town; from the local Italian restaurant, to the Fiat your neighbour drives (or Ferrari if you’re both lucky), the fashion in the shops and so forth.
And while some things may turn out to be as you expect, others can be wide of the mark.
In this post, I’m going to help you prepare yourself for Italy by offering ten things that I think people will notice when they first visit Italy.
1. There are tourists. Lots of tourists.
Italy is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, with over 50 million tourists visiting each year. Nearly all of them want to see the same sights as you, so you can find yourself sharing your space with what can feel like pretty much every other person in the planet - especially in summer - and not all may be as polite as you believe yourself to be. Queues for some attractions like the Vatican, the Colosseum and the Uffizi Gallery can go so far down the road that they actually connect up with other queues for other attractions.
Don't panic. There are a few ways you can avoid the worst of the crowds. For a start, go there in the spring or autumn. It can still be busy, but usually there are fewer tourists. Secondly, stay as close to the centre of the city as you can. That way you can take walks to the most popular sights early in the morning or in the evening when the vast majority of tourists have gone. The route between Rialto Bridge and Piazza S. Marco in Venice is hideous between about 10am and 6pm, when up to 60,000 cruise ship passengers descend on Venice along with the other day trippers. During those hours, go off the beaten path and you’ll find things much more pleasant. Later it all settles down and you can have a much better experience.
You should also explore Italy outside the ‘Big 4’ cities (Rome, Venice, Florence and Milan). Every region has plenty to offer - some quite famous and others known only to the locals. A couple of years back I spent a couple of weeks just pottering around the little towns in the Veneto behind Venice: lovely historical delights such as Padova, Verona, Vicenza, Bassano del Grappa and Treviso, not to mention those on the shores of nearby Lake Garda. Sure there were tourists, but nowhere near the numbers you’ll find at noon in front of the Trevi Fountain.
If you do need to go with the crowd, you need to know that many of the major tourist attractions have skip-the-line options. Usually you just book online and pay a little more, but you'll save yourself hours of queuing.
Thinking of visiting Italy? Check out our escorted small group tours if Italy on our website.
2. Most cities are extremely walk-able
While modern Italian cities have the same kind of suburban sprawl as we have in Australia, the old centres (‘centro storico’) - which is where you want to spend your time - are usually relatively small. In Rome, for example, walking to the Spanish Steps from the Campo de’ Fiori is a touch over 20 minutes at an easy pace. Even strolling from the Colosseum to the Vatican is under an hour even if you stop along the way for a gelato and to buy a T-shirt. Walking around Venice is by far the best way to explore the miracle that is La Serenissima (swimming being the worst). Other places, such as Florence, Siena, Perugia or Assisi, have even smaller centres.
The main lesson is to make sure you take your walking shoes, because you’re going to need them. If you have mobility challenges, there are taxis and other forms of public transport but because of their age Italian cities tend to be less friendly than ours for those requiring assistance in getting around.
3. Sometimes you have to pay for things you don’t expect to
You might be lucky and find a free toilet when out and about (McDonalds are the best bet) but mostly when you find a public rest-room you’ll either need to put money in a slot to enter or you’ll find someone sitting there who will have their hand out for some coins - usually 1 to 2 euro. It's not all bad, because paid-for public restrooms tend to be clean and provided with soap and toilet paper.
You’ll also have to pay to go to the beach – well, the better parts of it. Whilst about 10 percent of each beach is set aside as public beach space, these tend to be crammed and get dirty as the day passes. The remainder is set aside for private operators who charge – commonly around 15 euro for access and a lounge. Australians are brought up on the concept of public beaches as an inalienable right, so it can be a bit of an affront to find you're being charged to hit the sand in Italy, but that's the way it works.
4. Tipping is not required (and might even cause offence)
You will see people tipping in Italy, but more often than not it will be Americans who come from a tipping culture, or tourists believing that is what you must do. But you don’t (although it is becoming a little more common, and if you feel you must leave something for your waiter, you can leave a ‘mancia’ by rounding up your bill to the nearest 5 or 10 euro as a token of appreciation).
The acronym ‘TIPS’ means ‘to improve prompt service’. Well, table service can be a little different in Italy. While greeting people is absolutely essential, you are unlikely to find waiters fawning over your every need (unless you’re in a high tourist area and they want you in and out as quickly as possible so they can get the next unsuspecting tourist in - please avoid these places), nor do they usually present the bill to encourage you to move on. In fact, you might have to physically wave someone down when you are ready to pay. Mealtime is not seen as something to rush through – it’s meant to be enjoyed at an easy pace. They’ll keep an eye on you but won’t be at you every five minutes to see how you are because they expect that you are appreciating the meal, the wine and your companions.
Mind you, you are likely to find additional charges on your bill that you weren’t expecting; usually either a coperto or servizio. ‘Coperto’ means ‘cover’. It’s a per-person cover charge included in many restaurants across Italy (mainly tourist areas). It's typically between one and five euro and usually includes bread for the table. (If you've picked a good restaurant, the bread will be great and you'll have good balsamic vinegar and olive oil to dip it in. If you haven't, it will be like wood.) Usually you’ll see the word on the menu or on a sign at the door, but not always. You can always ask at the door.
The servizio is a type of difficult to define service charge. Again, it most often charged in the popular tourist areas. It can be between 10% and 20% of the bill - and like the coperto - should be listed on the menu. Many family-run restaurants make explicit that they don’t charge either a coperto or servizio. We usually prefer these….
5. The food isn’t always incredible
You really need to do some research before deciding where to eat in Italy. Much like other popular tourist destinations around the world, the food quality can be at all pojnts along the scale from brilliant to appalling, and price is not necessarily a good indicator of quality. Two rules of thumb for us are:
the further away you walk from a major landmark, the less crappy the food is likely to be; and
beware of bars or cafes with a view.
For restauranteurs in tourist areas, foreign visitors offer a stream of customers who are unlikely to ever darken the door of their business again, which is an invitation for poor food – not always, but it seems more often than not. At the very least the drinks will likely be overpriced. If you're happy to pay a premium for the scenery - fine. If you're after a good meal, spend a bit of time on Google or Trip Advisor first.
There’s also no such thing as generic ‘Italian food’. Italy is comprised of a number of former independent states and each has their own specialities based around local ingredients and the four seasons. Whilst there is blurring at the edges, this largely remains true today. Rice is prevalent in the north - Lombardy and Piedmont - so risotto is a good bet when you're up there. Ribollita is a hearty vegetable soup in Tuscany with roots in the peasant cooking of the region and considered a special treat in the autumn, when the taste of the harvest vegetables is at its most vibrant. Carbonara and Caccio e Pepe are Roman pasta specialities. Order any of these outside their traditional place of origin and you risk getting a basic imitation especially made for tourists.
Even pizza can be poor because pizza isn't a dish that's traditionally eaten across the entire country. It's produced for tourists wherever you go, but it's not actually a part of the local cuisine. For truly great Italian pizza you need to go to either Naples, the home of pizza, or maybe Rome. Everywhere else? Ask the waiter for suggestions.
(It’s also easy to have a very average gelato in Italy - see our post on this.)
6. Plan to eat late
If you see an Italian eating at 5:00pm, they’re most likely to be finishing lunch. Many good restaurants don’t even open until 7 or later. If you’re feeling peckish early in the evening, find a nice bar and enjoy an aperitivo. They’re likely to serve nibbles or even tasty treats (see our post on aperitivo time) and you can sit and chat and watch the world go by for a while before eating later. You'll be taking part in a slice of Italian culture we could use a little of back at home.
7. Great coffee doesn’t need to be expensive
You’ll occasionally hear about someone paying 10 euro or more for a coffee - usually near Piazza San Marco or the Spanish Steps. These people either have so much money they don’t care, or simply didn’t know any better. Again, our advice is to avoid cafes beside a major sight or popular tourist piazza and you’ll usually pay around 1.50 euro for a great coffee.
You can get more advice on getting a great coffee in Italy in our blog post (including how to locate a café that the locals patronise and also how to pay for your coffee) but one important choice you’ll need to make is whether to have your coffee at the counter (‘al bar’ or ‘al banco’) or at a table. The latter will cost about an extra euro or so but you can sit as long as you wish.
(Oh, and if you buy a coffee at Starbucks when in Italy (they’ve just opened one in Milan), you’ll have committed a mortal sin.)
8. A few Italian words will go a long way
In general, Italians are friendly and polite (although having to deal with impatient and rude foreign tourists on a daily basis can wear thin for some) but we have found that learning and using a few Italian words can also get you a long way. Greeting the receptionist or waiter with a cheery ‘buon giorno’,and saying ‘arrivaderci’ when leaving (or ‘ciao’ if you’ve gotten to know the person a little better) nearly always gets a good response and a smile. Using ‘grazie’ to give thanks is simply polite, and you’ll hear ‘prego’ often, usually in the context of ‘you’re welcome’.
Most Italians in the main tourist towns speak English to a useful level, but just think of how you would feel if a tourist came up to you in your home town and loudly started speaking in a foreign language, as opposed to someone who says ‘Excuse me’ in English… You don’t have to be fluent (or as Kath and Kim suggested ‘effluent’), but it just shows a little bit of respect, and I think that’s a good thing…..
9. You have to validate your train and bus tickets
Once you’ve learned the ropes, travelling on public transport is easy in Italy – and the fast trains are a brilliant and quick way to get between most places - but just buying your tickets at the bus or train station is not enough. You have to validate them at the little machines you will find near the ticket office or station.
The machine stamps the date and time on the ticket so it can’t be reused. If you don’t do that, there is a fair chance a ticket inspector will catch you and will fine you. The fines are not cheap and they generally have no sympathy for unhappy tourists pleading ignorance because they’ve heard it a million times before.
Italy has two cities listed as the top 10 pickpocketing places in the world, and there’s no doubt there are plenty of people hanging around looking for a gullible or careless tourist to take advantage of, but – touch wood - we have never once felt like either we were in any danger.
It wouldn’t be a major tourist destination without a few tourist scams here and there, and so far we haven’t experienced anything too troublesome. Some people find the beggars confronting at times, and certainly the proliferation of charity “volunteers” asking for donations can be off-putting (just say ‘no grazie’ and keep walking).
The best advice we can offer is don’t carry valuables, passports and cash in your pockets (only take what you need for the day and trust in the hotel safe), and be wary when you’re in tourist-heavy places like piazzas and major transportation hubs like bus and train terminals. A wallet is a definite no-no, and I'd even question whether a handbag is a good idea.
Really, it's a matter of taking reasonable precautions and keeping your wits about you.
So that's my list. If you've been to Italy yourself, do you agree? Maybe you have some suggestions yourself. If so, feel free to let us know!
Thinking of visiting Italy? Check out our escorted small group tours if Italy on our website.