There is so much to see, to do, and to absorb on every trip, and your first trip to Italy will be that way. Whether you are taking a guided tour, spending a few extra days at the end of a cruise, or just going on your own, there are some things that you definitely should do, and there are some you don’t want to do. By necessity, these must be somewhat general in nature; but since you’re creative—or you might not be going to Italy—you can use some imagination and tailor them to your own trip.
- Travel with an open mind
- Learn some Italian
- Prioritize your list of cities
- Acquaint yourself with some of the local customs
- Be adventurous and try eating something new
- Rent a car
- Use your “normal” hand gestures
- Be casual about your money and other valuables
- Enter the country with an “attitude”
- Feel intimidated or overwhelmed
You’ve probably watched at least one video, one movie, and a couple television shows about Italy; those might even be what spurred you to book your trip. Put a lot of that glamour and the easy-going attitude aside, and realize that not everything is going to be like what you saw. Yes, Italy is a great country to visit—about 46 million people visit there each year—and, just like your own country, most of the people living there have their own lives to live and jobs to do. The best thing you can do as you pack is to start with an open mind of what it’s going to be like once you’re there.
Traveling with an open mind and a flexible attitude works no matter where you go, even if it’s just a town or two away from home. But when you’re out of your comfort zone, and in another country where the language is different and so is the money, even the smallest disruption can create stress. You don’t want that. You do want to enjoy your vacation, and accepting that changes will occur (the weather, the lodging, the plans that were so meticulously made) will put you in a frame of mind that allows you to have the best possible time. Another way to look at it is that you might have an unexpected surprise when something “happens” that wasn’t on your scripted itinerary.
One of the accepted truths in international travel is that most people in the hospitality business speak at least some English. That’s nice, but I don’t know many Americans who want a visitor from a different country to expect them to speak their “foreign language.” You’ll earn a lot of respect and a willingness to be even more helpful when you begin the conversation with a Buon giorno or Buona sera, depending on the time of day. It might feel awkward the first few times you try it, but that return Italian smile will tell you how much it’s appreciated that you cared enough to try.
My recommendation is to buy a small pocket phrase book that you can carry with you during your daily travels. Practice often, even with a traveling companion, and soon it will will feel natural. When you see a word you don’t know, look it up. Also, when you want to say something to a local, or ask a question, don’t be embarrassed—pull out our phrase book, look it up, and then try to pronounce it. If you get a strange look, show the book and point to what you were saying. You’ll get an “Ah,” along with that smile again. At a minimum, use the following words and phrases: Buon giorno (good morning or good day); Buena sera (good evening); Grazie (thank you); Prego (please, you’re welcome, I need to ask you something—it’s used for many things); Arrividerci (good bye); Si (yes); No (no); Quanto costa? (how much?). TIP: Take a 3×5 card and write down your list of words and phrases (Italian and English), and carry that card with you. It’s easier than opening the book, and soon you won’t even need the card.
Unless you’re planning to spend four weeks in Italy, or you just want a “fly-by” visit to check Italy off your countries visited list, you should focus your time on one or two main areas. A good rule of thumb is a minimum of three days per major city (Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples), plus a half-day or more travel. There’s fifteen to eighteen days right there, and that doesn’t count places like Cinque Terra; Capri and the Amalfi Coast; the island of Sicily; other cities (Ravenna and Bologna) along the eastern shore. Then there are areas that are worth immersing yourself into their culture—Tuscany; the Dolomites; Italian Alps; hill towns.
Start with your absolute must-visit places. Rome has been there for thousands of years; it will still be there two or three years from now. On our first visit to Italy, we flew into Rome, but the tour headed right out, and we spent no time in Rome. It wasn’t until we were on an European tour three years later that we spent some time in Rome. Use this as a starting formula: Divide the number of days in Italy by 3. Round that number down, and then subtract one. So if you’re planning a two-week trip, you lose two days in the USA-Italy-USA travel. You’re left with twelve; 12 divided by 3 = 4 (no need to round down). Subtract one, and you’re left with three major cities to visit. This allows for transit between cities, extra time for the side trips, and you’re not disappointed that you had to cut the last city short. Also, by not visiting every place on your first trip, you’ll have an excuse to return to Italy. TIP: If you want just highlights, divide by two instead of three.
Some of things that we take for granted are different in Italy. Some of them are mandated by the government, such as when hotel heaters must be turned off and when air conditioners can be turned on. The solutions to these are simple: put on a sweater if you’re cold, or sweat like everyone else if you’re hot. Coffee is served by the cup, meaning you don’t get unlimited refills, just as soft drinks are typically sold by the bottle or can; they’re not dispensed from a fountain machine.
Eating dinner at nine in the evening is a custom that is difficult to adapt to, but that is a normal starting time for the evening meal in Italy. That’s why you’ll see many restaurants are closed until six or seven, and then they open the doors just because they are there getting things ready. If you go inside, they’ll serve you, but you’ll be eating all by yourself. And when the Italians do show up for dinner, don’t be surprised when you see the whole family arrive, children included. Eating dinner is like an event for them, and it will get noisy and stay that way until everyone leaves. Meanwhile, you’ve finished your meal, and you’re waiting for them to bring il conto (the check), but it never arrives. That’s another nice custom; they won’t push you out of the restaurant to make the table available for someone else—you have to ask for the bill.
All of us have our favorites when it comes to food and drink. So do the Italians, and our favorites don’t always overlap theirs. The saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” applies perfectly when it comes to trying to food and beverage items. There are many regional specialties, such as squid in Venice and Trieste, and meats in Bologna. Using your phrase book, you can either ask for something in particular, or interpret what is listed as today’s specialty. If you like wine, be prepared to be surprised how good (and inexpensive) the local wines are. You’ll win points, and taste some good wines, when you order vino della casa (house wine).
If you have particular dietary restrictions (or strong preferences), you will do better to go to the larger restaurants in the major cities. Once again, use your phrase book to point to something you want, or to show them something you don’t want. Be prepared, however, for a response that indicates they don’t have it, or it can’t be done. For example, if you have an intolerance for wheat, you’d better avoid the pasta unless they convince you that they have rice pasta available.
Use the public transportation, utilizing your phrase book that you always have with you. Traffic can be highly congested in the major cities, and the one-way roads aren’t always marked as such. Any kind of a traffic mishap may have you spending a lot more time in Italy (with free room and board) that you had planned for. And that room with a view you’ll also get usually means a view of someone else who got into trouble with the law.
There are generally taxi cabs available in most tourist locations; look for the start of an organized queue rather than just approaching the first one you see. Ask the driver if he can take you where you want to go; some drivers, for example, won’t take a short ride to the nearby hotel if you’re at the airport. They want a longer ride for a higher fare. When in doubt, ask at your hotel or other lodging the best way to get somewhere; the trains are very reliable for longer distances. We took the train from the Rome Airport to Venice on a recent trip, and the total time, including transfer in Rome at the Roma Termini station was under four hours.
Making a circle with your index finger and thumb, and then raising the remaining fingers doesn’t mean “everything’s okay” in Italy. It’s a very rude and crude gesture, and it could lead to an unpleasant situation. TIP: Say Fa bene to tell an Italian that everything’s okay. Also, never snap your fingers to get the waiter’s attention. You might get his or her attention when you do it, but you can count on a long wait before the waiter returns to your table. And you’ll never know what has gone into your food back in the kitchen.
There’s not much crime in Italy, but thefts of opportunity do occur, primarily in the busy tourist areas, such as train stations, waiting in long lines, etc. Never show large amounts of cash as you never who’s watching. Keep most of your money in the hotel safe or in your hidden money belt. If you need to access the money belt, go into a toilet (they’re not called rest rooms), lock the door, and then retrieve the money.
Flashy jewelry can also be a temptation for grab and snatch robbers. They will usually work in teams, just like pick pockets, and one will distract you while the other robs you. Even if you know who took your money and jewelry, it will have already changed hands a couple times before you realize it. Play it safe and leave the fancy stuff at home—if you need that sparkling necklace for the Opera in Milan, you can always rent one while you’re there.
Some travelers think that the Italians should feel happy that you’re there, spending your hard-earned money. That doesn’t mean that they’re not happy you’re there, they just don’t show it in an outward manner, and you shouldn’t expect them to. Remember that it is their country, and while the waiter or hotel clerk makes his living by serving you, he’s not going to do handstands just to please you. When you ask for something, always start with Prego (please), and then ask nicely. By showing your respect that you appreciate them, you’re bound to get much better service.
Yes, there’s a lot to see and do in Italy, especially on your first trip there. Whether you only have a few days after a cruise, perhaps it’s a one-week vacation, or you’re fortunate enough to have two full weeks—you still can’t go everywhere and see everything. You’ve already made your priority list, so stick to that list of the places you’re going, and then totally enjoy that experience.
Remember, Italy has been there for centuries and centuries; it will still be there in a few more years. Make the most of this first trip by maximizing the enjoyment of 100% of your time, knowing that—just like those who toss the coins into Rome’s Trevi Fountain—you’ll be coming back to Italy with fond memories of this first trip. Buon viaggio! (Have a good trip!) TIP: Writing entries into a daily journal of places you went and things you saw and photographed will be invaluable once you return home.
Traveling to Italy for the first time can, and should, be an exhilarating experience. With proper planning—logistically and mentally—you’ll see why Italy ranks as the fifth-most visited country in the world. While you’d like to “see it all,” you know you can’t; so enjoy your visit to the places that are on your list, speaking some Italian along the way. You might be surprised how well you’re understood by the Italians. All the experiences will have you saying on the trip back home, “When can we go to Italy again?” Fa bene.