It's hard to imagine a bad vacation in Italy. The scenery, the history, the food, the wine and the people combine to create an ideal place where you can unwind and enjoy all the country has to offer. Beautiful as it is, like every destination, it has its challenges, too. So before you plan your dream Italian vacation, here are 21 things you need to know before you go.
1. Italy is an incredibly diverse country. There are mountains, beaches, rolling hills filled with crops, big cities, remote villages and everything in between. Your planning should start with deciding which elements to focus on and which to leave for future exploration. Do you want to do a quick tour, experiencing everything quickly or dive in-depth into a small set of villages? Picking and sticking with your scope is important.
2. Cities are pricey; small towns offer value. Italy follows the standard travel rule - that most major metropolitan centers command higher prices for food, hotels, transportation and retail goods. If your budget is tight, consider visiting a series of smaller towns, which tend to offer better deals at quaint B&B's or great hand-made meals in reasonably priced local restaurants. Sure you can find great offers in the city and expensive rural vacations...but as a general rule cities are typically pricier.
3. Driving in Italy is pretty expensive. High insurance rates and a limited number of vehicles with automatic transmissions combine to create steeper than average rental rates. Additionally, fuel costs tend to be higher throughout Europe than in the United States and if you're using Italy's toll roads expect to pay one to thirty American dollars each way depending on the distance you're driving. You can save a bit if you're comfortable driving a manual stick shift but if you're not accustomed to this method, your first drive through Italy is not the place to learn.
5. So, should you drive? Well, it depends... If you're visiting major cities and large towns, you may find that Italy's modern and efficient train system may be the most effective and inexpensive method of transport. If your plans include more remote villages or touring Italy's Chianti country, driving is often the best method of reaching these destinations.
6. So you're going to drive - mind your speed. Italy uses cameras placed at intervals on roads which record your license plate as you drive past them. A second camera down the road records the plate again. If the time elapsed between the two photos is too short, you're speeding. Tickets are issued via mail and will certainly find their way to you via your rental car company - no policeman necessary! The best way to avoid this kind of unpleasant souvenir is to stick to the speed limit even if you may feel like no one else does.
7. Speed limits are often not posted. I'm sorry, what? I can get speeding tickets in the mail without even know I earned one and the speed limit is not obvious? You're kidding, right? Nope. Italian speed limits are typically posted only when they differ from the standards. Roads fall into five main categories: the motorway/toll roads which are 130 to 150 kph; main rural roads which are 110 kph; secondary rural roads at 90 kph; major urban roads at 70 kph and standard urban roads which top out at 50 kph. Always pay attention for signs but these categories should help you know what to expect.
8. Beware the ZTL. We know we talked about this in our Lucca article but ZTL's (Zona Traffico Limitato) are like little take-your-money machines so it's worth repeating that you should absolutely avoid them. Contrary to popular belief, ZTL's are not designed to screw you, the unsuspecting tourist. They are there to protect cities with tiny, narrow streets, architecture in danger of damage from car emissions and areas restricted to pedestrian access only. They help insure that Italy's treasured cities are there for our children and our grandchildren to visit. They will, also, take a lot of your money so avoid, avoid, avoid. ZTL's are camera-operated in Florence, Lucca, Pisa and Siena. That means a camera scans your license plate and automatically tickets you if you've passed the ZTL sign (often with a bonus fee from your rental car company). Many other cities have ZTL's which are enforced by their local police force. Signs vary and typically include information on who can pass into the ZTL legally. The problem is that a) they are in Italian and b) often include so much information that they are difficult to read while driving. Take a proactive approach and know where the ZTL's start and end before you go. Trip Advisor provides some helpful information here. You should also familiarize yourself with the ZTL sign and always be on the look-out for it while you're driving. Most cities and towns have handy parking lots outside of town or great public transport links to help you avoid any contact with the ZTL.
9. Parking signs are your friend. Free parking is available in Italy but it's rare and should always be approached with caution. As with almost everything, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Blue lines indicate payment is necessary and almost every parking lot we've encountered in the country has good signage indicating the method of payment and rates. The most popular is the pay-and-display parking lot which allows you to feed a meter which prints a ticket with an expiration date and time. That ticket is then displayed on your dashboard to note that you've paid through the expiration time. You'll also see traditional metered parking and lots that require you to take a ticket and pay upon departure.
10. Tip in cash. In restaurants, at full service gas stations and at hotels, tips are usually discretionary but need to be in cash. You can typically pay the bill using a credit card but there is often no mechanism to add the tip onto your charge. Thus, be sure to have some Euros handy. Tips vary but 10% is usually pretty standard for good service here.
11. Save some coins for public restrooms. The good news is that public restrooms tend to be fairly clean and safe. That service will cost you, though, often 50 cents up to a full Euro per use. We've used some dodgy public restrooms in our time so we think that this small charge is a totally great trade for cleanliness and safety.
12. Did we mention our old pal the squatty potty? This is one of those times where those unfamiliar with the process may need to remind themselves that travel is absolutely about embracing our differences...and the squatty potty (or natural-position-toilet) is different than our western-style toilets. It is, essentially, a hole in the ground often with footrests to help you, um, guide your...well... Proponents feel this is a much more sanity toilet experience and helps your body eliminate properly. It can be a bit intimidating if you're not familiar with the method, though, so just remember to go way, way down...squat all the way down. (Full disclosure: Katie absolutely cannot use a squatty potty without peeing down her leg. That's not meant to scare you...just to say that even though we love travel, we mess up sometimes, too.) If you're not a fan of the squat toilet, don't worry - most Italian toilets are the kind you know and appreciate. They are out there, though - typically at train stations and some rural areas - so just don't be shocked when you see one. You'll also see toilets without seats, as well, which just requires you to be a little bit more careful. Remember, it's never okay to leave anything on the seat or rim. Clean up after yourself, kids.
13. Italian restaurants will never bring the bill if you don't request it. Eating is an art, a special experience in Italy that should never be rushed. Your waiter or waitress will not simply guess you are finished and bring the bill - that is like throwing someone out of your home. Politely ask for your check when you're ready for it. "Il conto per favore."
14. You'll pay for water - Still or Sparkling. Tap water is just not offered here. Expect to pay a few Euro for medium to large bottle of water that can often be shared with the other guests at your table. Specify still or sparkling (which is very popular throughout Europe) or your waiter will often ask "gas or no gas?".
15. Wine is cheaper than water. Okay, not quite but it's close. Wine is often one of the least expensive offerings on an Italian menu. It's far less expensive than most American sodas and the house red or white is typically pretty drinkable.
16. Italians menus offer multiple courses. Typically, soups and pastas are listed under the heading "Primi" while meats and fishes are listed as "Secondi" and appetizers are "Antipasti". Portion sizes tend to be generous so if you're game to try different things consider splitting a primo and secondo course with your dining companions.
17. Learn a little Italian. It's not terribly difficult (even Katie can muddle along alright and she's rubbish at languages). There are probably a few phrases you already know such as:
"Buongiorno" = Good day
"Giorno" = it's just the back half of "buongiorno" - this means day.
"Buonasera" = Good evening. Italians typically use this following the mid-day break
"Buonanotte" = Good night.
"Grazie" = Thank you. You actually pronounce the "ie" at the end more like an "ia".
Add to that a few additional words and sentences and you'll be off to a great start:
"Mi dispiace" = I'm sorry. This is a useful phrase when coupled with "I don't speak Italian."
"Non parlo Italiano" = I don't speak Italian. Explaining this at the start of a conversation often wins you help from most locals. If you speak a little Italian but are not fluent, try "Non parlo multo Italiano" to let folks know they may need to slow down or repeat words to help you along.
"Non capisco" = I don't understand.
"Dov'e il bagno" = Where is the bathroom.
"Dov'e il treno per Frienze?" = Where is the train to Florence? Modify this just a bit for the bus. ("Dov'e il bus a Frienze?")
"La destra" = Right
"La sinistra" = Left
"Piano" = Floor. Often used alongside a number. "Piano due" is the second floor.
"Sono Americano" = I'm American. (Or "Inglese" (English) or "Francese" (French), etc.)
18. Italians take a mid-day break. Less so in large cities but in small towns and villages, stores and restaurants will close from about 3:00 until 5:00 or 6:00 PM. Some bars and sandwich shops may stay open during this time but if you're hungry or want to check out the shops, plan to do so earlier in the day or after 5:00 PM. (Most restaurants will not reopen until 7:00 or 7:30 PM for dinner service...so plan accordingly.)
19. Diet restrictions? No problem. Katie will be the first to tell you that her Italian family loves its bread, pasta and pastries. These items are a staple of Italian diets along with fresh meats, cheeses, beans and, along the coasts, seafoods. You still shouldn't worry if you have an allergy or avoid certain foods; we saw a large number of stores and restaurants offering gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian offerings during out travels.
20. Hotels may still ask you to leave your key at the desk. This rule really varies from establishment to establishment but don't be surprised if your hotel asks you to leave your key at the front desk when you leave for the day. Places that still use actual keys are often worried about pick-pockets or misplaced keys which offer thieves access to your room. It's often really up to you to follow this rule or not but we'll often leave old-fashioned or large, heavy keys mostly because we know there would be some hefty fines if we lost those. As a general rule of thumb, you'll not be asked to leave a key at reception if the hotel in question offers standard key cards as those are often easy to replace or switch out if there's a problem.
21. Some churches enforce a strict dress code. Italian churches are plentiful and beautiful but they are also active houses of prayer. Thus, please be respectful and follow the requested dress code during your visit. Both men and women are asked to avoid sleeveless shirts or tank tops and shorts or skirts must fall below the knee. If you find yourself inappropriately dressed all may not be lost - vendors around the Vatican sell light scarves that can be made into skirts or shawls and St. Mark's Basilica in Venice will loan you a khaki scarf for the duration of your visit. The best approach, however, is to dress based on these guidelines if your itinerary includes religious sites.
Now you're ready to enjoy your Italian vacation - andiamo (let's go)!