Traveling Smart in Italy: What You Need to Know Before You Go

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A million and one (give or take a few) travel tips for your next great getaway

GETTING AROUND 

Map It Out 

Before going on our trip, I did lots of research on what to see, where to eat and how to get around. One of my favorite ways to stay organized is to use Apple Maps or Google Maps app to mark all of the spots I want to visit. Just enter the address or business name, tap on the pin, add to a collection and name the spot.

I like to put location type first: FOOD – Breakfast – Restaurant Name. That way, it’s super simple to find what you’re looking for after a long day of walking around. This is a great way to fill your time when you travel – you can find food near you on the map that you know has been recommended, or see how close you are to lesser known attractions.

You can also trace a route on these apps, find travel times, and save it for later. I sent all of my routes to my husband so that he could access them on our trip – generally speaking, it’s good to have your plans in as many places as possible. If your phone dies but your travel companion has theirs, you won’t be lost! 

Get Familiar with Transport

The train and metro system in Italy was clean, easy to navigate, and super inexpensive. We considered getting an uber or taxi for certain day trips, but the prices were out of control – so we stuck to using the metro and travel on foot as much as possible. I marked all of the closest metro stations to our airbnb locations – that way, it’s super simple to get going in the morning. Even without Uber or taxis, it felt like our travel was very manageable on foot or using transit.

If you have a lot of small trips in one city, like Rome, it’s totally worth it to buy a 24 hour metro ticket, instead of buying individual trip tickets. Just use the kiosk in your metro station (cash only, I believe) to buy a ticket – 7 euros will get you 24 hours worth of unlimited trips.

We used the train to get to and from the airport and in between cities. The express train is super quick with limited stops. Ask your airbnb host or hotel the best routes or trains to get their from the airport – they’ll be able to recommend the fastest way. You can book train tickets in advance online and you won’t have to validate if it is for a set time, but if you buy at the station, just be sure to validate using the small yellow or green boxes at the platform before boarding – if you don’t, you might have to pay a hefty fee. 

PLANNING YOUR ITINERARY 

Prioritize Your Favorites

There’s so much to see and do that it’s important to decide what’s most important for you personally to experience. Brett and I both agreed that we really wanted to see St. Peter’s Basillica, but we didn’t have a strong desire to take a guided tour of the Milan Cathedral. Whatever’s most important to you, book it in advance so that you’re locked in and you know you won’t miss it – lots of attractions have a guest cap or need to be booked in advance. 

For other things, commit to seeing it on foot or from the outside without spending hours dedicated to one stop. That way, you’ll get a taste of lots of different places without deep-diving into everything. 

Book an all-in-one tour or pass

We LOVED the Firenze Card – it made sense to get this all-access city pass for all the top attractions because we knew we wanted to see a lot in the city, and we had a few days to spend. You can buy the pass online, and download the app before your trip. In the app you add your unique pass number and from there, you have access to nearly everything in the city, including fast pass (like Disney!) access to skip the long lines.

Even with the Firenze Card or Roma Pass, you’ll still need to book certain experiences in advance, like climbing Brunelleschi’s Dome. You can do this from the app or at a nearby ticket office to secure you’re place. It takes a little bit of advance planning, but once you’re there, it’s smooth sailing. 

In the Vatican, we opted for an all-in-one guided tour with access to the Vatican museum, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peters basilica. The Vatican is crazy busy and the lines were the longest and most chaotic of our whole trip – so a guided tour was a really big time saver. Another thing to consider: without a tour guide, it’s no longer possible to go straight from the Sistine Chapel to St. Peters – you would have to access and start the long line all over again. When booking, I mainly look for ways to save money, time, and sanity – if it does those things, it’s totally worth it. 

Cross-Check for Closures 

Some attractions, stores, and restaurants have closings you may not anticipate, so remember to factor that into your travel plans. You can find business hours using maps or a quick google search and make a note of it to use while you plan your excursions. You don’t want to be left high and dry on a day when your main sight is closed! 

Go Off the Beaten Path

There are so many hidden gems waiting to be discovered if you are willing to do a little bit of digging. I loved looking on Pinterest for sample itineraries and favorite spots, and I also asked our hosts to recommend attractions that tourists may not think to see. 

DINING IN ITALY

Eat like a local

To eat like a local, you’ll need to dine a little later than average mealtimes in the U.S. While lunch in the U.S. is around noon, many Italians eat later on – around two or three. And dinner is a late affair, too. Most restaurants fill up between 7-10 P.M. It’s also great to get recommendations from locals: our Airbnb guides were eager to tell us their favorite spots, and online guides are helpful, too. If you want to check out my recommendations, you can find them all in our complete Italy itinerary (coming soon!)

At one of our favorite spots – Simbiosi Pizza in Florence. It was the best pizza we had in Italy!

Book In Advance

Book your important meals at must-see restaurants. I found that a lot of restaurants got filled up at peak dinner hours (7-10). In Italy, guests linger and generally have a table for a whole evening – there’s not a lot of turn over, so you might be waiting for a loooong time without a reservation, or stuck going to a subpar place. For lunch and breakfast, no reservations are needed, and it’s generally not crowded for an early dinner – just tell them you’ll be done by 7. 

Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid

And by Kool-aid, I mean crazy expensive water with no free refills. I swear, the biggest let down of my trip was that there were no free refills of drinks – maybe that’s how they get people to drink so much wine. Nevertheless, bring your own refillable water bottle or buy one on your first day, and refill it in one of the cities clean and free drinking fountains – usually located in a piazza. It’s totally acceptable to bring your own water bottle to the restaurant, if you don’t want to order drinks.

You’re Covered 

Dinner at Obica’s rooftop terrace in Milan – stunning views and yummy food. We both loved the cacio e pepe.

Most sit-down establishments will tack on a cover charge ‘coperto’ to your bill – a 0-3 euro charge, equivalent of a tip for the use of the table. Consider it like a cover charge to a bar, just something you pay to get in. Because there’s a cover, you don’t need to tip unless you really want to. If you do decide to tip, a euro is the typical amount to toss in. 

Since most sit-down meals have cover charges, take your breakfast to go. An Italian breakfast is typically a coffee and a light pastry, and since we don’t drink coffee, we just took ours on the road while we walked to our first spot of the day. If you do sit, be sure to tell the person at the counter while you order – they will charge you a cover for the table. 

STAYING CONNECTED 

Set up your phone for travel

Staying connect while abroad can be a little tricky. The easiest way to make sure you can get in touch with loved ones back home or your travel companion is to turn on an international plan with your service provider. I have AT&T, and it was super simple to switch on an international plan online. Once you select the service, the first time you use your service internationally it will charge you $10/24 hours.

If you provider is pricier or you’re determined to go without basic service, consider buying a wifi hotspot – a small device with a personal wifi network connection just for you. This is super handy if you’ll be traveling on trains a lot and want to connect to the internet, as some trains don’t have wifi. 

I found that many of our hosts use iMessage or What’s App, so it’s helpful to download the app and load their numbers in advance. I would recommend springing for an international plan – you might need to call or text a number in order to check in to your airbnb. Speaking of Airbnb, if you download the app, you’ll be able to access your check in instructions without wifi 3 days before your trip.

Keeping charged

Obviously you’ll need to keep these all charged in order for them to be valuable to you – don’t forget to pack an adaptor to make your charging plugs compatible with Italian outlets. Some adaptors labeled as ‘Italian’ or European have three-prongs, but always buy ones with two prongs. Some outlets in Italy have three plugs, but many have two, so three-prong adaptors won’t always fit.
I recommend bringing a battery pack, because you’ll probably seldom be in your hotel or airbnb to use an outlet – I charged mine at night, then connect to a battery pack midway through the day. You can just connect it and let it charge in your bag or even while in use. 

Communicating in Italy

We found that most Italians had a great understanding of English. For the most part, we could communicate very easily with hosts, waitstaff, and guides. Still, it’s good to get familiar with common terms. For example:

Buon giorno = Good morning

Our fav gelato flavors: Strachatella (me) and coconut and pineapple (Brett) or ricotta and honey (both of us).

Buona sera = Good evening

Beona notte = Good night 

Ciao = Hello/Goodbye

Mi scusi = Excuse me 

Grazie = You’re welcome

Prego = Thank you 

Un gelato per favore = One gelato, please

If you’re nervous about communicating, you can download google translate, which comes in handy translating spoken or written text. We had it ready but didn’t need it often – most restaurants had English menus, or it was possible to use context to decipher the meaning of words. 

PAYING FOR IT ALL 

Using cards and cash

Of course, you’ll need to pay for your meals and some excursions while you’re there, plus any shopping you plan to do – and you’ll need Euros(€) for it all. I wouldn’t depend on a credit card and definitely not a debit card (it’s more liable to have your information stolen). Some larger restaurants or shopping locations take cards – mostly MasterCard and Visa – but by and large, it’s safe to stick with cash. It’s a good idea to notify your credit card company that you will be traveling, whether or not you plan to use it. That way, if you are in a pinch, your card is not declined because you are using it out of the country. 

To exchange U.S. dollars for cash, check bank locations nearest to you for exchange rates before your trip. It’s often easier and cheaper to exchange cash before you leave than in the airport or your final destination – which often have longer lines and larger fees. 

Be price savvy 

When traveling, it’s easy to get fooled with pricing. It’s smart to get acquainted with average prices are your destination, so you know if you are getting a good deal or being charged the tourist special – an artificially high price charged only to tourists that don’t know better. 
These were the average prices we found all over Italy:

Breakfast pastry – 1€

Coffee – 1-2 €

Bottled flat or sparkling water in restaurants – 3 €

Panini – 5€

Pizza – 6-9€

Pasta – 10€

Second course (usually meat) – 15-20€

Gelato, small cone with two scoops – 3€

Nice restaurant dinner – 50€

Of course, these prices vary by location and variety, but it’s good to have an idea of what you can expect to pay. 

PACKING SMART

What to pack for your trip

We packed very light for our trip, and it was easy to do in the fall. The weather was very temperate (60-70 farenheit for all of our trip, and sunny) so light layers were great. Consider packing separates that can be reworn in different combinations throughout your trip, and dress a little nicer than you might at home in the U.S. – generally speaking, Italians are very polished. 

Blending in won’t just make you feel more confident – you’re also less likely to be targeted by scammers and pick pockets. I wrote a whole post about what I packed for Italy that you can check out for ideas. To keep it simple, you really need: a nice pair of pants or jeans, a knee length or longer casual skirt, stylish or sneakers or flats, light sweaters and blouses, and maybe a pair of block heels for easy walking through cobblestone streets. 

When In Doubt, Over Dress

Italians don’t just dress nicer than Americans, some destinations have a conservative dress code you’ll need to abide if you want to gain entrance. The Vatican, for example, requires covered shoulders and knees for men and women, and for men to take off hats in the places of worship. If you don’t want to be one of the tourists turned away at the front of the line, or stuck buying overpriced scarves to wear as a shawl from the street vendors, pack a few longer pieces that will see you through these attractions.

Hair tools

If you typically use a blowdryer, check your hotel or airbnb – most have one in the room that you can use, which will free up space in your luggage. Also consider buying dual voltage hair tools (or checking if your tools are dual voltage) so that you don’t need to buy an additional converter. My trusty $9 curling iron and my travel flat iron is compatible – no need for a pricey converter, plus you can use them at home or on domestic trips. 

Use the right gear

We swear by these super lightweight spinner suitcases. They smoothly roll over bumpy streets and are easy to stow away on flights or train rides. If you’re considering what bag to carry in Italy, choose something small, with a zipper closure. A cross body is great – something that will be close to your body to prevent pick pockets. We also love these slim profile minimalist wallets – men can carry them in their front pockets which minimizes the risk of it being stolen by pickpockets. 

Want to know more about how we got our $400 round trip tickets, see what I wore in Italy, check out our complete itinerary and favorite spots, or see more of my favorite travel gear? Check out all of my travel posts on More and Merrier.

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