Things to Know About Italy Before You Go

Italy is a dream vacation for many people – the wine, the food, the art, the culture – it all combines for an incredible experience. To best prepare for your trip to Italy, here are some things you should know before you go.

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1. Italian cuisine is incredibly regional.

From the US, it’s easy to think of “Italian” food as pasta and pizza and all sorts of other fun. In reality, Italian cuisine varies greatly from one area to another. In Bari, charcuterie, cheese and seafood rule the day – you won’t find as much pasta. Pizza in Naples is like nowhere else on earth. The beef in Tuscany is transcendent. Squid ink pasta in Venice is a unique experience. And so much more! Be prepared for the different regions of Italy to be filled with different foods.

The Colosseum in Rome

2. Don’t plan to rent a car for your whole trip.

Italy is a vast country, and driving from one area to another is not ideal. The trains are much faster, especially between the big cities. The drivers in Rome and Naples are crazy – unless you’re incredibly confident behind the wheel, consider using taxis and public transit. Tuscany practically requires a car to get around. The Amalfi Coast has hairpin turns that you will not want to navigate with a car. Lake Como and other areas in the north could also be well-navigated with a car. So plan where you’re going, and if you need a car, rent one just for the areas you need it, not for the whole trip.

The Siena Duomo at sunset

3. Cars you get will have a manual transmission.

This is generally true throughout Europe. Be prepared for cars to have a manual transmission by default. Finding one with an automatic is hard – an an extra expense.

View from the top of the Siena Duomo

4. It really is worth picking up a few key phrases in Italian.

Yes, most people you run into will speak at least a smattering of English. But for the deeply authentic, unique restaurants or other experiences, it’s worth having a least a few phrases at the ready.

The leaning tower of Pisa

5. Pair the big cities with smaller ones.

Italy can be exhausting, especially if you’re focused on the big cities. Venice, Rome, Florence, Milan and Naples are incredible cities. But they’re jam packed, and globalization has brought many international brands to them. Try interspersing your trip to cities like Sorrento, Siena, Pisa, Lecco, Bari, and other smaller cities. You’ll find a different side of Italy!

Amalfi, Italy

6. You really should try all the gelato.

Gelato is another thing I was surprised to find was very regional. There are definite differences in flavor preferences and creaminess of the gelatos between the north and the south. There’s also a big difference between the chains and the tiny little parlors. You can find my ranking of Italian gelato flavors if you want a preview of what’s best!

Trying gelato in Italy

7. Plan to use the trains between big cities.

Italy’s train system is vast, easy to use, and well-connected. You’ll find only super-small towns that have absolutely no train station. TrenItalia and the Italo train are great providers of bullet trains. Make your reservations as early as possible for the best deal!

The duomo in Florence

8. Book as many tickets/times beforehand as you can.

The major Italian sites are crowded. It’s a fact, and it’s one you’ll have to work around. As much as possible, book tickets and times online. From the Vatican Museums in Rome to the Uffizi in Florence, if there’s an option to book a time slot, do so. It can feel like it takes away from the spontaneity of the trip, but if you don’t book – there’s a good chance you won’t get in.

I also highly recommend getting tickets for the Vatican Scavi tour if you can!

The colosseum in Rome

9. You will pay for the bread at restaurants.

Most restaurants will charge a “setup fee” for the bread and other additions to the meal. They’ll just bring it and charge you, unless you specifically ask them not to. Be aware that tipping is built into the check, so no additional tip is necessary. But if you see the fee for the setup – you’re not being scammed. It’s normal!

A street in Burano, Venice, Italy

10. Don’t try to do everything.

The amount of things to do in Italy is mind-boggling. The galleries, the churches, the restaurants, and so much more – it’s more than you can experience in a lifetime! Spend some time planning up-front and decide what you definitely want to do, and what you’re willing to miss. I recommend picking one “main” thing per day. Do that, and then feel blessed by anything else you’re able to fit in!

The duomo in Milan, Italy

11. There are pickpockets, but the scams aren’t generally as bad as other places.

Be aware of yourself and your surroundings, but don’t be overly worried. Italy is a very safe destination. There are your general, run-of-the-mill pickpockets. Like everywhere, there are cabbies who will try to scam tourists. And giant tourist attractions always have touts outside. But compared to other major tourist areas (like Paris), Rome, Venice, and Italy in general aren’t nearly as bad!

Sunset over Lake Como, Italy

12. Cinque Terre and the Amalfi Coast are far more crowded than in pictures.

If you’re dying to go to one of these places, by all means, go. Just be prepared. The crowds, especially in the summer, are absolutely insane. Even in the morning, you might have to wait over an hour just for the bus from Sorrento to Amalfi. (And the bus ride is at least an hour!) The train for Cinque Terre is incredibly crowded. If you want to go to one of these areas, consider making it a splurge of the trip. Get a hotel there, and plant yourself for a few days! (But know that getting a taxi or ride to the hotel is likely to be quite pricey!)

If you want similar scenery with fewer crowds, I highly recommend Lake Como!

Bellagio on Lake Como

13. The grocery store food is incredible.

One thing I love seeing in other places is the grocery store. It’s always so interesting to see how locals shop for food. Italian grocery stores have incredible finds at great prices. I got so spoiled on the fresh mozzarella you can get for a euro or two. And the bread! Fresh Italian bread for another euro or two. Dinner for two can be an incredible charcuterie spread for right around 10 – 12 euro (and that includes wine!). If you’re looking for a different kind of night, it can be worth skipping the restaurants and trying the local store.

Pizza in Naples


13 things to know before you go to Italy

4 thoughts on “Things to Know About Italy Before You Go

  • May 9, 2018 at 7:12 pm
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    Good advice..and i think we did just the right amount of things for the time we had. There is always another trip

    Reply
  • May 11, 2018 at 10:20 am
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    Ahhh you’re making me want to go RIGHT NOW! And I’m suddenly very hungry. Thank you for taking such exceptional notes. It’s been a minute since my visit and when we do get to go again I’ll be re-reading this post (and the gelato one) so we make smart choice.

    Reply
  • May 14, 2018 at 10:32 am
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    We just got back from the Amalfi Coast, Capri, and a tour in Sicily. I don’t recommend hiring scooters at ALL even if it sounds fun. We hired a driver recommended from the Rick Steves Italy book for touring the Amalfi Coast – an expense well worth it! It’s a terrifying drive for anyone, especially if you have to manage a stick shift you’re unaccustomed to using.
    Your photos are awesome, Amanda, and great advice!

    Reply
    • May 14, 2018 at 12:28 pm
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      Thanks, Karen! I didn’t even THINK about scooter rentals. I can’t imagine on those roads….

      Reply

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