9 tips for beginners visiting Italy for the first time
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Planning your first vacation to Italy? Not only is this beautiful country one of the top culinary destinations in the world, but it’s also home to some seriously iconic tourist attractions to boot. With over 55 UNESCO World Heritage sites, three active volcanoes and over 1,500 lakes, you’ll never get bored. And if you are, well, there’s always pizza!
When organizing a vacation to Italy, there are a few things you should know in order to have a safe and enjoyable getaway. First-time travelers take note: these are some of the things you consider for your Italian adventure.
1. Figure out what kind of trip you want to have
Italy’s got it all: 4,600 miles of coastline lined with hundreds of gorgeous beaches, numerous tourist attractions, lively cities, charming villages and sprawling vineyards. From low-cost to luxury, Italy has accommodation, restaurants and activities to fit every budget, whether it’s renting a yacht off the coast of Capri, staying in an affordable hostel in Rome or enjoying a Sicilian farmhouse getaway.
Consider your interests, as well as some of the things Italy is famous for, like gastronomy (you could build a trip around dining out or cooking classes), art (Italy has some of the top museums in the world) or exploring a wine region (drive through the hills of Prosecco or Tuscany’s wine country).
Or, think about destinations. For each week you have of vacation, you can comfortably squeeze in two destinations (maybe more if you’re a very active traveler).
- If you love art and tourist attractions, consider Rome and Florence.
- If you love fashion but also want to relax, consider Milan and one of the northern lakes.
- If you want pizza, cityscape and coastal charm, consider Naples and the Amalfi coast.
- If you want to dig into Italy’s food and wine scene, consider a road trip through Tuscany or Piedmont.
- If you love skiing, consider a visit to Milan and the Italian Alps.
- If you’re looking for romance, consider exploring Verona and Venice.
- If you need a beach vacation, consider exploring an island like Sardinia or Sicily.
- If you have 10 days or more and want to enjoy the most typical tourist circuit, consider a trip to the big three: Rome, Florence and Venice — some of the country’s most popular spots for visitors.
Note that while you can find various price points around the country for lodging, dining and activities, typically, costs are lower in southern Italy than in northern Italy.
2. Pick the right season
In general, Italy has wonderful weather. Many areas of the country see lots of sunshine and temperatures are mild even in winter, though summers can be steamy. Depending on what you plan to do, make sure to consider the season. Beach visits are best in the summer, though months like May and September see fewer crowds and still have great weather.
Avoid larger, crowded cities like Rome in the heart of summer, unless you’re prepared for extreme heat. Harvest season/autumn is the ideal time to visit the wine region, and southern Italy can be mild throughout the winter. Many deals can be found in the low season, but know that winter in the north can be cold and rainy.
If you do go to Italy between March and October, bring sunblock and a hat — don’t underestimate those Mediterranean rays.
3. Do your research when it comes to tourism
Although Covid-19 has put a dampener on tourism, during busier times, attractions like the Vatican may see up to 30,000 visitors per day. That means you may have to wait a long time in line to buy a ticket and enter. Add Rome’s scorching sunshine to the mix and you may end up sunburned, exhausted from queuing all day and never get the chance to step foot in the Sistine Chapel.
If visiting big-name tourist attractions is important to you, buy tickets online. Skip-the-line tickets or guided tours may also be worth the price: evaluate your options and decide.
City passes are another alternative. The Milan city pass offers things like discounts on popular attractions, free Milan public transport and a free drink at a local Milanese bar. The Rome tourist card has fast-track entry benefits and free access to the Vatican and the Colosseum. Florence’s city pass includes skip-the-line entry to Galleria degli Uffizi and Galleria dell’Accademia, plus tickets for the hop-on, hop-off bus tour.
So, think about what you want to do and see, do the maths and purchase ahead.
4. But don’t forget about local spots too
Visiting Italy’s most famous attractions should hold a firm spot on your bucket list. That being said, plan to take some time to get off the tourist track a bit. Consider exploring more local neighborhoods or visiting a small village or a less-popular spot like Lake Maggiore instead of Lake Como. Seeing all the big-name hotspots is a must, but experiencing the beauty of true Italian culture and cuisine may be even better.
Related: 5 of Italy’s best-hidden gem cities
5. Take the train
The Freeciarossa runs between some of Italy’s best destinations. These high-speed trains from company Trenitalia are affordable, fast and comfortable. Traveling up to about 180 miles per hour, trains are one of the best and quickest ways to get from A to B. And, you won’t have to deal with learning the Italian rules of the road or the hassle of car rental agencies. Taking the train is easy: You can purchase tickets easily online ahead of time or last minute depending on your travel style. You can visit spots like Milan, Rome, Florence, Venice, Turin and Naples on the Frecciarossa trains.
6. Don’t discount the islands
Italy’s island culture goes beyond just the beach. And, there are over 450 of them! Sicily has a whole sub-culture of its own, and far-flung spots like the Tremiti islands or the Aeolian islands will ensure you get sufficiently off-the-beaten-path. If it’s luxury you desire, Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda is a hotspot and nothing looks sexier on an Instagram feed than Capri.
7. Familiarize yourself with the language and culture
You might get lucky when it comes to a larger city like Rome, where many locals speak English.
Southern Italy or smaller villages are a different story. Luckily, Italians are a friendly bunch and will do their best to communicate with you despite any language barriers. Come prepared with a few key phrases and your favorite translation app downloaded.
Italy is old, and so are its streets. Many are made of cobblestone. While locals (Milan, here’s looking at you) may jog by in designer stilettos, you should wear comfortable footwear. Make sure to dress modesty, especially when visiting churches. You won’t be allowed into spots like Vatican City if your knees and shoulders aren’t covered.
While mealtimes aren’t quite as late as Spain’s, Italians tend to eat slightly later. Expect lunch around 1:00 p.m., and dinners around 8:30 p.m. or 9:00 p.m.
8. Money-saving tips
While it’s normal to make a tourist faux pas or two (especially on your first trip), here are some things you should avoid:
- Tipping at restaurants if it’s already included on your bill (many spots add in a 10% service charge).
- Heavily tipping taxi drivers (rounding up to the nearest euro is normal).
Save even more money with the following:
- Take advantage of apertivo hours in northern Italy. These are happy hours that offer free buffet food for a few hours pre-dinner time in the early evening. Order a drink or two to gain access to the snacks.
- Stand at the bar to drink your espresso. Table seating at breakfast has an additional charge, and even more if you want to eat outside.
- Beware of the “coperto.” This is a service charge for simply eating at the restaurant, usually a euro or two per person.
- Don’t eat or drink in the main city square. These spots are usually overpriced tourist traps.
9. Be alert for travel scams
Watch out for those trying to take advantage of unsuspecting tourists with scams:
- Gladiators: If you take a photo of or with them, they’ll expect a tip;
- Taxi scams: Insist the meter be turned on, or make sure you’re aware of any flat-rate pricing;
- Unauthorized tour guides or ticket helpers at train stations; and
- Anyone who approaches you with lavender, flowers or a pizza box. Just walk the other way.
Armed with these tips and tricks, planning a trip to Italy will be easy. You can sit back, relax and enjoy all the delights Italy has to offer, knowing that you’ve picked the right destinations, will skip the line to see those bucket-list tourist attractions, avoid scams and save a little money on meals.
Feature photo courtesy of Sharon Lapkin/Getty
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