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Italy is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Europe, especially for those of us inspired by art, food and history. It’s where the Romans roamed and conquered, where legends like Galileo and Leonardo Da Vinci changed the way we see the world. It’s where names like Ferrari and Maserati roll off the tongue and where Federico Fellini showed the rest of us what “la dolce vita” really means.
There are dozens of important stops to make while traveling the country, but don’t be afraid to travel slowly. Here is just a start to planning your own adventure. If we’ve left anything out or you’d like to add to the conversation, please leave comments below!
Italy Travel Expenses Tips
In terms of traveling around Europe, Italy is right in the middle: not exorbitantly expensive, nor pre-Eurozone cheap. There are, however, a few ways to keep things thrifty when traveling around Italy.
Don’t Eat Near Tourist Attractions
Sometimes this is unavoidable, particularly if you’re spending the whole day in one neighborhood sightseeing, but it’s a well-known fact that meals near Rome’s Spanish Steps or Florence’s Duomo will cost you much more than anywhere else in town. You’ll know them by signs saying “English menu” or “American breakfast.” If you need to, grab a snack in these areas to hold you over until you can get to a more local spot or bring your own.
- 7 Do’s and Don’ts When Traveling in Italy, Walks of Italy
Travel by Train
Unless you’re pressed for time and have plenty to spend, flying within Italy is completely unnecessary. Everyone, both tourists and locals, travel by train. This can be both a good and bad thing, as it’s easy to access, but they’re prone to strikes. Just make sure you’re flexible. There are rail passes you can use within the country as well to save money. I used them exclusively when I traveled around Italy!
- How to Take an Italian Train, Bacon is Magic
Be on “Italy Time”
Speaking of strikes, Italy is under its own timeframe. Restaurants and museums may not open at the times on their signs or at all. A lunch break could last many hours. And in restaurants, you won’t be rushed to eat and get out the door like you will in many parts of the world. You might just have to ask for the bill rather than automatically being brought it. Let yourself slow down and enjoy the lifestyle.
Know the Scams
Tourist areas like Rome and Florence are especially prone to scams and pickpocketing. My sister fell prey to the roses she was given by a local man, who then demanded money. Read up before you go and don’t carry all your valuables on you at once. Money belts may not be hip, but have some sort of system just in case.
Get Outside the Tourist Hubs
Not only should you explore the lesser visited neighborhoods where real Italians live, but it’s also important to get outside the cities and into the countryside. Whether it’s renting a car to drive to a quiet B&B or volunteering at an agriturismo or WWOOFing, this is where you’ll find the real Italy.
Essential Gear to Bring
Packing for Italy is quite a feat, as it’s next to impossible to look as naturally stylish as the Italians. You want to be both comfortable and chic as well as prepared for any weather. Italians typically wear solid colors, especially black. Boots are worn rather than athletic shoes, which will immediately make you stand out as a tourist. And don’t forget to cover up when visiting religious sites like The Vatican!
Scarf– There’s nothing more versatile for Italy than a scarf, which can be worn around your neck or used to cover your shoulders so you can enter a church or cathedral. Lay it down as a towel on the beach or use it as a sarong on your way there.
Boots– Chic tall boots are what the locals wear, so if you want to fit in, this is what you should bring! Make sure they’re worn in before you go so that you’re not dealing with painful blisters on the road.
Umbrella– The weather can sometimes be unpredictable, especially in Venice, so it’s a good idea to bring along a small travel umbrella. When I was in the city, it rained all but one day of my visit.
Easy-to-carry bag– Don’t expect to find elevators and escalators around Italy, especially at old hotels and train stations. Whichever bag you pack in, you must be able to lug it up many flights of stairs on your own. If this means a small duffel, backpack or carry-on suitcase, so be it.
- Ultimate Female Travel Packing List to Italy, Her Packing List
- Roman Holiday Style Guide, Her Packing List
Books to Read Before Visiting
Do your research before visiting, including guidebooks, novels and nonfiction. I recommend Rick Steves guidebooks for history and background knowledge. Here are just a few of our favorite books to inspire wanderlust for Italy.
A Room with a View, EM Forster– A young English woman travels with her chaperone to Italy, where she meets two men that fall in love with her, one who is a better match and the other that she has feelings for. Grab on Amazon.
Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter– In this quick but fantastic read, the story jumps between modern day and the golden age of Hollywood when an American actress comes to a small town in Mediterranean Italy to spend her final days. An Italian innkeeper takes her in and later comes to America to find her son. Grab on Amazon.
Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert– Whatever your opinion on this book, the section on Italy is sure to make you crave delicious food and handsome Italian men to practice your language skills with. Grab on Amazon.
The Monster of Florence, Douglas Preston– If you’re interested in crime novels, this true story tells of a man who moves to Italy and discovers that his land is where the most gruesome murders in the country’s history were committed. He pairs with a journalist to uncover the truth about what happened in the Italian countryside. Grab on Amazon.
Angels and Demons, Dan Brown– While I’m not a fan of Brown’s writing, it’s interesting to read his work while traveling in the places mentioned. In the follow up to the Da Vinci Code, Robert Langdon investigates a mysterious symbol, a secret society and a cover up by the Catholic Church. Grab on Amazon.
Movies to Watch Before Visiting
There are as many movies set in Italy as there are classic films made by Italians, so be sure to watch some of both, even if it means reading the subtitles. Start with the Fellini films!
Under the Tuscan Sun– There are some major differences between the book and movie versions, but the movie is about a recently divorced woman who finds herself buying a villa and making new friends. Grab on Amazon.
Roman Holiday– In this Audrey Hepburn favorite with Gregory Peck, a princess wants to see Rome on her own and runs into a reporter. They traipse around the city together, including a memorable scene at the Mouth of Truth. Grab on Amazon.
La Dolce Vita– A gossip journalist seeks the “sweet life” in Rome, where he encounters a number of women and the beauty of the city itself. It won Fellini the Palme d’Or at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival. Grab on Amazon.
Life is Beautiful– In 1939 Italy, a Jewish Italian bookshop owner tells stories to his son to shield him from the horrors of life in a Nazi concentration camp. Roberto Benigni stars in the film based on his father’s experiences. Grab on Amazon.
Bread and Tulips– This romantic comedy crossed international lines in popularity, telling the story of an Italian housewife bored and alone on vacation. She hitchhikes home, finding her way through Venice, and settles into a new life there until her husband tracks her down. Grab on Amazon.
Top Things to Do in Italy
There are so many things to do in Italy that it may take you multiple trips to see everything you want. I’ve broken them down here by city or area, including the places you’ll want to visit in each.
Known as the Eternal City, you can’t go far without seeing some ruins. Be sure to include the Colosseum, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps in your visit, but don’t make a whole day out of them. Also seek out Vatican City, home to the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums.
- City Guide to Rome, Travels of Adam
Scout out the best pizza in town on this 3-hour pizza walking tour of Rome, led by a friendly food-expert guide! Discover the best family-run bakeries, popular pizzerias and real local favorites, sampling various toppings plus pizza al taglio, alla palla and, of course, the crispy Roman scrocchiarellas! Hear the history of the humble pizza, sample traditional drinks and visit the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.
It’s hard not to fall in love with a city surrounded by water, but expect to get lost here, as streets are winding and often cross bridges. Visit when the weather is warm, but avoid Carnavale unless you want to pay twice as much for everything! Don’t miss the Doge’s Palace, Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Grand Canal, Piazza San Marco and the many iconic bridges, as well as a day trip to Murano and Burano.
- 10 Things Locals Want You to Know About Venice, Conde Nast Traveler
Small-group guided tour of Venice on foot and by boat. Starting from St.Mark’s square, the heart of the city, and walking through Castello quarter, you will see St. Zaccaria square, the Bragora and the Arsenale twin towers water-door. From the Arsenale you will cruise along the small and romantic inner canals of Venice on board of a private motor-launch.
Italy’s art capital is Florence, where you’ll find as many of the traditional tourist attractions as in Rome. Don’t miss the iconic Duomo with its cupola and famed doors or the graves of the city’s most notable at Santa Croce. Get your dose of culture at the Uffizi and the Accademia, both of which should be booked well in advance, as well as Palazzo Pitti. For a nice stroll, head to Boboli Gardens and, of course, the Ponte Vecchio. The city is also the gateway to Tuscany and a great hub for further exploration.
- Things to Do in Florence, Y Travel Blog
Enjoy a stroll around Florence in the late evening, while learning about the mysteries, secrets, legends, etc. that make Florence unique. You will see places such as the Duomo, the Cathedral, learn about Church of Danta and Beatrice, pass through the Uffizi Gallery courtyard, and much more!
Further afield, you have Pisa and its leaning tower, the walled city of Siena, and the foodie towns of Bologna, Parma and Modena, known for their hams, cheeses and balsamic vinegar, respectively.
Known for its five towns, Cinque Terre is a charming coastal community that has buildings cut into the cliff sides. The beaches may be rocky, but you can hike between them all.
- Cinque Terre Travel Tips, Ordinary Traveler
Learn how to cook a 3-course Italian meal with Ligurian slow-food flair. With your expert cook guiding you from the start, visit a marketplace in the harbor town of La Spezia and pick out the freshest fish and vegetables. Ingredients in hand, stroll through picturesque streets to a charming osteria (small eatery) where, in a small group of no more than 10 people, you’ll receive highly personalized cooking instruction in the kitchen. Then, feast on the fruits of your labor.
Set below the Alps, Milan is known as the fashion capital of Italy and to some the world. It has its own Duomo that is equally well known as well as Santa Maria delle Grazie, known especially for being home to Da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper.” There is also a well known opera house and plenty of shopping!
- Things to Do in Milan in One Day, My Melange
See the best of Milan in a single day on this 6-hour walking tour that also takes you to locally loved spots often missed by visitors. Your in-the-know guide will detail the history of the many sights you’ll see, for a level of insider’s perspective you can’t get with a guidebook. Plus, you’ll save time with special skip-the-line treatment at the Duomo di Milano and Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper.’
From northern Italy, explore Verona, home to the legend of Romeo and Juliet, classic Genoa and the calm shores of Lake Como.
To the south, experience Naples, the original home of pizza, and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. The Amalfi Coast is the beach getaway for those visiting the area.
Food and Drink in Italy
Anyone who has ever visited Italy can tell you that there’s so much more to Italian food that pizza, pasta and gelato. While those are great dishes to enjoy in their original home, know which is the most local where. There are also dishes that use many vegetables and different types of meat.
Pizza– Italian pizza is unlike anything you’ve had back home, with fresh ingredients fired in a wood oven. Head to Napoli for the real thing.
Pasta– Spaghetti and meatballs and spaghetti carbonara are not real dishes, so avoid anywhere with them on the menu. Instead, seek out gnocchi, pappardelle bolognese and ravioli.
Gelato– Every city has a favorite and every local is fiercely proud of theirs. We sure won’t judge you for having some more than once per day!
Coffee– The coffee culture is totally different than in most countries and cappuccinos are only for the morning. Otherwise it’s variations on espresso. And don’t expect to take it “to go!” Instead sip and enjoy.
- 10 Essential Food Rules for Americans in Italy, Huffington Post
- A Guide to Ordering Coffee in Italy, The Travel Bite
Italian Language and Additional Help
Half of the Italian language is in the gestures, so don’t worry too much about picking up all the words. The important ones will be ordering meals and knowing the difference between the formal versions and informal words. Grab a pocket phrasebook if you’re concerned about knowing what to say.
- Common Italian Words for Travelers, HubPages