View of the bell tower in Florence from the roof of the Duomo
HOORAY! It’s the first of MANY Italy posts!
I was really debating what type of post to put up first, and honestly, I thought it would be most helpful for you guys to compile ALL of my most important “things you really need to know that nobody else will probably tell you” information into one post for you to reference, separate from my Italy city guides and packing posts!
I want this to be a guide that you can ALWAYS reference before your Italy trip and during–and I hope it helps you get the most of one of my favorite countries in the whole world!
Important general information:
Avoiding the crowds:
If you’re going to some popular cities like Rome, Florence and Venice in peak tourist season (summer) you will probably be a little taken aback by how many tourists there are everywhere.
I studied abroad in Florence and did not expect this at all. This doesn’t bother some people but I personally cannot stand crowds and being stuck in a giant swarming mob of people on a hot day is my definition of hell no matter where I am. Sometimes you aren’t even able to get a close look at something because of how many people are in front of you.
Luckily I have one tip on avoiding this, and it really does help:
Get up REALLY early, or go to bed REALLY late:
Eat dinner at 10pm. I’m not kidding.
By 10pm all the tourists have gone to bed and only the locals are left eating dinner late. (Italians eat dinner at 9 or 10pm all the time!) You won’t have to wait in a line, and you won’t be crammed into a restaurant like sardines. We hardly ever made dinner reservations and we never had a problem getting into any restaurants because we always went at 10pm or 11.
Stop by famous landmarks late at night or at sunrise:
If you go to the Trevi fountain anytime between 8am and 12am–it will still be swarming with people. There are few things more magical than stumbling upon the Trevi Fountain. It’s my favorite thing in Rome and it’s absolutely breathtaking–you walk through winding streets and then they just magically open up and there it is.
After dinner in Rome our first night there, I told Neal I had a surprise for him and didn’t tell him where we were going. Then we walked into the piazza and the first thing we noticed was how many damn people there were–not how beautiful the fountain was–it was 11pm! I was HORRIFIED.
Then, on our last night, walking home from going out at 2am, we passed again, and this time we were one of about 5 people there. We got to go right up and sit on the side of the fountain and it was one of my favorite highlights of being in Rome.
Same goes for the Duomo in Florence.
It’s hard to really take in the beauty of it when there are so many people you have to wade through in order to get a look at it. Late at night, there isn’t a soul in the piazza–it’s so quiet–it’s my favorite time to experience it.
On the flipside, Neal went running early in the morning in Florence and said there wasn’t a soul there. It was so cool to “run through history” when nobody was around. Definitely take this route if you’re more of a morning person than a night person.
Early access Vatican:
Buying an “early access tour” of the Vatican is the ONLY way to visit the Vatican. If you don’t do this you will waste so much time waiting in lines and crowds! It’s well worth it!
Coliseum night tours:
If you happen to be visiting Rome in the summer, (if you’re visiting off-season, disregard this advice) it is SO. HOT. You will want to be out of direct sun as much as possible. If you’re like me and sensitive to heat, consider doing tours of the big attractions at night–which sounds so cool! I wish we’d taken advantage. For example, this tour looks particularly awesome and has 5 star ratings!
Neal walking through San Gimignano
Getting around in Italy:
Getting from the Rome airport to the city center OR from Rome to another city in Italy:
There is an express train called the Leonardo da Vinci that leaves from the airport and goes straight to Termini, Rome’s big station. It’s very inexpensive and fast–it only takes about 20 minutes and is very affordable. There is a kiosk you can buy them from–just follow the signs to the train.
If you’re going straight through to another city, buy your tickets from a real person at one of the train station counters at the airport. I didn’t know this and I had planned to just get our tickets at Termini, but I’m glad the man at the express train kiosk sent us across the way to the TrenItalia booth because we were able to get our tickets straight through to Florence and not have to worry about dealing with the crowds buying tickets at Termini.
This brings my to my next point:
The train system is amazing, but you need to know how to use it:
The main rail company for the high-speed cross-country trains is Trenitalia–which has the most trains running–this is the company we always took. The trains are incredibly clean, efficient, and fast. I can’t recommend taking the train enough in Italy. This blog post actually does a great job at explaining everything and helped refresh my memory, but I’ll summarize here.
You can buy tickets ahead of time (the cheaper option) or buy tickets right beforehand at the train station (more flexible option). If your travel plans are pretty firm, you can definitely buy ahead of time to save some money but it’s also very easy to buy your tickets right beforehand.
If you can buy them from an actual person, this is often easier because sometimes the kiosks are harder to navigate. We ended up doing both.
Some tickets also require validation
Apparently this isn’t usually the case with the high speed trains where you have assigned seats and time stamps, but more the smaller trains (that don’t have time stamps)–but you never know–we always validated them because better safe than sorry, haha!
There are little validation boxes all over (I believe they’re green) and they’re everywhere next to the train platforms. If you don’t validate your ticket you risk being fined up to $100. If you buy your tickets digitally, you don’t need to validate.
If you get on a last minute train and don’t get seats together–don’t worry about it. We didn’t get seats “together” half the time and never sat in our assigned seats and never had any issues. I don’t think people really pay attention to that.
Knowing Italian city names:
Familiarize yourself with Italian city names. Florence is not called Florence, it’s called Firenze. Venice is called Venezia–etc–so follow signs accordingly.
Finding your train platform:
We don’t take many trains in the states, so I’m sure this is common knowledge if you’ve taken a train before, but if not, this will save you a lot of confusion! This isn’t something I learned until studying abroad in college.
Let’s say you’re taking the train from Rome to Florence–when you go to find your platform number, your train will likely NOT say Florence up on the board–it might say Venezia–because the board will always say the LAST stop on the train.
So, how do you figure out which train is yours? Look at the train time. There will not be two trains leaving at the exact same time. One might be leaving at 8:59 and another leaving at 9:01. That’s your first check.
Your second check is to look at the train number listed on your ticket. If your train number matches your departure time, you’re golden. That’s your train! Your platform will be listed to the right under the “BIN” column–which is short for “Binario”–the Italian word for “platform.”
Wineries in San Gimignano, a small town in Tuscany we stopped at on our way to Borgo San Felice.
Renting a car:
We rented a car from Florence to drive into the Tuscan countryside. (Side note, Florence is in Tuscany–Tuscany is a region that includes Florence as well as Sienna–so don’t tell locals in Florence you’re “going to Tuscany”–that’s like telling people you’re going to Illinois when you’re in Chicago.)
Overall, we would HIGHLY recommend spending a few days in Tuscany rather than doing it as a day trip from Florence, and renting a car is definitely the only way to get around because the region of Tuscany is very spread out.
If you rent a car, get there IMMEDIATELY after the rental shop opens!
This was our biggest mistake. We should’ve gotten to Hertz in Florence right when it opened at 10am, but we got there at noon, and we had to wait for almost two hours to get our car and the line moved slower than molasses, and they also RAN OUT OF CARS and we were lucky to get anything at all.
Situations like this in Italy are INCREDIBLY common. Nobody cares how long you have to wait, and irate customers are of no concern to Italian employees. You will get nowhere by being an upset customer, but you might get somewhere by being the only polite American in the room. Because Neal was his nice charming self, we got upgraded to an Audi for free (which was lucky because they had no more automatics in the level of car we rented.)
Do NOT drive on the Amalfi coast
I can’t tell you how many times I got this question– “can we drive the Amalfi coast?”
I’ll be doing a WHOLE guide on Amalfi Coast but I wanted to get this piece of information out there ASAP–you should ABSOLUTELY NOT DRIVE on the Amalfi Coast. We turned in our rental car in Sorrento and arranged for a driver the rest of the way and it was so worth it. (The driver was arranged through our hotel).
Neal drives all over the country for work and he is a very good driver and even his nerves were shot just driving through Sorrento (and that wasn’t even the scary part). The roads are etched into cliffs and are teeny-tiny with a flimsy guard rail–yet locals drive on them like it’s a 6 lane highway.
If dying on vacation isn’t your good idea of a good time, please don’t try and drive Amalfi yourself. 😆
On that note, the roads are so windy you might get nauseous–I found the best solve for a carsick stomach is a beer. Seriously. It’s bubbly and it has more substance calorie-wise, so it’s basically the equivalent of soda water and saltines. In Italy they don’t have open-container laws, so grab a Peroni before the drive and sip it along the way while you enjoy the view!
Tolls and speeding camera watch-outs:
Italy’s highway, the Autostrada, is riddled with speed cameras. We didn’t learn this until we got near Naples so I’m really hoping we don’t get slammed with some surprise speeding tickets. Basically, don’t speed!!
Also, there are tolls when you enter and exit the Autostrada–they’re pretty significant too–I think I remember paying 20 euro at one of them. Whatever you do, you MUST keep your ticket, and always go through the cash or card lanes. (You don’t want a ticket for going through the equivalent of Italian iPass lanes!)
What to pack:
My Madewell backpack was definitely the MVP of the whole trip (even Neal agreed!) Comes in other colors too! (Shop more Madewell backpack styles here!) This dress from Moon River was also one I wore frequently and kept me cool! They make the CUTEST breezy dresses that are perfect for summer travel!
I’ll be posting my full packing list soon, but in short–here are some of my biggest tips!
You don’t need as much as you think you do, and you DEFINITELY don’t want to be schlepping anything you don’t need through narrow cobblestone streets crowded with people, hauling it behind you running to catch a train, etc. Bring a few packets of laundry detergent and do some laundry in the sink if you need to–it’s worth saving the room, I promise.
You don’t need anything fancy:
Leave the high heels at home. You can easily get away with a couple pairs of flats and sneakers. The one “special” pair of shoes I brought were my red Everlane Day Heels (which don’t even really count as heels–they’re super low block heels!) and I loved that they made me feel a little bit dressed up and pretty, but I could still walk a mile to dinner in them!
Don’t bring your nice straightener, curling iron, or hair-dryer:
You will melt it, ruin it, or blow it up. If you REALLY need one, you need to buy a dual-voltage version. (Which you can find on Amazon!) Even if you have a converter, this isn’t enough! You can also just buy a cheap version there at any drugstore!
A cute backpack is the only purse you’ll need:
Bags take up a lot of room in luggage so you really don’t need more than one. I would highly recommend this Madewell backpack–it’s the perfect size for daytime (it’s big enough to fit a DSLR camera, a sweater, sunscreen, water bottle, and all your other essentials!) but it’s not so big that you’ll feel weird carrying it at night.
Something I didn’t realize I needed but really wished I’d had–I never thought about bugs in Italy but I got bitten up in Florence and Tuscany! My favorite bug repellant is Skin So Soft by Avon and it seriously works MIRACLES and doesn’t smell or feel like bug spray.
If you’re going in the summer, don’t bother with jeans, I never wore them once. Neal on the flipside wore his a lot but he is weird and doesn’t get very hot, whereas I will easily succumb to symptoms of heat stroke on a daily basis. (I chalk this up to a men vs women thing).
I lived in sundresses, especially linen ones (this dress was my #1 most worn dress of the trip! Followed by this one and this one!). But make sure you’re either wearing breezy midi or maxi dresses or shorter dresses that aren’t flowy–because the last thing you want to do is have the wind catch your short hemline and flash 5,000 tourists in the piazza.
If you’re going in fall/winter/spring, jeans, boots, and layers are your best friend. Definitely check out my packing list for visiting Europe in cooler seasons.
Something to cover your shoulders:
Many cathedrals ask that you cover your shoulders (although I’ve never seen this enforced anywhere other than St. Peter’s at the Vatican) it’s always safe to carry a scarf or pashmina in your bag! (Buy one in Florence at the leather markets!)
Eating and Drinking in Italy:
You must try the quintessential Italian cocktail–the Aperol Spritz! (Taken at our stunning hotel, Borgo San Felice, in Tuscany! More on that soon!)
Don’t eat anywhere that tries to hustle you into a restaurant, or at any spot with a picture menu:
I hope this goes without saying, but FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DO NOT EAT AT ANY RESTAURANT IN LIFE WITH A PICTURE MENU!
The weird thing about Italy is that restaurants in the tourist traps always have people standing outside hustling tourists and trying to get them into their restaurant–which will in turn sell you crap food at outrageous prices. Do not ever eat in these places!
Quality, authentic restaurants don’t ever go out of their way to try and get you inside, and definitely would never stoop so low as to hand you a menu with photos.
As a rule of thumb, you should try your best to stay away from the big tourist traps when it comes to eating any meal.
Tipping in Italy:
You’ve probably read this elsewhere, but you don’t need to tip in Italy. We usually just rounded up the bill or left 1-3 euro depending on how good the service was, but that was because we just felt bad not tipping. You aren’t expected to leave a tip. The exception to the tipping rule is for tour guides–I read that 15% is normal in that case!
You have to ask for the check:
This is so funny because I KNOW THIS and we still had trouble with it. You can’t even say things like, “we’re great” or “we’re all good” or “we’re all set”–this doesn’t translate and unless you say, “I’d like the check please” or “Il conto, per favore”–you will not get your bill. It’s not Italian culture to rush people out of a restaurant, even after they’ve finished their meal, so you need to be very direct when asking to wrap up.
About the water:
You will be asked if you want “sparking” or “still” water–still water is still from a bottle and you will be charged for it by the bottle. If you don’t want to pay for still water, just ask for TAP water. (The tap water is just fine to drink.)
Take advantage of aperitivo:
Aperitivo is Italian happy hour where you’ll typically be served complimentary snacks. It’s THE BEST. Try to leave early for dinner to try a new place for aperitivo each night. Neal always went for Negroni’s and for me–Aperol Spritz!
How you drink your coffee:
Of course it’s your vacation and you get to order whatever you want! But I always like knowing little tricks of the trade and cultural facts–such as, Cappucinos are only ordered at breakfast. Granted, they’ll happily serve them to you anytime you want, but it’s very much a tourist order. Additionally, if you drink your coffee while standing at the bar, it’s cheaper than if you take it to-go. (If you DO want it to go, say “take-away”–that’s what it’s called there! You may get some puzzled looks if you say “to go.”)
Open container laws aren’t a thing:
You can drink on the streets of Italy, so pop the cork of that chianti and drink it in the piazza at night after all the tourists are gone. Take an Aperol Spritz to go to cool you off on the hike back from Piazza Michelangelo–it’s vacation!
When you get sick of Italian food:
If you’re there long enough, this will sadly happen. It’s harder than you may expect to find non-Italian food–however, you can never go wrong with a Kebab stand–and if you happen to be in Rome, there’s a Korean BBQ place called Galbi that was fantastic!
Don’t miss the markets: Some of the best culinary experiences to be had in Italy are in the markets! We’d highly recommend the Mercato Centrale in Florence and the Testaccio Market in Rome! (By the way, you MUST do the Taste of Testaccio tour in Rome–it was the best tour we took in Italy hands down. One of the stops is at the market, and it was some of the best food we had in all of Italy!)
Shopping in Italy:
My favorite leather jacket shop, Massimo leather, in Florence
Carry more cash than you would in the states:
Paying with cash is just easier. They do accept credit card at most shops, stores, etc, but we just felt it was easier carrying cash. The only time we paid with credit card was for big purchases or at dinner. Make sure you check your credit card processing fees before you head over there though–you’ll want to have one with no foreign transaction fees!
Prices are always negotiable:
If you’re buying anything at the markets, or even little local shops, (hell, even negotiating something like a gondola ride)–a little haggling is always expected–especially if you’re buying multiple items. (The exception to this would be at a big chain store or a nice clothing boutique where the prices are labeled on the tags) If a price isn’t listed anywhere or you’re buying anything from a street vendor–definitely counter off and politely ask, “could you do it for…?” You’ll likely get a better deal!
Many wineries offer free shipping back to the states:
If you go wine tasting, many wineries will ship for free if you meet a certain quota, so take advantage!!
Tax refunds on your larger purchases while in Italy:
If you make some big purchases on your trip, you can get a tax refund, which is awesome, but the process for getting tax back for your purchases can be complicated.
First, you’ll need to spend at least 155 euro at one store to qualify for a tax refund, and you’ll need to ask for a tax back form and fill it out at the store. Make sure to carry these items on the plane with you because sometimes they will ask to see them at customs. (There is also a process for doing this for checked luggage but I’m not that familiar, but this article explains it!)
When you return home, you’ll then need to follow the signs to VAT refund at the Rome airport–there are basically three companies that process VAT tax returns, so go to the kiosk that matches the logo on your form. (This was VERY confusing and took us awhile to figure out, and the customs workers were not remotely helpful.) They will tell you what to do and then give you an envelope that you’ll drop into a mailbox to process your refund.
For more info, this is a great article that explains it in great detail with photos of signage, etc. Definitely bookmark it for future reference!
In the Tuscan vineyards, wearing Everlane cotton tank dress
Getting home via Rome FCO airport:
Buy a “fast pass” for security.
I have NO IDEA why we were apparently the only people who did this, but they have completely different security checkpoints for “fast pass”. If you have Global Entry, remember it only works coming into the U.S. and breezing through customs–it doesn’t count at the foreign city you’re flying out of. We probably saved 45 minutes just by buying the fast pass for like $20 each. Neal added it on when we checked into our flights.
On that note…
If you fly out of FCO, it takes a LONG TIME to get to your gate.
The airport is huge and makes O’Hare seem tiny. Don’t stop at the first McDonalds and stay there until 10 minutes before boarding, because it might take you 20 minutes to get to your gate from the security checkpoint. (You’ll probably need to take a train to your gate.)
WHEW! That was a lot of tips. I think I got them all, but will definitely make sure to come back and add more in as they come to me. I hope this was helpful!