With so many destinations to tick off your bucket list, so many dishes to try, and so many customs to adopt when you visit Italy, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and find yourself with a long list of questions about travelling in the country. What are Italians like? How can I get around Italy? Where’s the best place to eat pizza? What is Italy’s history?
In this article, we answer all of these questions and more, as well as offer you insider tips about the country you didn’t even know you needed, like ‘don’t order a cappuccino after 10am’ and ‘try the lemon-flavored gelato’. You know, important stuff.
Italy is a year-round destination
Italy may be well-known for its gorgeous Mediterranean climate and its quaint coastal towns, but that doesn’t mean you should turn your heads at the first signs of autumn. Cities like Florence, Milan, and even Venice, are great winter destinations because there’s just as much to see and do, but without the big crowds that summer draws in.
Meanwhile, destinations in the far north of Italy like Torino, Bergamo, and Lake Como, carved by the Dolomite Mountains, become blanketed with snow and transform into a winter wonderland.
North and south Italy are completely different
Italians tend to categorize themselves as either ‘northern’ or ‘southern’ because there is a big difference in mentality and lifestyle between the two. Northern Italians think of themselves as a little more classy, style-conscious, fast-paced, and they mostly keep to themselves, whereas southern folk are more traditional and laid back, and they welcome everyone with open arms as if they were family.
It’s good to be aware of this cultural divide so you understand why the locals’ mentality towards you may differ depending on where you go.
Train travel across Italy is very cheap
Italy has an extensive train system that allows you to go from Venice to Florence, Rome, Naples, and even across to Bari on the southeast coast. Although the trains are far from luxurious, they are a comfortable, fast, and cheap way to travel across Italy.
If you’re planning on spending a month or so touring the country, you can even purchase an Interrail Italy Pass, which allows you to travel on as many trains as you want for a certain amount of days in one month for a small fixed price. Just remember to get tickets validated — tourists often get stuck with fines.
Italy’s roads are only for the brave
Italy is notorious throughout Europe for being a tad relaxed when it comes to road rules, except for one — cars will not stop for pedestrians. So, not to worry you, but if you see a car coming towards you as you cross the road, just run.
Italians are also not courteous to other drivers, and you’ll often find them cutting you up, or beeping at you for no obvious reason. You also shouldn’t be surprised if a car backs into yours when parking; don’t worry, they’re just checking their distance!
Italians are friendly and passionate people
Although Italians might seem a little rude at first, especially when waiting on you at restaurants, they are actually incredibly friendly and warm people once you get them talking. Remember, Italy’s service industry does not operate on a tips basis, so it’s just not in their culture to smile and chit-chat when serving food.
However, if you get talking to some locals, and show your interest in them and their culture, you’ll often find they become your new best friend, and before you know it, they have bought you a few drinks and invited you to their grandma’s for some home-cooked spaghetti.
Beware of pickpockets and street sellers
While Italy is a generally safe and peaceful country, it does have its fair share of pickpockets and troublesome street sellers. When you’re in crowded places, especially in touristy areas, keep a close eye on your bag as you never know who might dip their hand in.
In the ‘tourist traps’, you’ll also find street sellers offering big brand items for cheap prices, but beware of what you buy because it’s illegal in Italy to purchase counterfeit goods.
Italy is all about the Renaissance
The Renaissance is the cultural transformation from the Middle Ages to the Modernity between the 15th and 16th centuries, created by a movement in philosophy, literature, and art.
Italy is very proud to have been the birthplace of the modern world, and its museums, piazzas and religious buildings hold some of the Renaissance’s most historically important pieces of art and architecture, like St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City and Primavera, a painting by Botticelli found in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery.
No trip to Italy is complete without visiting some of these historical masterpieces.
Italians love the opera
Opera was also born in Italy, and Italians are clearly very proud of this part of their history because it’s watched just as much today as it was in the 17th century when it was first performed.
Many of the world’s most famous operas, including La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca, all hail from Italy, and many of them are still performed regularly in theatres around the country. Opera may not be your cup of tea, but if you watch a performance at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, you may just change your mind.
Italians love to hear you speak their language
For the most part, you’ll find that Italian’s speak remarkable English, however, locals are much more likely to strike up a conversation with you if you show them your Italian speaking skills.
Italian is a relatively easy language to learn, and even the simple common courtesies such as mi scusi, per favore, and grazie, meaning excuse me, please, and thank you, can get you a long way. Bonus points if you can say la vita e un sogno, a famous Italian phrase meaning ‘life is a dream’.
There’s nowhere better in the world to try gelato
Wherever you go in Italy, whether it’s a tiny island town in Sicily or the heart of Rome, you’ll never be too far from a gelato shop. Italians invented gelato, and they can’t get enough of it.
Somewhere in between an ice cream and a sorbet, the gelato is both thirst-quenching and refreshing, and is generally less calorie-packed. Stracciatella (vanilla and chocolate chip), and lemon are Italy’s favorite flavors, and the ones we would recommend if you’re overwhelmed with choice (which you inevitably will be).
Every village, town, and city has a central piazza
The piazza, or public square, is an integral part of Italian life. Every village, town, and city in the country has a central square, commonly known as the Grand Piazza, and they’re often the most culturally and historically important part of the area — and the most social.
You’ll find magnificent cathedrals, palaces and monuments in Italy’s piazzas, as well as outdoor restaurants, bars, and cafes where you can sit and watch the world go by. Piazzas are also the perfect starting point from which to explore the place you’re visiting because you can never get too lost when you have a big square to guide you back.
Each Italian region has its own unique cuisine
Some of the most world-renowned and commonly made dishes hail from Italy. We have all had plenty of pizza and pasta in our lives, but Italy has so much more to offer than these delicious foods.
In fact, each region in Italy specializes in its own kind of cuisine, from risotto in Milan to prosciutto in Parma, so be sure to find out what specialties to try in each place you visit. You can find out more about the best dishes to try by region in Italy here.
Italians drink Cappuccino for breakfast
It’s no secret that Italians are big on coffee, but what is less well-known is that cappuccino is strictly a breakfast drink in Italy, and ordering it after 10am is a big no-no.
Only Italians can really understand why this unspoken rule is so important, but regardless, if you order a cappuccino at 10:05am, you may be subject to a few disapproving stares or a simple but firm “no”. Any time after 10am, it’s all about the espresso, so play it safe and order that instead.
Find a restaurant with an Italian menu
Food is the heart and soul of Italian culture, and you’ll never have a hard time finding a good Italian restaurant. The best ones, however, tend to be the local family-run restaurants, which can often be identified by their Italian-only menus.
Although many of us are familiar with typical Italian dishes, it can be fun to order something new from an Italian menu and see what you get. What’s more, it will give you a chance to act like you’re fluent in Italian and impress the locals.
Set yourself a shopping budget — it’s easy to spend
Priding themselves on their appearance, and their sense of style and fashion, Italians love to shop. In fact, Milan is one of the fashion capitals of the world with couture brands like Versace and Dolce & Gabbana being founded here.
However, every big city in Italy has a superb selection of shops from high-end to boutique and high-street, making it very hard to resist indulging in a few new pieces for the wardrobe. If you are prone to a shopping splurge, we recommend setting a shopping budget to avoid going overboard.
Nowhere in the world makes shoes like Italy
Nowhere in the world possesses a level of skill and craftsmanship in leatherwork that can match Italy’s, as fine Italian leather goods are crafted using a secret process founded in Tuscan tanneries.
When hunting for a new pair of shoes, we all look for the ‘Real Italian Leather’ hallmark because we know it means they are going to be high quality and last well.
When you’re in Italy, you don’t have to look very far to find that hallmark, as Italian leather shoe shops filled with stunning and affordable items are a staple on every shopping street.
The best pizza is found in Naples
Although it’s almost impossible to find a bad pizza in Italy (and if you do you should probably report it to the police), there’s one place in particular you should go if you want the cream of the pizza crop — Naples.
This city, just a stone’s throw from the Amalfi Coast, is where pizza was invented, and the famous Napolitano pizza is named after it. For the ultimate pizza experience, order the Napolitano from Naples’ first pizza restaurant, Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba.
The best beaches are found in Sicily
Sicily is a beautiful island off the southern coast of Italy, and as it is surrounded by the warm, shimmering azure Mediterranean Sea, there’s nowhere better to find a relaxing beach. The islands’ coastline is a string of towering cliffs, rocky outcrops, and sandy shores, which make for some spectacular sunbed scenes.
While there are many hidden beaches where you can be sure to not find another soul, Sicily’s major cities, such as Palermo, Taormina, and Siracusa all have excellent beaches within walking distance, and while they are a little busier, they are just as enjoyable.
Tuscany’s villages are just as cool as its cities
Tuscany is known for its romantic and historical cities, Florence, Pisa, and Siena, and its lush undulating landscape, but there is so much more in the region to be discovered.
Small traditional towns and villages perch atop the hills of Tuscany, proudly showcasing their rustic beauty, including San Gimignano with its dozen medieval towers, and Pitigliano which is often described as ‘Little Jerusalem’. They may not be as famous as their neighboring cities, but they’re just as worth visiting. Read more about Tuscany’s best villages here.
The Dolomites offer world-class skiing
The north of Italy, bordering Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia is defined by the Dolomites, a mountain range reaching almost 3,500 meters above sea level. The Dolomites are known for their impressive towering craggy peaks which protrude like stalagmites from mountaintops.
However, there is more to this mountain range than pretty scenery; it is brimming with excellent ski resorts, including Cortina d’Ampezzo, a previous Olympic town which is now part of the Dolomiti Superski area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with 1,200 kilometers of slopes and 12 resorts.
Get a guide when visiting Pompeii
Pompeii is an ancient city just outside of Naples which was buried under tons of ash after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D., and whether or not you get a guide when visiting this archeological spectacle, you will be blown away by its magnificence.
However, it’s not just the excellent preservation of this ancient volcanic city that makes it worth visiting, it’s the stories that it tells, and without a guide, you won’t be able to fully understand the lives of its ancient inhabitants, or what happened to them when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. It may be a little pricier, but you get the bang for your buck.
Venice is surrounded by quaint island towns
Venice is perhaps one of the most coveted destinations in Italy with its web of canals and romantic arched bridges, but what many people don’t realize is that Venice is just one of a small archipelago of islands along the Laguna Veneta. You can hop in a cheap water taxi to a number of its neighboring islands, each of which have their own unique character.
Murano, the island where Murano glass was first created (and is to this day) is just a short boat ride away, and if you go a little further, you’ll find Burano, a candyland-like fishing town with pastel colored terrace houses built upon the water.
About the Author: Emily Draper
Originally from the UK, Emily Draper has lived in Chile, with an Amazonian tribe in Peru, in a Wisconsin trailer park, and on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea. Considering herself, and the rest of us, as global citizens, Emily’s mission as a writer and journalist is to expand global consciousness of the fundamental importance of travel, culture, and diversity.