“You may have the Universe if I can have Italy” – Giuseppe Verdi
Italy is the most gorgeous country in the world to travel to. I guess that is why I decided I wanted to retire there. And over the past decade, I have crisscrossed this country eating my weight in pizza. And I still have so much to see.
Each of the tiny towns has its unique charm.
And the food and culture change by region. Sicily’s food has Middle Eastern influences, places along the coast are known for their fresh fish and in the Tuscan country, hearty ragus are common.
And everyone’s Nona is the best cook of all.
But it’s easy to find yourself in an overpriced tourist trap if you just follow yelp and trip advisor reviews.
TOP TRAVEL TIPS
PLAN FOR THE WEATHER
Italy in the summer is blazing hot, and during the day you will find very little shade if you are exploring the towns. You should also check that the place you are staying has an aircon. And it can be downright freezing in the wintertime if you are heading North. So the best times to travel are early spring or fall. And check the rain forecasts. Some cities have rainy summer months.
YOU’LL GET LOST
I have lived in Lucca for 5 years and I cannot tell you how often I wind up lost in this city. Saul mocks me saying I could get lost in a paper bag, but I have learned that this is the best way to explore a city. I often stumble across new things I haven’t seen and since I am in no rush to get anywhere I just go with it.
SLOW IT ALL DOWN
My favorite Italian phrase is piano, piano, piano. Or slow, slow, slow. Italians are in no rush to get anywhere and that includes mealtime. Don’t be surprised if lunch or dinner takes 2 to 3 hours. Time around the table is the richest of treasures so soak it all up.
CARRY CASH + CHECK THEY TAKE CARDS
Grab some local currency so you can pop into a store for a quick coffee or gelato. Some stores won’t take a card for a charge under 15 euros. A lot of stores won’t accept Amex so make sure you have a Visa or Mastercard. You’ll also able to negotiate a better deal on something you are buying if you pay in cash.
ITALY HAS GORGEOUS BEACHES
When you think of Italy you think of medieval towns with cobblestone streets. But there are thousands of beautiful beaches that line its impressive coastline. The South sits along the Ligurian, Mediterranean, and Ionia seas. I am going to share all my favorite beaches in a separate post but the islands of Elba, Sicily, and Sardina are also magical.
AVOID THE BIG CITIES
You have not seen Italy if you only travel to Rome, Milan, Venice, and Florence. And definitely don’t try and do this all in one trip. You will spend most of the time in your car. Italy’s charm lies in the small towns. They show you the real Bella Italia, and you will avoid all the tour buses and overpriced restaurants and average food. So pick Lucca over Sienna, Minori over Capri and Santa Margarita Ligure over Portofino. Do your research and I will be happy to make suggestions. But cover one region at a time. Believe me, you will have plenty to see.
ASK THE LOCALS
When picking a place to eat don’t rely on yelp or trip advisor. Find a local Italian and ask them where they eat. If you follow their advice you will end up in a small trattoria with a few tables and a nona making the best food you’ll ever eat.
ORDER VINO DI CASA
Italian wines are incredible and most restaurants will buy from local vineyards in the area. They get the best regional vintages. I have yet to try a house wine I didn’t enjoy. They usually serve them in half or full liter carafes and you will not be disappointed with the taste or the price.
Most cities don’t have uber or taxi cabs. If you want to travel between cities, try taking the train! Italy has an impressive high-speed railway between the likes of Rome-Florence-Venice. Buy tickets through and remember to validate them at the station. And check the timetable, expiration date, seating class, and other details, so you don’t run into any surprises.
SUNDAY MOST THINGS ARE CLOSED
Italians usually go to church and spend time with their families on Sundays, so don’t be surprised if you arrive in a town and all the shops and restaurants are closed. Call ahead and check the venue you’re heading to is open. Most shops and restaurants will reopen for dinner service.
BUY TICKETS AHEAD OF TIME
If you are visiting a popular attraction, it is wise to get tickets ahead of time. Many of these activities are sold out so planning ahead will help you avoid disappointment and you will be able to skip the long lines.
In most trattorias, bars and restaurants they factor the service charge into the price. So Italians don’t add tips to any meal. But if you had an incredible experience and you just have to tip, go ahead. But it is by no means expected.
If you plan on visiting holy religious sites, especially the Vatican, make sure to take some sort of shawl or covering otherwise you will be denied entrance.
RENTING + DRIVING A CAR
Most car-rental places have tiny smart cars. If you’re like (I travel with the kitchen sink), make sure that the car has room for your bags. You’ll also need to get used to the toll roads and I suggest having cash or a credit car available the second you hit the freeways. And may the force be with you. Italians are aggressive drivers so don’t get into the fast lane unless you are ready to floor it.
TUSCANY IS THE BEST PLACE FOR STEAK
Bistecca alla Fiorentina is one of the most incredible meals if you are a meat lover. They use an ancient breed of Tuscan cattle, called the Chianina. And serve the thick steaks on a hot plate. It’s a generous size so you might want to share.
CAPPUCINO FOR BREAKFAST
Italians don’t usually drink milk in their coffee during lunch or dinner. Instead, they will order a short espresso with sugar which they usually take after meals. It helps digestion.
NORTH VS SOUTH
The north reminds me of continental Europe, whilst the south has a much more laid-back Mediterranean feel – both are great and very different!
LEARN SOME BASIC ITALIAN
No one expects you to be fluent when visiting Italy, and you will find English speakers. But even a few phrases will do wonders. Check out my post on ITALIAN BASICS. They’ll put a smile on any face! And if you want to become fluent I cannot recommend this COURSE-ITALIAN BY DAVIDE enough. I personally tried Duolingo, one-on-one classes, and a school but this was hands down the best way to learn the language.
And if you want to enjoy Italy without all the planning I would suggest signing up for one of my amazing Italian Retreats. These once-in-a-lifetime adventures are hosted and organized by me based on your specific needs.