Italy is one of the top countries on every traveler’s bucket list, with over 46 million tourists visiting every year! This is no surprise – with it’s winning mix of history, culture, architecture, natural beauty, cuisine, art and fashion, Italy attracts people with all sorts of interests, from all walks of life. Yet with Italy’s incredible multitude of options comes a challenge – how to balance the different kinds of experiences to make your visit the best it can be? We at GlassOfVenice.com have spent considerable time in Italy, both on our regular merchandising visits and, for some of us, living there. So we decided to compile our ten best Italian travel tips to help all who are interested in Italy to get the most out of their next visit. We hope you will find our advises helpful – please comment and share away!
1. Do not try to cover too much ground in a short time
Italy is famous for its cultural and artistic treasures, rich history, natural beauty, great food, fine wines, top fashion and too many other things to list on one page. It is also a big country that consists of multiple regions, each with its own history, culture, and cuisine. So it’s no wonder that Italy is high on the list of every tourist’s “must-see” places and that once there, visitors try to do it all, often in relatively short amount of time. If you are like most tourists and only have one or two weeks at a time to spare, we urge you not to make a mistake of checking off boxes on the “been there done that” list and rushing from city to city and from attraction to attraction. Instead, choose one or two regions, pick just a few towns, spend a few days in each place, take it in, feel its spirit, and resolve to come back later to see more of Italy. Trying to cover a few key cities, such as Venice, Florence and Rome in the first visit is another popular strategy, but you need to be mindful of the time it takes to travel between them and understand that each one is a multifaceted cultural gem that needs several full days to be explored, although even in that time you will only scratch the surface.
2. Leave time for “la dolce vita”
Italy is all about the enjoyment of life and if you haven’t let yourself slow down in Italy, you’ve missed out on a major part of Italian experience. Famous for its gastronomical treasures, delicious pastries, rich coffee, artisanal ice cream and fine wines, Italy is full of wonderful cafes and restaurants, often with killer views, where people enjoy a slow meal in a good company and people-watch. Join them to see the side of Italy that makes it so attractive to many. But it’s not only food that you should allow time for. Sitting at the beach or in a park, hiking or biking, enjoying expansive vistas and national parks, walking late around medieval towns are all special pleasures that you should not miss out on.
3. Plan where it makes sense, but do not over-plan
Sure, you have to plan your trip, book hotels in peak travel times, and perhaps even research restaurants, we don’t argue with that. In certain cases you will even have to pre-book your tickets to attractions, such as Da Vinci’s famous Last Supper in Milan, where entry is limited and timed, and tickets routinely sell out weeks in advance. For famous museums, including Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, Venice’s Palazzo Doge Secret Itineraries tour, or Rome’s Vatican museums, it makes sense to book in advance to avoid long lines, especially in peak tourist season. However, it is essential to leave unstructured time to allow you to discover the things that rock your boat and enjoy them to the fullest. You may fall in love with a museum and wonder there for a while, or you may decide to take an unexpected dip in the sea when passing by a beach town, or get the urge to spend a few days in that area you just planned to visit for a few hours. Make these things possible and you will be rewarded with unforgettable experience and a much more fulfilling vacation.
4. Go beyond the well-known tourist spots
Who hasn’t heard about Rome, Venice, Florence, not to mention breathtaking Positano, the fabulous island of Capri, the intriguing Pompeii, and the list goes on and on. So when we say “go beyond the tourist spots” in Italy, you may think this is an impossible task. Yet this country is so rich in its mix of cultures, traditions, foods, and sights that it is very easy to find amazing views, gorgeous architecture, great cuisine and thousand years of history off the beaten track. Here are some examples. If you go to the Northern Italy try Alto Adige and Dolomiti area famous for its gorgeous alpine vistas, savory food and the culture that is a cross between Austrian and Italian, all without the thick tourist crowds. Even in the high season, when the rest of Italy is often sweltering and packed, cooler climate and gorgeous alpine vistas make your Dolomiti visit rewarding. In Milan area, travel to Bergamo, Mantua and Cremona for a piece of medieval history and gorgeous architecture in a more intimate and non-touristy setting than the metropolis of Milan. If Italian Lakes strike your fancy, go to Lake Maggiore or Lake Garda instead of more well-known Como – you will find beauty, tranquility, great food, and friendly people in cute historical villages. For a taste of the former Venetian Republic beyond the borders of Venice, stop in historic Padova with its famous Cathedral, or elegant Vicenza, where Palladio reigns supreme. Further south in Tuscany explore less-known yet so interesting hill towns like Anghiari, Montefioralle, San Casciano dei Bagni, or Pitigliano. Travel around Rome and visit Ostia Antica, Tivoli villas and gardens, and Orvieto or stop in Puglia and visit towns of Lecce and Trani, rich in cultural, historical, and culinary treasures. And of course don’t miss the Italian islands of Sardinia and Corsica and the historically and culturally rich Sicily, which almost feels like a country of its own.
5. Avoid traveling in high season
True, Italy is beautiful any time of the year, but it is certainly easier to appreciate when there are less tourists competing to see the top spots, and without the excruciating heat that makes you want to never leave your hotel room. Lots of tourists want to travel to Italy over the summer, and especially in August, thinking they will find nice warm weather perfect for sightseeing, romantic walks, and outdoor seating in restaurants, yet in reality this period is about the worst possible time to visit. The disadvantages are many. First, most Italian cities get uncomfortably hot over the summer and experience cruel heat waves in August. This is precisely why in August the Italians prefer to leave towns for long-awaited vacations at the shore or in the country. In fact, you will find many businesses and restaurants in the cities and non-resort areas shuttered during this time. Second, too many tourists descend on top Italian sights in the summer, leading to long queues at attractions, filled up hotels and restaurants, and fully booked planes and trains. Last but not least, the airfare and hotel prices tend to be extremely high in this period, and you will certainly end up overpaying if you still choose to go during the high season. So the question then is when to go? Our advice is to go to Italy during the so-called “shoulder” season: March to May or September-October, when you will likely find pleasant weather, relaxed atmosphere without tourist crowds, and overall more enjoyable and authentic experience.
6. Dress the part
Italy is a well-known global fashion capital and the world’s most prominent style trend-setter, and you can see it not just at the runways of Milan but also on the street, observing ordinary Italians. They are always aware of their look and style, striving to dress well regardless of the occasion, in a coordinated and tasteful way. Never any sloppy clothes or comfort-driven looks, never any pajamas outside of bed or sportswear outside of gym, and if you see any sneakers on the street they’ll most likely be of the stylish Puma variety, not the sporty white Nike type.
7. Learn a few phrases in Italian
Italian is a beautiful-sounding language, in which phrases just seem to flow effortlessly and exude romance. In reality Italian may not be the easiest of languages, but knowing just a few phrases will take you a long way in getting rapport with the locals and helping you get the most out of your time in Italy. Words such as “buongiorno” or “buona sera” (good day or good evening), “per favore” (please), “grazie” (thank you), “buono” (good) or “perfetto” (perfect) have many uses and will let people know that you are genuinely trying to connect with them. Being very warm people who are used to dealing with tourists, Italians will certainly appreciate your extra efforts and in return will make sure you have everything that you need.
8. Embrace train travel
In America we are so used to driving everywhere – the corner store, the school, the office; we often can’t imagine our lives without the ultimate convenience offered by cars. Not so in Italy. Depending on your itinerary, train may be the most convenient, quick and painless way to move between Italian destinations. For one, driving in Italy is not for the faint-of-heart, with reckless drivers abound, speed limits routinely ignored, and many one-lane roads just barely holding on to cliffs above the sea. On top of this, figuring out Italian road signs and making sure you are firmly en route to your destination at every point of your trip is an insurmountable challenge to many foreigners, gas is very expensive, and parking is its own nightmare, especially in larger Italian cities.
On the other hand, train travel in Italy is surprisingly quick and efficient, with most key cities connected by non-stop itineraries, tickets relatively inexpensive, and train stations typically situated right in the historical centers of towns. So unless you are going to more rural areas of Italy or traveling between small towns, the train remains the ideal way to travel around the country in a stress-free and efficient manner.
9. Be open-minded about food
Italian culinary traditions are well-known, with books and films galore dedicated to the topic. Made famous by such celebrity chefs as Lidia Bastianich, Mario Batali, and Giada De Laurentiis, Italian cuisine is both loved and misunderstood by many Americans. Pizza and pasta are most familiar to Americans as the quintessential Italian foods, yet there is so much more to Italian gastronomy than these famous staples. In Italy’s rich quilt of regions and their specialty foods, not venturing outside of the bitten pizza-pasta culinary track would be a big mistake. Being a large country with a mish-mash of cultures and ethnicities going back to antiquity, Italy boasts as varied a gastronomical landscape as its geographical one. From heavy meat-and-potatoes based diet of the Dolomites to risotto-polenta-mushrooms of Lombardy and Piedmont, to seafood-intense cuisine of Veneto, pasta-rich foods of Puglia, legumes, breads and cheeses of Tuscany, the list of Italian regional gastronomical specialties is truly endless. Our advice is to try the foods most typical of the region you are visiting, regardless of how unfamiliar you may be with some of the ingredients. Choose a simple local place without “menu turistico” or “tourist menu” if possible, and without pictures of dishes on the menus, and we promise you’ll be in for a real culinary treat, and may even add a dish or two inspired by the local tastes and ingredients to your regular diet.
Last but not least, leave time for people watching – one of the most interesting pastimes when you are in Italy. In fact, people-watching may turn out to be so much fun that you may have trouble switching to some other, “worthier” activity, such as a museum visit. Pick a café on a nice central piazza or a busy street and sit with a cup of coffee or an apperitivo (an afternoon drink) to watch Italians go about their daily business. Watch the way they talk and gesture, where it’s hard to say whether they are having a friendly conversation or an argument. Watch the way they dress, the way they interact with their families and friends, the way they get romantic. Watch the kids play. Watch the generational gap and see for yourself how the key differences between older and younger Italians get manifested. Watch the tourists too, and notice how tourists differ amongst them and collectively how they are different from Italians.
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