Italy Guide: Planning Your Trip

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Italy is one of the most fabulous destinations in the world and ranks high on most travelers' must-see lists. As the seat of the once-mighty Roman Empire, home of the Catholic Church, and the birthplace of the Renaissance, its historical, artistic, and cultural treasures are too numerous to count. Italy is also a spectacularly beautiful country, with dazzling monument-filled cities, charming small towns, plus gorgeous beaches and mountain ranges. And the food? Don't even get us started. Let's just say there's a reason Italian cuisine is celebrated the world over.

This Italy trip-planning guide is a starting point for organizing your trip of a lifetime, deciding where to go and what to see, how long to stay and most importantly—what to eat!

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: The best months to visit Italy depend on your preferences as a traveler. Springtime and early summer—April, May, and June—sees gorgeous weather, mostly mild temperatures and crowds that range from moderate to dense. Summer is the most crowded season, and it can be stiflingly hot in most parts of the country. September and October are still packed, but the weather is more pleasant. Except for December, wintertime is less crowded. If you can put up with cold, rainy weather—maybe with a few sunny days thrown in—January, February, and March are the least crowded months to visit.
  • Language: Italian is the first language in Italy, and in major cities, shop owners and hotel and restaurant workers generally speak at least a little bit of English, and often French and German as well. In more rural areas away from tourist centers, you may find that very few people speak English—an Italian-English pocket dictionary or a translation app on your smartphone will come in handy. It's always helpful—and polite—to be able to say a few words and phrases in Italian.
  • Currency: All of Italy uses the euro, and other currencies are not accepted. Credit cards such as Visa and Mastercard are accepted everywhere, except for most street food stalls and smaller, independent merchants. It's always a good idea to have cash on hand, especially when stopping off for a caffe (coffee), buying bus, tram or Metro tickets, and at smaller stores or market stands. Note that American Express and Diner's Club are less widely accepted in Italy. Be sure to confirm in advance with your hotel or restaurant if you intend to pay with these cards.
  • Getting Around: Italy's cities and towns are connected by a comprehensive rail network of high-speed trains servicing major cities and slower, regional trains serving smaller destinations. Trenitalia is the national carrier and covers the entire country, while private rail company Italo serves major cities. If your trip to Italy involves mostly cities and towns on rail lines, you can quickly get around without a rental car. If you wish to spend a lot of time in the countryside, say, visiting wineries in Tuscany or hiking through the Dolomites, then a car will likely be necessary. In nearly all of Italy's major cities, tourist attractions are clustered in the centro storico, or historic center, and are within walking distance of one another. Otherwise, cities have a system of buses, subways, and often trams, all of which are inexpensive and relatively easy ways to navigate. Most smaller towns are entirely walkable.
  • Travel Tip: Buy or reserve tickets in advance for those blockbuster attractions you want to see. The Colosseum, the Uffizi Gallery, and Leonardo's "The Last Supper" are just a few of the sights in Italy where reservations are either required or strongly recommended and don't overschedule. While it's tempting to try to pack in every museum and attraction, remember that a big part of the appeal of Italy is its more relaxed, dolce vita lifestyle. Don't be so rushed that you miss it!

Patience is a virtue, especially in Italy. You may find slower restaurant service, trains that run late, and a general lack of urgency when it comes to customer service. Take a deep breath and adjust to life, Italian-style.

Things to Do in Italy

What you see and do in Italy depends mostly on how much time you have and what your interests are. When planning a trip to Italy, looking at a map of Italy's best attractions and cities is a great way to gain perspective on your travel itinerary. That way, you can make informed decisions about where you want to visit, how long you will need to explore each location, what time of year you want to travel, how you can get around from place to place most effectively, and most importantly, what you want out of your trip.

Everyone knows the three most significant destinations in Italy—Rome, Venice, and Florence—but one of the biggest mistakes travelers make is to try to see this triumvirate in 10 days. While you can certainly travel to each of them within ten days, you won't get to experience any of the depth of these diverse and interesting places. If you have just a short time in each city, a half-day walking tour is a great way to cover a lot of ground.

To help you start forming your itinerary, here's a brief list of some of the top destinations and activities in Italy:

  • Rome: The capital of Italy is the home of the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, Vatican City, including St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums, and so, so much more.
  • Florence: Michelangelo's David, the treasures of the Uffizi Gallery, Ponte Vecchio bridge, shopping for leather goods at San Lorenzo Market.
  • Venice: A gondola ride on the Grand Canal, the glory of St. Mark's Square and Basilica, getting lost, and seeing the smaller Venetian islands.
  • Naples: Art, archaeology, history, and Baroque churches, plus fantastic street food and proximity to Pompeii, Capri, and the Amalfi Coast.
  • Tuscany: Italy's most famous region, known for red wine, rolling hills, and picturesque cities and towns; home to Siena, Lucca, Pisa, and Florence.
  • Umbria: The hill towns of Orvieto, Perugia, and Spoleto, plus regional wines and hand-painted ceramics.
  • The Lakes Region: Italy's northern playground, with lakes Garda, Maggiore, Como and more
    Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast. The ruins of a city buried by Mt. Vesuvius, plus the incredible scenery and ambiance of the Amalfi Coast towns.
  • Milan and Torino: Italy's fashion capital is also packed with important museums and is home to The Last Supper, while busy Torino is an underrated European city, with museums, performing arts, and cafe culture.
  • The Cinque Terre and the Italian Riviera: Hiking from one lovely seaside town to the next, discovering Genoa, enjoying the beaches near San Remo, Savona, and those south of Genoa.
  • Puglia: Curious Trulli dwellings, 1,000-year-old olive trees, beautiful beaches, and the "heel" of Italy.
  • Emilia-Romagna: Come for the cuisine, then enjoy the great art and culture cities of Bologna, Ravenna, Modena, and Parma.
  • Sicily: For Europe's most active volcano, magnificent Greek ruins and regional cuisines like caponata and cannoli.
popular cities in Italy
TripSavvy / Kaley McKean

What to Eat and Drink

Italy is, of course, famous for pasta and pizza, both of which can be found in virtually every corner of the country. These dishes, the kinds of pasta, especially, will vary widely depending on the region, with each dish utilizing readily available local products. In Milan and other northern cities, you may find more polenta and risotto on the menu than pasta. At seaside areas and on Italy's islands, fresh seafood will dominate. Desserts are also regional, but tiramisu and panna cotta, a dish similar to flan, are found just about everywhere. Be sure to try some of the local cuisines wherever you are, rather than limiting yourself to familiar dishes.

Outside of your hotel's buffet, breakfast in Italy is light, consisting of an espresso (caffe) or cappuccino with a cornetto (croissant), usually eaten standing up at the bar. Lunch is often the biggest meal of the day and is eaten from 1 p.m. to about 2:30 p.m. Restaurants probably won't open before 12:30 p.m. Similarly, dinner is eaten late by U.S. standards. If you show up at a restaurant at 7:30 p.m., you'll likely be the only customers, but by 8:30 or 9 p.m., the place will have filled up.

Wine in Italy is also regional, with every part of the country producing its own. House wines are usually from the region, very cheap and perfectly drinkable. In all but the priciest restaurants, you can find bottles on the wine list priced from around 15 euros. Craft beer is increasingly popular in Italy, and pairs well with pizza. Aperitivo, the before-dinner drink, is an institution in Italy, and usually consists of a glass of sparkling prosecco or an Aperol spritz, plus light snacks. Bottled water is served in restaurants, either as normale (still), frizzante (with gas), or leggermente frizzante (lightly gassed).

For a more thorough look at the art of eating in Italy, check our guide to dining out in Italy.

Where to Stay

Accommodations in Italy run the gamut from simple to luxury city hotels, rustic farm stays at agriturismi, cozy B&Bs, and private homes and apartments available through sites like Airbnb and Vrbo. If you're visiting a city like Rome, Florence or Orvieto, especially for the first time, we recommend a hotel or lodging as close to the city center as possible. Even if it costs a little more, the convenience will be worth it. Renting a private apartment can be a cost-saving measure, especially for families, but you miss out on the services of a hotel. In most hotels large and small, breakfast is usually included in the price and is quite often an extensive buffet.

Agriturismo are country houses set a few miles away from major towns. They offer a bucolic countryside atmosphere and locally sourced food, often grown on-site, and many have outdoor pools. They are ideal for large groups of family and friends, though many rent individual apartments or rooms.

Getting There

Most U.S. travelers to Italy arrive at Rome's Fiumicino airport on the outskirts of the city. International flights also arrive at Milan Malpensa airport, Naples, and Venice, though with far less frequency than Rome. All airports have rental car centers, as well as train stations for connecting into their nearest city. For example in Rome, trains depart every 30 minutes for Termini Station, one of the country's major transport hubs. From there, travelers can take taxis, trams, buses or Metro to their Rome hotel, or catch one of the hundreds of daily trains connecting to all parts of Italy.

Culture and Customs

Generally speaking, travelers from the U.S. won't find Italians too different from themselves. But there is a friendliness mixed with formality here, which visitors should try to adapt to:

  • Greet people with a cheerful "Buongiorno!" during the day and "Buona sera" from late afternoon onwards. Say "arrivederci" when leaving a store or restaurant.
  • When dining out, remember that sharing plates is frowned upon, but you can ask for a half-portion of pasta.
  • In all but the most touristy restaurants, you'll have to ask for your check, il conto—it's considered rude for the waitstaff to present the check before you ask.
  • Be respectful when visiting churches, by speaking in hushed tones and observing posted dress codes.
  • While shorts, t-shirts, flip-flops, and baseball caps are standard attire for visiting Americans, Italians tend to dress a bit more elegantly. Especially for evening meals, wear something a little less casual.
  • Italy is a safe country with a low crime rate. But in busy areas like train stations and public squares, and even in crowded museums, keep a firm grip on your valuables.
  • Don't buy contraband purses or souvenirs from unlicensed street vendors, who are selling illegally.
  • Uber is illegal in most of Italy or is allowed only in a limited capacity. Taxis are inexpensive when compared to most U.S. cities.

Money Saving Tips

  • Save on evening meals by heading to a pizzeria. Even in most cities, diners can enjoy a pizza and house wine or soft drinks for 15 euros per person or less.
  • During the day, look for a tavola calda, a cafeteria-type eatery where you can choose from a range of already prepared items.
  • If you have an apartment or at least a mini-fridge in your hotel, you can buy lunch supplies at a local grocery store.
  • In most cities, museums are free on the first Sunday of the month.
  • Instead of buying costly and wasteful bottled water, refill a reusable bottle at any city water fountain, where water is always safe to drink and often, refreshingly cold.
  • Look for city passes, like the Roma Pass, which offers savings on museum and attraction admission, as well as transportation passes.

Want more tips? Check out our guide on how to save money on your Italian vacation.

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