Mike and I loved a lot of things about our anniversary trip to Italy in October 2018—particularly all the food (pasta all day every day) and all the ancient ruins (2,000 years old and then some). It’s amazing how Italy’s train system can pretty easily take you to almost all corners of the country. And some of their coastal villages are the prettiest places we’ve ever been!! This is likely what you’ll hear from everyone who visits Italy.
BUT during our trip, we also came across a few things that no one seemed to tell us about the country!
You get caught up in the delicious food, and forget to share that water in restaurants costs money. You see the incredible, ancient structures, and you forget to share about the full-to-the-brim garbage bins on the streets leading up to those landmarks (depending on time of year—we’ve found in discussions with other folks this doesn’t appear to be the case in the summer, but in the fall you may see it more).
I’ve shared a few different blog posts highlighting our time in this awesome place, including:
- 10 Foods to Eat in Rome, Italy
- 12 Things To Do in Rome, Italy
- Travel Guide: La Spezia and the Cinque Terre
But I also wanted to write a blog post with some more practical kind of travel advice that rarely seems to get mentioned when you’re talking about the great food, culture and scenery of Italy.
PLEASE NOTE!! I don’t mean this to be a negative post. We absolutely LOVED traveling Italy, and made such incredible memories in the country. But if you’re coming from North America, or elsewhere outside Europe, you may come across some stuff that isn’t the norm or standard where you live, which may be a little bit of a shock, or take a bit of adjusting to, during your travels, so really I just wanted to share a blog to help fully prepare you for when you plan your visit to this incredible place.
15 Practical Tips for Traveling to Italy
(What Most Italy Travel Blogs Don’t Really Tell You)
Note: Most of these experiences were gleaned from Rome, the biggest city in Italy (by population), but we still find they mostly applied for the other cities/towns we visited in the country as well.
1. Drivers won’t stop for you so be brave when you cross
I’m pretty sure I grew grey hair each time we tried to cross the street in Italy. Here, cars don’t seem to stop for you unless you’re already halfway across the street. My heart would jump every time Mike took a daring step forward, with a bunch of oncoming cars. After awhile, you get used to it but I don’t know if I ever did (at least, my heart never stopped jumping every time I tried to cross). We were shocked near the end of our Italy trip when we stayed in the Cinque Terre, when a driver did stop for us lol. So the never-ending, never-stopping traffic may be more for big cities (definitely Rome, even in Florence), but just something to keep in mind. They won’t actually run you over if you cross the street, but it will feel like it lol.
2. Keep your bag close—there are pick pockets
This one we did get warned about, thankfully! In Italy, you’ll notice everyone walks with their hand clutching their bag, or backpacks in front of them, just generally greater attention paid to where your bag is and whether it’s zipped up, in case a pick pocket gets to it. This seemed to be true for tourists as well as locals. The train station ticket machines will recite an automated “beware of pick pockets” message and there will be warning signs in stations showing stick people trying to take bags. School children walking in groups would have their backpacks in front of them. We were always surprised when we saw someone with a loose hanging backpack that was even slightly unzipped around Italy (this was rare, but we did see a few). Just be cautious!
3. Water at restaurants aren’t free, but there are free water fountains!
In Italy, water at restaurants can cost up to 3 euro per large bottle. I always drink water when I dine, so paying 3 euro per meal hurt a little bit, especially when I’m used to it being free in North America. Bottled water is cheaper to buy in convenient stores (1 euro) and depending on where you go, there can be public water fountains you can use! Rome in particular has over 2,000 public water fountains spouting fresh, cold water so bringing a reusable water bottle is super handy if you want to avoid paying (too much) to stay hydrated. Beer and wine can often be cheaper to drink than water in Italy!
4. You *need* to wear comfy walking shoes
Comfortable shoes are a must if you don’t want sore feet in Italy!!
I hardly saw anyone in heels during our whole trip to Italy, and after our first few days, I quickly switched from heels (which I was wearing for the photo ops, of course lol) to a more comfortable, padded shoe, which was certainly the norm here. Heels and cobblestones, as well as heels and countless steps, are not a great mix! In my phone notes I made for our Italy trip while we were there, I wrote: “You need walking shoes or you will die.” (lol) as well as “Everyone here has walking shoes, even if they are wearing cute outfits! Do they bring nice shoes to change into in their bags???” lol, probably (that’s what I ended up doing too lol).
5. Public washrooms cost money
Not only do most public washrooms in Italy cost euro to use, they’re also not *really* the cleanest. We made sure to use the washroom in our hotel / bed and breakfasts, or cruise ship before we went out for a day of activities, or we would use the washrooms at restaurants we dined out to try and avoid paying for public washroom use as much as possible.
6. Streets can feel dirty
Some places in Italy feel cleaner than others for sure, this “tip” isn’t a blanket statement, but then some other places (lots of areas we found in Rome and Naples) just felt a lot dirtier.
Some streets will smell like urine. Some have garbage bins overflowing with bags (it was like this for a few days when we stayed in Rome. I am not sure when garbage day was? lol) There could be dog poo to navigate in some streets (there are irresponsible dog owners everywhere in the world, but here it felt like it was harder to avoid, maybe because there are more narrow sidewalks, and less grass). You may want to avoid wearing an outfit that trails too close to the ground.
Just overall it didn’t *feel* like the cleanest place. We’ve been on trips since Italy (and been on trips before Italy) and generally have a gauge of whether we feel a spot was cleanly or not by whether I can walk into an alley for a photo and not feel like I need to watch where I’m stepping, lol. I really felt I had to be on alert particularly in Rome when ducking into some areas for photos, but even just walking along some of the cobblestone in major neighbourhoods sometimes felt uncomfortable.
Now I have talked to other friends since our trip, who have gone to Italy during the summer (we went in October), and the summer travellers all told us they never found any dirt, dog poo or street urine to ever be an issue, so it did make me wonder if they clean the streets a lot more during high tourist season and blazing heat versus the quiet/slower fall time. Possibly!! This was perhaps the biggest surprise for us.
7. In almost all cases, you should take buses and trains (they’re much cheaper than private cars and taxis) and buy tickets online
We tried all sorts of transportation in Italy—private cars, taxis, Ubers, trains, buses, and of course, walking, and would definitely recommend bus and train travel over car/taxi/Uber travel especially if you’re in a smaller group (solo, or you and a couple). It totally makes sense (and is cheaper) to split car and taxis when you’re in a bigger group but with just a couple of you, (like Mike and I), that type of transportation is going to add up really fast.
We also didn’t stay in any stretch of Italy long enough to find renting a car would be worth it, plus I think renting a car makes the most sense if you’re traveling far distances from a big city to another big city or smaller town, versus in-city travel.
There are so many trains going to so many places all the time all across Italy, takin the train is a really easy and affordable way to get around literally almost any corner of the country.
Trenitalia is the main train operator in Italy and if you know where you’re going in advance, and the location is a bit further away, it’s also cheaper to purchase your tickets online! The Trenitalia website also regularly offers different ticket discounts and deals too in addition to just being a little cheaper online—and when you’re searching online you have an opportunity to compare prices and compare times, versus doing it at the station you’ll likely be buying whatever is first available and that’s not always going to be the cheapest. We booked online for one of our trips after we booked in-person at the train station because we realized it was a lot cheaper. You can definitely do this a day or two in advance of where you’re training to or well in advance.
Also worth noting: In Italy, the train information screens don’t actually show what gate you should be at to depart until just a few minutes before the train is set to arrive. Don’t panic if you don’t see your train number and a gate number right away!
For buses: in Rome at least, you need to buy your bus ticket before you get on the bus. These tickets can be sold at tobacco shops or random corner stores, I recall one instance where I didn’t understand why Mike was walking into a tobacco shop when we were about to hop on a bus. lol. Look for ‘Biglietto’ signs!
8. You’ll need a power converter / plug adapter
The outlets in Italy (Europe) take 220V which is different from North America (120V). Be sure to pick up some power converter / plug adapters before you come or else you won’t be able to charge anything! Check out my other blog post for travel essentials including the converters I purchased from Amazon.
9. Wake up early or go late to visit the major landmarks
We found a great way to avoid huge crowds and line-ups was to get up early to visit the different landmarks in Italy. For example the Spanish steps and Trevi Fountain were basically empty when we visited around 9 a.m. on a weekday in October (however, be careful you don’t show up when they’re cleaning out the coins from the Trevi Fountain because photos aren’t very cute then lol).
I’ve also read that the Trevi Fountain and the Vatican are great to visit late at night too. Avoiding the prime times is a great way to take in the monuments without worrying as much about beggars, sellers, or people in your photos (though it is nice to people watch when it does get busier!)
I obviously prefer going earlier though as I prefer daytime photos (and sunlight, and sleeping lol).
10. Expect police / army presence at major landmarks and big piazzas
As we visited the incredible monuments of Rome / Italy, we noticed some pretty heavy police / army presence at the Piazzas (public squares) leading up to them, along with different barriers and access by vehicle limited. These barriers and the thousands of armed soldiers who patrol these areas are there as an anti-terrorism measure. This was implemented back in 2015, after a few different terrorist attacks in Europe.
11. For currency, bring a mix of smaller euros and get change
12. Visit the landmarks—but you don’t necessarily need to go in
Another way to beat the line and maximize your time is to avoid line-ups at landmarks completely.
Mike and I were thrilled we got to witness ancient structures like The Colosseum and St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican without spending half the day in line to get inside. I fully recognize we didn’t likely get as much of the history, interpretation, or view these structures in all of their glory by not paying to get inside, but I was also super pleased about what we did see (and as we roamed around outside—lol roamed, Rome, get it—lol I just ended up reading outloud from the Internet about the places we were visiting—acting as our own tour guide lol! We were able to save a fair bit of money bust mostly our time, by not entering the buildings (more time to eat, which is my preference lol).
Not to say that I wouldn’t go inside the landmarks—and also that there aren’t ways to beat the line or save some money (do your research, book online and arrive early!!) but we didn’t feel necessarily that we missed out on anything huge by not going inside some of the landmarks.
ALSO: be sure to try and walk all the way around the landmarks to see what kind of different angles you can get of it! I loved our photos of the Colosseum because of our vantage point and we learned about it because we looked and walked around the landmark while we were there to see where the crowds were. I also admittedly did some Instagram research in advance and saw someone had posted a shot of the Colosseum at a higher-up perspective and I knew it was possible~ just had to find it! We also walked around the Leaning Tower of Pisa to get some different perspectives too!
13. There are beggars / people trying to sell you stuff (aggressively)
Be prepared to say no thank you, or shake your head, or just straight up ignore beggars, panhandlers, and sellers, they come out in full force at landmarks and more iconic areas in Italy. Beggars (gypsies!) want money, and people try to sell you selfie sticks (I wondered what they tried to sell before selfie sticks were created lol), hats, sunglasses, or tickets into the big landmarks. On the train you might get performers who come on the bus to play music and then ask for money too.
I have a friend who told us after our trip that when they visited, they had someone try to sell her and her husband a polaroid photo in front of the Trevi Fountain. As they waited for it to be developed, the seller took off and the photo turned out completely black lol. So just be wary of what some people might be selling you.
And just the way they try to sell (really in your face) can sometimes be a bit much to handle but keep your eyes and head looking forward, politely say no thank you, keep moving, and you should be fine.
14. Cabs might try to rip you off
Yes, this can be true anywhere, but I think it’s worth noting because we had two cab rides during our Italy trip that definitely cost us more than it should have. You should also beware of people who drive private cars at the airport. They will tell you “taxi” but they are actually private cars and will therefore charge you more money!! (We fell for this. lol. sigh)
Some places in Italy offer Uber service so you can see and confirm price estimate in advance, but they can be pricy because they’re in fancier cars. Other areas are serviced by an app called “my Taxi,” which is similar to Uber but cheaper, and can help assure that you won’t be overcharged on your ride.
But we mostly took trains and buses during our travels. We did have a handful of taxi rides where we felt ripped off though, so if you’re going to taxi, look for that my Taxi app first so you can assure a set price first.
15. Read the menus / look at prices before you sit down at a restaurant
Many restaurants (especially near major landmarks) are pricier than restaurants off a different side road or a little further away from the ancient ruins. There were also specific dishes I was looking for in the different regions of Italy we visited. For both those reasons, we ended up reading the menus and looking at prices before we decided if we would sit down. The very first restaurant we visited in Rome, which was just near where we were staying, and open when we walked by in the morning, we later realized charged us basically double what some other restaurants charged for the exact same dish.
During our last few days in Italy, compared to our first few days, I was aiming for main pasta dishes to cost us under 10 euro. Anything higher and I was starting to look elsewhere, lol. And we found that food deals are pretty great in bakeries!
Just even on your very first day as you’re walking around and maybe you’re not even looking for a place to eat just yet, stop and view the menus at a few restaurants to get a better sense of what they’re charging for the same dishes so you can make some good, informed decisions about how you’re spending money!
Also: many restaurants tack on a service charge to your bill, but in Italy, tipping isn’t really a thing so you could sort of consider the service charge the tip? to feel better about that, lol.
So those are my more practical tips and information for traveling to Italy!
Many of these things did not come up when I was doing my Italy research and I think had I read about them I would not have been as surprised as it was happening to me, lol.
Again I want to reiterate that I loved Italy and all of the food, culture, people and history we experienced there. Practical advice or “things no one tells you about Italy” just tends to come off feeling a little more negative but I really just want you to be prepared! If you’re coming from outside of Europe, some of the things I described above may be surprising (and not the norm) for you. I truly think if you go the country with some of these tips in mind, it’ll just make your trip that much better and your mindset less of a shock or surprise if / when you encounter some of the things I wrote about.
Be sure to check out my other Italy blog posts as you plan your trip!!
- 10 Foods to Eat in Rome, Italy
- 12 Things To Do in Rome, Italy
- Travel Guide: La Spezia and the Cinque Terre