You may have heard that Italy (and Europe in general now) is allowing tourists from the United States back in to their country as of a few months back. It’s probably been a while since you’ve traveled, so it’s time to dust off the cobwebs and get back into the swing of things.
Never has it been more important than to learn how to visit Italy like a pro, since making the most of your time away from home has never been more important.
While Italy opening great news for tourism in general, it means that the number of people visiting the city will be increasing. Reservations will be filling up, both for museums and restauants, and the throngs of people will be out in full force to see the sights.
Here’s some great ways to make sure that your next trip to Italy goes off without a hitch
Get out Early
Chances are you’re going to be jetlagged from your trip across the Atlantic. Don’t try and sleep 8 or 9 hours your first night there. Once you check in to the hotel, head out for an early dinner (against ALL rules of Italian culture by the way) or a quick trip to the supermarket for a snack.
Wake up the next day as early as you can. My suggestion? Start the day by 6am or 630 at the latest. The sights will be deserted, the sun will just be coming up over the horizon, and the temperatures will be the best you’ll experience the entire trip.
The above photo is at 635AM, the below is at 10:15AM
Wait time at the end? 90 minutes… ouch.
Make Reservations (Prenota)
Museums and main tourist sights are filling up, and because of Covid restrictions, free entry is limited. Make sure that you get a reservation well ahead of time to avoid long queues. We tried to secure reservations for the Colloseum in Rome only to find that the majority of time slots were in the middle of the blistering summer sun. Luckily we found one day that had a 9:55 am time slot available and we snuck right in.
Look at the line of people burning up in the sun waiting to get in…
The same applies for restaurant reservations. Dinner STARTS in Italy around 8pm, so if you make a reservation right at 8 you should be good to go. The restaurant will start to fill up around 9 and go into the late evening/early morning.
Learn Basic Italian
I’m not expecting you to go full Rosetta Stone, but have a basic understanding of the greetings and some food items. It’ll go a long way to winning over the otherwise emotionless and efficient wait staff at restaurants.
The Aperitivo (ah-per-eh-TEE-vo) , or “appetite opener” is a staple of Italian society. Typically around 6 or 7pm the bars around every major plaza and side street will be packed with people drinking Aperol Spritz, chilled wine, or a bitter Campari.
When you order a drink in these magical hours, you’ll be presented with a food spread as well, compliments of the restaurant.
This spread could be as simple as potato chips and nuts, or it could range to a wider offering including sandwhiches, fried arancini (rice balls), mini pizzas, olives, and more.
Do some research ahead of time to find out which places have the best aperitivos in town and make sure to let the waitstaff know you’re there for the aperitivo. The service may be different if they assume that you’re there for dinner or just there for a drink and snack.
If the snacks don’t come with your drink in the first two minutes, don’t worry. If they don’t come in the first five minutes, ask for it. We found that we often didn’t even need to get a dinner at some restaurants as the food spread was unreal.
Bar Service vs. Table Service
If you sit down at a table in an Italian restaurant, be prepared to pay more. That’s because the price you see inside the restaurant on the wall applies to “bar service,” literally meaning you’re standing at the bar ordering your food and drink.
Sit at a table and be prepared to be charged whatever they feel like charging you.
An espresso at 99.99% of any restaurant in Italy will cost you 1 euro. Sit down at a table and that espresso could cost you 2.50, 3, or even 4 euros. This applies to the fancy hotels and mom and pop shops as well.
The food will be exactly the same but the service at the bar will be very matter-of-fact. The point is to get you on your way as quickly as possible. If you’re weary after a long day of walking, don’t be afraid to sit down and take a load off, but expect to pay a little more.
Food Faux Pax
Please, do not ask for a “latte” in a café. Latte literally means “milk” and if you ask for you, you’ll get a glass of milk. You will also be charged or said latte and be expected to drink it. It’s what you ordered after all…
If you want a Café Latte, order a Café Latte.
Also, NEVER EVER EVER order from a restaurant that has picture menus. These are 100% tourist traps and the quality of the food will be noticeable. No self respecting Italian needs a picture to know what linguine looks like, and they certainly don’t need a picture of a margherita pizza.
Step off of the main squares one or two blocks and look for side streets. THIS is where you’ll find the authentic Italian experience
Alternatively, ask your hotel receptionist where they typically go with their friends after work. If they tell you the name of a popular tourist destination, ask someone else instead.
Take the Train
The train system in Italy, and Europe in general, is incredibly reliable and cheap. High speed trains run very frequently between all major cities and are a fraction of the cost. We traveled from Naples to Rome in 1 hour for only $40 in first class. Coach seats were only $25. We walked into the train station about 10 minutes before the departure, showed our boarding pass and we were on our way.
Airports are great for long distances or train rides of 5 hours or more, but in most cases, hop on and ride the rails. You’ll see more of the countryside and arrive relaxed.
And finally, on the topic of relaxing, remember that this is a vacation. Also remember, that this is ITALY. Things don’t work exactly as you think they might as an American. There’s a lot of unspoken rules and tons of bureaucracy involved in everyday life.
Your waiter will ignore you once he brings you your food. He will also never bring you the bill unless you specifically ask for it. He will also not “just set this right here for whenever you’re ready…”
People will not probably ignore the crosswalks on the streets.
Lines will be disrespected at cafes, especially in the morning rush.
Just take a deep breath, sit back, and enjoy the experience that is a European vacation.