If you’re traveling to Italy, figuring out what to pack can be daunting. After years of traveling and living in Italy, here are our tips for what not to forget and what to leave at home — beyond the passport and undies. (But don’t forget those, either!).
Small flashlight: Not strictly necessary, but handy, whether for fiddling with the impossible-to-figure-out lock of your bed and breakfast or looking at a map at night, or for peering into a crevice in a catacomb. Bonus: They make these small and powerful these days, so there aren’t any space issues.
Wrap or cardigan, even in summer, for women: Crucial for getting into churches, since some, like St. Peter’s Basilica, adhere strictly to the no-shoulders, no-short skirts dress code in even the hottest months.
A few pieces of tissue… that can double as toilet paper: You don’t really need to bring this from home, of course — Italy does have toilet paper! — but it’s a smart thing for ladies, particularly, to throw in their purses before leaving the hotel in the morning. Why? Well, while 95% of the bathrooms you’ll use at cafes or restaurants are perfectly well-stocked, some are… not. Enough said — so just keep it in mind. (Along those lines, also consider bringing hand sanitizer).
Student ID/E.U. ID card: Although you generally have to be an E.U. citizen to get student or senior discounts, we’ve encountered a number of places across Italy, most notably the (expensive!) Vatican museums, where that’s not the case. So always ask. And if you are a European citizen, then don’t make the mistake of leaving your I.D. in the hotel: Nearly every site and museum gives child, student, and senior-citizen discounts.
Digital versions: Of what, you might ask? Well, of everything. If you’re traveling for a couple of weeks, don’t lug five books with you — consider buying a digital reading device, like a Nook or a Kindle, and load your books up ahead of time. And an iPod, of course, is an instant entertainment system; download not just music, but, if you’re feeling ambitious, even some lectures and podcasts about the sites you’re going to be seeing!
The right shoes: You’ll be doing a lot of walking in Italy. Especially if that’s not something you’re used to, make sure you have the right footwear! What that comfy pair is is different for everyone, and doesn’t necessarily have to be gym sneakers; comfy sandals, cute flats, and, in winter, leather boots can all work, too. Just make sure that, whatever the pair is, they’re broken in — and give them a “dry run” by walking in them for three or four straight hours first.
Empty backpack: You shouldn’t really need a backpack walking around, say, Venice. But a backpack can come in handy if you wind up hiking some of Italy’s spectacular countryside, if you head to the beach, or if you’re buying groceries (lots of Italian grocery stores charge for plastic bags now, and it’s more comfortable to carry groceries on your back, anyway). Most of all, though, that backpack can come in handy at the end of your trip. When all those gifts and souvenirs make it impossible to zip your checked bag closed, just pop extra (non-liquid) detritus into the empty backpack and make it your new carry-on.
Plug adapter: Unless you’re bringing a hairdryer (see below!), you probably won’t need the whole heavy voltage converter. But to plug in, say, a laptop, a cell phone, or a charger for your camera batteries, you will need an adapter that lets you use plugs from your home country in Italy’s outlets.
Your cell phone: Maybe. Here’s more on whether to bring your own mobile phone to Italy (and how to use it when you’re here).
Emergency numbers and meeting point info for your tours: If you’re planning on taking a tour (with us or not!), please, on behalf of tour operators everywhere, don’t forget to print out your meeting point info and map… and to jot down the phone number you should call if you get lost! Otherwise, you might wind up getting to your tour late, stressed out, and having already annoyed the other clients in your group who had to wait for you — or, worse, not making it to your tour at all.
Some dressy accessories: Italians tend to dress up a bit more for dinner, and in general, than Americans, Brits and others do back home. That doesn’t mean you need a cocktail dress or a dinner jacket; instead, well-dressed Italians agree the devil’s in the details. A statement necklace, pretty silk scarf, or nice leather shoes and belt can do the work of a complete outfit… for a quarter of the packing space.
Leave at home
Your hairdryer: You’ve probably heard it a million times, and you’ll hear it again — it’s just not worth it! If you’re coming from the States, the voltage will be different than in Italy, meaning you’ll need to lug a big electrical converter with you to even use it (and even that can still go wrong). Plus, if you’re staying at a hotel, they’ll probably have one for you already.
That super-expensive watch/necklace/pair of earrings that you would hate to lose: Not so much because you’ll get mugged if you’re wearing a Rolex, but because, well, even worrying about getting mugged for your Rolex is a pain. Not to mention that you don’t want to worry about leaving it in your hotel room. Or about how to pack it, since lost luggage is a fact of life for travelers.
Traveler’s cheques: No longer necessary. Plus, they’re a hassle to get, a hassle to change, and there are always extra fees. The best (and cheapest) way to get euros is once you’re over here: Use your normal ATM card to withdraw funds from your bank. (Just clear your trip with your bank first, so they don’t lock your account for security reasons when they see an Italy withdrawal). And, even though you’ll find many establishments in Italy don’t accept credit cards, it’s useful to have at least one card that’s activated for international withdrawals.
Water bottle: Some guides advise bringing one with you from home. But plastic water bottles work just as well, and they’re sold in every cafe in Italy. Buy one when you’re here and just keep refilling it at the fountains you’ll see everywhere.
Whatever weighs you down!: Here’s a rule of thumb: If you can’t carry it yourself, don’t bring it. This recently was brought home to us when, for the second time in the same number of weeks, we saw someone struggle with their wheely bag on an escalator. The bag went tumbling… and the resulting pile-up at the bottom almost resulted in a pile-up of people (and a couple of hospital visits). But bringing only what you can carry isn’t just a safety issue. It’ll make your entire trip much more enjoyable. That’s especially true in Italy, where there tends to be lots of unexpected luggage-lugging (many old palazzos, like the kind that have B&Bs and apartments, don’t have elevators, and not all train and metro stations have escalators or elevators, either). Keep it light, and you’ll arrive at your destination much, much happier (and less sweaty!).
Still Under Debate
Money pouch: Lots of travelers swear by them, and they’re definitely one of the most secure ways to stash your cash (just remember to keep the pouch hidden underneath your shirt!). That said, you’ll never see an Italian walking around Rome or Florence with one, and every time you go to take out your money, you have to unbutton your shirt to do it. What we prefer? A money belt, which is slim and worn around your waist, making it much more discreet (and safe!). Stash your passport and some of your cash in it, leave the rest of the money in your hotel room’s safe, and you’re good to go.
Zip-off pants: They can come in handy, particularly for men — if, say, it’s so hot you just have to wear shorts, but to get into that church, you need to have pants. But do they come in handy enough to shell out $40 (or more) for trousers you’ll only wear while traveling? It’s debatable.
Jean shorts, flip-flops, backpacks, white gym sneakers, fanny packs, Uggs, baseball hats, college hoodies, track pants…: People often ask what clothing items they should leave at home in order to look “Italian” — these are just some. It’s worth noting, though, that no matter how you dress, as soon as someone hears your accent or sees you pull out a guidebook, they’ll know you’re a tourist… and that’s okay!
The most important thing to leave at home?
Stress! And we mean that not just in the sense of “hey, you’re on vacation” — but also in terms of stressing about traveling. And that includes packing. Italy isn’t the wilderness; almost anything you forget (prescription meds and passport aside!), you can buy here. (Not to mention, we think going to the local pharmacy or department store can be one of the most interesting “authentic” experiences you can have!). So relax — and don’t overthink it or worry. After all, you’re going to Italy!