Planning an Italian getaway? Look no further. Full of art, architecture stories and legends, Italy can prove the trip of a lifetime. But before you go there are some things to keep in mind to make sure you don’t end up making a mistake that could turn your dream trip into a nightmare.
Expensive mistakes: The do’s and don’t’s of visiting Italy
Getting around a new city is one of the most thrilling parts of any vacation. There’s nothing quite as rewarding as discovering new vistas and hidden corners to explore. Recently, however, one couple discovered the downside of ploughing head first into new directions when they found themselves stuck on a mountain pass, reportedly as a result of following Google maps. They subsequently had to be rescued by the local emergency services.
This has led the Sardinian village, which is famous for its rugged landscape and winding paths, to take preventative measures and erect signs around roads advising tourists not to follow Google Maps. A total of 144 calls for rescue have been in the region in the space of just two years.
Which brings us to our first tip….
1. Don’t rely on your smartphone for maps (all the time)
Smartphones – and easy-to-use maps – are everyone’s best friend while abroad. With easy to follow directions and the option to filter results based on what you’re looking for, finding restaurants, coffee shops and attractions has never been easier. But it’s important to look up every once in a while or you could find yourself led astray!
Because some of the most popular maps tend to calculate the most direct way to any destination, they often fail to take account of impassable routes; It’s one thing when you’re walking through a forest to get to a supermarket, but this becomes especially important if you plan to drive during your trip.
Italy has many narrow paths and coastlines, and failure to take heed of them can prove lethal – note coastlines, small roads and pedestrianised streets, and make sure you’re familiar with your route (and not just the one on your smartphone) before setting out.
2. Remember to validate your train ticket
Most people who have travelled within Europe will know that one of the greatest benefits is the extensive network of trains and public transport. Affording you the opportunity to go on scenic day trips and travel across cities, trains are an ideal way to cover a lot of ground in a short space of time.
On regional and local trains throughout Italy however it’s important to validate your ticket before getting on board. Once you’re at the station you should be able to see a green and yellow machine, in which you can place your ticket to have the date and time stamped. Though it’s an easy process, this rule catches many tourists out as there is little information about it on the railways themselves and it’s only mentioned in small print (in Italian) at the back of your train ticket. Anyone who forgets is liable to pay a fine which can range from €50, if you pay the controller on the spot, and up to €100 – €200 if you dispute the case or refuse to pay immediately. The controllers have heard all the excuses and are immune to them by this stage. Hence, trying to argue your way out of the fine rarely works.
For more on getting from one city to another check out our guide to traveling Italy by train.
3. Be careful with the ‘daily specials’
We might be biased, but here at Walks we’re happy to declare there’s few better places in the world for delicious food than in Italy. With a range of cheesy delights, pastries, vegetarian options along with more traditional regional delicacies, there really is something for everyone. But one thing visitors should be aware of when dining out are the prices on the menu.
For many people a holiday is the time to splash out and sure, if you want to sample some truly delicious cuisine, you’re going to have to pay for it, but there’s nothing worse than getting the bill at the end of your meal and realising you’ve been charged extortionately for a simple dinner. If you avoid the major touristy restaurants you should be relatively safe, but another great tip is to be sure you price-check the menu (for drinks too!), and avoid ordering anything listed as a special (which normally don’t have prices stated). These will often be the most expensive items on offer, and unless the price is listed at the outset or you ask a waiter, it could prove disastrous. This doesn’t just stand for restaurants, but for coffee shops too where tourists are often dealt nasty surprises for a simple espresso.
For more on dining out, check out our guide to not getting ripped off while eating out in Italy.
4. Pack light
Granted, this one goes for almost any trip; the goal is always to find ways to pack lighter and bring less. But this is particularly true for trips to Italy where streets are narrow and often historic. Works are constantly going on to restore important walkways and paths, as many have been worn down by the wear and tear of heavy wheeled suitcases over the years. But packing lighter is not only beneficial for the city – it will make your trip more enjoyable too.
It’s a promethean task trying to carry a 20kg suitcase all the way up the Spanish Steps, trust me.
Luckily, there are a number of things you can do to cut down on luggage weight such as making use of hotel facilities and washing your clothes during your stay. Unless you’re planning a glamorous getaway, your trip will be more about soaking in the sights and sounds of the city anyway. But if you are planning a luxurious retreat, you’ll definitely want to check out our guide to Rome’s most stylish hotels.
Not sure what to bring on your trip to Italy? Check out our handy packing guide.
5. Avoid restaurants with servers waiting outside
Every city has them. Tourist traps haunt popular locales and attractions everywhere and, with so much to see and do, Italy has its fair share. Designed to lure you in and spit you out, these places will look extremely inviting – from the outside. But once you travel in deeper you’ll realise why. Small portion sizes and overpriced menus await unsuspecting travellers looking for an authentic Italian experience. Not only are they some of the most expensive places to grab a bite to eat, they will also usually have the least variety and the most unexciting menu items on offer.
Keen to play into the tourists ‘idea’ of Italy, you won’t struggle to find classic dishes like lasagna and spaghetti but try to find a traditional sfogliatella or panforte and you’ll usually be out of luck. Instead, do your research ahead of time and look up some more authentic (and reasonably priced) spots. And if you’re serious about finding the best spots for a bite to eat – our blog is a great place to get some tips on eating out in Rome, Venice and Florence!
6. Buy your tickets in advance
Everyone wants a relaxed, stress-free holiday. While many travellers think they can get tickets last minute for major attractions and stroll in without a queue, this rarely works out. Ironically, the secret to having a relaxed trip is being as organised as possible. If you plan as much as you can ahead of time you don’t have to worry about the details when you get there; all you have to do is reap the rewards of your labours! One of the vital things to remember when planning a trip to Italy is to purchase tickets to all of the sites you want to visit well ahead of time. This could mean weeks, or even months in advance.
While people usually think to buy tickets for bigger attractions like the Vatican, it’s also a good idea to purchase them for smaller sites which can also sell out far in advance -or, for places such as the Borghese Gallery (pictured), it’s worth taking a tour with tickets included to really get the most of your visit.
Usually, when purchasing tickets in Italy you’ll have to book them for a specific date and time. Rather than letting this take the spontaneity out of your trip, it can often make it more relaxed. Once you know when you’ll be busy visiting attractions, you’ll be able to schedule in ‘free time’ for whatever you want, whether that’s wandering side streets and piazzas and stumbling upon hidden corners or seeking out the best gelato. Purchasing everything ahead of time can also help you to save money as you’ll be able to keep track of how much you’ve spent on attractions, which are usually the most expensive part of a trip. That way, you’ll only have to budget for the extras.
Visiting Milan? Read our guide to buying highly coveted Last Supper tickets.
7. Carry cash, as well as card
This one has ignited some controversy across travelling advice columns, with some saying it’s enough to solely rely on card. The big problem with this is if card payments are not accepted or the machine breaks down, leaving you with no other alternative. While most places in Italy will have card machines and ATMs, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Splitting up payment types (and where you carry them) is also a good preventative against loss or theft. Take out a specific amount of cash (keeping track of how much) and use it as an emergency backup. If worst comes to worst, and you haven’t used it by the end of your trip you can put it back in your account afterwards.
What’s more, while the more touristy eateries and shops will usually have card machines, more traditional spots – such as stalls, markets and small restaurants – may not and you don’t want to miss out on a more authentic experience just because you didn’t want to carry cash around. The same applies if you’re travelling further afield in Italy past the major tourist destinations.