As the tourist season is in full swing here in Italy, I thought this post a bit apropos. When planning a trip somewhere like to Italy, you probably do a ton of research about the places you will be visiting, what sites to see, best places to eat and the list goes on. But do you research what not to do? I know, it sounds a little counter intuitive but, trust me, sometimes the advice on what not to do will make your trip infinitely better! So, on this note, the following is a list of what not to do when visiting Italy. Many of these tips I either learned the hard way or just from living here.
Over packing or traveling with a heavy suitcase.
Many hotels (especially the smaller ones and b&bs) will not have elevators or they might be out of service (fuori servizio). My sister and I booked an adorable b & b in the heart of Florence. Not realizing our rooms were on the fifth floor with no elevator and rather bulky suitcases (read between the lines…we over packed!), we were in a bit of a pickle. It was a good thing Fabio, our host, was inventive (although I am sure we were not the first). He hooked our suitcases to a long rope and with a simple pully system, he had our bags up to our room in no time. Unfortunately, this was not the case at other places we stayed. Italy is full of stairs, bumpy cobblestone roads, hills and many metro and train stations will not have elevators or more often than not they are not working.
So, pack light. Frankly, you don’t need many things to have a stupendous experience and you will be so much happier in the end and your arms and back will thank you!
Boarding a regional train without validating the ticket
Tickets for regional trains, or any ticket that doesn’t have a specific time and assigned seat, needs to be validated. I have noticed more and more that transit authorities come through the cars to make sure your ticket has been validated. I had a couple of girlfriends of mine that forgot to validate their tickets and they each received a 70 Euro fine. Money that could be spent on that beautiful Italian jacket you were eyeing.
Ordering a latte when you want coffee
Latte is the Italian word for milk so if you order a latte at a coffee bar, they will give you a plain glass of milk and they might look at you a little funny. Instead, try a café macchiato that is an espresso with a touch of hot milk added to it or a cappuccino.
Don’t Over Plan
I know there are so many beautiful things to see and do in Italy, but so often your most memorable experiences are ones that aren’t planned. Case and point: When my sister and I were visiting Venice a few years ago we were meandering around the streets and canals and surprise, surprise and we found ourselves a bit lost and on the other side of the main canal. As we went by a small church, we saw that they were advertising for a concert that evening. On a whim, we bought 2 tickets to the most amazing concert that either one of us had ever experienced. It was a small church, no more than a hundred seats and we were in the second row. It was a warm up concert for a Venetian musical group heading off on tour to the U.S. and we enjoyed a full orchestra playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons…a favorite of both me and my sister. It was magical to say the least and a memory that my sister and I will share forever…and it was unplanned!
Driving in the ZTL
The ZTL, or limited traffic zone, is off limits to drivers who don’t have a permit. There are electronic signs that will alert you to these areas, but they are predominantly city-centers of towns.
I had the great luck of acquiring not one, but two tickets within five minutes, yes five minutes, for entering a ZTL area in the heart of Rome. I had just picked up my newly acquired car and was driving for the first time in Rome. I was meeting my fiancé (now husband) at a Notary to complete some of our paperwork for our upcoming marriage. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have found a parking space within just a couple of blocks from the office. I had to make a couple of passes to find it…hence the two tickets I acquired. As we were leaving the office, my husband asked me where my car was. I happily replied, “Just around the corner.” He looked at me a bit increduously and then explained to me the reason it was so easy to find a parking spot was because I had parked in a restricted area or ZTL zone. My excited smile turned to a deflated too good to be true sigh. Nearly 200 Euros later, I learned my lesson the hard way! That was the first and last time I did that!
Standing in Ticket Lines
If you don’t like to stand in an endless line (which can sometimes be 2 to 3 hours for popular sites such as the Colosseum) to take tickets for an archaeological site, then you should book it online.
A website that I have used in the past and I like is: http://www.selectitaly.com. As a disclaimer: I have not received any money or other gratification to promote this company. I have used them many times in the past to pre-book tickets for the Colosseum and also the Villa Borghese Museum (which you must book in advance) and I have found them to be very convenient and reliable.
Relying Only On Credit Cards
In Italy, there are many places that still don’t take credit cards such as small family-run restaurants and shops so it’s better to have some cash with you; especially in the smaller towns. Most ATMS (bancomat) in Italy recognize international ATM cards. Just make sure to alert your bank that you will be using your card in Italy so they won’t block you from taking cash. Also, make sure you know your daily cash limit and know the exchange rate.
Flagging Down a Taxi
In Italy, unlike in the U.S. and many other countries, a taxi will not stop for you if you try to flag it down. There are designated taxi stands and you must go to one of those to take a taxi. In the bigger cities, there will usually be a line of taxis waiting to pick people up. Many maps will have some of the bigger taxi stands highlighted, but you can also ask your hotel and they can provide you with this information.
Park inside the yellow lines (if you are renting a car)
Or the blue ones, if you want to save a few euro. Few things are as annoying as heading back to the parking lot and finding a parking ticket on your rental car, or worse, a missing car. Along the street, the white-lined parking spaces are free, the blue-lined spaces are paid, and the yellow-lined spots are for residents. If you do end up parking inside the blue lined parking spaces, you will have to look for a automated parking meter (usually nearby on the street where you have parked) and insert your money and get a receipt. Make sure you put this receipt in the windshield of your car and be aware of the time that your ticket expires. The limit is typically 3 hours.
As for potential parking spots that have no lines at all, be sure to look for Zona di Rimozione (Tow Zone) or Divieto di Sosta (No Parking) signs. Depending on the town, they will tow the car. Unfortunately, I know from experience as it happened to my husband and I on a rainy evening in Verona. We accidently parked in a no parking zone and, yep, our car was towed. We had to pay 150 Euro (cash) to get it out of hock. Try finding an ATM in the dark, on a cold a rainy February evening. Not exactly what how we wanted to be spending our evening since my husband was running a marathon the next day. Or, if you want, you could just do as the Italians: cross your fingers and park on the sidewalk…sideways or double or triple parked on a busy street. I don’t know how many times I have seen legally parked cars with tickets and illegally parked cars with nothing. When in Rome, right…although knowing my luck I would get a ticket either way! 😉
Don’t Expect Italy to Work Like Places Do Back Home
Embrace the differences. You are going to Italy because it’s a different country and you want to experience something new. So, even if it’s sometimes different in ways that might be frustrating to you, embrace it! And try to keep a flexible, positive attitude, no matter the situation. You are on holiday after all!
Do Not Over Tip
It can take some getting used to, and may feel wrong, but leaving tips of 15-20% in restaurants is not the norm in Italy. Italians typically round up if service has been especially good – leaving a €20 note, for instance, on a bill of €18 – but no more. It’s also important to note that credit cards are not as widely accepted in Italy as they may be where you live, especially if you are dining at a small restaurant outside of a big city. If you do use a credit card, there often isn’t space to write in a tip – further indication that not tipping is completely normal – but you can leave a couple euro on the table or give it directly to the waiter if you like. Waiters, unlike in the U.S. and other places, receive a regular salary.
Don’t Order Pizza in Venice or Risotto in Naples
That is to say that every region has their specialties. While you can get a pizza in Venice, and it might even be good, you will miss out on typical Venetian dishes that you might not find anywhere else. Italy is made up of 20 regions, each with its own unique culinary identity. The more you learn about the regional dishes and specialties, what is in season when you are there, the better and more interesting your eating experience will be. And for heavens sake, please don’t eat at McDonalds! You came to Italy to experience new things including the cuisine. If you want something quick to eat, pick up a slice of pizza, or a fresh panino with prosciutto and cheese. You won’t be disappointed!
Don’t Be in a Hurry
Maybe the most important piece of advice I can impart is not to be in a hurry. My husband is probably laughing when he reads this as it has taken him a long time to “teach” me this. Even though I have lived most of my adult life outside of the U.S., I am still my father’s daughter in the fact that I like being on a schedule and am an endless list maker. I still make a “to do” list every morning with my first cup of coffee. That will never change, but I have learned to dial it back a bit, take a deep breathe, and enjoy life as it comes.
Whether that means not worrying about what your plans are for tomorrow and taking the day as it comes or having that extra glass of wine while enjoying the view. A long drawn out lunch with your family might just be the thing to reconnect instead of visiting one more church.
So, take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy your trip!