Notes on Italy
There are many parts to Italy, in fact, for a country which is roughly the size of California, the differences between the various regions are amazing. Nobody gets to see it all, so your best approach is to experience the areas you are visiting, try to visit more than one region & plan to return for some of the others.
Italy did not become a unified country until 1861, after our Civil War.
Many will say that they are still working on it, with ancient city rivalries still at play in sports competitions, language dialects, regional food preferences & disputes over the relics of saints & heroes. (Florence still sends a delegation to Ravenna each year to argue for the return of Dante’s bones – even though Florence exiled the writer from the city for many years.)
When To Go?
Whenever you can. However, the summer months can have very hot temperatures and hordes of tourists, especially in the most popular destinations: Florence, Venice, Rome.
Winter months will have frequent rain & chilly conditions, so the months of April, May, September & October are probably the best. The December holiday season has its’ own charm, with the stylish decorations and festive events. Easter is celebrated even more than Christmas, with all sorts of special festivals & celebrations.
Many Italians have a working knowledge of English, particularly in the cities, and they they plenty of experience interacting with stranieri, or foreigners.
Still, they appreciate any attempt to use Italian, although they will gently correct you to help you along. We often let Italians use their English when speaking to us, but continue to try using Italian when we speak.
I strongly advise getting Google Translate for your phone. It’s free and very useful. Google Translate can pronounce the words for you and scan a printed page or menu. More on using your phone later.
The web offers all sorts of ways to study Italian. The Iceberg Project’s website is a comprehensive listing of all levels of learning. The author, Cher Hale, also sends out regular emails on useful tips.
Think about using DuoLingo, a free online language training website and phone app. https://www.duolingo.com/learn
I have saved many PDFs of notes on the language which I’m happy to share.
If you have used any Romance language (French, Spanish, Latin, etc.) you will find that Italian using the same approach to verb conjugation and that many words are quite similar. Italian also uses the masculine/feminine distinctions which require agreement with the verb & adjectives.
I have never comprehended any advantage to this whole masculine/feminine thing, but clearly that’s the was it is & always has been, so I won’t get started.
The historical section of the cities are quite compact. Plus, driving in the cities is not only foolish but actually illegal unless you are a resident. There are ZTL zones, which means that you must have a permit to drive on those streets.
If you violate the ZTL rules, your car will be photographed & issued an expensive ticket. The only efficient part of the Italian bureaucracy seems to be their system of tracking you down & billing your credit card. If your hotel is within such a zone, they may be able to arrange for exceptions to allow you to load & unload baggage upon arrival & departure.
Beyond walking within the cities, public transportation is wonderful.
There are subways, trams, buses and in Venice there are the vaporreto, or boats that play the role of public buses.
There are always package deals on tickets for public transportation. In Milan, for example, you can buy a single pass which allows you to use any form of transportation all day, or for several days.
Taxis can be costly. Uber is just beginning to happen in some cities. Generally, you do not hail a taxi on the street, but find them at taxi stands or call for them by phone.
To get from one region to another you can rent a car, take the bus or the train.
Most car rentals are for manual transmission vehicles. It is frequently written that you need an International Drivers Permit, but I’ve never been asked to show mine, which is probably expired by now. Here’s what Rick Steves says about it.
Having your own car is by far the best way to see the countryside, notably the beautiful landscape of Tuscany.
The autostrada is the interstate system, allowing you to travel at high speed (and I mean high speed, there’s no speed limit in many stretches).
Routes are well marked, GPS is reliable on the autostrada, not so much in the heart of the older cities, particularly Venice.
We love the Italian trains to go from one city to another. The Trenitalia web site makes it easy to look at the schedules & purchase tickets, which will be emailed to you & do not have to be validated. You can also buy tickets at the train stations (stazione) either at the counter or by using ATM-type machines, which will provide instructions in English.
Here’s what you need to know for train travel
1. After you get your ticket (biglietto), before you get on the train, you must validate your ticket by inserting it into a machine (usually yellow) to be stamped. These machines are normally on the way to your train track. This is important – you may get hit with a hefty fine for not validating!
2. Almost all trains offer different classes of service, none of them being unpleasant. Be sure you get on the right car for your ticket – it will be clearly indicated on the side of each car. There will be displays which will tell which track (binario) your train is using.
3. The ticket will list which class you have purchased and your seat number if you have a reserved seat.
4. There are regional trains & high-speed trains. The former are cheaper, but may make frequent stops. There are no assigned seats on the regional trains, such as the ones between Lucca & Florence or Pisa.
5. Learn the designated number for your train. That’s more reliable than looking for your destination on the departure boards since your destination may not be shown, only the final stop for that train.
6. Most trains will have USB or AC outlets so you can charge your devices.
Here’s a website with more details on riding trains.
Don’t hesitate to use a bus to go from city to city. They are more frequent than trains, reasonable in price, pleasant, and they will take you to smaller towns that trains don’t serve.
Buy tickets at the bus stations, or at tobacco shops (tabacchi) which you can spot by the large blue signs with a bit “T” on them.
One additional thought: In some locales (notably Venice, Cinque Terre or Lake Como) another alternative is to use water ferries to get from place to place. These are wonderful.
Did I mention that you should walk? And then walk some more!
Italians are fanatic about eating what is in season and available nearby. Go with that.
We don’t tend to include seafood in our thinking about Italian cuisine, but remember all of Italy is surrounded by the sea, so they have always featured seafood.
Food is available from all types of places. There are coffee shops, which usually only offer pastries & sweets, trattorias, which are casual restaurants with seating (often outdoor seating), street vendors, delis, and formal dining. Grocery stores often offer good choices already prepared for take-out. And grocery stores sell a good selection of wines at good prices.
At coffee shops you can drink standing at the counter, or take your drink to a table, but you will pay more for seating. You normally order & pay first.
A great concept spreading from Milano is the aperitivo. That’s when bars offer a free buffet of food included with the purchase of a drink, often a a dredged price for the first drink, Hours vary, but generally it’s around 6-7 PM. It’s OK to walk in and inspect what’s being offered since the variety & quality can be quite different from one bar to another.
Additional drinks may be at the non-discounted price. One choice to consider, especially in Northern Italy is the Aperol Spritz (see link).
When dining in a restaurant, don’t be offended when it seems as though the waiter is ignoring you, particularly when you want to get the bill. They expect you to linger.
When you do pay, they will not disappear with your credit card. Instead, they will have a portable device to scan your card & complete the transaction at your table. More on credit cards soon.
Tipping is usually not necessary. Frequently it will be already added to the bill, listed as coperto or servizio incluso. More here…
Don’t expect thick-crust pizza smothered with toppings, or with pieces of hot dog baked into the crust.
Do try the many flavors of gelato. My fave is the castagna, or chestnut.
I trust that I need not tell you that Italy uses the Euro, along with all European Union countries.
Before you go, tell your credit card issuers about your travels to avoid them freaking out when charges are made in another country and they freeze your account. Also see if they offer a card which does not charge a fee for international use. I use a Schwab debit card.
Europe has broadly switched to “Smart cards,” also known as “chip and PIN cards” although the US has been slow. As a result, you may have trouble using your card, so see if your card can be updated.
ATMs (Bancomat) are everywhere. They will be at the airport for you to get Euros as soon as you arrive. That’s the best way to replenish your supply of cash. Many hotels will offer a discount if you pay in cash; some do not take credit cards. Since there is usually a daily limit to withdrawals from ATMs, plan ahead if you will need a large amount of cash to settle up at the hotel.
When you buy something, from a cappuccino (only in the morning, please) to a coat, take the receipt. It’s the law. The clerk/barkeep may be upset if you don’t. At that point it’s fine to rip it & toss it away, but you must take it first.
Actually, I have felt safer anyplace in Italy than almost anywhere in America. Still, a couple of precautions are in order.
Scan your passport (or take a photo) and keep that on your computer and phone. A great option is to place it into Dropbox, so you could access it from any computer—as long as you know your Dropbox password. In fact, I copy emails with confirmation numbers for hotel & museum reservations, flight reservations, etc., all in one folder within Dropbox. It is handy to have a note with the name & address of your hotel, which you can then show to a taxi driver.
Similarly, make a list of the toll-free numbers to call your credit card banks to deal with any problems, such as theft or loss. Include the account numbers. Look up the phone numbers of American consulates/embassies. Enter as much of this information before you leave home.
Also be aware that many popular museums & attractions insist on prior reservations, usually for a specific time. Try to make those reservations using the official website for each one. Often you don’t need to have a printed ticket, you can just show a barcode or QR code on your phone.
American Express cards are NOT commonly accepted. Many exhibits & museums are closed on Mondays. The same is true for many restaurants, so check before you go.
Italy offers so much to buy that we often take a lightweight, empty bag & fill it up with purchases.
First rule: Do not expect to return anything. Anything. Even right after you have paid for it. Be sure before you buy.
It’s fine, in the smaller shops, to ask for discount, or sconto, particularly if buying more than one item or paying in cash. Except on food.
Vintage clothing shops are very popular in the cities. Open-air street markets (often held once a week) can be great fun and you can find great deals on clothing or the freshest local food.
Every region has its own specialty — glass in Venice, fancy paper in Florence, pottery along the Amalfi coast, etc.
Almost all shops close at midday for 2-3 hours for the riposo—that time when Italians take a leisurely lunch. Some restaurants remain open since that’s where everybody will be if they haven’t gone home for lunch & a nap. To be safe, try to begin your restaurant lunch by 1-1:30 PM. Don’t expect the shop to reopen exactly when promised.
This can be a problem when taking a day trip to another town. You are likely just to be there in the middle of the day and have to depart to get back to your base. Plan accordingly.
These days your computer or phone charger will work just fine on the different voltage you will find in Italy, but you will need adapters for the differently shaped sockets.
Since I carry so many chargers & devices, I take an American multiple-outlet adapter or a power strip. I use the one of the above adapters to plug this into the wall, then I can plug several of my devices in without having an adapter for each item. Also, many places you will stay will not have an abundance of outlets.
You will notice that the Italians make good use of motion-sensors to turn off bathroom & hallway lights, even escalators when not needed. The lights in your hotel room may have to be activated by inserting your room key/card into a slot, so they will turn off as you leave the room with your key. Follow their lead.
Using your phone
This can be confusing, so here are some guidelines:
- You have two basic approaches—keep using your American SIM card or purchase a temporary local SIM. The first option may work for you if your provider offers a short term plan for international usage (although you may need a statistician to see if the plane really meets your needs).
- Or you can purchase a short term local SIM, although that will entail having a new phone number and calls to your American number will go unanswered. These cards are inexpensive and widely available.
3. If you anticipate calling back to the States sign up with Skype. This app will let you connect for pennies per minute, or even free. You will need to seed your account with some money, but $10 goes a long way. If you are calling Mac-to-Mac, FaceTime is a free option.
4. By all means, get a WhatsApp account. Very widely used in Europe, it is the best way to make calls or send texts (SMS), especially when WIFI is available. In fact, use WIFI whenever you can for anything you do by cell phone.
5. When calling from one country to another you must use country codes before the phone number, USA is +1; Italy is +39.Useful Web Sites
A great site for planning:
Go to this website and enter where you want go, from one place to another. You will be shown all the options and cost, with links to make reservations. I cannot emphasize enough how useful this site can be to planning a trip.
Tuscany Arts – A source for art exhibits throughout the Tuscany area
Art Trav – More on current art news in Florence, Tuscany & Italy
Around Tuscany – Frequently updated with useful articles, be sure to look at the “Events” page
Florence For Free – Upcoming events within Florence
Becoming Italian Word By Word – Blog with useful language lessons by topic
Design Sponge – City guides with emphasis on hip design stores & exhibits.
This link will take you to the Venice guide, but search around, most Italian cities have their own pages
The Florentine – English language newspaper based in Florence, a great source for current events, exhibits, festivals, etc.
Go Italy – The linked page lists festivals & special events happening each month. You want to find one to attend.
Trip Advisor forums – Each city/region in Italy has its own forum, good place to ask a specific question, or to simply browse through, looking the the topics. I’ve linked to the Tuscany forum, search for other areasRandom Thoughts About Specific Places
Instead, everything & everybody travels by boat. Gondola rides, obviously romantic, are very expensive. Use the vaperetto, or water buses to get around. More info here.
A cheaper option is the Traghetto to cross the Grand Canal. This is a very short (4-5 minutes) trip used by locals at locations where there is no bridge across the Canal. More info
Of course you must experience Piazza San Marco, famously described by Napoleon as “the finest drawing room in Europe”. But that’s also where the hordes of visitors will be, so get away from there & explore the rest of the city.
If you are there for more than a day, consider taking day trips (by ferry) to Burano, Murano, or the Lido.
May I suggest reading any of the mystery series by Donna Leon before you go. The intelligent and capable police commissioner Guido Brunetti confronts crime in and around his home town of Venice. There are 24 books in the series, which reveal much about the unseen sides of Venice and daily life of the detective’s family.
With all museums, it’s much better to get your tickets online well before your visit so you can avoid long lines. Most museums are closed on Monday throughout Italy.
The Florentine is an English publication which is an excellent source for information about current events & exhibitions in Florence: https://www.theflorentine.net
One of the best exhibits we ever visited was a tribute to Marilyn Monroe at the museum in Ferragamo Shoe flagship store, located in a castle style building one block east of the Santa Trinita bridge. While that exhibit is gone, check to see what they offer during your visit.
Two neighborhoods within easy walking distance from the Duomo area are worth exploring: Santa Croce, east from the Uffizi, north of the Arno river; and the Oltrano, across the river, accessed by the Ponte Vecchio.
The Oltrano is home to hipster bars, artist & artisan workshops and the Boboli Gardens. Behind the Pitti Palace, the garden is an expansive escape from the crowded streets and always has temporary exhibits.
Three rooftop views worth visiting: 1.) The bar atop the Continentale Hotel at the north end of the Ponte Vecchio 2) La Terrazza, Rinascente Department Store’s rooftop cafe on the Piazza della Repubblica 3) La Scaletta Hotel, located between the Ponte Vecchio & Pitti Palace.
The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston, an account of the baffling case of serial killings around Florence. Rumored to be a George Clooney movie soon.
Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King
So much history, so much to see & do…
If this is your first visit, you might consider on of the open-air bus tours that make a circle of the sites & allow you to get off, walk around & then get back on the next bus. Just to let you get oriented in this sprawling open-air museum of a city.
The noted expert, Lola Foster, says that Roma is the best city for shoe shopping.
Lola wants to enter every cathedral & church we see; I have this erroneous belief that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them (and I saw many as a child in Europe).
She’s right, of course, that you should take the time to view the incredible spaces seen inside some of these amazing buildings. Most notable in my mind are:
Siena – If you are lucky, you’ll be there when the tiled floors are uncovered showing off the intricate, narrative designs. Even when the floors are covered, the striped columns produce a dizzying visual.
Milan – From the outside or the inside, the Duomo here is incredible—and you can walk on the rooftop.
Florence – I’ve already mentioned this one, but in addition to the Duomo itself, view the bronze bas-relief doors to the Baptistry a few steps away in front.
St Paul’s, Rome – The biggest & baddest of them all. The adjacent Sistine Chapel understandably gets more press, but St. Paul’s is amazing, and it is the home of Michelangelo’s Pieta.
Orvieto Duomo – A great town in Umbria with a beautiful cathedral.
Milan (Milano) –
The fashion center for Italy, which is saying a lot. Just window shopping along Via Montenapoleone and the nearby streets will let you see why Italian design is so trend-setting and imaginative.
Da Vinci’s The Last Supper is in Milan – you must book your trip in advance.
Let me put in a plug for Milan’s public transportation. There are trams, buses & a subway. You can buy daily or weekly passes which allow you to use any or all as much as you need.
The Museo del Novecento, adjacent to the Duomo has a great collection of twentieth-century art, housed in a sleek, beautiful building.
If you like visiting gardens, a tour of Lago Como is like dying & going to heaven. Long a hangout for the rich & famous, the gardens along the lake are splendidly mature. Stay anywhere on the lake (Bellagio was our choice) and you can hop on the frequent ferries to visit any of the other garden delights.
La Foce – A private garden in the middle of Tuscany’s Val d’Orcia, which is where most of the beautiful photographs of the Tuscan landscape are shot. You can even stay on the grounds. I’ll say no more—just visit the link.
That’s it for now, but there are so many aspects to Italy that I have not discussed. Perhaps in the future I will regain my ambition and write about Sorrento & The Amalfi Coast, an area of incomparable beauty. Or Puglia (the boot heel part of southern Italy) with its’ unique architecture and charm. Or Umbria, the province that borders Tuscany on the east, which many feel retains the feel that Tuscany itself had before the hordes of tourists arrived. Or Cinque Terre, the five villages along the Northwest coast made too famous by Rick Steves. Or Verona, home to a still intact Roman amphitheater still in use for concerts & opera performances. And so on….
Feel free to contact me if I can try to answer and specific questions, or check out my websites of photos from our trips.
Buona fortuna per il vostro viaggio per l’Italia
Digital Tools & Tips
To sum up, here are the digital apps I’ve mentioned which can be so helpful during your travels:
- WhatsApp for texting & calls
- Google Translate
- Skype, for calling home
- https://www.rome2rio.com, a website which will show you various ways to get places.
- Dropbox, for easy access to notes or documents (learn how to make your files available offline).
Even when I find a hotel (or B&B) using TripAdvisor or booking.com, I prefer to actually make the reservation directly with the hotel, using their website or by phone.
If their website is only in Italian, you can use Google Chrome as your browser and have it translate the site into English.
I also like to use the street view option on Google Maps to virtually “walk around the block” to get a sense of the neighborhood around the hotel.
Thomas England retired to Lucca in 2017 following a long career as a freelance photographer for top-level magazines, books and corporations. He continues to photograph, primarily in Italy. See his images here (photo credit: Cher Sandmire).