For even the most seasoned world traveler, planning a first-time trip to Italy can be a daunting affair. Without the luxury of unlimited time, it can be overwhelming to sift through thousands of years of history, 51 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and countless other masterpieces of art, architecture, nature, and cuisine. The good news? The on-the-ground team at Vacasa spends each and every day living as the Italian locals that they are—and passing along their most valuable travel tips for Italy to us mere mortals stateside.
1. Know Your Must-See Sights
Sure, it sounds simple enough. But one of the best ways to ensure a memorable Italian experience is to know what piques your interest—and where to go to find it.
“Visit the art cities and the Tuscan countryside, enjoy the beach and the delicious food in the south of Italy, Sicily, or Puglia, or discover the majesty and peace of the Dolomites,” suggests Gianluca Girolamo, the country manager of Vacasa Italy.
In search of art and culture? Pay a visit to Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia in Florence or gaze at his frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. Looking to escape to the coast? Hike between the Cinque Terre at sunset or admire the hillside villages of the Amalfi Coast by boat. In need of a pastoral retreat? Spend your days sipping wine and taking leisurely drives between the Tuscan villages of Siena, San Gimignano, and Montepulciano.
2. Sniff Out the Tourist Traps
“Never sit in the main plaza cafe or restaurant.” – Gianluca Girolamo, Vacasa Italy Country Manager
The dreaded tourist trap: it’s everyone’s (or maybe just our) worst nightmare. You travel thousands of miles to Rome for a plate of delicate cacio e pepe, only to be presented with a heavy, American-style fettuccine alfredo. Thankfully, you can avoid misadventures such as these altogether by recognizing the markings of the tourist trap.
“Never sit in the main plaza cafe or restaurant,” Gianluca notes. It’s a picturesque spot to be sure, but one that is best enjoyed with a stroll and a gelato—not a sit-down meal. “Eat authentic food, and get lost in those cute little alleys full of the past,” adds Fiorella Burke, Vacasa’s channel marketing coordinator.
Also worth avoiding? Restaurant hosts that pitch English-language menus and dinner crowds that gather before 7:30 p.m. “Don’t take the first offer of a tour, restaurant, or any activity from someone on the street,” Fiorella advises. “Feel the moment, but always keep your eyes open and do a little planning and research before your trip.”
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Eat Like an Italian
What does it mean to eat like an Italian? When dining out, it’s simply a case of following a few guidelines.
- Hold off on making dinner reservations earlier than 8 p.m.
- Resist the urge to ask for menu substitutions.
- Use the provided bread as a utensil to mop up the last of your meal.
Take your time as you savor the local wine, food, and atmosphere. Your server won’t want to rush you so you’ll have to ask for the bill when you’re ready—fully expecting a standard, per person coperto charge of a few euros.
“Buy fresh groceries for cheap at the markets and cook at home!” – Fiorella Burke, Vacasa Channel Marketing Coordinator
But equally Italian is the experience of dining with friends and family “a casa.” “Buy fresh groceries for cheap at the markets and cook at home!” Fiorella suggests. “You will live like an Italian,” Gianluca adds. “Buying ingredients in the local market is a true experience.”
4. Be Aware of Tipping in Italy
For Americans who regularly tip upwards of 20 percent for restaurant service and cab fares, it can feel deeply uncomfortable to be unsure of the local tipping practices. But ease your mind with the knowledge that Italian restaurant servers are paid a regular living wage, whereas American servers usually depend on tips.
If your bill includes a servizio charge (that’s different than the coperto), that’s the tip. If no service charge is included, feel free to leave up to 10 percent extra if you were pleased with the experience.
Paying a taxi driver? All you need to do is round up to the nearest euro or so. Receiving help with your bags? Be prepared with one or two euros per suitcase. Spending a few hours with a wonderful tour guide? A tip of up to 10 percent is always appreciated.
5. Pack Wisely
Don’t get us wrong—there are vacations that practically require a daily uniform of shorts, a worn t-shirt, and a baseball cap from the back of your closet. Your first trip to Italy is probably not that vacation.
Although you need not dress in head-to-toe Prada, you’d be smart to keep in mind that Italians take care to present themselves in a thoughtful, polished manner. Think linen and cotton to beat the summer heat, a pair of boots and flat sandals to replace your flip-flops, oversized sunglasses for an easy dose of glamor, and at least one outfit that covers your knees and shoulders for visits to local churches.
Otherwise, you’ll need a camera, a voltage adaptor, a pickpocket-proof bag, and a bit of space in your suitcase for treasures you find along the way. “And a good guide,” Gianluca adds, “as there is so much to know when visiting Italy.”
6. Be Smart with Public Transportation
As Fiorella notes, a visit to Italy is an uncommon opportunity “to be amazed, to get into the moment, and to feel the culture and the history you are walking through.” But living in the moment goes hand-in-hand with being flexible—especially when it comes to getting around.
Whether you’re traveling by air, rail, or road, it’s always a possibility that a transportation strike could change your plans. The best remedy? Keep your ears open for news about upcoming strikes, and allow a generous cushion of time around all planned flights. Taking the train? It’s a good idea to book your tickets at the station rather than deal with online frustrations—and you must validate those tickets before hopping on board. Looking for a taxi? Find an official taxi stand or call a cab in advance—but don’t expect to hail one out on the street.
7. Don’t Feel the Need to See It All in One Trip
Perhaps the most valuable of our Italy travel tips is to become comfortable with the fact that you cannot see, taste, and experience it all in a single, first-time visit. The intangible pleasures of a trip to Italy—the aimless strolls down back alleys, the sunsets enjoyed with a glass of wine, the skilled musicians performing in piazzas—are the impromptu moments you’ll never have with an overly regimented schedule. So as you craft your itinerary, leave time to wander, get lost, and take notes for your return visit.
Until then, use these travel tips for Italy to plan a vacation you’ll never forget.
Featured photo courtesy of Giuseppe Milo
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