Italy is the kind of destination that travelers return to over and over. They come for awe-inspiring art and architecture that influenced Western civilization, and stunning historical ruins—as well as for some of the world’s best food and wine. Also beckoning irresistibly are Italy’s sun-kissed olive groves and vineyards, the sparkling waters of Lake Como and the Mediterranean, and atmospheric monasteries, castles, and farmhouses. And if you seek vibrant cities with renowned museums, restaurants, and shopping opportunities, Rome, Florence, and Milan await.
Most nonstop flights between North America and Italy serve Rome and Milan, though the airports in Venice and Pisa also accommodate nonstop flights from the United States. Many travelers find it more convenient to connect via a European hub to Florence, Bologna, or another smaller Italian airport.
Flying time to Milan or Rome is approximately 8–8½ hours from New York, 10–11 hours from Chicago, and 11½ hours from Los Angeles.
Labor strikes are not as frequent in Italy as they were some years ago, but when they do occur they can affect not only air travel but also local public transit that serves airports. Your airline will usually have details about strikes affecting its flight schedules.
The major gateways to Italy include Rome’s Aeroporto Leonardo da Vinci (FCO), better known as Fiumicino, and Milan’s Aeroporto Malpensa (MXP). Most flights to Venice, Florence, and Pisa make connections at Fiumicino and Malpensa or another European airport hub. You can take the Ferrovie dello Stato (FS) airport train or bus to Rome’s Termini station or to Cadorna or Centrale in Milan; from the latter, you can then catch a train to any other location in Italy. It’ll take about 40 minutes to get from Fiumicino to Roma Termini, less than an hour to Milano Centrale.
Many carriers fly into the smaller airports. Milan also has Linate airport (LIN) and Rome has Ciampino (CIA). Venice is served by Aeroporto di Venezia Marco Polo (VCE), Naples by Aeroporto Internazionale di Napoli Capodichino (NAP), Palermo by Aeroporto di Palermo (PMO) and Cagliari by Aeroporto Elmas (CAG). Florence is serviced by Aeroporto di Firenze (FLR) and by Aeroporto di Pisa (PSA), which is about 2 km (1 mile) outside the center of Pisa and about one hour from Florence. Aeroporto de Bologna (BLQ) is a 20-minute direct Aerobus ride away from Bologna Centrale, which is 35 minutes from Florence by high-speed train.
Many Italian airports have undergone renovations in recent years and have been ramping up security measures, which include random baggage inspection and bomb-detection dogs. All airports have restaurants, snack bars, shopping, and Wi-Fi access. Each also has at least one nearby hotel. In the cases of Milan Linate, Florence, Pisa, Naples, and Bologna, the city centers are less than a 15-minute taxi or bus ride away—so if you encounter a long delay, spend it in town.
When you take a connecting flight from a European airline hub (Frankfurt or Paris, for example) to a local Italian airport (Florence or Venice), be aware that your luggage might not make it onto the second plane with you. The airlines’ lost-luggage service is efficient, however, and your delayed luggage is usually delivered to your hotel or holiday rental within 12–24 hours.
From the United States, Alitalia and Delta Air Lines serve Rome, Milan, Pisa, and Venice. The major international hubs in Italy (Milan and Rome) are also served by United Airlines and American Airlines; US Airways serves Rome as well. From June through October, the Italy-based Meridiana has nonstop flights from New York to Naples and Palermo.
Alitalia has direct flights from London to Milan and Rome, while British Airways and smaller budget carriers provide services between Great Britain and other locations in Italy. EasyJet connects London’s Gatwick and Stansted airports with 13 Italian destinations. Ryanair, departing from Stansted, flies to 18 airports. Meridiana has flights between Gatwick and Olbia on Sardinia in summer. For flights within Italy, check Alitalia and smaller airlines, such as blu-express and Meridiana. Since tickets are frequently sold at discounted prices, it’s wise to investigate the cost of flying—even one way—as an alternative to train travel.
Italy’s far-reaching regional bus network, often operated by private companies, is not as attractive an option as in other European countries, partly due to convenient train travel. Schedules are often drawn up with commuters and students in mind and may be sketchy on weekends. But, car travel aside, regional bus companies often provide the only means of getting to out-of-the-way places. Even when this isn’t the case, buses can be faster and more direct than local trains, so it’s a good idea to compare bus and train schedules. Lazzi operates in Tuscany and central Italy, while BusItalia–Sita Nord covers Tuscany and Veneto. SitaSud caters to travelers in Puglia, Foggia, Matera, Basilicata, and Campania. Flix Bus offers a low-cost long-distance service.
All major cities in Italy have urban bus services. It’s inexpensive, and tickets should be purchased from newsstands or tobacconists and validated on board (some city buses have ticket machines on the buses themselves). Buses can become jammed during busy travel periods and rush hours.
Smoking is not permitted on Italian buses. All, even those on long-distance routes, offer a single class of service. Cleanliness and comfort levels are high on private motor coaches, which have plenty of legroom, sizable seats, and luggage storage, but often do not have toilets. Private bus lines usually have a ticket office in town or allow you to pay when you board.
Italy has an extensive network of autostrade (toll highways), complemented by equally well-maintained but free superstrade (expressways). Save the ticket you’re issued at an autostrada entrance, as you’ll need it to exit; on some shorter autostrade, you pay the toll when you enter. Tollbooths also accept Visa and MasterCard, allowing you to exit at special lanes where you simply slip the card into a designated slot.
An uscita is an exit. A raccordo annulare is a ring road surrounding a city; a tangenziale generally bypasses a city entirely. Strade, strade statale, strade regionale, and strade provinciale (regional and provincial highways, denoted by S, SS, SR, or SP numbers) may be two lanes, as are all secondary roads; directions and turnoffs aren’t always clearly marked.
You’ll find gas stations on most main highways. Those on autostrade are open 24 hours. Otherwise, gas stations are generally open Monday through Saturday 7–7, with a break at lunchtime. At self-service stations the pumps are operated by a central machine for payment, which often doesn’t take credit cards: it accepts bills in denominations of €5, €10, €20, and €50, and doesn’t give change. Stations with attendants accept cash and credit cards. It’s not customary to tip the attendant.
Driving in centri storici (historic centers)
To avoid hefty fines (which you may not be notified of until months after your departure from Italy), make sure you know the rules governing where you can and can’t drive in historic city centers. You must have a permit to enter many towns, and this rule is very strictly enforced. Check with your lodging or car-rental company to find out about acquiring permits for access.
Parking is at a premium in most towns, especially in historic centers. Fines for parking violations are high, and towing is common. Don’t think about tearing up a ticket, as car-rental companies can use your credit card to be reimbursed for any fines incurred. It’s a good idea to park in a designated (and preferably attended) lot; even small towns often have a large lot at the edge of historic centers.
In congested cities, indoor parking costs €25–€30 for 12–24 hours; outdoor parking costs about €10–€20. Parking in an area signposted zona disco (disk zone) is allowed for short periods (from 30 minutes to two hours or more—the time is posted); if you don’t have an appropriate cardboard disk (check in the glove box of your rental car) to show what time you parked, you can write your arrival time on a piece of paper. In most metropolitan areas you can find curbside parking spaces, marked by blue lines; once you insert coins into the nearby parcometro machine, it prints a ticket that you then leave on your dashboard.
Fiats, Fords, and Alfa Romeos in a variety of sizes are the most typical rental cars. Note that most Italian cars have standard transmission—if you need an automatic, specify one when you make your reservation. Significantly higher rates will apply.
Most American chains have affiliates in Italy, but costs are usually lower if you book a car before leaving home. Rentals at airports usually cost less than city pickups (and airport offices are open later). An auto broker such as www.rent.it lets you compare rates among companies while guaranteeing the lowest price.
Most rental companies won’t rent to someone under age 21. Most also refuse to rent any model larger than an economy or subcompact to anyone under 23, and, further, require customers under that age to pay by credit card. There are no special restrictions on senior citizen drivers. Any additional drivers must be identified in the contract and qualify with the age limits. There’s also a supplementary daily fee for additional drivers. Expect to pay extra for add-on features, too. A car seat (required for children under age three) will cost about €36 for the duration of the rental and should be booked in advance. In some areas, snow chains are compulsory in winter months and can be rented for €30–€60—it may be cheaper to buy your own at the first open garage. Upon rental, all companies require credit cards as a warranty; to rent bigger cars (2,000 cc or more), you may be required to show two credit cards.
Hiring a car with a driver can simplify matters, particularly if you plan to indulge in wine tastings or explore the distractingly scenic Amalfi Coast. Search online (the travel forums at Fodors.com are a good resource) or ask at your hotel for recommendations. Drivers are paid by the day, and are usually rewarded with a tip of about 15% upon completion of the journey.
All rental agencies operating in Italy require you to buy a collision damage waiver (CDW) and a theft-protection policy, but those costs should already be included in the rates you’re quoted. Verify this, along with any deductible, which can vary greatly depending on the company and type of car. Be aware that coverage may be denied if the named driver on the rental contract isn’t the driver at the time of an accident. Ask your rental company about other included coverage when you reserve the car or pick it up. Finally, try not to leave valuables in your car, because thieves often target rental vehicles. If you can’t avoid doing so—for instance, if you want to stop to see the sights while traveling between cities—park in an attended lot.
Autostrade are well maintained, as are most interregional highways. Typically, autostrade have two or three lanes in both directions; the left lane should be used only for passing. Italians drive fast and are impatient with those who don’t. Tailgating (and flashing with bright beams to signal intent to pass) is the norm if you dawdle in the left lane—the only way to avoid it is to stay to the right.
The condition of provincial (county) roads varies, but road maintenance at this level is generally good in Italy. In many small hill towns the streets are winding and extremely narrow, so try to park at the edge of town and explore on foot.
Driving on back roads isn’t difficult as long as you’re on the alert for bicycles and passing cars. In addition, street and road signs are often missing or placed in awkward spots; a good map or GPS is essential. If you feel pressure from a string of cars in your rearview mirror but don’t feel comfortable speeding up, pull off to the right, and let them pass.
Be aware that some maps may not use the SR or SP (strade regionale and strade provinciale) highway designations, which took the place of the old SS designations in 2004. They may use the old SS designation or no numbering at all.
Automobile Club Italiano offers 24-hour road service; English-speaking operators are available. Your rental car company may also have an emergency tow service with a toll-free phone number: keep it handy. Be prepared to report which road you’re on, the verso (direction) you’re headed, and your targa (license plate number). Also, in an emergency, call the police (113).
When you’re on the road, always carry a good road map and a flashlight—a reflective vest should be provided with the car. A mobile phone is highly recommended, though there are emergency phones on the autostrade and superstrade. To locate them, look on the pavement for painted arrows and the term “SOS.”
Rules of the Road
Driving is on the right. Speed limits are 80 mph on autostrade, reduced to 70 mph when it rains, and 55 mph on state and provincial roads, unless otherwise marked. In towns, the speed limit is 30 mph, which may drop as low as 6 mph near schools, hospitals, and other designated areas. Note that right turns on red lights are forbidden. Headlights are required to be on while driving on all roads (large or small) outside municipalities. You must wear seat belts and strap young children under 4 feet 11 inches into car seats at all times. Using handheld mobile phones while driving is illegal—and fines can exceed €100. In most Italian towns the use of the horn is forbidden in many areas. A large sign, “zona di silenzio,” indicates a “no honking” zone.
In Italy you must be 18 years old to drive a car. A U.S. driver’s license is acceptable to rent a car, but by law Italy also requires non-Europeans to carry an International Driver’s Permit (IDP), which essentially translates your license into Italian (and a dozen other languages). In practice, it depends on the police officer who pulls you over whether you’ll be penalized for not carrying it. The IDP costs only $15, and obtaining one is easy: see the AAA website (www.aaa.com) for more information.
The blood-alcohol content limit for driving is 0.05% (stricter than in the United States). Surpass it and you’ll face fines up to €6,000 and the possibility of one year’s imprisonment. Although enforcement of laws varies depending on the region, fines for speeding are uniformly stiff: 10 kph over the speed limit can warrant a fine of up to €500; greater than 10 kph (6 mph), and your license could be taken away. The police have the power to levy on-the-spot fines.
Traveling by train in Italy is simple and efficient. Service between major cities is frequent, and trains usually arrive on schedule. The fastest trains on the Trenitalia Ferrovie dello Stato (FS)—the Italian State Railways—are Freccie Rosse Alta Velocità. Ferrari mogul Montezemolo launched the competing NTV Italo high-speed service in 2012. Bullet trains on both services run between all major cities from Venice, Milan, and Turin down through Florence and Rome to Naples and Salerno. Seat reservations are mandatory, and you’ll be assigned a specific seat; to avoid having to squeeze through narrow aisles, board only at your designated coach (the number on your ticket matches the one near the door of each coach). Reservations are also required for Eurostar and the slower Intercity (IC) trains; tickets for the latter are about half the price they are for the faster trains. If you miss your reserved train, go to the ticket counter within the hour and you may be able to move your reservation to a later one (this depends on the type of reservation, so check the rules when booking). Note that you’ll still need to reserve seats in advance if you’re using a rail pass.
There are often significant discounts when you book well in advance. On websites, you’ll be presented with available promotional fares, such as Trenitalia’s “Super Economy” (up to 60% off), “Famiglia” (a 20% discount for one adult and at least one child), and “A/R” (same-day round trip). Italo offers “Low Cost” and “Economy.” The caveat is that the discounts come with restrictions on changes and cancellations; make sure you understand them before booking.
Reservations are not available on Interregionale trains, which are slower, make more stops, and are less expensive than high-speed and Intercity trains. Regionale and Espresso trains stop most frequently and are the most economical (many serve commuters). There are refreshments on long-distance trains, purchased from a mobile cart or a dining car, but not on the commuter trains.
All but commuter trains have first and second classes. On local trains, first-class fare ensures you a little more space; on long-distance trains, you also get wider seats (three across as opposed to four) and a bit more legroom, but the difference is minimal. At peak travel times a first-class fare may be worth the additional cost, as the coaches may be less crowded. In Italian, prima classe is first class; second is seconda classe.
Many cities—Milan, Turin, Genoa, Naples, Florence, Rome, and even Verona included—have more than one train station, so be sure you get off at the right station. When buying tickets, be particularly aware that in Rome and Florence some trains don’t stop at all of the cities’ stations and may not stop at the main, central station. When scheduling train travel online or through a travel agent, request to arrive at the station closest to your destination in Rome and Florence.
Except for Pisa, Milan, and Rome, none of the major cities have trains that go directly to the airports, but airport shuttle buses connect train stations and airports.
You can purchase train tickets and review schedules online, at travel agencies, at train station ticket counters, and at automatic ticketing machines located in all but the smallest stations. If you’d like to board a train and don’t have a ticket, seek out the conductor prior to getting on; he or she will tell you whether you may buy a ticket on board and what the surcharge will be (usually €5). Fines for attempting to ride a train without a ticket are €100 (€50 if paid on the spot) plus the price of the ticket.
For trains without a reservation you must validate your ticket before boarding by punching it at wall- or pillar-mounted yellow or green boxes in train stations or at the track entrances of larger stations. If you forget, find a conductor immediately to avoid a hefty fine.
Train strikes of various kinds are not uncommon, so it’s wise to ensure that your train is actually running. During a strike minimum service is guaranteed (especially for distance trains); ask at the station or search online to find out about your particular reservation.
Traveling by night can be a good deal—and somewhat of an adventure—because you’ll pass a night without having to have a hotel room. Comfortable trains run on the longer routes (Sicily–Rome, Sicily–Milan, Rome–Turin, Lecce–Milan); request the good-value T3 (three single beds), Intercity Notte, and Carrozza Comfort. The Vagone Letto has private bathrooms and single-, double-, or twin-bed suites. Overnight trains also travel to international destinations like Paris, Vienna, Munich, and other cities.
Rail passes promise savings on train travel. But compare prices with actual fares to determine whether a pass will truly pay off. Generally, the more often you plan to travel long distances on high-speed trains, the more sense a rail pass makes.
Italy is one of 27 countries that accept the Eurail Pass, which provides unlimited first- and second-class travel. If you plan to rack up miles across the Continent, get a Global Eurail Pass (covering all participating nations). The Eurail Select Pass allows for travel in two to four contiguous countries. Other options are the Eurail Youth Pass (for those under 26), the Eurail Flexipass (valid for a certain number of travel days within a set period), and the Eurail Saver (aimed at two to five people traveling together).
The Eurail Two Country Select Pass, available for non-European residents, allows a certain number of travel days within two contiguous countries over the course of two months. Four to 10 days of travel in Italy and France cost $317–$518 (first class) or $255–$416 (second class). There is a 15% discount if two or more of you are traveling together; family passes offer further discounts for children under 12; kids under four travel free. Discounts are also given for those under 26.
Passes should be purchased before you leave for Europe, but can be delivered to your hotel for an additional cost. Keep in mind that even with a rail pass you still need to reserve seats on the trains that require them.
Getting online in Italian cities isn’t difficult: public Internet stations and Internet cafés are fairly common, and Wi-Fi is widely available. Most hotels have Wi-Fi or a computer for guests to use. Many business-oriented hotels also offer in-room broadband, though some (ironically, often the more expensive ones) charge for broadband and Wi-Fi access. Note that chargers and power supplies may need plug adapters to fit European-style electric sockets (a converter probably won’t be necessary).
Italy is also looking to improve city Wi-Fi access; Rome, Venice, and Turin are continuing to develop and expand services, some free for now, some at a daily or weekly rate for temporary access.
Paid and free Wi-Fi hot spots can be found in major airports and train stations, and shopping centers; they’re most likely to be free in bars or cafés that want your business.
With the advent of mobile phones, public payphones are becoming increasingly scarce in Italy, but they can be found at train and subway stations, main post offices, and in some bars. In rural areas, town squares usually have a payphone. These require a scheda telefonica .
Calling Italy from Abroad
When telephoning Italy from North America, dial 011 (to get an international line), followed by Italy’s country code, 39, and the phone number, including any leading 0. Note that Italian mobile numbers have 10 digits and always begin with a 3; Italian landline numbers will contain from 4 to 10 digits and always begin with a 0. So, for example, when calling Rome, where local numbers start with 06, dial 011 + 39 + 06 + phone number; for a mobile phone, dial 011 + 39 + cell number.
Calling Within Italy
For all calls within Italy, whether local or long-distance, you’ll dial the entire phone number that starts with 0 or 3 for mobile phone numbers. Calling a mobile phone will cost significantly more than calling a landline, depending on the calling plan. Italy uses the prefix “800” for toll-free or numero verde (green) numbers.
Making International Calls
The country code for the United States and Canada is 1 (dial 00 + 1 + area code and number).
Because of the high rates charged by most hotels for long-distance and international calls, you’re better off making such calls from public phones or your mobile phone or by using an international calling card.
Although not advised because of the exorbitant cost, you can place international calls or collect calls through an operator by dialing 170.
Prepaid schede telefoniche (phone cards) are available throughout Italy for use in payphones. Cards in different denominations are sold at post offices, newsstands, tobacco shops, and some bars. Before the first use, break off the corner of the card; then, to make a call, insert it into the phone’s slot and dial. The card’s credit will be displayed in the window as you chat. After you hang up, be sure not to walk off without retrieving the card.
International calling cards are different; you call a toll-free number from any phone, entering the access code found on the back of the card followed by the destination number. With calling cards offered by AT&T and MCI instructions and operator assistance are in English, avoiding language difficulties, and the charges appear on your phone bill. A reliable prepaid card for calling North America and elsewhere in Europe is the TIM Welcome card, offering 500 minutes to the United States for €5. A €10 card is also available. Cards can be purchased from TIM stores, tobacconists, and newsagents.
Most mobile phones are now multiband (Europe and North America use different calling frequencies), so if your service provider uses the world-standard GSM network (as do T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon), you can use your own phone and provider abroad. But roaming fees can be steep—€0.99 per minute is considered quite low—and overseas you’ll normally pay toll charges for incoming calls, too.
If you’re carrying a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, investigate apps and services such as Skype, Viber, and Whatsapp, which offer free or low-cost calling and texting services.
To keep calling expenses to a minimum, consider purchasing an Italian SIM card—these can be purchased for as little as €5, depending on the provider (make sure your home service provider first unlocks your phone for use with a different SIM) and choose a prepaid service plan, topping off the credit as you go. You then have a local number and can make calls at local rates (about €0.15 per minute, and only for those made, not received), or send text messages for a reasonable fee (€0.12 per message or less). Have the service provider enable international calling; use an international calling card with your cell for even more savings.
If you’re a frequent international traveler, save your old mobile phone (ask your service provider to unlock it for you) or buy an unlocked, multiband phone online. Use it as a travel phone, buying a new SIM card with pay-as-you-go service in each destination.
The cost of mobile phones is dropping: you can purchase a dual-band (Europe only) phone in Italy with a prepaid calling credit for as little as €20. Alternatively, you can buy a multiband phone that will also function in North America (European phones aren’t usually “locked” to their provider’s SIM, which is why they cost more). That means you can use it with your own service provider once you return home. You’ll find dedicated mobile phone stores in all but the smallest towns. Service providers include TIM, Tre, Vodafone, and Wind; stop by a multivendor shop to compare offers, or check their websites. Note that you’ll need to present your passport to purchase any SIM card.
Rental phones are available online prior to departure and in Italy’s cities and larger towns. Shop around for the best deal. Most contracts require a refundable deposit that covers the cost of the mobile phone ($75–$300) and then set up a monthly service plan that’s automatically charged to your credit card. Frequently, rental phones will be triple band with a plan that allows you to call North America. You should check the rate schedule, however, to avoid a nasty surprise on your credit card bill two or three months later. Often the local purchase with a prepaid plan will be the more cost-effective one.
Beware of mobile phone (and PDA) thieves. Use your device’s security code option. Keep your phone or PDA in a secure pocket or purse. Don’t lay it on the bar when you stop for an espresso. Don’t zip it into the outside pocket of your backpack in crowded cities. Don’t leave it in your hotel room. Notify your provider immediately if it’s lost or stolen; providers can disable your SIM and give you a new one, copying the original’s number and contents.
CUSTOMS AND DUTIES
Travelers from the United States should experience little difficulty clearing customs at any Italian airport. It may be more difficult to clear customs when returning to the United States, where residents are normally entitled to a duty-free exemption of $800 on items accompanying them. You’ll have to pay a tax (most often a flat percentage) on the value of everything beyond that limit. When you shop in Italy, keep all your receipts handy, as customs inspectors may ask to see them as well as the items you purchased.
Although there’s no problem with aged cheese (vacuum-sealed works best), you cannot bring back any of that delicious prosciutto, salami, or any other meat product. Fresh mushrooms, truffles, or fresh fruits and vegetables are also forbidden. There are restrictions on the amount of alcohol allowed in duty-free, too. Generally, you can bring in one liter of wine, beer, or other alcohol without paying a customs duty; visit the travel area of the Customs and Border Patrol Travel website for complete information.
Italy requires documentation regarding the background of all antiques and antiquities before these items are taken out of the country. Under Italian law, all antiquities found on Italian soil are considered state property, and there are other restrictions on antique artwork. Even if purchased from a business in Italy, legal ownership of artifacts may be in question if brought into the United States. Therefore, although they don’t necessarily confer ownership, documents such as export permits and receipts are required when importing such items into the United States.
Italian cuisine is still largely regional. Ask what the specialties are—and, by all means, try spaghetti alla carbonara (with bacon and egg) in Rome, pizza in Naples, bistecca alla fiorentina (steak) in Florence, cinghiale (wild boar) in Tuscany, truffles in Piedmont, la frittura (fish fry) in Venice, and risotto alla milanese in Milan. Although most restaurants in Italy serve local dishes, you can find Asian and Middle Eastern alternatives in Rome, Venice, and other cities. The restaurants we list are the cream of the crop in each price category.
Meals and Mealtimes
What’s the difference between a ristorante and a trattoria? Can you order food at an enoteca? Can you go to a restaurant just for a snack or order only salad at a pizzeria? The following definitions should help.
Not long ago, ristoranti tended to be more elegant and expensive than trattorie, which serve traditional, home-style fare in an atmosphere to match, or osterie, which serve local wines and simple, regional dishes. But the distinction has blurred considerably, and an osteria in the center of town might now be far fancier (and pricier) than a ristorante across the street. In any sit-down establishment, however, you’re generally expected to order at least a two-course meal, such as: a primo (first course) and a secondo (main course) or a contorno (vegetable side dish); an antipasto (starter) followed by either a primo or secondo; or a secondo and a dolce (dessert).
There is no problem if you’d prefer to eat less, but consider an enoteca or pizzeria as an alternative, where it’s more common to order a single dish. An enoteca menu is often limited to a selection of cheese, cured meats, salads, and desserts, but if there’s a kitchen you can also find soups, pastas, and main courses. The typical pizzeria serves affettati misti (a selection of cured pork), simple salads, various kinds of bruschetta, crostini (similar to bruschetta, with a variety of toppings) and, in Rome and Naples, fritti (deep-fried finger food) such as olive ascolane (green olives with a meat stuffing) and supplì or arancini (rice balls stuffed with mozzarella or minced meat).
The most convenient and least expensive places for a quick snack between sights are probably bars, cafés, and pizza al taglio (by the slice) spots. Pizza al taglio shops are easy to negotiate, but few have seats. They sell pizza by weight: just point out which kind you want and how much. Kebab stores are also omnipresent in every Italian city.
Note that Italians do not usually walk and eat.
Bars in Italy resemble what we think of as cafés, and are primarily places to get a coffee and a bite to eat, rather than drinking establishments. Expect a selection of panini warmed up on the griddle (piastra) and tramezzini (sandwiches made of untoasted white bread triangles). In larger cities, bars also serve vegetable and fruit salads, cold pasta dishes, and gelato. Most offer beer and a variety of alcohol, as well as wines by the glass (sometimes good but more often mediocre). A café is like a bar but typically has more tables. Pizza at a café should be avoided—it’s usually heated in a microwave.
If you place your order at the counter, ask whether you can sit down. Some places charge for table service (especially in tourist centers); others don’t. In self-service bars and cafés, it’s good manners to clean your table before you leave. Be aware that in certain spots (such as train stations and stops along the highway) you first pay a cashier; then show your scontrino (receipt) at the counter to place your order. Menus are posted outside most restaurants (in English in tourist areas). If not, you might step inside and ask to take a look at the menu, but don’t ask for a table unless you intend to stay.
Italians take their food as it’s listed on the menu, seldom making special requests such as “dressing on the side” or “hold the olive oil.” If you have special dietary needs, however, make them known; they can usually be accommodated. Vegetarians should be firm, as bacon and ham can slip into some dishes. Although mineral water makes its way to almost every table, you can order a carafe of tap water (acqua di rubinetto or acqua semplice) instead—just keep in mind that such water can be highly chlorinated.
An Italian would never ask for olive oil to dip bread in, and don’t be surprised if there’s no butter to spread on it either. Wiping your bowl clean with a (small) piece of bread, known locally as la scarpetta, is usually considered a sign of appreciation, not bad manners. Spaghetti should be eaten with a fork only, although a little help from a spoon won’t horrify locals the way cutting spaghetti into little pieces might. Order your caffè (Italians drink cappuccino only in the morning) after dessert, not with it. As for doggy bags, Italians would never ask for one, though eateries popular with tourists are becoming more accustomed to travelers who do.
Breakfast (la colazione) is usually served from 7 to 10:30, lunch (il pranzo) from 12:30 to 2, and dinner (la cena) from 7:30 to 10, later in the south; outside those hours, best head for a bar. Peak times are usually 1:30 for lunch and 9 for dinner. Enoteche and Venetian bacari (wine bars) are also open in the morning and late afternoon for cicheti (finger foods) at the counter. Bars and cafés are open from 7 am until 8 or 9 pm; a few stay open until midnight.
Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listed here are open for lunch and dinner, closing one or two days a week.
Most restaurants have a cover charge per person, usually listed at the top of the check as coperto or pane e coperto. It should be modest (€1–€2.50 per person) except at the most expensive restaurants. Whenever in doubt, ask before you order to avoid unpleasant discussions later. It’s customary to leave a small cash tip (between 5% and 10%) in appreciation of good service: you will usually see a servizio charge included at the bottom of the check, but the server will not likely receive it.
The price of fish dishes is often given by weight (before cooking), so the price quoted on the menu is for 100 grams of fish, not for the whole dish. (An average fish portion is about 350 grams.) In Tuscany, bistecca alla fiorentina is also often priced by weight (about €4 for 100 grams, or $18 per pound).
Major credit cards are widely accepted in Italy; however, cash is always preferred. More restaurants take Visa and MasterCard than American Express or Diners Club.
When you leave a dining establishment, take your meal bill or receipt with you. Although not a common experience, the Italian finance (tax) police can approach you within 100 yards of the establishment at which you’ve eaten and ask for a receipt; if you don’t have one, they can fine you and will fine the business owner for not providing it. The practice is intended to prevent tax evasion; it’s not necessary to show receipts when leaving Italy.
Reservations and Dress
It’s always safest to make a reservation for dinner. For popular restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (two to three weeks), and reconfirm as soon as you arrive. Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy. If you change your mind, be sure to cancel, even at the last minute.
Unless they’re dining outside or at a seafront resort, Italian men never wear shorts or running shoes in a restaurant. The same applies to women: no casual shorts, running shoes, or rubber sandals when going out to dinner. Shorts are acceptable in pizzerias and cafés.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
The grape has been cultivated in Italy since the time of the Etruscans, and Italians justifiably take pride in their local varieties, which are numerous. Although almost every region produces good-quality wine, Tuscany, Piedmont, the Veneto, Puglia, Calabria, and Sicily are some of the more renowned areas, with Le Marche and Umbria being well-reputed, too. Italian wine is less expensive in Italy than almost anywhere else, so it’s often affordable to order a bottle of wine at a restaurant rather than sticking with the house wine (which is usually good but quite simple). Many bars have their own aperitivo della casa (house aperitif); Italians are imaginative with their mixed drinks, so you may want to try one.
You can purchase beer, wine, and spirits in any bar, grocery store, or enoteca, any day of the week, any time of the day. Italian and German beer is readily available, but it can be more expensive than wine. Some excellent microbreweries are beginning to dot the Italian beer horizon, so ask if there’s a local brew available to sample.
There’s no minimum drinking age in Italy. Italian children begin drinking wine mixed with water at mealtimes when they’re teens (or thereabouts). Italians are rarely seen drunk in public, and public drinking, except in a bar or eating establishment, isn’t considered acceptable behavior. Bars usually close by 9 pm; hotel and restaurant bars stay open until midnight. Pubs and discos serve until about 2 am.
The electrical current in Italy is 220 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC); wall outlets accept continental-type plugs, with two or three round prongs.
You may purchase a universal adapter, which has several types of plugs in one lightweight, compact unit, at travel specialty stores, electronics stores, and online. You can also pick up plug adapters in Italy in any electric supply store for about €2 each. You’ll likely not need a voltage converter, though. Most portable devices are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts)—just check label specifications and manufacturer instructions to be sure. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked “for shavers only” for high-wattage appliances such as hair dryers.
No matter where you are in the European Union, you can dial 112 in case of an emergency: the call will be directed to the local police. Not all 112 operators speak English, so you may want to ask a local person to place the call. Asking the operator for “pronto soccorso” (first aid and also the emergency room of a hospital) should get you an ambulanza (ambulance). If you just need a doctor, ask for “un medico.”
Italy has the carabinieri (national police force; their emergency number is 113 from anywhere in Italy) as well as the polizia (local police force). Both are armed and have the power to arrest and investigate crimes. Always report the loss of your passport to the carabinieri as well as to your embassy. When reporting a crime, you’ll be asked to fill out una denuncia (official report)—keep a copy for your insurance company. You should also contact the police any time you have a car accident of any sort.
Local traffic officers, known as vigili, are responsible for, among other things, giving out parking tickets. They wear white (in summer), navy, or black uniforms. Should you find yourself involved in a minor car accident in town, contact the vigili.
Pharmacies are generally open weekdays 8:30–1 and 4–8, and Saturday 9–1. Local pharmacies rotate covering the off-hours in shifts: on the door of every pharmacy is a list of which pharmacies in the vicinity will be open late.
HOURS OF OPERATION
Religious and civic holidays are frequent in Italy. Depending on the holiday’s local importance, businesses may close for the day. Businesses don’t close Friday or Monday when the holiday falls on the weekend, though the Monday following Easter is a holiday.
Banks are open weekdays 8:30–1:30 and for one or two hours in the afternoon, depending on the bank. Most post offices are open Monday–Saturday 9–1:30, some until 2; central post offices are open weekdays 9–6:30, Saturday 9–12:30 or 9–6:30.
Most churches are open from early morning until noon or 12:30, when they close for three hours or more; they open again in the afternoon, closing at about 6. A few major churches, such as St. Peter’s in Rome and San Marco in Venice, remain open all day. Walking around during services is discouraged. Many museums are closed one day a week, often Monday or Tuesday. During low season museums often close early; during high season many stay open until late at night.
Most shops are open Monday through Saturday 9–1 and 3:30 or 4–7:30. Clothing shops are generally closed Monday mornings. Barbers and hairdressers, with certain exceptions, are closed Sunday and Monday. Some bookstores and fashion- or tourist-oriented shops in places such as Rome and Venice are open all day, as well as Sunday. Many branches of large chain supermarkets such as Standa, COOP, and Esselunga don’t close for lunch and are usually open Sunday; smaller alimentari(delicatessens) and other food shops are usually closed one evening during the week (it varies according to the town) and are almost always closed Sunday.
Traveling through Italy in July and August can be an odd experience. Although there are some deals to be had, the heat can be oppressive, and in August much of the population is on vacation. Most cities are deserted (except for foreign tourists) and privately run restaurants and shops are closed. National holidays in 2018 include January 1 (New Year’s Day); January 6 (Epiphany); April 1 and 2 (Easter Sunday and Monday); April 25 (Liberation Day); May 1 (Labor Day or May Day); June 2 (Festival of the Republic); August 15 (Ferragosto); November 1 (All Saints’ Day); December 8 (Immaculate Conception); and December 25 and 26 (Christmas Day and the Feast of St. Stephen).
In addition, feast days of patron saints are observed locally. Many businesses and shops may be closed in Florence, Genoa, and Turin on June 24 (St. John the Baptist); in Rome on June 29 (Sts. Peter and Paul); in Palermo on July 15 (Santa Rosalia); in Naples on September 19 (San Gennaro); in Bologna on October 4 (San Petronio); in Trieste on November 3 (San Giusto); and in Milan on December 7 (St. Ambrose). Venice’s feast of St. Mark is April 25, the same as Liberation Day, so the Madonna della Salute on November 21 makes up for the lost holiday.
Prices vary from region to region and are substantially lower in the country than in urban centers. Of Italy’s major cities, Milan is by far the most expensive. Resort areas such as Capri, Portofino, and Cortina d’Ampezzo cater to wealthy vacationers and charge top prices. Good value can be had in the scenic Trentino–Alto Adige region of the Dolomites and in Umbria and Marche. With a few exceptions, southern Italy and Sicily also offer bargains for those who do their homework before they leave home.
Prices here are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens from the EU; citizens of non-EU countries rarely get discounts, but inquire before you purchase tickets, as this situation is constantly changing.
U.S. banks do not keep every foreign currency on hand, and it may take as long as a week to order. If you’re planning to exchange funds before leaving home, don’t wait until the last minute.
ATMs and Banks
An ATM (bancomat in Italian) is the easiest way to get euros in Italy. There are numerous ATMs in large cities and small towns, as well as in airports and train stations. Be sure to memorize your PIN in numbers, as ATM keypads in Italy won’t always display letters. Check with your bank to confirm that you have an international PIN (codice segreto) that will be recognized in the countries you’re visiting; to raise your maximum daily withdrawal allowance; and to learn what your bank’s fee is for withdrawing money (Italian banks don’t charge withdrawal fees). Be aware that PINs beginning with a 0 (zero) tend to be rejected in Italy.
Your own bank may charge a fee for using ATMs abroad and for the cost of conversion from euros to dollars. Nevertheless, you can usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money inside a bank with a teller, the next-best option. Whatever the method, extracting funds as you need them is safer than carrying around a large amount of cash. Finally, it’s advisable to carry more than one card that can be used for cash withdrawal, in case something happens to your main one.
It’s a good idea to inform your credit card company before you travel, especially if you’re going abroad and don’t travel internationally often. Otherwise, the credit card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a welcome occurrence halfway through your trip. Record all your credit card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen. Keep these in a safe place, so you’re prepared should something go wrong. MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card is lost. But you’re better off calling the number of your issuing bank, because MasterCard and Visa generally just transfer you there; your bank’s number is usually printed on your card.
North American toll-free numbers aren’t available from abroad, so be sure to obtain a local number with area code for any business you may need to contact.
Although it’s usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill. Because of these fees, avoid using your credit card for ATM withdrawals or cash advances (use a debit or cash card instead).
Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you’ll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
Merchants who participate in dynamic currency conversion programs are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don’t always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice—you can simply say no. If this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely by using American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn’t an option.
Italian merchants prefer MasterCard and Visa (look for the CartaSi sign), but American Express is usually accepted in popular tourist destinations. Credit cards aren’t accepted everywhere, though; if you want to pay with a credit card in a small shop, hotel, or restaurant, it’s a good idea to make your intentions known early on.
Currency and Exchange
The euro is the main unit of currency in Italy. Under the euro system there are 100 centesimi (cents) to the euro. There are coins valued at 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 centesimi as well as 1 and 2 euros. There are seven notes: 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500 euros. At this writing, €1 was worth was about $1.12.
Post offices exchange currency at good rates, but employees speak limited English, so be prepared. (Writing your request can help in these cases.)
Even if a currency-exchange booth has a sign promising no commission, rest assured that there’s some kind of huge, hidden fee. You’re almost always better off getting foreign currency at an ATM or exchanging money at a bank or post office.
PASSPORTS AND VISAS
Although somewhat costly, a U.S. passport is relatively simple to obtain and is valid for 10 years. You must apply in person if you’re getting a passport for the first time; if your previous passport was lost, stolen, or damaged; or if it has expired and was issued more than 15 years ago or when you were under 16. All children under 18 must appear in person to apply for or renew a passport. Both parents must accompany any child under 14 (or send a notarized statement with their permission) and provide proof of their relationship to the child.
There are 25 regional passport offices as well as 7,000 passport acceptance facilities in post offices, public libraries, and other governmental offices. If you’re renewing a passport, you may do so by mail; forms are available at passport acceptance facilities and online, where you trace the application’s progress.
The cost of a new passport is $135 for adults, $105 for children under 16; renewals are $110 for adults, $105 for children under 16. Allow four to six weeks for processing, both for first-time passports and renewals. For an expediting fee of $60 you can reduce this time to two to three weeks. If your trip is less than two weeks away, you can get a passport even more rapidly by going to a passport office with the necessary documentation. Private expediters can get things done in as little as 48 hours, but charge hefty fees for their services.
Before your trip, make two copies of your passport’s data page (one for someone at home and another for you to carry separately). Or scan the page and email it to someone at home and/or yourself.
When staying for 90 days or less, U.S. citizens aren’t required to obtain a visa prior to traveling to Italy. A recent law requires that you fill in a declaration of presence within eight days of your arrival—the stamp on your passport at airport arrivals substitutes for this. If you plan to travel or live in Italy or the European Union for longer than 90 days, you must acquire a valid visa from the Italian consulate serving your state before you leave the United States. Plan ahead, because the process of obtaining a visa will take at least 30 days, and the Italian government doesn’t accept visa applications submitted by visa expediters
A 10% V.A.T. (value-added tax) is included in the rate at all hotels except those at the upper end of the range. You’ll often have to pay a supplementary City Tax (in cash) at your hotel, varying from €1 per night to Rome’s exorbitant €5 per night, as well.
No tax is added to the bill in restaurants. A service charge of approximately 10%–15% is often added to your check; in some cases a service charge is included in the prices.
The V.A.T. is 22% on clothing, wine, and luxury goods. On consumer goods it’s already included in the amount shown on the price tag (look for the phrase “IVA inclusa”), whereas on services it may not be. If you’re not a European citizen and if your purchases in a single day total more than €154.94, you may be entitled to a refund of the V.A.T.
When making a purchase, ask whether the merchant gives refunds—not all do, nor are they required to. If they do, they’ll help you fill out the V.A.T. refund form, which you then submit to a company that will issue you the refund in the form of cash, check, or credit card adjustment.
Alternatively, as you leave the country (or, if you’re visiting several European Union countries, on leaving the EU), present your merchandise and the form to customs officials, who will stamp it. Once through passport control, take the stamped form to a refund-service counter for an on-the-spot refund (the quickest and easiest option). You may also mail it to the address on the form (or on the envelope with it) after you arrive home, but processing time can be long, especially if you request a credit-card adjustment. Note that in larger cities the cash refund can be obtained at in-town offices prior to departure; just ask the merchant or check the envelope for local office addresses.
Global Blue is the largest V.A.T.-refund service with 270,000 affiliated stores and more than 700 refund counters at major airports and border crossings. Premier Tax-Free is another company that represents more than 150,000 merchants worldwide; look for their logos in store windows.
In restaurants, a service charge of 10%–15% may appear on your check, but it’s not a given that your server will receive this; so you may want to consider leaving a tip of 5%–10% (in cash) for good service. Tip checkroom attendants €1 per person and restroom attendants €0.50 (more in expensive hotels and restaurants). In major cities, tip €0.50 or more for table service in cafés. At a hotel bar, tip €1 and up for a round or two of drinks.
Italians rarely tip taxi drivers, which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t. A euro or two is appreciated, particularly if the driver helps with luggage. Service-station attendants are tipped only for special services; give them €1 for checking your tires. Railway and airport porters charge a fixed rate per bag. Tip an additional €0.25 per person, more if the porter is helpful. Give a barber €1–€1.50 and a hairdresser’s assistant €1.50–€4 for a shampoo or cut, depending on the type of establishment.
On sightseeing tours, tip guides about €1.50 per person for a half-day group tour, more if they’re especially knowledgeable. In monasteries and other sights where admission is free, a contribution (€0.50–€1) is expected.
In hotels, give the portiere (concierge) about 10% of the bill for services, or €2.50–€5 for help with dinner reservations and such. Leave the chambermaid about €0.75 per day, or about €4.50–€5 a week in a moderately priced hotel; tip a minimum of €1 for valet or room service. In an expensive hotel, double these amounts; tip doormen €0.50 for calling a cab and €1.50 for carrying bags to the check-in desk, and tip bellhops €1.50–€2.50 for carrying your bags to the room.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.