Italy. Although it is the size of Arizona with a population of approximately 60 million people, as soon as the destination is mentioned, smiles appear on every face. Whether it is thoughts of just “being” in Italy, drinking the wines of Italy or enjoying the cuisine of Italy – the destination receives a thumbs-up. For history buffs, conjuring up memories of frescoes and medieval cities brings on the smiles while for retail therapy addicts, visions of Missoni and Fendi on the Via Condotti and the Spanish Steps in Rome or at discount shopping malls 45 minutes outside the city, look forward to being satiated.
Italy is a destination of remarkable beauty, really good train service for travel from one city to another and workable bus and subway systems within the cities. Prices for branded luxury five star hotels are comparable with other parts of the planet, but thanks to independent properties and Airbnb – travelers with modest budgets do not have to miss out on an Italian experience.
Restaurants can be expensive, but it is easy to dine out at modestly priced (but delicious) neighborhood cafes and the streets are chockful of take-away opportunities that run from incredibly succulent hams, salamis, cheeses, salads and pizza, to an endless selection of breads, rolls and sweet desserts. Local wines are available in shops, cafes and supermarkets. Visitors watching their wallets who choose to drink the locally produced wines will find absolutely perfect bottles available at modest prices.
La Dolce Vita
Italy ranks 4th in worldwide popularity with 39.1 million visitors (France is in first place with 76.5 million visitors). For American travelers, Italy comes in as the 6th most popular destination with 2.2 million visitors (France holds 4th place with 2.9 million tourists). Tourism is important to the economy of Italy with more than 60 percent of the country’s income derived from the money spent by visitors.
The concept of a Grand Tour through Italy started in the 17th century by international visitors, many from England who came to the southern part of the country to experience the beauty of over-the-top villas and gardens, ruins and churches. By the 19th century tourism had expanded to include the middle class – and Italy’s solid place on the preferred tourism list was secured.
Allocate Weeks NOT Days
Statistics indicate that visitors to Italy make their stay relatively short. The average stay in Venice is less than 2 days. In 2013 the average number of nights spent by visitors to Italy ranged from 1-3 nights (22-24 percent); 4+ nights (approximately 7.7 percent (October – December) and 69.7 percent (July – September). This is barely enough time to find your way around your hotel and to scour the neighbor for shops, restaurants, historic buildings and bus/metro stops.
Whether traipsing through the large cities of Rome and Milan, the smaller cities of Genoa and Pisa or the Borghis of Friuli Venezia Giulia and Peschiera del Garda – tourists who rush through the locales are doing a serious disservice to the country and to their personal experience. Italy is a destination to be savored at a pace that may be uncommon for Type A personalities. The Italian experience should be tasted “one day at a time.” Adjust to the Italian pace and the visit to the country will be memorable.
26 Things Know Before You Go
1. Rail Europe.
Traveling from city to city (i.e., Rome to Milan to Genoa to Bologna and/or to the Borghis) is convenient and economically feasible by train. Visit the Rail Europe website (RailEurope.com) and plan your itinerary. Make reservations and payment in advance. Print out the PDF for tickets to be handed to the railway conductor during the journey. The website is user friendly. For advice and guidance call (800 800-622-8600 in the USA) to speak with efficient and knowledgeable staffers.
2. In-city public transportation tickets.
Tickets must be purchased before boarding a bus or Metro through a ticket-seller such as a tobacco/newspaper store (tabaccaio or edicola) or at a train station. There are no ticket machines at the bus stops. Sunday travel plans? Buy tickets the day before. Traveling frequently? Purchase a one-day or multi-day pass for convenience (if not for cost saving). On the bus, validate the ticket using a “green” machine that will print date/time the ticket was used. If a ticket is not validated, there may be a fine.
Hotel staffers will cheerfully tell you to “take a taxi” whenever you ask how to get from one point to another. Under most circumstances busses and Metros are available and within a relatively small amount of time and money the public transportation will get you where you want to go. Taxis are expensive! Download an app for the city you are visiting and/or use Google Maps to locate the busses / Metro stops from/to your hotel. Always take a business card from the hotel so that you can ask directions should you lose your way.
Flying is not inexpensive and sometimes, sitting comfortably at home, it seems that your body will easily make 8-9+ hours in a coach class seat. You will be wrong! The small size of the economy class seat can wreak havoc on your body. I recommend flying Air Canada (Business class) to minimize the negative impact of jet lag.
5. Airport transportation.
There are options for getting from the Rome International Airport to the city center. The least expensive (approximately 4 Euros) is a bus that brings visitors to the main railway station where the Metro and busses are available for transit to hotels and other accommodations. Another option is a shared van (approximately 40 Euros) and, of course there are taxis, limos and car services arranged by the hotel…some hotels provide free shuttle service to their hotel. To determine your personal best, review the options online. Please note that prices quoted on the site may not be current.
6. Shop/Museum closings.
Some stores select a day for being closed (giorno di riposo or riposo settimanale). Stores may be closed all day on Sundays and Monday mornings. Some stores are closed in the afternoons while others remain open. Museums and churches are not open all the time. Do not make assumptions about openings/closings. Check and double check.
The “happy hours” in Italy are between 7-9 PM when Italians relax over a glass of wine or Campari and soda. Since lunch is eaten between 1-2 PM and dinner happens at 9 PM, the Aperitivo hours are important for the digestion. Milan is considered the capital of the Aperitivo and comes from the Latin APERIRE – “to open.” The idea is that the drink opens or energizes your appetite.
8. Attentive service (may not be available).
Restaurants may appear to be understaffed with few waiters working many tables. Since the main job of the waiter is to take the order and deliver the food there may be limited opportunities to “chat.” Patience is definitely a requirement. When you want the check – ask for it.
Breakfast and coffee (cappuccino, espresso, Americano) are perfect pairings; however, at lunch and dinner – coffee is ordered and consumed at the end of the meal (after dessert).
10. Dietary restrictions.
Do not expect that all dietary requirements to be addressed. It is definitely a challenge to meet a diet that is lactose, gluten, salt or fat free. It is important to be flexible and consider substitutes because Italian kitchens may not able to meet all dietary requests (even at 5-Star luxury hotels).
My personal preference is to pack my wallet with Euros before I leave the USA while others prefer to do their money exchange when they land in a foreign country. Whichever method you select – be sure to have cash on hand. There many times that credit cards will not be accepted (i.e., taxis, bus/train tickets, restaurants, small grocery markets, bake shops).
12. Don’t touch the fruits and vegetables.
Bare hands touching food in a street or supermarket is a no-no. In a supermarket use plastic gloves or the plastic bags near the scales. In an open-air market the vendor will select the merchandise for you.
Accommodations range from Airbnb to 5-star luxury hotels like the Baglioni’s. There is a quantifiable difference between luxury and everything else (from location to service and food). If you can stretch the budget – select the luxury brand…it will definitely make a difference in your experience and in your memories.
14. Lost Luggage.
It is a terrible feeling. You are standing around the carrousel after a long international flight and you are waiting for your suitcase to appear – and it does not! Everyone has left the airport leaving you – stranded. Immediately walk to the lost luggage window, present your luggage tag (pasted on your airline ticket) along with your name, the name/address of your hotel, the dates you will be at the hotel, and a contact telephone number. You will be asked to describe your luggage (it is a good idea to have a color photo printout that you can leave with the staff person recording your loss). Immediately go online to the customer service section of your carrier and file a lost luggage report. Keep all the paperwork! Ask your hotel concierge to follow-up (if you do not speak Italian). Do not look for immediate cash to buy new clothes. The reimbursement process comes at the end of the experience and not at the beginning.
15. Meal times are important.
Restaurants and bars have specific opening times and will close in the afternoon. Best to eat when the Italians do (lunch 2-4 PM; dinner 7 – 9:30 PM).
Italy does not offer the same OTC medications that are available in the USA. Pack what you need for a cold, upset stomach, diarrhea, indigestion, etc. Require prescriptions? Have your doctor give you written documents before you leave home – should you need a refill.
17. Medical assistance.
If you get really sick and need a doctor, ask the hotel Front Desk associate to call a Doctor for you. The physician will come to your hotel room (within a few hours). The fees (cash only) can range from 60-100 Euros. The Doctor will request your passport for the report. The health care provider may not speak English (or whatever your first language is) – so keep your cell phone handy to provide translations. If you do not have the Euros available to pay for the medical assistance and meds – ask the hotel to put the charges on your account and have them pay for the doctor and drugs in cash.
18. Ordering Food.
While the menus and the waiters may encourage you to eat your way through antipasto, primo e secondo – most Italians are not gourmands and, as a guest in their country, you are not expected to eat your way through the menu. Place your order based on your food intake preferences and capacity.
You will be asked to submit your passport when you register at a hotel. You may or may not be asked for a credit card. At the airport you will be asked – repeatedly – for your passport. Don’t even bother putting it away after check-in for your flight. It is more efficient just to make it available as you walk toward the departure gate (stop at the duty free) and when you board the aircraft.
20. Peperoni (one P).
Peperoni are Italian bell peppers and not hot and spicy salami slices. It is the pepperoni that is popular in the USA. A pizza diavola or salame picante may meet the demands of your palate.
21. Pharmaceutical drugs.
Most cities will have at least one 24/7 pharmacy. The hotel can arrange for a taxi driver to take the prescription from the doctor and deliver it to the pharmacy, wait for the prescription to be filled, and bring it to you at your hotel. There are fees involved with the service (for the r/t taxi, drugs, etc.). If the illness is not serious and you are able to walk to a clinic, there may be no medical fees charged; however, there will be a fee for medication.
OMG the shopping is fabulous in every small Borghi and large city. From homemade cakes, cookies, breads and pasta, to handmade jewelry and furniture; from major high-end brands and discount shopping malls to street vendors, there is more retail therapy available than can be imagined. Come with an empty suitcase…the fashions are incredible.
There are stairs everywhere. There are stairs to get to toilets, train platforms, to churches and museums, to hotels, restaurants – everywhere. The sidewalk curbs in many of the medieval towns vary from comfortable to mountains (or so it seems). If stairs present you with a challenge – be mindful of the reality of Italian travel.
There are clean public toilets at the train stations – but they may not be free. Plan on spending 1-2 Euros to access the toilets. At restaurants the toilets may not have tissues – so – pack your own at the beginning of the day (along with hand sanitizer).
25. What to wear.
Leave the tiara at home. Leave the stilettos at home. Leave the short-shorts at home. What you must have is a good sturdy pair of walking shoes with lots on cushion for the soles of your feet. The cobblestones are torture – especially at the end of a day spent trudging through museums, churches, shops and streets. Fashionable visitors are wearing slacks (or tailored jeans), shirts with collars, jackets and scarves.
Airports and train stations may not have Wi-Fi (for free or for a fee). Restaurants may not have Wi-Fi. If you have to speak to someone by telephone – arrange with your telephone company before leaving home for international rates or purchase a local sim card for your cell phone. If you want to use Facebook or check emails – ask the store manager for login information. Do not be surprised if they tell you they do not have Wi-Fi available.
The PLAN is Next. Andiamo
Now is the time to look at a map of Italy, along with the Rail Europe train routes and schedules, and start to organize the number of days you will be traveling, the locales to be visited, and the departure/return dates for the airlines.
We are getting ready for our Italian journey.
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