I love Italy. I know, not exactly a controversial opinion. But I have a deep and everlasting love for this hot mess of a country. I’ve had the privilege of spending the first two years of my life and many family vacations in Italy, probably causing this lifelong love affair. And what’s not to love? History, culture, art, food, sun, beautiful landscapes and charming people, Italy has all the elements of paradise. But it also has its downside. Bureaucracy, mafia, racism, poverty, migration and mass tourism have all taken its toll. And visiting Italy for the first time can be a bit overwhelming. It’s a country of irregular public transportation, a slowly increasing English proficiency and especially in the south, dirt and crime. But I’m not trying to scare you away. Quite the contrary, I wrote these tips below so that you can fall in love with Italy as much as I have:
1. Traffic is crazy
Italian traffic has a very deserved bad reputation. The further south you go, the more erratic it seems. This deters many people from driving in Italy, but, surprisingly, the number of traffic accidents is much lower than you would expect. Because even while they drive fast and rules seem more like loose guidelines, most Italians are great drivers. The trick is confidence and flexibility. It gets dangerous when you are the only one sticking to the rules. Instead, follow the lead of the Italians when you drive and stay alerts. I can say from experience: it’s not as bad as it looks.
One of the things that never fails to make me giggle is watching tourists try to cross the street in Italy. If you are standing on the sidewalk waiting for a car to let you pass, you’ll be there all day. Unlike in northern European countries, letting people pass is not common in Italy. At a crossing, you just have to go. It always helps to make intense eye contact with them as you walk. Trust me, drivers will break or swerve once you’re on the road.
2. Trains are always late
I love travelling by train and I especially love travelling by train in Italy. The railway system might seem a bit daunting at first, but it’s really not that complicated. What you have to know is that there are two types of trains:
- Regionale: slow, cheap, regional train network that services small towns as well as big cities. You can buy your ticket at the machine and often at tabbacherias at the train station. These tickets are not bound to a specific time or seat.
- Freccia: the faster and more expensive intercity. This train stops only in big cities and you have to reserve a seat, meaning that the tickets are not flexible.
Getting train tickets and timetables is also easy enough. I highly recommend using the Trenitalia website or app to check schedules. This is the official train operator in Italy. You can also buy tickets in the app, but these are not flexible. Note that you can only buy tickets for any train up to 5 minutes before departure. This goes for the machine in the train station as well, which take cash and card. The regional trains are not reserved meaning that you can use your paper ticket at any time that day, this does not apply to tickets bought in the app.
Please buy a ticket and validate it! You could risk it for a short ride on a regional train, but even there they now frequently check tickets and it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to talk your way out of a fine (however typically Italian that would be). You can validate your ticket (this goes for all paper tickets) by stamping them in the little green boxes at the platform entrance. Tickets bought in the Trenitalia app don’t need to be validated and are only valid for that specific time and journey, even the regional ones.
The regional trains used to be really crappy, but especially in the north they have been upgraded and now often have outlets as well as (usually) working air conditioning. The Frecce trains are super comfortable, even economy and have Wi-Fi.
As the title indicated, punctuality is still a major issue with Italian trains. Don’t be surprised if every train you take is at least 5-10 minutes delayed. Actually, punctuality is not to be expected in any aspect of Italian life. Italians will show up an hour late for dinner without it being a big deal.
3. Things close unexpectedly
Italians have a great work-life balance, because they work to live not live to work. My favourite Italian saying is “la dolce far niente”, which roughly translated to the sweetness of doing nothing. This doesn’t mean that Italians are lazy, far from it, but they take the time to enjoy the finer things in life and spending time with friends and family. This attitude is reflected in everything. Shops, especially in small towns, close for lunch from around 12:00 – 16:00. Museums, banks, offices and churches often close as well. Also, don’t expect shops and restaurants to be open all summer. Italians go on vacation in summer as well and won’t think twice about closing their business while they are gone. In August, Italians flee the heat of the city to celebrate Feragosto and cool down by the coast. If you visit Italy in August (which I highly discourage) you will find most other tourists and a lot of closed businesses.
4. Italian men are flirts
The Italian culture is highly masculine, macho and patriarchal. Although it’s gotten better over the past few years, it can still be a bit shocking if you come from northern Europe or America. The flirting and catcalling can feel a bit threatening or unwelcome (I certainly don’t enjoy it myself), but it is largely harmless. Italian masculinity is built on ideals of being a gentleman, a womanizer and financially successful. This is why most Italian men are well groomed, take pride in their appearance and show their style through brand clothing, a nice haircut and a fancy car. They also want to show off how charming they are. Which is why they flirt with everyone from young girls to old ladies. They are (overly) friendly, courteous, chatty, gallant and flirty, but generally don’t really mean much by it. They just want to have a chat, make you smile and make you feel pretty. Especially if you’re a blonde, as most Italian women aren’t, at least not naturally. But sometimes they do this when it’s not wanted or take it too far and start catcalling and harassing girls. If you get tired of all the attention, look at what the Italian women do: ignore them. The constant male attention has made Italian women masters in fending off advances and coolly turning men down (to the dismay of foreign men who suddenly have to step up their game). Avoiding eye-contact, resting bitch face, ignoring or just a firm “no thank you”, usually does the trick. In my experience, it’s a lot of bark, but very little bite.
5. The food is incredible if you know where to find it
Ah, Italian food. The world-famous cuisine that is in pretty much everyone top three of favourite foods. From pasta to pizza and wine to gelato, Italy is home to some of the most amazing dishes. I was lucky enough to be basically raised on Italian food, which I like to credit for my love of good food and cooking today. For me, the magic of Italian cooking lies in the simple dishes made with high-quality, fresh ingredients and a lot of love. Traditional Italian recipes are deceptively simple, but with heaps and heaps of flavour (and salt, sugar and fat). There is no low-carb, low-fat, low-salt nonsense if you have the fortune of eating at an Italian grandmothers house. Because they know that it’s those things that make the food taste so amazing.
Even though Italians will always say that the way their mom makes it is the best, they love to eat out. So, if you can’t get an Italian to invite you for lunch or dinner at their families house, you can always eat in a traditional restaurant. But where do you find that amazing, authentic food? You will have to avoid the tourist traps, by following these rules:
- Don’t eat anywhere that advertises multilingual menus, free Wi-Fi or air conditioning.
- Don’t eat anywhere with a picture menu (locals already know what the food looks like)
- Don’t eat at squares or in the immediate vicinity of big tourist attractions. These restaurants earn enough based on their location, so they get away with serving crap.
- Don’t eat anywhere that advertises a fixed tourist lunch or dinner menu
- The shorter the menu, the better.
- The older and crappier the restaurant, the better (generally). I had one of the best meals of my life in an illegal restaurant in Rome, run by an elderly couple with just plastic furniture on the sidewalk.
- A trattoria is a traditional gastropub, a ristorante is a fancy restaurant (and often aimed at tourists), a salumeria is a deli and usually sells amazing sandwiches.
- Only eat gelato in places that say gelateria artigianale. These are artisanal ice cream shops where the ice cream is made fresh, in-house in the traditional way. The colours should also be natural, so no bright blue and no yellow banana ice cream (that should be beige/grey). Preferably, the gelato should be served out of submerged metal containers, never plastic or styrofoam. Don’t eat gelato anywhere that piles it up really high and covers it in sauces and fruit, that is all just to distract from the subpar flavour.
- A table service fee is included in the bill, so you don’t need to tip additionally (although it is always appreciated if the service was excellent). This also means that meals eaten sitting down are more expensive than take away, and it’s cheaper to drink your coffee standing at the bar.
- Speaking of coffee: cappuccino is considered a breakfast beverage and should not be ordered after 11 am. A cafe is an espresso, an americano is a regular coffee and a ristretto is an extra condensed espresso.
- Each region has their own traditional products and recipes, made with local ingredients, let the waiters inform you about what typical dishes to try. Italians love to talk about their food, so they’ll be happy to help.
I could talk about Italy all day and there are so many facets to this fascinating culture, but I thought I’d start by 5 tips. Hopefully, they will help you prepare and navigate the wonderful, beautiful chaos of Italian life. What do you think? Let me know if you have anything to add.