Hannah Drake

Italy

10 Things to Know Before Visiting Italy

TravelHannah DrakeComment

It’s been nearly ten months since we left for our trip to Italy, our long awaited honeymoon slash first anniversary trip. It was an incredible trip and certainly the most extensive (and expensive) holiday Luke and I have ever done together. A lot of planning went into our trip, but there was still a bit that caught us off guard.

PLAN WHERE YOU WANT TO GO

Duh, right? Italy is a big country, rich in culture and history from corner to corner. While we were, I realised that before I moved to England in 2017, I probably knew more cities in Italy than any other European country. There’s Rome, Florence, Naples, Venice. There’s the Amalfi Coast, Capri, Sicily, Tuscany, Lake Como and Lake Garda. It seems like Italy is massively popular for travel bloggers and influencers and every day I log into social media, someone else I follow is in Cinque Terre or Positano. I can’t blame them, these are beautiful places and I fell in love with Italy too. But here’s the thing, all of that and whatever else you want to do is simply not doable in one short-term trip. I’ve always said I could easily spend a month travelling around Italy and now that I’ve been, I can assure you that’s probably an underestimate.

When we started planning, I had quite a few places in mind, including the Amalfi Coast, Cinque Terre, Lake Como, Venice, and Tuscany. (Rome was always a must-do for our first trip.) When we looked at a map, we were surprised to find our choices dotted all over the country. So with just under two weeks, we had to narrow down our list, ultimately prioritising Rome and the Amalfi Coast, which seemed more than manageable in our time frame. When it came time to book, it made sense geographically and financially to fly into Naples and out of Rome, so we started building an itinerary around that and focus on southern Italy. Taking a train from Naples to Rome (1 hour, 10 minutes) was our longest travel day, with ever thing else—whether by ferry or by car—was under an hour.

We built our itinerary in both digital and paper forms with travel, accommodations, and activities all colour-coded. It was really handy to keep all the paper work together in a folder that could easily slip into our backpack.

LEARN A FEW KEY PHRASES

This is something we didn’t do and we definitely regret. First of all, learning key phrases in the native language is just basic decency. While most people spoke English, we also encountered a few who didn’t. We were able to get by, but it goes without saying that if we had learned what we were trying to say most frequently, it would have made it a lot easier for everyone.

Start with these:

Hello - Ciao

Goodbye - Addio

Please -Per favore (per fav-or-ray)

Thank You - Grazie  (graht-see-eh)

You’re Welcome - Prego (pray-go)

Can I have the check, please? - Il conto, per favore

Do you accept credit cards? - Accettate carte di credito?

RENT A CAR OUTSIDE THE CITIES

You’ve probably heard that driving in Italy is NUTS. You heard correctly. On our very first day, walking around Naples, we were shocked (and scared) by the roads. People just seem to do whatever they want and go wherever they want. And the volume of scooters on the road doesn’t make it any easier. We originally booked our rental car from the second day of our trip, thinking we’d pick it up at the train station, drive it to catch the ferry to Capri, and park it at our hotel overnight. Bad idea. On our first afternoon there, Luke called to move it back a day, paying a fee of £15, I think. It was worth it though. We didn’t see much parking at the port, there didn’t seem to be parking available at the hotel, and it would have been madness to do all that driving when we only needed to walk about 20 minutes from our hotel to catch the ferry!

It was really nice having a car on the Amalfi Coast, though. We drove from Naples to our Airbnb in Vietri sul Mare, stopping for the day in Pompeii. It gave us the freedom later to drive to Sorrento catch the boat for our boat tour and later to drive back to Pompeii to go up Mount Vesuvius. We didn’t do much driving along the coastline, where the roads are more narrow and have tight hairpin turns, but driving through the mountains was a bit easier. It was longer in kilometres, but ultimately took about the same time to get there.

If you plan on venturing out of your home base, so to speak, it’s worth looking into renting a car. When we originally booked it, it was under £90 for six days. I wouldn’t, however, recommend getting a car if you’re in a major city like Naples or Rome.

LOOK FOR A BASE COST ITEM ON THE MENU

When you’re looking for restaurants, you can gauge how expensive it will be based on the most simple item: margherita pizza. When we were in Naples and on the coast, we found most restaurants had their margherita pizza between €4 and €6. (The most expensive was right off the pier in Amalfi, €6.) However, when we got to Rome, it was more likely to be €7 to €10. The best deal we found was right outside of Pompeii when we got a pizza and a drink for €5!

On that note, reconsider drinking soda while you’re there. (Or probably anywhere in Europe.) 20oz glass full of ice? Yeah right. Unlimited refills? Forget it. You’ll be paying anywhere from €2 to €4 for a CAN of Coke. Yes, one can. I have a terrible affliction where I get so thirsty only Coke can quench my thirst, and that, my friends, adds up when you’re in Europe.

DON’T ORDER OFF THE MENU

I don’t necessarily mean making up a dish or asking for substitutions. When you order at a restaurant, especially in a tourist-dense area, order your food with your menu in hand and point to what you want. Most menus we saw listed the item in Italian with a description in English underneath. But we’re all so used to different pasta dishes, it’s easy enough to order. However, when we were in Capri, we went to a place for lunch that had assorted grilled fish on the menu for €28. After I had ordered literally off the menu oysters for us to share, the waiter took our menu. When he came back, Luke ordered the assorted grilled fish and said we were going to split it. Somehow that got lost in translation and when the bill came at the end of our meal, it was €139. The oysters had been €5 a piece and the assorted grilled fish had been €40 and we had gotten two! (They had brought out a big platter and then took it back and put it on two different plates, so we didn’t realise.) It was seriously shocking and kind of a buzz kill for the rest of the day. If I’m being perfectly honest, it made me feel like they were really slimy and taking advantage of tourists. It certainly left a bad taste in my mouth. For the rest of the trip, we were sure to order menu in hand and be super clear when we wanted to split a dish. It didn’t happen again.

To end that on a positive note, our first night in Naples a waiter who spoke very little English asked if we wanted wine and we said yes we wanted a bottle, without looking at a wine list. He brought back a €11 bottle of delicious red wine!

CARRY CASH

A lot of places are going to be cash only, whether you’re stopping for lunch, like at L'Antica Pizzeria Da Michele in Naples, or for a mid-afternoon gelato. Some activities are cash only, like the steps to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Vendors selling souvenirs on the street are probably cash only. We had to get cash more than once, but it seemed more places were card-friendly in Rome. In addition, if you’re doing a guided tour, make sure you have the amount you want to tip in cash before you start. We weren’t able to tip our amazing tour guide for our Rome in Day tour and we both felt absolutely awful.

BE PREPARED FOR SMOKERS

For some reason, in my mind, smoking has always seemed like a more French thing than anywhere else. I’ve only spent about 48 hours in Paris, most of it at Disneyland, but it seemed like there were more smokers in Italy. (Just take that with a grain of salt.) Smoking is prohibited in bars and restaurants, but dining outside under striped umbrellas is part of that European charm! We walked by waiters and baristas standing right outside their restaurant smoking in their uniform. Just about every time we stopped to enjoy the scenery, someone next to us would be smoking. But the worst was when someone at the next table over would be smoking through our meal. On our last night in Rome, we had dinner in the Jewish Ghetto between the host smoking on one side and the guy at the table 6 inches from ours smoking on the other. And it’s not like they don’t know how dangerous smoking is. I looked over at the guy’s cigarette pack on the table and probably 60% of the box was covered in SMOKING KILLS warnings.

BE PREPARED TO PAY TOURIST TAX

At our hotel in Naples, our Airbnb on the Amalfi Coast, and our hotel in Rome, we had to pay a “tourist tax” that wasn’t covered by what we had already paid. I’m not sure what it was in Naples or if Luke was able to pay by card. But the other two times, it was cash only, but we were given the option to pay at check in or check out. On the coast, it was €1 per person, per night, but in Rome, it was €3 per person, per night. I would imagine we would have been prepared for it if we had read the fine print, but I for one wasn’t expecting it.

SOME BASILICAS HAVE A DRESS CODE

If you plan on visiting any basilicas, particularly the Vatican, make sure you’re aware of the dress code before hand. The Vatican is of course a holy place, and because of this, you are required to cover your shoulders and knees. It may seem unbearable in the summer months, but they will turn you away. As we passed the line to get in, we also passed vendors selling scarves to women who were wearing tanks tops. Later, inside the Vatican, we saw a girl who had one of the scarves tied around her waist as her dress was too short. Luke is generally a warm person and we were visiting the Vatican at the end of an 8 hour walking tour that day, so he packed jeans to change into before we went in.

SOME MAJOR TOURIST DESTINATIONS HAVE BAG RESTRICTIONS

If you plan on going to the Vatican or the Colosseum while you’re in Rome, make sure you check the limits they have on bags before you go in. Don’t plan on going to either place on a day you’re travelling if you’re not able to leave your luggage at your hotel or Airbnb. It’s a great idea to have a small backpack to carry around while you’re out sightseeing, filled with water, sunscreen, and anything else you need throughout the day, but make sure it’s small enough to be let in to the places you want to go. While you’re at it, get rid of any spray sunscreen you have before you go to the Colosseum. They no longer allow sprays of any kind (bug spray, sunscreen, body spray, etc.) and we had to toss our sunscreen outside the gates. We used the Little Ash from MUZMM and if you want to get one for yourself, you can use the code HANNAH20 at check out for 20% off your order! (They ship internationally!) It’s such a fantastic travel bag.

And for some Rome-specific bonus tips:

YOU CAN’T EAT ON THE SPANISH STEPS

It probably seems like the perfect place for an impromptu picnic that you’ve actually been dreaming of because it might have been in a movie you saw once. But they’ll actually tell you off for eating on the steps. And there are plenty of security guards (or maybe it’s police) walking around ready to do just that.

DON’T FORGET TO VALIDATE YOUR METRO TICKETS

Do not learn this the hard way. Like us. You have to buy your metro tickets in a newspaper stand near a station. It might not be completely obvious where you can buy them, they might not take credit cards or be able to break bigger bills, it might be a hassle. But once you get on the metro, there are yellow boxes near the doors where you can validate your ticket. You might be able to get away with it (also like us) for a while, but if you get caught it is e x p e n s i v e to pay the fine. And don’t worry, they have a credit card machine ready to go for you if you don’t have the cash. Just validate the tickets and save yourself the hassle.

PLAN TO VISIT THE TREVI FOUNTAIN EARLY — AND WATCH YOUR BAG AND POCKETS

Want to get a shot without hundreds of other tourists in it? Go early! Sadly the Trevi Fountain was off while we were there so we didn’t stick to our original plan of going back one of the last two mornings we were in Rome. But that’s the way to do it. Also, watch your bags. It’s so crowded and your pockets and bags are prime for the picking. We were warned by our tour guide on the first day, so Luke turned our backpack around to be on his front and made sure everything was zipped and secure.

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9 Things to Do in Rome

TravelHannah DrakeComment

We were only in Rome for about three and a half days and we did two different walking tours (Best of Rome Walking Tour & Cooking Class and Rome in A Day), but we also spent a great deal of time wandering around the historic city on our own.

SEE THE COLOSSEUM AT NIGHT

This was absolutely my #1 priority in Rome and we did it the first night (after checking into the hotel and hanging out for a while, watching The Lizzie McGuire movie, of course). We planned on taking the tram from near our hotel in Trastevere to the Colosseum, but a bus had broken down on the tracks, so we were forced to walk. The walk was AMAZING and got us there just as the sun was setting. We walked between the Roman Forum and the Colosseum taking it all in and I just don’t have the words to tell you how beautiful it was. They light up the Colosseum at night and even though you can’t go in and there are people everywhere, it’s definitely worth seeing against the candy coloured sky. There are nighttime tours of the Colosseum available through different tour companies that might be worth looking into as well. It’s just absolutely stunning all lit up!

LOOK UP — AT THE DETAILS

The Romans were absolutely brilliant when it came to engineering and art, as well as combining them in their architecture. And while the city has been rebuilt (or built upon—more on that later), beautiful buildings continue to line the streets. The intricate details in the buildings is absolutely breathtaking and the best part about Rome is that it might be an incredibly famous architect who designed them.

GET HIGH — FOR THE VIEWS

Getting up as high as you can in a new city is one of the first things I try to do when travelling and something I always recommend. Rome is no different. The morning of our first full day, we walked to Parco del Gianciolo, which offered some great views of Rome from above and was a beautiful park. We also went to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, which had 360 views of the whole city and is absolutely worth the cost and the effort to get to the top.

VISIT LARGO DI TORRE ARGENTINA

We actually stumbled upon this location (which is why the next thing is so important) and I’m so glad we did. It’s currently a cat sanctuary, AKA heaven, but once upon a time, it was the site where Caesar was assassinated. You can walk all the way around the area and see the ruins from above. It’s strange to think about such a pivotal piece of history took place there and now the streets around it are bustling with everyday life.

GET LOST

The entire city is packed to the brim with history and art. No matter what street you walk down, you’ll find something beautiful, something historical, something that might just take your breath away. There is so much to do and see in the city and I love that we did two different walking tours (even though there was some overlap on the stops), but I think you should also set aside time to explore on your own. See what you stumble upon and try seeing the city without a solid itinerary.

TAKE THE STAIRS AT ST. PETER’S BASILICA

There is so much to do and see inside the Vatican, but one of the best is to take the stairs all the way to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica. There are 551 steps to the top and it’s not for the faint of heart. (Possibly not for the claustrophobic either because those stairways get quite narrow near the top.) It’s worth the views from the top, though. You get 360 degrees views of the Vatican and Rome, though you’re looking through bars. You can stop at a couple of points on the way up or down to get some other views too. It’s €10 per person to go to the top and it’s cash only.

EAT WHERE THE LOCALS EAT

The best tip I can give you for the country is that if you find yourself looking at fettuccine alfredo on the menu, you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. We learned in our cooking class that Romans do not eat fettuccine alfredo. In fact, it’s an American invention. Instead, Romans eat cacio e pepe and now, so do I. Italians also don’t eat chicken on pasta. Instead, you’ll find a pasta menu followed by an entree menu that would include various cuts of meat and chicken. Keeping those things in mind, you should be able to tell with a quick glance at the menu whether it was created for tourists or Italians. You may also need to travel away from main tourist attractions to find an authentic Italian restaurant. For example, the restaurants across the street from the Colosseum are probably there for tourists.

VISIT THE JEWISH GHETTO

We got this recommendation from a few people, so we decided to make our way to the Jewish Ghetto on our last night in the city. We didn’t spend as much time as we would have liked, but it was the most quintessential Roman scene I could have imagined. We sat at a red and white checkered table on the cobbled street eating pasta, drinking wine, and listening to street musicians make their way up and down the street. It was the chilliest night of our trip, but it was still warm enough to sit outside. Aside from the fact that I got mad at Luke for something really stupid, it was a perfect night in Rome!

When we go back, the Jewish Ghetto will undoubtedly be one of our first stops. It’s the oldest Jewish settlement in Europe, dating back to the 2nd century BC. It’s brimming with Jewish culture. Of course you’ll find a beautiful synagogue and kosher bakeries, all the while rich with history. I read that approximately 2,000 of the 7,000 Jewish residents in the area were rounded up in one day in 1943 and sent to concentration camps. Only 16 survived. Today, Rome is said to have fewer than 20,000 Jewish residents and only a few hundred live in the Jewish Ghetto.

Many of the restaurants will be closed Friday evening through Saturday, so it’s worth looking into an advanced booking if you plan on visiting over the weekend.

GO BACK IN TIME AT BASILICA DI SAN CLEMENTE

Nina, our first tour guide, recommended we visit the Basilica di San Clemente to get a better idea of how Rome is layered on top of itself. The city has been built upon itself a few times over and this particular Basilica essentially functions as a time machine as you travel down through the layers. Through excavations, they have discovered two more layers beneath the basilica that stands on the modern Roman street. It’s absolutely breathtaking! No photography is allowed in the excavations, so you’ll have to see it yourself. I recommend checking the hours before you go as they close for lunch. We made it by the skin of our teeth and actually had to beg them to let us go down as they weren’t allowing any more visitors before lunch. That meant we didn’t get as much time as we wanted, but it was worth the €10 admission fee.

(Apparently I didn’t get any photos of the basilica, even from the outside.)

WHAT TO WEAR IN ROME

I decided to include this section for any ladies planning a trip to Italy in the late summer or early autumn. Consider the cobbled streets of Rome when choosing your footwear and stick to something with a sturdy sole. You’ll likely be doing a lot of walking and you want something comfortable. Rome won’t be as warm as the cities on the coast, but it’s still hot during the day. You might want a light jacket in the evening, especially toward the end of September.

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Rome in A Day

TravelHannah DrakeComment

On our last full day in Rome, we did an eight-hour walking tour of the city that 1) wasn’t as bad as it sounds and 2) I couldn’t recommend more highly. I think we both really enjoyed it and it was such a great way to see two of the most iconic landmarks in Rome without having to wait in line. With our tour, we got to skip lines at both the Colosseum and the Vatican and that was absolutely fantastic!

Sadly, because I’m writing this post so many months later, I don’t remember a ton of the information from the tour, so I hope you’re not looking here for a bunch of facts and a lot of history. Besides, I think the tour was really cool and that it should be experienced by anyone who has the opportunity.

We booked our tour about a week before we left for Italy after having saved that day for something like that. After a lot of research, we ultimately decided to book with Walks of Italy and I’m glad we did! Not only was the tour itself bigger than the tour we had done the day before, but it was also a much bigger operation. We met in a park near the Colosseum in the morning along with at least a half dozen other tours from the same company. The entire tour was done by headsets, which definitely made us feel like cheesy tourists, but really came in handy when you wanted to straggle behind to see something for a bit longer.

Because the tour started near the Colosseum, that was our first stop. Like I said, we got to skip the line, but there are a few things to keep in mind about visiting the Colosseum. First, there’s a bag size limit. Luckily our MUZMM backpack was small enough. (You can use the code HANNAH20 to get one for yourself.) However, we had to throw our spray sun cream because you can’t bring any sprays (sun cream, deodorant, bug spray, etc.) into the Colosseum. I’m not sure why, but that’s just the way it goes.

After spending much of the morning walking through the Roman Forum, to the Pantheon (which we had seen as part of the tour the day before, but got some new and different information), and more, we took a bus to be closer to the Vatican. So it was a lot of walking in the morning, but when you look at a walking route for everything we saw, including walking to the Vatican, it' seems like a lot.

We broke for lunch, so Luke and I wandered off for our daily pizza, before meeting up again outside of the Vatican. Like the Colosseum, there are things to know before visiting. Most importantly, there is a dress code for the Vatican. You can’t show your knees or shoulders. Luke brought jeans to change into during the break since it was obviously too hot to wear jeans all day, and I made sure not to wear a tank top. There were vendors selling wraps that people had around their waist or around their shoulders, but you don’t want to get stuck paying for an overpriced scarf when you can just dress appropriately to begin with.

Again, we got to skip the line, and the tour guide showed us through some of the museums in the Vatican, as well as the Sistine Chapel. We did have to wait in a line for the Sistine Chapel, but that’s because they control how many people are in there at a time, so everyone has to wait to go in. You can’t take any photographs and you’re not permitted to speak. The experience was, to be honest, a bit underwhelming. There were security guards loudly telling people to be quiet the entire time we were in there. The ceiling is incredibly high, so the painting is far away. And it’s insanely crowded. I can fully understand how that could be a moving spiritual experience, but personally, I would probably need to be in there alone or with only a handful of other people. It was just too much for me.

The tour finished after the Sistine Chapel, but we were already in the Vatican, so we decided to stay longer. We walked up the steps of St. Peter’s dome (which is not included in your ticket and is cash only). We saw St. Peter’s Basilica from the bottom and marvelled at its beauty and intricacy. We walked around the courtyard, which definitely made me think of The Da Vinci Code. We decided that it counts as one of the countries we’ve visited because Vatican City has their own flag, their own stamps, and their own designs on the Euro.

It was such an amazing experience to be able to visit the Vatican. When we go back to Rome (notice I didn’t say if, because we agree that we could easily spend another week at least in Rome), we absolutely want to spend an entire day in the Vatican alone. But the tour was a great way to see some of it and a great way to understand what we were seeing.

The tour cost about £115 for each of us, but we thought it was worth it. Tickets to the Colosseum are €19 to skip the line and it’s €21 to skip the line at the Vatican museums. Even thought that’s only about £36 combined, the knowledge we got from the tour guide was well worth the money. I would recommend a tour like this, especially with Walks of Italy, at the beginning of your time in Rome. You’ll see so much of what you came to Rome to see and you’ll get a good idea of how you want to spend the rest of your time.

WHAT TO WEAR IN ROME

I decided to include this section for any ladies planning a trip to Italy in the late summer or early autumn. Consider the cobbled streets of Rome when choosing your footwear and stick to something with a sturdy sole. You’ll likely be doing a lot of walking and you want something comfortable. Rome won’t be as warm as the cities on the coast, but it’s still hot during the day. You might want a light jacket in the evening, especially toward the end of September.

This post contains affiliate links, so I may make a commission off any purchase you make through the link. Some linked items are similar to what has been shown. Thank you for supporting my blog!