Hannah Drake

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.

PIN FOR LATER!