A VALUABLE GUIDE FOR FIRST-TIMERS
Going to Italy for the first time, or thinking of planning a trip there? You’ll need my essential tips for visiting Italy. I will share some valuable advice to help you on your Italian adventure. I hope this guide I’ve put together especially for you will help make your time in Italy most memorable.
Being from Italian heritage, I have travelled to Italy several times since I was a young child and there is still so much I haven’t seen. It always leaves me wanting more.
Whether it’s beaches, mountains, volcanoes, caves, lakes, islands, historical sites, beautiful architecture, museums, art, castles, or palaces, Italy has it all. If you want to learn about some of the fabulous places you should see in Italy, you can read more here.
1. Best Time To Visit Italy
The best time of the year to visit really depends on you, i.e. where you want to go, what you like to do and what type of weather you prefer.
Temperatures can range from one extreme to the other in Italy. The north experiences, hot and humid weather to very cold and arctic conditions. The south has a Mediterranean climate, with mild to hot temperatures throughout the year. Central Italy has a mild climate with less differences in temperature throughout the year.
So it’s always best to check the climate of the region for the period you are planning to visit.
Summer in Italy
You may like the Italian Summer which is from June to August, the month of August being the main Summer holiday period for locals. The school year is over and many businesses close for a couple of weeks.
Interestingly, the big cities like Milan and Florence aren’t as busy in Summer, as many Italians like to escape the big smoke and go to the beaches or islands during August. Hence these holiday hotspots get very crowded with Italians as well as other tourists in Summer.
Some of the locals prefer the mountains in Summer where it’s cooler.
Winter in Italy
You may enjoy the Winter season which is from December to February, and can be very beautiful indeed.
The north gets very cold in some parts, especially in the Alps, and snow is common, providing the perfect destination for skiing enthusiasts.
But the south doesn’t get very cold at all, and is quite pleasant most of the year. It is not uncommon for it to be a lovely 20 degrees celsius sometimes in Winter.
Snazzy Fact: Sicily is the warmest city in Italy, while Trentino is the coldest city in Italy.
2. Where To Go In Italy
Everything is close by in Italy. It’s just a short drive or train ride to another beautiful town, city or resort. So you can visit quite a lot of places in a short time when in Italy.
Don’t just go to the popular tourist spots. Make sure to visit some small towns too where you will truly stumble upon some lesser known gems.
North and south are very different, but both are very beautiful with so much history and culture to see and absorb everywhere you go. Make sure to explore and get lost a little.
3. The Italian Language
The standard Italian taught in schools and used in law and business today is the Tuscan Florentine dialect, which was adopted as the Italian language at the time of the unification of Italy in 1861. It was used by the upper class at the time and in literature by some of the most famous writers in the 14th century, such as Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio. It is the closest Romance language to Latin. The media uses standard Italian on TV and in newspapers.
However, the Italian language differs a lot from north to south, so much so that people often can’t understand each other. There are so many regional dialects and they are quite different. Many words are in fact completely different. They really are like separate languages.
Dialects are used by the locals in the various regions in informal situations, amongst family and friends, and are used proudly to distinguish themselves from other areas in Italy. Many dialects don’t have a written form and aren’t considered proper languages, or officially recognised as such, which is indeed a shame.
In my opinion, the dialects make the country interesting and fun and are part of the colourful and rich history of Italy.
My parents are from the Veneto Region and the Emilia-Romagna Region, so I grew up hearing both of these dialects and they are a joy to listen to. Some of the expressions are very amusing and the accents are delightful to hear.
Many of the dialects are now dying out, which is indeed a tragedy, as the new generations speak mainly standard Italian. Only the older generations have a strong grasp of the dialects now.
Other mainstream languages spoken in various parts of Italy are German, Slovene, Croation, Albanian, Greek, French, Corsican and Catalan. Of course many new languages are also spoken in Italy with the wave of migration.
Snazzy fact: About one third of the population can speak some English.
4. Shops In Italy
Shop hours vary a little in Italy. Generally, stores open at 9am and close at 1pm for a lunch and riposo (siesta). Then they re-open at about 3.30 until 7.30pm. Most shops are open on Sundays, but smaller stores may not open. Large department stores and malls will probably be open all day, everyday.
However, make sure to familiarise yourself with the local shop hours in the city or town you are in. Don’t get frustrated with the riposo, instead embrace it, by spending time walking or site-seeing. You may find some local cafes stay open, so it’s a great time for a quiet coffee too.
5. Restaurants In Italy
Restaurant hours vary also. Many open for pranzo (lunch) at 12 or 1pm to 2.30 or 3 and close until cena (dinner), which is usually not before 7.30pm. Then they close up at 10.30pm. Don’t get caught out, like I did in the past, wanting a late lunch at 2.30pm or an early dinner at 6pm, especially if you have children, because you will be disappointed. So make sure you plan ahead. People eat dinner quite late in Italy, especially in Summer.
Hence, an aperitivo before dinner is common, which includes nibblies.
At restaurants, bread is always brought to the table, whether you ask for it or not.
You may be disappointed to learn that breakfast and brunch are not big in Italy. You won’t find meals of eggs and bacon offered at cafes. Breakfast mainly consists of a coffee and a sweet pastry. That’s basically it.
6. Italian Food
Food is regional in Italy, which means each region has its own specialty dishes. So where ever you go, make sure you try the fabulous local foods the region is known for.
You may be surprised to discover pizza is not good everywhere in Italy. Whaaat? Pizza originated in Naples so you can expect the authentic Neapolitan pizza experience here.
Pasta dishes vary throughout Italy. Each region is renowned for their own type of pasta dish. It is traditionally served as an entree, not a main course.
A typical meal offers: antipasto, primo piatto, secondo e contorni, and dolce (cake/sweets) or formaggio (cheese)
Of course you are not expected to eat all of this, but they are on offer.
Don’t be disappointed if you don’t find some of your favourite foods on the menu in Italy. Sorry to inform you but certain dishes you love don’t actually exist in Italy. Non-Italian dishes are: spaghetti bolognese, spaghetti with meatballs, hawaiian pizza, pepperoni salami, marinara, chicken parmigiana, and garlic bread. If a restaurant has these, it’s catering for tourists and isn’t authentic Italian fare.
7. Hotels In Italy
Hotel rooms are often quite small, as most of the buildings are historic. Families travelling with small children will need to book 2 hotel rooms, as we did.
Buildings are very close together in the cities, so be prepared for noise.
Personally, I prefer booking an apartment to give you more space. I have found many great rentals in Italy and it often works out to be more budget friendly when travelling with a family.
8. Money In Italy
ATM’s are called Bancomat.
It’s best to always carry some cash, as cards aren’t accepted everywhere in Italy, especially in small towns.
Tipping is not necessary at restaurants, as a cover charge (coperta) is automatically added to the bill, which is usually about 10%.
9. Museums In Italy
Italy has literally thousands of Museums and galleries. Many museums are closed on Mondays, but some are closed on other days instead. So make sure you check the individual websites for opening hours. Book online and get there early to try to avoid long queues.
Museums are free for people under 18 years old.
Don’t bring backpacks, food or selfie sticks into Museums.
10. Clothing In Italy
Milan, Rome and Florence are in the top fashion capitals of the world for design and manufacturing. The ‘Made in Italy’ label denotes quality in style, fabric and workmanship, recognised the world over.
So, clothing is important to most Italians. In the big cities, many people are well dressed and well groomed. As a general rule wear clothes that fit well and are stylish.
Dress appropriately for the location you are visiting and be respectful. When visiting churches, dress modestly, i.e. cover shoulders and upper legs. This applies for both men and women.
11. Behaviour In Italy
I am surprised that smoking is very common with all age groups in Italy. About a quarter of the population are smokers. People smoke everywhere outdoors, even at restaurants and cafes. But smoking is banned inside public places.
The legal age for drinking alcohol is 16 in Italy.
Drinking wine with your meal is normal.
Lunch is the main meal of the day, hence why Italians take a long break to enjoy a big meal in the middle of the day.
Dinner is usually light, often consisting of soup, cold cuts, cheese, olives, etc.
Coffee drinking in Italy is a language of its own. Read my post on How to Speak Coffee Fluently in Italy.
Cafes are actually called Bars, i.e. coffee bars, and serve alcohol as well as coffee.
Ciao is the informal way of saying ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’.
Buon giorno or buona sera is the formal greeting for ‘good morning’ or ‘good evening’ respectively.
I hope these tips for visiting Italy help you during your stay there. I’m sure you will enjoy this beautiful country. Please leave me a comment below.