We're smack dab in the middle of the peak travel season for Italy (don't ask me where the year went, I've been asking myself that since February), and so I thought it might be a good idea to pull together some of my favorite travel tips for Italy for those of you lucky enough to be making a trip to The Boot this summer.
Of course, although some of these tips may be related to summer travel, most of them are going to be valuable at any time of year - so even if you happen to find this article long after the summer is over, I think you'll find plenty of great Italy travel information here to help you plan your trip and have the best vacation in Italy you can.
1. What to Pack for a Summer Trip to Italy
Even if your Italian vacation doesn't take you to Milan, you're still visiting one of the most fashionable countries on earth - so taking care with what you're packing isn't a bad idea. Sure, you can throw a few random things into a bag, wear the same stuff you wear at home, and generally look frumpy and still have a great trip. But if you want to (a) attempt to fit in at all, or (b) not look so much like a tourist, then it's a good idea to think a little bit before you pack.
To be perfectly honest, it's tough to give out general tips about what to wear in Italy - fashions change almost by the nanosecond, it seems, so what I say is hot right now will undoubtedly be so last year in about five minutes. But there are some things I'm pretty confident about telling people when they ask me what to pack for Italy.
While you might wear khaki or denim shorts, a tank top or T-shirt, flip-flops and maybe even a baseball cap all summer long, almost none of those things would be items I'd suggest you bring with you to Italy. Yes, long (mostly knee-length and fitted) denim shorts seem to finally be making a place for themselves in Italian wardrobes, and slinky leather sandals were all the rage in early June - but baggy shorts and rubber flip-flops? That, my friends, is beach attire - and nothing more.
I wrote some general tips about what to wear in Italy in summer last year, and looking back through them they still hold true. Perhaps the best one (if I do say so myself) is that there is such a thing as too casual. The Italians truly dress for most occasions, even if that occasion is just going to the market.
One important note is that no matter what you decide to pack, remember that if you want to go into most of the churches in Italy you'll need to make sure your shoulders, knees, and midriffs are covered. You really don't want to be the people walking through St. Peter's Basilica in paper coverall pants you had to buy from the vendor at the last minute. Trust me.
2. Get Museum Tickets & Transport Passes in Advance
Much of Italy is crowded year-round, and the more touristy cities - like Florence, Venice, and Rome - feel like they're absolutely bursting at the seams in the high season. So whenever you can cut down on the time you might otherwise spend waiting in line at a ticket window, it's a good idea to do that. One easy way is by picking up whatever tickets and passes you can online and in advance. Of course, not all museums have online ticket sales, and not every traveler knows exactly when they'll be in certain cities, but if you can get at least some of this stuff in advance you'll thank yourself later.
If you can plan your travels to the day, then you'll be pleased to know you can avoid waiting in line at St. Mark's Basilica in Venice by booking an entry time online - and it's completely free. Getting advance tickets to the Uffizi in Florence isn't free, but it'll save you the hassle of waiting sometimes 6+ hours in line. And if you absolutely can't be bothered with booking ahead, in Florence at least there's still a chance you can get last-minute reservations at this Uffizi ticket booth. But don't say I didn't warn you about the lines if you decide to take a chance.
When it comes to transportation, there's no excuse not to look into getting discount transport cards ahead of time, because they're not tied to a particular day. And if you're going to be in a city for a few days, they can save you both money and the hassle of repeatedly trying to find a place to buy a bus or metro ticket. There are, for example, lots of Venice discount cards, some of which include some attractions with the transportation part. And some of the cards even come cheaper if you buy them online instead of waiting until you get to Venice. There are similar transportation passes in Rome which come in 3-day or 1-week increments.
Wherever you're planning to go in Italy, ask around to find out what tickets and transportation cards you can secure before you leave home, and then walk smugly by the poor sods waiting in line at the museum or trying to figure out what the bus ticket seller is saying to them.
3. Expect (And Prepare For) Heat
The weather in Italy is, like the weather almost everywhere, sort of unpredictable. There are days of glorious sunshine in March, sweltering days in May, and overcast and rainy days in the height of summer. But you don't have to pack for every possible weather condition if you're paying attention to the long-range forecasts before you leave. Sure, they'll vary a bit once you get there, but they'll give you an idea of whether you can leave the mini-umbrella at home.
Summers in Italy have been getting hotter for the last several years, as is the case around much of Europe. One friend in Milan told me recently that they basically get two weeks of Spring these days before they seem to jump straight into August. Preparing for high temperatures and high humidity means more than just remembering to pack your sandals and tank tops, though - it also means planning your daily itinerary so that you aren't stuck outside in the worst part of the day.
No matter where you are in Italy, try to plan your day so that you're either enjoying a leisurely lunch (followed by an even more leisurely nap) at midday or exploring the cool interior of a church or museum. All those enormous stone churches come in handy - not only are they full of unexpected art discoveries, they also have natural air conditioning! Oh, and if you're in Rome, be sure to pay attention to my Rome survival tips about the city's fantastic drinking fountains. They're a life-saver in the heat of a Roman summer.
4. Know What Days Things are Closed
You've got a to-do list in every Italian city you're planning to visit, right? Those sights that you absolutely, positively cannot miss or you'd go home feeling like you didn't really see Italy? Well, imagine that you're on your last day in Naples, which happens to be a Tuesday, and you've saved the National Archaeological Museum for that day as sort of the icing on the cake.
That's when you arrive at the museum's front door and realize that it's closed on Tuesday.
There's plenty of romance to the idea of just winging it when you travel, but unless you don't care about missing out on some attractions because they're closed on your only day to see them it pays to do just a smidge of research in advance. Really, if you look up nothing else, find a list of what's closed when in every city you want to visit. Good guidebooks should have such a list, or - if you wait until you arrive - stop at the tourist information office first thing when you get to a new city and they should be able to tell you.
And if you're one of those travelers who doesn't want to sift through the massive list of what tourists could do in a place and wants instead to just be told what the best things to do in a place are, then you'll appreciate the articles I did with my suggestions for the top ten things to do in several Italian cities. But you'll still need to find out which of those things is closed on Mondays.
5. Learn the Language - of Gelato
I'm not a hard-core foodie, but I definitely make food a focus when I travel - especially when I'm in Italy. And even if you don't know your rigatoni from your ravioli, there's no reason you can't become a connoisseur of at least one Italian specialty - gelato. In a hot Italian summer, it just might be the only thing that gets you through the day.
Gelato isn't simply the Italian word for ice cream, although it's obviously very similar. Gelato is made with milk instead of cream, and the flavors tend to be richer and more intense. It's something you'll find all over Italy, and it's cheap enough to be an everyday treat - I highly recommend eating gelato a couple times every day, in fact. But because not all gelato is created equal, I also recommend following these rules to finding good gelato in Italy. There's no point in wasting precious calories (not to mention money) on bad gelato.
In most places, getting gelato is going to be pretty straightforward - but sometimes the order of what you do when is backwards from what you'll expect. In other words, sometimes you pay first for the size of the cup or cone you're getting, then you decide what flavors you want, and only then do you ask the nice person behind the counter to get your gelato. To avoid any kind of error that would postpone your dessert intake, you might want to review my article about how to order gelato in Italy first.
Even more important than learning the order of the steps involved with ordering gelato, however, is the language of gelato itself. I may recommend that people learn a few polite words of the Italian language before a trip to Italy in order to exchange even the simplest pleasantries, but in general I don't think you need to really study Italian before you go. Except, that is, when it comes to gelato.
The flavors that Italian gelato makers have come up with over the years are often pretty impressive, and if you're lucky to be visiting a gelateria with a chef who likes to experiment then you may find that even my list of Italian gelato flavors is inadequate. But it's a good starting point, and should serve you well in most places.