Top 10 Italy tips
The most important advice for planning a trip to Italy
There's plenty to do when planning an Italian vacation—and this site is devoted to nearly every little detail you can imagine.
But that's a lot to take in all at once, so here is a cheat sheet: The ten most important things to keep in mind when planning a trip to Italy.
Yes! You can have a great time in Italy while spending nothing (or virtually nothing) on your trip. No, I can't help you get free airfare (though enough frequent flier miles will do the trick), but I can show you how to get everything from sightseeing to lodging to meals for free. Honest.
- Sightsee for free - Churches stuffed with frescoes, altarpieces, and statues by the greatest Old Masters; wandering medieval towns; taking countryside hikes; touring wineries...
- Eat for free - Aperitivi buffets in the big cities (especially Rome, Milan, and Turin) lay out often stupendous spreads and enormous varieties of free finger foods each evening...
- Sleep for free - Couchsurfing, home swapping, and house sitting are the easiest ways to get a free bed for the night in Italy, though there are others...
Yes, the famous places and sights are well worth it. But if you stick to deepest ruts of the beaten path, you'll miss so much Italy has to offer (and spend most of your vacation paying top dollar and surrounded by more fellow tourists than Italians). For fewer crowds and a more unique, often more genuine, experience—not to mention usually a cheaper one.
- Go to less popular places -
Rome, Florence, Venice, Tuscany, Amalfi Coast, Lake District. Love 'em. Wonderful spots. Classic sightseeing. Chock full of tourists.
Why not try some of the less-visited corners of Italy, where the crowds are thinner, the experience more unique, prices lower, and more of that storybook Italy you image continues to exist? A few suggestions:
- Cinque Terre (a string of Riviera fishing villages far from undiscovered anymore, but still fabulous)
- Apulia (the heel of Italy's boot)
- Sicily and Sardegna (two massive islands with their own unique histories and cultures)
- Trentino Alto-Adige (the German side of Italy)
- Abruzzo and Le Marche (the untrammeled part of central Italy)
- Visit less popular sights - You don't have to leave town to leave the crowds behind. For every Vatican Museums or Uffizi there's a dozen like the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, museums stuffed with works by the same famous artists but you'll have them all to yourself. For every famous cathedral there's a place like San Clemente, a Roman church that allows you to descend backwards in time through Rome's layer cake of history.
For every city on this site, I have a list of top sights (Rome, Florence, Venice), but also a "Reid's List" of less famous sights (Rome, Florence, Venice) that are every bit as worthy and intriguing. These range from Rome's Centrale Montemartini (ancient statues set against the inky black machinery of an Industrial Age power plant) to Venice's Scuola Grande di San Rocco (a Renaissance-era Men's house filled with Tintorettos) and the outlying islands of Murano, Burano, and Torcello in the Venetian lagoon.
Same goes for seeing famous sights in a new way, like the "Secret Itineraries" tour of Venice's Doge's Palace, attending mass at St. Mark's (so you can see the mosaics all lit up), or getting a private viewing of the Sistine Chapel (not cheap, but split the cost over a small group for a stupendous memory).
Don't just up and book plane tickets immediately. Know that when you fly affects the cost (of airfares and hotels)—not just high season (pricier, more crowded) versus low season (less expensive, less crowded, but potential for crummier weather), but also when's the best time to book airfares, and how flexibility can save you hundreds of dollars.
Also keep in mind typical Italian open hours when drawing up an itinerary so you won't accidentally plan to be in, say, a sightseeing-heavy town on the one day everything you want to see is closed.
- Know your travel seasons - HIGH SEASON = June 15–Sept 1 and Dec 15–Jan 6. SHOULDER SEASON = Easter–June 14 and Oct–Nov 15. LOW SEASON = Nov 16–Dec 14 and Jan 7–Easter.
- Buy at the right time - The sweet spot to book airfare is about 6–10 weeks out (though whenever round-trip Italy fares drop below $700/$800 from the east coast—or $900/$1,000 elsewhere—is a good time to buy).
- Be flexible - For potential huge savings, look into flights leaving/returning a day or two earlier or later; also look into flying in and out of near-ish airports, not just immediately local ones; a slightly longer drive to/from the airport might save you hundreds. (Philly folks: consider Newark).
- Know the closed days - Mondays (many museums & restaurants closed); Sundays (sights & restaurants often on curtailed hours); Daily midday riposo (a noonish–2:30ish siesta).
- Shop around - Use an aggregator to comparison-shop all the travel service providers (airlines, car rental agencies, etc.)—plus the travel agents, booking sites, and online discounters—on your behalf so you can see the results side-by-side and quickly pick the best price.
- Buy wholesale - Consider a consolidator that buys (airfares, car rentals) in bulk and passes along some of the savings to you.
- Look into packages - Buy airfare and hotel (plus maybe car or rail pass) together to save on each element.
- Try bidding - Biding sites (Priceline) and opaque fares (Hotwire) come with lower costs but less control over flight times, airlines, airports.
Really think about your itinerary and your plans, on both a macro and a micro level. Design it. An hour of careful consideration and research can result in a much cheaper and fare more rewarding trip to Italy.
- Don’t rent a car for city days - Single worst itinerary mistake many people make: renting a car for their entire trip. Unless your Italy vacation is going to be wholly in the countryside and/or small towns, do not rent a car for the full time—and certainly not for days you'll be in a big city.
Cars are worse than useless in cities, where traffic is horrendous, parking nearly impossible (and pricey), and public transport (or walking) a breeze. You'll end up not using the car at all in cities, which means paying more than $50 a day just to garage it on top of the daily rental fee (plus the airport pickup fee).
Besides, the number of towns in which you actually cannot drive in Italy is constantly increasing. Venice, obviously (its streets are made of water, you see), but also many Umbrian hilltowns are now closed to traffic, as is most of Siena and the historic center of of Florence (for the latter you can register your car to make it legal, but it's still a hassle to drive there).
Solution: Take the airport connect train or bus into the first city; tour it on foot and using public transport. To get to the next city, either (a) take the train, if you're going direct (cheaper; faster), or (b) if you plan to explore your way to the next city, pick up a rental car on the morning you leave the first city, but then get rid of it as soon as you get to the second city.
In other words (to take a typical first-time-in-Italy itinerary): Spend several days in Rome (perhaps taking a day trip to Pompeii & the Amalfi Coast), then rent a car for 2–3 days to explore the hill towns and vineyards of Tuscany & Umbria. Drop off the car upon arrival in Florence before spending a few days there, then take the train on to Venice. (Or whatever).
- Avoid over-scheduling - Nothing ruins a vacation more than turning it into work, and if you spend all of your time feverishly running from place to place to keep to an overly ambitious, pre-ordained schedule, you'll make yourself miserable (and your companions even more miserable and probably resentful). Plus, you need to leave wiggle room for the unexpected, from traffic delays and long lines to spending longer than anticipated enjoying a sight, or running into a festival. Build in at least 30–60 minutes of down-time each day, and one day of down-time each week.
- Delete duplicates - Trying to fit both Pompeii and Ostia Antica into a tight schedule? Why? While both are worthy sights, they amount to the same thing: an ancient Roman ghost town. Pick one, move on. (Actually, the little-known Ostia Antica—just a subway ride from central Rome—makes for a great, far less-crowded substitute for popular Pompeii, several hours south of Rome.)
Same goes for, say, Greek temples in Sicily, or frescoed churches, or medieval hill towns, or opera houses. I"m not saying don't see them all if you have the time and the specific interest, but if time is tight and you are merely curious, pick the one (or a few choice ones) that seems the most rewarding and then try something different.
- Focus - Nothing wrong with a whirlwind trip of Italy, especially for a first trip, but there's a lot to be said for narrowing in on one region or destination and really seeing it well. Take 10-day trip just to Sicily. Or a week in Rome or Apulia. Or, for that two-week vacation, spend one week traveling whirlwind-style, fitting in the highlights, then switch gears and spend the second week just exploring and enjoying one region: Tuscany, or Campania, or the Lake District, or wherever.
Don’t get star-struck - It's easy to find really nice five-star hotels, but most three-star hotels will do nicely—and did you come all the way to Italy to spend time in your luxurious digs, or to get out and see the sights? If the place you stay is really just a place to lay your head after long days of sightseeing and marathon dinners, all you really need from a hotel is for it to be clean, central and cheap. Besides, there are some quite spectacular one-star hotels out there.
Lodging alternatives - I have nothing against hotels—and recommend many of them—but there are dozens of other types of lodging out there, and nearly every one is (a) less expensive, and (b) provides a more memorable experience that a typical hotel stay. Here are some of the most intriguing categories:
- Bed & Breakfast
- Apartment rentals
- Agriturismi (farm stays)
- Villa rentals
- Affittacamere (rental rooms)
- Residenza del Proconsolo, Florence
- Residence hotels
- Residence Medaglie d’Oro, Rome
- Convents & Monasteries
For most sights in Italy, you can simply walk up, perhaps wait in a short line, and get in. There are a few major sights, however, that it makes sense to book ahead.
Wise to book: For some sights, booking in advance is merely wise, since it allows you to bypass often long lines (up to an hour in summer) or lock in one of the limited timed entries. Yes, there is a small fee (usualy around €2), but it is well worth it to buy back an hour's worth of your vacation.
Nearly necessary: For other sights, it is practically necessary to reserve a ticket since there are limited numbers of timed entries allowed each day, and these often sell out a day or two in advance (again, especially in summer).
Required: For one sight, you must reserve 24 hours in advance or you will not get in. The same goes, incidentally, for many vineyard visits and winery tours, so keep that in mind.
- Padova: Scrovegni Chapel
You don't have to sign up for a guided tour of Italy to take advantage of a knowledgeable local guide.
- Walking tours - Take a spin around town—either of highlights or along some theme; on foot, by bike, or on a bus—accompanied by an expert guide who can provide context and background on everything you pass...
- Docent tours - Many museums and other sights offer excellent guided tours, sometimes for free...
- Day trips - Local companies can take you to see sights just outside town (or in neighboring cities) with much less hassle than you going solo using public transportation—plus, you get an expert guide and, since you're usually speeding along in a minivan, can often squeeze more into the day than would be possible using trains and buses. Organized day trips are by far the best solution if you want to cram Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast into a day trip from Rome, or three to four Tuscan hill towns in a day away from Florence...
Take home more than snapshots and souvenirs. Take home a brand-new Italian new skill you can show off to friends and family at home: the perfect spaghetti bolognese recipe; the ability to hold a basic conversation in Italian; the know-how to paint a fresco or make a mosaic; the ability win a gladiator battle in the Colosseum...
Get off the hamster wheel of your sightseeing checklist. Don't limit your vacation to just an endless carousel of churches and museums, where all the Renaissance paintings, medieval frescoes, and baroque statues blur into one giant "Old Stuff I Saw in Italy" in your memories.
Take time to enjoy Italy's famous la dolce vita ("the sweet life") and the Italian bel far niente ("the beauty of doing nothing"). There are "Reid's Activities." Not sightseeing; just being in Italy. Here are just a few ideas:
While away the occasional afternoon at a caffè on the piazza, writing postcards or simply watching the carnival of life spin past.
- Attend a soccer match.
- Watch the old men on the piazza play their never-ending game of scopa—and ask if you can join in.
- Spend all afternoon at an ancient temple just so you can see the sunset.
- Take a horseback ride.
- Spend the riposo doing what most Italians do: enjoying a leisurely lunch followed by a nap.
This material was last updated January 2012. All information was accurate at the time.
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Copyright © 2008–2012 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett