Discovering Italy Tips & Tricks for a Safe, Special & Enjoyable Journey

Of the 20 regions within this amazing peninsula of Italy, each with their own capital (sometimes 2) there is such diversity, so many different dialects and immeasurable treasures. It seems at times, moving from north to south, east to west that you pass though different countries.

Historically, both geographic hurdles and great political differences often meant that one village never met the residents of another, even though the actual distances were not great.

The result, for today’s travellers, means there is such a significant cultural and linguistic variety to make it an endlessly fascinating land to explore and to discover.

At DI, we hope these few notations will help make your journey the best it can be.

Understanding Seasonal & Regional Variations

We have had people make comments before about heating/cooling problems in hotel rooms. The fact is, there is an energy conservation law that applies to all hotels in Italy. According to the law, heating can be turned on only from November 1 to March 31 and NO air-conditioning after September –unless there are exceptional weather conditions.

In many small towns (and in some larger ones), there is a traditional half-day riposa (day of rest). If you are planning certain activities, especially shopping days, you need to note this in each venue, as it differs from region to region. It applies also to everyday places like supermarkets and pharmacies. Also in smaller places you will find that they close at 1PM and may not re-open till around 4PM. This tends not to happen now in larger cities. However, Mondays are considered general closing days for most museums and some monumental sites so do check.

Language as Communication – things to know

Whether you have been studying Italian for years or never, it is nice to know and understand a few words and phrases that will allow you to communicate with the locals, and they will respond. Learn to count to 10 and keep your speech animated to get that "feeling" across. Do get those books out but more importantly, do practice and understand good pronunciation. Italians will rarely be able to work through the flat ozzie vowel sound so, at the vey least, work on those sounds: a (as in father); e (2 sounds as in pen (short) and fair (long); i (as in tea or marine); o (2 sounds - like o in cozy or similar to cost); u (as in rude).

At the very least, learn to say "thank you" and listen keenly to understand how the locals pronounce words and mimic not only the pronunciation but also the speed and hand gestures.

Also, Italian is a phonetic language so if you can see the written word you can work out how to pronounce it. The main other consideration is the “c” and “ch” – just remember ciao (chow – followed by an i) and biscotti (biskotti – followed by any other vowel). However you manage – do try.

English (Inglese)

Italian (Italiano)

thank you

grazie (GRAT-tzee-yay)

please

per favore (pair fa-VOHR-ray)

yes

si (see)

no

no

no thank you

no grazie (no GRAT-tzee-yay

you’re welcome

(say after someone says thank you to you)

Prego (PRAY-go)

 

English (Inglese)

Italian (Italiano)

Do you speak English?

Parla Inglese? (PAR-la een-GLAY-zay)

I don't understand

Non capisco (non ka-PEESK-koh)

I'm sorry

Mi dispiace (mee dees-pee-YAT-chay)

How much is it?

Quanto costa? (KWAN-toh COST-ah)

That's too much

É troppo (ay TROH-po)

Good day

Buon giorno (bwohn JOUR-noh)

English (Inglese)

Italian (Italiano)

Goodbye

Arrivederci (ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee)

Excuse me (to get attention)

Scusi (SKOO-zee)

Excuse me (to get past someone)

Permesso (pair-MEH-so)

Where is?

Dov'é (doh-VAY)

...the bathroom

il bagno (eel BHAN-yoh)

...train station

la ferroviaria (lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah)

 
 Keeping them “safe” - passports & documents

How many times have I heard a cry of despair as someone discovers they have left their documents in the hotel safe? Use them BUT do leave a reminder to check the safe before departure. And, keep a copy of your passport (ID page) in the bottom of your suitcase, just in case and also leave a copy with someone at home.

 

Practical Luggage – porterage in Italy

Do consider that, unless you are travelling 5* all the way, it will be YOU who has to lift cases on and off trains, drag them up and over the hundreds of bridges in Venice and roll them over uneven cobblestoned streets on narrow walkways. Train stations do not employ porters to help you free of charge so never give your luggage away to someone who offers help. Of course, someone may genuinely offer to help if they see you struggling but that is different.

On trains, there is a narrow space on overhead racks and some limited space between some seats only. Most carriages allow for luggage at the entry/exit points. You are responsible to see that your luggage does not interfere with corridor spaces and other reserved seats. Also, if you are travelling on Regional trains there is little space available for luggage which is best kept close by.

 Personal Safety & the Problem of Pickpockets

Pickpockets and fraudsters are a problem everywhere but more so in the big tourist areas, added to in Italy by the “gypsy” population with generations of families who call this “work.” Larger train stations now have barricades before the platforms so only genuine travellers can pass. Don’t be overly paranoid, just cautious. Don’t carry backpacks (some places now ban them), don’t use a money belt (considered a sign you are carrying great wads of cash), and don’t carry a bulging wallet in your back pocket - better to carry a light-weight shoulder bag for daily needs. Only carry cash and cards you need for the day. After making a purchase, take the time to put your money/card away and close the zips. Italy is a “cash society” so you will surely need to use the automatic tellers. Best to do it with someone watching your back. On a good note, there is very little personal violence and almost none from the local population against tourists.

Choosing where to eat, what to drink - how to pay

Most places Discovering Italy recommends do not open their doors for dinner until 7:30PM. Italians do tend to take the evening meal after 8PM, often later. You may note, in particular that Venice is the exception where they eat earlier and close earlier. This is mostly for practical reasons as few Venetians actually live in the lagoon area (they can no longer afford it) and need to travel back to the mainland each night by train. The only people you see eating a meal at 6:30PM up to 8:00PM will be tourists. If you want the REAL experience, look for places in smaller residential areas away from high tourist spots, where menus are only in Italian and you need to grapple with what's on offer. You will rarely be disappointed. But also be aware, many of these smaller establishments will not take credit card, only cash. Even one of our all time favourites in Rome, very popular with the local community, still only takes a cash payment. So, be brave, eat local, eat later . . .

                      

Coffee Culture – what to ask for / what you get

There are many rituals surrounding the coffee culture in Italy. Any kind of milk with coffee is only taken in the morning and NEVER after a meal (cappuccino is always served luke warm). All coffee is espresso, a single shot black is simply un caffè, always taken standing at the bar, in one shot – hence the cooler temperatures. A caffè lungo or americano will get you a “long black,” caffè corretto will add a shot of grappa!!

Florence has one of the most famous caffè cultures and you will find yourself spoilt for choice. Some of it does come at a cost, but who cares? This is Florence AND, it will be money well spent as a very pleasant respite from the summer masses – also coffee places here (as in all of Italy) are also bars serving alcohol – at any time of day! So, choose your spot for that magical late night grappa or limoncello, and don’t forget the sweet Vin Santo to dip the wonderful cantucci (almond biscuits).

Hotel Accommodation & the City Tax

DI hopes you have chosen your hotel (with good advice) not only according to your budget but, and more importantly, according to location. Location is EVERYTHING when you have a limited time with lots to achieve.

DO NOTE, if you booked yourself and not through DI (we always include it), you will be asked to pay a City Tax on departure. This is a per person/per night charge that goes to the city and not to the hotel. They are required by law to make this charge. It varies according to the star rating of your accommodation, typically between €2.50 to €4.50. However, each city applies this for a different number of consecutive nights, for example, for 5 nights in Rome and 7 in Florence. So do be aware, it is a valid charge.

Making Purchases

On a similar note, Italian vendors are not required by law to include the purchase tax. It is typically 22% on top of the value of the goods. Do make sure when looking at prices and do ask before purchase, does it include IVA (ee-vah)?

As a tourist, you may be able to get a refund once you depart BUT, you do need to spend around €150 on purchases in one shop to be eligible.

Using Public Transport & Taxi Protocols

Wherever you are, using the local transport is an economic and fun (!) way to move around.

In Rome the public bus system (ATAC) is great. The BIT is 70’ in one direction; BIG is a full day in any direction - both with multiple changes). Available from tabbachi (newsstands) or at Termini or automated machines – some hotels also keep them at the desk. Ask also which buses they recommend for your journey. Once at the bus stop, check the board – and DIRECTION – to know where to get off. You MUST stamp tickets in the machines on board for the first journey.

In Venice, the vaporetti ply the canals in all directions with clear boards at each stop as well as on the boarding pontoons. Do also check the DIRECTION and ask as you board if unsure. You can buy some tickets (with cash) on board but at a premium, some stops now have automated machines for ticket vending but better to arrange all at the beginning of your journey for the number of days you need, then once “validated” at the first use, you no longer need to worry and can jump on and off as you decide. BUT, never forget that these "buses" are also the only way Venetian residents can get to and from places for ALL their daily chores so, even in the heightened crush of summer crowds, do be respectful. Consider how you would feel if your only means of transport each day was suddenly over run by overzealous holiday makers.

TAXIS – in general you cannot “flag” a taxi but must find a taxi rank, call or order one from the hotel. Taxis in Rome are good value but do note, you pay extra for each bag you put in the boot and also on Sundays and holidays. Ignore the touts at Termini Station or the airport and use only licensed, metered cabs (white with "taxi" lights on the roof and a “Comune di Roma” sign on the doors. There are also UBER taxis in Rome now.

   

  

  

  Understanding Cultural Differences – the Italian Mindset

While we may consider we work hard enough, Italians certainly work harder, even though it may not look like it at a glance as they stand leaning up against the shop front or taking their time over a meal, chatting in the bars and on the street corners. All it means is that here, amongst these beautiful, characterful people, they know how important it is to make contact with each other, to keep certain things, such as mealtimes, sacred and to take time to interact and engage with those around them. Ask an Italian for directions and they will almost always walk you to your destination or at least try to help, even if they really don’t know. While life can be difficult at times, and their own spaces overrun with demanding tourists, take a moment to smile and to say a few words and you will be instantly rewarded.

 
 Responsible Tourism and What you can Do

 There is a shadow falling over many popular destinations as they struggle to keep up with the demands (and demanding nature) of mass tourism. What once counted as an economic boon now sees local populations and traditional local stores, services and artisan crafts dwindle to an alarming rate, being replaced by cheap trinkets, tourist memorabilia and franchised eateries. In these places, targeted by the large travel industry giants, it is becoming increasingly difficult for genuine “travellers” to find the original charm and unique quality that first inspired that earliest of travel writing, where it is possible still to connect with the locals, eat the local cuisine in a trattoria run by generations of the same family, appreciate how the local populace goes about the business of living and surviving, where shops and services exist to serve their needs and where Italian (or the local dialectic version of it) is by far, the predominate language heard in the streets. This is, after all, what we travellers seek, that special connection to people, to their long-held traditions and to a different way of life. And, above all, to do it with grace and great respect for the traditions and local populace; it is not a “theme-park” history frozen in time we seek but rather that simple pleasure of getting to know and understand someone else’s place in the world and all that goes with it.

It is difficult to advise some, those who “bring their own Italy with them; they stubbornly see, taste, experience and remember uniquely the country of their wishes.” But for you, DI travellers, we know you want to know and understand the real Italy that is still there waiting for you. So, how is it possible to come to this magical peninsula, see all you want to see and yet still practice a “responsible tourism” that minimises all the negative impacts while yet enhancing the benefits to and respecting the rights of the local populace? There are some very simple rules to follow and it starts with every individual “traveller.”

If possible, travel out of high season (winter travel is magic); choose the days of the week to minimise local impact (not on Sundays); and the time of day (try midday or late afternoon); seek out local artisan products (ask the provenance of what you are buying); ask the locals where they would go for a meal and try it out rather than buying from street vendors which means adding to the rubbish pile up and eating on the streets; buy a bottle of water or a coffee BEFORE asking to use the toilet at a bar; be respectful of where and how you take photos (many places now ban the use of “selfie-sticks”); engage the locals in conversation, try out your smattering of language and, above all, never forget that the places you visit are there first and forever for the local population, and your journey will be all the more memorable.