The Country itself:
The country is located in South Western Europe and borders France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia. It has a population of about 60 million and the official language is Italian, although English is also spoken in most major cities. You may also be able to get by on some of the neighbouring languages, depending on what part of the country you are in. For example, near the Austrian and Swiss borders German is also widely spoken. The country is composed of many different provinces, most of which have a unique Italian dialect, culinary dishes and history. There are also two independent countries within Italy’s boundaries: Vatican City (within Rome, West-Central Italy) and San Marino (about half way between Venice and Rome, nearer to Italy’s Eastern coast). Although there is tons to see in Italy, these two small countries are also worth a visit!
When to visit:
Italy is more or less open to tourism year round, although summer hours of operation (starting early April/May) are often more convenient for travellers as they provide longer opening hours. Barring the most northerly parts of Italy, the country has a fairly balmy winter and so travelling within Italy around this time would not be as cold as some neighbouring countries. It’s best not to visit during school holidays, as tourist sites can double or triple in business. Summer time can often be very hot, even in the northern parts of the country, thus spring is probably the nicest time to visit Italy. When travelling in April/May, you can also dodge the influx of tourists that flock to Italian cities in the summer.
Italy has a lot of holidays! It seems like every week there was another holiday! There are many national holidays, such as Christmas (‘Natale’ in Italian, December 25th), Easter (‘Pasqua,’ a week long holiday for schools), Labour Day (‘Festa del Lavoro,’ May 1st) and Republic Day (‘Festa della Repubblica,’ June 2nd). Italians also celebrate Saint Days, which is a festival dedicated to local patron saints. On holidays, schedules are very limited, if open at all and public transport is none too frequent for independent travellers. Another holiday to note is two weeks in August where many citizens go on vacation, therefore many stores are closed! Even in Rome, we had trouble finding things open due to the holidays.
Hours of operation:
Italy’s time system usually uses the 24 hour clock, therefore after noon the clock continues rather than going back to one. For example 3:00 pm in the 24 hour clock is 15:00, therefore keep this in mind when booking tickets and flights.
In major tourist cities, stores are more or less open Monday through Sunday, over the course of the whole day (9:00 - 10:00 in the morning to 21:00 - 22:00). However in many smaller cities/towns or less touristic cities, shops are open much less frequently. They will open around 9 or 10 in the morning and will close for lunch from 13:00 – 13:30 and will re-open around 16:00 for another three or four hours, closing for the day between 19:00 and 20:00. Restaurants hours vary a great deal and they are often open until 23:00 at night. 24 hour establishments are not very common in smaller places, but you may be able to find them in bigger cities. Also beware of public transport at lunch hour as many people return home and the buses and metros can be very crowded!
Italy now uses the Euro (previously they used the Lira), which is conveniently also used in many of the neighbouring countries. As far as accessing your money within the country, they have atms and banks in nearly every city and town in the country. You should not have any trouble taking money out in Italy, although often four pin digit on bank cards are more widely accepted than 6 digit bank card pins. All major cities accept credit cards (Visa is best, but Mastercard is also widely accepted), although you may have trouble without cash in small villages.
Traveller’s cheques can be useful as a backup, but debit and credit cards are a much simpler method of accessing cash. Finding exchange offices and paying exchange fees can be a very tedious process.
There is accomodation catering to everybody’s wallet limit, from hostel’s to posh hotels. If you are looking for hostels, hostelworld.com is a useful tool as they offer ratings and comments to help you make up your mind (they also have some hotels and B & B’s listed on the site as well), but there are many other websites offering similar services. There is also http://www.ostellidellagioventu.org/
, which translates to ‘youth hostels’ in Italian. The site can be translated into English and offers listings of Italian hostels across the country. A comprehensive site for hotels and B & B’s is at http://www.bbplanet.com/
. Try to keep an open mind, as lodgings can vary a great deal from one spot to the next! In general though, Italy provides fairly clean and well-cared for accomodations.
If you are looking to spend more than a month in the same spot in Italy, another option is renting an apartment or house. Obviously this is a bit trickier than simply booking accomodations at a hotel/hostel, but this can often net significant savings.
Hand gestures are an important part of Italian interactions (and also a very definitive part of Italian stereotypes – for good reason!). It is said that hand gestures came about in Italy due to the influx of different foreign powers within Italy. This cultural and linguistic diversity made the languages and dialects more challenging to comprehend without visual help.
It is easy to get around Italy, but I would recommend different modes of transportation depending on the distance. For shorter hops, the train is a fairly dependable and cheap, although it does have a reputation for being frequently delayed (which I feel is rather undeserved!) Important: make sure to validate your train ticket before boarding, because they will fine you! Look for a small yellow-orange coloured machine at train stations, stick your ticket in and it will validate your ticket with the date and time. The stations usually have big boards displaying the arriving and departing trains and/or smaller displays alternating the same information.
However for longer rides the train can get quite costly as these routes are covered by fast direct trains, therefore in these cases when you want to cross the country flying with a cheap airline is often simpler. Ryanair, Easyjet and many other cheap airlines offer affordable flights within Italy. Be careful when using these airlines as they have very strict luggage limits (ranging from 15 to 20 kilograms for checked luggage) and charge exhorbantly for excess weight! If you are carrying a lot of luggage, it might be cheaper to find a flight with a major airline.
As with any country there are also some amazing sites that are best accessible by vehicle, as the public transportation is not terribly frequent. When renting a car, most will come in standard (rather than automatic), so if you are not familiar with standard vehicles, make sure to specify an automatic when renting the car. Italy is not known for its’ wide or straight roads, so when driving in Italy be careful! The roads are particularly tiny when visiting smaller towns and it is very easy to get stuck. However if you drive intelligently, a car is a great way to see the country!
Local buses are fairly good, but they often finish at early hours. In bigger cities, the metro is a much more convenient way to get around cities, as stops are well signposted. I cannot speak from experience about city-to-city buses, but personally if you have access to a train station, that is often the simpler way to get from place to place. Often in some cities the bus schedule is reduced during winter and the buses become much more frequent in the summer, typically increasing in April/May.
Keeping in touch:
Internet cafes are in all major tourist cities and many places also have wi-fi if you have your own laptop. Sometimes is smaller towns and cities it can be tricky to find an abundance of internet cafes! The going rate is usually a few Euros per hour.
Phone cards are an easy, cheap way to phone home. You can purchase them at most tabaccheria’s (little convenience stores) and they are fairly easy to use. Another option is to purchase a SIM card, provided you have your own cell phone, and then you can top up your phone whenever you want. You can also get SIM card top-ups at the tabaccheria’s. Make sure to have your cell phone number handy as they will need it in order to transfer the money to your phone.
Rome is believed to have been founded by the brothers Romulus and Remus, therefore you can often see statues of two little boys being suckled by wolves.
Things to do:
In Italy they truly have something for every traveller; there are outdoor activities, museums, shopping, historical sites and delicious food. The great thing about Italy is that in most major cities they have very comprehensive tourist offices that offer maps, activity suggestions and their publications are often in a variety of languages. If you visit Italy, Rome is a must! It has great museums, lot’s of interesting shops (catering to wealthy and ‘less-wealthy’ shoppers), a diversity of eateries and you are essentially walking through history as the city has existed there for over 2000 years.
Due to Italy’s ample coastline, there are many water sports to choose from. You can snorkel, go sailing, fishing, windsurfing and kayaking all over Italy. On land, Italy has many national parks where you can hike or cycle, as well as several trekking associations which organize hikes and walks all around the country.
One of my personal favourite National Parks is Cinque Terre National Park. The name means ‘Five villages’ and is located on Italy’s North-West coast. The park is named after the five small fishing villages located within its’ boundaries: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. The park is popular with Italians and foreigners alike.
The following website lists Italy’s National Parks:http://www.parks.it/indice/NatParks.html
Museums and Historical Sites:
Italy has some of the best museums and archaeological sites in the world, that display Italy’s vast historical past. From the world reknowned Vatican Museum (technically in Vatican City), to Pompei to the Colisseum to the dozens of Duomo’s (Cathedrals) dotting the country, Italy has an abundant and well preserved history. If you are going all of these spots are worth a visit! The Vatican Museum is one of my favourite museums, as it has an extensive collection, encompassing Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Etruscan (A people that lived in Italy before the Romans) periods.
A student card (ISIC is the best) can often net discounts at various historical sites (sometimes you can even get in for free!). If you qualify for the card, I really recommend having it as it’s useful both in Italy and in neighbouring countries.
The diversity of dishes found in Italy can scarcely be described in such a small section, but here goes. One thing is for certain, in Italy you need to have an empty stomach and a hearty appetite, as Italian meals are long multi-course affairs (particularly when visiting or staying with a family). Meals typically start with an antipasto, which is a mix of various coldcuts (like salami, prosciutto, etc.), cheeses and vegetables (olives, artichokes and oil and vinegar soaked vegetables). The ‘primo piatto’ (first plate) is often a pasta dish, or another filling substance. The ‘secondo piatto’ is usually a meat dish. Of course the meal is finished off with a lucious Italian dessert and wine is the norm during the meal.
The staples of pizza and pasta can be found almost anywhere, but if you want a more particular dish, say ‘lardo di Colonata’ you have to go to the source. ‘Lardo’ is lard, by the way, that is finely sliced and used as a type of coldcut for sandwiches. For this dish, you need to go to Colonata, a small town in the mountains near Carrarra (just south of Pisa, on the Western coast). Pesto, Parmesan cheese, prosciutto and tiramisù are all things that are well-known in other countries, but if you are willing to try there is a wealth of cuisine available to you in Italy unlike in any other country. Italy is food-lover’s paradise, unless you don’t like cheese, then you are in trouble! Just joking, Italy has many a dish without cheese although I would say that it is a staple of their diet.
I have only tried a small variety of Italian dishes, as I lived in the north, so if you have questions on the cuisine, my knowledge is more limited to the North-West. Essentials to any Italian experience are shots of espresso at a bar, which are a bargain at around a Euro, not to mention tasty! Foccaccia, though basic, is a tasty staple, and filling if you are on a budget! You can pick it up at grocery stores and most cafes, fresh! Gnocchi is a delicious take on pasta, made from potatoes and a very filling meal as well! A lot of restaurants also offer set menus which allow you to try several dishes for a set, often reasonable, price!
If you are based in an area of Italy, you are almost guaranteed to have markets every day of the week. Each city/town has a market per week, where you can by fresh produce, clothing, accessories, shoes and sometimes all sorts of surprises. Important: for the most part, you can only use cash in the markets, although sometimes high-end stalls will have a debit/credit machine on hand. However if you intend to spend, bring lot’s of cash!
There are also many stores around the country; you can find tourist shops specializing in local goods or clothing and shoe shops, nearly everywhere. Some areas have everything, while other regions have more specific goods.
While the tours listed at this website are quite costly, it provides a listing of lot’s of activities therefore it may be useful for research: http://www.city-discovery.com/country/Ital...ll-destinations
La Lingua (Language):
If you make a bit of an effort with the language, the people will be all the more willing to welcome you into their country.
Here is a bit of vocabulary:
Buon giorno (bon jorno) : Good day
Come stai/sta? (co-may sty/sta) : How are you(familiar)/you (more polite)?
Grazie (gra-zy-eh) : Thank you
Per favore/Per piacere (pear fav-o-ray/pear pe-a-chair-eh): Please
Prego (pray-go) : You are welcome
Quanto costa…? (kwanto costa) : How much is …?
Si (see) : Yes
Non (no) : No
Mi chiamo … (me key-a-mo) : My name is…
Dov’è …? (dove –eh) : where is …?
Hopefully my odd pronunciation guide is helpful!
Italy is a country that at first entices you with all it has to offer. No matter how many times you visit, you cannot help but fall deeper in love with its’ people and the experiences!
This list is by no means exhaustive as there are thousands of experiences to be had in Italy. If you have information to add, please do!
NB I am not a citizen of Italy, but I lived there for 3 months in 2009 and I’ve also travelled there 6 times. So at the very least I am well practiced at travelling around the country.