What to Expect When Traveling to Italy for the First Time

My first trip out of North America was to Italy. I was in college and my (overly kind) mother booked us a 10-day trip through Venice, Florence, and Rome. Sure, I had seen plenty of movies, but I still didn’t know what to expect when traveling to Italy for the first time.

In fact, it is probably those very movies that color so many expectations for first-time visitors. Italy is indeed a beautiful country full of art, history, food, and wine, but it is still somewhat different from the Hollywood version.

Instead, here is what you should know before traveling to Italy for the first time:

Some of the “Italian” menu items you love are not actually Italian. I arrived in Italy dreaming of perfectly fresh pesto coating my pasta.  What I didn’t realize is that Italian food is incredibly regional and unless you find yourself in Liguria, you probably won’t find much pesto on the menu. Also not on the menu? Classics like spaghetti and meatballs. There is spaghetti, and there are meatballs, but they are served separately as a first and second course. If you are traveling to Italy for the first time, I highly recommend researching the local specialties or asking the waiter to suggest a plate of the day so that you can sample some of the more traditional food.

Rome Food Tour pasta

Even if it IS on the menu, it’s probably not available “to-go.” Dreaming of sipping your grande cappuccino while seated on the edge of the Trevi Fountain? I hate to be the one to tell you but: that is literally impossible. First, eating and drinking is simply not done in public. I figured this out the first time I popped open a bag of potato chips while walking in Venice. Non si fa – it is simply not done. Same goes for coffee, which is usually enjoyed while standing at the bar. (Or please be aware that it will literally cost more if you have it while seated at a table – another thing that I didn’t expect!) However, aside from the cultural dining differences in Italy as a whole, it is literally illegal to eat near any monument in Rome.  Better to find a restaurant with outdoor tables if you want to enjoy your (sit down) meal al fuori.

Mealtime is sacred. Some people think that Italy observes “siesta” time, Spanish-style. This is not the case. However, many shops and businesses do close between 1 and 4 pm.  Rather than time for napping, this is time for eating, meeting friends and family, and relaxing. One thing you should except is that mealtimes in Italy tend to arrive slightly later – 1 pm for lunch and 8 pm for dinner. In fact, many restaurants only open at 8 pm, so if you get hungry before then you can partake in the Italian custom of ‘aperitivo’ – a drink and small snacks to ready your appetite.

renato e luisa restaurant in Rome

Customer service is different. Though greeting people is 100% essential, one of the things I realized early on during my first trip to Italy (and again when I moved to Rome full time) is that customer service is very very different. There are no waiters fawning over your every need, nor do they present the bill to encourage you to move on. In fact, you might have to physically wave someone down when you are ready to pay. This different attitude can be interpreted as brusque, but it is simply the way service works in Italy – which means that gratuity varies as well. Here is a guide to tipping in Italy so you know what to expect on the bill and how much to leave behind.

Traveling in Italy is very DIY: Some people in Italy do speak English, but it is not the norm. Most instructions for things like picking up your bags at the airport or getting the right train to Florence is all going to be in Italian. That means that planning your trip to Italy is going to take a tiny bit of work (but it will be totally worth it). However, the idea of figuring out a foreign system in another language can be totally daunting. If you want to have your first trip to Italy be a bit more stress-free, you might want to consider booking a tour that takes the guesswork out of booking a flight, getting to and from the airport, and finding a hotel you might want to consider a Rome package trip. You might give up some ability to customize little details but you can also find some amazing deals on trips to Italy.

Business hours vary. In addition to closing for lunch, many businesses keep abbreviated hours on the weekends so it is good to plan activities ahead of time. Expect many businesses to stay open only on Saturday morning (until about 1:30 or 2 pm). If they are open on Sunday, it is likely only in the morning as well. In addition, many restaurants close on Monday so keep that in mind if there is somewhere special that you are dying to eat during your first time in Italy!

You don’t need a car. Driving through Italian wine country is incredible, but you don’t technically need a car to travel within Italy. Because I was coming from an American city without great public transportation, I wasn’t sure I could figure out how to use buses, trains, and metros in Italy. However, it is one of the most cost-effective ways to move around the country. I didn’t expect train travel to be so common and so easy.  Just remember to validate your tickets on the platform for the train, or when boarding the bus, because many tickets are sold without a fixed date and must be stamped to be considered official.  And if you do plan to drive, please note that automatic transmission vehicles actually cost almost double the price to rent because manual transmission is much more common in Italy. You should plan to use toll roads frequently or be prepared to drive slowly on the narrow country lanes. Here is a guide on how to buy train tickets in Italy.

High season is serious business. More than 50 million tourists visit Italy every year. If your itinerary looks like monument BINGO, you might feel like you are bumping into all 50 million at once. While there are plenty of must-see sights, you will probably feel the burn out creeping in if you treat Italy like a checklist destination. Build some off the beaten path options into your plans and find the more unexpected corners of Rome in order to take a break from the inevitable crowds. If your trip really must happen during high season, then here are tips to survive Rome in summer.

Was there anything else you didn’t expect when you traveled to Italy the first time? Do you have any tips for new visitors?

Ready to plan your first trip to Italy? Here are the best hotels in Rome to get you started.

37 thoughts on “What to Expect When Traveling to Italy for the First Time

  1. Sophia says:

    Great points there! One thing I didn’t expect the first time I visited Italy was that they prefer cash to credit cards (not common for non-touristy places), and they absolutely prefer to have the exact change when you pay in cash (no big notes), even it means you have to take forever to search for the little coins when there are literally 10 people queuing behind you! Ha ha.

  2. Michelle R says:

    I also was surprised by the cash preference — I’ve been three times, and if anything, I’ve noticed retailers and restaurants becoming LESS open to accepting large bills. Last time I visited, in 2014, I tried to pay for a 25 euro lunch with a 100 euro bill and they literally would not accept it. They pointed to an ATM and said I could get a smaller bill. So when I go back this month, I’m loaded up with only 10s and 20s!

    • Natalie says:

      Ugh! So annoying, but 100% accurate. I try to break big bills at stores and supermarkets when I know I will need smaller bills later

  3. Jude says:

    The lack of public lavatories…apparently there are only four in the whole of Rome !! Instead, and who wants to use public lavatories anyway, make sure you use the facilities every time you stop at a cafe / osteria / bacaro.

    • Natalie says:

      I don’t know that I have ever seen one in Rome! And yes- agree that you can order a coffee to use the restroom at a bar — probably your best bet!

  4. Lisa Barr says:

    One thing I didn’t expect was the length of time required for seemingly simple transactions–picking up a rental car, for example, or changing money (back in the old days before ATMs were widespread). It’s far more complicated when you move to Italy, I know, but we Americans expect everything to happen immediately. If that’s your expectation, you won’t be happy in Italy.

    The second thing is that many of us had it drilled into our heads that dining out required a full, multi-course meal, which really isn’t the case. Two courses are fine, and sharing (uno per due) is also perfectly acceptable.

    • Natalie says:

      True true true! Everything moves much slower- especially customer services.

      And for eating out, so true that you don’t need to plan on massive multi course meals. However, I would say that the appropriateness of sharing depends on the kind of restaurant.

  5. Dario says:

    Indeed.
    Most especially if you consider that the “Hollywood version”, from the Godfather to The Sopranos, as well as most of the US press, actually offers a very UNFLATTERING portrait of Italy.

  6. Ducos-Restagno Christine says:

    Very nice article! I’ve been living between France and Italy for about 20 years. I can assure you that talking to people in their language makes a huge difference wherever you go. If you really want to discover Italy, and not just its wonderful restaurants, shops, beaches, museums, etc, you should try and speak some Italian! There are some really nice apps such as VidaLingua that will allow you to meet the Italian people 😉

  7. john sheffield says:

    I recently spent some relaxing days in a peaceful location in Tuscany https://goo.gl/kBTCKK. The place was amazing and enchanting as in my dreams…back to the very unflattering portrait of Italy, what I did not expect was the lack of job opportunities especially for young people.
    I had the chance to talk to some of them and it was very sad.

  8. Pingback: Rome. What to expect.. – almost Rome

  9. Amrita Sodhi says:

    Great tips Natalie,any itinerary you suggest for 1st timers.I was thinking to do New Delhi-Rome-Florence-Palermo-Milan-New Delhi.
    Is it okay to include a few days in the South(Sicily) in my 1st trip or stick to Northern Italy ??
    I have about two weeks to spend and don’t want to rush the trip to include too many destinations.
    What’s your idea ?
    Thanks in advance 🙂

  10. dena says:

    Keep a water bottle from hotel or one you purchased and you can refill from several fountains all over Rome that is nice and cold. Also noticed stores kept the change from something purchased, they would give me the bills , but kept several nickels and pennies change. I also like purchasing bottles of wine from the locals that were selling in the markets or on street booths , and would them very good and cheap. Also take time to buy a bottle or glass of wine in sit at a restaurant in the piazza novena and people watch. And sometimes can get a conversation with another tourist, or local.

  11. Sterling Archer says:

    I went to Italy in 2012, and you actually forgot to put a few of the lesser “quaint” things on this list;

    Maps are useless. Why? Because at least in Rome, there are no street signs. You’d think that with all the things that Italy and Rome as a civilization gave us over the centuries, someone would have said “Hey Flavius, you know what would be a good idea? If we put a sign here at the intersection where the streets meet, that way everyone will know where they are!!”.

    Public transportation is equally useless. They’ve had seventy years to improve the metro system and haven’t. It’s like they shrugged and said “Eh, whatta ya gonna do?”.

    A Smart phone with GPS will be your best friend. Seriously, with the way the streets are laid out and how there’s no street signs anywhere, this will be a sure fire to make sure you will not get lost repeatedly.

    Pack an umbrella. Because Italy is on the Mediterranean the moisture from the sea rolls in and hits land, and because of the change in air pressure it falls as rain. It rains every day. So make sure you have an umbrella handy. You’ll need it.

    Bring some light clothes. If you’re traveling in the South, it will get hot. So dress accordingly.

    STAY IN AN AMERICAN HOTEL. I know everyone wants that whole quaint little hotel in the middle of Europe experience, but honestly don’t do it. With American hotels there’s standards they have to meet, so you know that the rooms will be the same from New York to London, Rome, Moscow, Tokyo, or Sydney. The hotel I stayed in was terrible. “Grand Palatino”? There wasn’t anything “grand” about it. It looked like it hadn’t been renovated since the late 80’s, and when I checked into any other hotel the first thing they’d do was scan my credit card. They made a Xerox copy, that I had to ask for when I checked out. Has magnetic scanning technology not made it to Southern Italy yet?

    Hopefully these tips will make the trip for some more bearable. Unlike most I absolutely despised Italy and have no desire to go back. It rained constantly, and I got lost for hours often in the rain. The hotel was terrible. The food was mediocre. And after a while one pile of bricks started to look like another. When I saw the Circus of Maximus I said “wow, this chariot stadium that held two hundred thousand people is now a giant… empty… field”. I arrived on a Saturday and by that Tuesday things were going so bad I was contemplating checking out of my hotel and catching a flight up to Copenhagen, but I said (and foolishly so) “no, I paid my money so I’ll stick it out”. By that Friday after seeing what was left of the Baths of Caracalla I said “that’s it, I’ve seen enough”, and I waited out the rest of my trip in my hotel room. Fortunately I only had that Saturday and I was leaving on Sunday.

    I’ve had some people say to me “oh, you sound like a typical American who couldn’t accept that things were different”, and I say to them that this wasn’t my first rodeo. I’ve been to six different countries, and by far Italy was the WORST experience, with Copenhagen, Denmark and Oslo, Norway being tied for the best. But the absolute worst part is that my father had been after me to go to Italy for years, and I couldn’t tell him about what a terrible experience I had.

    Anyone who was thinking of going to Italy or Rome I would say to them don’t. Speaking from experience I’d recommend going somewhere off the beaten track like Denmark or Norway. After having been to Rome and I’d say that if I never returned, it would be too soon for me.

  12. Avery says:

    While I was studying abroad this past semester, I visited Rome but it was only for a short two days. I wish I could have stayed longer to explore the entirety of its beauty. I hope to go back some day and take my time and enjoy the city!

  13. Shawn says:

    I’d love to visit Italy; it sounds amazing. I like the idea of “aperitivo” too. I’d really enjoy just chilling and getting something to eat with friends during a weekday afternoon.

  14. Carolyn says:

    These are some great tips that I’m sure most people are unaware of! I’ll keep these in mind when booking my trip to Sicily. I love the idea of booking through a package deal to make booking more convenient. Thanks for the tips!

  15. Michael says:

    My girlfriend and I really want to visit here, and these are all great things to take into consideration. It is interesting how different things in other countries can be!

  16. Allison says:

    I have always wanted to visit Italy. The country has so much to offer and I love how people take time out of their day to spend time with their family and relax! Thanks for the advice!

  17. Fiona says:

    I really wish to go to Rome one day and will use this as a guide!!! Rome is so beautiful, so much to see and so much culture. Thanks for the read!

  18. Paul says:

    I have traveled extensively throughout Europe, but have not visited Italy. I’m glad to know Italy relies so much on public transport. I wish America was more like this!

    • Natalie says:

      It works quite well here! And I am so used to it now that I really miss not having a good public system when I am back in the US. Especially since I don’t own a car there any more.

  19. Julie says:

    If you shouldn’t eat and walk, what other choices are there for a family of 5? I don’t want to eat in at a restaurant every night, and was thinking of pizza by the slice for lunches. Where do we eat them?

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