Italy » 10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Traveling to Italy

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Travel is a wonderful way to discover the world. Each destination presents the opportunity to learn about its people, its history, its traditions and its customs. But discovery isn’t always a good thing. Some things are better known in advance! Here are 10 things I wish I’d known before traveling to Italy for our 21day road trip.

1 – Everything is small and narrow, especially the roads. 

When traveling to Italy, rent a smaller car than you normally would and adjust your luggage accordingly. You’ll notice a lot of FIAT 500s in the roads. They are popular for good reason: can nimbly navigate Italian traffic and fit into small places. A smaller car is great for fitting in small parking spots and navigating very narrow streets built centuries ago for foot traffic.

Hotel rooms are also much smaller and more compact than we expected. Bulky luggage will leave less room for guests.

Narrow street in Siena’s old quarter

2- There are lots of stairs… everywhere!

Lugging a heavy suitcase around is a bad idea. Pack lighter and smaller! Use compression bags to fit more items into a smaller, lighter suitcase. Do you really need ten pairs of shoes?

Also, if you have mobility issues, it will take longer to get around. On the plus side, it’s great cardio! Even relatively flat cities like Venice, Florence and Milan have their share of staircase. For the Milan Duomo rooftop visit you’ll need to climb 256 stairs. Fortunately there’s an elevator to the top.

An ancient staircase in Manarola, Cinque Terre.

3 – It’s pronounced Brusketta – not bruchetta. 

When traveling to Italy, pay attention to how you pronounce things. Getting Bruschetta wrong is a common mistake and an important one to correct. Get it right and you’ll avoid an eye-roll and a laugh from your waiter when you order.

Getting it wrong is a dead giveaway that you’re a tourist, not that the way you dress hadn’t already made that obvious! Everyone in Italy is so stylish.

Delicious Bruschetta on the Piazza del Duomo in Siena, Tuscany

4 – Plan for all kinds of weather

What we learned is that the weather in Italy very inconsistent. Temperatures and weather vary widely from region to region and from morning to evening. Depending on the time of year, plan on light attire for the sweltering Tuscan heat, and a light weatherproof jacket when visiting the Ligurian coastline. It’s hard to reconcile “travel light” with the fluctuating weather, but remember this. You can wear the same item more than once. And do a little laundry along the way.

A stylish wool scarf can make eating dinner outdoors a more comfortable experience.

5 – At the restaurant, service is included, unless it’s not.

Generally speaking, service is included at most restaurants. Same with taxi cabs. But in more “touristy” areas, restaurateurs and wait staff sometimes try to take advantage of the fact that we’re used to adding a 15% to-20% gratuity.

Some restaurants add SERVICE NOT INCLUDED in caps on the bill. Others will ask “would you like to add something” as they hand you the payment terminal.

A lovely garden terrace in San Quirico d’Orcia. The excellent service was included


6 – People drive fast, so get out of the way 

Italy is the land of the sportscar. So, I was expecting fast on the Autostrade with its 130 km/h speed limits. But there’s fast and then there’s Italian fast! Just get out of the way!

Remember to stay in the center or righthand lane unless passing. And when you do so, look behind you in the far-off distance for oncoming cars. At a top speed of 292 km/h, a Porche can overtake you in seconds. Pass with great care or stay in your lane!

This Porche, seen on the streets of Florence is a pure work of art that’s right at home in Florence..

7 – Choose your ATMs with care. 

In North America, most ATMs are safe to use. And they usually tack on a small service charge. In Italy, it’s buyer beware! Some ATM networks like Euronet charge a hefty fees and a horrible exchange rate. Many establishments who install these pricy ATMs get paid a commission on each transaction. Instead, go to a bank ATM affiliated with the Plus System mor use your credit card for a cash advance.

8 – House Wine is usually amazing value. 

Contrary to the plonk that passes for wine in North America, the House Wine in Italy is usually excellent and produced locally. Sometimes only steps away from the restaurant. We only learned this halfway through our trip and probably missed out on some excellent wine. While traveling to Italy, make a point to try as much local fare as possible. You’ll be delighted if you do.

Sampling the local Vermentino in Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre.

9 – There are traffic cams EVERYWHERE!

The Autovelox traffic cams number in the 10,000s in Italy. And usually located in places where the speed limit changes abruptly from 130km/h to 90 km/h. Yikes! Keep your eyes focused in the distance to see speed changes coming. And don’t be surprised if a speeding ticket lands in your mailbox several months after your trip. They can and will track you down.

10 – Spaghetti Bolognese is NOT a thing!

Spare yourself the embarrassment when ordering dinner. There’s no such thing as spaghetti Bolognese. It is “Tagliatelle al Ragù”, a traditional dish from the region of Bologna. Tagliatelle are broad noodles unlike spaghetti. And Italian Ragù sauce has nothing to do with the American tomato and meat sauce that goes by the name of Bolognese. It’s savoury and delicious! The meat used can be beef or veal, and sometimes duck or wild boar. Yummy! There are plenty of excellent recipes online to try before you travel so you know what to expect.

Also, there’s no such thing as Alfredo sauce.