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I’ve spent a lot of time in Italy. I studied abroad in Florence, traveled up and down the peninsula, and seem to keep returning.
In that time, I’ve acquired a lot of knowledge about what to do and not to do in Italy. Here are my best tips for having a great time in Italy!
Italy in General
- Italy is great and much more tolerable outside peak season. Try not to visit in the summer, especially August, when Italians go away.
- Drivers in Italy get crazier the further south you go. City driving is for expert drivers only.
- Be prepared to cover up at churches — don’t wear shorts, and bring a scarf to cover your shoulders if necessary. If not, you might have to wear the dreaded paper shawl.
- Buy tickets to the most famous museums in advance, and don’t even think about not doing this in the high season.
- Know that everyone will be dressed MUCH better than you. If you want to blend in, wear lots of black, designer sunglasses, and great shoes.
- Ladies, if you need a self-esteem boost, go walk through a market. Every man will be telling you how beautiful you are.
Food in Italy
- Want to blend in? Don’t drink cappuccino after 10:00 AM.
- Don’t eat at any restaurant named after a monument, city or famous artist. These are usually geared toward tourists.
- For the best food, head for the source: Parma for prosciutto, Capri for ravioli caprese, Umbria for truffles, Tuscany for steaks, Liguria for pesto genovese. Beyond that, every town has its own specialty.
- Emilia-Romagna is Italy’s best food region, and Bologna, its capital, is Italy’s best food city.
- Drink the house wine — always. It’s delicious and almost laughably cheap for the quality that you get.
- Visit the Jewish Ghetto (Ghetto di Roma) for some Roman Jewish food the likes of which you won’t find elsewhere in Italy.
- Don’t visit the Vatican on a Monday — you get the overflow tourists from Sunday, when the sights are closed.
- Don’t expect to grab lunch around the Trevi Fountain — there is a surprising dearth of decent restaurants in this area.
- Bring an umbrella to the Forum if you’re sensitive to the sun — there’s very little shade.
- Go to Trastevere at night to experience typical Roman life, away from the tourist crowds.
- The best sunset view is from Castel Sant’Angelo, overlooking Saint Peter’s Basilica. Unreal.
- For a great view that nobody knows about, go to the department store across the street from Piazza della Reppublica and climb to the very top, including the unofficial-looking staircase on the top floor. There is a cafe up there with an amazing panoramic view of the city next to the Duomo.
- Get great shots of the Ponte Vecchio and the river from the Ponte delle Grazie, the bridge east of the Ponte Vecchio.
- Everyone goes to see the sunset at Piazzale Michelangelo, but go a bit further to San Miniato al Monte for an even better view at one of the city’s oldest churches.
- Go to Il Latini for the best Tuscan meal of your life.
- Some of the best restaurants are in the winding streets between Piazza della Reppublica and Piazza Santa Maria Novella.
- The best tiramisu is at Le Collinine, around the corner from Santa Croce.
- Florence is where you should buy quality souvenirs — buy gold (the city only permits 18k gold and up!) on the Ponte Vecchio and leather in the boutiques near Santa Croce.
- There is surprisingly good shopping in the basement of the train station!
- Don’t admire the statue of Neptune in Piazza della Signorina — Florentines consider it the worst art in the city, and it’s often debased.
- Visit Pisa, but don’t make a day of it — you don’t need to spend more than an afternoon.
- Pisa and Lucca, with the bulk of the time spent in Lucca, make an easy Tuscany day trip from Florence.
- Tuscany is still a great place to rent a villa for a week. The best Tuscany villas are the ones in towns that aren’t mentioned in your guidebook.
- The Chianti region is part of Tuscany, and October is harvest time.
- Fiesole is the easiest Tuscan day trip from Florence — just a 20-minute ride on the public bus!
- To see the most of Tuscany, rent a car — that way, you can hit up five towns or so in one day.
- Consider visiting Venice in winter. It’s far less crowded and the city gets an ethereal feel.
- If you’re going to ride in a gondola, just show up and wait. The gondoliers will do the bargaining for you.
- It may be less romantic, but cram as many people as you can into the gondola (up to six people) — the price is supposed to be the same, no matter the number of people.
- Get lost. Venice is a great city in which to wander the streets and end up in somewhere totally random.
- Don’t waste your money on a Bellini at Harry’s Bar — unless rich old people and package tourists are your kind of crowd.
- Take the boat to the island of Murano for a glassblowing demonstration — it’s definitely worth it.
- In Capri, the best things to do are in Anacapri — hike the island and take the chairlift up to Monte Solaro on top of the island.
- In Assisi, climb Rocca Maggiore, the tallest mountain in town, for an unspeakably scintillating view across miles and miles of the Umbrian countryside.
- In Orvieto, check out the instruments of medieval torture displayed in the middle of the town.
- In Santa Margherita, skip the beach and head to the art-selling markets instead.