“Eat the spaghetti to forget your regretti”
Chances are, you’ve heard of this wonderful country called Italy, properly pronounced “eat-ah-lee”, known to most everyone else as “id-uh-lee”. According to World Atlas, Italy is the #5 most visited country in the entire world, which I found to be surprisingly low on the list. However, it’s no surprise that people flock to this boot-shaped country each year, eager to experience Italy’s renown culinary scene and view some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, ranging from the rolling hills of Tuscany and wine vineyards of Chianti, to the dramatic cliffs of the Riviera in Cinque Terre, to the soaring heights of the Dolomites and the sparkling seas of the Mediterranean. With 51 UNESCO world heritage sites, Italy’s protected beauty should be a must on your travel bucket list.
We spent exactly one month in Italy with a rental car in August (peak season and HOT season), visiting 17 cities and regions North of Rome. (We will have to come back another time to visit the South of Italy.) You can view the specific cities and regions in my separate blog posts below:
Whether you’re planning a trip to Italy in the future or you’ve already visited and loved it so much you want to return, here are 20 things you should know before you travel to Italy: (If I missed any, feel free to leave them in the comments below!)
1) People actually say “Mamma Mia!” for anything ranging from “no way” to “wow” to, “you have got to be kidding me”. It spans a wide emotional range and is a wonderful expression of life.
2) Italians are passionate. If you see an Italian speaking without their hands gesticulating feverishly, voice raising and arms flailing about, I am sorry to tell you that this person is not Italian.
3) You will hear the word, allora everywhere you go. If you’re curious like me, you’ll probably wonder what in the heck this means and why everyone is saying it. Albeit a bit anticlimactic, it is simply a filler word such as so, okay, well or the. It is also a way to begin a sentence.
4) It is polite to say “buon appetito!” to anybody who is about to enjoy a meal, even if you are walking past them and they are strangers. I witnessed a beautiful human interaction while in La Spezia near Cinque Terre: two punky-looking twenty-something-year-old guys were sitting on a bench smoking a cigarette and eating junk food (chips and a hamburger), pants low around their hips exposing their boxers. An elderly lady with a walking cane was walking towards them with a look of scorn on her face. I thought she would give them a dirty look as she passed, thinking they were a bunch of young hooligans. Instead, as she approached, she gave them a big smile and said, “buon appetito!” Making eye contact with her, the two guys returned the smile and replied with, “grazie signora.” And she went on her way. I thought this was such a sweet encounter and not something I often see in America. The level of respect here for elders is lovely, and I’ve noticed it all over Italy. It warms my heart.
5) Gelato (ice cream in Italian) is not just a dessert, it is its own food group and a way of life. Especially in Tuscany, gelato merely becomes an accessory, like a must-have item of your everyday wardrobe (and if you’re clumsy like my Fiance, you may also end up inadvertently wearing it on yourself so that it literally does become a physical part of your wardrobe ;)). In the 30 days we spent in Italy, we consumed a total of 30 gelato (between the two of us), coming out to a total spend of $107. Best. Money. Spent. Ever. Also, we lost weight and gained muscle. That’s what happens when you live by the sea and swim and/or hike nearly every day. 🙂
6) Most restaurants stop serving food between the hours of 3:00 – 7:30 PM, which I appropriately named “the starvation window”, as we made the mistake several times before we learned why nobody was serving food, and ended up hungry and grumpy, eventually succumbing to tiding ourselves over with a few gelato (I know, tough life, right? I guess I’ll eat a gelato for a snack before dinner, twist my arm.) Be sure to grab food either before or after those time frames, and have some snacks handy or search for a grocery store nearby if you get hungry!
*Note: the restaurant may still stay open, but will only serve drinks, nuts or bread, so you can’t always follow the hours listed on TripAdvisor or Google.
7) Is tipping necessary in Italy? The short answer is: no. Tipping culture does not exist in Italy, so if you’re paying with cash, simply round to the nearest euro. If the service was really outstanding, feel free to leave a few euro extra. It will be highly appreciated but never expected. This goes for all services from dining to haircuts, manicures, cafes, massages, etc.
8) Coperto – this is a standard fee in nearly all Italian restaurants across the country and is a service or “tableware” charge. In some restaurants, part or all of this charge goes to the server, which is why tipping is not necessary.
9) Prices on the menu include the tax and sometimes the coperta, but it should say so in the menu if this is the case.
10) You might receive this look if you bring your own bottled water to a restaurant:
11) When you order an espresso or light snack such as a panini, if you don’t want to pay the coperto (service charge), then don’t sit down at a table. Once you sit, you are charged the coperto. If you drink the coffee and eat your snack at the bar (this is very common and you will see locals doing it all the time), you’ll avoid the coperto (which is typically €2 per person).
12) How to order meals in Italy: The first time an Italian menu was put in front of us, this is pretty much what we looked like:
As we spent more time here, we slowly figured it out, so here is a short guide that will hopefully help you avoid confusion!
Antipasti – appetizer, usually smaller dishes
Primi/Primo/Minestre – first course. These dishes are often the same portion size as a secondi dish, so it is perfectly acceptable to order a primi as your main
Secondi/Secondo – second course
*Note: You do not have to order a primi AND a secondi. There is no written rule on how you should order. Have a look around you and see what the portion sizes are and that should help you determine how much you need based on the level of your appetite
Pasta and Pizze (pizza) are often in their own categories
Cantorni – side dishes. Unlike in America where most mains come with a starch, a vegetable and a protein, in Italy dishes are typically served a la carte. For example, a whole fish will simply come on a plate with a few slices of carrot as a garnish. A pasta dish will be only pasta with its accompanied sauce. If you want extra veggies, you must order them as a side dish.
Dolci – dessert
Mare – seafood
Terra – meat
*Note: Some servers may make you feel pressured into ordering much more food than you can eat, so always start off with one or two dishes and see how you go. Italian food is very starchy with lots of carbs, which expand quickly in your stomach and make you feel full quite quickly. Unless you are in a big, bustling city like Rome where they appreciate that people are in a hurry, meals will take a long time because they expect that you will sit for several hours. Meals are a way for people to interact, drink wine, have a full course, eat dessert, enjoy an espresso, and a meager three hours later, finally make their way home. Don’t expect quick service in Italy. If you’re on a timeline, you can either let the server know (if you can communicate it in Italian, though expect a potential sassy look or remark), get a grab-and-go fast food pizza, or cook at home.
13) The 15th of August begins a holiday called Ferragosto, where it seems that nearly half of Italy shuts down and heads to the sea for their holiday. This means that many shops and restaurants in cities (even large ones like Torino) will be closed and will look like a ghost town. The plus side: you get the city to yourself!
Driving in Italy
14) There are SOS pullouts everywhere. These are also very commonly used for “pee breaks” if there are few rest areas around, as you will see toilet paper everywhere, which is a shame because of the litter.
15) Be prepared for tolls; they are everywhere. You’ll take the ticket first and pay later upon exiting. The price will be determined by the distance you drove. Of our transportation costs, $280 were in tolls. We passed 35 tolls in our 30 days here.
16) Rent a car with diesel because diesel gas is cheaper in Italy.
17) All Italian rental cars come with a self-adjusted timer on the right corner of the windshield inside the car. This is for when you park somewhere that requires you to pay for a specific amount of time. For example, if the limit is three hours and you arrive at 12 noon, you set your car timer to 15:00 hours so the parking maids know the time you arrived.
18) Watch out for limited traffic zones, which exist in many cities. They are marked as a white sign with a red circle in the middle, that says “zona a traffico limitado” with a video camera atop. If you accidentally go through one of these, you’re unfortunately out of luck because the camera will take a photo of your license plate and send the bill to your rental car agency up to one year later!!! There is a slight chance that we have gone through at least one of these, as they are sometimes difficult to spot, or not in obvious areas! I guess we will find out in the next year if we receive a ticket or not. I’ve heard that the ticket fine is upwards of €200, so let’s hope we didn’t make that boo-boo accidentally!
19) Just as in many other countries, the left lane is the fast lane. However, unlike in America where slow people in the fast lane get honked at, and the fast driver frustratedly gets into the right lane to pass, and then moves back into the left lane, in Italy if you drive slowly in the fast lane, you will be tailgated and flashed with brights until you move over. People will not pass you when you’re in the left lane, YOU are expected to move over, so unless you want a car hot on your tail for a good five minutes, you’d better move over when a fast car approaches, or simply stay in the right lane. You might deduct from this observation that Italians are stubborn, perhaps?
20) Fiats are everywhere. They’re manufactured in Torino (Turin) and they proudly support their local automaker!
We have compiled our own list of favorites in each category, so here goes!
Name of Restaurant: Locanda All’Antico Mulino
Town: Villafranca (40 minutes away from La Spezia near Cinque Terre)
What we Ate: Meat-filled raviolini with radicchio and gorgonzola crema
Name of Restaurant: Osteria Di Mezzo
Town: Salò, Lake Garda
What we Ate: Home-made tiramisu. This was a standard family recipe, but they put an innovative twist to it, but adding a chocolate cup atop the glass and pouring a hot, fresh espresso shot into the cup so that it all melts together.
Best Hike: Rifugio Alpini 7
Area: Dolomites, Northern Italy
Why we loved it: We saw a total of 4 other people on the trail the entire time, the views of the mountains are pristine, and there were several swimming holes and picturesque waterfalls along the way. The best part? Ending at the actual rifugio, tucked away at the top of a mountain only accessible by foot with a cold aqua frizzante (sparkling water) and hot, fresh, home-cooked food.
Cost: Your sweat and dedication to conquer nature
Best Swimming Hole: Marina in the (third) village of Corniglia, Cinque Terre
Why we loved it: few crowds, no sand so pristinely clear turquoise water, plenty of places to sunbathe on the rocks (not the most comfortable, but it’s fine if you alternate between swimming and laying out), excellent for snorkeling, and places to cliff jump/dive.
Best Walking City: Venice
Why we loved it: No cars allowed! Beautiful views everywhere, and feels like a fairytale maze with something interesting and surprising around every turn.
Downside: Mosquitoes. You’ve been warned.
Name of Chocolateria: Guido Gobino
Location: Turin (Torino)
Why we loved it: Friendly service, high-quality chocolate, and a nice interior cafe seating area as well as outdoor area
Downside: Pricey, but worth it!
Cost: €9 for their famous hot chocolate
Best For Nature: Dolomites National Park
Why we loved it: Completely raw, untouched, unspoiled beauty with hundreds of options for hiking trails ranging from relatively easy day trips to tough multi-day trekking.
Best Airbnb Hosts: Natalya (from Ukraine) and Francesco (from Puglia) in Vescovato
Why we loved them: It is true that an outstanding host can make a mediocre location feel like an experience of a lifetime because they want to give and share so much with you, including all their knowledge about the area they are so proud of. On my 30th birthday, which I spent an entire world away from family and friends (but with my Fiance), our host woke up early to make me home made tiramisu for breakfast, complete with lit candles and a gift. To say they went above and beyond to make our stay a highlight, would be an understatement. They now feel like our long-time relatives and we would happily host them in our future home any day! We also loved their animals (two cats, Phoebe & Lilia and dog, Whisper)
You can find their Airbnb link (private room in shared home) here
HOW MUCH MONEY WE SPENT IN 30 DAYS IN ITALY
This was by far our most expensive country but also where we splurged the most since we are nearing the end of our travel adventure. We visited the most museums in Italy than in any other country, and the cost of food is the highest out of all the countries we have visited so far. Our rental car was a huge portion (nearly 1/6th) of our overall monthly expenses, but it enabled us to see so much more of the country and have the freedom to travel wherever we wanted to without booking in advance.
|Category Description||Total Amount Spent in 32 Days||Per Diem|
|Clothing, Gifts & Accessories||$105.22||$3.51|
|Entertainment & Leisure||$570.66||$19.02|
- Of our Transportation costs, $280 were in tolls. We passed 35 tolls in our 30 days in Italy
- Of our Transportation category, $1,085 was for our rental car for 36 days (we spent three days in Rome without a car and picked it up in the Vatican. This included our 8-day trip to France)
- Of our Eating Out category, $107 went to gelato. We ate a total of 30 gelatos (between the two of us) during our 30 days in Italy (averaging one a day!)