Traveling to Italy is a bucket list dream for many. Knowing what to do, see, and eat before you arrive is essential to make the most of your precious time there.
A country seeped in ancient history and culture, Italy offers endless possibilities for the appreciation of art and music. Historical significance and natural beauty are everywhere you look.
You will eat well in Italy! While many common dishes unite the nation each Italian region has its own culinary specialties when it comes to food and drink. You’ll want to know what the best dish to eat and beverage to sip is according to the city you are visiting.
What to wear as you explore Italy is not only important to keep you fashionable, but comfortable, while you travel. No one wants to waste energy worrying about their wardrobe on vacation.
These practical tips and fascinating cultural tidbits will enhance your adventures in Italy.
Regional Differences in Italy
While Italy is made up of 20 different regions the most notable difference you will note as a traveler is between the north and the south.
In a general sense, people in the northern regions of Italy are very punctual. They value time and financial success and are more driven by these values.
People in the southern regions are known to be more relaxed about such things. They are thought to be friendly, warm, and enjoy a slower pace of life.
Italians throughout the country value social interactions with family and friends. An evening stroll through the neighborhood to go out to see and be seen is a popular tradition among all generations. They are known for their generosity of spirit and good nature.
When to Eat in Italy
Food is a meaningful part of Italian culture. The social customs and family traditions are just as important as the ingredients themselves.
Meal times are very specific.
Italians have a light and early breakfast around 7 am. Breakfast usually consists of a light pastry or bread and a coffee or espresso.
Lunch is traditionally eaten with the family between 12:30 and 2:30 pm. Many people eat a larger meal at this time accompanied by a glass of wine.
Around 6 pm, before dinner, Italians will gather for apertivo. A social time to meet up with a friend or neighbor and have a drink and a light snack.
Dinner begins around 7 pm in the northern part of the country and a bit later in the southern part.
Many restaurants are only open for serving during these hours. They will close doors in between to go home or to prep for the next meal time. Establishments serving in more touristic areas may remain open longer.
You can often find a cafe that serves pizza or paninis as a light meal in between in case you miss the mealtime hours while out sightseeing.
By all means, don’t stress out too much about the timing of everything, but just be aware so you will not be disappointed if you can’t sit down to lunch at 3 or expect to eat dinner at 5pm.
Rest assured, you will never go hungry in Italy! Just know that Italians often have very traditional rules about food and eating.
While they may not waver from these themselves, as a tourist, no one will hold it against you.
Lastly, don’t forget to ask for the bill when you are ready to leave. An Italian waiter will never rush you or bring you the bill until you request it. The table is yours as long as you want it.
The love of food in Italy is evident everywhere. If you have the opportunity to go to a neighborhood market then do not miss out. You will see beautiful displays of many local ingredients. The merchants take pride in their stalls and the produce becomes a work of art in itself.
On the whole, the service will be personal and the vendor will select each item especially for for you.
The Rialto Market in Venice is one of the most gorgeous and memorable I have ever visited.
What to Eat in Italy
Italy is a food lover’s paradise.
Once again the regions will come into play as you discover the different culinary specialties of each.
Below is a list of several regions and what they are most known for in the hope it will help you to discover what to sample as you travel.
I always love to sample a dish or a drink while visiting its point of origin.
Pizza – thin crusted with tomato and cheese from Naples.
Risotto– a rice dish particularly made with saffron in Milan
Panettone– a sweet cake filled with candied citrus and raisins. A popular Christmas treat.
Panzanella– a summer salad made with chunks of bread, oil, vinegar, and fresh vegetables.
Ribolitta– a winter soup made from cannellini beans, kale, carrots, onions, and bread. It is prepared the day before and served with oil. Every family has its own recipe which has usually been passed down for generations.
Negroni– is believed to be invented in Florence. Slightly bitter gin beverage. A classic drink for apertivo with friends. Infamous chef and traveler, Anthony Bourdain considered the Negroni to be “the perfect drink”.
Visiting Florence? Read about tasting gelato.
Pasta Carbonara– considered a Roman dish with pasta, bacon, egg, and sometimes cheese.
Cacio e Pepe– (my personal favorite!) an ancient dish made with lots of pepper, spaghetti, and pecorino romano cheese.
Burrata– a soft hand-made cheese of mozzarella on the outside but cream on the inside.
Prosecco– a sweet sparkling white wine perfect for apertivo.
Baccala Mantecato– salted dried cod that is boiled and mashed and then served on polenta or crostini. Very popular to be served as cicchetti.
Visiting Venice? Read more about eating cicchetti.
Spaghetti al Nero di seppie– spaghetti with cuttlefish ink- or commonly known as black squid ink pasta.
Gnocchi– a dumpling-type pasta most often made with potatoes. Served with tomato sauce or butter and sage.
What Should I Wear in Italy?
Citizens of Italy tend to dress stylishly.
Some of the most famous clothing designers hail from Italy. Milan is famed to be one of the fashion capitals of the world. It would be rare to see an Italian dressed sloppily or wearing worn-out or unkempt clothing.
As a traveler, you will want to dress neatly and be comfortable as well. How you achieve that is a matter of personal choice.
One important clothing tip to note while visiting churches and places of religious importance. Out of respect women should always have their knees and shoulders covered. A light scarf or shawl in your bag during the hot summer months will do the trick.
Many old cities in Italy have cobblestone streets and walkways that demand you wear appropriate footwear or pay the consequences! Leave the high heels at home and just come ready with a pair of comfortable sandals or boots, depending on the season you travel.
Italy is famous for its leather goods so you can take advantage of the opportunity to treat yourself to a nice set of kicks.
Practical Tips for Traveling in Italy
Bring a refillable water bottle with you on the trip. The water in Italy is clean and delicious.
In Rome and other cities, there are many public fountains in which to refill your bottle. Ancient aqueducts once transported all the water to the city and according to the US Geological Survey , the Acqua Vergine, built in 19 B.C., is still a functioning aqueduct bringing water to some of the city’s fountains today.
Use local transportation such as trains and buses. They are generally clean, comfortable, and safe.
Remember to always be aware of your surroundings and belongings as you would in any city. Although I have thankfully never had the experience myself, pickpocketing can happen so just keep your hand on your wallet in a crowd.
Tickets can be bought at the station, online in advance, or at the local tabaccherie, or tabac. It is like a news kiosk or small building where in the States you might think of it as a convenience or stationery store. Look for the big white letter T.
Train tickets need to be validated as you get on most trains so be sure to scan them. If you purchased your ticket on an app then no validation is necessary.
Be sure to have some small change handy for the restroom. In public places, you may have to pay a euro to use the toilet. Typically an attendant is there to maintain the facility so to find a clean bathroom in any busy city is well worth the cost.
When I travel I always carry extra tissues in my bag because I never want to be in a “no toilet tissue” situation. It happens.
The best way to get local currency, euros, is by using an ATM. Look for the word Bancomat. Credit cards are widely accepted but it is always good to have a small amount of cash on you. Some places will charge an additional fee for using a card.
Energy is carefully monitored in Italy. If the lights will not go on when you enter your hotel room, it is because you must insert your room key into a slot in order for them to work. This prevents the wasteful use of electricity when no one is in the room.
Remember to bring a European plug-in converter for your devices.
Read this guide for first-time travel abroad for more tips.
If you are a nervous traveler check-out these tips for dealing with travel anxiety.
Visiting More of Italy?
Aqueducts Move Water in the Past and Today | U.S. Geological Survey. https://www.usgs.gov/special-topics/water-science-school/science/aqueducts-move-water-past-and-today#:~:text=There%20is%20even%20a%20Roman,on%20as%20a%20functioning%20aqueduct. Accessed 21 Oct. 2022.
“Discover Italy: Official Tourism Website.” Italia.It, https://www.italia.it/en. Accessed 21 Oct. 2022.
Gordon, Jonathan, and Kim Ann Zimmermann published. “Italian Culture: Facts, Customs & Traditions.” Livescience.Com, 17 Jan. 2022, https://www.livescience.com/44376-italian-culture.html.
“Italy Budget Travel Guide (Updated 2022).” Nomadic Matt’s Travel Site, https://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-guides/italy-travel-tips/. Accessed 21 Oct. 2022.
“Italy Travel.” Lonely Planet, https://www.lonelyplanet.com/italy. Accessed 21 Oct. 2022.