Are you ready to enjoy some “dolce vita” in the country of food, wine, art and culture? Then you could use our tips on visiting Italy for the first time. Of course, you can just go with the flow, however, it’s always better to be prepared. Find out when to go to Italy, what is riposo, how was my driving experience and more.
10. When to go to Italy? Anytime
Italy is a great destination for every season. It depends on where you plan to go. The number one rule in Italy is: every region is different. This applies to food, culture, weather, and tourist season as well. The big cities are usually very hot during summer, so the residents tend to escape the heat somewhere by the sea. That means the bigger cities are usually much less crowded during August, and therefore there are sometimes even better accommodation prices. But prepare to sweat all day during the sightseeing.
On the other hand, if you wish to enjoy the Italian Riviera, book your stay in May or June. The weather is already warm and most of the locals are still in the cities, as the main holiday season in Italy starts with August (don’t even try to go to seaside resorts in August).
The best time to visit Rome is during fall and in spring. The city is much less crowded, and the weather is pleasant. Take the holidays into consideration though. Italy is a very religious country, so the most important holiday is Easter when the whole country (and the Vatican in particular) celebrates Christ’s resurrection. That might be a major experience for Christians, however not so pleasant for ordinary tourists. Rome is jammed to the roof and most of the tourist attractions are closed.
The winter season tends to be dead all over Italy, which means there are almost no tourists, but many attractions are closed or have shorter operating hours. Except for the north. Logically, the northern area around the Alps will be packed with winter sports enthusiasts.
9. Check the weather before you go
Italy stretches over the Apennine peninsula named after the Apennine mountains which cross the whole country from north to south. That said, it’s obvious the climate differs in each area. The northern part sheltered by the Alps generally has a colder climate and it’s covered with snow for the whole winter. The southern part of the country largely fits the Mediterranean climate, although there are places in the mountains where you can find snow even in summer.
The average temperature is therefore very hard to determine. In the winter, the temperature varies from – 8 °C (18 °F) in the northern areas to 3 °C (37 °F) in Rome and 10 °C (50 °F) in Palermo. The summer season is not that extreme concerning the temperature differences. To give you an idea, Rome or Palermo have climate similar to Los Angeles and Barcelona. Milan and Venice lie in subtropical climate as Washington or Sydney. Weather in Aosta, located in the north-west near the borders with Switzerland is on the other hand closer to Detroit or Montreal.
Enjoying the Alpine Sun
All in all, it’s best to check the weather at your destination before you go. Karin and I went to Italy in July. We were touring the northern area and the weather was beautiful—sunny but not too hot. The summer weather in the Italian Alps is wonderful for hikes (as you can see in the picture above, it’s also great for catching a tan). Unlike in Austria or Switzerland, it didn’t rain, and it was warm.
8. Keep the cash
Don’t take for granted that you can pay with your card everywhere. Especially in the southern area, they often don’t take cards in restaurants or shops, certainly not for small purchases. Be sure to have cash on you for various purposes (from parking to restaurants).
The Italian currency is Euro, and you should have in mind that in most places, they don’t accept foreign currencies. The easiest way is to use the local ATM, in Italy it’s called Bancomat. Look for the ATM associated with some particular bank (it doesn’t have to be yours), so you don’t have to pay an extra fee for the withdrawal. Avoid the exchange offices and the “nameless” ATMs as they often charge you high conversion fees.
Tip: Another useful tip is not to pay with high banknotes for small purchases. Not only you’ll have to carry all the coins in your pocket, but the waiter or cashier may also be very annoyed by that.
7. Always look for a City pass
Another money-saving hack. When you plan to hit the sights in some area, always look if there’s some kind of city pass or city card. Most tourist places have one which offers free entry to museums, castles, and other attractions as well as free public transport (or at least a discount).
For example, we bought the City pass in Torino for 2 days which costs 36 EUR (31 GBP / 42 USD). It allows free entry to most of the castles, museums, and fortresses and also provides discounts for public transport tickets. In my experience, it pays out to purchase the card for 2 days. The one-day card allows only 3 free entries per person and costs 28 EUR (24 GBP / 32 USD).
Here is a list of some of the big-city cards, which may come in handy:
- Roma Pass (Vatican museums and churches are not included)
- VeneziaUnica City Pass
- Torino+Piemonte Card
Tip: Also make sure to book the big attractions everywhere in advance. Especially in the summer months, there are big queues, and you might wait for hours to get in without a reservation. In some places, they won’t let you in without a reservation at all. Fortunately, you can find all the information on the official websites of the attractions.
6. South and North of Italy are like two countries
I talked about it earlier concerning the weather, but it applies to everything. The Lombardy, Piedmont, and South Tyrol regions are culturally closer to France and Austria than to the rest of Italy. Historically speaking, the Piedmont and Aosta were French for a long time. Similarly, the South Tyrol and Trentino regions were part of Austria once upon a time. Therefore, northern Italy is much more “civilized” than the southern area. But on the other hand, most people will catch up with you even in German or French language there.
Southern Italy resembles Greece or Spain in the attitude. Everything is a bit more chaotic and louder. People enjoy the big families’ get-togethers and longer siestas. No one is in a rush in the south, neither should you.
Fun fact: Italy is actually three states in one. I assume you know that there’s a sovereign Vatican state inside Rome’s borders. However, there’s another mini country inside Italy. The Republic of San Marino is landlocked between the regions of Emilia-Romagna and Marche.
5. Check your dress code before visiting a church
Italy is quite a religious country and while Italians don’t take many things seriously, they’re serious about faith. It also differs from region to region, but it’s generally considered rude to visit a church scarcely dressed. In southern Italy, you might not even get in if you wear shorts and a sleeveless top. You might get away with it in the north, but it’s better to be polite and dress accordingly when you go to church. Dress modestly and avoid exposed knees and shoulders.
4. Slow down and enjoy a siesta
I knew that they do siestas in Spain, however, I was taken by surprise, when I went to have lunch around 1 pm and everything was closed. From 12 or 1 pm to at least 3.30 pm you can find the doors shut with a sign “riposo” in most restaurants and shops. That’s basically a siesta in Italian. Some companies open again around 4 pm and some even at 6 pm.
It’s not like they need a three-hour nap. Most people use this time to have lunch with their friends or family in peace. If you don’t know about this, it might be annoying, I know. However, you can just sink in the Italian way of living, stop the time for a while and enjoy a long lunch with no rush.
In bigger cities, there’s a fair chance you can find something open. At least a supermarket or a bar—in Italy bars are places to get breakfast and coffee or some snacks to go, not pubs. And for some reason I wasn’t able to unravel, the gelato shops are open all day, so you might as well have a sweet treat instead of lunch.
3. Factor in the bank holiday
Now that you know about riposo, you won’t be so surprised to learn that everything is closed on public holidays. Well, at least in the country. In bigger cities, some stores or major attractions are open with limited opening hours during these days. Italians simply love traditions and spending their free time with family. Travel tip for you: check the opening hours if traveling at these times:
- January 1 – New Year’s Day (Capodanno)
- January 6 – Epiphany (Epifania or La Befana)
- March or April – Easter Sunday and Monday (Pasqua and pasquetta)
- April 25 – Liberation Day (Festa della Liberazione)
- May 1 – International Workers’ Day (Primo Maggio or Festa del Lavoro)
- June 2 – Republic Day (Festa della Repubblica)
- August 15 – Assumption of the Virgin (Ferragosto)
- November 1 – All Saints’ Day (Ognissanti or Tutti I Santi)
- December 8 – Day of the Immaculate Conception (Festa dell’Immacolata Concezione)
- December 25 – Christmas Day (Natale)
- December 26 – Saint Stephen’s Day (Santo Stefano)
In addition to these, every city or even a village celebrates its local festivities. It might be a feast to celebrate the regional signature food (like the risotto festival) or a local patron saint day (like Saints Peter and Paul Day in Rome on June 29).
Tip: Interested in Italian cuisine? Check out 12 facts you didn’t know about Italian food
2. Prepare nerves of steel for driving in Italy
Italians turn into monsters once they sit behind the wheel. Sorry, not sorry—it’s true… and also nerve-wracking when you’re trying to integrate into the traffic. Here are some of my observation points concerning driving in Italy:
- Italians are reckless at driving, and they don’t care about anyone else on the road.
- There are roundabouts everywhere, but locals don’t seem to get a grasp on how it works, so they just do whatever they want.
- If there is a short-distance speed regulation, they just ignore that.
- The police (in Italy its carabinieri) are surprisingly strict about speeding tickets, so stick to the rules even if no one else does. The police will give you a fine you, locals just don’t care about it.
- Older people are usually more responsible drivers.
- In mountain areas, the drivers are either incredibly slow or too fast and on the wrong side of the road.
- The motorways in Italy are called Autostrade and they are charged at toll gates. The cost of the fee varies in different regions, but usually, you pay approximately 15 to 20 EUR per 100 km (13–17 GBP / 17.50–24 USD per 62 mi).
- When paying at the toll gate don’t use the Telepass lane. It is an electronic toll system used by locals mostly.
- The city parts of highways are not charged. You have to take the biglietto (the ticket) at the beginning, but you only return it at the exit without paying the toll.
As I said, locals usually don’t bother with the speed limits, but you should since the police will fine you strictly. So here are the speed limits in Italy:
- Strade urbane (towns and residential areas): 50 km/h (30 mph)
- Strade extraurbane secondarie (outside towns): 90 km/h (55 mph)
- Strade extraurbane principali (dual carriageway/highway): 110 km/h (68 mph)
- Autostrade (motorway): 130 km/h (80 mph)
1. Always make a reservation in a restaurant
Sometimes it’s great to be spontaneous, and other times it doesn’t play out. It’s always better to book a table in a restaurant in advance to make sure you will be seated right away. You already know about riposo, so you understand that it’s not a good idea to wait too long for a free table. Better safe than hungry.