There’s a lot Italy travel tips you need to know, and a lot of do’s and don’ts to adhere to. This may be the land of la dolce vita – home of brilliant blue seas, abundant pizza, and ever-so-slightly dashing men – but there’s still some things that you just don’t want to do.
How to avoid looking like a tourist in Italy
I’ve had the good fortune to travel to Italy nine times – and counting! – and I’ve made some common tourist mistakes in my time. The kind of things that are silent no-nos, incidents which make the locals shake their heads and think “clearly you weren’t blessed with being born in Italy, you poor child”, causing you to slink in shame like a particularly embarrassed collie. I’ve wised up these days, with the benefit of experience, but I still see others making the same old Italy mistakes. The kind of errors that have you suffering from second-hand embarrassment.
Fear not! I’m here to give you all of my Italy travel tips, tricks, and hacks: learnt the hard way, and guaranteed to help you avoid looking like a total noob tourist on their first trip in Italy. You’ll have the locals speaking to you in Italian, because you’ll look that darn pro.
Let’s check it out!
1. DON’T: Taking a gondola ride in Venice
I’m going to start with a slightly controversial one (edgy, right?), because this is an Italy bucket list entry for a lot of people. Many couldn’t bear the thought of an Italian vacation without a gondola ride in Venice, but to my mind, it’s a total tourist mistake.
It’s easy to fall in love with Venice when you visit. The whole place is beautiful, the sun shines off the canals, the light is rosy, and the whole place has a beguiling vibe despite about 8 million tourists getting in your way. What better way to declare your love for Venice than with a traditional gondola ride?
Well, I’m going to tell you to skip it. Traditional they may be, but the fact is that gondola rides have become severely overpriced, relegating them into the category of “tourist trap”.
Do you see the locals in gondolas, floating down the Grand Canal on their way to work? No, you do not. That’s because a gondola ride can cost you in the region of 80 to 120 euros for a 25 minute tour. Yes, you did read that correctly.
Want one of the top Italy travel tips? Hop on a traghetto ferry instead. These are larger gondolas, which don’t have all the fancy trimmings and decorations, and which ferry passengers from one side of the Grand Canal to the other. They’ll cost you a paltry €2 per passenger, giving you that gondola experience without the eye-watering cost!
2. DON’T: Being put off by the Mafia
No-one’s going to claim that the Mafia doesn’t exist, or that they’re not active in Italy. I’m certainly not going to suggest that you try to seek them out or interact with them in any way.
A fear of the Mafia does put people off visiting certain areas of Italy… but the truth is that you’re extremely unlikely to encounter them at all on your trip.
Travel tips for Italy will always cover the Mafia, as they’re a faction in the country which can’t be denied, but don’t let their existence deter you from visiting regions such as Sicily, Naples, or Calabria. For a start, you’ll be missing out on some wonderful places – Sicily is regarded by Italians as being the most beautiful part of Italy. Calabria is homey and welcoming, and Naples has some of the best history and food in the whole country.
Secondly, you’re so unlikely to come across any Mafia activity during your stay. I’ve been to Naples five times, and I’m yet to see or experience anything like that. I know it must be going on, but I’ve never once come across it.
Basically, the Mafia aren’t interested in tourists and travelers – why would they be? We’re not resident, and bothering tourists just isn’t the way they operate. Mafia factions operate all over Italy, Europe, and beyond – you’re just as likely to encounter them in Florence or Rome as you are in Palermo or Naples. And the likelihood of that is frankly scant, so don’t be dissuaded from visiting some of Italy’s most beautiful places!
3. DO: Visit Naples
On a similar note to the previous entry,a lot of people are nervous or downright adamant about visiting Naples. Well, I’m here to give you a friendly punch on the arm, and screech “VISIT NAPLES! VISIT NAPLES RIGHT NOW!” straight down your earhole. #sorrynotsorry
Naples is often portrayed as being dirty, crime-ridden, and a hive of Mafia activity. And yes, there’s certainly a few areas in the city that it’s best to avoid. But that’s ignoring that the vast majority of the city is a total delight, perfectly safe and clean, and containing some of Italy’s best heritage – and doesn’t every city in the world have areas that are best avoided?
Naples may be a little rougher around the edges than Florence or Venice, but it has friendly and welcoming people, the best pizza in Italy – if not the world – and some of the nation’s best attractions on its doorstep. Pompeii and Herculaneum are a short train ride away, whilst the outstandingly beautiful island of Capri is an enjoyable day trip from Naples.
The pretty towns of Sorrento and Positano are also in easy reach, but there’s plenty to do in the city itself. History fans can check out the Archaeological Museum, whilst wannabe spelunkers can go underground at Napoli Sotterranea. Cappella San Severo is a must for art fans, with some world-class sculpture, whilst Capodimonte is a gallery located in a former palace. Bet you didn’t expect that from “dirty, uncouth” Naples.
If you’re really worried about the city’s reputation for petty crime, simply leave your credit cards in the hotel, have some travel insurance, and take some cash in a secure bag. But please don’t skip Naples; it’s an underrated gem!
4.DO: Visit the tourist sites…
I get it, I really do. You eagerly Google “things to do in Italy” before you leave home, and gleefully add all of the best-known landmarks in Italy to your vacation wishlist. The Colosseum, Cinque Terre – they’re going to be yours, all yours!
Then you actually get there, realise you’re jostling for space with incredible numbers of eager tourists, and just nope right out of there. Who says you need to see these tourist traps anyway?
Well… you do. Believe me, I understand the overwhelm – when I arrived in Florence, it was so busy that I was tempted to turn around and go straight back to the airport – but you’ll really be missing out. It’s one of the biggest mistakes to avoid in Italy. The country is famously beautiful, with some of the most impressive structures in human history, but you can expect any of them to be busy.
This is particularly true of any of Italy’s “Big Three”: the Colosseum in Rome, the Duomo in Florence, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa in, er, Pisa. As someone who’s visited all three, yes, they get busy – but along with every other sight in Italy you care to mention, they’re absolutely worth visiting.
Instead of skipping the big sights, consider getting strategic about them instead. Try to visit early in the day to avoid the worst of the crowds, or to visit on days when you have to pay for a ticket (most sites in Italy offer free admission on the first Sunday of the month, but it gets incredibly packed). Even better, consider tours through trusted agencies such as Get Your Guide – a lot of the tours offered are private, skip-the-line experiences which give you access to places you otherwise wouldn’t, and avoids getting stuck in the middle of all that humanity.
Seeing the big sites may seem touristy, but they’re famous for a reason… and a trip to Italy wouldn’t be the same without them.
5. DO:… get off the beaten path
I know, I know. I’ve literally just told you to see all the big sites. Stop looking at me with such betrayal in your eyes; I can’t bear it!
The truth is that one of the big Italy travel tips is to avoid thinking that there’s nothing to see except for the big sites. It’s simply not true! There’s a multitude of lesser-known, but equally awesome places to visit in Italy.
Can’t deal with the crowds at the Colosseum? Head further into Rome and experience the Pantheon instead, or go even further off the tourist trail with a visit to Largo di Torre Argentina, complete with both Roman ruins and a cat sanctuary. Tired of all the tourists in Venice? Head to less-visited Verona or Vicenza (yes, they have a thing about the letter ‘V’ in that part of Italy) for a quieter time.
Enjoying the food scene in Florence? Visit nearby Bologna for even more delicious options. Loving that Amalfi Coast vibe? See some of the smaller villages in the area, such as Atrani or Cetera, for picture-perfect views.
All of these alternate destinations are simple to visit – none of them are the sort of thing where you have to take four trains, two buses, and a donkey – but you’ll certainly feel rewarded when you realise how lovely they are.
Never feel like you have to stick to the major cities when a simple bus ride to the nearest village can result in some wonderful discoveries. Get off the beaten path when you can; it really is its own reward!
6. DON’T: Not validating train tickets
Okay, pay attention for this one – this is most definitely one of the most important Italy travel tips you need to know. Visiting Italy teaches you that there’s actually two Italys – the fun, relaxed easygoing side, and the strict, almost Romanesque adherence to rules and procedures. The whole process of using a ticket for public transport in Italy is a fantastic reminder of the latter.
Train tickets in Italy need to be validated before you use them – with no exceptions. This may seem kind of obvious; there’s plenty of countries in Europe which have a similar procedure for Metro systems, but Italy seems to take a slightly sadistic pleasure in not making it clear.
Unlike those Metro systems, there isn’t a handy validation machine just before you enter a platform. In Italy, you’ll quite often have to seek them out. You have to stamp your ticket in a small machine which may be either yellow or light blue, and which can be located just about anywhere. I’ve seen them on the walls of Florence’s train station, not obvious or marked. Tracking them down in a necessity; ask a member of staff if needed.
Why is validating your ticket so important? Because if you fall foul of a ticket inspector, and you have an un-validated ticket, you’ll pay a penalty of €60. They won’t make exceptions for tourists either, so failing to validate your ticket can lead to an unpleasant shock to the system, and definitely isn’t a good way to start a trip! You’ll occasionally have a kindly soul who’ll let you off with a warning, as I had when going from Pisa to Florence by train, but you shouldn’t bet on it.
Take the time to find a validation machine for your ticket. The consequences far outweigh the lost time!
7. DON’T: Not learning a bit of the language
Even though you’re unlikely to encounter anyone who can’t get by in English, learning some Italian is always high on my list of Italy travel tips. If you’re planning on getting off the beaten path, it’s definitely one of your top Italy travel tips!
Partly, it’s down to practicality. Although most people in Italy speak at least a little bit of English (younger Italians will nearly always have faultless language skills), you’ll definitely be helped by some basic Italian words and phrases if you’re dealing with the older generation, or more remote areas.
Simple words such as “buongiorno” (hello) and “grazie” (thank you) are basic courtesy – you may be more familiar with it, but try not to use “ciao” too much, as it’s considered informal. Learning numbers from 1 to 20 is also super-useful, especially for shopping and using public transport. You can get by with surprisingly little!
The main reason to learn Italian, and the reason I did it myself, is just to be polite. No matter where you are in the world, from South America to the Middle East to North Korea (probably), people really appreciate you making an effort to learn the language. I’ve had Hungarians beam at me just for saying “hello” in Hungarian. My boyfriend made a new friend in Budapest by thanking a Greek in his own language.
I don’t go anywhere without learning “hello”, “thank you”, and “goodbye” at the very least, because it’s just polite and the locals appreciate it. Italians are no different!
Italian is a beautiful language, and fun to learn. It’s a definite boon to your trip!
8. DON’T: Putting ketchup on pasta
NO. NO NO NO NO NOOOOOOOO.
If you take anything from this article – or this entire travel blog – let it be this. NEVER put, or ask for, ketchup on your pasta. I don’t care if you’re the Queen (hello, your majesty!); I will thwap you on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper if you even consider this.
There are certain things that are holy in Italy: the Church, football, and food. None of these things should have ketchup applied to them.
Although I have never made this particular tourist mistake, I’ve witnessed it, and it will forever haunt my days. It’s most definitely one of the Italy travel tips to follow, at all costs. I’ve seen tourists request ketchup on their pasta dishes. I have witnessed the chef of said pasta dishes come out of the kitchen, steam leaking from his ears, to berate said tourists.
Guys, it’s not a pretty sight.
Italian food has been lovingly perfected over the centuries, elevating it into the pantheon of world cuisine. I’ve seen Italians argue about how things should be cooked in order to make it the absolute best it can be, perfection always being the way their grandmother made it. If you put ketchup on your pasta, you are essentially spitting in the face of their grandmother.
You really don’t want to do that.
This really is one of the top mistakes to avoid in Italy, especially if you want to make it back to your hotel alive.
9. DON’T: Expecting subway systems to cover the whole city
It’s easy to fall into this trap. You’re used to awesome subway systems which cover every last street of a city. London, Munich; you can can hop on a train, and be whisked to wherever your heart desires.
Yeah, not so much in Italy.
The problem is purely that Italy is so darn historical. Choose a city in Italy with a subway system, and you can bet that construction will have been halted continuously by bumping into pesky Roman ruins on a regular basis. No one wants to just go ahead and demolish stuff (that would quite literally be criminal), so archaeologists have to be called in to check it out.
Basically, works progresses slowly… or stops altogether.
In a lot of Italian cities, you’re better off taking the bus if you have mobility issues, or just want to save your feet a little. Services are generally reliable, and tickets are easy to buy – simply pick them up from the near tobacconist. It’s similar to the trains, in that you have to travel with a validated ticket, but the machines are generally located right by where you enter the vehicle.
If you’re up to it, however, your best option is just to walk! Italian cities are incredibly walkable, and you’ll be able to take in the street scenes, the scents of cooking pizza, and beautiful buildings. In my mind, that’s far better than having a good subway system!
10. DON’T: Making jokes at Italy’s expense
Italians generally have a really good sense of humour. Ignore the stereotypes of macho, swaggering Italian men – they’re nearly always down to earth, and self-effacing. They’re also more than happy to joke about how chaotic Italy is.
But one of the biggest Italy travel tips is to avoid joining in, and making a few cracks at Italy’s expense. Nooooo. Don’t do that.
Italians may have a fantastic sense of humour, but they’re also a rightly-proud people. After all, many of the things that make modern society great actually come from ancient Rome.
If you join in with a few well-aimed pokes at Italy, you’re likely to get a rather frosty reception. Italians are rightly proud of their home country, and taking a few swipes at it is acceptable only if you’re discussing it with a fellow Italian. Comments from outsiders won’t be found nearly as funny.
It’s just basic politeness. If in doubt, ask yourself if you’d like it if someone made the same comment about your country. If the answer is no, it may be better to swallow the jokes, and ask an earnest question instead.
11. DO: Eat as much gelato as possible
Bizarre as it sounds, one of the mistakes to avoid in Italy is assuming that gelato is the same as the plain ol’ ice cream you can get at home. OMG, no.
You can actually taste the difference when you sample some genuine Italian gelato. Ice cream has a lower proportion of milk, and a higher proportion of cream and eggs, making gelato taste so much more milky and smooth. Gelato is also churned more slowly than ice cream, meaning that excess air gets folded out, and making the gelato much more dense.
Dense gelato means more milky, tasty goodness for you, whatever flavour you pick! The texture is completely different, much more smooth and satin-like; ice cream seems almost rough in comparison. Trust me, once you’ve had gelato, there’s no going back.
I admit: I’m not actually a huge fan of ice cream. It just doesn’t do much for me. But gelato? Hell yeah, sign me up for that shizz!
Italians take gelato-making very seriously, and anything you buy in its spiritual home will be far better than anything you can buy when you return (indeed, there’s whole gelato championships: the number one maker is located in San Gimignano). Therefore, guzzling as much gelato as possible is one of your top Italy travel tips!
12. DON’T: Drinking cappuccino after midday
You lucky thing; I’ve just saved you from one of the worst mistakes to avoid in Italy, especially if you don’t want to look like a total tourist. After all, you want to go to a coffee bar and mix with the locals, looking super cool. Begone, foul tourist coffee!
Okay, so there’s nothing wrong with drinking cappuccino. Everyone’s favourite frothy coffee is a popular morning drink with Italians – but that’s exactly the problem. It’s meant to be a morning drink, and ordering it after midday is a coffee lover’s faux pas. It’s just not done.
If you fancy an afternoon caffeine injection, whilst still looking like you’re an Italy pro, go for an espresso. These little hits of coffee are enough to keep you alert and perky, but they won’t take up too much room in the stomach, and avoid spoiling dinner.
For extra pro points, order a glass of water to go with your espresso. This is intended to cleanse your palette before you sample the espresso, allowing you to fully enjoy the rich flavours. It’s very much like wine tasting, just more accessible. And minus the wine.
Yep, if you didn’t already get the memo, Italians take their coffee reeeeally seriously!
13. DON’T: Sitting on monuments
Here’s the thing about Italy: you will undoubtedly do a lot of walking. And rightly so; those streets are just too adorable! Seriously, who wants to take taxis and such when you can skip down cobbled streets, licking a gelato and living la dolce vita? Not me, that’s who.
The issue with such walkable cities is that eventually, your poor tootsies are going to feel like you’ve run a marathon. Delightful cobblestones become instruments of foot torture invented by Satan himself. The weather is warm and sunny, and at some point, you’re just going to fancy a nice sit-down.
Whatever you do, do not park your perky rear end on any of Italy’s monuments, because you will get a scolding. It’s one of the social mistakes to avoid in Italy – and honestly, it’s absolutely fair enough. Monuments are part of Italy’s fine heritage, and no-one really enjoys having tourist bottoms on their heritage.
Particular ones to avoid are the Trevi Fountain in Rome – which is actually patrolled by retired police officers, who do an excellent job is making sure that the site is respected – and the campanile (bell tower) in St. Mark’s Square in Venice. Dangle your hiney near these, and you’re likely to get a whistle blast and a ticking off.
The best way to think of it is to consider Italy a museum. If you sat on an exhibit, you’d get a telling off – in both museums and Italy, you’re much better off finding a nearby bench, or something not as historic!
14. DON’T: Asking for spaghetti bolognese
This is a pretty mild entry on the list of do’s and don’ts in Italy, I admit. But if you’re trying to avoid looking like a tourist, you definitely don’t want to ask for spaghetti bolognese.
The humble spag bol is one of those dishes that has left home, gone through all kinds of experiences, then returned back to the family homestead only to have its parents wail “what’s happened to you? I barely recognise you any more!”. Dramatic pasta aside, that’s because bolognese sauce is indeed a traditional Italian sauce – but it was never intended to be served with spaghetti.
Bolognese sauce hails from the Bologna region (funnily enough) in northern Italy, and is a yummy mix of ground meat and tomato, but it’s spectacularly unsuited to being eaten with spaghetti. It doesn’t stick to the pasta at all, causing Italians to eat it with tagliatelle instead. What the rest of the world thinks of being a bolognese sauce is actually a lot closer to a sauce that comes from Naples.
The Naples version travelled well, and made it over to the United States, where it was paired with spaghetti. As a result, the spaghetti version became massively popular – but it’s still almost unknown in Italy itself.
In fact, spaghetti bolognese is seen as being incredibly inauthentic by the Italians, and it’s purely served for tourists. If you want to avoid the inner scorn of an Italian, only have it with tagliatelle!
15. DO: Dressing appropriately for churches
One of the top Italy travel tips for first time visitors to Italy is to remember to dress appropriately for churches, whether you’re in a rural village or one of the major cities. It might sound obvious, but so many people forget!
Italy is generally a warm country, and the chances are that you’re going to want to wear some slinky shorts or cute little dresses. That’s totally fine, as long as you’re planning to stick to the beach, or walk around town a bit. Churches, however, are another matter.
If you want to enter a church in Italy, no matter what the size, you’re going to need to cover up in order to show proper respect to the building you’re visiting. Shoulders shouldn’t be visible, nor cleavage or midriffs, and if you’re wearing shorts, skirts or dresses, they should be down to your knee at the very least.
If you forgot when you got dressed in the morning, or you’re unexpectedly visiting a church, a few of them will help you out by giving you a disposable wrap that you can use to cover yourself up – St. Peter’s in Rome, and St. Mark’s in Venice are both particularly good for this. They’re not the easiest things to keep in place though; they’re made of fairly coarse, disposable material, and you’ll pretty much have to keep a constant hold on them.
A far better idea is to buy a cheap shawl before you even leave home! You can stuff it at the bottom of your bag, and have it immediately to hand if you need it. You can also knot it, meaning that you’ll have hands free for taking photos!
That wraps up this list of Italy travel tips! I hope you picked up some hints and reminders for your trip – and most importantly, had fun. Because Italy’s like that too: there’s rules and social norms to follow, but it’s a beautiful country, where life is meant for living. Have fun with it!
If you have indeed enjoyed this, I’d be super grateful if you could give it a wee share using those awesome little buttons over on the side there. It’ll help someone else out, and make them an Italy pro, too! As fun as it is watching people make mistakes, we all just want to be good travellers – and it saves that second-hand cringe. You know what I’m talking about.
If you want to be super-pro, however, pin the below image to Pinterest! That way it gets a share, and you get a bookmark back to this page for when you really need these tips. You know that you’re going to want to read them again before you travel!
Pssst! This article contains some affiliate links! These incur zero extra cost to you, if you happen to click on them and buy the service provided. All that happens is that this blog gets a small commission, which goes towards running costs. Any extra cash earned is spent on tracking down every bit of pasta with ketchup on it, and burning it all in a big fiery pit.