Episode #026: 10 things we wish we knew before our first trip to Italy

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When we asked our online community what they wish they knew before heading off on their first trip to Italy, so many people chimed in with their experiences, views, and excellent tips that we just had to share them. In this episode, we walk you through their thoughts and useful ideas for making the most of your first trip to Italy. Or even a return visit after many years.

Show notes
If you cast your mind back to your first trip abroad or even your first major trip, chances are you may have done some things differently. From a little extra pre-planning or research, usually, there are a few things that could have made your travels a little easier. The members of our Italy Travel Planning group generously shared their practical tips for ensuring others don’t make the same mistakes they made on their first trip to Italy.

Listen now to learn their tips on packing, getting around, and seeing the sights. But, as you’ll discover, not all the tips are related to practical concerns. As many of us know, there are some emotions and feelings that you may not be expecting that many of us uncovered as a result of our first trips to Italy.

A big thank you and shout out to all of our wonderful group members who shared their stories. If you’re not yet a member of our fun and friendly tribe you can join us here.

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The 10 things we wish we had known before our first trip to Italy

  1. Pack light! Or prepare for uncomfortable times ahead hauling your luggage over cobblestones. For our full packing guide for your trip to Italy and a printable packing list > click here
  2. Bring and wear in comfortable shoes before you go. You’re going to be doing a lot of walk on those pretty cobblestones
  3. Try all the food – not just what you are familiar with. It’s all delicious
  4. Learn some Italian words and phrases – and then add a smile. You’ll be making friends in no time. We have a list of useful Italian words for travel and a printable cheat sheet in this article
  5. Slow down and soak up your surroundings – this is all part of the amazing experience that is Italy
  6. Go shopping for beautiful things – traditionally made goods from Italy are cherished forever
  7. Understand your transport options and how they work – save yourself some time and angst with a little research. This guide gives a summary of your options or you can listen along on this podcast episode
  8. Pre-buy tickets for the major attractions – lines can be long or you can miss out completely. There is a list of the official booking sites and our preferred alternative options in this article
  9. Get lost in Venice – it’s a small city and nothing will really go wrong but you’ll truly discover the city
  10. Expect to fall in love (with Italy)

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Prefer to read along as you listen? Below is a full transcript of this episode.

Introduction (00:05):
Ciao and benvenuti to Untold Italy. I’m Josie and I’m Katy and we’re here to help you plan your trip to Italy. Between us, we have many years of travel experience and we want to help you uncover your own as yet untold stories and adventures in Italy. Each episode you’ll hear practical advice, tips and ideas to help you plan your own trips to the magical land of history, stunning landscapes and a whole lot of pasta. We’ll have interviews from experts and focus on local destinations and frequently asked questions about travel in Italy. Thanks for listening and make sure to subscribe to our show now. Let’s get started on your regular dose of Bella Italia.

Buon giorno! Ciao everyone! Can you remember your first trip to Italy? Your first trip abroad? Or even your first long trip away from home? I do and there were some things that I learnt that I could have done better and wish I knew before I left.

This is Katy and on this week’s show we answer the question – what do you wish you knew about travel to Italy that you discovered on your first trip? We asked the members of our online community that question and got a huge response with over almost 200 answers and great suggestions. A big shout out to everyone who contributed. It was lots of fun and so interesting to note what you learned and those things that can help others.

I’m going to walk you through all the tips today but first I wanted to mention that if you’re not already in the group we’d love you to join us in our Facebook group. We have thousands of Italy travel loving members who happily share their advice and knowledge about planning trips to Italy. It’s a fun and friendly community with people from all over the world sharing pictures, trip ideas and their experiences. Just search for Italy Travel Planning group on Facebook. I’ll also drop the link into our show notes.

So of the almost 200 responses we received they mostly fell into some broad pieces of advice – some very specific and practical, some more general and a little more emotional I have to say. But they are all extremely useful so I’ve picked the top 10 and we’ll run through them here on the podcast today. My favorite one I’ll leave to the end though because it really speaks to exactly how I felt after my first trip to Italy.

One – Pack light

Starting off with the first thing people wish they knew before their first trip to Italy, and this one had an overwhelming response and agreement, and that is to pack light! There are so many stories of dragging heavy cases onto trains and across cobblestones it could make you cry. And if you’ve been listening along to this podcast for a while you’ll know Josie has a few horror stories of her own. I think the main thing to note here is that there will likely be some walking with your cases to be done and potentially some of your accommodation may not have elevators (you should check this when you book!). So you may need to handle your luggage on your own. And therefore it shouldn’t be too heavy.

Having said that, I am not a super light traveler or a carryon only traveler myself. I usually take a medium case because.. I like to make a few purchases along the way. But I do try to keep the weight down for the reasons mentioned earlier. And we generally use taxis or transfers to get from airports and stations to hotels. Honestly, it is usually pretty cost effective and you’ll save yourself some angst.

Now if you want some more information on packing we’ve got a packing list guide for Italy that I’ll link to that can help you narrow down the essentials. That’s in the show notes so check it out.

Two – Bring comfortable shoes

Okay, up next, an item or items to pack that are pretty much essential. Many people were keen to let new visitors to Italy know that they will be doing a LOT of walking, so you must pack comfortable, worn in shoes. And I 100% agree. I’d actually 1000% agree if that helps to emphasise it more. On my last trip we managed 15 – 20,000 steps a day. And remember this is on cobbled and uneven streets and up and down stairs. Trust me, you do not want your stilettos for seeing the sights of Italy. And even in the evenings… stilettos are not your friend unless you have years of walking practice in them on uneven terrain like Italian women seem to do. What you need is super comfortable shoes that will get you around with ease for several days and you feel good in. For me that’s supportive ballet flats and sandals in spring and summer and low heel or flat boots in the cooler months. Personally I dont usually wear trainers or sneakers on my travels but many people do and swear by them. If you’re going to take this approach a classic white shoe is the way to go if you want to look stylish in a European kind of way. And please break them in before you go. Dealing with blisters is not what you want to be doing on your trip.

And lastly, Back to the packing light suggestion, I aim to take 2-3 pairs of shoes maximum as I like to rotate and give my feet and the shoes a break from each other between days. Just please make sure they are all comfortable. Have I emphasised that enough?! You need comfy shoes. You’ll thank us all later

Three – Try all the food

Alright not given you will be doing so much walking.. And you will! Trust me you are also going to build up an appetite. Oh hooray you’re in Italy so you will not have a problem finding amazing food. But, and here’s the tip from our community, make sure you try different things.

Yes, absolutely you should try a traditional pizza margherita but you should also try different dishes and ones you may not know. Try all the cicchetti in Venice! They are bar snacks like tapas. It was on a cicchetti crawl that I first discovered white anchovies.. Now they are a revelation and quite different to their brown cousins. Far less pungent.

A great tip shared by our friends from the Gourmet Girls food tours in an earlier episode is to ask at the restaurant what is good today. And that way you will try dishes made from local seasonal ingredients that are so fresh it will make your mouth sing.

If you’re choosing gelato flavors, branch out from your comfort zone and try something different. A couple of weeks ago Karen told us about the bergamot flavor that is so popular in Calabria and unique to the area. We had an amazing mulberry granita in Sicily a few years ago that I still think about.

But the point is.. Branch out, try some new things and you wont regret it.

Four – Learn some Italian words and phrases

Another thing people wish they knew before their first trip to Italy, is that they should learn a few words of Italian. Si, Si, certo, absolutely. I think this is true wherever you go. Being able to say hello, good morning, please and thank you as a minimum is an absolute must. It shows respect and honestly, there is something quite lovely and human about greeting people in their own language.

In my opinion it is one of the best ways to connect with the culture and enjoy the country from another perspective. And after all, Italian, as they say, is the language of love. It is a truly beautiful language that is wonderful to listen to.

Italians in the main cities and tourist areas are well used to speaking in English but if you explore further afield it is less common and you’ll need to know some more phrases. But as several people in our group mentioned brushing up on a few words is appreciated. Pair that with a big smile and your buongiornos and grazies will be rewarded with a big smile back.

If you want to learn some key phrases before you go I recently wrote an article on the top phrases you need to know for travel to Italy that I will share in the show notes. You can also download a free cheat sheet of the most common words and phrases on that page.

Five – Slow down and soak up your surroundings

Now this next one is something I have traditionally struggled with on my travels but if there’s one place that can help you break your habit of trying to fit a lot (maybe too much) into your itinerary it’s Italy. So many of our group mentioned that it is those quiet moments that you’ll remember long after your trip ends. It’s that lazy aperitivo in the piazza, a walk along the sea front in Positano at sunset, long, long, long lunches in the countryside or watching the afternoon sun sink below the horizon in Tuscany as you sip a glass of wine.

The Italians have a concept of dolce far niente which translates as “the art of doing sweet nothing” Embrace this idea and slow your trip down. I’m all for planning but plan for some down time. You will not regret it for a moment.

Six – Go shopping for beautiful things

Something many people like to do in their down time is browse beautiful shops for unique souvenirs. And this is our sixth tip. Italy has a long standing tradition of beautifully made artisan goods. Traditions and techniques such as leather and lace making have been passed down through the generations for centuries and you can find the most stunning pieces that will last a life time. If you’re in Sicily or the south of Italy you’ll find beautifully made ceramics. Florence is famous for leather goods, stationery and custom made perfumes. Near Venice you’ll find hand blown Murano glass and lace from Burano. And in Capri you can have bejewelled sandals custom made especially for you.

And we haven’t even got to the food and wine! Of course olive oil and wine are the obvious purchases you can make but also look for aged balsamic vinegar, chocolate, pasta, limoncello, torrone (nougat) and other sweets and candies. If you’re struggling to fit it all into your luggage.. Don’t worry we understand!.. You can always get it shipped back home.

Shopping in Italy is a dream if you love hand made and beautifully designed goods. Prepare to be tempted!

Seven – Understand your transport options and how they work

We’ve covered off this next topic in an earlier episode of the podcast and will definitely do some more episodes on it in more detail. But, as so many people brought it up when we asked what people wished they knew on their first trip to Italy, we obviously had to include this piece of advice.

Being prepared by understanding your transport options and how best to get around Italy as well as within cities is a good idea. Generally it is fairly straightforward to travel around but when you add the fact that you are abroad in a nonEnglish speaking country, you can run into a few challenges.

Intercity trains the best way to get between the major cities. They are fast and frequent and it’s easy to prepurchase tickets using an app or online or on the day at the station. You can save a fair bit by booking in advance. Regional trains (for example from Florence to La Spezia for the Cinque Terre) are slower and you’ll need to buy and validate your ticket at the station or risk a hefty fine.

Buses are common too – again make sure you validate your ticket onboard. You can buy tickets at a tabacchi or news stand

Driving is great if you want to visit smaller towns and regional centers but not recommended in cities where you need to deal with the famous Italian driving style – also known as crazy!, the local traffic only ZTL or historic zones where you can get fined very easily, limited or very expensive parking. Take the train instead if you’re visiting cities. It is by far the easiest way to travel.

If you do want to see smaller towns you can travel reasonably quickly on the autostrade but you will need to pay tolls and they can be quite expensive. Also watch out for speed cameras.
Try to book your car rental at an airport or out of the city centers so you avoid some of the challenges mentioned above. I’ll put our best resources on these topics in the show notes as they really do warrant separate episodes.

Also do a bit of research before you depart on getting to and from airports. Venice is a particularly tricky destination to arrive in although undeniably spectacular. Prebooking a water taxi in this case is a good idea. I’ve put those details in the show notes.

Eight – Pre buy tickets for the major attractions

Our next tip from the group is to pre buy tickets or tours for the major attractions. Current situation aside, Italy is one of the most visited countries in the world with over 60 million visitors annually. And guess what? Many of them want to see the same things you do. So your choices here are either to prebook your tickets, wait in line for hours or be disappointed.

We dont know yet what the protocols are going to be as tourist numbers increase in Italy after the pandemic but the initial openings suggest that online bookings will be the way forward. Unfortunately the official booking sites are a bit of a pain. They can be difficult to navigate and may not accept your credit card – you can usually fix this via a call to your bank. I’ll add a link with details of all the official sites and an alternative where you can prebook tickets. We generally recommend Get Your Guide

Places you should prebuy tickets – Colosseum, Vatican Museums, Borghese Gallery in Rome, Uffizi Gallery, Duomo dome climb and Accademia in Florence, Palazzo Ducale in Venice and the Last Supper in Milan.

Nine – Get lost in Venice

After all that practical advice, this next suggestion is one that I absolutely love. As many of you know my favorite city is Venice. And so many of our group suggested that getting lost in the small laneways and canals of the city is something you should just surrender to (and learn how to read the street signs!) The good old Google map car cant get through the streets or canals of Venice which means often Google maps is pretty useless. You’ll need a physical map or better yet, no map at all. Just explore and if you get really lost it is no big deal because in Venice you’re only 20 minutes on foot from most places you need to get to. And what a place to lose yourself.. Hundreds of tiny bridges, glimpses of beauty, and the gentle sound of the oars of the gondolier navigating the waterways.. Ahhhh take me back!

Ten – Expect to fall in love (with Italy)

And that brings us to the last thing people wished they knew before their first trip to Italy. And it really resonated with me as I felt exactly the same way. And it’s not something practical. It’s a feeling. And if you’ve not been to Italy yet, what you don’t know is that this country will get under your skin and settle into your soul. So many people mentioned this in our group. Whether it’s the history, architecture, culture, people, landscapes or food.. But probably all of these.

There’s something about Italy that stays with you forever. And it is highly likely that your first trip will not be your last. This is not something you can prepare for as it is a highly personal response but what I do know that many first trips to Italy result in further exploration. For me it’s almost my life’s work! I’ve been over 30 times and still have hundreds of more places and experiences on my list of things I want to do and see. So prepare yourself for falling in love with the place. Slow down, relax and smile in the knowledge that you’ll probably be back and that your first trip is just the start of your Italian adventure

So that’s all we have for this episode. I had so much fun pulling it together with everyone’s help from our community. If you’d like to join us, head on over to Facebook and search for the Italy Travel Planning group. I’ve also put the link into the show notes plus other useful information on accessing our packing list and travel words cheat sheet.

We appreciate all your support and lovely comments. Keep them coming. And keep dreaming of Italy. The world is a bit crazy right now but this country has stood the test of time and will be there as we emerge from this pandemic.

Grazie, thank you again for listening and ciao for now!

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