(Italian & European Union Flag)
I’ve been living in Italy for the past 5 months and I think I’ve become quite a veteran of traveling throughout this country for the average foreigner. I’ve been to countless cities, learned the differences between Americanos and Italian coffee, taken the wrong trains, paid extra for stupid tourist mistakes, and cried over different logistical injustices. All this to say, I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs traveling with solo and also with friends, and learned a whole lot that I would like to share to the average traveler coming through Italy! Some travel tips and confronting common misconceptions of Italy.
1. Italy is NOT Unsafe
Keep calm people. Yes, of course every country has sketchy areas and different downfalls, but it’s not fair to stereotype Italy for being a gypsy-filled, aggressive, purse-stealing country full of citizens waiting to steal your phone and money… I’ve had SO many people back in Korea and the States tell me to watch out, be careful of pick pocketers, carry my backpack in front of me, and walk around like a crazy mad man trying to protect my bag as if every citizen is out to get me. All I have to say is NO, NO, NO. Come on now, we are all citizens of each city, and the average person here is not out to rob you. People have lives, homes, and their own work to attend to. So many people told me to watch out for the gypsies in airports mobbing me to take my wallet and other valuable objects. None of the above have happened to me, and if that did happen to you, I’m sorry you were unlucky or looked like a super lost vulnerable tourist. But let me just tell you it is not as “dangerous” or “unsafe” as everyone says. It does depend on which area you are in, but if you are smart about your belongings and walk around like an average citizen, you should be fine.
Venice, Italy, where I have been living, is incredibly safe. I was very worried coming to study abroad here because so many friends and family would warn me and tell me all these awful stories of racial harassment and pick-pocketing, but since Day 1, people who live in Venice have attested that it’s a very safe place. And being here for almost half a year, I would have to say the same. The people are friendly (compared to Koreans), Europeans in general are a lot more loving, accepting, and free people. But because Venice is also a touristy city in nature, some of the workers here are not so kind to the mob of tourists that come through every day. That’s all. The crime rate here is super low, you can go running at night in safety, you can carry your purses normally without paranoia, and live your life with no fear of being assaulted or mugged. I think Venetians and Italians in general would be offended by your narrow conception of them. Haha 😉
But you do have to realize there are dangerous areas, like all countries, but in Italy it’s more towards the South where the mafia dominate most of the market. But it’s not like the movies. It’s a systematic organized crime that started in Sicily and affects most of Southern Italy in terms of economy and corruption. I’m no expert on this topic but ask any Italian and they can tell you how real it is. So certain cities in the South such as Napoli (Naples) have reputations of being down-trodden and more chaotic in nature, and visiting it really confirmed it, as the lifestyle is quite affected by the political and economic corruption that exists in that area and therefore more crazy. Reminded me of Tijuana, Mexico (please don’t take offense to this Italians). But on the other end there are very nice rich areas of Napoli that have beautiful skylines and along the coast line have awesome islands that are perfect vacation spots. Napoli has it’s own charm and character, it’s really crazy and chaotic and the poor places are so noticeable, so you should be careful, but it’s not like you’re gonna get shot. I would say just be more careful in Napoli, just don’t bump into anybody and keep your belongings near you, and you can explore the coolness of the bustling city.
I would say be careful in some cities like Milan, because it’s such a tourist hot spot that there is more potential for you to be unknowingly pick pocketed. In Milan, there are more people waiting by train stations to try and “help” you move your luggage or buy your ticket (usually immigrants). But DON’T listen to anyone without an official TrenItalia uniform, and you can either decline or ignore them. They can definitely swipe your wallet and money there in crowded cities like Milan. But it’s only in tourist hot spots and not everywhere, and if you are aware you will be totally fine. No need to be paranoid. Also in Milan, I experienced gypsies in the train station asking for money, and one followed my friend and I (because my friend looked like a really lost quiet Asian girl), and I had to shoo the gypsy away and even though she was yelling back at me. I just kept telling her to leave and asked her what she as doing here. And she finally left. Just stay calm, confident, and firm and they will go away. Don’t show fear.
All this to say that I’ve never been physically hurt, assaulted, stolen from, pick pocketed, etc. Italians in general value beauty and people and they are kind caring people. Don’t let stories of stolen money ruin your idea of them, and know that if you are just smart with your purse (by just keeping it on you and not looking like a foolish careless person), you will be totally fine. I’ve been to Bologna, Florence, Pisa, Cinque Terre, Spotorno, Rome, Naples, Capri, Noli, Padova, Verona, Genova, etc. and all of them have been fine (other than some areas in Naples and Genova which were sketchy but nothing happened) and there are great people wherever you go. It’s not so scary as non-Europeans make it to be, and you will be fine if you are not stupid. Just don’t be stupid, and you’ll enjoy your stay here. Chances are you won’t be mugged or attacked. You will see the Italian culture of rich greetings and welcoming-ness. It’s not unsafe. Just keep calm and don’t be stupid.
2. Train System
The train system in Italy is really accessible and well distributed to reach many many many cities all over the country. If budgeted ahead of time, it can be quite cheap to travel from city to city in Italy.
You should check out http://www.trenitalia.com for all the train schedules, change it to your language, and see the costs of the trains. I would research ahead of time the name of the train station (which can have multiple in the same city if it’s big) and research the area before booking. You can only find the Italian city name on the site, so look for the city name in Italian, not English. For example, Florence is called “Firenze” and Venice is called “Venezia” and so on. And again, there are several stations in Firenze and Venezia, so make sure you’re going to the right one. Usually if it’s called “______ Centrale”, it’s the heart of the city and where you want to be. But Venice is different, you should go to “Venezia Santa Lucia” not Mestre if you want Venice Venice :).
By the way, the technology level in Italy is quite behind and slow, so you will probably have problems with their train website or purchasing things online. It’s normal and it will test your patience on so many levels. Just try another time if it doesn’t work right away, or you can also purchase your tickets at the train stations. If you are just traveling casually from city to city, you can show up around 20 minutes before your train and you will be fine (depending on the purchasing counter or machine accessibility, but usually fine). Don’t go to the train station an hour before departure, you will be so bored and waste time waiting. But if you are really antsy to have your ticket, you can just to book it online, or go a few days earlier and purchase it then. If you are looking to get move from small city to small city (like in Northern Italy Liguria I went from Genova to Finale Liguria to Noli, back to Genova), tickets can be purchased any time during the day because there’s so many trains that run through in the same direction, maybe one every hour or two, and just look it up online or arrive there to see the times. You just need a few minutes to buy your ticket. But if you going to a hot tourist spot like Rome, during touristy season, like July, and are worried about them being sold out, you should definitely book those way in advance. 🙂 And know how to get to the train station and how long it would take.
Also you should know that the train usually doesn’t announce which city you are approaching. The nice expensive long-distance trains will, but the normal 2nd class cheaper trains will not say so. You need to take a screen shot of when your train is arriving to your city and set an alarm 5 minutes beforehand to look out the window and see which stops you are passing. When it is around your scheduled time, you will look at the next station name and get off if it’s yours. If you are really confused and worried, just ask your Italian neighbor or a train staff, and they can tell you how many stops you have left. Some trains will have digital signs in the carriage, but some won’t so I always check by the timing of the train (unless it’s delayed).
Make sure you check the right time, destination, and platform to get on to board your train. This took me a while to get used to because the name on the large screen at the station only says the final destination of the train, not the city you are trying to go to. So what I do is look at the train company name and train number (example: RV 2777) and look for that on the screen. If I am going to Padova at 8:47am from Venezia, the screen won’t say Padova, because it is just a pitstop while going to Bologna. So it will say Bolonga CLE and I will have no idea which train to take unless I know that it’s RV 2777 leaving at 8:47am, because there are trains every few minutes and you aren’t sure which one it was.
I made this mistake of not keeping note of the train number and time after I bought the ticket, the ticket had no information of the platform or time (because there’s so many trains throughout the day and you can just hop on the same company train from ___ to ___) and I was freaking out because it was a few minutes before it left and the machine took way too long to load again and I couldn’t find the time or the number of the train, therefore unable to be at the right platform, therefore missing my train and randomly going on another one in a similar direction, and getting in trouble because my ticket was for a different company train, getting off in Mestre and trying to find another train to get to Padova, and then took the next one but had to pay for an entirely new and more expensive train ticket just to get off the next stop. x.x It was a horrible experience and gave me so much anxiety and fear and I lost a lot of money with this mistake. So, ALWAYS write down or take a picture of the time table of your train with the company of the train and the train number. This will do you WONDERS and save you a ton of time looking it up again on the machine and wasting precious minutes before your train leaves.
Also, nice trains have assigned seating and carts. Check your ticket. If it’s a cheaper one and a pitstop to another main city, and you’re in 2nd class, you probably won’t have assigned seating. Just make sure you get to the right cart. You might think “1” means the #1 cart, then #2, #3, #4, etc. But the normal Freccia trains only have “1”s and “2”s, meaning the carts with 1 are 1st class seating and the 2 are 2nd class seatings. The train can be numbered like 1-1-2-2-2-1-1-2-2-2 and that just means the class. But the nicer trains will have Carazzo 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 and will be numbered consecutively. Those you have to find your cart number and seat number :).
3. Get Used to Public Transportation
I think the suburban lifestyle has infiltrated America and has left many people thinking public transportation is for poor ghetto people (well that’s what I thought growing up) but this is not true. In big metropolitan cities like New York City or Seoul, Korea, it’s the main mode of transportation. And in Italy it’s the same, as cities will operate by the metro subway system or buses. I say forget taxis and become more local. In Rome and Milan I rode the metros and it was totally fine, and I always feel like I’m getting a feel for the city I am in and the locals there. It’s never the cleanest or the most up kept, but it has character. Make sure you download an app on your phone for the metro or transit system and look up where you need to get to, etc. Maximize your internet days because Italy is really incredible for not having wifi or internet access in a lot of public places (or you have to pay as a customer) and it’s really difficult to get good fast wifi access. Screen shot all your destinations and directions. Then ask around once you’re outta the metro system.
In Genova I took the bus everywhere and though my hostel was really ghetto and far away and all these old drunk drugged out people boarded my bus home, I learned a lot about the city and the citizens by taking public transportation. Get a map or use your phone, download “City Mapper” and “Transit” for the best directions with your public transportation, and get familiar to your city :). Venice, however, has no form of transportation except your feet and water boats (vaparettos). This is because everything is made up of canals, rivers, and islands. Get used to walking a TON in Italy and take the public transportation, it’s not so intimdating and you have access to so many things by it. Avoid taxis unless you are in really dangerous places (like in Paris in the wee hours of the morning). You can do it, 😉
4. Internet is Nearly Nonexistent
Like I mentioned earlier, it’s incredible how slow technology connection is here. You will probably have very a weak signal or no signal often in Italy, truth be told. And many hostels and Airbnb’s I’ve been in don’t even offer wifi services, so when you get to a cafe or restaurant with one, sit down, order something, and milk their internet services. You will definitely need to. Use it and do all your contacting and researching with a cappiccino in hand, it’s worth it. They will definitely charge you for “coperta” which is a service charge for dining inside their facilities, which is so normal in Italy and a rip off, but hey there’s no tipping culture, so pretend you’re tipping the baristas with that money. Milk your wifi when you have it.
5. Cash is VERY Necessary
Cash is king here. And again, because of the low technology level, many places only take only cash, not card. I realize what a luxury it is to live in Seoul, South Korea because everything is so fast and you can purchase every little thing with your card. And even in America you are allowed to purchase so many things with your card. But in Italy, not so much. You need to withdraw money out of your account and carry around cash. They don’t like to use card, unless they are working with a lot of foreigners and tourists, but the local cafes and sandwich shops and gelato places won’t take card. And withdrawal a lot at once so you aren’t charged so many ATM fees. Separate your cash like some in a wallet and some left in your suitcase or wherever you feel more comfortable so you don’t fear losing all of it at once.
Souvenirs, coffee, local snacks, will require only cash, so be mindful and have it accessible or else you’ll be running to banks every city you go to here. Other European countries, mostly in the North take cards. It’s just Italy and other more Southern European countries with slower lifestyles and technology levels :p.
6. Caffes are Not Cafes and Bars and Not Bars
The caffes here in Italy are not cafes like the Starbucks or cute classic coffee barista places to grab a drink with a friend, but they are short for caffeterias and are usually a place where they sell food (tremezzinos) like paninis and Italian sandwiches. And they are like cafes in a sense that they ALWAYS have a counter with a huge espresso maker, where a bunch of people are in line ordering a “cafe” which is an espresso in more American terms or a cappuccino and sip it quickly, and leave to their next destination. It’s all standing. And all very fast.
Whereas I am used to the cafe culture in Seoul, Korea where it’s a nice sit-down place you can order all sorts of coffee-based drinks, and non-coffee based drinks and smoothies and juices, etc. but in Italy it’s literally a counter where you sip on your coffee-based small beverages and you get outta there. It’s like an energy drink for these people. And now I’ve grown accustomed to drinking them almost everyday at home or outside.
Bars are not the usual bars where they sell alcohol and have cocktail drinks or a cool night life, but bars are just where they serve coffee at the counter. They consider the counter the bar, and whatever they sell over the counter of the “cafe” which are sandwiches, pastries, and coffee drinks.
7. Public Bathrooms Cost Money
In Italy, and actually most of Western Europe I believe, it costs money to use public bathrooms. Normally in America and Korea, you’re allowed to use bathrooms in restaurants and cafes for free, but in Italy, it usually costs 1 euro to use their bathrooms. They have public ones with a little money machine and a turn wheel to walk through to use the restrooms. The public ones are not always so great. They are also called “toliettes” and often the signs are “WC” for “water closets”. Just follow the “WC” signs in Venice, and “Toliettes” sign for other places. Their toilets here are actually a little weird and don’t have toilet covers. Just the rim to sit on. And some are very strange shapes and sizes haha.
Just informing you that because you will be traveling a lot and if you are hydrating yourself, you will need to use the restroom but they won’t be available and most restaurants won’t let you. In cafes, I would buy a coffee or cappuccino and maximize your time there, using their internet and toilets. Because once you’re out again it’ll be hard to get for free. Another reason to always have cash on you tho.
Restrooms are usually for customers only and very touristy places everything costs so much, just take advantage of your housing and pee before you leave, and pee in your restaurant when you are eating. Bathrooms were never such a luxury as they were before I came here.
8. General Courtesies
In Italy, it’s important to be cordial to people you meet in restaurants, shops, cafes, ticket counters, etc. Whereas in Korea, when someone greets you at the door and you can completely ignore them and not acknowledge their presence (I found it so offensive! But then so normal after many months) in Italy, it’s common courtesy to walk in a store and greet the one behind the counter or the one serving you with a “Ciao!”. Simple, but very important to just acknowledge the person and treat the person with politeness. You will also hear and can use “Buongiorno!” which means good day or “Buonasera” which means good evening. And after everything is done, you usually say, “Grazie” (pronounced grat-zee-eh) or “Grazie mille” which means “Thank you” and then leave with another “Ciao!”. It’s common courtesy. Even if you don’t speak Italian it’s okay, make sure you catch those two words to be polite to the people. I got yelled at by a good friend of mine because I would never say anything after I bought my bus tickets or food, and he found it very rude that I didn’t say anything or acknowledge these people by saying “Grazie” or “Ciao” because in Korea you never really say anything. You never say thanks when you get served and people usually ignore others that work or greet you. So I had to unlearn that very city posh lifestyle and really learn to acknowledge and engage others here.
Italians value relationships with one another in general, and it’s just important to say hi every time you see somebody, and even in my accommodation, everyone says “Ciao” in the hallways ALL THE TIME even if you don’t know each other. I asked if that was normal and my friend said yes, he always said “Ciao” to every person he saw, even if you don’t know them. Just to be friendly. Normally people say hi and bye every time they pass by each other (unless they really don’t know each other or are in a rush, etc). I don’t know if this is normal in other countries but it certainly is here. It was very strange coming from Seoul, Korea where you really don’t acknowledge anybody in your housing, university campuses, stores, etc. but I had to learn and get comfortable with the friendliness here. However, keep in mind that to strangers you meet on the street or pass by you don’t just say “Ciao” to, but in close proximities like in your housing accommodation. And it’s rude to say it to elders you don’t know, so use “Buongiorno”. Just acknowledge your acquaintances, friends, and people you interact with in every customer service situation (restaurants, train stations, grocery stores, everywhere) 😉
9. Italy is Not So Gluten-Free-Friendly
If you are looking to be gluten free because of health reasons, allergies, inflammation, or just to watch the amount of flour and wheat you are putting in your body, Italy is NOT a very good place for it. Prepare to have salad, or a painful tummy because this land is a land of pasta, pizza, pizza, and pasta. Pastries, sandwiches, paninis, tremezzinos, bread, bread, and bread. Some places with have gluten-free pasta in the shape of penne only, and others will say they are “gluten-free as best as they can” but they will also hurt your tummy because the flour is everywhere!
If you are having health problems, I suggest going to the grocery store and buying all your needs. There’s plenty of fruit, veggies, and snacks you can find and also cook at home to prepare in advance. There’s also fish dishes but are quite pricey, so just a heads up to book a place with a kitchen and home cooking, or to prepare to eat salads often when out.
10. LET ME TALK TO YOU ABOUT RYANAIR
If you are planning to travel in Europe, you probably have heard of Ryanair, a cheap low-fare airline company that has many destinations in many countries all over Europe. HOWEVER, they don’t tell you that in the fine print that you need to check-in online or else at the airport you pay a 70 euro fee, and that they close the online check-in option 2 hours before your flight, JUST SO THEY CAN JIP YOUR MONEY. And there’s no way for you to change that, except pay that fee. ALSO, THEY DON’T TELL YOU THAT you have to PRINT YOUR BOARDING PASS or else you have to pay a 15 euro fine. Just to print your damn boarding pass. And if you don’t check in your luggage online, you pay another 30 euro at the airport. THEY ARE FINDING WAYS TO TAKE YOUR MONEY THROUGH THE SMALL PRINT IN THEIR TERMS AND CONDITIONS.
I don’t know about you, but I was a trusting customer of normal airlines and airports that try to get you the most comfortable and stress-free experience, and lower your costs and actually SERVE you. But I experienced in Ryanair people who didn’t care about your situation, people who were waiting for you to realize you didn’t check-in online or print your boarding pass (because you assume the airline is there to do that when you arrive and serve you because that’s what they’re supposed to do) and waiting to tell you to get in another line and pay for all the fees and fines you didn’t know you would get.
My 49.90 euro flight to Germany from Venice was actually another +125 euro because
1) I didn’t know I had to check-in online and they closed the site 2 hours before the flight JUST TO CATCH YOU IN YOUR BLOOD and pay 70 euro
2) I didn’t know I had to check in my small luggage online first so I paid 30 euro
3) Had to pay 15 more euro because I didn’t print out my boarding pass because I have no printer in my housing and it’s difficult to find copy places in Venice and is such a process to find, wait, print, and pay for copies
4) Had to take a 10 euro, 45 minute bus from Venice Tronchetto station to Venice Trevisio airport, which I wouldn’t even consider in Venice, and which bus company makes 20 euro per person to get to the airport that is SUPER GHETTO and TINY.
Be careful of the location names and destinations that Ryanair “offers” you because many of them are actually not in the city itself and is in the outskirts and usually require another mode of transportation such as a bus or train (usually an hour or so) to get to the main city. Frankfurt, Germany that Ryanair offers is NOT ACTUALLY IN FRANKFURT but in Hahn, Germany, which is another hour or two to get to a real part of a legit city in Germany. And the bus I was about to take was another 20 euro, so that 49.90 euro ticket is actually costing you almost 200 euro including all the stupid fees and transportation to get to where you really need to get to. And you waste more time if you’re in the wrong location.
So I would say do research, find out where the airports actually are in the city you are arriving to, and READ THE FINE PRINT.
But I can basically do it for you.
1) CHECK IN ONLINE DAYS BEFORE YOUR FLIGHT
2) PRINT YOUR BOARDING PASS
3) CHECK IN LUGGAGE ONLINE TO SAVE MONEY
4) CHECK WHICH LOCATION/CITY YOU ARE ACTUALLY ARRIVING TO
5) EXPECT TO USE EXTRA MONEY (10-40 euro) TO GET TO WHERE YOU ACTUALLY NEED TO GO
🙂 Because I experienced money loss on both ends of my trip from Ryanair services, I have been traumatised by their lack of care, their lack of service, their lack of empathy for your loss, and lack of motivation to help you because they actually just want your money. So I tell you in advance so you don’t make the same mistakes I did. Good luck traveling! Once you know all these things, it’s easy to travel 😀 I heard other cheap airlines do this, so be careful when you book with low-fare services. Easy jet is probably the best in terms of conditions and prices, and they actually serve you like a normal airline 🙂
That’s it for now, other European countries should be easier to understand once you understand parts of the travel tips in Italy, but each country is different so you will have to adjust accordingly. Buses will be more prevalent in some countries, while others will use trains. Some countries will be super developed and efficient while others are still developing and slower, and therefore their transportation system will be completely different. Again, you must adjust accordingly. But if you have any questions or comments or want recommendations for places, please let me know! 🙂 Hope this helps!