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Italy is a dream destination for many people, and for good reason: the country’s history, cuisine, art, and scenery are each worth a trip in their own rights. But there were also many things about tourism in Italy that can be quite frustrating for those who are unprepared. Based on the challenges Leslie and I faced on our trip around Italy, here are ten tips for making your trip to Italy as amazing as it should be.
1. Venice Train Stations – If you plan on reaching Venice via train, be aware that there are two different train stations with Venezia in their titles. Venezia Maestre is still on the mainland, and Venezia Santa Lucia station is right on the banks of the Grand Canal. Look for tickets that take you to the latter, as some trains will only get you as far as Venezia Maestre. If you have trouble finding one that fits your schedule or itinerary, never fear: you can buy connecting tickets at Maestre station.
Also be aware that trains start running out of Maestre earlier in the morning than they do out of Santa Lucia. If your tickets out of Venezia Maestre require an earlier departure from the historical district of Venice, you have the option of taking a bus to the station. However, Leslie and I bought tickets and waited 45 minutes for a bus that was supposed to come every 10. In the end, we just had to hire a taxi to take us to Maestre station lest we miss our train to Florence. The taxi driver kept saying, “You know, it’s cheaper to just take the bus.” Too bad that only works if the bus actually shows up…
2. Gondolas – Gondola rides are insanely expensive–like $80 for 40 minutes expensive (and that’s just before 7pm)! Obviously, this will be more feasible for those traveling in larger groups (gondolas can accommodate groups of up to 6), or those who are extremely rich. If you have your heart set on a romantic gondola ride through the canals of Venice, Reid’s Italy has an excellent article on how to get the most out of your trip.
3. Florence Buses – Because Florence doesn’t have a metro system, we took the bus whenever we needed to get somewhere we couldn’t reach on foot. You can’t buy tickets on the bus itself, though, so be sure to find out where the nearest ticket seller is. Ours happened to be a corner store that sold stationery and newspapers—so totally random. You can use each ticket twice, so keep that in mind when you calculate how many tickets you need to buy. When you board the bus, there will be a little time stamp machine to validate your ticket. (to use it a second time, just insert the other end.)
Another thing to be mindful of is that you’re supposed to get on the back of the bus and off the front. This helps passenger transitions flow smoothly. But we did have one bus driver yell at us for getting on the back, so apparently, the “rules” are more like suggestions that are open to the interpretation of the driver…
4. Rome Airport Shuttle – Rome Fiumicino airport is not located close to the city, and you cannot reach it via metro or train. There are a few different shuttle bus options, and buses will take about 45 minutes to reach the airport. I strongly suggest you don’t use Terravision. They issue tickets in different colors, and the bus driver will call out each color in order. Trouble is, more of each color ticket are handed out than there are seats available on the bus, and the crowd gets very pushy. I can’t speak to the other shuttle companies, but I would recommend planning to arrive at Rome Termini train station far in advance of when you actually want to board your shuttle so that you have plenty of time to get a seat and make the drive before you have to check in for your flight.
5. Gelato – Believe it or not, not all gelato is created equal. The best way to learn how to identify the good stuff is to eat a lot of it—and trust me, you will eat a lot of it. But you can reduce the risk of encountering sub-par gelato by following a few simple rules.
- The good gelaterias make their own gelato on site in the morning using fresh, natural ingredients. The lousy gelaterias truck in mass-produced gelato that won’t be nearly as good. My favorite gelaterias all had hand-written flavor labels instead of the mass-produced labels provided by the gelato factories. Sometimes, you can even see the areas where they make the gelato, and those were definitely the best.
- Most gelaterias will let you sample flavors. Look for gelato that is smooth and creamy, not grainy. Don’t be afraid to sample a flavor you might not otherwise try. I usually go for chocolate everything, but my favorite gelato ended up being lemon flavored.
- Presentation is everything. If the gelato case is piled high with gelato, there’s a good chance it was either trucked in from a factory or it wasn’t made fresh that morning. The color of the gelato should also be close to the natural color of the flavor. Bright, exaggerated colors usually mean it wasn’t made with natural ingredients.
- Ask a local. We got excellent recommendations from our hosts in Florence. If you aren’t staying with hosts and don’t feel like asking a stranger on the street, just practice a little people watching and pay attention to where the locals are stopping. The line at Giolitti’s in Rome was out the door, and there was a good mix of tourists and residents.
Why Go Italy has a great list with lots of additional tips about finding good gelato in Italy.
6. Weigh your produce – If you plan on buying food at grocery stores, you’ll have to weigh your produce before you go to the checkout. The scale will print out a little sticker for you to put on the bag, which the cashier will scan when you go to pay. We didn’t know about this little quirk, so we had to stand in line twice when we stopped to buy ingredients for a salad.
7. Pay First, Order Second – Many cafes and gelaterias require you to pay first and then place your order. If there are two lines, go to the one at the register first. After you pay, they’ll give you a ticket to take to the counter, where you can order your chosen sandwich or flavor of gelato.
8. Use Exact Change… Sometimes – This one was such a source of frustration for me that I devoted 2 whole pages in my journal to venting. Italian workers don’t seem to like having to count out change, and they get grumpy if you don’t have anything but bills. But the ATMs have limited options and only dole out cash in increments of 50€, so it’s a constant struggle. And then, if you actually have coins to use, you’ll end up trying to pay some cashier who gets sassy because they suddenly only take bills. I’m convinced they make up their own rules just to mess with tourists.
9. Mosquitos – I didn’t even think about mosquitoes when I was packing my bag for this trip, so I was wholy unprepared for the tiny vampires of Florence. If your itinerary includes good ol’ Firenze, carrying bug repellent will be an absolute necessity.
10. Take a Moment to Enjoy the View – My favorite parts of Italy were the moments when we just sat and enjoyed the atmosphere. Sitting on the steps at Piazza Michelangelo for almost an hour, enjoying the greenery of Parco Giancolo, and admiring the view from the top of Altare della Patria were wonderful and relaxing. My absolute favorite—and one of the best moments of the entire trip—was sitting by the canal as night fell over Venice, listening to the waves and the creaking boats. Even when challenges tried our patience, Leslie and I would often say to each other, “Yeah, but we’re in Italy, and that’s pretty cool.”
Planning Your Itinerary – As usual, TripAdvisor was very useful for planning our trip to Italy.