When you’re unfamiliar with a language, it’s helpful when that culture has adopted a few words of your native tongue over the years. In Italy’s case, you’ll find English words popping up frequently. So even though there’s a perfectly good Italian word for “hotel,” you’ll more often than not see the word “hotel” used in its place. Still, when you’re hunting for the best accommodation in Italy for your trip, it pays to know what the various words you might encounter mean.
In this post, I’m going to go over some of the more common accommodation words you might see when doing your trip planning, and what each one means. There will be variations on what you can expect from each of these types of accommodation, so looking at photographs of the place on its website or on a booking website is advisable. And if you’re not finding the answers to the questions you have about the place online, don’t hesitate to email or call them and ask directly.
- Hotel (oh-TELL) – This is an English word that’s been adopted by the Italians, although they do pronounce it differently. In most hotels in Italy you can expect private rooms with private bathrooms, although both will be smaller than rooms at a similar price in some other cities. Why? Because in Italy, hotels have often been created in old historic buildings where space is at a premium and where you can’t just gut the place and start over. So don’t be surprised if your bathroom isn’t much bigger than your shower stall at home, or if the whole room doesn’t leave space for lounging. You’re not there to stay in the hotel room, anyway, right? Oh, and it’s not safe to presume that every private room has a private bath, either – the same thing that keeps hotels from being able to offer big rooms also keeps them from carving bathrooms into already small bedrooms. You’ll want to find out whether you’ve got a private bath or will be sharing one down the hall (which isn’t a bad thing, really, it’s just something you’ll probably want to know in advance).
- Albergo (ahl-BEHR-goh) – This is the Italian word for “hotel;” see listing above for what you can expect.
- Hostel (AWS-tell) – It’s actually rare that you’ll see the English word for hostel in Italy; they much prefer their own word, “ostello” – so let’s skip right to that one, shall we?
- Ostello (aw-STELL-oh) – This is the Italian word for “hostel,” and is the one most commonly used when talking about hostels in Italy. In Italy, as is the case in most parts of the world, hostels can vary from almost B&B-like atmospheres to clinical-feeling dorms with 10-20 beds apiece. Both have their merits, you just need to know what you want when you’re booking so you’re not surprised or disappointed by what you get. The perks that come with staying in a hostel vary depending on the property, too, so be sure to read what you’re getting for your money in each one. Two hostels might have very different per-night prices, but upon closer inspection they could even out because one offers free breakfast and free WiFi, where the other charges for both. Because hostels are mainly in business to appeal to young and budget travelers, they’re not always in the best locations – they’re usually quite safe, they’re just not always going to be right in the center of town or even within walking distance of the main attractions. So if location is important to you, be very sure you know where the hostel is that you’re considering before you book.
- Agriturismo (ah-gree-tor-EEZ-moh) – While agriturismo in Italy may sound like a uniquely Italian accommodation option, it’s just the name that’s Italian. The concept is actually something you’ll find in other countries, too. The original agriturismo places (and some of the more traditional ones are still like this) were working farms that rented out spare rooms to travelers for a small fee. You’d get a cozy room and often a meal or two, and in return you’d do a little bit of work on the farm. It was a way to experience Italy without spending a fortune, and a way for struggling farmers to pull in a little extra income as well as get some help. Most of the places that list themselves as an agriturismo these days don’t require any kind of work be done in exchange for your room & board, so they’re probably more rightly thought of as B&Bs. The prices, in some cases, have gone up as a result – but they’re still often much cheaper than any nearby hotel. Keep in mind that many of these agriturismi are well enough off the beaten path that you’ll need a car to reach them.
- Camping (KAHM-peeng) – Yes, this is really what the Italians call camping. There’s an Italian word for it (campeggio, kahm-PEHJ-jyoh), but the vast majority of the time when you’re looking for a campground the word you’ll see used is “camping.” Camping in Italy isn’t necessarily what you think of when you think of camping. In many cases, established Italian campgrounds come equipped with what seem like semi-permanent tent-like huts, swimming pools, club houses, tennis courts, cafes, etc. Many Europeans rent small RVs or camping trailers when they go camping, so there are spaces for them to park, as well. But generally speaking you’re not going to find a mostly-wild area with a few designated spots where you could pitch your own tent. This can be good news if you’re interested in a really cheap accommodation option but don’t want to carry your own camping equipment with you. You’ll find some campgrounds in Italy even in bigger cities, like Rome and Florence, although they’re not usually in the city center. They tend to not be so far away, however, that a city bus doesn’t run nearby – but check on transportation options just to be sure.
- Pensione (pehn-see-YAWN-eh) – This word is often interchangeable with “hotel” and “albergo,” although you’ll usually find that a “pensione” is more synonymous with a 1-3 star budget hotel and an “albergo” or “hotel” can go all the way up to 5 stars. The term “pensione” traditionally connotes a more family-run establishment instead of an impersonal or chain hotel, but that distinction has, in many cases, been lost in the modern era. These days, you’ll find just as many family run alberghi as you will impersonal pensioni! But generally speaking, with a “pensione” you can expect the same things that you would expect from a hotel (see listing above), although you might find shared bathrooms more often in 1-3 star places than in the 4+ star places.
- Locanda (loh-KAHN-dah) – While the word “locanda” can be most closely translated into English as “inn,” the distinction between a locanda, a pensione, and an albergo can be quite fuzzy. Generally speaking, the word “locanda” – much like the word “pensione” – is traditionally associated with smaller, less expensive, more family-run places. Unlike with “pensione,” however, more of those traditional associations have held up over time. Locande are typically a bit less expensive than their similar counterparts, but you may also be faced with even smaller rooms and no private bathroom options. For budget travelers, this is definitely an option to consider – especially because you’re more apt to meet up with the people who run the locanda instead of some paid lackey. These are the people you’ll get the good answers from when you ask where their favorite restaurants are.
- Affittacamere (ahf-feet-ah-KAH-meh-reh) – This word is really kind of two Italian words smushed together, and means “rooms for rent.” These are more common in smaller or less-visited towns (they’re still quite popular in the Cinque Terre, for instance), as the tourist influx doesn’t necessarily support a bunch of big hotels – but the local housewives are more than happy to pick up the slack by renting out the spare rooms in their homes. Rooms and prices vary considerably, and most of the time you’ll have to wait until you arrive in a place to book a room like this. In some towns, people who have rooms for rent await incoming trains and hold up signs with “rooms” written in several languages, so you’ll know who to start haggling with. Most of the time these rooms (and the people who rent them out) are delightful, but it’s usually best to check the room out in person before you agree to pay any money for it. Also keep in mind that these rooms are often rented without the local tax man knowing about them, so you’re likely to have to pay in cash. It’ll likely be oodles cheaper than a hotel, though.
- Rifugio (ree-FOO-jyoh) – This word, which means “refuge” or “shelter,” refers to the hostel-like places that you’ll only find in a specific region of Italy. Rifugi typically offer dorm beds (there are some that have a few stark private rooms) throughout the Italian Alps, and they’re designed for hikers who are making their way over long distances. Most of these are only open from July until September, and although the dorm bed might not cost you might, the cost of a meal or a beer in the rifugio dining room might make your jaw drop. These places are far enough away from anything else that your choices are limited, and they know that, so budget accordingly. It’s also smart to book a bed in advance so that you don’t end up finding there’s “no room at the inn” when hoofing it to the next rifugio might not be do-able. Check with the local tourist information office for a guide to the refugi in the area before you set out.
- Convento/Monastero (kohn-VEHN-toh, mohn-ahs-TEHR-oh) – Here’s the good news: You don’t have to become a nun or a monk in Italy in order to stay within the walls of an historic convent or monastery in Italy! Religious houses have a centuries-old tradition of opening their doors to travelers, it’s just that the travelers used to all be religious pilgrims. Modern travelers hit the road for all kinds of reasons, and not all monasteries and convents rent out rooms, but they’re a great choice to consider for budget travelers who want to stay in the historic city center and don’t mind a few restrictions on their movement. You’ll often find convents and monasteries occupying gorgeous old buildings right in the middle of town, which is a great location from which to base your visit. But you may also find that there are rules about curfews or unmarried couples sleeping in separate rooms. If you don’t mind the rules that are in place, definitely check out monasteries and convents for your next trip to Italy.
>> Need more trip-planning advice? Don’t miss my first-time visitor’s guide to Italy!
Photo by: Gerard Girbes Berges