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Italy First Time Visitor Guide

1sttimeguide_pienza_topItaly may not be a massive country, but there’s enough to see and do that it’s a little on the ambitious (if not a bit crazy) side to just say “I’m going to take a trip to Italy” without narrowing it down to a list of specific cities or at least regions you want to visit.
Still, there are some travel tips that are applicable to the whole country. So until I write a specific article that’s first-time visitor guide to each individual city in Italy, this first time visitor guide to Italy will have to suffice!
Here are quick links to the sections below, including what you’ll find there.

  • First Things First – Maps of Italy, basic Italy information, making an Italy budget
  • What to Do – Italy itinerary suggestions, Italy holiday calendar, Italy guided tours
  • Getting There – Finding cheap flights to Italy, looking for Italy travel deals
  • Getting Around – Italian trains, Italian buses, driving in Italy
  • Weather & Packing – Weather averages for Italy by month/season, what to pack for Italy
  • Where to Go – Italian regions, major Italian cities
  • Where to Stay – Hotels, hostels, agriturismi, vacation rentals
  • What to Eat – Italian gelato, pasta, coffee, vineyards, Italian food markets, tipping in Italy
  • What to Say – Italian language tips, fun Italian swear words

First Things First: Italy Trip Planning Basics

Even if you’re a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of traveler, there are probably some things you want to think about and/or take care of before you leave home and head for Italy. There will also likely be specific things you’ll want to look up for the places you’ll be visiting, but these articles should get you started with answers to some of the big questions.

  • Basic Italy Travel Information, because it’s important to know things like the electricity used in Italy, the time zone, and how to use Italian telephones
  • How to Budget for an Italy Trip, to help you figure out how much money your trip will cost you
  • Italy on a Budget, to help you figure out ways to cut costs on a trip to Italy
  • Maps of Italy, so you know where you’re going
  • Italian History, because having at least a brief overview before you get there is a good idea
  • Travel Guides, since you won’t necessarily want to rely on an online guide for everything (or count on internet access everywhere)

What to Do in Italy

There is absolutely no way I can list here (or on any one page) all the things there are to do in Italy. In fact, in some ways, you can consider this entire website a list of what to do in Italy. But while this conversation is absolutely best done at the city or regional level, there are a few articles I can link to here that may help you get started with your trip planning and figure out how to prioritize all the things you really want to see or do.

Getting to Italy

I may forever be envious of people who only are a short (and cheap flight) away from a visit to Italy. That is, until I am myself actually residing in Italy! For those of you who, like me, look with longing at the cheap fares from the U.S. to cities in France, England, and even the Netherlands, know that you’re not alone. Flying to Italy from the United States can be an expensive proposition – or at least more costly than many other places in Europe. I have no idea why this is, but I do know that many frequent Italy travelers find that the best way to fly cheap to Italy from the U.S. is to book their trip in a couple of segments. It can be a little more of a hassle logistically, but it’s definitely worth considering if you can save a few hundred bucks (or more).
There are two basic ways of doing this multi-segment trip-planning. The first is to fly into a big hub airport in a city in the U.S., or to fly into a big hub airport in Europe. For the former example, New York airports often have good deals on flights into Italy, so if you can get a cheap flight into New York you could take advantage of one of those. For the latter, check for flights into London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt – and at the same time, check for flights on some of Europe’s super-budget airlines from those cities into Italian airports. It may not always work out perfectly schedule-wise, but again, it’s worth looking into.

Quick search for airfare to Rome:

Quick search for airfare to Milan:

Quick search for airfare to Venice:

Getting Around Italy

Italy is blessed with a fantastic rail network, which has made getting around Italy easy – and cheap – for hundreds of years. With the advent of Europe’s many super-budget airlines (like Ryanair, easyJet, and Italy’s own Air One), the country’s train system is trying to modernize and introduce newer and even faster trains so that people don’t abandon rail travel.

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For most journeys in Italy, traveling by train is still the best way to go. It’s still usually the cheapest way to get from Point A to Point B, and I also like it because it does evoke that travel era which many of us consider a “more romantic” one – the whole “Grand Tour” aesthetic of rolling across Europe by train. Some places in Italy, however, are remote enough that they don’t have a train station – or the train station isn’t as well-placed for tourists as the bus station. And for longer trips, those budget flights are becoming better options.
The mode of transportation you use for your trip will depend on where you’re going, and you may end up using a few different transportation methods in the end. Here are some articles to get you started on your planning process.

Weather in Italy & Packing Tips

I distinctly remember my first trip to England, when my English classmates (unfamiliar with the size of the United States) asked me, “What’s the weather like in America?” It’s a question that’s impossible to answer, without breaking the country down into state- or even smaller-sized pieces. In Italy, there are certainly regional weather differences, but it’s a small enough land area that television forecasts also cover the whole country. You’ll definitely want to check the current forecasts for where you’ll be going before you pack your suitcase, but you can also get a general idea of what the weather is like in Italy at different times of the year.
I’ve written an article covering each month in Italy, including a bit of information about what weather you can expect and also what festivals, holidays, or other events might be going on during that month as well. You’ll find all of them collected on the general weather article listed below. I’ve also written some packing tips for Italy, which include as much about fashion tips as they do about weather!

Where to Go in Italy

As mentioned, there is no shortage of places worth seeing in Italy. First time visitors tend to hit many of the same spots, but you may also want to throw a less-touristed city or town in for a change of pace. Here are some of the most popular places to go in Italy, and a few that are less popular. These pages have links to all kinds of other articles about each destination, often including how to get there and back, a list of things to do, suggestions of places to stay, information about public transportation, and even day-trips you can work into your itinerary.

Where to Stay in Italy

This is one of those topics that’s best done at the city or (at least) regional level, but on a country-level basis I do think it’s important to bring up the different kinds of accommodation options in Italy. Because in addition to the ones most travelers know and would expect, there are a few choices you’ll have in Italy that you might not think of or find in other places you’ve been.

Quick search for hotels in Rome:

Quick search for hotels in Venice:

Quick search for hotels in Florence:

What to Eat in Italy

Okay, now we’re getting into one of my passions – the food in Italy. As anyone who’s read any of my food-related articles on this site knows, the idea that “Italian food” is the same throughout Italy is a false one. The cuisine of Italy is very regional, so depending on where you’re going you’ll want to be eating different things in order to sample the local specialties. But many of the articles I’ve written will be helpful no matter where you’re going in Italy.

What to Say in Italy

While it’s certainly not necessary to become fluent in Italian before you take a vacation in Italy, it’s common sense that learning a few words not only is a polite thing to do, it also makes your trip easier. The Italians are, luckily, overwhelmingly forgiving when it comes to foreigners trying to speak Italian, so even if you make mistakes they’re quite likely to work with you, understand you, and even help you improve.

photo at top by stevehdc