15 Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting Italy

driving in italy as a tourist

Have you ever been to Italy? With all the amazing cities, history and ocean shores, you’d be hard pressed to not find it on every traveler’s bucket list. Traveling to any foreign country can be daunting, especially when their customs are vastly different from your own. If you’re not prepared, you could be met with frustration. Frequently. Trust me on this.

Traveling is like stepping into the unknown

There are undoubtably going to be moments of discomfort, no matter who you are or how much research you’ve done. If you’re planning a trip to this magical land, be sure to set aside a few minutes for this post. I’m going to go over everything I wish I would have known before visiting.

The streets of Sorrento were bustling and lively!

Italy is probably my favorite place to visit in the whole world. I haven’t been everywhere, so I can’t say for sure. I do know, though, that once I set foot there, I felt like I had come home. My dad thinks we may have Italian heritage on his mother’s side of the family, but no one is really sure. All I know is that I had wanted to visit since I was a kid and I can’t really say for sure where that idea was born.

We recently eloped in Italy and spent almost three weeks driving around the country. I would have been a little more prepared had I read this blog post before our trip. I figured the next best thing was to write this post for you!

Driving through Tuscany fulfilled a life-long dream for me. I couldn’t have been more thankful to have this guy by my side for it!

Here are 15 things I wish I knew before traveling to Italy

1. Italians don’t believe in breakfast.
Being a HUGE breakfast person, I crave protein and carbs in the morning in order to have a balanced day. Italians don’t put a big emphasis on breakfast. In fact, their breakfasts mostly consist of coffee and some kind of sweet pastry. Cafes are the only thing open until around 10, so if you are like me, grab some protein bars from a market the day before.
There are a few places that cater to American & English travelers in the more touristy cities. If you’re lucky you can find one that opens early and serves “English breakfast” but don’t get too excited about having choices. Eggs are served mostly scrambled and bacon and sausage seem to be the common choices. I also noticed a lot of small slices of toast with melted cheese and ham between them. Brian and I loved these little ‘grilled cheese’ toasts and got them whenever we could find them.

2. Everything shuts down in the afternoons.
The Italians call it reposo. Most restaurants and retail stores shut down in the afternoons. The times vary from business to business, and I’m sure a lot depends on the area as well. This afternoon ‘siesta’ happens anywhere from noon to 5pm. Some places close 1-4, some from 12-4, some from 2-5. During this time, the most you may be able to find is a cafe open for aperitivo. We had heard about reposo, but I guess it didn’t really register until we arrived in Amalfi at 3pm after 18 hours of travel from home. We hadn’t eaten in six hours and we were both on the verge of freaking out on one another. Nothing was open. We did freak out, a little (ok it was mostly me). We finally found a tiny cafe that had these mini pizzas sitting out on their counter, completely cold and made who-knows-when. Paired with a beer, I think that may have been the best meal of my life at that point. Don’t make my mistake, plan for reposo.

Cold pizza and beer: our very first Italian meal. Faces were left out of the picture because they were not happy-looking.

3. You must experience APERITIVO!
Speaking of cafes, they serve alcohol AND coffee! Talk about my kind of place! In the afternoons, Italians enjoy what they call aperitivo in these cafes. That is, wine/drinks and complimentary snacks! These can be anything from potato chips, to bruschetta, to pastries, small pizzas and more, depending on what area you are in. Aperitivo is meant as a relaxing, happy hour of sorts. The small plates offered with drinks are free, but drinks are never discounted as you’d see in America happy hours. Because Italians typically eat dinner late (see #3), aperitivo is a great way to fend off any hunger you may be experiencing while you’re adjusting to their eating schedules.

Aperetivo in Venice along the Grand Canal.

4. Dinner is late and long.
Italians tend to eat dinner around 8 or even later. In many areas, restaurants don’t even open until 6 or 7. (Heavy tourist areas will have different hours to cater to more diverse needs) Because of aperetivo, you may not even be hungry until later anyway. When they do sit down at a restaurant, dinner is meant to be a relaxing, unwinding event, which is why servers may seem to ignore you….

5. Servers ignore you.
Well, sort of. Italians see dining as a repose. The typical formal meal structure has several courses: antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno, & dolce. Because they view this whole process as time to unwind, servers will not come to you unless you gesture for them (a finger raise or a quick wave is appropriate). You also will not get your check unless you ask. They’re not being rude, they’re giving you the space to enjoy your experience.

6. Here is the tipping etiquette for dining out:
Due to a large influx of American tourists who are used to tipping when they dine out, attitudes in Italy seem to be slowly changing, but you do not need to tip. Usually on your bill or the menu, you will see a ‘service charge’ of a few euros per person. You don’t have to tip on top of that. Of course if you had really great service, rounding your bill up to the next euro or two is fine. Servers in Italy receive a normal wage, whereas American servers and bartenders receive a reduced hourly wage in lieu of tips. At cafes or bars, you can round up as well if you like.

The streets of Napoli were probably the worst we encountered.

7. Driving can be scary.
Speed limits are ignored, lanes are disregarded, horns are heavily used and crosswalks are gospel. People will walk alongside the streets, 6 inches from passing cars, nonchalant as if they have a deathwish. Scooters were a huge headache for us. There are about 20 scooters for every car and there are even less rules for them. Scooter drivers think nothing of zooming in between cars, either moving or stopped.
Traffic circles are pretty common and if you use them right, they can be very convenient compared to stoplights; traffic seems to move constantly. If you choose not to risk it, public transportation is fabulous in Italy. If you do decide to drive in Italy, just keep your eyes open and don’t slow down (ha!). The worst cities to drive in (to us) were Naples and Rome–our GPS did not work well in either city. Oh, and don’t worry, they drive on the right side of the road, same as the US.

8. Bring comfortable shoes
I cannot stress this enough. The streets in Italy are all rough stone. You will be walking everywhere. If you don’t wear comfortable shoes, you will be very sorry. I bought several new pairs of shoes before we left America and one pair really needed to be broken in… well, I sure broke them in. I had blisters on my poor feet for a week and could only wear sandals.

9. You can haggle with the street vendors
Don’t be bashful about haggling a bit with the street vendors and some stores. You can get some really good prices, so I suggest not shying away from it. Always ask for their best price–if you have cash it could be even better.

Trust me, you’re going to want to shop! Having cash on hand is much easier for most vendors and it can give you a bit of an edge when haggling!

10. Withdraw money from the ATM, don’t go to a money exchange or bank.
Money exchanges and banks will gauge you. We learned to just pull cash from the ATM and deal with the $3 or $5 international fee. That way you get the current exchange rate.

11. Taxis are expensive.
But many times, we had no other option. Try to agree on a price before they take you anywhere; and watch their meters: they have several buttons they can press to increase the fare when you’re not looking. *PRO TIP: Ask the restaurant or store you’re at to call you a taxi. Most are only available from taxi stands which may not be readily accessible on maps. Even empty ones will have a tendency to drive past you if you’re not standing at a taxi stand. And remember, cash is king!

12. No one forms an orderly line while waiting
In America, we stand in a single file line when waiting for anything–the airport gate, the food counter, the train ticket station etc. Italians–and in fact, most Europeans– don’t. Everyone stands in a cluster and many people will push through to the front if they feel so inclined. While waiting for a water taxi in Venice, we watched a number of people go in the exit gate, just to be first on the ferry. There are no ‘excuse me’s. It was hard to get used to at first, because I am a very polite person. Eventually, though, I realized no one was upset and I just learned to go with it.

13. Don’t be afraid to get lost every once in a while.
Venice is a great place to do that. Since the whole island is closed to vehicle traffic, you can stroll all around the twisty alley ways and find some amazing little restaurants and shops. In fact, be open to exploring whatever city you’re in. By meandering around the city streets, we have stumbled upon some beautiful sights and amazing little restaurants off the beaten paths.

Venice is the perfect place to get lost!

14. They don’t have convenience stores.
Gas stations are usually just that. Trying to find a coffee, snacks or energy drinks while driving will be a futile endeavor unless you turn off into a town. Even then, many markets (grocery stores) don’t have cold drinks or quick grab stuff. Every once in a while along the highway you can find a small store next to a gas station. We saw a couple outside of Rome, but I can’t recall seeing any others anywhere else.

15. WHO you travel with will make all the difference.
I can’t tell you how many times Brian and I snapped at each other because we were stressed or lost or hungry or tired. Traveling tests you in ways you’d never think possible. Anytime you’re visiting a foreign country, you will be met with uncertainty. The key is to travel with someone (or people) who are willing to communicate openly when friustrations arise, who

I feel like this list may grow as I remember more, but so far these are some really helpful topics I wish I had paid attention to. As they say, hindsight is 20/20!

Have you been to Italy? Do you have any other tips or things you wish you knew before going? Leave them for me in the comments!

Pin for later:

Jenna Danielle