I’m no travel expert on paper, but with over thirty trips (and counting) to Italy for both work and leisure, I can honestly say I’ve done it all (well, almost all) on the beaten track so it’s no wonder why friends and family seek my advice on where to stay, how to get around, where to eat and what to do. To answer all these questions, I’ve compiled a concise guide based on my own experiences in bella Italia so that you can fly off to live la dolce vita with confidence.
Quick tips (what nobody else will tell you)
1. Best time to go
Peak tourist season in Italy is July and December. It’s swelteringly hot during July and August, and while it is icy cold during December, the wonderful festive atmosphere may be a draw card. Expect freezing temperatures in January too, so it’s probably not the best time to be outdoors touring and eating gelato.
It’s sale time in July and again after Christmas leading into January, so look out for “SALDI” splashed in eye-catching red across storefronts, but beware of August when Italian kids are on school break and thus Italian families are holidaying within their borders. At this time, cities are deserted and beaches are overcrowded.
If you’re hoping to catch Milan Fashion Week, plan your trip for mid- to end-February or September, but be sure to confirm dates online. Just before Fashion Week commences, there’s Vogue Fashion Night Out, and if you’re buying apparel in bulk for commercial purposes, get yourself a ticket to MICAM and MIPEL, huge events which take place at Milan’s RHO Fiera exhibition grounds.
If you’re enthralled by chic Italian design, plan your trip for April when it’s both Design Week and Salone del Mobile, a a sort of city-wide fair or celebration of furniture and decor design which sees a collaboration between designers and boutiques, etc. Lastly, there are three events in Venice which are pretty awesome to witness: Carnivale in February, the Ridentore Festival in July which involves a spectacular fireworks display over the water, and The Venice Film Festival which is planned for September 2020.
2. Food and dining
- Prices of food are a lot more expensive at the heart of the cities and near bustling attractions. As you venture outwards, costs for everything (including bottled water and coffee) drop significantly.
- Don’t expect a long list of innovative pizza toppings like we get in South Africa. Pizzas are pretty standard and the names don’t change from one establishment to the next. Not all restaurants offer pizza on the menu. Seek out a pizzeria and even better if you find one that makes Neapolitan-style pizza. Yum!
- If you’re used to traveling everywhere with a bottle of hot and spicy Tabasco sauce, you can leave it at home because most eateries have olio piccante (chilli-infused oil). Just ask your waiter.
- If your caffeine boost is best enjoyed as a long and milky drink, don’t ask for a caffe latte. They simply won’t understand your request. What you actually need is a latte macchiato (milk spotted with espresso).
- When in Italy, I'm usually a pescatarian because even though there are halal restaurants, these are few. Halal restaurants are usually located in the vicinity of the train stations where more immigrants trade. That said, these eateries offer Indian, Moroccan, Turkish or Lebanese cuisine and not necessarily traditional Italian dishes. Use an app like TripAdvisor or Google Maps to find places that specialise in alternative cuisine.
- One of the best drinks to try is spremuta d’arancia (freshly-squeezed orange juice) which is totally different to succo d’arancia (usually bottled/canned orange juice). I believe that Sicilian oranges are used to make the freshly-squeezed juice which is sweet, delicious and simply addictive. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water...
- In Milan, do partake in aperitivo time which is a daily early-evening tradition in most bars and casual eating places. Basically, when Italians knock off work, trays of finger foods are made available to patrons at no extra charge. So if you’re sipping a drink, you can help yourself to free snacks like olives, cheeses, focaccia and mixed nuts.
- In some bars and pasticcerie, if you take a table, you will pay a service charge as well. For that reason - and because rushed Italians gulp their espresso and don't need a table - you can sip your drink while standing at the bar instead and thus pay a lower cost.
- Tipping is not mandatory in Italy because service charges may be included by default. That said, I doubt any waiter in today's economic climate would turn down an extra euro or two.
- A typical Italian breakfast is coffee with a cream- or chocolate-filled brioche (like a croissant) which is a rather unhealthy way to start the day. You will get a buffet breakfast in a hotel so you can enjoy cereals, fruit and juices, breads, cheeses and eggs, but if you need to save on your accommodation costs, consider booking a room without breakfast included and rather grab a coffee and brioche on your walkabout.
- For the longest time, Italians suffering from allergies and food intolerances really were the unluckiest. However, over the past few years, I've noticed the health revolution reach Milan and Rome, with milk alternatives like latte di mandorle (almond milk) and latte di soia (soya milk) becoming increasingly available, so don't hesitate to enquire. Also, more health-conscious restaurants are opening their doors in tourist hubs as the trend to consume less meat and dairy grows.
3. Getting around
Italian city centres are quite compact, so if you're fit and mobile and have comfy footwear then just WALK! In the summer, you'll definitely need a wide-brimmed hat and sturdy umbrella to shelter you from both sun and rain.
- Both Milan and Rome have underground metro systems which are easy enough to navigate once you understand that you need to travel in the direction of the stop that's in the same direction as the stop you need to get off at along the way.
- You can use the same valid metro ticket for the public buses, but I recommend buying a 48-hour red bus tour ticket and use that as a way to ride around the city, and just hop on and off wherever you like.
- There are tons of private taxis available and you can use your Uber app like you do in SA.
- Milan still has several yellow vintage trams in operation, so use your valid metro ticket onboard those just for the old-world experience.
- In Venice, you can use a private taxi which is more costly or buy a ticket for the Vaporetto (ferry) which is in constant circulation. Gondola rides are expensive, but the trick is to find other tourists to share the ride with and split the bill.
Inter-city travel can be done affordably by high-speed trains departing from the main/central stations. Buy your ticket online at www.trenitalia.com or at the ticket office. Remember to validate vended tickets using the little yellow boxes at the station to avoid being fined on board. Milan's Cadorna Station only operates lines heading north, so if you want to visit Lake Como, you should depart from there.
There are tons of serviced apartments for rent but if you prefer a hotel stay, never opt for anything less than 4-star. Regardless of your accommodation preference, avoid the immediate vicinity around the main train stations because it's generally a bit on the dodgy side.
- Milan - Stay near a metro stop or close to Duomo, San Babila, Montenapoleone, Repubblica, or Cordusio.
- Rome - Stay near the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps or Piazza Navona.
- Venice - Stay near San Marco, Zacharia or the Rialto Bridge.
- Florence - stay near the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, Piazza Vecchio, or along the River Arno near the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge). Alternatively, stay in a quaint villa outside of the city centre but still within Tuscany's rolling landscape. Most villas offer a complimentary shuttle service into town.
5. Other cool stuff to do
- Milan - Enquire about Segway tours, visit the museum at Castello Sforzesco before chilling out in the park, and go to the Navigli area to enjoy a boat cruise on the canals designed by Leonardo Da Vinci. Visit any of the lakes, the UNESCO dolomites, or go skiing on the Alps. Car fanatic? Summon an Uber to drive you to the Alfa Romeo Museum.
- Rome - Go on a tour of the Vatican Museum to see the Sistine Chapel and then explore the Trastevere area.
- Florence - Book a private tour of Tuscany in a vintage Fiat 500. Go to the Academic Museum to see the original statue of David, and visit the Gucci Museum, the Ferragamo Museum and the Galileo Museum.
- Venice - Go to the islands of Murano (famous for glass-making) and Burano (for lace-making), or take the ferry to Lido and spend some time on the beach.
6. Photo opportunities to capture
Hmmm... Since just about everyone is looking for the best photographic vantage points, these locations offer like-worthy opportunities:
- Duomo rooftop - Buy a ticket at the cathedral to ascend via the stairs or elevator. The view from the top is of Piazza del Duomo and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele.
- Hotel rooftops - Many hotels around the city have rooftop lounges and bars that offer views of the cityscape.
- Torre Branca (Branca Tower) - Located in Parco Sempione, the white iron tower offers panoramic views.
- Lago di Como (Lake Como) - If you make a day trip, buy a round-trip ferry ticket and be prepared to fall in love with the towns around the lake which all offer scenic views of the surrounding mountains dotted with villas. However, if you're after a bird's eye view of the lake, then use the funicolare (funicular on tracks) to reach the top of the mountain. Take in the breath-taking view, enjoy a coffee up there, and check out the old hotel.
- The Spanish Steps - a climb to the cathedral at the top promises a superb view of Piazza di Spagna below as well as Via Condotti, lined with luxury brand boutiques, straight ahead.
- The Colosseum - Get your iconic pics from the outside of this ancient structure.
- The Trevi Fountain - During the day and night (when it's lit up), this marble spectacle is truly mesmerising. It makes for a romantic backdrop while you flip a coin over your shoulder.
- Snap an unforgettable sunrise shot framed by the old buildings, from the Ponte d'Academia.
- Make your way up the bell tower at Piazza San Marco to get the best 360-degree views.
- The island of Burano is a feast for the eyes with its multicolour homes painted in vibrant shades of the rainbow.
- Il Giardino di Boboli (Boboli Gardens) - Situated directly behind Palazzo Pitti is this terraced garden. At the top, you'll find a rose garden and a beautiful view.
- Piazzale Michelangelo - Also on the same side of the River Arno as Pitti Palace, is this popular square. From here, you get a gorgeous view of the cathedral's dome, the terracotta rooftops, and the river in the foreground.
To me, Italy is so much more than just a bucket-list holiday destination. The country resonates with my soul at an atomic level inspiring boundless creativity and roaring passion, so I hope that my advice helps you experience its cobbled streets in the most pleasurable way. Even though it's impossible to answer every question that comes to mind, know that Italy is geared up for hordes of tourists so go on, explore freely and take comfort in the fact that Iocals are pretty helpful albeit in broken English.