Italy is a land of history, elegance and confusion.
As Beppe Severgnini says in La Bella Figura: An Insider’s Guide to the Italian Mind, his country “can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters, or the course of ten minutes”.
Still, you shouldn’t let the unruliness deter you from travelling to Italy or enjoying it to the fullest. With a little planning and a better understanding of how things work in Italy – a country where things generally don’t work – you’ll be on your way to a memorable first adventure in the Bel Paese.
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Don’t do the big-city-only tour
With many important and impressive cities, Italy entices travelers to take on a whirlwind, multi-stop tour, and as a first-timer, you might feel the temptation to move from big city to big city.
Though places like Rome and Florence boast to-do lists long enough to keep you busy for weeks, non-stop sightseeing can lead to exhaustion.
In between your stays in large metropolises, take a day or two to relax in a less-hectic place, such as Cinque Terre, Siena, Bologna or another small city that offers things to do and see, but encourages a slower pace.
Not only will you recover energy and enthusiasm for your next destination, but you’ll also have a better chance at getting off the beaten track and experiencing a slightly different side of Italy.
Plan ahead to avoid lines
After touching down in Italy for the first time, you’ll probably want to start sightseeing right away.
When you arrive at an iconic place like the Colosseum or Galleria degli Uffizi, that travel high will fade quickly thanks to the sight of hundreds or even thousands of people waiting in line.
Despite Italy’s inherent disorganization, most major monuments and museums allow you to skip the queue by purchasing admission tickets in advance. You can buy them online before leaving home, or if you prefer to play things by ear, get them on your first day in the city.
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Also consider a city pass, which sometimes entitles holders to cut the line or use a separate entrance altogether.
If you can’t wait another day to feast your eyes on the Sistine Chapel or Statue of David, though, don’t fret. Outside the largest tourist stops, guides try to persuade people to join groups, which usually enter apart from the general public.
If you get lucky enough to find a knowledgeable tour guide—ask if they’re certified—you’ll also gain a better understanding of the history and significance of the place.
Still, don’t use this tactic every time you come across a long line. Turn to it instead at places that can occupy you for hours with all there is to see, such as the Vatican Museums.
Know how to get around
Not all of Italy’s modes of transportation are created equal, so getting around can sometimes prove challenging when visiting Italy for the first time.
For long journeys, most travelers use Trenitalia, the national railway. You can rely on the comfortable high-speed trains, Le Frecce, for which you’ll need a reservation.
For shorter trips, such as Florence to Pisa, hop on a regional train, but beware: these trains are significantly less comfortable and more chaotic because they don’t require advance booking. Either way, buying tickets ahead of time always helps, and you can easily do so at the station.
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Once you’ve made it to your destination, however, the issue of transportation remains. Though not always reliable, city bus and subway systems are the most inexpensive way to get around.
Before heading to the bus stop, drop by a tobacco shop, newsstand or Internet café to buy a ticket, as you usually can’t do so on-board. Validate it at a small machine on the bus and remember, the ticket lasts for a certain amount of time rather than a single ride.
You can also move about a big city by using sightseeing buses. They prove especially helpful the first day or two in a new place while you get acclimated and check out the major sights. Be sure to choose a company with buses that pass frequently so you won’t lose lots of time waiting around.
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”
This famous saying doesn’t apply only to the capital city, but rather to the entire country. Italians have their own rules and you’ll get more out of your trip if you adapt.
In his book Italian Neighbors, British expat Tim Parks explains: “While Italians usually seem to like foreigners, the foreigners they like most are the ones who know the score, the ones who have caved in and agreed that the Italian way of doing this is the best.”
For example, eat lunch after 1 p.m. and dinner after 8 p.m., and never order a cappuccino after noon. When shops close midday, you too should slow down and take a breather.
Embracing that special Italian openness is also worthwhile. In general, locals like to talk and help foreigners see the beauty in their country, so indulge them. Strike up a conversation with a concierge, waiter or market stall manager and you’ll likely get insider tips not found in any guidebook.
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