Planning that trip to Italy - what you need to know

So you've decided to splash the cash and take that bucket list trip to Italy. You're not alone.

You only have to look at the traffic on Trip Advisor - Italy is Europe's number one destination. Well, what's not to like - the glorious food, the dazzling landscapes, the 40 plus World Heritage sites, the history, the architecture, the artists, the beaches, the islands, climate, the beautiful people - it's got the whole package.

Well - what to do next? This post is about planning - and as I've just taken my third trip to Italy in twelve months, I can give you some advice about what to do - and what to AVOID!

1. Get a good guide book.

I can't stress this enough. You may think you can just use the internet for everything you need to know  - but guide books answer the questions you didn't think to ask.

For example, I did a day trip to a very off the beaten track part of Naples and wanted to find a restaurant. Not only did my guide book (Lonely Planet Naples and Amalfi Coast) offer some good suggestions, the restaurant I actually chose was exactly as described and one of the highlights of this day. I would never have thought to go to this place without being prompted by the guide book.

These are the ones sitting on my shelf
Lonely Planet Italy
Lonely Planet Naples & The Amalfi Coast
Lonely Planet Southern Italy
Lonely Planet Rome
DK Eyewitness Travel Naples and Campania
DK Eyewitness Rome Top 10
Rough Guide - Rome

This is the latest guide book published 2014 - look at that gorgeous cover shot - it's Cefalu on the island of Sicily

2. Use Trip Advisor and other travel forums

I also use Trip Advisor for accommodation suggestions, restaurant suggestions and ideas on places I didn't think to go. For example, I was planning to visit Padua and asked about St. Anthony's Basilica. My responders also told me about the Scrovegni Chapel - and I had never heard of this place. I did some research, bought some tickets and saw one of the wonders of the art world. Without Trip Advisor I would have bypassed this incredible sight.

When you find a hotel you like, check the Trip Advisor reviews. Sometimes you need to 'filter' the reviews according to the expectations of those who stayed there. For example someone might give a terrible review to a B&B because it has old plumbing or peeling paint. This is unrealistic as B&B's are often budget for a reason.  Ditto Trip Advisor restaurant reviews. If someone complains about service in a restaurant in Rome, I often dismiss this as wait staff in Italy are not 'fawners' - they don't pop up every five minutes asking how your meal is going. Giving a poor review for this reason is unrealistic. 

A word about tipping - it is not customary in Italy. Leave leftover change on the table after paying cash in a restaurant - that is about it. No need to tip cab drivers, hairdressers or bell staff although I must say if they've gone out of their way to help, I will always add a euro or two but never a percentage.

3. Research Research Research

So why do you want to go to Italy?
Examine your reasons and then tailor your sightseeing accordingly.
Don't go to Rome with a tick-a-box list like visiting the Vatican if art bores you rigid. There is nothing wrong with skipping the Vatican if all you want to do is wander around the streets and eat gelato. Ditto if history and ruins are not your thing - just see the Colosseum from the outside - these are the best views anyway.
Once you know why you want to go to Italy, start making lists.
For example, when I went to Venice with my 13 year old son, he wanted to just 'walk around'. We did just that. We also did a Secret Passages/Doge's Palace tour, visited Burano and went to a glass making demonstration - but mostly, we walked, stopped, took photos and ate some great food. And walked some more.

If this is your first trip to Rome, then you'll probably look at the popular sights like the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Vatican Museums and the Pantheon....which brings me to this.

4. Book ahead for the Colosseum and Vatican Museums - skipping the line saves your valuable vacation time. Borghese Gallery has mandatory pre-booking.

Use only the official sites as linked above. They are the cheapest way to get your skip the line ticket and there is no middle-man markup. 

If you wish to see the Borghese Gallery it is mandatory to pre-book - there are no walk-ups.

5. Don't over-schedule

Rome is made for - er - roaming. Just walk those tiny streets, look up - you'll see rooftop gardens, look around the corner - there could be a fountain or a tiny piazza you would have missed if you were rushing. Pop into any church that is open. Usually you'll be overwhelmed by a bombastic baroque masterpiece on the inside, but outside it can be grey and nondescript - even with the odd spray of graffiti. Rome's churches are truly astonishing.

Some lovely little spots to intentionally stumble upon are Via Margutta - made famous in the movie 'Roman Holiday' and minutes from the Spanish Steps but still a quiet, ivy covered, tranquil setting to sip a cool drink. Another is the Fontana delle Tartarughe - or Turtle Fountain - near the Jewish Ghetto. Quirky and quiet in a tiny piazza with few tourists.  One of my favourite streets is Via dei Portoghesi which runs into Via Dell Orso. Grab a slice of pizza from the Forno Bakery on Via della Scrofa and walk down this pretty street. It isn't very long but it is full of locals and artisan shops such as craftsman paper makers. Papa's Cafe makes a great pizza and has shady tables, perfect for people watching. If you walk to the end of this street and take a right, you'll see a set of stairs - walk up these stairs and you're at the Tiber River. Stand on the bridge across the street (Ponte Umberto) and you'll see a picture perfect image of St. Peter's Basilica.

6. When you arrive....take it slow that first day. 

Some people hop off a long haul flight and straight into a three hour tour of the Vatican Museums. Please don't do this. Just take a walk, have a quiet meal and absorb where you are - you're in Rome!

7. Down time - why you need it

Benjamin Gilman was an academic who, in 1916, wrote a paper on Museum Fatigue (see photo above). This is why you need down time. There is so much history in Rome, it will start to wear you out if you don't pace yourself and switch off for a while. 

When I did the trip with my son, we rode bikes in the Borghese Gardens straight after our two hour gallery visit. It was great to get the exercise, fresh air and just free our minds. Ensure you plan some down time of your own - sit in a cafe, read a book, get online and send photos to your friends via Facebook or even watch some Italian game shows on your hotel TV - guaranteed a laugh even if you can't understand what they're saying.

8. Insider tips - what the guide books forget to tell you

My top five insider tips?

1. Get up early! No one does so you will have Venice to yourself, Rome to yourself and Positano to yourself. I can't believe more people don't get up at sunrise and explore these places - but they don't. Your photographs will look amazing and you'll watch your city or town wake up.

2. If you're in one place for five days or more stay in an apartment. Not only will you save money, you'll appreciate having a place to make a cup of tea, cook your own meals, have more room to stretch out and feel like a local, even if it is only make-believe. I have used VRBO for rentals in Rome and they've all been successful. If you can afford it, get one with a terrace, open a bottle of wine and watch the sun set over the ochre rooftops from your own private vantage point. These are two I love:

3. If you are just coming for a short stay get a centrally located hotel. Many people think they're saving money by staying in places like Mestre (in Venice) or the outer suburbs in Rome. There is nothing like actually being in the action, walking out of your hotel door and seeing the Grand Canal or having Piazza Navona a few minutes' walk away. It is worth the extra money.

4. If taking trains and buses including Venice's vaporettos, don't forget to validate your ticket. So many people get caught out and fined for non-validation. This is how it works. You buy a ticket and then when you board a bus, you insert your ticket in the box near the driver. If you're boarding a train, look for the green validation boxes at the entrance to the platform - you insert your ticket in there. This activates your ticket and enables you to travel. Many people mistakenly think just buying a ticket is enough - no - you need to validate it.

5. Know roughly what to pay for taxis, a gelato, a cup of coffee. A quick peruse of a forum like Trip Advisor will help you. As a rough guide, a shot of espresso standing at a bar in Rome will cost 80 euro cents. A gelato around 2 euro for a small cup. A taxi from Rome's Termini station to Campo di Fiori will be around 10 euro. That way you will avoid unpleasant surprises. Most restaurants display prices on a board at the entrance to their premises - check it out and if it appears too expensive, move on and find another one.

9. And finally

Watch your belongings but don't be overly paranoid. Some people go overboard, buying neck wallets (uncomfortable), money belts (ditto) or security handbags/purses that cost a fortune. When I go to Italy, I use a cross-body bag that has numerous zippers on the inside and outside. It frees my arms to eat gelato and take photos and if I'm on a bus or train, I just hold it close with my hand over the zipper closure. It works for me - seven trips and no theft.

Above all, enjoy your time. Travel should be rewarding and enriching. Take a bunch of memories home and start planning your next visit.

Buon viaggio!


  1. Hi Kathy,

    Thanks for pointing out about the bus/train ticket validation.

    1. No worries Nitesh - it can be very frustrating for the traveller who doesn't validate their ticket as the fines can be 50 euro per person! Just note - if you have a high speed rail ticket for the Frecciarossa or Frecciabianca trains, you don't need to validate as you have a seat allocation and a PNR code, making validation unnecessary.

  2. Hi Kathy,

    I was wondering if you had any amazing suggestions of things to do in Florence?

    I have 3 days there... I would love to know some great restaurants to go to and any areas in Tuscany that you think are a MUST. I probably want to spend a day exploring the vineyards too!

    Would love some access suggestions as well? I haven't been there before so it's all new to me!!

    Thanks in advance :)

  3. Hi Jade
    Most of my trips to Italy are Rome, Venice and south. I have spent 3 days in Florence a few years ago and organised a day trip with a local driver. We had lunch in a vineyard and went wine tasting

    These are a couple of posts detailing that trip. I would also check out Lonely Planet's 'Florence and Tuscany' or any good guide book for some more ideas.

  4. We are going to be in Italy and plan to spend 2 days in Pompeii/Herculaneum/Mt Vesuvius/Naples. What I am actually asking is how you would allocate this time.

    We will arrive in Pompeii at night from Rome. Plan to do Pompeii the next day and possibly Herculaneum (subject to how we feel and whether that second sight is recommended). Spend second night in Pompeii.

    We will have all the next day to either do Herculaneum if we didn't the day before and/or Mt. Vesuvius/Naples. It has been highly recommended that we go to the archaeological museum in Naples, but we have been warned off of doing much more---your site is the only I have seen so far that recommends Naples. Eventually we will head back to Rome that night

    What do you recommend we do with the 2 days? Go to Vesuvius or not? Herculaneum in the first or second day or not at all?

    And where do you recommend for pizza in Naples?


    1. Hi SB
      Your two days is really just 1.5 after you factor in arrival time and hotel check-in from Rome. I would do just one Vesuvian site - Pompeii or Herculaneum - and Vesuvius if you really want to. I didn't climb the Vesuvius track until my 5th visit to Naples as it just didn't fascinate me enough - it does have extraordinary views from the top so only climb if it is a totally clear day.
      So your day 1 could be Pompeii, day 2 Vesuvius and then head back to Naples for a look around the historic centre and some pizza. You don't mention where you are staying but Da Michele, Sorbillo and Starita are my favourites for authentic Napoli pizza.
      Hope this helps

  5. Thank you for sharing useful information on Italy vacation! I will use it as inspiration to plan my planning an Italy vacation at the end of this year!


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