Breathtaking Italy. We spent over a month road tripping over the country and learned quite a bit along the way (some times the hard way). Read on to ensure that your upcoming Italian adventure goes as smooth as butter.

Almost more than any other European country, we had a very romanticized picture of Italy before moving to Europe. Espresso, Ferrari, pizza, pasta, and elegant sidewalk cafe’s all add to the allure. From the jagged Dolomites in the North to the stunning Aflami coast in the South, it’s hard to imagine yourself in a more picturesque locale than Italy. We were fortunate enough to spend a month road tripping through Italy and would love to share a few tips we learned along the way.

15. Gelato is essentially a food group –  embrace it.

Meats, Cheese, Breads, Gelato…that how it seems to go in Italy. In our experience gelato seemed to basically be its own food group. Our advice is to squeeze it into your personal food pyramid and make sure you get the appropriate number of servings while in country.

14. Compare Train and Rental Car Costs.

Italy (like the vast majority of Europe) has wonderful public transport, however, if you’re traveling as a family it may be better (+ more financially advantageous) to rent a car. We had multiple people tell us that train travel was the way to go, but when looking at ticket prices and comparing costs, renting a car was the clear winner.

*Pro tip: If you are using a travel rewards card to cover rental car insurance (and avoid the HUGE insurance costs at the rental company), make sure your card covers rentals in Italy. Its one of a handful of countries that certain cards, like Amex, do NOT cover.

13. Be aware of public holidays.

There are few things more defeating than gearing up for an epic day of travel only to find every site closed. In addition to national holidays, many cities and towns also hold festivals and celebrations, so it’s good to note those as well. Below certainly isn’t a complete list, but here are a few to be aware of whilst planning:

January: 1st (New Year’s Day), 6th (Epiphany)

Easter (Sunday + Monday)

June: 2nd (Republic Day)

August: 15th (Ferragosto)

November: 1st (All Saints), 8th (Immaculate Conception)

December: 25th (Christmas),  26th (Saint Stephen/Boxing Day)

12. Breakfast isn’t a thing. Be prepared.

Hotel breakfast included?  Be prepared for an espresso and a danish or croissant, that’s it. If you are looking for eggs and sausage, prepare to be disappointed. For most folks, this isn’t a deal breaker. Just wait it out to lunch, yes? This would have been true for us pre-kids, but now with littles in tow it’s a no go. Well, I mean unless we want to deal with grumpy attitudes. In Italy, a typical breakfast is a brioche or perhaps a slice of focaccia with either a glass of orange juice or a coffee. And by coffee, we mean espresso. Good luck finding a drip style cup of coffee in this neck of the woods. Our advice? Stop by the market the day before and purchase a few items, so you’re prepared and have an easy start to the morning. Of course if you are staying at a chain like Hilton there will more than likely be a much broader selection, but the majority of spots don’t role that way.

11. Factor in “coperto” when dining out. As with much of Europe, tipping isn’t mandatory.

“Coperto” is a standard fee that is charged in most Italian restaurants. In essence, it’s a service or “tableware” charge that is supposed to cover all the incidentals (sometimes this means bread, sometimes it just means utensils and plates). If you’re on a tight budget, we suggest looking for the coperto amount on the menu prior to taking a seat and ordering. The charge is essentially unavoidable, even if you don’t touch the bread or the plate. Even in Rome, where coperto isn’t technically legal, you’ll still end up with a “service charge” which is basically the same thing.

For families with small children it all depends on the restaurant whether you will be charged coperto to for your kids. Generally we were charged for Miles, our 7 year old, however some places would also charge us for Penelope (age 5) and Jude (who at the time wasn’t even 1). so it varies widely.

Not tipping is a hard concept for Americans and to be honest it just feels a bit weird not to leave a tip, but it is not compulsory. If you feel that the service was outstanding, food superb quality, go ahead and leave a few coins if you would like.

10. Plan meals around “riposo.”

Like Spain, many restaurants will stop serving food midday between typical meal time hours. This means from 1500 to 1930ish you’re gonna be pressed to find something open that is serving more than just drinks. Perhaps its these situations that are the most frustrating as Google told you the place was open, your kids (and maybe you, too) got excited at the prospect and once you arrive your hopes are dashed – drinks only.

In general, Italians eat late (think ~2100 or so). Some restaurants will serve food earlier, however, those that do will also not be the same that the locals frequent. Traveling with kids? Plan your meal times out at the beginning of the day and (of course) snacks. Always snacks. and if youre really in a bind? Look for a place that serves aperitivo and some bites that go along side.

9. Parking Color Matters.

Always make sure before parking that you check the colors that line the space. If space has blue lines, you can park, but you’ll need to pay. More often than not this excludes Sundays and holidays, but always check just to be safe. White lines on the other hand indicate free parking. Yellow lines denote that the specific space is for residents of the area and you most likely need a permit of some kind. Having trouble finding a place to park? Enter “parcheggio” into Googlemaps and you’ll be able to locate the closest carparks. Oh, and always try to bring along your coin purse, as some machines do not accept card.

8. Pizza is delicious + uncut. Embrace it, as there isn’t a kids menu.

Nope, they didn’t forget to cut it, that’s just how it’s done in Italy. The locals eat their pizza uncut and eat with fork and knife. Honestly, I love it because it makes us all slow down and enjoy the deliciousness, but also when you’re really hungry it’s just a pain in the neck.

7. Drivers be Vigilant of “Zona Traffico Limitado.”

When exploring cities, make sure to watch out for limited traffic zones. The areas are marked with a white sign with a red circle in the middle. Be vigilant, as often the signs (albeit posted) can be difficult to see. You most likely won’t get a ticket on your windshield, as license plates of vehicles coming and going are read by cameras. Fines aren’t immediate and you’ll likely see them long after your trip has concluded, not exactly the souvenir you were hoping for.

6. Budget for tolls.

When comparing prices for the train vs driving, make sure to factor in toll prices. Tolls are frequent, and while they are not at the same level as places like Japan, they do quickly add up. We found that tollguru and/or tollsmart are two of the best websites to give you an idea of how bad the damage will be.

5. Never leave anything in your rental car…ever.

This was one of the most painful travel lessons we have ever learned. Its easy to get lulled into a false sense of security when you travel a lot. Most people are good, they want to help, and are eager to share their culture with you. However that is not always the case. Certain areas of Italy (just like certain parts of the United States) are known for petty crime. DO NOT LEAVE ANYTHING IN YOUR CAR, EVER. We learned this the hard way when stopping for an hour in Pisa to see the leaning tower before heading to our hotel in Florence. We returned to our rental car to find the rear quarter window broken, with all of our belongings taken only two hours into a two week roadtrip throughout the country. Thankfully, insurance took good care of us, but we will never again make that mistake, and neither should you.

4. Italians seem to never be in a rush…unless they are driving.

Walking down the street, chatting at a café, going to the store…why need to rush, you are in Italy, doing Italian things, living the sweet life. Step into a car, however, and suddenly you are transformed into a honking, hurried tyrant who can’t waste a second. It’s no wonder Italians are known for making some of the fastest cars in the world. Forget defensive driving, if you are in a vehicle around Rome in particular, you better bring your top OFFENSIVE driving skills as well.

3. The touristy Gondola Ride in Venice is pricey, but you may be able to haggle.

It is THE most touristy thing that you can do in arguably THE most touristy city in Italy. However, when in Venice, you must take a Gondola ride. We are fairly frugal travelers, and honestly debated on whether to go for it or not for nearly 48 hours before finally pulling the trigger. A 25 to 30 min Gondola ride is 80€‎ and a 45min ride is 120€‎. That being said, if you are bold you can bargain down a bit. We were able to get a 30min ride for 60€‎ on a slightly chilly November morning.

2. Learn the Basics.

Throughout our travels, we have found that learning just a few key phrases in any language makes the people of that country appreciate you. When tourists put an effort out to integrate (to some extent) it is appreciated. Even if you accidentally hit the pronunciation wrong it is sure to bring a smile to faces. Americans, in particular, are notorious for always assuming everyone speaks English. Don’t be that guy (or girl), do your best to start off with an Italian greeting and learn some basic manners/customs.

1. Italy is incredibly varied and absolutely beautiful, if you’re not so sure about one region, keep looking.

The differences between the northern and southern regions of Italy are huge, so if you have the opportunity, try to sample both. The north feels more industrialized/modern and the south a bit more laid back, with the exception of driving. We feel if you can drive in Southern Italy you are sure to make out just fine in the majority of Europe! Even more so, when planning your trip to Italy don’t forget to take a peek at Sardinia and Sicily! The various regions of Italy all have their own feel.

Happy Travels

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