Visiting Italy: Your Ultimate Italy 101 Guide for First Timers
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Italians know how to dress, they know how to eat and they know how to live La Dolce Vita.
They also make great wine and are incredibly warm and welcoming toward children. If you travel as a family, why on earth wouldn’t you want to go to Italy?
This guide to visiting Italy is intended to be your Italy 101. It’s a brief introduction to family travel in Italy, so you can decide whether or not the country is for you.
If the answer is yes (spoiler alert – it should be) then here you can find where to go, how long to spend there, when to go, how to get around, what to eat and lots more practical travel tips and information.
Read on to discover all you need to know when planning a trip to Italy! This is the complete guide to what to know before visiting Italy, especially if it’s your first time.
Visiting Italy as a Family
First things first. Treasured Family Travels is all about parents and children traveling together. So is Italy a family destination? Si – or yes in English. Absolutely.
Italy is very welcoming towards children, so it’s the ideal country for family travel. It’s one of the world’s top destinations for family vacations let alone one of the best places to explore our ancient past.
This beautiful country is also packed with fascinating cities, lovely little towns and villages, beautiful beaches and breathtaking mountains.
Italy is also awash with history, culture, glorious scenery and incredible food. Italy is the perfect destination for all ages – the only problem might be deciding where to go!
Why Visit Italy?
Italy offers tourist sites and attractions for every traveler. There are bucket list destinations all over the land, including cities like Rome, Florence and Venice.
The beautiful villages of the Cinque Terre are world famous, and with the Vatican City, you even have a UNESCO world heritage site that comprises an entire state.
Lesser known San Marino in northern Italy is in fact also a tiny country, covering only 24 square miles and entirely enclosed by Italy.
Only in Italy can you explore the citrus groves, rugged coastline, pretty villages, rolling vineyards and imposing villas of the Amalfi coast.
You can also gaze at the world famous, frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which was painted by Michelangelo during the Renaissance. There are tourist attractions, archaeological sites and points of interest all over the country.
Italy is also blessed by a sunny Mediterranean climate and is the home of pasta, pizza, gelato and espresso coffee. Whether you stay in a Tuscan villa, a seaside bolthole, a mountain retreat, a little village or a smart city hotel, in this country you really can have your cake and eat it too.
Italy Visa Requirements
The visa requirements for Italy of course vary from one country to another. While we cannot cover every possible passport permutation, here are a few pointers.
You may come across mentions of the Schengen Area, which Italy is part of. This means that whatever rules apply to the 26 countries of the Schengen Area also apply to Italy.
Under Schengen rules, U.S. citizens, as well as those from Canada, Australia and the UK can stay in Italy for 90 days or less without requiring a visa. This can be for the purposes of business or tourism. Every non-resident entering Italy must fill out a Dichiarazione di Presenza – declaration of presence – form.
Your passports should all still have at least three months’ validity remaining after your planned departure date from Italy.
Find out a full list of who does need a Schengen visa via the EU Home Affairs website here.
Where to Go in Italy
Once you’ve decided to visit, it’s a question of what to visit in Italy. When traveling to Italy, you really are spoiled for choice. The most popular places include Rome, the capital, Florence, Venice, Milan, Tuscany, the Cinque Terre and southern Italy, including the islands.
Here’s a little about each of those destinations so you can make up your mind where to start.
Rome, the Eternal City, is the Italian capital. It’s also home to the Vatican City, a tiny country within a country.
Rome is packed with famous historic sights, including the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps and many more. Following our recent visit, we’d suggest at least 4 days in Rome to see the highlights.
In fact, there are so many fountains in Rome to see that it could take you weeks to visit them all! The renowned Trevi Fountain is just one example.
Milan is one of the fashion capitals of the world – and offers lots of other attractions besides shopping at designer boutiques. Milan cathedral (the Duomo) is vast and breathtakingly beautiful – the intricate detail is astonishing.
The city is also home to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the oldest shopping mall in Italy, and a convent that houses Leonardo da Vinci’s prized Last Supper painting.
There are also family attractions in Milan like the aquarium and some fine museums. You can also take day trips from Milan to Lake Como, Florence or even Lugano in Switzerland.
Looking for somewhere to stay in Milan? Then you cannot get more central than the Park Hyatt Milan! Read our full review here.
Venice really is a one-off. There is no other destination in the world quite like this city built on over 100 islands.
With dramatic and ancient buildings, narrow cobbled lanes, sociable squares and some truly opulent hotels – Venice is surely the number one city for romance.
Whether you take a gondola ride, have a Bellini in Harry’s Bar or a coffee at Florian cafe in Piazza San Marco, explore the churches and art galleries or simply wander the streets in search of the perfect photo opportunity, Venice is unlike anywhere you’ve ever visited before.
Day trip from Venice – Verona
Verona isn’t far from Venice – about an hour and 15 minutes by train. Shakespeare fans might like to see Juliet Capulet’s house here, which once belonged to the real-life Cappello family. Yes, of course it does have a balcony! The small city also has a Roman amphitheater and a medieval Old Town.
Visiting Florence and Tuscany
Florence is quite possibly the number one art lover’s destination on the planet.
Its architecture and art are unparalleled, and some of the most famous paintings and sculptures in the world are housed here.
Works not to miss include Michelangelo’s David sculpture at the Galleria dell’Accademia and The Birth of Venus by Botticelli at the Uffizi Gallery. Of course, the iconic Duomo is also a huge attraction.
The Uffizi Gallery should be on any first-time visitor’s mind. But, you need timed-entry tickets that sell out in advance, especially in the busy summer months. Click below to reserve yours before you go.
➡️ Book your Uffizi Gallery skip-the-line tickets with guided tour in advance before they sell out
Florence is the capital of Tuscany, and many visitors combine the city with the countryside of the region. This area has it all – lush vineyards, fertile farmland, rugged mountains and also Elba island which is known for its beaches.
Day trip from Florence – Pisa
It may also be worth paying Pisa a visit while you’re in this area – it’s under an hour and about $10 away by train. This university city is built on the banks of the Arno river and is where you’ll find the famous leaning tower. It’s compact and easy to explore on foot.
Visiting the Cinque Terre
The Cinque Terre is part of the Italian Riviera. It literally translates as ‘five lands’, and consists of five coastal villages of the Liguria region. Each of these small seaside spots is incredibly beautiful.
Visitors to the Cinque Terre can expect delicious dining, panoramic ocean vistas, colorful homes and traditional fishing harbors.
Visiting Southern Italy and the Italian Islands
There are hundreds of islands off the Italian coast. Three of the best known ones, though, are Sicily, Sardinia and Capri.
The first two are located off the southern Italian coast. Capri is near Naples, and Sicily is the country’s biggest island. It lies off the ‘toe’ of the boot-shaped mainland.
Sun-drenched Sicily offers ancient archeological sites, vibrant cities, an exciting foodie scene and almost 650 miles of coastline. It’s a great place for both relaxation and adventure!
There are smaller islands dotted around it too. Capri is known for being an upscale destination and is the place to go for fans of yachts, designer shopping, deluxe hotels and secluded coves. Sardinia, meanwhile, is ideal for hiking fans, lovers of beach life and history buffs.
Other places to visit in Southern Italy include Naples, which has a UNESCO-listed historic center. The views over the Bay of Naples are exquisite and there’s plenty of art and architecture to admire. While in the city, you must also try pizza, as this is where it originated. Neapolitan, anyone?
Best Time to Go to Italy
What is the best month to travel in Italy?
It really depends on where you’re headed and what your plans are. For skiing in the mountains or low season rates in the cities and resorts, the best time to visit Rome or take a winter sports vacation may be winter.
Summer brings lovely sunny weather in Italy – but it also brings hordes of tourists. For a compromise between the chill of winter and the crowds of summer, you may prefer to visit in spring or fall.
It’s down to where you want to go and what you want to do.
Practical issues like school semester dates and parents taking leave from work may also come into it. You may also pay more for flights, accommodations and tours in the high season. And then you have to deal with the July and August crowds!
Most of Italy has a Mediterranean, subtropical climate with hot summers and cool winters. Some of the mountainous areas have an Alpine climate, however, with cold winters and overnight temperatures and humid summers.
How Many Days to Spend in Italy
How many days is ideal to visit Italy? Well, again the answer depends on what you want to do. Each city will demand at least a few days of your time, and if you want to take day trips or explore more fully then you could easily spend a week there, especially in Florence or Rome.
Four days is a good time frame for Rome or Florence, and you could see enough with three in Milan or Venice. It’s really about what you want to do, whether that’s skiing in the Dolomites, relaxing by the sea in summer or discovering Sicily or the Tuscan countryside.
Someone who lives in Europe might be happy to spend several long weekends or a week in Italy visiting different destinations, for example.
As it will take a family like us from the US longer to get there, two weeks is a good minimum. Of course, three weeks or a month would allow you to see even more of the best things in Italy, but again it comes down to budget and timing.
Getting around Italy
Are you thinking of a car rental so you can take an Italian road trip, or public transportation so that someone else can take care of the driving and finding the way?
Here’s an outline of how you can travel around Italy.
Public transport in Italy
Public transport in Italy is good, especially between the cities. Trains are quick and efficient, and tickets are affordable.
High-speed rail services operate between destinations like Rome, Florence and Milan. Oftentimes, the train stations themselves are historical, beautiful places to visit.
Many of the major cities also have their own metro systems. These are ideal for getting around, or you can take short trips by local taxi. The islands are served by ferries from the mainland.
Buses tend to be slow, and tram routes are limited, but both can be useful in some locations.
Driving in Italy
If asked “what should I avoid in Italy”, many people may say driving! Taking to the wheel can be stressful in Italy, as drivers can be impatient and parking is often impossible. In cities, we say forget it.
Do your homework before deciding on a rental car. If you find this is suited to your destination/s, non-EU citizens will require an International Driving Permit.
Food in Italy
The mouthwatering food is one of the highlights of a visit to Italy. This country is the global HQ of pizza and pasta – and then there’s gelato. And superb coffee. Some fine Italian wines make dining here even more appealing.
As well as those obvious ones, other culinary delights to tickle your tastebuds include risotto, arancini, cured meats, cheeses, fresh seafood (especially by the coast) and desserts such as panna cotta, tiramisu and affogato. Yum!
Money in Italy
Italian currency is the Euro and has been since the beginning of 2002. Before that, the lira was used in Italy. This can make money simpler when you’re traveling from the United States or another distant country, as many countries in Europe have adopted a single currency.
When using a credit card in Italy, don’t forget that you may be stung by foreign currency transaction fees (up to 3% of your total).
The Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card (referral link) is one of the best cards for traveling. There are no foreign transaction fees, it provides trip interruption and trip cancellation insurance and primary car rental coverage in most countries. Please read the T&C before applying,
Credit cards are useful to have – particularly for check-in at hotels and car rental – but if you can, look for a card with no fees for overseas spending.
It’s a good idea to bring some Euros in cash to get started with, especially smaller bills. Also bring more than one kind of credit or debit card, as not all types are accepted in all places.
Withdrawing cash from ATMs is also cost-effective and easy to do. In fact, it’s probably the best way to get your supply of euros.
Top Tips for Travel in Italy
While we have a whole separate post with 21 Italy travel tips, here are some of the more important pointers.
Round up rather than tipping
Rounding up restaurant checks or bills is customary in Italy, rather than tipping like in the USA.
Your knees and shoulders should be kept covered when visiting religious sites like a cathedral or the Vatican City. When considering what to wear when visiting Italy, remember that it is a Catholic country.
Pre-validate train tickets
Validating train (and bus and ferry) tickets in Italy is a must. Heavy fines apply when you fail to do so! You can find the machines on the platform or within the vehicle as you enter.
Don’t drive in the cities
Just don’t. It’s scary as heck and there’s no parking to be had anywhere.
Take shoes made for walking
You may be headed to Milan, but still. Forget the stilettos when you’re sightseeing. Those ancient streets and squares require sturdy, comfortable footwear.
Attraction tickets can be bought, paid for and booked long before you leave your home country. Buying these helps with budgeting, saves precious time and can even mean skipping the line. It’s a no-brainer. It can also help you avoid getting scammed!
➡️ Click here to read Viator’s Cancellation Policy where you can cancel up to 24 hours before your attraction time.
Take care of your cash
Wear a money belt and always keep your bag strap tethered to something when sitting down. Thieves are at work in Italian cities, so don’t flash the cash.
Money Saving Tips for Italy
Italy isn’t generally a cheap place to travel, but you can save lots of money by being clever with your cash! Here are a few best tips and tricks to try as money-saving tips when visiting Italy.
Avoid peak season
Peak season in Italy is hot and horribly crowded, and to cap it all it’s more expensive. Unless you love paying over the odds and cramped spaces, avoid July and August.
It’s cheaper to take cash out of an ATM than to use a currency exchange service. Do carry some cash, as small shops or cafes don’t always accept cards.
Eat a large lunch
As in many countries, eating a main meal at lunchtime can save you lots of cash. You can eat in cheaper cafes, and restaurants also often have special lunch menus that are more affordable. If in doubt, go where the locals eat.
Stand up – and avoid the bread
To save money, have your drink standing up. Sitting down can cost double or more! If bread is offered at a restaurant, also be aware that a cover charge for it will appear on your check later on.
That out-of-town hotel may seem more of a bargain, but you’ll waste so much time and some money traveling. It’s just not worth it. Getting more out of each day is more important – and the saving on transport soon racks up.
Italian Travel Scams
Yes, there are scammers in Italy. It’s a fact of life. Just be on your guard. Choose cafes away from the tourist hubs to avoid unpleasant surprises when the check arrives, and don’t buy tickets for anything from people who approach you in the street.
Never let anyone tie a friendship bracelet or anything else around you, as they’ll either want you to pay or try to steal from you. Don’t step on any paintings laid out on the ground for the same reason.
Also beware of fake police officers, or anyone trying to distract you in any way. And of course pickpockets and beggars.
Helpful Italian phrases
Here are some useful phrases to know when visiting Italy.
- Per favore – Please
- Grazie – Thank you
- Prego – You’re welcome
- Scusi – Excuse me
- Parla Inglese – Do you speak English?
- Mi dispiace – I’m sorry
- Buon giorno – Good morning
- Buona sera – Good afternoon
- Buona notte – Good night
- Ciao – Hi or bye
- Come sta – How are you?
- Si – Yes
- No – No
Visiting Italy FAQs
Does traveling to Italy require a Covid test? At the time of writing, no. The former restrictions on entering Italy have now been removed.
So can you visit Italy without a vaccine? Yes, you can. No negative test result, proof of vaccination, or recovery certificate is required to enter the country.
Italy is generally a safe country to live and travel in. In big cities, though, scammers and pickpockets do operate, so keep your valuables close and never flash the cash.
Italy isn’t cheap, but it isn’t the most expensive country on the planet either. Choose carefully where to stay, eat and shop, and you can save a lot of money on accommodation, food and transport. Tourist areas and big cities are normally the most expensive places in Italy.
Please don’t forget to purchase travel insurance! With recent events, it’s even more important to be covered.
Whether you need it because you can’t travel due to illness, a missed travel connection or you need medical attention in a foreign country, it is important to purchase it for your travels.
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Visiting Italy Conclusion
From what not to do in Italy as a tourist – such as dressing inappropriately or sitting down for a cheap coffee – to places to go, how to travel around, and even some rudimentary Italian, we hope this guide to visiting Italy, especially your first trip, is useful when planning your trip.
We’ve been to Italy three times as a family, and Italy 101 was written on the basis of what we’ve learned from those vacations. Italy is generally a safe, welcoming country, but be warned. There’s so much to see and do that you may never want to leave!
Christine is a mother, wife and travel fanatic. She loves to plan trips, especially using points and miles. Disney is her passion while vacations in Europe have her wanting to move there. To continue reading, click more about me.