For as long as I can remember, Europe has been on my bucket list of destinations to visit. And last month, I was finally lucky enough to experience one of the continent’s most beautiful countries. My boyfriend, Tyler, and I spent three weeks in Italy last month and despite being avid researchers of a destination before we travel (along with his previous backpacking experience), there are still things I wish I had been better prepared before the trip. I thought I’d share with you all the things best to consider before making your way to the boot-shaped land of pizza, pasta and cold cuts.
1. Prepare to walk everywhere and pack appropriate footwear
Being from Sydney, it’s easy to order/hop into a taxi to go 700m down the road for dinner. But in most Italian cities, you’ll end up wasting time waiting for a cab when you could easily walk and soak in the architectural beauty of your surroundings. It’s also best if you want to avoid getting car sick because the streets are small and windy and are mostly cobblestone, making for a super bumpy ride. We walked a minimum of 15 – 20km each day while we were there, and I wish I’d brought an extra pair of shoes. My sandals, which I thought were comfortable on account of they didn’t give me any blisters, were terrible for my arches and I woke up every morning with bruised-feeling feet. They came right eventually but still, another shoe of choice with some cushioning would’ve been ideal.
2. There are two types of power outlets
Depending on where you stay, there are two types of power sockets used in Italy and you’ll need appropriate adapter plugs for both. If you’ve travelled to Asian countries like Vietnam and Indonesia, adapters with the two round prongs will work – in most cases. We found this out the hard way. Our hotel in Lake Como had both types of sockets in the one room – bizarre! We realised that as well as the two round pronged adapter, you’d also need one that has three (slightly smaller) round prongs. Luckily, if you’re staying at a good hotel, they’ll happily lend you an adapter during your stay. But if you’re like us and have not just your phones, but also your Gopro, Karma Grip, and multiple camera batteries to charge, then you’re best to be equipped before you travel. This link is great for working out what adapters you need, depending on which country you’re travelling from.
3. Italians eat late, very late
Dinner time for most Italians doesn’t start until at least 9pm. Most restaurants in cities like Milan, Rome and Florence cater to tourists and will hold seatings as early as 7:30pm when they reopen for dinner, but you’ll most likely find yourself being the only person eating at that time. We arrived into Milan at 7am following a 21-hour journey from Sydney and were exhausted, but we knew it would be best to soldier on and stay awake for the day to adjust to the time difference. I felt surprisingly spritely despite having been awake for nearly 48 hours, and really enjoyed our first day of exploring. I did, however, forget to factor in that dinner wouldn’t be happening until at least 9pm. I was fighting every urge not to just crash and call it a night at 7pm – but we made it to dinner alas. For the rest of the trip, we did as the Italians do and made dinner reservations for 9:30pm. In saying that Italians still rise early. Their days are just much more stretched out than you might be used to. Come to think of it, there was one place where we ate dinner at 7pm and that was in Menaggio, Lake Como. It was a much smaller town so the restaurants seemed to close earlier.
4. Restaurants charge a fee or “cover charge”
Don’t be alarmed and pick a fight with your waiter if you see a cover charge of anywhere between €2.50 – €6 per person on your bill. Sydney-siders will be asking: “HUH? What type of restaurant charges for you to just sit down?!” Italian restaurants do. And if you want to eat out in Italy, you’ll have to suck it up and pay the fee. We only noticed this fee while we were at a restaurant in Milan, where another group sat down at a table beside ours. They saw the menus and kicked up a stink and seemed to be arguing with the waiters in Italian before storming off. It then clicked that they were pissed off about the €6 fee to sit and be served.
5. Water is not free at restaurants
No matter where you go to eat in Sydney, you’ll find a jug of tap water on your table as soon as you’ve sat down. When you’re in Italy, expect to pay for water, even if it’s coming from the tap. Every waiter will first ask you if you prefer still or sparking water after you take a seat. Unsuspecting Aussies will ask for “tap, please” and assume they’re getting it for free. Don’t be fooled, and be prepared to pay a premium for it. The better restaurants in Italy will serve your water in a new glass bottle and charge around €4 on average. I soon caught on to the fact that most restaurants just refill the same glass bottles with filtered tap water, and still charge the same price.
6. Buying a data sim was the best decision
We bought a couple of European sim cards online before we flew out, from a store called Prepaid Zero. From comparison, it had the best deal for data to use while in Italy (and any other European country, too). I bought this one, which cost AUD$77 for 9GB of data each, which was plenty to last me for the three weeks we were in Italy. Tyler’s data ran out two days before we headed home, but he did make the mistake of making a couple of Facebook video calls on 3G, which most likely drained tonnes of data. Despite Italy being quite old-fashioned and traditional, you’ll find adequate WiFi in most hotels (the ones we stayed in worked absolutely fine). However, if you plan on doing lots of exploring and wandering around to find the city’s best eats, Google Maps comes in very handy! Now, I know you can make maps available offline, but that only works if you already know the destinations you’d like to visit before leaving your WiFi sweet spot.
7. Validate your train tickets
Once you’ve purchased a train ticket at the station, you’ll also need to validate it with one of the green machines found inside the terminal and along the platforms. It’s basically a time stamp so that you can only use your ticket to board that one train and not use it to travel around all day for free. It also seems rather redundant because at the time of purchase, you’re required to select a time that you’d like to travel. But, it’s still a must-do if you want to avoid being slapped with a fine from one of the ticket inspectors on patrol.
8. Italians take their coffee black, no fuss, and upstanding
Walk into any busy cafe or pasticceria and you’ll find almost every customer is huddled along the bar, standing up whilst they sip on their espressos. If you really must sit down, be prepared to pay extra for whatever you order. Speaking of ordering, Italian cafes are different in that there’s a counter, usually with a cash till, where you order your coffee and/or croissant. You’ll then be given a receipt and assume that your order’s been received by the barista and is on its way, in which case you’d be wrong (I speak from experience). Once you’ve paid for your order and are given a receipt, you then need to physically take it over to the bar and order again with the barista and show him/her your receipt.
9. Invest in quality luggage (or pack light)
Italian streets are cobblestone and a lot of the coastal towns, such as those in Cinque Terre, are steep. Unless you’re packing extra light, it’s ideal to invest in quality luggage with wheels that work properly and are long-lasting. It would make for a very unhappy start to your trip if the wheels broke and you find yourself having to carry 30kgs of baggage up the hills of Cinque Terre or Lake Como.
10. Paying for transfers can be expensive (but worth it)
Taxi transfers coming out of any airport in the world is fairly costly, but it’s especially so when you’re in Italy. From Milan Malpensa airport to our hotel in Milano CBD, we paid €100 (AUD$150) for a taxi, which took all of about 25 minutes as there was no traffic at 7:45am. You also, of course, have the option of taking a shuttle bus which I believe is around €8 ($AUD12). But after two flights and 21 hours of turbulence, we were more than happy to get in a taxi and be taken directly to our hotel’s door step without fuss or extra time wasted. In Venice, we caught a water-taxi from the port located right outside the train station to Accademia, the port nearest our hotel. The 12-minute ride along the beautiful canals of Venice set us back €70 (AUD$105). It may seem like an exorbitant amount to pay but trust me, when it’s 34 degrees C outside and you have two huge suitcases plus your hand luggage, it’s so worth forking out just so you can get to your hotel. Plus, it’s an incredible way to see the city, riding along the Grand Canal and soaking in all of Venice’s insane beauty.
Bonus 11th tip: You’ll fall madly in love!
Without being a history buff, I was absolutely blown away by the sheer grandeur of Italy’s architecture and its rich history. Australia is such a young country by comparison! Knowing that we were walking amongst buildings that had been built thousands of years ago gave me butterflies in my tummy. Meanwhile, the seafood is phenomenal, especially when you get to towns near the coast like Cinque Terre and Venice. I was in heaven indulging in lobster pasta for lunch (and sometimes dinner as well) almost every day.
Photography: Tyler Reisz
Words: Jody Phan
Editing: Jody Phan