This past trip to Italy was my first time overseas and we did quite a bit of traveling around. From Florence, to Rome, to Amalfi, Positano, Capri and back to Florence and into the Tuscany countryside, I saw and learned a lot. I’m sure there is plenty more to learn and easily plenty more to see but I wanted to share 10 things I learned while there:
1. Toilets & Restrooms | Often times restrooms are singles and not gender specific. Additional, toilet seats are next to non-existent, so you’re either squatting or sitting on the bowl. I had also heard that sometimes you would need your own paper so always kept tissue travel packs on me, but never had that problem. Also, it feels frowned upon to use a restaurant or store’s washroom unless you’re buying something there.
2. Tipping | There is no tipping in restaurants, but there is almost always a sitting fee. Coming from a tip-heavy country, like Canada, where you tip everyone from your server to your stylist to your Barista, it felt odd not to leave a tip while abroad. Apparently though, Servers have a starting salary that is equivalent to an Engineer and tipping can be seen as rude. As far as the sitting fee, it is anywhere from 2 to 5 Euros per person and just added onto the cheque. Speaking of the cheque, servers never want to rush you out so they will never bring the cheque until you specifically ask for it.
3. Breakfast | If you’re an eggs and bacon lover, forget about it while traveling in Italy and get your taste buds ready for sweets. A typical first meal of the day consisted of pastries like sweet croissants and un-iced cakes, along with some fruit, yogurt, meats, cheese platters, white bread, espresso and cappuccino. A few shops we went to carried some amazing Paninis, again with salami and/or prosciutto, provolone and mozzarella.
4. Dinner Time | Italians eat dinner late, so keep that in mind when you are planning your day. The usual hour for dinner is 8pm onwards, and most places won’t open until about 7pm anyway. Plan accordingly, eat a later lunch or go back to your hotel for a riposo to re-energize for the evening ahead.
5. Restaurants | This may not come as a surprise, but eating in the touristy areas is not only pricier, but the food is not nearly as good. If you are unsure of where to go, but have some walking shoes ready, you often don’t have to for further than a kilometer to get off the beaten path and into some seriously tasty eats. Tripadvisor is your best friend for this and so easy to map your location and route. Often times you will need a reservation, especially Thursday through Sunday, but calling ahead, even a few hours, is usually enough. Every night we would search the site for ‘nearby’ restaurants, read reviews and browse photos until we found something that piqued our interest, then would call and see if they could fit us in. Sometimes we went to dinner at 10pm, but hey, when in Rome!
6. Tax-Free Shopping | As a foreign tourist, you can enjoy the luxury that is tax-free shopping, provided you spend over 155 Euros in one store, on the same day. This is a major 12% savings, that is well worth it, especially if you’re looking to purchase any designer goods. When I purchased my handbag at Luisa via Roma, they filled out a tax form for me which I took to the Exchange booth down the street. They give you the 12% back in cash or on your credit card. When you leave the country, you need to have the form stamped at the Customs booth at the airport and mail in your form (there is a box at the airport for this; it’s very easy and they walk you through it with your pre-paid envelope). If you don’t mail in the form or get your customs stamp to prove you’ve left the country–making you eligible for the tax-free savings–you will have to pay back the 12% you were given.
7. Bread | Restaurants always serve bread at the table before your meal comes but they will never give you butter or oil to go with it. Bread is eaten plain and dry, if eaten at all.
8. Taxis + Luggage Charges | Taxis will often have a flat rate to and from the airport, but will always charge you 1 or 2 Euros for each piece of luggage. Additionally, if you call for a taxi, you will often pay for the time it takes to get to you, as well as your distance/time to your destination.
9. Hotel Safes | The safes we had at our two hotels were very tiny–there was no way my laptop could fit, but we did squeeze in the big camera, iPads, passports, the GoPro and some money. That said, always do a test run of the safe key pad and your self-created pin. Not once but twice I locked our stuff inside without doing this myself and we had to get the concierge to help, which means you’re waiting around when you could be out exploring.
10. Trains | The high-speed trains are a dream, especially if you come from North America. We took trains from Florence to Rome, Rome to Salerno (near Amalfi Coast) and eventually from Salerno back to Florence. We saved a ton of time and avoided driving (which is chaotic!). Your best bet is to book your train ahead of time, and you can often get a supersaver deal. Even booking the day before will save you time and you’ll feel more calm when you arrive at the station.