Italy – Before you go

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Italy!!! The name invokes a smile on my face, memories of great food and wine, a rich and vibrant culture and incredibly helpful people. Any trip to Italy would involve an immersion in history, as well as great art and architecture, given that this country is the cradle of European civilization.

You will see several icons of history; things that you only read about in history books will come to life in front of you. The mysteries of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, the decaying Byzantine elegance of Venice, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the quiet beauty and power of Michaelangelo’s David (I nearly cried when I saw him!), the crumbling remains of the once mighty Colosseum…. I could go on. Throw in the fact that Italy has some of the most picturesque wine regions in the world and you will not know what to include and what to skip in your Italian sojourn.

italy duomo florence
The Duomo in Florence

How long do you need to visit Italy

This is such a tricky question. You could spend as long as a month or as little as a week in Italy. Whatever time you have though, don’t worry about the things you might be missing. I have a feeling that you will definitely return to Italy. It is the only country I truly want to go back to, despite the fact that I spent 21 days there. 🙂

2-3 days: Rome

4-6 days: Add Florence

7-9 days: Add Venice

10-13 days: Add Tuscan Wine country and Siena

14-15 days: Add Amalfi Coast, Naples and Pompeii

16-18 days: Add Cinque Terre

19-21 days: Add Milan, Lake Como

How to dress

You would imagine that being in Europe, you could dress any way you wanted to, the only deciding factor being the weather. You would be very wrong and likely be refused admittance to many churches. Knees and shoulders always need to be covered if a visit to a church or cathedral is in the plan for the day. Vatican guards are notorious for turning incorrectly-dressed people away from Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine chapel; make sure you are not one of them. You could solve the bare shoulders issue by carrying a light shrug with you in summer and a jacket in the winter. The bare knees are a bit trickier. I would just dress in midi or maxi skirts in summer, and jeans (not ripped too much) or trousers in winter to be completely safe. Note that this rule applies to men as well, so pack accordingly.

Money

Euro is the currency everywhere and I would suggest carrying most of it in an international travel card and a small amount as cash. Even small restaurants in remote towns accept cards and there is no charge to swipe your card for transactions. Each ATM withdrawal is charged 1.5 euros. You can get all these details from your bank. I usually do all my currency purchases from the Centrum at Tidel Park. Their rates are unbeatable although their customer service leaves a bit to be desired.

Visa

Italy belongs to the EU, so you need a Schengen Visa  for entry. Typically, based on our experience, visas are granted in 2-3 working days, but apply at least one month in advance to account for unprecedented delays. Your tickets and accommodation need to be booked at the time that you apply for your visa. In addition to this, you will need to provide the filled in application form, a covering letter stating your intent, your bank statements for the last three months, IT returns for the last two years, marriage certificate, travel insurance (from a listed company) and a copy of your itinerary. There are three consulates in India – Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata and between the three of them, they cater to all the Indian states. For example, residents of Tamil Nadu should apply to the Mumbai embassy, Punjab at Delhi and so on.

Safety

Theft is rampant in Italy – there are no two ways about it. There are well-dressed pickpocketeers, gangs of thieving children and sweet con-artists in every corner. Most thefts occur in trains, buses and crowded sights, so be extremely careful of your money, your passports and other valuables. Don’t carry anything important in your pockets. A money belt is always a great idea and if you are carrying backpacks, carry them in the front. Women carrying handbags need to make sure that you hold your bags in front of your body and not behind, to avoid the nasty surprise of finding that you are clutching on to the straps but no bag.

They can steal your luggage from your car, which is what happened with us – so do not leave your luggage unattended in your car for even half an hour. If you have to visit a sight that is in between two cities, definitely go to the trouble of finding and hiring a locker and leave your luggage there. Perhaps the only consolation is that I have not heard of violence against tourists – the picking is too ripe for anyone to bother. If you are unfortunate enough to lose your money, passports or luggage, the police will not be of much help. You can read this post on how to recover from a robbery in a foreign country.

Crowds

Although you will encounter the worst crowds between May to October, Italy is never truly free of tourists. So you might as well accept it as a part of your Italian experience. It will save you a lot of irritation and hassle.

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Crowd at Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II – Milan

Transportation

Italy, in general has an excellent public transport system consisting of buses, trams and Metro lines. The inter-city train connections are also pretty good. Within cities, use the taxis when you absolutely need them, like when you are carrying your luggage or are in a rush to get somewhere. Otherwise, use public transport. It is both cheap and efficient in all the major cities, like Milan, Rome and Florence. The one exception is Venice, where you will be using the Vaporetti, which is not cheap by any means. But riding the Vaporetti is an experience in itself. You can do a tour of all the key sights in Venice through one Vaporetti ride and then use it again when necessary. Most key sights are walkable in Venice.

Side note: GoogleMaps does not work in Venice. Go old-fashioned and ask people for directions or carry a map.

If you are visiting Cinque Terre, Pompeii, Naples, the wine country or are going to the Amalfi coast, I would strongly suggest renting a car. This is actually cheaper and much more convenient than taking buses or tours with tour companies.

SIM card

Do not use your home SIM card or purchase a Matrix card at the airport. Neither is the most cost-effective option. There were 4 major network operators in Italy in 2015 when we visited – Vodafone, TIM, Wind and 3. Wind and 3 merged and are offering services as one network as of January 2017. TIM, however, was the SIM card that we chose for our trip.

SIM cards are sold for 10 euros. We selected the TIM Special Voci+Dati package (500 local minutes+2GB data) for an additional 15 euros. Our logic was that we definitely needed local minutes to talk to our hosts at AirBnb, get directions etc and we could always use Whatsapp to call our family back in India. This plan was valid for 28 days and it was perfect for us. Data top-ups are available as well – 5 euros for 1 GB and 10 euros for 2 GB. I would definitely suggest TIM, becuase we had a hassle-free experience with them and they have coverage all over Italy, including the Vatican.

italy rome colosseum
The Colosseum, Rome

Best times to visit

May, June, September and October are the the best months to visit Italy, because it is extremely pleasant, but they are also the busiest and most expensive months. We visited in October and it was standing room only in many attractions. The summer months of July and August can be quite hot (about 36 degrees celcius), but may not bother Indians who are used to much worse in Chennai and Delhi. It is quite daunting though, to think about sharing the Sistine chapel with hundreds of other people in the muggy July heat. Most hotels have air-conditioning, which can be used during the summer months.

italy amalfi
The sun, in all its burning glory, sets behind Capri – Amalfi Coast

Between November to April, the weather is pleasant, but you will encounter shorter hours, longer breaks and fewer activities. Also, gets quite cold in spring and fall, but hotels aren’t allowed to turn on the heating until winter. I remember encountering this exact situation in Milan, so be prepared. 🙂

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