Italy is a splendid country full of history, art and deliciously fresh food. But it can be difficult and frustrating to navigate because of language barriers, lack of reliable infrastructure and more people willing to take advantage of a tourist than to help them out. Some travel guides will only paint a rosey picture of famous places, but there are some travel guides out there that will tell you what to watch out for and where to keep your wits about you. Try to find the honest ones--you will get better advice.
Personally, I am not a travel guide kind of person. In fact, I have never used a travel guide on my journeys. I like a little adventure and some of my favorite memories are when I literally got lost in foreign lands and had nothing but a map to get me back--you should always have a map.
Traveling through Italy can be very easy or very difficult. Knowing a few things before you go can save you a lot of time, aggravation and money. If you are traveling to Sicily, DO NOT plan on traveling by train. While there is train service, they are small, slow trains that stop in every obscure, mountain top village. You will loose a tremendous amount of time on a train. The main means of public transportation in Sicily is by pullman (a nice motor coach). Otherwise, renting a car is the best way of getting around.
The type of person you are also makes a big difference on arranging travel plans. Some people don't like to be at the mercy of train times, possible strikes and dealing with tickets. This is where renting a car and driving through Italy or anywhere in Europe can be a great adventure. It gives you more freedom to stop where you want, explore hidden places and make your own schedule. However, renting a car can be quite expensive as there are many other expenses that come with a car. First and foremost, gas is ridiculously expensive in Europe, especially to American standards. We may now be used to paying three and half dollars a gallon at the pump (and complaining about it), but in Europe you will pay anywhere from 2.50-4 euros a liter for unleaded. Remember that 1 gallon = almost 4 liters, so with conversion of liters to gallons and euros to dollars you will be paying about $13.50 a gallon for the cheapest gas. But that is why they all have small cars and diesel engines. Diesel costs significantly less, so if you do plan on driving around Europe, make sure to rent a diesel! Secondly, when driving in Italy, there are no freeways! All major highways are fast, straight and smooth--but you have to pay for it! The tolls are roughly equivalent to the cost of a train ticket to your destination (they do that on purpose).
Trains can be liberating for travel because you can just sit back and enjoy the views and not worry about traffic, crazy drivers, knowing where you are going and the eternal impossibility of parking. Most train travel in Europe is quite nice, with climate control, new seats, and fast. Trains in Europe are not like Amtrak. They are usually very fast, sleek and efficient. The high-speed trains are not something to miss as they are an experience in themselves. It is important to know the difference in trains, however. Regional trains are going to be slower, older and more run down, especially in Italy. The regional trains that run through Liguria (connecting Genoa and the Cinque Terre) are rather gross. I hate them, but they are my means of inter-city travel. But when you take a train to larger cities like Milan or Rome, you can take the Freccia Bianca, the Eurostar or Freccia Rosso which are the nicer trains and it becomes a nice experience again. My favorite train is the TGV that connects Paris with Provence. In 3 hours you cover almost the entire country from Aix-en-Provence to Paris, with one stop in Lyon. And it is a lovely ride. If you are planning to travel by train in Italy, make sure to read my post on validating your tickets and the ridiculous fines if you don't!
In most of Europe, you can get by pretty well with just English. In Sicily, however, if you don't speak Italian, it will be a bit more difficult. In more touristic places, people in hotels, restaurants and airports will know a little English. To make things easier, learn a few phrases and bring a booklet of some key words for getting around.
If you do know a little Italian, it would help a lot, and if you can't understand what the people are saying to each other, don't worry--they're speaking their dialect, but they do understand Italian.
Here is a great widget for Italian words and phrases. Check out their free podcast!
How to dress?
Italians are pretty flexible when it comes to rules, but one rule you will find strictly enforced is the dress code inside churches. Women can't show exposed shoulders or knees (even too much cleavage will get you sent out), so make sure you have a shawl or over-shirt when visiting a church.
The only time Italians wear running shoes is when they're running. You can always spot the American tourists by the big bright white tennis shoes with white socks. To avoid being instantly spotted, try to wear more dressy-casual type shoes when walking around town, or a pair of funky euro sneakers like Pumas or Diesel. You will also notice that Italians dress a little nicer than Americans, or even Northern Europeans, so the the whole t-shirt and shorts ensemble will stick out like a sore thumb. Want a tip to blend in during the summer? One word--linen. Italians often dress themselves from head to toe in linen garments, and considering the hot summers, it's not a bad idea.
At the Beach
Bikinis and one pieces for women and small swim trunks or board shorts for men are the most common. Don't worry, Speedos are totally out now, only worn by those with bellies and back hair, still hanging on to the memory of the good old 70's. Topless bathing is common in northern Italy, but very few Sicilian girls go topless. If you see a women sunbathing topless in Sicily, she's not from that town, and most likely foreign.
You know that American saying: "I want what I want, when I want it!"? FORGET ABOUT IT! To start off, everyday there is a completely inconvenient three hour afternoon break from 1 to 4, where every store, even some restaurants, are closed. On Sundays, everything is closed except for some large super markets on the outskirts of larger cities. On Mondays, stores are closed all day, not opening until the normal evening hours around 5, and last until 8 or 9pm. Also, don't plan on getting groceries after 9 PM--ever! Pharmacies are also closed at night, although all pharmacies will always list the location of a pharmacist available all night in case of emergency. In August, many stores are closed altogether for vacation.
Are the cities safe?
Like most European cities, Italian cities are pretty safe, the only crime problem being pick-pocketing and purse-snatching. Sicily is notorious for being more dangerous, but it's because they're just better at getting your stuff without you realizing it. Violent crime, however, is almost unheard of--America has more of a problem with that. The best way to avoid being robbed is to constantly be aware of your surroundings and your stuff. Women should absolutely not were big purses that hang open, and never stick money or your wallet in your back pocket. Just remember--if they see that you see them, they'll probably leave you alone; if you walk around with your head in sky, pointing and saying "Wow! Look at that!" you'll probably come home a little lighter.
Have any other questions?I would be happy to answer your questions! Just post a comment or see my contact page.