Italy 101: To Enjoy Italy on a Budget, Plan to Go Local
|If you fall in love with Italy, it's likely to happen here, in Vernazza on the Cinque Terre.
(Photo courtesy of Rick Steves' Europe though the Back Door.)
Italy is my favorite country, from brutal, bello Rome to tranquillo Riviera villages, from marveling at Michelangelo’s David to savoring tomatotopped bruschetta snacks.
Many travelers think of Italy as a chaotic mess and any attempt at efficient travel as futile. This is dead wrong—and expensive. Italy, which seems as orderly as spilled spaghetti, actually functions quite well. Only those who understand this can travel smart and enjoy Italy on a budget—about $90 a day for room and board. All that takes is a bit of planning and a willingness to go local. Here are some basics to help you make the most of your Italian journey.
When to Go
Italy’s best travel months are May, June, September, and October. November and April usually have pleasant weather, with generally none of the sweat and stress of the tourist season. Off-season, expect shorter hours, more lunchtime breaks, and fewer activities.
Many Italians in larger towns and those in the tourist trade speak at least some English. Still, you’ll get more smiles and results by using the Italian pleasantries. In smaller, nontouristy towns, Italian is the norm. Get a phrasebook and practice. Italians appreciate your efforts.
Italian Tourist Offices in the U.S.
Before your trip, contact the nearest Italian tourist office in the U.S. Briefly describe your itinerary and request information. You’ll get the general packet and if you ask for specifics—like individual city maps, a calendar of festivals, good hikes around Lake Como, info on wine-tasting in Umbria, and so on—an impressive amount of help. If you have a specific problem, they’re a good source of sympathy.
Tourist Information in Italy
On the road, your best first stop in each town is the tourist office (abbreviated as “i,” “turismo,” and “APT” in Italy). While Italian tourist offices are about half as helpful as those in other countries, their information is twice as important. Prepare. Have a list of questions and a proposed plan to doublecheck. The opening hours of Italian sights can vary from month to month: be sure to get a current listing of sights and their hours. If you’re arriving late, telephone ahead to ask your questions (and try to get a map for your next destination from a tourist office in the town you’re departing from. We offer a map of Italy.).
Avoid the travel and booking agencies that masquerade as tourist offices but serve fancy hotels and tour companies. They are liars selling things you don’t need.
While the tourist office is eager to book you a room, use its room-finding service only as a last resort. They’re unable to give hard opinions on the relative value of one place over another. And since they take a cut, you’ll end up paying more even though your host will earn less. Instead, use a good guidebook (I'm partial to my Italy Guidebook) to help you find lodging that's central, friendly, clean, and affordable.
By Car or Train?
Considering the craziness of driving in Italian cities and the affordability of Italy’s trains and buses, I’d tour most of Italy by public transportation. City-tocity travel is faster, easier, and cheaper by train than by car. Trains give you the convenience and economy of doing long stretches overnight. By train, I arrive relaxed and well-rested—not so by car. For schedules consult the train schedules (orario ferroviaro) sold cheap at local newsstands, but be warned that rail strikes are common. Strikes generally last a day, and train employees will simply say, “Sciopero” (strike). In actuality, sporadic trains, following no particular schedule, lumber down the tracks during most strikes. (editor's note: The Man in Seat 61 offers advice and links for Italian train travel).
Cars can be fun in rural areas for exploring hill towns. They also carry your luggage for you, generally from door to door—especially important for heavy packers, such as chronic shoppers, long-stay travelers, and families traveling with children. (Hint to longstay travelers: try leasing a car from Nice, only an hour from Italy, and visit the Italian Riviera on your way to Venice or Florence). Parking, gas (about $7-8 per gallon), mandatory theft insurance, and tolls are expensive in Italy, but the more people you pack into a car or minibus, the cheaper it gets per person.
Prices at most hotels can get soft if you do any of the following: arrive direct (without using a pricey middleman like the tourist office), offer to pay cash, stay at least three nights, or visit off-season. Breakfasts are legally optional (though some hotels insist they’re not). Initial prices quoted often include breakfast and a private bathroom. Offer to skip breakfast for a better price.
In small towns, there are often few hotels to choose from, but an abundance of affitta camere or furnished rooms. This can be anything from a cozy B&B with your own Tuscan grandmother to a set of keys and a basic bed. The rooms are generally a good budget option, but since they vary in quality, shop around to find the best value.
In the countryside, agriturismos (farmhouse B&Bs ranging from simple to plush) offer a peaceful home base for exploring the region and are ideal for couples or families traveling by car. Local tourist offices can give you a list of farms Also check www.agriturismoitaly.it (among dozens of websites).
Eating Long and Well in Italy
The Italians are masters of the art of fine living. That includes eating...long and well. Lengthy, multi-course lunches and dinners and endless hours sitting in outdoor cafés are the norm. Americans eat on their way to an evening event and complain if the check is slow in coming. For Italians, the meal is an end in itself, and only rude waiters rush you. If you're in a hurry, ask for the check (il conto) when you receive the last item you order.
Locals eat better in lower-rent locales. Family-run places operate without hired help and can offer cheaper meals. The word osteria (normally a simple, localstyle restaurant) makes me salivate.
For unexciting but basic values, many restaurants offer a menu turistico or menu del giorno (menu of the day); this is a 3- or 4-course, set-price meal. The price includes the service charge. Gourmets order à la carte with the help of a menu translator. (My Rick Steves' Italian Phrase Book has a useful menu decoder.) Restauranteurs hope you'll order a primo piatto (first course, usually pasta or soup) plus a pricier secondo piatto (second course, meat or fish), but budget-minded couples can save money by getting a primo apiece and splitting an appetizer. If you order à la carte, you'll pay a pane e coperto charge (bread and cover charge, usually €2 per person), plus a service charge (usually 15 percent).
Drinking a cup of coffee while standing at the bar is cheaper than drinking it at a table—usually double. If you’re on a budget, don’t sit without first checking out the financial consequences.
Sightseeing in Italy
Remember to include churches in your sightseeing. They usually offer amazing art and a cool retreat from the heat. Respect the dress code—no bare shoulders or shorts for anyone (enforced at Venice’s St. Mark’s and the Vatican’s St. Peter’s).
Avoid standing in lines for the more popular sights by making reservations whenever possible. It's smart to reserve ahead for Florence's Uffizi Gallery paintings Renaissance paintings and the Accademia (Michelangelo's David);. To climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa, book online at www.opapisa.it. Some museums even require reservations: Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan, the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, and in Rome, the Borghese Gallery, and Nero’s Golden House. The process is simple for English-speakers and generally free or nearly free. Either book online (if the sight has a website) or call during Italian business hours (from the States dial 011-39, then the local number) and try again if you get a busy signal. To skip the line at Rome's Colosseum, buy a combo-ticket at the Palatine Hill Museum nearby.
Most museums rent audioguides for about $5, giving you a basic, recorded English-language tour of the displays. In Italian museums, art is dated with A.C. (for Avanti Cristo, or B.C.), and D.C. (for Dopo Cristo, or A.D.). O.K.? Buon viaggio! Happy travels!
Sightseeing Suggestions for a Visit to Italy
Depending on the length of your trip, here are my recommended priorities:
3 days: Florence and Venice; 5 days, add: Rome; 7 days, add: Cinque Terre; 10 days, add: Hill towns of Civita and Siena; 14 days, add: Sights south of Rome: Sorrento, Naples, Pompeii, Amalfi, and Paestum; 18 days, add: Milan, Lake Como, Assisi; 21 days, add: Dolomites, Verona, Ravenna.
Reach the big, intense, urban destinations (Rome, Naples area, Milan, Florence, and Venice) by train or bus, and if you want to drive, rent a car for the hill towns and the Dolomites. A car is a worthless headache on the Cinque Terre and around Lake Como.