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when in rome... do as the romans do
and other practical travel advice

(visit italian regions)

travel guides

Eyewitness Travel Guide: Italy

Fodor's 99 Italy

Rick Steves' Italy 1999

see also...
Travel Guide

Travelling to Italy Forum

social savvy

Don't Be an Ugly American!-- Learn about the culture and customs of your destination. Know something about the politics. So fundamental is this advice that the US government provides Background Notes for you! Check out the Travel Warnings too.

You Call This a Line? Italians would never make it through American first grade - lining up single file just doesn't come naturally. Yet, "cutters" are not tolerated. To avoid looking like a total dunce, don't be polite and let others get ahead of you. Pay attention to who came in ahead and after you and assert your place when the time comes for service at a bar or restaurant.

Those Famous Bathrooms. The most accessible bathrooms are those found in bars - but don't expect to find toilet paper at most of them. The major tourist sites have the most modern facilities and you can expect to part with coins for both the attendants who work there and the stalls themselves. Fast food restaurants and department stores may provide decent bathrooms, as well. By the way, there is often a cord in the shower/toilet in the small hotels of Italy. This is an emergency cord, so don't pull it expecting hot water or a toilet flush!

The Almighty Lira-- Offering a shopkeeper a L50,00 or L100,00 note when you're buying a bottle of shampoo is the equivalent of trying to buy a postcard with a $100 bill. Take care, too, not to use a credit card to pay for items costing L10,000 or so. Don't be an annoying tourist - observe the same monetary courtesies you would at home And did you know that prices are rounded up to the nearest L50?

No Need to Walk a Mile for a Smoke-- Cigarettes can only be sold legally by tabacchi (tobacconists), which are housed in buildings with bold white T's on black or dark blue signs. You won't just find tobacco there, which makes the tabbachi fun to visit. Expect to see any or all of the following: salt, postage stamps, official stamps and stationary you need when dealing with Italian bureaucracy, bus/Metro/train tickets, phone cards, lottery tickets, sweets, toiletries, postcards, and souvenirs.

Italian Wolves-- Yes, we're talking about men! Female travelers need to use the same basic common sense that protects them at home. Ignore unwanted advances and they will probably go away. In Rome, the Piazza di Spagna and Fontana di Trevi are the spots where young Italian men prowl for foreign ladies. If you want to avoid being prey, head for the areas around Campo dei Fiori, Testaccio and Trastevere. But wherever you are, expect more attentention than usual form the Italian male.

Unmentionables-- Condoms can be purchased at supermarkets or at pharmacies, but they tend to be more expensive than they are in America, so you might want to pack a few of your own from home. Feminine products are sold in supermarkets and drugstores.

What Can I Say? Acceptable topics for conversation: soccer, family affairs, business, local news. Unacceptable topics: American football and politics (it's probably wise to lay off religion, as well).

For the Reading Public-- Rome has a huge assortment of libraries. If you're there to do some research, bring lots of patience. You'll spend more time than you'd like dealing with red tape and longing for the Dewey Decimal System.

Y2K, Italian-style-- If you're traveling in late 1999 or early 2000 and you like to worry about apocalyptic prospects, check out the Italian Government's web site (Warning: it's in Italian!).

dining etiquette

When Do We Eat? Lunch is the biggest meal of the day. If you're eating with locals, expect it to last two to three hours. It is considered impolite to refuse a dinner or luncheon invitation. If you are invited to someone's home, bring wine, flowers, or chocolates - showing up empty-handed is ungracious. But don't arrive with chrysanthemums - they're exclusively for funerals! As with many Italian customs, an odd number or one dozen is best. To dine in a bar, pay at the cassa (cash desk) before you order. Then, proudly slap your scontrino (receipt) down on the bar (maybe with L100 or so to get the barista's attention) and place your order. You will pay more for sitting down inside or all-aperto (for some of the views, however, you won't mind dishing out a bit more). Bars must provide free glasses of water to passers-by who require them. Good information to have on a sweltering summer day.

The Zen of Caffe-- There is much you should know on the topic of Italian coffee drinking. Espresso is the basic fare. It's strong. If you appear foreign, you may be given something less concentrated, even if you ask for espresso, so ask for it like you mean it. Cappuccino after noon is a practice of the uninformed - Italians laugh at those who drink it after meals. Cappucino (or most coffee drinks with milk) is consumed for breakfast and mid-morning snacks.

Spirits-- Don't waste your time on beer in Italy. It's expensive and completely overshadowed by the fabulous wines.

Tipping-- It is customary to tip parking attendants, hotel maids, porters, and waiters. Even if your bill in a restaurant includes service charges, you should leave a little something for your server.

health matters

What Does the Pope Take for a Cold? Not surprisingly, the pharmacy with the widest selection can be found at the Vatican. But if you don't happen to be in Rome or if you're in need of pharmacy after-hours, you can find a list of nearby nighttime pharmacies posted by the door of any drugstore.

In Sickness and In Health-- Woe to the American who needs hospitalization while in Italy. Medical care is not only of varying quality throughout the country, but it's also expensive. If it's within your means, get medical insurance (before you get to Italy) that will cover:

  1. a stay in a private Italian hospital, and
  2. medical emergency evacuation.
NOTE: Medicare and Medicaid won't cover you.

Medical Help - Pronto! If you need urgent medical care that doesn't require an ambulance, go to the Pronto Soccorso (casualty department) of the nearest hospital.

car stuff

Flashing on the Freeway-- Unlike the Americans and the Brits, Italians flash their lights to tell you they will not slow down!

Rollin', Rollin', Rollin'-- Italy's superhighway system, the Autostrada, is a pleasure to navigate and in sharp contrast to the congested mayhem of Italian city streets. Drive in the cities only if your nerves are of steel and your stomach of cast iron. And should you wish to make your only souvenir a shiny new Alfa Romeo, the EPA will care more about its compliance with U.S. emission control standards than it will about all the romantic reasons you had for buying it. The car must conform before it comes into the United States.

Behind the Wheel-- Sure, they drive on the right side of the road, but will they recognize your U.S. driver's license? Don't risk it - an international driver's permit is wise to have with you initially, but then you'll need an Italian license (after all, you are in Italy).


Entry Requirements:-- You probably know you'll need a valid passport to get into Italy, but did you know that you'll need a visa if you stay longer than three months? The Italian Embassy can give you more information.

Without Papers?-- A dubious distinction, to be sure! Avoid it by having the proper documents before you cross the ocean:

  • Passport to get there
  • Visa to stay there
  • Work permit to work there

Nothing Mellow about Milan-- Reports from travelers who have used the Milano airport aren't encouraging: cancelled flights, destination changes, long waits for baggage. Consider using the Roma Fiumicino airport instead.

On a Downtown Train-- Before you board a commuter train, stamp your ticket at one of the validating machines at the station. These machines are not obvious - think of locating them as some kind of game and you'll have more fun. (An unstamped ticket could result in a fine of somewhere in the neighborhood of $50.)

Get a Map at McDonalds-- Although a very basic streetmap of Rome is available from EPT offices and McDonalds (do they call it a Big Map?), official Metro and bus maps with detailed street and transport routes can be found at newspaper stands and bookshops. If you're too cheap to buy one, many bars and hotels have good maps you can use.

Animals, Vegetables, Minerals-- The U.S. government frowns mightily on the entry of fresh fruit, meat, vegetables and other plants. Our advice: get your fill of such items while you're in Italy. The United States doesn't want these living things in the mail, either, so don't even think about sending those figs to Aunt Ethel. Be careful, too, about articles made from endangered animals and plants. Bringing in such items can be a criminal offense! (And wouldn't you feel stupid going to jail over a silly tusk?)

Strange Customs-- Italian customs authorities have strict rules about what comes in and goes out of their country. Be informed and protect yourself from penalties by obtaining the ATA Carnet.

Pet Peeves-- Rover may be your best friend, but he may need special permission to accompany you to Italy. Call your local embassy for details (you should call, not Rover).

What's Your 20?-- Unless you're a fugitive, you'll need to register with the U.S. embassy or consulate when you arrive. Registration makes it easy to contact you in an emergency or if somebody back home is desperately in search of you.

Not Just Passing Through-- If you'll be staying anywhere more than a couple of weeks, register at the Embassy or one of the consulates. Registering allows people to find you in case of emergency. It also gives you updated information on travel and security throughout Italy. (more travel tips)

safety matters

Where's My Wallet? You've heard the rumors and chuckled at the clever street urchins in Italian films, but you've assumed it was all exaggeration. Well, actually, no, it isn't. Petty thievery is rampant, especially in urban centers and tourist meccas. Carry as little with you as possible and lock up the rest (even documents) in the hotel safe. If you drive, keep the windows up (weather permitting!) and the doors locked. Rule of thumb: keep all valuables out of sight at all times. And don't struggle with a thief - he usually wins. There is some good news. The incidence of violent crime is quite low in Italy, lower still against tourists. Basically, you'll leave with your life but not necessarily with all your stuff.

When Crime Happens to Good People-- If you are the victim of crime, go to the nearest police station immediately. (If you don't know where it is, dial 112 if you're in Rome and you will get prompt assistance, perhaps even in English.) Tell them you want to report a furto. They will take your written statement (although you may not be the one writing it). Don't expect to get your articles back, but the statement (denuncia) will be useful for insurance purposes.

Personal Space-- Don't let anybody you don't know come closer than feels comfortable. And don't look where a stranger directs your attention, for that's one of the oldest tricks in the book!

Behave Yourself Even if you break a law you didn't know existed, you'll face some very ugly penalties. Use your head and at the very least, don't do anything in Italy that wouldn't be legal in the United States.

In a Crisis-- U.S. consular offices and agents exist to get you out of trouble should the unthinkable happen. They can help with legal, medical or financial difficulties, but they cannot find you a job or bail you out of jail. Please don't bother them with tourism or commercial inquiries (that's what American Express is for!).

Behave Yourself-- Even if you break a law you didn't know existed, you'll face some very ugly penalties. Use your head and at the very least, don't do anything in Italy that wouldn't be legal in the United States.

Got your own travel tip? Tell us in the travelling to italy forum. Until then... buon viaggio!


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