Italy’s climate is one of the most hospitable in the world, with a general pattern of warm, dry summers and mild winters. There are, however, marked regional variations, ranging from the more temperate northern part of the country to the firmly Mediterranean south. Summers are hot and dry along the coastal areas, especially as you move south, cool in the major mountain areas – the Alps and Apennines. Winters are mild in the south of the country, Rome and below, but in the north they can be at least as cold as anywhere in the northern hemisphere, sometimes worse, especially across the plains of Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna.
In general you’ll find the south much less expensive than the north. As a broad guide, expect to pay most in Venice, Milan, Florence and Bologna, less in Rome, while in Naples and Sicily prices drop quite a lot.
As an indication you should be able to survive on a budget of about €50–60 per day if you stay in a hostel, have lunchtime snacks and a cheap evening meal. If you stay in a mid-range hotel and eat out twice a day, you’ll spend closer to €130–140 per day.
Some basics are reasonably inexpensive, such as transport and, most notably, food, although drinking can be pricey unless you stick to wine. Room rates are in line with much of the rest of Europe, at least in the major cities and resorts. Bear in mind, too, that the time of year can make a big difference. During the height of summer, in July and August when the Italians take their holidays, hotel prices can escalate; outside the season, however, you can often negotiate much lower rates.
There are a few reductions and discounts for ISIC members, under-18s and over-65s, but only in the major cities and for entry into state museums and sites.
Despite what you hear about the Mafia, most of the crime you’ll come across as a visitor to Italy is of the small-time variety, prevalent in the major cities and the south of the country, where pickpockets and gangs of scippatori or “snatchers” operate. Crowded streets or markets and packed tourist sights are the places to be wary of; scippatori work on foot or on scooters, disappearing before you’ve had time to react. As well as handbags, they whip wallets, tear off visible jewellery and, if they’re really adroit, unstrap watches. You can minimize the risk of this happening by being discreet: don’t flash anything of value, keep a firm hand on your camera, and carry shoulderbags slung across your body. Never leave anything valuable in your car, and try to park in car parks on well-lit, well-used streets. On the whole it’s a good idea to avoid badly lit areas completely at night and deserted inner-city areas by day.
Carabinieri, with their military-style uniforms and white shoulder-belts, deal with general crime, public order and drug control, while the Vigili Urbani are mainly concerned with directing traffic and issuing parking fines; the Polizia Stradale patrol the motorways. The Polizia Statale, the other general crime-fighting force, enjoy a fierce rivalry with the Carabinieri. You’ll find the address of the Carabinieri barracks, questura or police station in the local telephone directory (in smaller places it may be just a local commissariato).
The supply is 220V, though anything requiring 240V will work. Plugs either have two or three round pins: a multi-plug adapter is very useful.
British, Irish and other EU citizens can enter Italy and stay as long as they like on production of a valid passport. Citizens of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand need only a valid passport, too, but are limited to stays of three months. All other nationals should consult the relevant embassy about visa requirements. Legally, you’re required to register with the police within three days of entering Italy, though if you’re staying at a hotel this will be done for you. Although the police in some towns have become more punctilious about this, most would still be amazed at any attempt to register yourself down at the local police station while on holiday. However, if you’re going to be living here for a while, you’d be advised to do it.
Homosexuality is legal in Italy, and the age of consent is 16. Attitudes are most tolerant in the northern cities: Bologna is generally regarded as the gay capital, and Milan, Turin and Rome all have well-developed gay scenes; there are also a few spiagge gay (gay beaches) dotted along the coast: the more popular gay resorts include Taormina and Rimini. Away from the big cities and resorts, though, activity is more covert. You’ll notice, in the south especially, that overt displays of affection between (all) men – linking arms during the passeggiata, kissing in greeting and so on – are common. The line determining what’s acceptable, however, is finely drawn. The national gay organization, ARCI-Gay (t 051 649 3055, w arcigay.it) is based in Bologna but has branches in most big towns. The w gay.it website has a wealth of information for gays and lesbians in Italy.
As a member of the European Union, Italy has free reciprocal health agreements with other member states. EU citizens are entitled to free treatment within Italy’s public healthcare system on production of a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which British citizens can obtain by picking up a form at the post office, calling t 0845 606 2030, or applying online at w nhs.uk. The Australian Medicare system also has a reciprocal healthcare arrangement with Italy. Vaccinations are not required, and Italy doesn’t present any more health worries than anywhere else in Europe; the worst that’s likely to happen to you is suffering from the extreme heat in summer or from an upset stomach. The water is perfectly safe to drink and you’ll find public fountains in squares and city streets everywhere, though look out for acqua non potabile signs, indicating that the water is unsafe to drink. It’s worth taking insect repellent, as even inland towns, most notoriously Milan, suffer from a persistent mosquito problem, especially in summer.
An Italian pharmacist (farmacia) is well qualified to give you advice on minor ailments and to dispense prescriptions; pharmacies are generally open all night in the bigger towns and cities. A rota system operates, and you should find the address of the one currently open on any farmacia door or listed in the local paper. If you need to see a doctor (medico), take your EHIC with you to enable you to get free treatment and prescriptions for medicines at the local rate – about ten percent of the price of the medicine.
In an emergency, go straight to the Pronto Soccorso (casualty) of the nearest hospital (ospedale), or phone t 118 and ask for an ambulanza. Throughout the Guide, you’ll find listings for pharmacies, hospitals and emergency services in the big cities. Major train stations and airports also often have first-aid stations with doctors on hand.
Incidentally, try to avoid going to the dentist (dentista) while you’re in Italy. These aren’t covered by your EHIC or the health service, and for the smallest problem you’ll pay through the teeth. Take local advice, or consult the local Yellow Pages. If you don’t have a spare pair of glasses, it’s worth taking a copy of your prescription so that an optician (ottico) can make you up a new pair should you lose or damage them.
Even though EU healthcare privileges apply in Italy, you’d do well to take out an insurance policy before travelling to cover against theft, loss, illness or injury. A typical policy usually provides cover for the loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash or cheques, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. Most policies exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid; in Italy this can mean scuba diving, windsurfing and trekking. Many policies can be chopped and changed to exclude coverage you don’t need – for example, sickness and accident benefits can often be excluded or included at will. If you do take medical coverage, ascertain whether benefits will be paid as treatment proceeds or only after your return home, and whether there is a 24-hour medical emergency number. When securing baggage cover, make sure that the per-article limit – typically under £500 – will cover your most valuable possession. If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement from the police (polizia or carabinieri).
Internet access is pretty standard in hostels and mid-range and luxury hotels. According to Italian law, all three-star hotels and above are now required to offer wi-fi, though not necessarily for free. In towns there will always be several internet cafés where you go online for around €2.50 for half an hour; the area around the station is always a good place to start looking. Cities often have several wi-fi zones, usually run by the local council. Access is generally via a card with a username and pin number. Details of how to access wi-fi zones are usually posted on signs or stickers around town.
Coin-operated laundries, sometimes known as tintorie, are rare outside large cities, and even there, numbers are sparse; see the “Directory” sections of the main city accounts for addresses. More common is a lavanderia, a service-wash laundry, but this will be more expensive. Although you can usually get away with it, beware of washing clothes in your hotel room – the plumbing often can’t cope with all the water.
Post office opening hours are usually Monday to Saturday 8.30am to 7.30pm, though branches in smaller towns tend to close at 1pm. Note too that offices close an hour earlier on the last working day of the month. Stamps (francobolli) are sold in tabacchi, too, as well as in some gift shops in the tourist resorts; they will often also weigh your letter. The Italian postal system is one of the slowest in Europe so if your letter is urgent make sure you send it “posta prioritaria”, which has varying rates according to weight and destination. Letters can be sent poste restante to any Italian post office by addressing them “Fermo Posta” followed by the name of the town. When picking something up take your passport, and make sure they check under middle names and initials – and every other letter when all else fails – as filing is often diabolical.
The town plans throughout the Guide should be fine for most purposes, and practically all tourist offices give out maps of their local area for free. The clearest and best-value large-scale commercial road map of Italy is the Rough Guide 1:900,000 map, which covers the whole country including Sicily and Sardinia. There are also the 1:800,000 and 1:400,000 maps produced by the Touring Club Italiano, covering north, south and central Italy, and TCI also produces excellent 1:200,000 maps of the individual regions, which are indispensable if you are touring a specific area in depth.
For hiking you’ll need at least a scale of 1:50,000. Studio FMB and the TCI cover the major mountain areas of northern Italy to this scale, but for more detailed, down-to-scale 1:25,000 maps, both the Istituto Geografico Centrale and Kompass series cover central and northwest Italy and the Alps. The Apennines and Tuscany are covered by Multigraphic (Firenze), easiest bought in Italy, while Tabacco produces a good series detailing the Dolomites and the northeast of the country. In Italy, the Club Alpino Italiano (w cai.it) is a good source of hiking maps; we’ve supplied details of branches throughout the Guide.
Italy’s currency is the euro (€; note that Italians pronounce it “eh-uro”), which is split into 100 cents (centesimi). You can check the current exchange rate at w xe.com. In Italy, you’ll get the best rate of exchange (cambio) at a bank. Banking hours are normally Monday to Friday mornings from 8.30am until 1.30pm, and for an hour in the afternoon (usually 2.30–4pm). There are local variations on this and banks are usually open only in the morning on the day before a public holiday. Outside banking hours, the larger hotels will change money or travellers’ cheques, although if you’re staying in a reasonably large city the rate is invariably better at the train station exchange bureaux – normally open evenings and weekends. ATMs are common: most towns and even villages have at least one, although, as in most countries, you won’t be able to withdraw more than €250 per day. Check with your bank before you leave home to make sure your card is authorized for transactions abroad and it’s a good idea to let them know the dates you’ll be away so that anti-fraud blocks can be lifted.
Traditionally most shops and businesses open Monday to Saturday from around 8am until 1pm, and from about 4pm until 7pm, with additional closures on Saturday afternoons and Monday mornings, though these days an increasing number of shops are remaining open all day, on the Northern European model. Traditionally, everything except bars and restaurants closes on Sunday, though most towns have a pasticceria open in the mornings, while in large cities and tourist areas, Sunday shopping is becoming more common.
Most churches open in the early morning, around 7 or 8am for Mass, and close around noon, opening up again at 4pm and closing at 7 or 8pm. In more remote places, some will only open for early morning and evening services, while others are closed at all times except Sundays and on religious holidays; if you’re determined to take a look, you may have to ask around for the key. Another problem is that lots of churches, monasteries, convents and oratories are closed for restoration (chiuso per restauro), though you might still be able to persuade someone to show you around.
Opening hours for state-run museums, and most private ones, are generally Tuesday to Saturday from 9am until any time from 2pm until 7pm, and Sunday from 9am until 1pm. Many large museums also run late-night openings in summer (till 10pm or later Tues–Sat, or 8pm Sun). The opening times of archeological sites are more flexible: most sites open every day, often including Sunday, from 9am until late evening – frequently specified as one hour before sunset, and thus changing according to the time of year. In winter, times are drastically cut, principally because of the darker evenings; 4pm is a common closing time.
Whereas it can be fun to stumble across a local festival, it’s best to know when the national holidays are as almost everything will shut down. In August, particularly during the weeks either side of Ferragosto (Aug 15), when most of the country flees to the coast and mountains, many towns are left half-deserted, with shops, bars and restaurants closed and a reduced public transport service. Local religious holidays don’t necessarily close down shops and businesses, but they do mean that accommodation space may be tight. The country’s official national holidays, on the other hand, close everything down except bars and restaurants. A recent initiative has been to open national museums and monuments on public holidays to encourage Italians to make the most of their national heritage, although it’s still best to check beforehand if you are planning a trip around one particular sight.
Mobile (cell) phones in Italy work on the GSM European standard, usually compatible with phones from the UK, the rest of Europe, Australia and New Zealand, but not the US and Canada, which use a different system. Make sure you have made the necessary “roaming” arrangements with your provider before you leave home and note that you’re likely to be charged for incoming calls in Italy and you may need a new international access code to retrieve your messages.
If you’re going to be in the country for any length of time, it might be worth getting an Italian SIM card. You can do this before you leave home (sites like w 0044.co.uk and w telestial.com/sim_cards.php are popular) or in Italy, but you’ll need to present your passport on purchase and, depending on the provider, register the details over the phone.
Public telephones, run by Telecom Italia, come in various forms, usually with clear instructions in English. Coin-operated machines are increasingly hard to find in some areas of the country so you will probably have to buy a telephone card (carta or scheda telefonica), available from tabacchi and newsstands. Codes are an integral part of the number and always need to be dialled, regardless of whether or not you are in the zone you are telephoning. All telephone numbers listed in the Guide include the relevant code. Numbers beginning t 800 are free, t 170 will get you through to an English-speaking operator, t 176 to international directory enquiries.
Phone tariffs are among the most expensive in Europe, especially if you’re calling long-distance or internationally.
Italy is always one hour ahead of Britain, seven hours ahead of US Eastern Standard Time and ten hours ahead of Pacific Time.
Before you leave home, it may be worth contacting the Italian State Tourist Office (ENIT) for a selection of maps and brochures, though you can usually pick up much the same information from tourist offices in Italy. Most towns, major train stations and airports in Italy have a tourist office, “APT” (Azienda Promozione Turistica) or “IAT” (Ufficio Informazioni Accoglienza Turistica), all of which vary in usefulness (and helpfulness) but usually provide at least a town plan and local listings guide. In smaller villages there is sometimes a “Pro Loco” office that has much the same kind of information, but with more limited opening times, and the staff are less likely to speak English.
Opening hours vary: larger city and resort offices are likely to be open Monday to Saturday 9am to 1pm and 4 to 7pm (sometimes without the lunchbreak in peak season), and sometimes for a short period on Sunday mornings. Smaller offices may open weekdays only, while Pro Loco times are notoriously erratic – some open for only a couple of hours a day, even in summer.
Children are adored in Italy and will be made a fuss of in the street, and welcomed and catered for in bars and restaurants. Hotels normally charge around thirty percent extra to put a bed or cot in your room, though kids pay less on trains and can generally expect discounts for museum entry: prices vary, but 11–18-year-olds are usually admitted at half-price on production of some form of ID (although sometimes this applies only to EU citizens). Under-11s – or sometimes only under-6s – have free entry.
Supplies for babies and small children are pricey: nappies and milk formula can cost up to three times as much as in other parts of Europe. Discreet breastfeeding is widely accepted – even smiled on – but nappy changing facilities are few. Branches of the children’s clothes and accessories chain, Prenatal, have changing facilities and a feeding area, but otherwise you may have to be creative. High-chairs are unusual too, although establishments in tourist areas tend to be better equipped.
Check out w italyfamilyhotels.it, an organization of hotels across Italy with facilities from cots and bottle warmers in rooms to baby sitters, play areas and special menus. New hotels are constantly joining.
Public transport can be challenging, although low-level buses are gradually being introduced and most trains and stations have disabled facilities. Hotels and restaurants are required by law to provide facilites for the disabled. The cobbled streets in old town and village centres can present their own problems, but access to sights is improving all the time.
Contacts and resources
Access-Ablew sath.org/disability-travel-websites. Online resource for travellers with disabilities.
Accessible Italy Italy t 378 994 1111, w accessibleitaly.com. Italian operation offering organized tours or tailor-made trips.
Accessible Journeys US t 800 846 4537, w disabilitytravel.com. Travel tips and programmes for groups or individuals.
Irish Wheelchair Association Ireland t 01 818 6400, w iwa.ie. Information and listings for wheelchair users travelling abroad.
Society for the Advancement of Travellers with Handicaps (SATH) US t 212 447 7284, w sath.org. Information on the accessibility of specific airlines and advice on travelling with certain conditions.
Tourism for All UK t 0845 124 9971, w tourismforall.org.uk. Free lists of accessible accommodation abroad and information on financial help for holidays.