Traveling to a foreign country is difficult and scary.
You have certain expectations going into the trip, but in reality, you don’t know exactly what you’ll experience.
For my first trip to Italy, I felt underprepared.
When I left, I felt confident and excited.
When I arrived, I felt overwhelmed and scared.
I think that’s pretty normal. There’s nothing like being taken totally outside of your comfort zone.
Having traveled abroad before, I felt as though I had everything down. No need for nerves! However, visiting Italy was far different from visiting Ireland. I experienced much more of a culture shock in Italy.
So, to help you feel oriented and adjusted when you arrive in Italy, I decided to write this post about 7 things I wish someone had told me about visiting Italy.
Let’s get started!
1. Pack Light
I cannot stress packing light enough, if you aren't planning on renting a car.
Because if you’re traveling on a budget, you likely won’t want to fork over the money for a taxi ride. And since you’re not taking a taxi or driving a rented car, you will need to use public transportation and your own two feet to get your suitcase from the airport to the hotel.
When we arrived in Milan, we took a train from the airport, then we hopped on the metro, and finally we walked a few blocks to our hotel. I did this all while carting around a huge suitcase.
I literally had no idea that I would be lugging around my suitcase, dragging it through the cobbled streets and sidewalks of beautiful Milan.
Maybe I should have known, but I've never been somewhere I didn't have direct transportation to the hotel.
Literally on our way to the hotel, an older man made fun of me. It was in Italian, as he didn’t speak English. How do I know he was making fun of me, you ask? He was laughing. Yep. Pointing and laughing.
I felt ridiculous.
It’s not odd to carry a suitcase on public transportation there, since many people use it to get to the train station. However, everyone, and I mean everyone, had carry-on size luggage.
More than just feeling ridiculous, the large size suitcase was absolutely impractical. It was heavy to move around and really slowed me down on the bumpy sidewalks.
Plus, get this, we traveled from Milan to Venice then from Venice to Milan. In total, I had to lug that suitcase through streets and public transportation five times! Not a smart choice.
It was so difficult that at some points (when we were particularly crushed for time) that my fiance and I had to switch suitcases because it was slowing me down too much…
Long story short: pack light!
2. Get an Italian Phrasebook
No matter how much you think you won’t need one, you’ll need one.
Even if you only actually use a few phrases from it, you’ll be so glad you had it.
We did not purchase one for our trip. I downloaded one on my phone thinking it was good enough. It wasn’t. The app was bad and difficult to navigate.
Fortunately, a couple of loving family members were gracious enough to purchase one for us before we left.
We used it almost every single day on our trip.
It had common phrases, pronunciations, and it was organized in an easy to use way, which made it perfect.
There were so many times that we had to ask for help and directions.
I mean, trying to navigate the metro in Milan was a nightmare for us for two reasons: (1) we’re not used to public transportation, and (2) we don’t speak or read Italian, making instructions difficult to decode.
While we often couldn’t fully articulate our questions in Italian (although my fiancé tried a lot harder than I did), the phrasebook helped us ask people if they spoke English, which a good number of them did (more in Venice than Milan). Sometimes in Milan, we’d have to ask a few people before we found one.
Also, a quick note on Google Translate: it doesn’t work.
Almost every time we’d use Google Translate to articulate a more complex question, we got weird looks. I think it might have worked well enough once…
3. Get Directions
When you arrive in whichever Italian city you’re visiting, I highly recommend that you call the hotel to find out the best way to get there from wherever you are (airport or train station).
This helped us immensely!
When we arrived in Milan, we had the Italian equivalent to an American Latte. And, while we were sitting down, we realized that we had no idea how to get to the hotel from the airport.
That was a horrifying realization for me.
We weren’t renting a car, so we couldn’t drive. We thought about getting a taxi until we realized how much that would cost.
We looked as bus tickets. #overpriced
Finally, my fiancé had the great idea of calling the hotel.
He spoke with someone at the front desk, and they told us exactly how to get to the hotel from the airport. It involved a train, metro, and a walk.
Now, keep in mind that we were both incredibly grumpy at this point (okay, okay, maybe it was just me).
After all, our itinerary for the previous 24 hours looked like this:
- 3 am ET: Wake up and head to the airport.
- 9 am ET: Arrive at JFK.
- 9 am ET – 8 pm ET: Endure a long-ass layover, while trying to stay awake because we desperately want to be able to sleep on the plane.
- 8 pm ET – 8 am CET: Red-eye flight where we got very little sleep.
It was not exactly fun. However, we were incredibly excited and didn’t mind much.
That being said, it made the first day of our trip an incredibly long and difficult one. We were exhausted and in a new place where we didn’t speak the language. It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing, trying to navigate a foreign city.
Travel is always exhausting, even when your itinerary is a bit better than the one we endured. So, just skip the guessing and call the hotel.
They’ll give you honest advice on the best way to get there.
4. Don't Look for a Line in the Cafes
If you’re at a counter-service café, don’t look for the line. You won’t find it.
Instead, you just have to belly-on-up to the counter and order.
You don’t have to push in front of people. But, if there’s space, feel free to take it.
Because no one will line up behind you.
I’m not saying that Italian don’t get in lines because that’s not true. Lines are a thing at the McDonald’s and the convenience store at the train station.
However, cafes were a completely different animal.
So was the counter-service pizza place we visited. There was no line. If you were taking too long to make a choice, someone else was already ordering.
As a meek person who will always allow someone else to go first rather than risk seeming rude, I had a difficult time adjusting to this.
5. The Language Barrier is Real (and Scary)
I felt incredibly disconnected while in Italy, which is something I had never felt before.
I felt lost and a bit confused.
If I had a question, I couldn’t just ask it. I either had to ask if they spoke English or find the question in Italian. It was difficult for me.
And, like I said, we needed to ask for directions a lot. Getting around on the Metro in Milan was not easy for us. We did well in the end, but only after asking our fair share of questions.
Honestly, I was nervous about trying to speak Italian. It felt awkward and uncomfortable.
However, my fiancé, having been in similar situations before, felt perfectly fine trying to speak Italian.
I’m super jelly.
All I could muster to say was “Parla Inglese?” *Shakes head* I definitely did not expect to be so scared of trying to speak Italian. I thought it would feel a little awkward but nothing I couldn’t overcome. I was wrong. And, next time, I plan to put a little more effort into learning some Italian before I go. That way I’ll have more confidence and can actually try.
6. The Food Won't Meet Your Expectations
At least, it won't meet your expectations in Northern Italy; however, I suspect it’s also different from what you’d exact in Southern Italy, too.
If you’re used to the American version of Italian food, you’re in for a treat because Italy’s food is much better.
That being said, it’s also a lot different.
In the US, we tend to eat a lot of meat sauces, meatballs, alfredo, and things of that nature.
That’s not exactly what we found while we were there.
Meat sauce was a thing, but it didn’t actually have any meat in it. It was flavored with meat. Interesting, right?
Seafood was popular in Northern Italy. Some restaurants had entire bins of ice where they displayed their fresh catches.
It was neat and delicious.
Also, the pizza is different but fantastic.
It’s not so much that the pizza is crazy different but the toppings are.
Here me out. Sure, I had some of the best pizza of my life in Italy (also some of the worst).
The crust is different from what you’ll find in most pizza joints in the US. However, some of them actually do a pretty good job replicating it. It’s not exact, and the pizza I had in Milan is probably the best pizza I’ve ever had.
Now, as for the toppings, it’s normal to put artichoke hearts on pizza there. In fact, most pizza has artichoke hearts on it. They weren’t bad, but I mostly ate around the ones on my pizza.
You definitely can’t get just a pepperoni pizza, and if you can, you should probably run the other way because they’re catering towards Americans, and you want an authentic experience, right? No, just pepperoni pizza? Okay, my bad.
I could give you all the dirty details on how to pick a restaurant, and perhaps I’ll do a post on that. However, at the end of the day, no matter how much information you have, you need to just pick some place that looks good. After all, part of the adventure is trying new things and not knowing whether you’ll like them or not, right?
7. You Will Get Homesick
When you don’t speak the language and you don’t know where (or sometimes what) anything is, you’ll find yourself getting a little homesick.
I mean, sometimes something as simple as using the bathroom is difficult. Why? Because you’ve likely never encountered that type of toilet, so flushing it is a nightmare. (I legit almost got stuck in a bathroom stall at the train station, and I feel a little bitter about it because I paid 2 euro to use it.) Or you don’t know how to work the gate blocking the bathrooms, so you hold up the line while trying to exit. (This actually wasn't me, but I watched someone else struggle, which is how I learned how to do it.)
It’s the little things that start to add up, making you a bit homesick.
You remember how easy it was to do everything at home, and you miss that.
Bonus: It's Totally Worth It
Despite all of the difficult feelings you’ll feel, stepping outside your comfort zone is totally worth it.
Italy is a breathtaking country, with numerous stunning cities to explore.
Despite the trials and tribulations of traveling abroad in this foreign country, I wouldn’t change a single thing about the trip. Okay, maybe I would have spent more time practicing my Italian before I went, but other than that, nothing!
I learned a lot about myself, and I grew as an individual on this trip.
And, I think that the next time I take a similar trip, it will be easier!
Traveling abroad is difficult. No question.
However, once you know what obstacles you face, you have a better chance of being prepared.
So, please don't take this list as a list of reasons you shouldn't visit Italy.
Instead, take it as a guide that is meant to help you avoid, or at least ease, some of the difficulties that comes with visiting a new country and immersing yourself in a different culture.
To make sure you remember everything, here's a quick recap:
- Pack light
- Get an Italian Phrasebook
- Get Directions
- Don't Look for a Line in the Cafes
- The Language Barrier is Real (and Scary)
- The Food Won't Meet Your Expectations
- You Will Get Homesick
- Bonus: It's Totally Worth It!
These are all things I wish someone had told me before I visited Italy, so I hope you find it helpful.
Visiting Italy soon? What gorgeous cities will you be visiting? Let me know in the comments below!