Travel Tips - Italy Edition

Things I've learned - sometimes the hard way - in my sojourns in Italy.

  • Most menus are in Italian and in English.  But, but, if there is anything that looks like a "tourist menu", or if the host is standing outside trying to get you in the restaurant, then run (don't walk) in the opposite direction.
  • Restaurants are closed on all sorts of random days.  Always, always call ahead to make sure they're open.  Even if the web-site says they're open, don't trust it!
  • Reservations are always useful.  If in doubt, make one (if they take 'em). Depending on the time of the day, you will almost certainly not get a table if you just show up.
  • When talking to the waiter, ask  about the food (if you can speak Italian.  And even if you can't!). They'll happily describe it for hours.
  • You'll eventually learn to actually order the daily special.  Its typically based on what the chef (who is probably also the owner, and/or the mom or grandma) picked up at the market that morning.  Either way you win - it'll be spectacular. With very limited exception, this is the way to go.
  • Lunch typically is kinda rushed.  By this, I mean "you order, it shows up moments later".  Which is because most of the places serve people with jobs, and - believe it or not - they actually need to get back to work. Yes, even in Italy.  That said, they will not rush you out the door - once they've served you, you're pretty much left alone, till you ask for coffee, at which point your coffee will show up, and a few minutes later, the cheque.
  • A word about the cheque - most (ok, almost all) the time, you don't pay at the table. The host(ess) will be sitting up by the door, or at a counter, w/ a cash-register. You head over and pay there.  Sometimes, they might leave the bill at the table, and you take it there.  If in doubt, "Dove si paga" (bad italian for "where do i pay") works.

  • The house wine is almost always perfect for whatever you're ordering.  Italians tend to take their wine seriously.  Almost as - if not more - seriously as they take their food.  So, serving plonk is Just Not An Option.  We typically get 0.5 litres (2/3rd of a bottle?) 'tween the two of us, and its just the right amount for lunch or dinner.  
  • If there is no house-wine, ask for a recommendation. There are invariably a bunch of seriously inexpensive wines that will be Awesome (€10 - €20 / bottle).  If you feel like splurging, they might have something to splurge on.  Then again, they might not. 
    • Unless you are in Tuscany, in which case you are probably going to get fleeced.
  • In some parts of the country - ok, in most parts - olive oil is a way of life.  Every town has its own variety, and is - clearly - The Best Olive Oil Ever.  That ubiquitous bottle of olive oil that'll shows up at your table? Its probably awesome, and pretty much anything you order will only be improved by a heft pour from the bottle.  Really. Trust me on this. Just...Do...It...
  • No cappuccino after noon!  Really!  Do Remember this! Ok, technically speaking, "its not the done thing", but if you really want one, knock yourself out.
  • Espresso is called coffee.  What you drink here is called Cafe Americano there.  They'll happily serve you some, but its just espresso with hot water added.
Getting There (and around)

  •  When flying over, when you get on the plane, go to sleep immediately. (use Ambien if you can get some). Don't drink. Don't eat. Do all that before you get on the plane. Ambien, then sleep.  It'll massively reduce your jet lag. 
    • Mind you, I'm pretty certain that this is a suggestion that you won't follow. But please, please do try to do so. And even if you don't, you will the next time.
  • If you are flying in/out of Milan, when you land in Milan, immediately head out to wherever you are going - away from Milan.  Spend your last day or two in Milan - its easier, and you'll get to de-jet-lag on the train to wherever :-)
  • Speaking of Milan, getting to/from from Milan airport - take the train.  The station is at  the airport, and, basically gets you into the city.  That said, trains to other parts of Italy depart from a bunch of different stations in the city, figure out what train you are taking to get to wherever you are going, and make sure you go to the correct station!!! (some go from Porto Garibaldi, some from Milano Centrale, etc.)
    • The same applies to Rome, FWIW 
  • Do not rent a car.  You don't need it in the cities, and take the train to get between cities.  Why?  Because the tickets will kill you
    • They automatically dock your credit-card at the rental company
    •  They add a surcharge - usually €50 - per ticket
    • You frequently will get 2 - 4 tickets per violation (you were speeding! you were still speeding a mile later!)
    • Unless you really, really know what you are doing (and trust me, you don't), most small towns have "historic centers" where you need a special pass to drive around - which you don't have - and traffic cameras to ticket you.  And yeah, the signs marking these areas are obscure at best, and non-existent at worst
Odds and Ends 
  • Walk. Walk some more.  Its the only way to really see Italy, and it helps burn those calories that you're going to be consuming (and drinking)
  • Google Maps is your friend.  Seriously.  Pretty much any place outside the big cities, or heck, in the big cities (i.e., everywhere you'll go) is impossible to find unless you live there, or have Google Maps (or a GPS, whatever that is)
  • To repeat - because this can't be emphasized enough - use mass-transit in the cities. Or walk.  Walking is awesome, and Teh Googles are a huge help in not just finding your way, but 'splaining all the bits about how one gets a bus-ticket, etc.
  • f you don't have T-Mobile service (US only), let your first stop be at a phone-store (Vodafone / TIM), and get yourself a SIM.  You'll need a passport, 20 minutes, and around €30 for 1Gb of data, which should last you about a week for, at the very least, those Google Maps.  
  • ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ THAT ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
  •  See if you can get a credit-card with a chip on it - almost none of the automated systems in Italy take "swipey" cards.  Mind you, this is usually not a problem (e.g., in restaurants), but if you need to buy a train ticket, you must have a "chip-card" to use the machines.  And even those, in some cases, will insist that you have a Chip+Pin card (good luck there, I don't know of any US cards that do that)

My Writeups
  • Where to Eat in Liguria - which covers the Ligurian coast (Genoa west to France, and south to Cinque-Terre).  Its a bunch of small cities (other than Genoa), and the food is insanely good, and different from what you normally get - the pesto, in particular, is different (and spectacular).  The wines are ultra-local - most of the grapes are usually just in an acre or two, and nowhere else.
  • Where to Eat in Rome - which is strictly about Rome.  The preamble is roughly the same (no cappucino after noon, etc. etc.), but once you get past that...)
  • Where to Eat in Emilia-Romagna - which covers, well, pretty much all of Emilia-Romagna.  Best food in Italy (and that is saying a lot
  • Where to Eat in Milan - which covers just a few wee places in Milan.  Stay there the last day, walk around, be sure to walk past the Milan Stock Exchange (pic below)

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