Italy Money-Saving Tips
Ride the RailRome and Milan have good metro systems for getting around town. To travel from city to city, the Eurail is convenient and affordable. www.eurail.com
Service in ItalyGet used to long lines, slow waiters, inefficient ticket sellers, uninformed hotel clerks, etc. The adage about “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” applies up and down the boot. Adjust to the pace of life, slow down, and take your time. Learn that in Italy there's no bulletproof way to do things.
The Many Facets of ItalyThe culture and cuisines of Italy vary wildly, not only from region to region, but from town to town. Look up the local specialties and try them in the region that made them famous: Eat cannoli in Sicily, squid ink pasta in Venice, deep-fried artichokes in Rome, olive oil-rich dishes in Tuscany, and buffalo mozzarella in the Campania region. If you love pizza, make sure you eat it in Spaccanapoli, a neighborhood in Naples!
LanguageYou don’t have to speak fluent Italian, but a few basic phrases and words will ease your trip. Anyone can master “prego” (please) and “grazie” (thank you). Italians themselves do not excel at languages so they will be patient in trying to understand you – unlike the French, for example.
PastaThe generic term “pasta” encompasses both the egg-rich noodles and hand-filled ravioli found in the north and the flour-and-water spaghetti and macheroni that predominate in the south. The varieties are endless, as are the sauces that accompany them. Try unique twists like farfalle (butterflies), bucatini (little holes), and strozzapreti (choke the priest – go figure).
Political LandscapeWhen billionaire media mogul Silvio Berlusconi entered the political arena in the early 1990s, he changed the direction of Italian politics. He organized the Italian right into one political umbrella party, and has been elected prime minister three times since then, not consecutively. His majority has increasingly been due to the support of the far-right Lega Nord Party. Berlusconi’s popularity is helped by the fact that he controls, directly or indirectly, 90 percent of Italia’s broadcast media. In recent years his administration has been shaken by scandals, and Italy continues to fall in the rankings of industrialized country competitiveness. These factors seem to have weakened his hold on the levers of power, based on regional elections held in May 2011.
CrimeItaly has very little violent crime compared to the U.S. Petty thievery and con artistry, however, flourish here, especially in big cities and tourist attractions. When on buses and metros, watch your purses and backpacks (these should face forward at all times), and wallets (never keep one in your back pocket). Stay clear of groups of young, ragtag children and brace for current pickpocket scams.
TransportationRenting a car or a mini motorcycle (known as a “motorino”) in Italy can be stressful, as Italian drivers think that traffic signs apply to other people – like tourists. Depending on your driving experience and chosen itinerary, you may be better off relying on trains to move from city to city, and taxis within each city. Rome and Milan both have good metro systems.
Carnevale and Mardi GrasVenice is famous for its elegant masked balls and parties. The most exclusive are naturally the most desirable but the crowded piazzas offer colorful costume-spotting, provided aqua alta (high water floods) does not intervene. The Tuscan village of Viareggio has a giant parade in late February, with satiric papier-mâché floats that often reflect the political mood of the country.
The Exploding CartOn Easter Sunday in Florence, head to the Piazza del Duomo to see a mechanical dove launched from an exploding cart. The annual Scoppio del Carro, as it’s known in Italian, is thought to portend ominous or fortunate omens for the year ahead.
Spoleto’s Festival of Two WorldsEvery June and July, the charming Umbrian hill town of Spoleto is taken over for two weeks by a festival of opera, dance, ballet, film, music, and visual arts. The U.S. is the second of the “two worlds” in the title.
PalioOn July 2 and August 16 of every summer, thousands flock to Siena as the picturesque hill town becomes the backdrop to a giant staged horse race. It is an exciting spectacle for attendees (but unfortunately not always so great for the horses).
Venice Biennale and Venice Film FestivalIn September, Venice is home to a huge international exhibition of art every other (odd-numbered) year. In even years, the Biennale focuses on architecture. The annual Venice Film Festival, at the end of August and beginning of September, is part of the Biennale, and attracts stars of international caliber.
Living Chess GameThe hill town of Marostica, in the Veneto region, conducts a chess game with living players in the town’s main square during the second weekend of September on even-numbered years.
HolidaysThere is an Italian saying, “Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi” (Christmas with your parents; Easter with your friends). Not surprisingly, Christmas in Italy is much more of a family celebration than it is in the U.S. The gift-buying frenzy leading up to Christmas Day may look familiar – check out the Christmas market in Piazza Navonna in Rome or the traditional “O Bei O Bei” street market in early December in Milan – but the holiday itself is usually behind closed doors. The day after Christmas is Santo Stefano, also a holiday and an excuse to continue the feasting. The most extroverted holiday is Ferragosto on August 15, when Italians on vacation celebrate with fireworks, festivals, and barbecues, something like the American 4th of July.
Transit GuidelinesMake sure you punch your ticket at one of the time-stamp booths before boarding a train or bus; otherwise you may find yourself slapped with a hefty fee if the conductor catches you without a stamp. You also have to stamp your ticket to board the metro; hold onto it in case a conductor asks for it as you exit. Transit strikes are common in Italy. Some of them are sciopero a singhiozzo (hiccup strikes) that last for short intervals but can be very disrupting. Fortunately, strikes are typically announced in advance, so it’s easy to plan around them. The official transit website (www.commissionegaranziasciopero.it) lists upcoming strikes, but is available in Italian only. Ask at your hotel concierge, tour guide, or a local contact for up-to-date information.
Sports for Speed and StyleItaly hosts a number of exciting sporting events throughout the year. The Giro d’Italia (the Italian equivalent of the Tour de France) draws enthusiasts throughout the country in May. The Formula1 Grand Prix is held in Monza, north of Milan, every September. The Mugello MotoGp takes place in Mugello, near Florence, in July. Le Mille Miglia is a 1,000-mile road race for vintage cars from Brescia to Rome and back, held over three days in May.
Italian OpenOne of the major world tennis clay court championships is held in Rome each May. 011-39-80-062-2662; www.internazionalibnlditalia.it
Students and Teachers Get Free EntryArchaeological students and teachers in fine arts are permitted free entrance (or one at a reduced price) at most museums and galleries in Rome. www.romapass.it/doc/NormativeENG.pdf
Buy a Rome PassThe Rome Pass costs about $35 and is valid for three days. It will get you free use of the city’s transportation systems (buses, trams, metro), free entry into two museums and/or archeological sites, and reduced entry fees on any subsequent museum visits.
Beware of Knock-OffsThe Italian law that makes it illegal to buy counterfeit items of high-end brands is particularly enforced in Florence. Be cautious when buying from a street vendor: You could be slammed with a fine upwards of $15,000.
Get Off the PathTravel to lesser-known, yet no less beautiful towns in Italy (for example, instead of Amalfi, head south to the Cilento Coast) for less expensive lodgings and dining, not to mention fewer crowds.
Free Museum Entry during Rome's Cultural WeekAll state-run museums and galleries are free during Rome’s Cultural week (Settimana della Cultura) held each year in early to mid-April.
Free Vatican EntryThe Vatican Museum is free every last Sunday of the month (admission is regularly 15 euros, about $20); entrance from 9-12.30pm.
Vaporettos in VeniceA trip on one of the public “buses” of Venice is a must for a slice of everyday life with the locals. These giant ferries run the circuit along the canal and off to the various islands in the lagoon for a reasonable price.
Eat for Free in Milan during Apertivo TimeDuring aperitivo time, typically between 7pm and 9pm, many bars in Milan offer all-you-can-eat-style buffets which you’re privy to if you just buy a single drink (usually between 5 and 15 euros, about $7 to $15) and milk it until you’ve finished feasting.
Eat Your Big Meal at LunchMany restaurants in Italy have a reasonable set-price menu at noon so you can feast earlier in the day then just snack in the evening.
Our Experts save you money with travel deals and advice
If you have an early flight, choose a hotel close to the airport the night before. Starting a trip on too little sleep is never fun.
Karen Dion Freelance Editor
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