Italy: Fast Facts and Quick Advice

SNAPSHOT
Culture (modern, old and ancient), fabulous food, historic sites, varied and stunning scenery, beaches, jagged coastline, architecture, skiing, opera, water sports, health and beauty spas, ruins and shopping for clothing, shoes and designer goods.

Those who want a diverse, fairly informal vacation, who are romantics and who love art, history and lovely settings will enjoy Italy. It's probably not for those who demand the correct, crisp efficiency of northern European countries: In Italy, timetables are seen more as romantic ideals than as attainable goals.

WHEN TO GO
We prefer going from mid-April to mid-June or mid-September to the end of October, when the days will generally be in the 70-80s, with nights in the 50-60s. July, August and the first half of September are generally quite hot (high 90s), humid and very crowded with tourists. The winters in the north are chilly -- 50s or colder in the day and much colder at night (often below freezing). In the south, winters are milder, but it is too cool to lie on the beach or too drizzly to tour happily. The best time to drive the Amalfi Coast is May to mid-June and mid-September to mid-October, when there are fewer cars on the road. Bring a sweater for evenings year-round.

WHAT TO EAT
Most visitors need little introduction to Italian cuisine; all we can say is that however much you like it at home, you'll probably like it even more in Italy. Always eat the regional specialties being offered in restaurants; there's quite a difference in seasonings, style and presentation in different parts of Italy. Among the local dishes to taste are risotto (Milan), risi e bisi (peas and rice), polenta (fried cornmeal mush, often with cheese -- Venice), buffalo mozzarella cheese (Rome), fresh fruit and pastries (Sicily), many varieties of fish, vegetables, fruit and, of course, pasta. The pizza that's sold by the slice in shops and bakeries is generally quite different from what most North Americans are used to. It ranges from the very simple pizza bianca (baked crust with a bit of salt and olive oil) and pizza rossa (tomato sauce only) to margherita (tomato sauce and cheese) and quattro stagioni (all sorts of things). Many restaurants offer international cuisine, but when in Rome...

There are three categories of restaurants; from most expensive to least, the classes are ristorante, trattoria (more home cooking, in style) and osteria. Eat a meal in each category -- just because it's cheap doesn't mean it's bad, and each has its own atmosphere.

DOs and DON'Ts

  • Don't be surprised by the excessive hotel taxes, additional charges and requests for payment for extras such as air conditioning. Sometimes these taxes/service charges are included in room rates; check upon arrival...
  • Do save receipts from hotels and car rentals, as 15% to 20% of the value-added taxes (VAT) on these services may be refunded...
  • Do dress appropriately when touring churches and cathedrals. Shorts, short dresses or sleeveless shirts are not allowed in Italy's churches...
  • Don't be surprised to receive a telephone token for change. It's worth 200 lire and can be spent as money as well as to make a local call from a phone booth...
  • Don't be surprised by Italy's two-hour lunch breaks (generally, 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.)...
  • Don't forget to take your receipt with you when you leave a restaurant; if you don't have it, you can legally be charged for your meal again...
  • Do keep your currency-exchange forms if you plan to change money back to another currency...
  • Don't plan on finding public restrooms everywhere, and when you do, you'll probably have to pay to use them. Bring change in 500 lira coins...
  • Do plan on doing a lot of walking...
  • Tipping: Do expect a 10%-15% gratuity to be added to your restaurant bill (they also expect you to leave more). Tip the taxi driver at least 500 lire or 15% of the fare, whichever is greater.
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    Contact the Italian Government Tourist Office:

    Chicago: 500 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 2240, 60611; (312) 644-0996, fax (310) 644-3019.

    Los Angeles: 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 550, 90025; (310) 820-0098, fax (310) 820-6357.

    Montreal: 1 Place Villa Marie, Suite 1914, H3B 2C3; (514) 866-7667, fax (514) 392-1429.

    New York: 630 Fifth Ave., Suite 1565, 10111; (212) 245-4822, fax (212) 586-9249; travel agents: (212) 245-4961.

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