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Trip Report Travel tips from a first-time visitor to Italy

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We just returned from two weeks in Italy -- our first trip -- and I thought I could share some tips that we learned along the way:

You don't have to stay in hotels
The apartments we rented were as nice as most hotel rooms; in Venice, it was better than most 4-5 star hotels we have stayed in. Not to mention they are generally less expensive. Our shortest stay was three days, so you don't have to do a whole week if you look around a bit.

Learn at least a bit of Italian before you go
I was surprised how quickly most shopkeepers or waiters knew we spoke English. Usually I would say "Buon giorno" and they would just break right into English. Nonetheless, they always smiled when I broke out the few words I took the time to learn.

Get up early or stay up late
Venice was very, very crowded during the day (I can't imagine what it's like at the peak of Summer). It was a different town in the early hours of the morning and late at night. Other than the street sweepers, St. Mark's Square was empty at 5:30. It was magical. Although we didn't experience it, I've heard the same about the Trevi Fountain and Colosseum in Rome. Likewise, the streets in the hill tows in Tuscany take on an almost mystical quality after everything is boarded shut for the night.

Visit the markets early rather than late
In a similar vein, the Rialto Market in Venice was the most interesting to me when they were setting up in the wee hours of the morning. Watching the hustle and bustle as the unloaded boats of goods and watching the shopkeepers stack their artichokes or neatly arrange their fish was quite entertaining. A little later, after the stalls opened, everything was perfect and neat (and made for great photos). It didn't look quite as nice later in the day after they were shopped down a bit. Getting there early also gets you first pick if you want to buy the best looking pear, for example (yum!).

Avoid the touristy restaurants
Although I read this many times on this forum, we still fell into the trap of eating at a restaurant with a tout standing out front (near the Trevi Fountain in Rome); it was our worst meal of the trip. If you see someone standing out front asking you to look at their menu, trust me and others who have shared the same advice and avoid it. Good restaurants don't need someone standing out front to get people to come inside. There's a good chance that there's a great "local" restaurant right around the corner.

Eat where the locals eat
When you check into your apartment or go to rent a car (or stop at a shop), ask where they like to eat out or where they would take out of town visitors. Everyone will be happy to give you a suggestion, and any of these are better than the touristy places everyone else eats at.

You aren't going to see everything
No matter how well you planned, there's going to be something that you won't get to see. It isn't the end of the world; just plan on visiting it the next time you come this way.

Don't be afraid of the house wines
Although some were better than others, we were never disappointed with he house wines in the more "local" restaurants. And surprisingly (to me anyway), wine was often cheaper than the bottled water.

Get away from the crowds
Although we enjoyed seeing the sights in Rome and Venice, our best times of the trip were out in the Tuscan countryside or hill towns away from all of the crowds. Our most memorable meal was at a castle in Chianti (Castello di Spaltenna in Gaiole); we were the only diners for lunch on Sunday. I'll also never forget watching the sun set behind the next hill town from the walls of Monticiano; unlike the throngs of people at the Sistine Chapel, there were only two other couples watching this sunset.

Try something new
Although it took some nerve, I loved the squid ink pasta in Venice. I also had rabbit, sardines, and wild boar and all were very good. The biggest regret of the trip was not getting up the nerve to try the tripe in Florence (maybe next trip). After seeing the little almond-shaped cookies (riccarelli) in bakeries around Siena, we finally tried some and they were a-m-a-z-I-n-g...

Validate your tickets!
Although I knew better, we were in a hurry and forgot to validate (stamp) our train tickets before getting on in Florence. The conductor was nice and only fined us 5€, but it could have been much more. You have to do the same with most local bus tickets.

Bring fast-drying clothes
Although most apartments have washers, dryers are rare. If you plan on washing clothes during the trip, you'll want something that dries in one day. Jeans don't.

Exercise to prepare for the trip
If you aren't used to a lot of walking on hills, spend some time on a treadmill or stairclimber before your trip. You'll thank me later. After climbing hundreds of steps to get to the top of the wall of the Duomo in Siena, I saw another visitor gasping for breath at the top. I said, "These steps make me feel old." He said, "This whole country has made me feel old!". You are going to walk way more than you plan...

The busses in Rome
For us, the bus maps in Rome were a challenge. After all of the walking for two weeks, we didn't really relish the idea of walking everywhere in Rome. It was hard, however, to figure out the right bus for our various trips. On he last day, I realized that the Rome Transportation's website (http://www.atac.roma.it/index.asp?lingua=ENG) has a route planner that will get you from address to address (it's not as obvious if you're on the Italian version of the site). It makes the public transportation very easy.

Check their hours
Churches, restaurants, and shops are closed at odd times through the day or often entirely for one or two days a week. You'll want to double-check the time before climbing to the top of a mountain to visit a castle to find out they stopped selling tickets five minutes earlier...

Rent a car
If you plan on spending time in Tuscany, don't be afraid to rent a car. The driving wasn't as bad as I had imagined even though the Italians are generally very aggressive drivers. If you do drive, however, make sure you know the signs for the ZTL zones before you go.

Finding good gelato
We loved the gelato, but after much experimentation (all in the name of science, of course), we found a few tips for better-than-average gelato. First, the ones that look nice -- piled high with fruit displayed out front -- generally weren't the best tasting. If you find a place with metal lids over their metal containers, there's a good chance that you have found some tasty gelato. Hands down, the best we tried was Gelato di San Crispino in Rome a few blocks from the Trevi Fountain; they didn't need the huge piles of gelato to have long lines after dinner.

Above all, enjoy your trip as much as we did. I don't know when, but I'm sure we will be back again!

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