Italy travel tips for first time visitors

Written by on October 15, 2020 in Practical Stuff

Duomo Milano,

Here we tell you a few useful Italy travel tips for first time visitors.

Italy is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. Especially when it comes to culture and good food. It should be definitely on your bucket list if you have not visited yet. There are so many different parts of Italy to choose from, depending on what type of vacation you fancy. It can be adventurous, cultural, musical, historical, roman, romantic, sporty, gastronomical, sunny, lazy. Whatever your thing, you can find the right spot for it in Italy.

UK citizens free movement until 1st January 2021

EU citizens can live, work and study freely in Italy and throughout the rest of the EU simply with a valid Identity Card. UK citizens, during the current transition phase of Brexit, are still counted as EU citizens. Therefore they enjoy the same freedoms. They just need to have with them a valid passport, seeing as the UK doesn’t issue identity cards.

and from 1st January 2021?

After 1stJanuary when the Brexit transition period ends, the UK will become a non-EU country. UK citizens will then only be entitled to a 90-day touristic style, Schengen Visa waiver. The same as the other below mentioned non-EU countries currently enjoy.

And as of 1stJanuary if you are travelling to the EU on a UK passport you will need to have at least 6 months unexpired.

Schengen area visa waiver

If you are a citizen of Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Canada and USA, or any other of the 60 countries currently entitled to the Schengen Visa waiver, you will just have to present a valid passport. It needs to have at least 3 months validity remaining on it from your intended departure date from the Schengen area. Like this you can stay in Italy, or elsewhere in the EU, for a maximum of 90 days. So long as you have the financial resources to support yourself during your stay. And so long as you are not on any kind of exclusion list. To stay beyond 90 days you will need to get a Visa.

During your 90 days visa free stay you are classed more or less as a tourist. You can attend business meetings but you are not allowed to work as such. The 90 days limit is actually 90 days within any period of 180 days. So, when 90 days are up, another 90 days must elapse before you can start another allowance of 90 days. You can’t put your stays back to back, if that makes sense?

South Africans need a Schengen visa to visit Italy. This you can get from the Italian consulate in Cape Town or Johannesburg.

ETIAS visa system from 2022

Not something to worry about for now but just for future interest. At the end of 2022, U.S. citizens and the citizens of the rest of the 60 Visa waiver countries mentioned above, will need to have a ‘visa’ to enter the Schengen zone, and therefore Italy. The Visa will be called the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS). It will be similar to the US ESTA system and will be valid for three years with unlimited number of entries. Post-Brexit Britain will more likely than not have to comply with ETIAS also.

Travel insurance - Italy travel tips

EHIC cards

If you are a EU citizen, you should apply for your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) before you come to Italy. It entitles you to state-provided medical treatment if you fall ill or have an accident while you are here. It covers pre-existing medical and routine maternity care as well as emergency care. So individuals with chronic illnesses can travel knowing they will receive treatment on the same terms as the citizens of Italy.

Travel & health insurance

As a UK citizen after Brexit on 1st January 2021 the EHIC card will no longer be valid for you. You are therefore advised to take out full travel insurance with healthcare cover. As has always been the recommendation for citizens from other non-EU countries. That said, having travel and health insurance is advisable but not mandatory for entering Italy or the EU.

If you are coming skiing to one of the marvellous North West Italian ski resorts, you have the option to take out mountain rescue insurance when you by your ski pass. It normally costs about 3 euro/day and is worth getting. If you are not fully covered it can get very pricey if you have an accident on the slope. Especially if you need the helicopter, God forbid!

Healthcare in Italy

Healthcare in the north of Italy generally is very good. In all hospitals there is an emergency ward – ‘pronto soccorso’. If you have just minor problems, you are probably better off going to a Pharmacy – Farmacia. Pharmacists are usually kind and helpful and are well stocked with all kinds of medication. Including homeo-therapy & natural products.

Driving license

Driving licenses issued by any of the European Union counties are valid throughout Europe. And of course therefore in Italy. Non-EU driving licenses are also fine for driving in Italy and the rest of Europe. As long as you don’t stay for longer than 1 year, in which case you need to get an EU driving licence.

You need to be 18 to drive a car in Italy. At 16 you can drive a motorbike. Even at age 14 you can ‘buzz’ around in a 3 wheeled Piaggio Ape or on a scooter as long as the engine isn’t bigger than 50cc! Not on the motorway of course! And you have to have passed a driving test first.

driving around in Italy on car and vespa

Driving tips

Pay attention in the centre of big cities like Milano, Torino – you cannot drive into some ‘Centri Storici’ without a special permit. For which you need to be an official resident.

Regarding drink driving, the maximum blood alcohol content is 0.5 grams per litre. This is in line with the European average. That’s roughly 2 beers or 2 glasses of wine.

Driving in Northern Italy is generally easy and roads are well signposted. Italian drivers here are considerate, although letting someone out in front of you is not common. Watch out at roundabouts as people tend not to use their indicators! And if you are a pedestrian, be aware that it is not the custom for cars to stop for you at a pedestrian crossing. So please don’t assume that they will!

A lot of local petrol stations are now automated, which is a bit of a shame. I used to enjoy chatting with the pump attendants, who would also help you with minor car maintenance. A few years ago visiting these automated stations was often quite frustrating as many of the pay machines only accepted a special kind of petrol card. Nowadays most of the machines accept normal debit and credit cards. Nevertheless, its best not to let the fuel tank get completely empty. Just in case you end up having to drive around a number of filling stations looking for one that will work for you.

Banks and bank cards in Italy

There are usually several cash points and bank branches located throughout the towns of Italy. Almost all of them will do a ‘prelievo internazionale’ – an international cash withdrawal. At least with my UK bank they do. I cannot vouch for services to US or other overseas banks.

Most stores, restaurants, petrol stations, motorway toll-booths etc. take credit and debit cards nowadays in Italy. However, it is still best to carry some cash with you. Because every now and again you do come across somewhere that doesn’t accept cards. I always like to have some cash with me when driving on the motorway for example, to avoid the possibility of getting stuck.

You will probably find yourself being asked ‘carta o bancomat?’ when paying for stuff by card. I am really not sure why because either a credit card or debit card seems to go through regardless of what you answer.

Bank opening hours are usually from 8.20 – 13.20 and 14.30-15.30. In bigger towns banks might stay open until 16.15pm.

restaurant, dinner out in Italy

Store and restaurant hours

In Italy, stores generally still close for a couple of hours around lunchtime but then stay open a bit later in the evenings, until around 19.00 or so. Usually only the supermarket chains, the big out of town stores and stores within shopping centres operate without closing for lunch.

Restaurants serve lunch from 12.00 until around 14.30 and reopen for dinner between 19.00 – 22.30. Make sure you get your timing for lunch right. ‘Mi dispiace ma la cucina e gia chuisa’ (‘I am sorry, but the kitchen is already closed’) is not something you want to hear when you are hungry! Italians love having an early evening drink, or ‘aperitivo’, in their favourite bar. ‘Aperitivo Ora‘ tends to kick off around 18.00 pm. You do not really need dinner afterwards as most places serve plenty of lovely snacks, included in the price of your drink. Bars in busy town centres tend to stay open until midnight, whereas your quiet local village bar might close a lot earlier.


Tipping in restaurants in Italy is not really a custom. There is a fixed ‘coperta’ in all restaurants that you must pay, usually 1-2 euro/person for table setting and bread. If you are eating in a sophisticated restaurant you might feel it is appropriate to leave a tip if you were particularly impressed. But in most places it’s really not necessary. The waiters and bar staff are usually full-time employees on a proper salary with benefits, a bit like in France. They are not living off their tips like they are maybe in the US and in UK.

Mobile phone & data roaming

There is good mobile 4G coverage generally throughout Italy but it can still be a bit compromised in more remote spots. The main operators are TIM and Vodafone and as of recently, the newly merged WindTre.

Roaming within the EU is free if you are using a phone that is registered in an EU country. For UK citizens after the Brexit, the free-roaming situation will possibly change, depending on the result of the trade talks and on the commercial decisions operators on both sides of the English Channel take thereafter. In any case the British government law that prevents you from unwittingly incurring roaming charges in excess of GBP 45 will stay in place for UK customers.

Visitors to Italy from the US and other non-EU countries will face international roaming charges while they are here, for both phone and data. They should therefore check with their provider what the tariffs are before travelling. You will need to remember to get your provider to turn on the international roaming facility when you leave home and remember to have them turn it off again when you get back. And make sure that the model of phone you have is compatible with the European system. Most of the phones released in the US since 2014 are compatible.

While in Italy, or anywhere outside your home country, non-EU mobile phone and data users should try to limit heavy downloading to when they are connected to WiFi. Wifi is very widespread now in hotels, bars, restaurants etc throughout Italy. Even ski resorts and some beaches have their own client WiFi service for example.

Useful emergency phone numbers

Police                                    113

Fireman                               115

Ambulance                          118

All emergency                    112

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