Italy may be one of the most romanticised destinations in the world and for good reason. The iconic and world-renowned architecture, food, culture, and rich history are amongst the many factors drawing over 50 million tourists from around the world every single year. Countless books, movies and TV Shows have set unforgettable scenes in the exotic Italy, creating a seductive illusion for foreigners, who arrive with an array of rosy-tinted expectations. You will, however, probably find your visit to Italy to be less like a Hollywood film and more like real life – full of both good and bad experiences. No destination is perfect and Italy is no exception.
Every facet of Italy is very different depending on which region you are in and if you are in a big city vs. a small town. You can’t sum up the entirety of Italy in one sentence because of this diversity.
Without further ado here is a list of shocks and surprises that Marko and I compiled, drawing from our 2-month long road trip around Italy:
1. Italy is full of breathtaking, diverse landscapes.
Everyone knows about the Colosseum, the leaning tower of Pisa, the canals of Venice and the countless places and sights that come to mind instantly when you think of Italy. The grandeur of these famous places often overshadow the lesser known, breathtaking landscapes.
Something that I feel hasn’t been sung enough praises is Italy’s beautiful and diverse landscapes. I feel like this is particularly unknown amongst non-Europeans, I had no idea. Italy has numerous national parks with mountains, rivers, lakes, forests and beaches. Depending on your personal preferences you might even find visiting these places instead of the more famous man-made sights to be a more valuable experience. I recommend visiting The Gargano National Park and The Dolomites – I want to return to both!
2. Italy has a bit of an air pollution problem.
I never would’ve expected this even after driving through multiple stinky industrial areas. The realisation hit us when we were staying in Piedmont in the countryside and a horrendous smog wouldn’t lift. At first, we thought it was fog but it lasted all day long, it left the sky looking dirty and it smelt. It especially hit me while sitting in traffic in Alba, I had difficulty breathing and started to have chest pain. For the duration of our stay in Piedmont, our noses were both extremely clogged.
Turin, Milan and Naples are some of the most polluted places in Italy, in recent times, these cities have taken various measure to reduce air pollution. You can check real-time air quality for most parts of Italy here, this may be important to you depending on your level of sensitivity and health. As healthy young people, we both felt physically affected, perhaps because neither of us has experienced that level of pollution before.
3. For a ‘relaxed’ country they are somewhat serious about food and drink rules.
Doing things that aren’t culturally offensive in the country you are visiting is important for travellers, in Italy this can sometimes include food and drink rules. There are likely many other rules that I do not know about because we seldom dined out.
- A cappuccino in the afternoon is frowned upon by Italians as they consider it to only be a breakfast beverage. It took us a while to work this out. When ordering our cappuccinos from a coffee bar in Florence with our local friend, Dusan, the bartender, genuinely confused, asked Dusan “why are they drinking cappuccinos in the afternoon?” He responded with “they are not Italian”. We continued to ignore this rule and a week later we were very politely refused a cappuccino in a trattoria.
- Italians are strict about their lunch hours – they typically go for at least two hours at either 12pm or 1pm. It isn’t unusual to go home from work or university to cook a meal and then to return to work or university after that. In Trieste, we were refused service in a deli despite them already having a customer in the store because it was close to lunchtime.
4. The opening hours of stores are strange and unpredictable.
Continuing on from the last point, the strict lunch hours lead to strange store opening hours – with disjointed opening times. This can include coffee shops, restaurants, supermarkets, small stores, bakeries and fashion stores. We found this to be incredibly annoying because of the inconsistency, we never knew what to expect. This even annoys Italians sometimes! We had an Italian host who told us that he couldn’t get lunch at a restaurant when he visited Siena because it was lunchtime. Stores don’t necessarily list their opening times anywhere either. Some chain stores such as supermarkets and fashion stores are open all day and sometimes they have a sign indicating that.
5. Half-naked prostitutes in the countryside.
Marko and I got more than we bargained for as we drove on the highway towards Gargano, in broad daylight we spotted countless prostitutes in lingerie (even in colder weather) either standing on the side of the road or sitting on a plastic chair. One was even flashing her lady garden to drivers! This was definitely, something neither of us expected… I am honestly curious about how people explain such displays to their children.
6. You can sleep in a medieval castle for a surprisingly small price.
On two occasions we stayed within the fortified walls of medieval castles and on both occasions for bargain prices, considering the experiences we were able to have. Our favourite stay was in an Airbnb ‘Le Scalette’, in a small town about an hours drive from Rome, called Bocchignano, it was a very memorable experience and such a beautiful place to stay.
7. There are more self-service stations than ones manned by people.
Around 80% of the petrol stations we came across were self-serve. This can be highly inconvenient especially when the machines that take your money don’t always work. On one occasion our money 50 Euro note was sucked in without providing us with any diesel! We were luckily able to return to the same petrol station and use a receipt to retrieve our fuel. This was so stressful because at the time we thought we lost 50 Euros on nothing!
8. Italians in customer service can be incredibly rude BUT friendly locals often make up for this.
Perhaps it is my fault for being naively misled by TV shows and films but I was under the impression that most Italians were warm and hospitable and was shocked when I found that this just wasn’t the case. I have never experienced such massive variations of hospitality and friendliness throughout my entire travels, especially in one country!
Appalling customer service was common
Largely, I found customer service to be quite appalling with staff at museums, restaurants and on one occasion, a hotel, often acting in a manner that makes you feel like a burden. At our last accommodation in the Dolomites, the hotel staff would not help us when we had car problems on the day of a massive flood that killed multiple people. We practically had to beg for the tiniest bits of assistance and had to work it all out on our own but this is a story for another time. It really confused me because in the Dolomites the niceness of people in customer service varied so hugely.
Kind locals and amazing customer service made up for the negative encounters
On the other extreme, we came across incredibly kind Italian people in customer service and just in everyday life, especially in the South, people, in general, were consistently very kind there.
We got to know a lovely family in a little Trattoria in Piedmont. They treated us to traditional meals made by Nonna and gave us an amazing experience. They even helped Marko get a huge bag of fresh hazelnuts after we asked them where we can find some. In a little town near Amalfi, locals unexpectedly offered us help and helped us to find us to find our accommodation. There were people who wanted to introduce us to their culture, particularly in the form of food and just greet us and find out where we were from. Marko spoke to men who were chilling on the streets on multiple occasions and a group of men even asked to be his photography subjects.
Our issues with Italians on this trip were almost solely with customer service staff. You can imagine that on a trip of nearly 2 months that we had a lot of interactions with customer service staff. Honestly, by the time we were leaving the Dolomites I was desperate to leave the country, partly due to so many negative interactions with Italians. The lack of help when our car had problems was the rotten cherry on top. I am certain that some customer service staff and locals are sick of tourists which is understandable. In forums, some suggested it could be because of problems in that region, economic, political etc.. Whatever the cause, I didn’t appreciate it.
For the record, I don’t expect smiles, compliments or anything other than the bare minimum. I just don’t want the undeserved negativity like eye-rolling, loud sighing, angry faces, being deliberately given bad produce. *Drops mic*.
9. Learning ‘ciao’ and ‘grazie’ won’t get you very far.
This kind on continues on with the last point because it mostly applies to interactions with customer service staff. You may have read in guidebooks that ‘a little Italian goes a long way’ – I call bullshit on this. A lot of Italian goes a long way. More than half the time we encountered Italians who couldn’t speak any English, so Marko’s near fluency in Italian helped us a lot but generally, people weren’t any warmer to us because of it. Even a friendly conversation with a roadside fruit seller left us with a fake smile and a bag of rotten fruit which we paid very handsomely for. In Italy, I didn’t get the impression that speaking the language earns you any respect most of the time.
I do have to say in the south that Marko’s language efforts were more appreciated, he had a lot of nice chats with all kinds of people.
I can only see a difference because while travelling in Germany, Austria and even in parts of Italy where they speak German, I personally had a lot warmer reactions to my less-than intermediate German skills. People often complimented me for my attempts. Even now in Montenegro, my very basic Serbian language skills are much more appreciated than Marko’s near fluency in Italian when we were in Italy.
10. It is hard to find decent clothes at a fair price
I expected to be leaving Italy with a bundle full of clothes, some dresses, shoes and maybe a coat. They might have been slightly expensive but worth it. Do you know what I bought? One emergency jumper from United Colors of Benetton, emergency socks from H&M and new bras from Yamamay because my OG bra was falling apart.
I searched for anything but a cheap chain store or ultra-luxury clothes – a boutique somewhere in the middle. When I finally found one store in Turin with reasonable prices and nice looking clothes it was closed for lunch. Marko and I visited outlet stores which Piedmont is well known for. They were either full of trash or luxury clothing at their full prices. Maybe I was looking in the wrong places but I have never failed so hard looking for clothes before. I ended up buying my winter clothes in Montenegro.
11. The snacks are amazing and give you ‘bang for your buck’
I have to say about Italy, pretty much every snack we had blew us away. Sweet or savoury, from a store or a roadside food stand, they never disappointed! They were often very cheap and where the locals also happened to be!
12. WiFi is shockingly bad
The WiFi in Italy is as spotty as a teenager going through puberty. You generally cannot rely on WiFi in your accommodation, let alone in cafes. It was very rare that we had good internet and when we can across it, it was like a miracle. One of my regrets for this trip was not getting a Sim Card, even though I know they are very expensive for foreigners. The only place we could consistently rely on for WiFi was good old McDonalds. We often downloaded maps and booked accommodation there, while drinking a coffee or eating some fries. This leads to the next shock…
13. McDonald’s is surprisingly popular amongst local people
Whenever we went to McDonald’s which was often and normally in non-touristic areas, it was generally full of local people of all ages. One Sunday when we visited we couldn’t even find somewhere to sit because it was so full! This was a surprise for me because when I was in high school, in my food tech class they got us to watch a documentary on the Slow Food movement in Italy. In this documentary, a small city protested relentlessly about a McDonald’s opening up. I can’t remember the outcome in the film but the impression that McDonald’s would be frowned upon by Italians stuck with me. There are actually around 577 in Italy at the moment so clearly, the franchise has had immense success in Italy.
14. The east coast of Italy from after Venice onwards to the Gargano National Park is a disappointing drive
Compared to the west coast (we drove from Amalfi Coast to Genoa), the opposite side of Italy is lacklustre. I am talking mainly in terms of Gran Turismo, above anything else. On the east coast, you can’t really drive with a view of the coast because there is always something that obstructs the view whether that is train tracks, towering apartments or something else. The beaches along this coast have to be some of the least desirable spots to visit that I have ever come across. My standards will, of course, be unfairly high in terms of beaches because I am Australian. I know a good beach when I see one! These beaches are full of ugly sunbeds and the towns look like they were erected in the ’80s but haven’t been touched since. It was a visual nightmare for me.
To my surprise, there are not many established towns who have been there for centuries on this coastline, unlike the rest of Italy. When driving a bit further away from this coast, you will find a multitude of cities, towns and even a different country that will be much more worthy of your time. Some alternative destinations include Padua, Bologna, Verona, San Marino (a republic).
15. Some small towns have a lot of homeless cats and dogs
Even after spending a lot of time in Balkans where this is very common, seeing homeless cats and dogs fills me with immense sadness, especially if they don’t look healthy. Most of the time they looked as though they were being fed but sometimes we came across dogs with matted hair. We even came across a pregnant homeless dog, in fairness it seemed like locals cared for her but it was still heartbreaking.
16. Parts of Tuscany are like ‘Little Britain’
When you envisage your trip to Tuscany, you may imagine yourself encountering a lot of Italian people because, well, you are in Italy. Instead, you might end up feeling as though you unwittingly stepped into a teleporting machine and were in the English countryside due to the sheer amount of Brits. We visited supermarkets in non-touristic areas that had around 80% British customers. I knew a lot of British people like to retire in Spain, France and Italy, I just never expected that amount.
17. Bidet Culture is real
In Italy, every accommodation and home will have a bathroom with a bidet along with towels designated solely for cleaning for your butt. Marko and I spent many hours reading Reddit threads explaining this phenomenon and giggling because we aren’t very mature ;). We were told this can be a problem for Italians when travelling, that they have to go without their bidets.
After reading this you might think I have a colony of bees in my bonnet and that is a fair assessment, to a degree. Our time in Italy was an absolute rollercoaster for so many reasons, some of which were mentioned in this post. A standout lowlight was the rudeness we encountered and a standout highlight was the friendliness we encountered. These extremes tired me out. Regardless of some of my negative remarks, I still highly recommend visiting Italy simply because it is a beautiful country with incredible food and some of the people you meet will touch your heart with their kindness. Just keep in mind that you might encounter people who work directly with tourists who hate them and/or hate their jobs and they show it! Try not to let them spoil your time.
Please share your experiences below
If anyone wants to shoot arrows at me for my comments, I am simply speaking about my opinions which come from my experiences of travelling for 2 months in Italy. You may have had different experiences or opinions and that is fine (I am jealous actually). Or maybe you had some similar experiences to us and you are glad you aren’t the only one? Please share your thoughts below!
Thank you for sticking with me if you read this entire blog post, please accept my sincere apologies for the bad vibes.