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On Italy tours, trains are one of the best ways to see the country. You can enjoy the landscape in comfortable surrounds, be transported directly from city center to city center, and not have to work about GPS or parking laws.

When you go to book Italian trains, whether online via Trenitalia or at one of the kiosks in Italian train stations (we’ll be covering how exactly to get your tickets that in our newsletter this month, sign up here), it’s easily to be either confused or overwhelmed.

Italy has so many different types of trains, and often all of them travel the same route. Let’s break it down.

The National Train System


The Italian national rail runs almost all local and regional trains. A few regions have their own systems that are also open to the public, but most trains you’ll end up taking go the Trenitalia, the national system.

Local trains make lots of stops, only have second-class seats, and connect cities that are close by within the same region, like Florence and Siena in Tuscany or Venice and Verona in the Veneto.

There are several levels of trains that go faster than local trains but slower than high speed. And every few years it seems like something new pops up!

Regional trains can also connect you to cities in the same region, but they make fewer stops than local trains and move faster. You can also take regional trains or fast regional trains to move from one region to another where the high-speed trains don’t run or when you don’t want to pay the extra expense of those trains.

Intercity trains were, once upon a time, the fast option, but now they are more or less phased out. You’ll still see them as a slower option on some long distance routes. Likewise, Eurostar was the high-speed option ten years ago, but now they offer another way (at twice the time and often also twice the price) to get between distant cities when the high-speed trains are full.

High-speed Trains: Italo vs. Freccia




For high-speed service, which is what you need to go between major cities such as Milan and Rome or Florence and Venice, you now have two options, thanks to the relative newcomer Italo.

A private company with its own lounges and—in some cases like Rome where it leaves from a secondary station—its own stations, Italo offers a luxury product. Freccia (Italian for arrow) trains from Trenitalia have several levels of premium cabins that offer similar service, but the basic product is quite functional, if not a little cramped, and can be found for great prices if you book in advance.

The Freccia trains cut the time it takes to get around Italy in half, getting you around faster than driving, and even flying in most cases.
When you think of different types of dining establishments, most fall into one of two categories-sit down or take out, fine dining or casual, restaurants in cafes.

But in Italy, they seem to have a dizzying number of names for places that, ostensibly, all seem like sit down restaurants: trattoria, ristorante, osteria, enoteca, and the list goes on.

When you're out in Italy, how do you know what you're getting? There are basically five grades of sit-down restaurant, two types of wine bars, and two main types of take-out place.

Sit-Down Restaurants:



  • Ristorante - This is the top grade of Italian dining establishments, with conscientious service, fine dining plating and dishes, and often a well-known chef.

  • Trattoria - Trattorias are wonderful casual places to eat, whether for a pre-set lunch menu or a dinner out. They focus on typical Italian fare, without the fusion flare you may see in ristorantes.

  • Osteria - Osterias are much like trattorias, but a bit more casual with a focus on regional specialties.

  • Tavola Calda - In a tavola calda, there is typically no table service. You choose your food from a cafeteria style serving set up. These are primarily in Florence.

  • Pizzeria - In Italy, pizzarias are sit-down restaurants that predominantly serve pizza with wine, a variety of salads, and a few pasta selections.


Wine bars:



  • Enoteca - For a more formal wine tasting experience in line with American wine bars, head to an enoteca. Today, many are high-design and high-tech, though the food options are typically limited.

  • Taverna - Tavernas are more old-fashioned, like an Italian version of a British pub, with wine instead of beer. Food is very traditional, simple fare.


Take-out:



  • Pizza a taglio - For a slice of pizza on the run, look for a pizza a taglio (literally: by the slice). There may be limited seating, but squares of pizza, calzones, and occasionally some desserts are packaged up to take away.

  • Rosticceria - Unlike pizza a taglio places, which expect people to be eating their food on the go, rosticcerias typically serve hot food, primarily meat and roast vegetable dishes, to take and eat at home. If you're looking for an entire chicken, this is the place.

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As you may have seen recently via email, I was fortunate to be selected to speak on a panel at the New York Times Travel Show earlier this month with several other Italian travel specialist:

  • Kathy McCabe from the Dream of Italy magazine

  • Steve Perillo of Perillo Tours

  • Dominic Siano of Tour Italy now


In "How to Plan a Luxurious (But Affordable) Italian Vacation," Susan Van Allen, a friend and author of "100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go" and "Letters from Italy," moderated a panel of experts to help travelers enjoy Italian luxury without breaking the bank.

To be completely honest, I was very nervous beforehand. Though I've been leading tours for decades, that's different than sitting, facing a group of people you don't know at all, and hoping they're interested in what you're saying!

I ended up being very surprised though, because the other panelists didn't have a lot to say and ended up taking notes on what I was saying (!). In particular, I talked about the kind of experiences that a travel specialist can arrange for you through the people they know in Italy that can really add a sense of luxury to your experience even without an over-the-top price tag.

Watch my whole talk on YouTube here or the embedded video above.
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Whether you plan it into your budget or not. Whether you bring a big enough suitcase or not. Whether you set aside time in your itinerary or not.

Shopping in Italy is kind of inevitable.

You may end up with a suitcase full of gourmet goodies or wine bottles (here’s how to pack them), housewares or high fashion. But first you have to navigate the cultural nuances of shopping in Italy.

Opening and Closing Times


Shops open on the later side, often around 10 am. Most non-chain shops, boutiques and handicraft shops close for an extended lunch from 12:30 or 1pm to 3 or 4 pm. In small towns, absolutely everything will close.

In major city centers, most things stay upon through the lunch break. Stores, even in smaller towns, are open later to compensate, usually till around 7:30 or 8 pm.

Trying Things On


When you arrive, you must say hello (buongiorno during the day and buona sera in the afternoon) to start a respectful relationship with the shop keeper. Otherwise they will find you very rude.

You, on the other hand, might find it rude when salespeople come into your dressing room while you’re trying things on to help you squeeze into a tight pair of jeans. Salespeople in Italy are very hands on, but it is just because they are passionate about helping you find something you like.

Buying and Exchanging


Commas replace a periods on price tags, and tax is already included. You can’t pay anything that is less than EU10 or 20 Euros with a credit card. Always bring cash with you for the smaller purchases.

Credit cards are not widely accepted, but bring your passport or another photo ID if you plan to make a large purchase with your credit card. Many stores will send you away if you are not able to provide photo ID with your credit card.

Be very confident before you purchase anything, because store exchanges essentially don’t exist.
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2008 - 2012 CONDÉ NAST TRAVELER ITALY SPECIALIST

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