Backpacking Italy: Top experiences
- People-watching at the Fountain of Trevi at night
- Concert-hopping at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia
- Lazing on the volcanic sand beaches of Procida
- Sampling the regional cuisines — pizza in Naples, pesto in Genova — at their finest
- Hiking between villages of the Cinque Terre, stopping only to dive into the sea
Jump to the list of posts from Italy, or read on for my comprehensive Italy travel guide.
Italy itinerary ideas
Italy offers endless itinerary options, lasting anywhere from a few days to a few months. For a short trip to Italy, your best options are to either breeze through the main highlights, or pick a single region to explore thoroughly.
With one week, start off in Rome. Spend two days rushing through the Forum, Sistene Chapel, and quirky neighborhoods before taking the train to Florence. You can cover the top things to do in Florence in a day, topped off with watching the sunset over the Duomo from Piazzale Michelangelo. Next, go up to Venice and spend two days wandering around the magical city’s canals and churches, with a day trip to colorful Burano on your second morning. Cut over to Milan quickly to see the famous cathedral before your flight home.
For a two-week backpacking Italy itinerary, you could do all of the above more slowly. Alternatively, spend some time in Umbria and Tuscany — Perugia and Siena are highlights — between Rome and Florence. Or add trips from Milan to Lake Como or the Cinque Terre. You could also focus on an itinerary for southern Italy, taking in Naples, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast.
Have a month or longer for backpacking through Italy? Lucky you! You can pick and choose from the options above, plus check out some lower-profile cities like Mantova, Genova, Verona, Bologna, or Trieste. Spend a week on Sicily at the end.
Italy weather and when to visit Italy
Italy has a typical Mediterranean climate — hot summers, warm springs and autumns, and chilly (but not frigid) winters. You can plan a trip to Italy at any time of year, but each season has its pros and cons.
High season runs June-August throughout the country. Tourist crowds are huge, prices are high, and some local business shut down while their owners go on holiday. That being said, it’s a great time to visit the beaches off the coast of Naples or in the Cinque Terre, and smaller cities like Mantova and Perugia aren’t too crowded.
Spring and autumn are the ideal times to visit. Traveler numbers are much lower than in summertime — you probably won’t have to wait in line at any of the museums, and you’ll be able to get a table at any restaurant you want to try. The weather is still warm, especially in May and September. Plus, prices are lower.
If you don’t mind a bit of chilly and wet weather, and you want to visit major cities like Venice and Florence, winter can be a great time to go backpacking Italy on a budget. As early as November, you’ll find few tourists and radically lower prices. (I payed €40 for a guesthouse in central Venice in November — which wouldn’t have gotten me a dorm bed in July.)
Language in Italy
The main language spoken in Italy is, of course, Italian. It’s a Romance language with close similarities to Spanish and it uses the Latin alphabet.
As you’re backpacking Italy, you’ll encounter many different dialects of Italian. Sicilian, for example, is practically its own language, while in the far north you’ll find heavy German influences. Slang and even basic pronunciation differ dramatically depending on where you are in the country.
Considering how many tourists visit Italy, English is still surprisingly uncommon. Most of the older generation speaks very little English, and even many younger folks have limited English skills. You can almost always find an English speaker in a pinch. But learning some basic Italian in advance goes a long way. Duolingo’s online course is good enough for a short trip.
At a minimum, you should learn the Italian names of your destination cities. “Roma” is Rome, “Firenze” is Florence, and “Venezia” is Venice. When you travel around Italy you won’t hear or see their Anglicized names anywhere.
Budget for backpacking Italy
As far as Europe’s top travel destinations go, Italy is shockingly affordable, even for backpackers. You don’t have to sacrifice top experiences if you’re pinching pennies.
At the extreme low end, if you eat out of supermarkets, stay away from wine, skip museums, and CouchSurf, you could travel to Italy on a budget of as little as €20 a day. A far more comfortable backpacking Italy budget would be more like €40 a day, which would allow you to stay in hostels and visit the occasional museum or restaurant. €100 a day would be a comfortable mid-range budget.
Prices plummet in off-season — a private room in central Venice in November is cheaper than a dorm bed in Rome in July. And like elsewhere in Europe, the further you go from the main tourist sites, the cheaper food, coffee, wine and accommodation becomes.
Dorm bed in a hostel: €25
Simple trattoria meal at a non-touristy restaurant: €8-10
Cappuccino at a bar: €1.50
Carafe of wine: €4
Museum or historical site admission: €10
Local train ticket from Rome to Florence: €10
Ferry from Naples to Capri: €12 round-trip
One-day wine tour in Tuscany: €50 and up
Italy visa requirements
Most European, North American, and Australian citizens don’t need a visa to visit Italy. The country is part of the Schengen agreement, meaning you can stay in it combined with any other Schengen countries for a total of 90 out of any 180 days. (So for example, if you’re on a long trip through Europe, your total trip has to be less than 90 days — not just the Italy part.)
If you want to stay longer than 90 days, you’ll need to apply for a residency permit almost immediately when arriving in Italy. Find more information here.
Accommodation in Italy
Accommodation in Italy ranges from backpacker hostels to cozy family-owned guesthouses to high-end resorts to train station floors. It all depends on your budget and tolerance for discomfort.
Most people backpacking Italy on a budget depend on the country’s excellent nationwide network of hostels. You can find at least one dorm room to stay in in every medium-sized city. They vary in quality and atmosphere — most feel pretty impersonal and sterile — but the price is right, at around €25 for a dorm. This usually includes linens, towels and free Wi-Fi, and occasionally free breakfast (or at least coffee). Some hostels will only allow guests under 26 years old. Book at least a week in advance during summertime, or more in popular destinations like the Cinque Terre.
If you’re traveling in a group, consider small guesthouses to supplement hostel stays — sometimes they’re cheaper for two or more people. Even in Rome, you can still find a small private room for €40, especially in winter. The room will typically be teeny-tiny, but it’s better than sharing with 30 other snoring backpackers.
If hostels and hotels are out of your budget, you can also CouchSurf — in fact, this may be the best way to travel in Italy to experience its less touristic side. You’ll need to organize hosts at least a week in advance — last-minute couches are rare. Solo travelers, and especially solo women, will have the easiest time finding hosts.
In a pinch, you can usually sleep in train stations if you have overnight connections or are desperate. Bologna — the layover point for many overnight trains — has dozens of travelers camping in its train station every night.
Food in Italy
Italian food is famous around the world — and deservedly so. Pizza. Pasta. Fresh seafood. Gelato. You can have it all.
The key to eating well and on a budget while backpacking Italy is to stick with regional specialties and go where the locals go. Only the tourists eat pizza in Florence or pesto in Rome. By sticking with regional restaurants, you’ll get better food, try a broader variety of cuisine, and save money.
Some of the most popular regional dishes include pizza in Naples, pesto in Genova, spaghetti bolognese and tortellini in Bologna, seafood in Venice, flatbread on the Ligurian coast, and risotto in Milan. You can try each of these specialties for under €10 at a local trattoria.
Self-catering is a great option for at least some meals if you’re trying to travel around Italy on a budget. You can get gloriously sweet tomatoes, fresh basil, and tangy balsamic vinegar for next to nothing at small grocery stores and farmer’s markets. Stop in a dairy shop for a fresh serving of buffalo mozzarella and you’ve got yourself a balanced meal.
Another way to save money on food while trying a variety of dishes is to look for places to have an aperitivo — or happy hour. You pay for a drink and get unlimited food, often including flatbreads, pasta, pizza, salads, pastries and more. It can be a great dinner substitute.
For dessert, don’t miss out on gelato. You can find it everywhere for around €1 per scoop, but Florence is said to have the best gelaterias. Locals frown on mixing fruit flavors with creamy flavors.
Drinks in Italy
The two most common drinks you’ll find on your trip to Italy are coffee and wine. Both are ubiquitous and affordable.
Cafes are called “bars” in Italy and often serve both coffee and alcohol. Step up to the counter and order what you want (in Italian, of course). “Un cafe” will get you a small, strong espresso. A “macchiato” is espresso with just a little bit of milk, while a “cappuccino” contains foamed milk. None of these options costs more than €1.50. You can get a pastry for about the same price, or a sandwich for around €3, at most bars.
If you’re trying to save money, stay at the bar to finish your beverage. If you sit down and get table service, the bar may tack on a cover charge that can run as high as €20! (€5 is more typical.)
You can get a carafe of wine in most restaurants to go with your meal for about €3. Alternatively, go to one of the stores that has a barrel out front. They’ll fill any container you have with their house wine for a small fee (about €2 per liter). They’ll give you a set of disposable cups so you can enjoy your wine in the nearest park or other public place.
Activities you can do while backpacking Italy
Italy has almost every activity you could imagine — urban exploration, museums, wine tasting, food tours, hiking, cycling, beach lounging, historical sites, and more. The only limits are your time and budget.
In the cities, the main activities are admiring the gorgeous architecture and visiting museums. One of my top Italy travel tips is to pick a small set of museums that you really want to see rather than trying to visit all of the famous ones — you’ll burn out fast. Particularly worthwhile ones are the Doge’s Palace in Venice, the Sistine Chapel in Rome, and the Uffizi in Florence. Buy tickets in advance (€15-25) to avoid long lines in high season.
If your budget doesn’t allow for endless museum visits while backpacking Italy, don’t worry — you can still see the country’s world-class art for free. Start by checking out the churches. In Rome, especially, you can find priceless Michelangelo paintings in them. Additionally, many historical sites — like the Coliseum, the Forum, and the ruins at Herculeum — can be seen from the outside without paying admission.
National parks around the country offer a way to get out into the astounding nature when traveling Italy. You can hike on Mt. Vesuvius, around the villages in the Cinque Terre, and in the Dolomites independently. Some parks charge a small fee (around €5 per day). Tuscany is another popular outdoors-y destination — you can cycle around the vineyards of Chianti or simply rent a car and go searching for the best vistas.
For your beach fix, head to the incredible volcanic sand beaches on the islands around Naples, such as Capri and Procita. Or try the beaches in the Cinque Terre, from rocky Riomaggiore to resort-y Monterosso.
Transportation in Italy
Italian transportation is affordable and easy to use.
Trains are the best way to travel in Italy. They come in a variety of classes, from slowest to fastest — regional, inter-city, and high-speed. The regional trains are easy on an Italy budget, at just 2-ish euro per hour, while if you’re trying to cover a lot of ground on a short holiday, choose the high-speed trains.
For regional trains, you never have to purchase a ticket in advance — and in fact, you’ll save money by buying at the station right before you depart. High-speed trains are worth reserving, especially for overnight journeys.
Before getting on the train, validate (date-stamp) your ticket with the green or yellow boxes on the train platform. Failure to validate your ticket will almost surely result in a large fine. If you have to change trains, remember to validate each ticket separately.
For journeys between small towns, in the mountains, or on overnight trips where high-speed trains are expensive, you can supplement your train trips with buses. Pickup and drop-off points are usually at the offices of private bus companies, so make sure you know where you’re leaving from and arriving. Buy tickets at least a day in advance for overnight trips as you travel around Italy.
Safety when backpacking Italy
Backpacking Italy alone or with travel buddies is safe and hassle-free. Sure, Naples is grungy. The traffic and crowds in Rome are insane. Florence is full of pickpockets and leather touts. But follow the same common-sense rules about watching your wallet and trying not to look lost that you’d use in any big city, and you won’t have any problems.
Many Italians don’t see drunk driving as a problem. Be careful who you get in a car or on a motorbike with.
Italy travel advice for women alone
The vast majority of women backpacking around Italy face no more serious problems than occasional flirtation and cat-calls. While you’ll get sick of hearing “ciao bella” several times a day, it’s overall a very safe country for solo female travel.
However, Italy is still very much a male-dominated society, especially in the more traditional south. While reported instances of gender-based violence are similar to elsewhere in Europe, femicide is horrifyingly high. (In other words, your assaulter is more likely to murder you.) Police may not believe reports of sexual assault. You are highly unlikely to find yourself in a dangerous situation while backpacking Italy, but if you do, your legal options will be limited.
If you go to bars and clubs, go in a group and make sure you know how to get home. Female American students on study abroad trips have a reputation for being loose. That culture has evolved into drink-spiking and other sketchy behavior, so keep your guard up.
Finally, attitudes toward birth control are very strict in this very Catholic country. While you can theoretically now get the morning-after pill over the counter, in practice it may not be so easy — some pharmacies will require you to have a prescription, which may be a nightmare to acquire in a country where many doctors object to it. Bring anything you normally use from home and be prepared for any female-health needs when you’re in Italy to be a pain.
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