When asked about day trips from Rome, most people recommend Tivoli. Just a half-hour's drive from Rome, the town boasts the Renaissance-era Villa d'Este and the 1,850-year-old ruins of Hadrian's villa
I finally made it there this weekend, my hopes high. After all, I love the Renaissance and ruins. What could possibly go wrong?
Nothing went wrong. But given all the hype, I was a little underwhelmed.
First, Villa d'Este. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the villa, built by Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este in the mid-sixteenth century, is like a fairyland-gone-slightly-to-seed. The gardens are filled with grottoes, fountains, and odd touches of whimsy: a fountain of Artemis of Ephesus, the goddess of fertility, her breast-like decorative gourds spouting; an organ hid within an elaborate sculptured fountain; grottoes once filled with movable wooden cut-outs of creatures. Odd stuff, but with some of the sculptures missing and mechanization not working, a little less enrapturing than it would have been, say, for Ippolito.
The palace itself, too, feels a bit Alice-in-Wonderland. A wander through yields room after room of colorful Mannerist frescoes and examples of tromp l'oeil, that tricksy French attempt to make you think that the flat surface you're looking at is three-dimensional. But despite the sheer amount of paintings, if you're more of a Renaissance or Baroque lover — or you've simply been spoiled by, say, the quality of frescoes at the Vatican — the palace seems better-suited for a fairly quick walk-through than an in-depth artistic experience.
Then there's Hadrian's villa. Built as the emperor's retreat from Rome in the flat valley below Tivoli, it's a sprawling, 250-acre complex of ruins, olive tree groves, and, well, dust. Hadrian designed much of it himself, and its buildings and fountains drew on styles he saw across the empire, from Egypt to Greece.
But walking through the villa almost felt like walking across the empire itself. Even getting from the parking lot to the first section of the ruins takes about 15 minutes; getting a full overview of the villa would mean a half-day of wandering, or more.
The pay-off didn't seem quite worth it. Much of the area remains unexcavated, while a lot of the ruins themselves are surprisingly unassuming. Nor is the signage that helpful — a common complaint at archaeological sites, but all the more frustrating in a site this sprawling. Some of the descriptions of structures didn't even say what they were used for.
Even so, some parts of the ruins are striking. The Serapeum, designed after the Egyptian city of Canopus, features a long, green pool, ending in a domed grotto, lined with classical statues. And if you're a sucker for the personal, the (barely-there) ruins of the temple and tomb of Antinous, Hadrian's young lover whom he deified after his death, are poignant.
Still, it was hard to get a feel for what the entire villa would have felt and looked like. And as with so many ruins around Italy, all the "good stuff" was gone: The best statues, mosaics, and frescoes have all been moved elsewhere… particularly to Rome.
In short: Villa d'Este's appealing, particularly on a nice day, but not one of the top-five daytrips I'd recommend from Rome. (Unless for convenience only). And unless you're a big Hadrian fan, or are going to Tivoli anyway and want to fill out your day, I'm not sure that Hadrian's villa would be one of my top recommendations. For huge ruins that pack more of a punch in a smaller space, check out the Baths of Caracalla, in the heart of Rome; for a better-preserved sense of Hadrian's architecture, visit the Pantheon; to see the artistic treasures themselves, head to the Capitoline and Vatican museums.
For more information about Villa d'Este, click here. For more information about Hadrian's villa, click here. Entry to each site costs €10. To get there, you can take a train from Rome's Tiburtina station to Tivoli (about 30 minutes), then a shuttle bus to the town center and Villa d'Este. Another shuttle would be needed to take you to Hadrian's Villa.
It may not seem that Italians always love rules in general — but food rules in Italy? Absolutely quintessential. It doesn’t matter if you’re at a fine-dining establishment with jacketed waiters or chowing down on pizza at a plastic table: There are some things that, when it comes to dining etiquette in Italy, will always get you dirty looks. Or snide comments from the servers.
Below, 11 ways to make servers into enemies and annoy neighboring Italians — all while doing the seemingly-simple task of consuming food.
(2019 update:Since I wrote this post nine (!!!) years ago, some things have changed… slightly. Namely, there is so much more tourism to cities like Rome than even a few years ago. The results of this are what you might expect.
First, servers are becoming less disgusted taken aback by non-Italian food habits. They’re more used to seeing it. Second, the local culture is changing: Italy in general (like the rest of the world) is becoming more globalized and locals are following more international trends. So while Italy’s food culture remains unique (and I hope it always stays that way), you can now find (a handful of) restaurants serving US-style breakfast or pizzas with unusual gourmet toppings, for example.
That being said, even if you can get away with breaking these traditions, part of the allure of Italy is its tradition! (Particularly food tradition, of course). And Italians I know still abide by all of the below. So I still stand behind all of these dining etiquette tips (and abide by them!) 100%. That being said, I recommend looking at the comments section below the post — Italians from other parts of the country have chipped in on how true they think these each are in their region (or at all), and it’s been fascinating to read!)
Without further ado, here are the food rules in Italy you won’t want to break.
Food rule in Italy #1: Don’t expect (US-style) breakfast.
Unless your hotel provides it, don’t expect your first meal of the day to be anything like back home. Most Italians start their day with a mere coffee, or a coffee and cornetto. Cereal is starting to hit grocery-store shelves, but it still seems a rare choice — and if you’re looking for good old scrambled eggs and pancakes, forget about it! If you can’t start your day without, either pick a hotel that explicitly offers American-style brunch or plan to grocery shop and cook your own food.
Food rule in Italy #3: If it’s after noon, that can’t be a cappuccino that you’re ordering.
Many Italians follow rules regarding mixing dairy and meat that seem as strict as keeping kosher — only somewhat less consistent. While you might think, given the previous rule, that you’d be allowed to have a cappuccino after a meal, you’d be wrong. A cappuccino has milk in it! You’ve probably just eaten meat! The mix of the two in your stomach can make you get sick and die! (Yes, that pizza with anchovies, or the mozzarella di bufala you consumed as an appetizer…with prosciutto, should do the same thing. But for some funny reason, it doesn’t.) And yes, this rule applies even if you had an all-vegetarian meal. Or if you haven’t eaten at all and are simply grabbing a 4pm coffee.
Remember: The clock strikes noon, the coffee goes normale.
Food rule in Italy #4: If olive oil (or olive oil and vinegar) didn’t come with your bread, don’t ask for it.
Why would you need olive oil? Or vinegar? Oh, wait, because you want to eat your bread before the courses come? Well, then, make sure you see etiquette mistake #5… (NB: At fancier places, you will indeed be offered bread with olive oil before the meal as a kind of taster. But this advice pertains mostly to classic, down-home trattorias, where bread is seen as an accompaniment to your main — see below).
Food rule in Italy #5: And eat said bread with the meal.
If you’re starving, okay. (Who am I kidding — I start chowing down on bread before the food comes almost every time). But at classic trattorias, the bread is there as an accompaniment to your primi and secondi, especially to dip into leftover sauces (again, admittedly not the most elegant thing to do, so don’t do this at La Pergola — but at a humble hosteria it’s fine), not as a way to fill you up pre-dinner.
Food rule in Italy #5: Don’t ask for parmesan for your pizza.
It doesn’t even matter if you know how to say it (parmigiano). Putting it on pizza is seen as a sin, like putting Jell-o on a fine chocolate mousse. When a friend of mine did this recently at La Montecarlo, the waiter sneered so much I thought his lips were going to curl into his forehead. “Parmigiano per la pizza?” he spat with disdain. And La Montecarlo is a pizzeria that’s used to tourists. Imagine how they’d treat you at a pizzeria that wasn’t!
(Noticing a theme among these food rules in Italy? It’s true: When in doubt, if you haven’t been served it, don’t ask for it. Only if you want to avoid annoying the servers, of course. If you don’t mind, then by all means, go right ahead!).
Food rule in Italy #7: In fact, only put cheese on a plate when it’s explicitly offered.
Outside of Italy, many of us tend to put parmesan on everything. But remember that many pasta dishes in Italy aren’t meant for parmesan. In Rome, for example, the traditional cheese is pecorino, and that’s what goes on classics like pasta carbonara, calcio e pepe, and amatriciana. Not parmesan. As a rule of thumb: If they don’t offer it to you, don’t ask for it.
Food rule in Italy #8: Ask the person who brought your food — not who took your order — when you want more water, wine, etc.
The person who brings your food often isn’t the same person who takes your order. If you make the mistake of asking that person for another bottle of water, as I have before, you may get a dirty look. And a hand gesture, of course. Not an especially nice one.
Food rule in Italy #9: Ordering acqua del rubinetto at anything but a bar.
Yes, Rome’s water is perfectly safe — and yes, you’re allowed to ask for it at restaurants. But when eating out, Italians almost always drink bottled water. (In Rome and the south, the preferred type is normally sparkling, or frizzante). I’ve been told that this is because there’s a lot of calcium in the tap water, so Italians mix it up with bottled so they don’t get kidney stones. I’ve also been told it’s because Italians simply don’t trust anything provided by the state. Who knows. But it’s what the locals do. Some restaurants will simply refuse you if you ask for tap water (although bars and cafés, when selling you a cocktail or a coffee, should allow it).
Food rule in Italy #10: If you’re eating, you’re sitting down.
Much like the Parisians, Romans look down on anyone chowing down on bus, metro, or on foot. It’s anathema to the entire philosophy of eating: Dinner should be a meal that you sit and enjoy, preferably for two, even three hours. Eating while doing anything else is seen as sloppy, desperate (can you really be that hungry?), and missing the whole point. The one exception: Gelato, which you’ll see whole families tucking into on their Sunday evening strolls.
Food rule in Italy #11: If you want the bill, you have to ask for it.
Unlike in the US and other countries, it’s seen as a terrible breach of restaurant etiquette in Italy for a waiter to bring your bill and whisk away your plates as soon as you’ve finished your food. You’re supposed to have the liberty (and luxury) of lingering at your table, finishing your wine, water and even ordering a coffee.
So once you’re ready to go, signal for the waiter and say, “Il conto, per favore.” The universal squiggly-finger-in-the-air hand signal will always work, too.
Major caveat: It’s not as if I always adhere to dining etiquette in Italy. While I’ve gotten good at automatically ordering a caffè normale after noon or asking for a bottiglia d’acqua gassata upon sitting down, I particularly annoy waiters by consistently asking for salt. I can’t help it: My sodium-drenched American palate finds a lot of Italian food just slightly bland. It’s just that I’ve learned to expect frowns in return.
So go ahead, break the rules. Just do so at your own risk… and have a salty Roman response in reserve for the potential comments.
If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.
The wonderful meals you can enjoy in Italymight not be around forever. Between globalization, a farming crisis, and the demand (particularly by tourists) for out-of-season products, the way Italy makes and consumes its food is changing. Just check out the relatively-sudden prevalence of grocery stores (there are three within a 5 minutes' walk from me) or the crowds that pack the (yes, few and far between, but still existing) McDonald's in Rome for proof.
The same way you'd think twice before tossing garbage into the street, think about how your choices of restaurants and foods might impact the (culinary and natural) environment around you. Katie Parla gives some excellent tips for how to be a conscientious eater — in Italy, or anywhere.
Umbria is the undiscovered Tuscany. It has the rolling hills, medieval towns, excellent food, and artistic treasures of its next-door neighbor — but, thanks to the fact that Frances Mayes’ book was not “Under the Umbrian Sun” (although that does have more of a ring to it), tourists haven’t discovered it. Yet.
One of Umbria’s loveliest towns is Spoleto. First settled in the 5th century B.C. by the Umbri tribes, who built the fortified walls that you can still see there today, the town isn’t just beautiful; it’s rich with history.
Want to see ancient Roman remains? Spoleto boasts two ancient theatres and a bridge, the Ponte Sanguinario, so-called because of the killings of Christians that took place in the theatre next door. How about medieval sites? You couldn’t miss the imposing Rocca Albornoziana, a 14th-century castle, if you tried, nor the Ponte delle Torri — a striking 13th-century aqueduct that might have been built into ancient foundations (shown above).
And that’s not to mention the surprising number of medieval churches for what feels like such a small town. Most notable among them is the Duomo of Santa Maria Assunto, completed in 1227.
But the Duomo’s biggest claim to fame is actually Renaissance-era: the frescoes of Italian great Filippo Lippi (right), painted in the 1460s to commemorate scenes from the life of Virgin Mary. (Lippi is buried in the church, too).
Finally: I think it’s worth noting that Spoleto boasts some particularly good dining, including one restaurant that a friend of mine likes so much he’ll drive to Spoleto just to eat there. It’s called Il Tempio del Gusto, located on Via Arco di Druso, 11. Information is available on the restaurant’s website.
The easiest way to get to Spoleto is by train: it takes just 1.5 hours, and costs €7.45 for a second-class ticket, one way. Check for times and prices at www.trenitalia.it. If you’re lucky enough to have a car, Spoleto’s a 1.5- to 2-hour drive to the north. For a map, click here. For more information about Spoleto, click here.
Ostia Antica, the ancient town just 20 miles from Rome, might not have the dramatic past of its Vesuvius-vanquished neighbors to the south. But if your interest is in getting a feel for the daily lives of the Romans, not the notoriety of a particular disaster, then head to Ostia Antica.
Before being abandoned in the 9th century, the ancient Roman city had 50,000 inhabitants. Today, the vast site is chock-full
of the remnants of houses, restaurants, and bars. There’s even a hotel. It’s still two stories tall — and you’re still allowed to climb the ancient stairs to the second floor.
Like other high-quality ancient sites, if Ostia gives you one thing, it’s the sense of how little times have really changed. Not only could visitors to town stay in a hotel (with the more expensive, seaside-view rooms those on the higher floors), but they could walk across the street for a tipple at the bar and restaurant. Here’s an image of that bar, left, complete with the marble shelving for various bottles and, above it, a fresco depicting exactly what the restaurant served — an ancient predecessor to the current menus with photos you see in Rome today. (Although, avoid those).
And you can get a sense of ancient advertising. Take this shop, its floor a black-and-white mosaic of fish and seafood. What was this shop? The fish-monger, of course.
You can get to Ostia by taking the Metro, line B, to Piramide, then following the signs to the Roma-Lido station. From there, you can get the train to Ostia Antica, using the same metro ticket. For a map, click here.
The view from Sperlonga, a lovely Lazio seaside town
When the weather gets hot, the Romans go beaching. And those Romans with a little bit more time to spare… go to Sperlonga.
Lazio's answer to Santorini, Sperlonga is lovely. It's also a little bit blink- (or walk too fast) and-you'll-miss-it: The town itself, at least the picturesque part that most tourists frequent, is pretty small. What's there, though, is scattered with lovely squares and winding alleyways.
Typical Sperlonga street (and souvenir shops)
Ready to beach it? A 10-minute walk down a long set of stairs takes you to the beach, where, in typical Italian fashion, it's almost impossible to find the sliver that's public. Instead, make like the locals and pay for a cabana. At about €13 for a day's worth of a beach chair, roof to use once your flesh starts sizzling, and ability to have food and drinks brought to you, it's worth it.
Cabanas at the Sperlonga beach
But modern-day Italians haven't been the only ones to frequent Sperlonga. The area's most famous vacationer? Tiberius, the second emperor of Rome. He liked it so much, he built a villa here.
You can still visit the villa's "Grotto," a natural cave where the dining room was, at Sperlonga's archaeological museum (located about 3 miles away from the beach).
Tiberius' grotto, just outside Sperlonga
And in the museum itself, don't miss the stunning, ancient sculptures done by Athanadoros, Hagesandrosand Polydoros of Rhodes—the same guys behind the Vatican's famous Laocoön.
If you're renting a car, Sperlonga is a 2.5-hour ride from Rome. (Traffic, though, can be a real problem, especially on summer weekends). Alternatively, you can take the train to the Fondi-Sperlonga station, where local buses are coordinated with the train arrivals to take you to Sperlonga itself (there's a stop for the archaeological museum, too). The train takes a little over an hour, while the bus is about 15 minutes.
Want more local secrets on what to do in Rome? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, now available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!
I love Rome’s ruins: the forum, the Palatine, the scattered bits of temple and theatre and bath. But I’m the first to admit that you need some imagination, and historical background, to look at “ruin” and see “ancient city.”
Not in Herculaneum.
Destroyed (or preserved), like Pompeii, by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., Herculaneum shows you more than the shape of the ancient town. It shows you the town itself. The site boasts two-story buildings, colorful frescoes, and near-perfect mosaics. And because it was dumped mainly with a dense, volcanic stone called tuff, rather than the ash that felled Pompeiians, it’s only here, not at its more-famous neighbor, that you can see remnants of actual wood. There’s nothing like seeing an ancient bedframe to feel uncomfortably close to the townspeople who died here nearly two millennia ago.
Even so, Herculaneum hasn’t managed to usurp the hold that Pompeii has in the international imagination. Why? It’s a lot smaller, for a start: about a third of the size. It’s also somewhat less grand. But with better-preserved buildings, less crowds, and a closer location to Rome, it’s also a rewarding alternative to its more-notorious neighbor. And don’t underestimate the site: It takes the thorough visitor a good three hours to peek into each house’s nook and cranny.
To get to Herculaneum from Rome, take the train to Naples. The fastest train is 70 minutes and starts at €44 one way; the slowest, at 3 hours, costs €12.40. Go to Trenitalia’s website for times and fares, but remember to put in “Roma” and “Napoli,” not “Rome” and “Naples.” From there, grab the local train, the Circumvesuviana, to “Ercolano.”
Last week, a friend of mine visited me in Rome. He'd never been to Italy before, and he asked if we could day-trip to Venice. I hedged. Venice is expensive, and touristy, and crowded, I told him. But I knew I had to come up with an equally-seductive alternative. Racking my brain — and asking everyone I knew — I finally came up with an answer: Sardinia.
A week later, we were on the plane. (If a Ryanair counts as a plane: Ryanair's rickety machines always strike me as much as planes as, when I was 4, a big cardboard box was an actual choo-choo train. It takes imagination. And faith.) We landed in Cagliari just an hour later. And from there, hopped on a train to Iglesias. Even for the directionally-challenged and even without renting a car — something we'd expressly been told NOT TO DO by most Italians — getting from City A to City B was a breeze.
Sardinia gets packed in July and August, but in early June, we were the only tourists — including Europeans — that we saw. And since most Italians beeline for the northern Costa Smeralda, I'm not sure if the west coast's Iglesias, where we stayed, ever gets crowded. Take our bed & breakfast, "La Babbajola": Since we were the only guests there, for just €60/night, we had the whole palazzo — complete with clawed bathtubs, frescoed dining room, and antique armoires — to ourselves. Let's just say it felt more "baronial" than "B&B."
To be fair, there isn't a ton to do in Iglesias. (Perhaps part of the reason why the town didn't even make it into the Sardinian section of the Rough Guide we had with us). It's just a taste of Sardinia: Known for its mining and not much else, Iglesias doesn't boast any big museums or famous churches, and we didn't see the island's famed nuraghi. But I was exhausted of showing guest after guest around Rome, my friend was mending from a breakup, and for us, the town was perfect. Lovely. Quiet. Traditional. (Waiting outside our B&B, we were greeted by an elderly woman in a black veil who called from her balcony in Italian, "Who are you looking for? Are they not in?")
Iglesias was also close (without a rental car, close-ish) to some of Sardinia's most beautiful beaches. The photo above is of the famous cove at Masua, a 20-minute/€30 cab ride or €2.50 bus ride away. (The "pullman" bus that goes back and forth to the beach starts running regularly on June 29. Before that, you're stuck with just one bus a day. Or, shh, there's always hitchhiking…) The closest beach is called Fontanamare. While more crowded and (slightly) less picturesque, it's also pretty darn lovely, and I think these babies (right) agree. (This took some embarrassment to realize. Read our shameful tale here.)
But the best thing about Iglesias was the people. I have never. Met such nice people. In my life. Sure, I hail from the cold (in all sense of the word) clime of New England, but my friend's from friendly Alabama — and he agreed. From the woman who came up to us in the street and greeted us so warmly, with kisses on both cheek, that we thought it was our B&B owner (it wasn't), to the cosmetics-store clerk who took pity on our unwashed selves and gave us loads of free samples of moisturizers and perfumes (were we that smelly?), everyone was so darn nice. And they didn't expect a thing for it. Living in Rome, I'd forgotten what that was like.
If you go to the less-frequented side of Sardinia, including its western coast, be aware that very few people speak English. The town centers can be incredibly confusing, and public transport is slim to none. But I, for one, am going back.