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Going to Italy? 5 tips for a great vacation

Italy is a popular vacation destination -- and for good reason.

If you’re headed to Italy, here are some tips to help you have a great vacation.

1. Timing is everything. We just got back from our trip to Florence, Venice and Rome, and two things were consistent: Crowds and heat. If you can arrange your vacation for the spring or the fall, you will find better rates, fewer tourists and more moderate temperatures. In July, we had temps in the 90s while we traipsed all over, so we made sure we stayed hydrated. Most days, we also retreated to our apartment during the height of the heat for a siesta. Of course, Italy at any time of year is still pretty great. So if summer is the only time you can go, do it!

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Sunset in Florence.
(Lisa Cianci / Orlando Sentinel)

2. Airbnbs are like a box of chocolates. I love staying in Airbnbs for many reasons: Lots of space, more charm and excellent locations that are (if you choose well) not overloaded with tourists but still close to everything. (Here are some tips for staying in Airbnbs.) I did a lot of research and was thrilled with all three of our apartments on this trip, but here are some potential surprises to keep in mind:

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  • I specifically chose apartments with air conditioning, but the flats all had AC in only some rooms, but not the entire apartment. Some cooled better than others.
  • Amenities. At one place, we had to buy toilet paper and paper towels; the other two provided basic amenities, including shampoo and soap.
  • The photos sometimes don’t match reality. Reading the reviews from previous visitors helps to get an accurate portrayal of the apartment.
  • Steps. If your apartment is on the fourth floor, in Italy that means the FIFTH floor. Some buildings don’t have elevators, so if that’s an issue, make sure you do your research before booking.

3. Don’t follow the herd (all the time). Sure, you’re probably not going to vacation in Rome and skip the Vatican. But try to carve out time for unique experiences or just wandering around and getting lost. While in Florence, we did an all-day cooking class in the Tuscan hills, learning how to make homemade pasta, tiramisu and other goodies. In Venice, we headed away from the crowds (cruise ships dump thousands of tourists into the city every day). Instead, we went to the Jewish ghetto, an interesting part of Venice where Jews were forced to live in the early 1500s. The museum there is fascinating (it included Venice’s second-oldest synagogue). And we had an excellent meal at kosher restaurant Gam Gam. In Rome, we arranged ahead of time two really cool excursions: A small-group nighttime tour of the Colosseum, when the throngs are gone; and a 12-person tour of the necropolis under the Vatican that houses St. Peter’s tomb.

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Trevi Fountain in Rome.
(Lisa Cianci / Orlando Sentinel)

4. Do your (restaurant) homework. Contrary to popular belief, you actually can get a bad meal in Italy. In all three cities we visited, there seemed to be a restaurant or cafe every 10 feet, with a waiter beckoning us to come in. That’s the first red flag. If the restaurants have their menus out front in several languages with photos, that’s another reason to be cautious. I also don’t advise researching restaurants on TripAdvisor or Yelp, where the reviews can be wildly inaccurate. Last year, we headed to a restaurant in Ireland based on glowing TripAdvisor reviews, and it was close to the worst tourist trap at which we’ve ever dined. Instead, seek out reviews from local foodie publications to unearth hidden gems. As much as we all like to be spontaneous on vacation, it’s a long shot you’re going to just stumble onto the most wonderful meal ever. I’m not suggesting you plot out every single meal — sometimes sitting outdoors in the middle of an amazing square is worth the mediocre meal. But it’s worth the effort to make reservations at a few special places.

5. To tip or not to tip? The truth is, after spending 10 days in Italy, I still don’t know. Everything I read before we left said Italy does not have a tipping culture and, in fact, some servers might actually be insulted if you leave a tip. Also, if a check already has a servicio included, that is supposed to be the tip. When we used our credit card, there was never a space to leave a tip. Yet at one place, the waiter painstakingly (and inaccurately) explained that the servicio really isn’t a tip, which would be very much appreciated. If we had a few euro, we would leave that on the table. Otherwise, we just didn’t tip (which felt really weird).

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