You know when people who travel a lot say stuff like “each part of [country you’ve never been to] is SO different,” and you kind of roll your eyes because it just sounds like a way to brag about how many different parts of the country they’ve been to? Well … in Italy, it’s SUPER accurate.
From the language to the food to the social norms, southern Italy is very different than the rest of Italy. Sure, there’s pizza and pasta everywhere in Italy, but in Sicily your pasta come served with anchovies and dusted with pistachios, and the pizza in Naples is leaps and bounds more delicious than anything you’ll get in Florence. Gelato, a staple of every block in Rome, is also curiously absent from certain parts of southern Italy. Important note: I did do some things other than eat on this trip, but not many.
In this post, I’m laying out all the things no one tells you about visiting Southern Italy. I can’t guarantee you that they’ll actually help you during your trip, but I thought they were interesting.
But before we dive in, here’s a quick run-down of my trip.
- I visited Southern Italy in September. Highly recommend visiting during this time of the year: it was still very warm and sunny, but there were few tourists (and the flights were cheap, too)!
- I was there for 10 days, which is just about enough time to gain a solid 10 lbs if you REALLY try. I clearly speak from experience.
- Jeremy didn’t get to join me on this trip. Instead, I tagged along with my mom on a trip to visit her BFF, who’s been living in Calabria for the past year. Many of the observations on this list actually came from her experiences as an ex-pat. Side note: If you know me, or anyone in my family, or anyone who knows my family, and you move somewhere abroad, chances are that at one point I will magically on your couch with a backpack and a notebook like “can you show me around and also tell me about everything you’ve learned since moving here?” You’ve been warned.
- During our 10 day trip, we spent several days exploring Calabria – where my mom’s BFF lives – and also took a road trip down the coast all the way into Sicily. We stopped in Pizzo, Tropea, and Taormina, all of which are gorgeous little towns that I definitely recommend visiting.
- At one point, we ended up in the middle of Taormina on a pedestrian-only street because we drove our car the wrong way down a one-way road allllll the way into the center of town. We got stuck in front of a cannoli shop and everyone yelled at us. It was totally NOT my fault: I wasn’t even driving, and my mom was in charge of directions. But I was delighted to know that my accident-prone-ness is actually genetic, which means I can officially blame my mom for all of my many, many travel disasters.
OK, now let’s jump into all the mildly useful things that nobody tells you about visiting southern Italy!
Psst: Looking for other mildly helpful things nobody tells you? Here are a few more:
- 25 Things Nobody Tells You About Traveling While Fat
- 40 Things Nobody Tells You About Backpacking in Peru
- 30 Things Nobody Tells You About Backpacking in Colombia
… About Visiting Southern Italy
Calabria is not typically frequented by tourists. In fact, chances are that you – like me before my trip – have never even heard of Calabria. (FWIW, if Italy is a boot, Calabria is located at the top of the foot.) But that makes your trip to Calabria blissfully inexpensive and tourist-free! Well…
…. Except in July and August. Calabria is a hotspot for tourists during these months, who flock to its shores seeking sandy beaches and warm water. The coastline comes alive with temporary beach clubs, rows of lounge chairs and brightly colored striped umbrellas magically appear out of thin air, and for 2 months, it’s crowded as hell. The best time to visit Calabria is literally every other month of the year, unless you prefer a bit of tourist infrastructure (read: not being the only person in a 50 miles radius who speaks English).
The beaches are amazing. Southern Italy has some of the best beaches in the whole country: the sand is soft and white, and the water is warm, crystal clear and bright blue.
There’s Italian, and then there’s Calabrian. Calabrians speak in a dialect that is very difficult to understand for most Italian speakers. If you speak Spanish, you’ll have an easier time understanding it. If you speak neither, you definitely won’t notice.
Don’t expect everyone to speak English. Unlike many parts of Europe where everyone speaks English – plus about 10 other languages, just for good measure – in Southern Italy, English is not very common. Learn a few basic words in Italian, like good morning (buongiornio), goodbye (ciao), please (per favore) and thank you (grazie), and whatever your favorite foods are (vino e pasta, per favore). But don’t worry: even without speaking your language, Southern Italians will make sure you feel welcome and taken care of through copious generosity and friendliness.
Americans are (surprisingly) well regarded. Have you ever had someone ask you “are you American?” with judgement and disdain in their voice (*cough*France*cough*)? Have you ever been low-key ashamed to admit you’re an American while traveling abroad, hoping that whoever you’re talking to hasn’t read the news lately? Do you tend to follow up your admission with “but don’t worry, I’m not one of those Americans.” (We can’t be the only ones who do this, right?) Well, good news: in Southern Italy, America is the land of promises, smiles, and dreams. Everyone in Southern Italy is delighted to hear that you’re American and wants to tell you about their 5th cousin twice removed who lives in New York, have you met him? Many of the young people will eagerly test out their English on you, and when you ask how they got so good at speaking English, they’ll say “I taught myself by watching American movies and TV” which makes you feel ashamed that after watching all 3 seasons of Narcos you’ve still only managed to add hijueputa to your Spanish vocabulary.
There are medieval mountain top towns all over the place. They’re perched up high on top of a mountain, half carved from stone, with tiny little streets that may or may not fit a car, and they’re freakin’ adorable with jaw-dropping views. I always associated medieval mountain top towns with southern France, but southern Italy has them too!
Everything is a zillion years old and there are ruins all over the place. You’ll stumble on a castle on top of a mountain or an ancient church everywhere you go. If you take the time to dig through the research, you just might learn some fantastically weird legends and myths about them over the years. Like, see that beautiful cathedral perched on a hill above the ocean in our pic above? That’s the Santuario di Santa Maria dell’Isola. It was once inhabited by monks, and legend has it that they bought this really nice statue of the Virgin, but the statue didn’t fit in the exact alcove where they wanted to put it. So to make it fit they started to saw off the statue’s legs, but then they all immediately died, because nobody f**ks with the Virgin. That very statue is now in some other alcove, looking menacingly flawless. I never would have known any of this if my mom didn’t consume guidebooks the way I binge-watch bad reality TV, so do your research – you’ll be rewarded with weird stories.
Take the train: the scenery is spectacular. To get to Southern Italy, you’ll likely need to fly into Rome and take the scenic train ride 3-5 hours down the coast. The western coast of Italy is full of hills and mountains and pine trees – I was totally getting California vibes. But like, California with ruins. And castles.
… but don’t pay extra for first class. It’s not worth the extra cost, and you might even end up standing during if you visit during high season.
Be sure to get some cash out of an ATM when you arrive. Don’t count on your debit or credit cards working while you’re traveling through Southern Italy – have plenty of cash on hand!
… About the Coffee
Cappuccinos after 11am are a total faux pas. If you want to let everyone in the near vicinity know that you’re an outsider, you have two choices: 1) wear a bald eagle shirt and a giant flashing neon sign that says I AM AN AMERICAN with a big arrow pointing at your face, or 2) order a cappuccino after 11am. If you don’t want to disgust everyone around you with your horrifying lack of coffee etiquette, order a machiatto or a plain espresso instead.
Drink your coffee at the bar. Don’t sit. Sitting is for tourists and Americans. You’ll drink your espresso in under 5 minutes while standing awkwardly at the bar like everyone else, dammit, or you’ll pay a fee. Yes, really.
It’s socially acceptable to drink booze at breakfast. Some Italians start the day with a Cafe Coretto, which is typically a shot of espresso with liquor – literally translated as coffee corrected with liquor (implying that coffee without it is just wrong?). You can ask for a cafe coretto alla grappa, cognac, or sambuca and enjoy your morning tipple without fear of being judged as an alcoholic, because eyyyyy, you’re in Italy! But if you’re a woman, you just might get a strange look: it’s not ladylike to start off your day by getting wasted on espresso, I guess. We here at Practical Wanderlust both resent the sexist implication that women shouldn’t get wasted at 7am, and also feel conflicted about the idea of anyone getting wasted at 7am. It just doesn’t seem like a good idea for anyone, of any gender?
… About the Food
Southern Italy has amazing food. That’s probably the least surprising thing on this list. Everything is cheap, fresh, grown locally, and insanely good. Be sure to try Calabrian hot peppers, eggplant, Belmonte tomatoes, oxheart tomatoes, black Calabrian pig, spicy nduja, tartufo (a frozen ice cream dessert from Pizzo), Ciro wine, Granité (especially lemon, especially on a hot day), prosecco, pecorino cheese with peppers, olives, and douse everything you eat liberally with olive oil and salt. Oh my god I want to go back so bad.
The pasta is not what you’re used to. It’s fresh, thick and chewy, which takes longer to eat and feels more filling. And it’s not typically covered in sauce – sauce is used sparingly, to let the few ingredients really shine. A tomato sauce may consist simply of a few whole tomatoes and hot peppers roasted in olive oil, tossed with giant tubes of paccheri.
Sometimes your food will be dusted with crumbled pistachios. In Sicily, I kept thinking that my pasta was topped with a heap of finely shredded parmesan, but no: it was pistachios. I didn’t hate it, but it also wasn’t cheese, so.
Paninis are an American lie. In Italy it’s called a panino, and it’s just really basic sandwich consisting of bread, cheese, and meat. It is not hot and melty. It is cold and dry and there is too much bread and not enough stuff that isn’t bread. I found myself wishing for like, a Panera, and then immediately hating myself.
Digestifs and Apéritifs will be served after dinner. And you’ll be thrilled about it. There’s nothing like stuffing 8 pasta courses into your mouth to make you crave something super bitter that tastes kind of like salty licorice. OK, that was an exaggeration: some digestifs are actually kind of OK if you take teeny tiny sips. They may not taste great, but they really DO help with digestion.
Dessert is not as big of a deal here as it is elsewhere. Sure, you’ll find tartufo in Pizzo and Cannoli in Sicily, but you won’t find great gelato on every block like you do in Rome. I even tried ordering tiramisu a couple of times (because hello, Italy) and it was mostly disappointing. Sweets just aren’t the business in this area.
… About the Restaurants
Everything closes at 1 and stays closed until 5pm. Don’t try to eat a late lunch. You’ll just end up starving and hangry by dinnertime. Especially if it’s Sunday: on Sundays, restaurants close at 1pm and stay closed all day long. Hope you’ve got a nonna to make you dinner or remembered to go grocery shopping, cuz otherwise you’re screwed.
Order whatever the chef is making that day. Don’t even ask what it is. Don’t ask for substitutions. It’s the freshest thing on the menu, and you’ll eat it and you’ll like it.
You’re supposed to have wine with pretty much every meal. No need to be fancy here, just order the white or red house wine. It’s cheap, it’s tasty, you’re in Italy, life is good.
Sometimes someone will start singing. It may involve instruments, and the entire restaurant may start singing along, too. Here’s what you do: grab the nearest carafe of wine and just start drinking. We didn’t understand a word of what was happening, but we were 99.99% sure it was a drinking song. And hey, even if it’s just like, Happy Birthday or something, the wine will make the whole thing a lot more entertaining.
Go to an agriturismo – but prepare yourself. The best meal you can get in southern Italy is at the agritourismos, working farms that serve giant, multi-course meals made entirely from food grown right there on the farm and prepared in house. The food is insanely fresh and incredibly good and it’s one of the best ways to spend an afternoon. But trust us when we say: don’t eat the bread. Look, it’s DELICIOUS, and it’s covered in fresh olive oil and salt and herbs and heaven, but don’t eat it! There are 7 courses coming and by the 3rd round of pasta you’ll understand why we said not to eat the bread. Also, get up and take a walk in between each course. You have all the time in the world: eating in Italy is a marathon, not a sprint.
… About Driving in Italy
Stop for food at a gas station. The servizios serve up surprisingly decent Italian food for insanely low prices. Plus, you can stock up on about 19 kinds of pasta and various fancy meats while you’re there. Dear 711: please take note.
There are goats and cows on the roads. If you roll down the window and listen, you just might hear their bells approaching from nearby. Chances are at some point, you’ll run into a herd of goats blocking your path. Just beware of the Maramanno, the big white sheepdogs who guard and herd the goats like fluff personal bodyguards. Their job is to keep people away from the goats, and they are NOT friendly to humans, even though they look like giant cuddly balls of love.
There are random mountain roads everywhere. Turn off of the highway for .5 seconds and you’ll soon find yourself in the middle of nowhere driving through remote, scenic mountains. Every random mountain road is beautiful and stunning, but there’s also nobody around to save you if you go careening off a cliff, so just enjoy the view and try not to think about it too much.
The hairpin turns are no joke. Imagine the windiest, most hair-raising road you’ve ever driven on. Now imagine that it’s in Italy, and it’s ALL of the roads. That’s what driving through southern Italy is like. Also, you’ll be navigating them with a stick shift. Have fun!
There are tons of tunnels. In the USA, driving in the mountains requires a lot of climbing and descending and winding and such. Not in Italy. In southern Italy, mountains are no match for a highway: they just go right through them in a serious of roughly a zillion tunnels.
The highway is IN the mountains. In the USA, the main highways near mountains are in the valleys, bypassing the mountains entirely. In Italy, the mountain is either at the top of a ridge or just runs straight through the mountains as if they didn’t exist at all. At one point we had to head a solid hour on winding, hairpin mountain roads to get from the coast to the highway in the middle of the mountains. Which like, was beautiful, but … what?
Drivers are nuts. Everyone is passing everyone all over the place. And yet, if you try to speed like you’re a local, you will immediately get a ticket.
… About Everything Else
Tipping isn’t necessary. You don’t need to do it. Not even a little bit. In fact, you may actually offend your server by offering. Your tip is included in the price of your meal, so save your Euros.
Reggaeton is a thing here. I was delighted to hear some of my favorite reggaeton songs on the radio!
The Mafia is also a thing here. They are a legit threat, which is high-key terrifying. I pretty much assumed that every group of dudes in suits was “in the family.” Oh, that’s another thing: don’t say the word “mafia” out loud. Say “they’re in the family” or “they’re connected” instead. But like, very quietly.
You don’t have to buy something to use the bathroom. Nobody seems to mind if you wander into their restaurant, gas station, shop, or home (OK, scratch that last time) to use their bathroom, even without buying something.
…. But you might want to bring your own toilet paper. There may not be any. And don’t get your hopes up for a toilet cover or seat. That’s not a given either.
Children are welcome everywhere. We don’t have children, but we can imagine this might be kinda cool if you did. You can expect to see kids everywhere. Yes, including in bars. Yes, even after midnight. Italian babies are chill AF, I guess.
If someone serves you bad food or gives you crappy groceries, it’s because they think you’re a tourist. They think you don’t know better. If you do, in fact, know better, you are well within your rights to refuse their crappy food and/or groceries and demand the high quality stuff they give to everyone else.
Above all, Southern Italy is beautiful – and often overlooked. The people are wonderful. The food is amazing. The scenery is stunning. And best of all, there are almost no tourists at all. Sssh – don’t tell everyone.
Is anyone else craving pasta like crazy now, or just me?! Have you ever visited Southern Italy? Did any of these ring true for you? Drop us a comment below!
Psst: Looking for other mildly helpful things nobody tells you? Here are a few more:
- 25 Things Nobody Tells You About Backpacking Bali, Indonesia
- 32 Things Nobody Tells You About Long Term Travel as a Couple
- 30 Things Nobody Tells You About Quitting Your Job to Go Travel
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