Italy calls to me again and again. And I barely speak the language! I can say “Dove il negozio di scarpe più vicino?” (Where is the nearest shoe store?) but that’s pretty much it. So, let’s be honest, it’s the clothes, the food and wine, and the beautiful hotels and scenery that draw me back.
But I’m not the only one seduced. The Italian women here seem born to seduce. How they ignore the cobblestones and strut around in heels all year round I’ll never understand. I love how a lot of them understands that feminine allure does not mean showing a lot of skin, but wearing clothes that are well-tailored to accentuate one’s best assets.
And that is why Italian designers are often the best women’s clothing designers. So you are technically telling the truth if you declare you’re spending the day looking at Italian art and architecture, but really plan on shopping. From A to Z: Armani to (Giuseppe) Zanotti.
If you love fashion and adore Italian labels as much as I do, I really recommend either a) packing very little so you have enough room for all the beautiful clothes you’ll inadvertently end up buying or b) making sure your other half packs very little so that he has enough room for all the beautiful clothes you’ll inadvertently end up buying . I am not divulging which option I took. (Look, I was also willing to buy a new set of luggage with which to ship the purchases home, so really, he brought it on himself.)
Don’t be intimidated by designer prices here. Remember the saying: When in Rome do as the Romans. In other words, if you go to outlets and consignment stores in Italy, you’ll find Italian brands everywhere. At a second-hand store in the States, those Gucci or Prada bags might be harder to find and cost a fortune, but in Italy they are ubiquitous. And even at a typical store, prices for Italian designer items are significantly cheaper in Italy than they are in the US or Asia.
Here are some basic tips for shopping throughout Italy:
In general, the best clothes shopping happens in northern Italy, while the best leather goods can be found in the center of Italy. The best designer outlet mall in the whole of Italy is The Mall, in Florence. I’ll write more about this outlet in my upcoming post about Florence
Bargaining is allowed within reason. Not in name-brand r or large department stores, but in smaller shops and markets. Especially if you are buying more than one thing or if paying in cash.
If you spend more than 155 Euros in a store, you can often obtain a tax (aka IVA) refund. If not, you must save your receipt (not just the credit card receipt - the full receipt indicating your purchases) and then you’ll need to apply for your refund at the airport, or other such refund points around Italy. Keep in mind you need to have all tags and soft packaging intact ( i.e garment bags , but shoe boxes can be discarded). Always bring a copy of your passport, actual passport or valid ID. I forgot my ID - twice! - and had to rely on my social media presence to vouch for me. Who knew Instagram is a valid form of ID? It’s actually not (yet!) so I don’t recommend this awkward process, but I did get lucky both times. More info coming soon.
Always get a receipt for purchases (even that to-go latte!) because it’s the law. You must carry your receipts if you’re taking the purchase more than 200 meters away from the storefront. And because it’s the law for the merchants as well, you’ll find them pushing the receipt on you even if you’re used to just shrugging it off in the U.S.
If you’re buying some beautiful Murano glass (or anything breakable) have the store ship it to your home. Yes, it costs slightly more, but you don’t want to chance it breaking during the rest of your trip, or on the flight home. And be sure to take a photo of it before they pack it up for shipping. That way you have proof for any insurance claim you might need to make if it doesn’t make it home in one piece. (Years ago my parents purchased a custom, very expensive ceramic piece that they had shipped home. It arrived shattered. Completely shattered. They shipped the pieces back and not long after it was returned in one piece. The store claimed they had it repaired but we’ve never been able to see one repair indication so we suspect they just had a new one crafted.)
This is Europe- often stores close for one or two hours at lunchtime and their hours of operation vary from summer to winter time. And many shops don’t open until 3pm on Mondays or just aren’t open at all that day. Museums are usually closed on Mondays (and that includes the gift shops!)
Refunds are not common. They will generally replace a damaged item or offer store credit, but don’t expect Nordstrom’s “we give you your money back, no questions asked” type of service.
We have all heard of Giorgio Armani, Max Mara or Fendibut there are numerous, lesser known Italian designers who you should look out for. Check out Gabriele Colangelo who used to work for Cavalli but recently began his own eponymous brand. Also, Arthur Arbesser, another up and comer. Be sure to Italy’s version of Nordstrom which is La Rinascente. You’ll find amazing brands at equally amazing prices. La Perla bras for $20-30? You’re speaking my language. The Elizabeth Spignoli brand (they are in all major cities) is like walking into an Italian Chanel but without the sticker-shock.
Other tips for enjoying your trip to Italy:
Be aware that there can actually be different prices for sitting outside a restaurant as opposed to inside. Consider the increase in cost, the cost of people-watching. However, it is often better than most TV. There is also often a ‘coppa’ or cover charge of between 2 to 4 Euros per person. Restaurants and cafes that don’t have this usually loudly proclaim it as NO COVER CHARGE.
Be sure to visit the pharmacy while in Italy. Look for the green cross sign. Step across the threshold and you’ll never want to visit Walgreens again. Make a beeline for Acca Kappa brushes, combs and accessories which are exquisitely made in the country.(and are much cheaper than in US)
Make sure you get your smartphone unlocked before you leave. This way you can get an Italian SIM card so you can use your phone will in Italy. Check with your carrier - your phone may already be unlocked and all they need to do is put you on an international plan for the duration of your visit, or else they can unlock it and give you a code to use a SIM card. They will try to convince you that the international plan is better, and it’s certainly simpler, but it is generally more expensive. If you’re going with the unlocked and SIM card replacement, shop around for a SIM card immediately once you’re in Italy, at a mobile-phone shop (they’re called “mobiles” there and not “cells”.) They will require seeing your passport and making a photocopy. Don’t forget that if you have a smartphone, you’ll want one with a data plan as well. If all this SIM talk has confused you, why not rent a temporary phone from Cellular Abroad http://www.cellularabroad.com/) where they send you an unlocked cellphone and applicabe SIM card and when you’re finished with your vacation, you just send it back. It’s what my friend who is an executive with Delta Airlines does every time he travels and he travels internationally constantly.
However you end up getting a cell-phone to work inexpensively while traveling, trust me, the hassle is worth it. You may think that you’d like to disconnect while on vacation but there are reasons to stay connected in Italy. I, for one, can’t live without Google maps. Especially not here where the streets are tiny and often not even labelled. In cities like Venice, without Google maps you might as well be wearing one of their Carnival masks all the time. It’s a maze. And half of that maze is water. You’ll also want phone access to arrange things like porter service at the train station or to get your water taxi to your hotel in Venice. Plus you don’t want to be off-line when someone gets a great shot of you climbing the Spanish Steps and want to post it on Instagram or Facebook. (Oh, is that just me? Well, I’m a blogger so that’s my excuse.)
Bring a couple of Italian electricity adaptors and a Conair portable steamer. Let’s face it - even if you can afford it, spending hundreds of Euros to press or dry clean items pulled out of suitcases is silly. This $25 gadget will do the job in just a few minutes. I also really really recommend this travel adapter from Belkin. Because it swivels, you’ll be able to use it anywhere and in odd spaces. Most people I know need at least 2-3 outlets per person. So no more fighting whose phone gets to be charged first or having to choose between charging your ipad or your hair curler.
My secret weapon when traveling is the Luxe City Guides. I honestly find it’s catered more towards people like me who like pretty cafes, gorgeous collectible objects and more sophisticated attractions. Get the good-old-fashioned printed city guide to pop in your purse, or stay mobile and get the app. This comes in handy every single day you’re traveling (not to mention you’ll appear quite sophisticated to your friends) - pointing you in the direction of the best hotels, entertainment, restaurants, shopping and places of interest from hip locals and insiders. Granted, there are no bad restaurants in Italy.
Mode of Payment and Tipping 99% of stores accept Mastercard and Visa and 80% (of the especially large/established ones) accept American Express. I prefer Amex because of the points and their built-in insurance on purchases so I tend to use it whenever I can , and use my Visa debit card for those stores that don’t. Cash is important for taxis and public transport.
Italians don’t expect tips. A lot of restaurants and cafes have service charge built in... but it’s hard NOT to tip when your porter just helped you carry your 60 pound luggage (on this trip we named my one suitcase “the black beast’ -) or when your waiter went the extra mile and snuck you two desserts because you couldn’t decide between the tiramisu or pannacota.
And speaking of getting around, a lot of Italy is cobblestoned so make sure you have comfortable walking shoes (most of the time I was walking in my Uggs or these beauties ). If you want to wear heels opt of those with chunkier heels/wedges so you won’t ruin your stilettos when they get stuck between the cobblestones. You’ve been warned.
PS: Stay tuned as I write more about Venice, Florence and my Milan adventures.