“Will I be able to enjoy a vacation in Italy if I don’t speak or understand Italian?”
I have been asked this question several times by people who have enjoyed hearing about my trips to Italy, but were nervous about traveling there themselves because they do not speak Italian. Truth be told, I speak very little Italian myself and have gotten along perfectly fine in most of my travels in Italy. There have only been a few isolated incidents and places where this was not the case, but not to such an extent that it interfered with my enjoyment of my vacation or caused me any real hardship.
In general, you will find that it is very easy to get along in major cities in Italy (such as Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan) even if you don’t speak Italian. Tourism and international business are major industries in these cities. Therefore most shop owners, hotel and restaurant staff members, museum and church guides, and transportation operators have basic proficiency in German, French, Spanish – and yes of course, English! Signage is typically provided in multiple languages, and menus available in both English and Italian.
Language issues are much more likely to arise if you are traveling to smaller cities or rural areas of Italy. In such places, speaking Italian may be much more necessary in order to get around easily, order in restaurants, or make purchases in shops. If you would like to visit such areas – even just on a day trip while staying in a larger city – consider traveling with a local Italian guide or large tour group instead of on your own. You can often make such arrangements in advance, or via your hotel upon your arrival in Italy.
I would offer a few points of advice for tourists visiting Italy who do not speak fluent Italian:
- Take the time to learn at least a few basic phrases in Italian that will help you get around, or even just express that you do not understand someone. Simple phrases to learn include: “Do you speak English?”, “I’m sorry, I do not understand you”, “Where is?”, “How much?” and at least the numbers one through ten. A few hours spent with an audio or computer language program is all you should need in order to learn these basic useful phrases. (Here’s a tip: listen to a language program during your workday commute, in the weeks before your trip!) Making even this modest effort to speak Italian in your travels we be appreciated, and often make communication easier.
- Always travel with an easy-to-read map on hand. If taking a taxi, point out your destination on the map to your driver. This will help avoid having the driver accidentally – or perhaps even on purpose – take you to the wrong destination. Most taxi drivers are honest, but in Rome I did once have a driver take me to the wrong place a very long way out of the way, claiming he misunderstood where I wanted to go. Whether it was an intentional scam or just a communication problem, I can’t say but it was an error that cost me at least 20 Euros!
- Remain patient and calm when encountering language difficulties. Speak slowly, but do not shout or think that speaking louder or yelling will make your English any more easily understood.
- Check receipts and displayed charges carefully before handing over your money or credit card. Make sure the numbers add up correctly, including any service and cover charges which should be listed on a restaurant menu – or tariffs on luggage, night trips, or extra distances traveled by taxi or shuttle service. This knowledge will help you avoid getting ripped off by padded charges and inflated prices that tourists often become victims of.
* Personal experience
* “How Not to Get Ripped Off Eating in Italy”, The Walks of Italy Blog