Italy is a safe country; nevertheless, play it safe. Go with friends if you plan to stay out late at night, stick to populated streets after dark, and ask information in advance about which neighborhoods are safe and which are less so. You are welcome to do your own research, ask a local, or talk to Prof. Erspamer, Alberto, Bes, or Peter. Preferably do not travel in empty train compartments, especially at night. Violent crime is low in Italy; however, there is a high pickpocket risk, especially in crowded places, and scammers and con-artists try to take advantage of tourists, particularly in large cities and around major landmarks. More information will be provided at the pre-departure meeting and at the orientation in Milan.
Pickpockets and bag-snatchers operate in most cities, especially in Rome and Naples but including Milan and even Siena, most often in crowded places, stations, buses, or trains. Never put anything valuable in a back pocket or a backpack. On buses and on the subway, it is safer to stand well away from the door if you can’t find a seat; thieves may try to grab something near the door as the train or bus is approaching a stop, and then jump off. The person bumping you may be distracting you so an accomplice can reach into your purse or pocket and remove your wallet, jewelry and other items without you noticing. Someone may block the door on the Metro, so that someone else can snatch something as you’re trying to push past. They are very good at what they do, and you may not realize you’ve been the victim of a crime until you reach for your money hours later. It’s better to miss your stop than to lose your wallet, but usually you will still have time to get off even if you back up first and then exit when the way has been cleared.
Reduce the chances of such petty theft by wearing a money belt under your clothing. Otherwise, carry your wallet in your front (not back) pocket or use bags that zipper and have multiple zipped compartments inside. Wear bags or cameras slung across your body to make it harder to snatch them. If possible, carry a security purse with slash-proof straps and wear thief-foiling clothing. When sitting at a café or restaurant, especially outside, don’t simply leave your bag on the ground next to you.
Carry only one credit card and just enough cash for the day. Leave your passport, money, and other important documents in your room, possibly hidden or in a safe. However, you should always carry at least a photocopy of the main page of your passport, because in Italy, as in most of Europe, people are required to show ID on request.
Probably the biggest safety risk in Italy is traffic. Be careful crossing streets in the congested city centers: it is safer to cross with other people. Keep your eyes peeled for reckless scooters and to the common practices of shooting through gaps and of lane-splitting (riding between lanes of traffic). Even if you cross at zebra crossings, you will find that some Italians will not slow down, although they will try to veer around you. If there is a pedestrian traffic light, you still need to look both ways to be sure it is safe to cross. Watch your step when walking out as street maintenance can leave a little to be desired; pot holes, broken slabs, and uneven paving are reasonably common.
Catcalling and harassment
While eye contact and striking up a conversation among strangers is an accepted practice in Italy, this should not be confused with catcalling and street harassment, which are sadly more common in some parts of the country. If you are being catcalled, ignore them and walk away; it is not your duty to confront them, your responsibility is towards yourself and your own safety. If you are being followed or harassed (this includes inappropriate and unwanted touching of a sexual nature—which is illegal in Italy, and can be reported to the police) seek help by going into the nearest shop or bar, calling out to people around you, or calling the emergency services. Assess the level of risk, do only what feels safe, and do not be afraid to ask for help.
Remember that Harvard University’s Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment Policy still applies to Harvard staff, students, and faculty abroad as it would at Harvard. Therefore, it applies to sexual and gender-based harassment, which includes harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Feel free to review your Title IX resources, and remember that the Office for Gender Equity has a 24-hour confidential hotline that can be reached at (+1) 617-495-9100.
In Italy, simple medicines like aspirin and cold remedies are sold only in pharmacies—and even in pharmacies, they are usually kept behind a counter: you’ll have to ask the pharmacist if you want something. It helps if you write down the generic name of the medicine, as the brand name may vary from one country to another. If you have an empty container containing the name of the active ingredient, show that to the pharmacist. Antibiotics need a doctor’s prescription. The price of medications like aspirin is not higher in Italy than in the United States—however, a little first aid kit, with band-aids, aspirin, and an antiseptic cleanser is always good to have on hand.
Tap water in Italy is safe. If sometimes it tastes funny, it is because chlorine was added to improve safety. Public fountains run fresh drinking water throughout most cities. Do not drink water if there is the sign “NON POTABILE” (non-drinkable).
Global Support Services
Harvard Global Support Services (GSS) offers an array of useful information to guide you both as you prepare for your trip and throughout the summer.