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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.
Milan has an extensive internal transport network which includes the subway (metropolitana), the tram and bus network, and the suburban railway.
For information on routes, schedules, and fares, go to the ATM website or use their online journey planner.
At your arrival in Milan we will help you obtain an ATM student pass (“abbonamento urbano”) and we will pay for it. A passport and a passport-size photo are required: if you didn’t bring one photo with you there are photo booths in some subway stations.
Please remember that if you don’t have with you your pass you must purchase a ticket. A single urban ticket costs €2 and it is valid for 90 minutes. You must validate your unused ticket by stamping it in a machine, either when you enter the metro through the gates or when you board the bus (you will find a machine with a slot for the ticket upon entry). Always travel with a validated ticket. There is also a one-day ticket (€7, valid for 24 hours after stamping). If you carry a large piece of luggage you have to purchase an extra ticket. If you travel outside of the center of Milan the fare could be higher: click here for more information.
Siena is a small city and you can reach everything by foot. If you have to take a bus (for example from the train station to the Refugio) purchase the ticket before boarding and stamp it in the machine when you board the bus. A single urban ticket costs €1.50 (€2.50 if you purchase it on the bus). For more information visit Autolinee Toscane.
If you want to take a cab in Milan or other Italian cities, make sure to only use official taxis. These taxis are often white, but they can sometimes be yellow or other colors. They can also be recognized by the “TAXI” sign on their roof and the license number that is clearly displayed on the sides of the taxi, at the back and on the inside. Official taxis will also have a meter to measure and display the fare rate. You will have a better chance of being charged a reasonable fare by using official taxis.
Passengers arriving at airports and train stations are often the ideal targets for unlicensed taxi drivers trying to find business. It is not recommended to accept offers from these drivers. Their taxis may not be metered, and you may be overcharged. Official taxi drivers remain by their cars at the taxi stand and do not seek business in the arrival halls.
Taxi fares vary depending on the final destination, the amount of luggage loaded, the time of travel, and the number of passengers using the taxi. There is usually an extra charge for each suitcase loaded into the boot, and an extra charge after the third or fourth passenger. Taxi fares are more expensive at night, and on Sundays and public holidays.
Keep in mind that if you call a taxi, the meter starts running from where the taxi leaves to come and fetch you, and not from your collection point. You may decide to take advantage of fixed taxi rates based on departure point and destination (usually to or from the airport), which can be found on a table in the back of the taxi. If you do decide to do this, make sure you tell the taxi driver at the beginning of your ride and not at the end that you’d like to pay the fixed rate.
In Italy you can tip your cab driver, but it isn’t expected. Feel free to tip if they are helpful, they will appreciate it.
Taxis in Milan: Taxiblu +39 02 4040; RadioTaxi +39 02 6969; Autoradio taxi +39 02 8585.
Taxis in Siena: TaxiSiena +39 0577 49222
Please note that Uber and other ridesharing companies are not nearly as popular in Italy as it is in countries like the US and the UK and they are more expensive. Uber is available only in Rome and Milan.
You can otherwise use the it Taxi app, available in Italian and English on Google Play and the App Store. Created by the Italian taxi drivers’ union, the app allows people to search for and book taxis on their mobile phones.
The traditional Italian meal consists of antipasto (appetizer), primo (generally a pasta or rice dish), secondo (usually some kind of meat or fish dish) with contorno (side dish), followed by a dessert, fruit, or cheese plate. Even when eating in a restaurant, however, don’t feel obliged to order every course. it is totally acceptable to choose two items or, increasingly, just one.
Other alternatives include pizzerie (pizza places), paninoteche (sandwich shops), or self-service (cafeteria-style service). For a quick and cheap lunch you can also buy focaccia or pizza al taglio, a very popular type of pizza generally sold in rectangular slices by weight.
Another convenient place for eating is the rosticceria or tavola calda: they are basically “slow food” takeaway services where the food on sale is restaurant quality, though the price is much lower. You can find a variety of dishes, both cold and hot, ranging from roasted meats and pasta to vegetables and salads. Click here for more information.
Supermarkets often have a special section selling a range of freshly cooked food, which can include pastas, meat, vegetables and local specialties. (For more information about buying groceries in an Italian supermarkets check out this article).
Many Italians still do their daily (or near-daily) shopping at smaller shops – the butcher, the produce shop, or the “alimentari” (all-purpose grocery store).
In addition, small cafés usually have sandwiches for sale. When eating or drinking in a café, it is customary to order at the cash register and then take the receipt to a clerk behind the counter. If you wish to eat at a table, take a seat and then order, as the price for sitting at a table and standing at the bar or counter is different.
Restaurants near tourist locations and in city centers tend to be more expensive. Don’t eat in a restaurant with a tourist menu or with someone outside encouraging you to come in.
Traveling off the beaten path can save money. Look for restaurants that are full of locals; it usually means the food is good and the price is right.
You don’t have to speak Italian to eat well in Italy, you just have to be curious. Do a little research before you leave to find out what dishes a city or region is famous for, and you’ll eat your way to understanding the culture. And always go into a restaurant with a sense of adventure–waiters love telling customers what’s good.
Please understand that Olive Garden is not Italian food. If you like Olive Garden, that’s fine; just don’t compare it to the food you’ll get in Italy.
A few more tips related to Italian food and habits:
- Eat gelato every day; it’s that good. Look for the signs produzione propria and artigianale; they mean that the gelato is made on-site, and with natural ingredients. Note that when pistacchio or mint are bright green, the ingredients are not natural.
- Order “un caffè” (or “un espresso”) with your breakfast but only after your lunch or dinner. Don’t order a cappuccino after 11 AM!
- Drink coffee at the bar (al banco) or pay extra to sit down.
- Try regional specialities. Do some research or ask a local.
- Tap water is safe to drink but not common in restaurants. Choose between a bottle of naturale (still water) or frizzante (sparkling water).
- Do not ask for oil to go with your bread. That’s not a real Italian thing. It’s not served with butter either.
- Do not expect much for breakfast; a coffee and a brioche or cornetto (croissant) at a bar is the norm.
When dining out, an additional fee (coperto) will be added onto the bill. This is a cover charge generally listed on the menu, and it replaces a tip. A small tip would be a nice gesture but is not required. In bars, Italians often leave change as a tip, maybe only 10 cents.
While tipping is not expected, neither is attentive service. If you have special requests for your waiter (water with ice, free water from the tap refilled throughout the meal, lots of extra free bread, or special food requests), you may consider leaving a few euros tip.
As with dining out, other services such as taxis and hairdressers build tips into the price.
The legal drinking age in Italy is 16, but it is illegal for anyone to be in a state of intoxication. Moreover, drunkenness is viewed poorly. While wine is enjoyed with meals, especially in the evening, it is meant to accent the taste of the food, and people mostly limit themselves to one or two glasses.
Store hours and shopping customs
Outside of big cities centers like Milan or tourist cities like Florence, many stores are only open from approximately 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. Some stores may be closed on Monday morning or sometimes for the entire day, while grocery stores generally close on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. Restaurants often close on either Monday or Tuesday. Except in tourist areas, stores are generally closed on Sunday. Store hours usually are posted.
It is inappropriate in some stores to touch or handle merchandise as people do in the U.S. Watch other Italians, and be sure to ask a salesperson before handling or trying on an item. A receipt must be given upon the purchase of a product or service, and it is the customer’s responsibility to keep it for the first 100 meters after leaving the premises: otherwise, you may be fined.
The euro is Italy’s currency. The seven euro notes come in denominations of €200, €100, €50, €20, €10, and €5. The eight euro coins are in denominations of €2 and €1 and 50, 20, 10, 5, 2, and 1 cents.
For the latest rates, check out www.xe.com.
Although their usage is quickly increasing, credit cards are not as widely accepted as in the U.S., so you should not count on using them for grocery shopping and paying for small day-to-day expenses in general. MasterCard and Visa are the most widely accepted, followed by American Express. Credit card companies may charge a transaction fee for purchases made abroad. They may also deny transactions done overseas and sometimes block the card; to prevent this inconvenience, inform your credit card that you will spend two months in Italy.
Banks in Italy are open Monday through Friday, usually from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., although opening and closing hours vary slightly from bank to bank. There are automatic teller machines in many convenient locations that are accessible 24 hours a day. Cirrus and Plus are widely recognized in Europe.
Ask your American bank if they have a partner institution in Italy (many of them have one), so that you can withdraw cash from a teller machine without paying a fee.
Taxes and refunds
A value-added tax of around 20%, known as IVA (Imposta di Valore Aggiunto), is slapped onto just about everything in Italy. However the price that is posted already includes IVA. If you are not an E.U. resident and spend more than €155 on a single purchase, you can claim a refund when you leave. The refund only applies to purchases from retail outlets that display a ‘tax free for tourists’ sign, or something to that effect. You have to complete a form at the point of sale, and then have it stamped by Italian customs as you leave. At major airports, you can then receive an immediate cash refund; otherwise, the amount will be refunded to your credit card. For information, pick up a pamphlet from participating stores.
Be aware that electricity in Italy, as in the rest of Europe, comes out of the wall socket at 220 volts alternating at a 50 cycles per second. In the US, electricity comes out of the wall socket at 110 volts alternating at 60 cycles per second. Not only the voltages and frequencies, but the sockets themselves are different. Most laptops, tablets, smartphones, and battery chargers are able to use any voltage between 100 and 240, as long as it’s AC voltage alternating at 50 or 60 hertz. In such cases the only thing that you will need is a cheap plug adapter, that is, an interface between the American flat-pronged plug and Italy’s two (or three) round-prong socket. One like the one on the right.
Please understand that an adapter allows you to plug your electrical device into the Italian wall socket, but it does not convert the electricity to the American 110 volts. If your appliance is designed to run only on 110-120 volts, do not to bring it to Italy. If by mistake you plug a 110 volt device into a 220 volt circuit it will most likely burn out or its fuse will blow.
There are two official Italian sales periods (saldi in Italian) each year—winter and summer—when every shop has what can amount to clearance sales for 6-8 weeks. Summer sales traditionally begin in Milan on the first Saturday of July.
Anywhere in Italy, you can dial 113 for the police (also ambulance and fire).
In case of a medical emergency, dial 118. Ask a passerby to call for you if you don’t have a phone; in Italian, 118 is “centodiciotto” (pronounced CHEN-toh dee-CHOH-toh). This is not a generalized emergency number like 911 in the United States so don’t call it unless someone is injured.
Here is a list of who to call and what to say (in Italian and English) if there is an emergency. Again, the most important numbers to memorize and call in a real emergency are 113 and 118. Before traveling outside of Italy, review the U.S. State Department’s global “911” list.
International SOS provides 24/7 medical, mental health, and security support and evacuation services to enrolled Harvard Summer School students. During a medical or security incident abroad, you can contact International SOS by phone at +1-617-998-0000 or by starting a chat from within the Assistance App. International SOS provides several country-specific online resources that may be helpful before you leave and while you’re away.
To expedite International SOS assistance during your program, it’s crucial that your itinerary and contact information are updated in the International SOS MyTrips travel registration system. Harvard Summer School has entered your basic program information into the International SOS MyTrips system and requires that you access International SOS MyTrips prior to the start of your program to create your user profile and enter additional details to your record/itinerary. During the program, you are required to update your profile with any additional travel details.
Besides emergencies, International SOS provides several country-specific online resources—including country guides and email alerts—that may be helpful before you leave and while you’re away.
In case of any problem also call Prof. Erspamer or a TA.
In Milan the best hospital is Ospedale Niguarda, tel. 02-6444-1 (two miles from Residence Zara). The closest hospital to IULM (only half a mile) is the Ospedale San Paolo, tel. 02-81-841.
If you need a doctor, a dentist, a psychologist, or a chiropractor, the following medical centers will be able to assist you in English (please check their sites for office hours and locations):
– American International Medical Center, tel. 02-5831-9808
– Milan Medical Center, tel. 02-4399-0401.
– International Health Center (dentist), tel. 02-7634-0720
In Trento: TBA
For emergencies or specialized needs, the general hospital in Siena is the Ospedale Santa Maria alle Scotte, tel. 0577-585-111. It’s just outside the city center, behind the railway station.
If you need a doctor in Siena, the Studio Medico Siena Centro in via di Pantaneto 105 is conveniently located, just a four-minute walk from your residence. It is open Monday to Friday, 11:00 AM to 7:00 PM.
For information on medical emergencies while in Italy and for a list of doctors and hospitals, you can also check this page of the U.S. Embassy.
Always carry with you your smartphone and the International SOS card.
From Milan, high-speed trains (Frecciarossa, Frecciargento, Frecciabianca) allow for day trips to many cities in Northern Italy. You can get to Venice in two and a half hours, to Padua and Vicenza in two hours, to Genoa and Verona in an hour and a half, and to Turin, Parma, or Bologna in one hour. And if you purchase your Freccia ticket well in advance you may take advantage of economy and super economy fares.
If booking online, be sure to choose as your point of departure and destination two stations where the Freccia makes a stop: if you have to change trains and take a local or regional train as well, the online program may not offer the economy and super-economy fares. Just purchase the tickets for the local and regional trains separately, preferably at a train station when you’re already in Italy.
Local and regional trains are slower and cheap, and they can take you to beautiful places like Bergamo, Cremona, Lake Como, Mantova, Stresa (Lake Maggiore). Regional and local train tickets must be validated immediately before you board your train, by putting them into the small green or yellow machines at the entrance to every platform. There’s a heavy fine if you don’t—up to €200. You do not need to validate Frecce tickets (and some InterCity tickets) as these are only valid on a specific date and train. In case the stamping machine does not work, go to the ticket office or inform the ticket collector while boarding the train. Please note that tickets must be validated shortly before your departure as from the moment of validation they have a validity of a few hours.
Please do not board a train without a ticket. Purchasing the ticket on the train would require a surcharge of €50.
To plan a trip and to purchase tickets online, go the Trenitalia website. [Please note that the official and legitimate site of Trenitalia is trentitalia.com, NOT thetrainline.com]. There is no need for reservations to board local and regional trains and no discounted fares are available, so it is better to purchase the tickets at the point of departure.
You can also find high speed trains at good prices on the Italo website. Most Italo trains leaving Milan depart from the Milano Porta Garibaldi station and not Milano Centrale.
From Siena, it is possible to take a regional train to Florence and several small towns in the area, but the bus lines are much more extensive and cheaper. Some buses leave from the train station, which is a bit of a walk from the city center, but many buses, including the ones that run to Florence or San Gimignano, depart from Piazza Gramsci, which is a short walk from Piazza del Campo, right in the center of town. See the Tiemme website for schedules. Buses to Florence are faster than trains, provided you take the “rapida” instead of “ordinario.” Click here for the schedule of buses from Siena to Florence and return. [< This link will become active as soon as the summer 2022 bus schedule is published]
Another cheap way to travel in Italy (and Europe) is by bus, with low cost companies like FlixBus.