Before you travel Southern Italy, it is important to do a little research and preparation, just as you would when planning to travel anywhere for the first time. The southern part of Italy is known as the “Mezzogiorno” (midday) region and the culture here is distinctly different from the northern part of the country. Southern Italy contains some of the most stunning towns, villages and coastlines in Italy, though it is a destination that is often overlooked.
My heritage is British and Italian, and the Italian side of my family come from Naples and Sorrento. I lived in Naples in 2015, and again in 2017. In 2018, I spent two months living in Sicily, and I have travelled to Southern Italy a significant number of times throughout my life. As such, I’m pretty clued up about the culture and the people in Southern Italy (I’m Southern Italian myself afterall!) This guide aims to give you a little information on what to expect before you venture into the Italian south. It’s pretty light-hearted, but I hope you find it useful!
Southern Italy Travel:
Things to Know
#1 There is a Distinct Cultural Difference between Northern and Southern Italy
The culture in the north of Italy versus the south is significantly different, and the Italians themselves will tell you that it is almost like the two are completely different countries. The north being more glamorous, chic and orderly, and the south being more Mediterranean, relaxed and on occasion, somewhat loud/chaotic.
In Southern Italy, nobody really has any airs and graces. They are generally not so concerned about fancy clothes and cars and don’t really give a damn what you look like, what they look like, whether you’re walking around with food all down your shirt or you look like a bag of dicks because you can’t be bothered with your appearance… it’s pretty much whatever and that’s an atmosphere I prefer. That’s not to say that Southern Italians are sloppy, just that everyone is so laid back and accepting. There absolutely are some classy places in Southern Italy (Capri and Sicily’s Ortigia Island are two fine examples!), but the general atmosphere is more casual.
#2 Italians Can Easily Identify Where Other Italians are From
Italians can easily distinguish between someone from the South of Italy, and someone from the North – much like us Brits could notice the difference between someone from London and someone from Liverpool. It is not just the people’s mannerisms and the way that they dress that are different, but their entire persona, their accents, and even the type of Italian that they speak.
#3 Fewer People Speak English in Southern Italy
In more touristic Italian travel destinations like Rome or Milan, you can get away without knowing any Italian. In the larger Southern Italian/Sicilian cities like Naples, Palermo and Catania you can just about manage it. Venture just the slightest bit off the beaten path in Southern Italy though and you will find that people in smaller towns and villages can’t speak a word of English.
It is prudent to try and learn a handful of Italian phrases before adventuring to Southern Italy. You don’t have to worry about being conversational – even if you can just order food and coffee, it will go a long way. Don’t worry about the different regional dialects either, as “standard” formal Italian is widely spoken and understood. Just cram a phrasebook into your suitcase and download the Google translate app onto your phone.
#4 Attempts to Speak Italian Are Always Appreciated
“Posso usare il bagno per favore?”
The Italian waiter looked at me with such pride and bewilderment as I utilised one of my four memorised phrases of Italian. Though a lot of people in Southern Italy cannot speak much English, most are willing to help you and efforts to speak Italian (regardless of how badly) goes a long way. That was “can I use the bathroom please” by the way – got the essentials down!
#5 Ma cche staje facenn’? ‘O ppane?
“What are you doing? Making bread?” [What’s taking you so long?]
Different regions of Italy have different dialects and phrases – Neapolitan is practically a different language in itself! It is not just that the Southern Italian language has a few small differences, but that often Italians will speak in idiomatic expressions (like the above) that are confusing to understand as a foreigner because the literal translations to English can sound weird. In case you thought conjugating the various Italian verbs wasn’t enough. Allora!
#6 Travelling Southern Italy by Public Transport Requires a LOT of Patience
Truly. If you are going to travel Southern Italy, you are going to need a lot of patience. Oodles of it. In fact, pack half the clothes and accessories that you were intending to take and cram a ton more patience into your suitcase.
Transportation schedules here are more of a “guideline” than something that is stringently followed. Don’t expect trains and buses to run on time. If your bus/train still hasn’t arrived 45 minutes after it was scheduled to do so, it is probably just that your driver stopped for a smoke or an espresso somewhere along the way. (Seriously!)
The way that public transport (particularly buses) runs in Southern Italy can be incredibly frustrating as a traveller, especially if you are used to travelling in more “organised” countries. You might be shocked by how relaxed and unfazed the locals are about it all. They’re used to it.
When I lived in Naples, I actually lived in the little beach town of Bacoli just outside the city. My only way to get into the city was by bus, and the buses ran hourly past my house. Fair enough, right? I actually never saw a bus pass by on time. Sometimes one wouldn’t come for hours, or the Driver would be late for one of the reasons mentioned above.
#7 Things Move a Lot Slower Around Here
There is no sense of urgency in Southern Italy. Does not compute. If you are waiting to be seen at a Pharmacy or a Bank or wherever else, the guy sees you and you walk forward in anticipation… However, you must first wait for him to eat his apple, go and get himself a coffee, show his colleague a funny meme on his PC. Then maybe just maybe he is ready to think about serving you…. but only maybe.
#8 Italian Public Transport is a Great Way to Admire the Scenery
Despite the occasional inconveniences and schedule problems, travelling Southern Italy by public transport is a particularly nice way to admire the scenery as you adventure around. Trains speed through adorable villages, and past beautiful nature that you may not have otherwise seen. Travelling through Southern Italy in this way also takes a lot of stress out of attempting to rent a car and navigate the hectic roads.
Lovely scenery aside, Italian trains are pretty comfortable. There are a few different train services that operate in Italy – Trenitalia and Frecciarossa (Trenitalia’s high-speed sister) are the main providers but all are generally very good. The tickets are affordable and the seats are spacious and comfortable, even in economy class.
#8 You Can Cross between Sicily and the Mainland by Train
Trains cross between Reggio Calabria and Messina, attaching Sicily to the mainland. This is a super convenient way to cross between the two if you are hoping to combine your exploration of the Italian south with a Sicily itinerary. Alternatively, you can take ferries between the mainland and Sicily from Naples. Expect a slightly long, overnight trip if travelling by boat.
#9 Street Food is Prominent in Southern Italian Culture
Italian food is not just pizza and pasta. Eating out doesn’t have to break the bank either, especially in the south where street food is such a prominent part of the food culture. Here, a meal can be enjoyed for as little as $2. In Sicily, be sure to fill up on arancini balls, panino con panelle, and granita. In Naples, the street food of choice is the cuoppo or fried/folded pizza (pizza a portafoglio).
#10 “Everything Tastes Good Fried, Even the Soles of Shoes”
Southern Italian street food is delicious, but most of it isn’t designed for those who are watching their waistlines. Practically everything here is fried – even things that you thought that you couldn’t fry, OR which are already unhealthy yet are still deep fried for extra indulgence. There is actually a Neapolitan phrase that states “everything tastes good fried, even the soles of your shoes!” While that statement is up for debate, it clearly seems to be the local mantra for preparing street food!
When travelling through Campania region, order yourself a “cuoppo”. This is pretty much the symbol of Neapolitan street food. A “cuoppo” is essentially just a paper cone filled with a weird and wonderful array of deep fried treats – from meat-filled potato croquettes, to deep fried anchovies.
#11 There is a Large Difference between the Food in Different Regions of Italy
Different Italian regions are renowned for different dishes. In the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, the cities are famous for their tortellini and their egg-pasta dishes. In Southern Italy, people historically had less money and prepared most of their dishes with hard pasta.
A lot of the pasta dishes in the south use non egg-based pasta or gnocchi. Don’t miss the Neapolitan classic pasta alla Genovese (pasta with a beef based meat sauce and my personal favourite, gnocchi alla Sorrentina – gnocchi with tomato sauce, mozzarella, parmesan and basil. As you may have guessed, gnocchi alla Sorrentina is not one for those watching their waistlines either!
#12 There is Much More Beauty than just the Amalfi Coast
Mention of Southern Italy is almost synonymous with the idea of travelling the Amalfi Coast. I’ve been there, I get it. While the Amalfi Coast is incredibly beautiful, it definitely suffers from the effects of over-tourism and it certainly isn’t the only breathtaking spot in the region. I have seen enough travel blogs about the Amalfi Coast to last me a lifetime and beyond. No more, please!
The funny thing is that while all of the tourists flock to the Amalfi Coast, the Italians go to the beach towns on the other side of Naples such as Bacoli, or they travel out to the islands of Ischia and Procida. By all means, stop by the Amalfi Coast and cross it off your bucket list, but try and keep your schedule and your mind open to discovering other wonderful, more underrated areas of Southern Italy. The coastal town of Lecce is stunning, as are many of the medieval hilltop settlements in Puglia.
#13 Nobody Really Cares if You Order a Cappuccino After 11am
Italians don’t really drink cappuccinos after midday. They are considered more of a breakfast drink. That said, nobody really cares if you want to order a cappuccino at 9am, 1pm, 11pm, etc. Honestly, no-one gives a damn.
I am forever reading people’s Italy travel blog posts warning tourists that not following the correct cappuccino etiquette is a major faux pas. This is major BS. I often wonder what these people think is going to happen? The waiter drops his dishes in shock as the entire cafe gasps and falls silent? Nope. For the most part, Italians are used to tourists ordering cappuccinos at all hours of the day. Aside from that, sometimes even locals just fancy a milky, frothy cappuccino in the middle of the afternoon. No biggie.
#14 Siestas are a Thing
Siestas take place in Southern Italy. During this time, most local stores and businesses close their shutters for an afternoon break. In larger cities like Palermo and Naples, not everyone participates in the siesta and shops are often still open. In smaller towns and villages though, sometimes it can even feel a little creepy to wander around while everything is closed, no-one is outside, and the atmosphere is like a ghost town.
Siesta runs between 12-4 or 1-5 or even 12-5 depending on the business. However, remember again that this is Southern Italy and rules and schedules are just “guidelines”. I have often noticed places to be late opening up again, or that in fact the shop owner has thought “forget it!” and hasn’t opened again for the rest of they day. Who needs to make a living anyway?
#15 Yes the Mafia is Still Around. No they Won’t Harm You.
The Mafia still exists throughout Italy, especially in the south. The largest and most notorious Mafia families are found in Naples (the Camorra), Sicily (Casa Nostra) and around Calabria (‘Ndrangheta). Are they going to impact your travels in any way? Absolutely not!
Though it’s true that you can’t really spend a week or two in Southern Italy without somehow giving money to the Mafia, they really aren’t looking to bother tourists. It is the locals that need to worry about the Mafia. In a lot of parts of Sicily and Southern Italy, business owners still pay “pizzo” – a monthly fee to the mafia. Those that have refused have often seen their businesses torched.
Not every Southern Italian is involved with the Mafia and honestly, those that are are well-hidden within society. The best option is not to ask a lot of questions about it.
#16 Be Prepared for Shouts of “Ciao Bella!” and Breathy Mutterings of “Bellissima”
Take everything that Italian men say with a pinch of salt; Be prepared for shouts of “Ciao Bella” as you walk down the streets, and outlandish statements and declarations of love after a short period of time. Italian men all over the country seem enamoured with foreign women, however this seems to be the case even more in southern Italy.
One thing that you will surely notice if you travel southern Italy as a female adventurer is the breathy mutterings of “bellissima!” as you pass people by. It’s a little strange. These men do not necessarily intend to approach you nor do they have any bad intentions. I guess it is their way of passing a compliment, just as if they are admiring a work of art.
#17 Food is Serious Business
A wise traveller knows better than to joke with Italians about their food when they travel Southern Italy. Italian cuisine is UNESCO protected afterall. Whether you are in Rome or Palermo, Naples or Bologna, one thing that all Italians have in common is pride about their food. Ask the locals for recommendations on what you should try in each region.
Respect the fact that there are almost unwritten “rules” about the correct way to prepare food. I once told a friend from Treviso about the spinach and ricotta tortellini that I liked to eat with tomato mascarpone sauce and I thought his head was going to explode – it was a wrong, almost sacrilegious pairing by Italian standards.
#18 Naples is not as Dangerous as People Say
I love Naples. The Campania capital is one of the most underrated cities in the whole of Italy. Naples doesn’t have the best reputation, and is often referred to as being “too dangerous”. Is Naples safe to travel to? Absolutely! Though bag snatchings, pick-pocketing and petty theft are often cited as reasons for Naples being dangerous, this kind of thing happens in cities all over Europe.
A study by the Italian authorities actually concluded that Rome and Milan see worse crime than Naples, which should be plenty of assurance that it is perfectly safe to travel in Campania. I lived in Naples. I’m still standing!
#19 Southern Italy is Significantly Less Touristy
Let’s admit it, most travellers to Italy want to explore the beautiful places that they have seen depicted in magazines for years and that are well known. They want to admire the pastel-coloured houses of the Amalfi Coast and they hope to sail through the romantic canals of Venice in a romantic gondola. People are unawares as to what options are available to them in Southern Italy and so they travel elsewhere. Add to that the fact that many people are worried about crime and the Mafia, and the lovely south gets skipped. This is all very unfortunate, but the positive for you as a traveller is that in most places, you will not be met with hordes of tourists.
#20 …Though it’s Best to Avoid Travel to Southern Italy in the Height of Summer
It gets incredibly hot and humid in Southern Italy during the summer months (particularly July and August). Think temperatures that soar above 35 degrees celsius. This isn’t really helped by the fact that most places do not have air conditioning, and sometimes not even a simple fan. Honestly, I felt like I was going to die living in Sicily during the summer. Slight exaggeration there maybe, but it was pretty damn hot.
Touristic areas like Capri, the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento and Pompeii see most of their annual visitors during the summer months. This also causes travel and accommodation prices to soar, and heaps of tourists to flock to each site. Travel during the shoulder seasons if you can (Spring or Autumn).
#21 Coffee Culture is Different Here
As a Writer, one of my favourite pastimes is to sink into a cosy armchair in a coffee shop and just while away an afternoon by sipping a cappuccino and people watching. Coffee culture in Italy is a little different to that though. Most people venture inside coffee shops, order their drink, and drink it quickly while standing at the bar. That’s not to say that you can’t find sit-down places in Italy, but it’s not really the standard.
#22 Italians are Some of the Most Warm and Hospitable People in the World
Obviously I have a slight bias here but I truly believe that Italians are some of the warmest, most welcoming people in the world. During my travels I have met nice people all over the world, but Italians and especially Southern Italians have a special place in my heart. Whenever I’ve met someone in Italy, they have made a point of taking the time to introduce me to their friends and family and to show me around. My time in Naples would not have been the same without the wonderful Neapolitan friends I made.
#23 Travel Costs are Significantly Lower in Southern Italy
The costs of travelling in Southern Italy are significantly lower than in the north. That is, excluding super touristy areas like the Amalfi Coast. In Southern Italy, it’s possible to enjoy a meal for 5 euros which is practically unheard of when you go anywhere north of Rome. Street food dishes like arancini balls, panzerotti and cuoppo will cost just a few euros and are perfectly filling.
#24 You Will Have to Forbid Yourself from Visiting the Patisseries
If you thought that the fried foods, the rich pasta dishes and the arancini balls were unhealthy temptresses then wait until you hear about the desserts. Patisseries can be found on virtually every street corner in Southern Italy and sell some wonderful cakes and pastries.
Like with savoury cuisine, different pastries are native to different areas of Italy. The classic in Napoli is Baba Rum – a vanilla sponge cake soaked in syrup and pastry. Yum! You can also find variations of this that are filled with things like chocolate and praline. In Sicily, the pastry of choice is the cannoli – fried pastry dough filled with sweet ricotta cheese and every bit as sinful as it sounds.
#25 Dining Next to Tourist Sites is a Major No-No
This is something that I would advise you against doing in Southern Italy, but which also applies everywhere – dining next to tourist sites. Honestly if you think that you are going to get a good meal next to Garibaldi station in Naples, or besides the ancient theatre in Taormina, you’ve got another thing coming. Locals don’t eat at these restaurants, they are just for the tourists. Some snidey Restaurateurs often try and trick tourists with overpriced, low quality food because they believe that tourists don’t know what “real” Italian food is like. Don’t let them!
#26 Ask Locals for Their Food and Restaurant Recommendations
In line with the above, always ask locals or your hotel/airbnb contact to recommend you some good places to eat and drink. They will be able to advise you about their personal favourites, away from the tourist hordes. This doesn’t mean having to venture miles out of the centre to find dinner, but it helps you uncover places that you would not have otherwise known about. Not only will the food be better quality, the whole dining experience will be more authentic and interesting too.
#27 The Roads Are Every Bit as Crazy as You’ve Been Told
The roads are crazy in Southern Italy and road safety rules often ignored in favour of speed and convenience. Lights at pedestrian crossings are more like cool aesthetic decorations than anything with a real purpose. When driving or walking across roads in Southern Italy, remember:
Green means Go
Red means Go
Orange means Go
Super fast speed also implied and encouraged!
#28 Italians Always Applaud the Pilot
Italians always applaud when a plane lands safely at its destination. It’s quite cute really. I wait for this every time I touch down in Italy now.
#29 An Aperitivo is a Tradition You Don’t Want to Miss
An Italian aperitivo is a tradition that takes place all across the country and is definitely something that you want to experience. The aperitivo is essentially the country’s answer to “happy hour” though truly it is much more than just discounted drinks. An aperitivo typically takes place between the hours of 7 and 9pm. The classic drink of choice is the aperol spritz, and choosing to indulge in a spritz at many Italian bars and restaurants during this time enables the patron to enjoy free nibbles and snacks.
Aperitivo originated in the north of Italy but it is something of a tradition all over the country. Aperitivo in Southern Italy is often relatively cheaper.
#30 Be Prepared and Open Minded for Anything to Happen
The culture in the south of Italy is charming. This region is the perfect embodiment of the laid-back, mediterranean lifestyle. Though things may not run as efficiently or in such an organised fashion as you are used to, try and take everything with a pinch of salt and learn to relax and enjoy the ride.
When I took the train from Catania to Palermo in Sicily, the train broke down somewhere in the middle of Sicily. After waiting for several hours, our replacement bus arrived. Somehow though, the bus driver got lost in the farms and fields of central Sicily and had to stop to ask several tractor drivers for help. Annoying at the time, since it ended up taking almost 12 hours to reach Palermo, but a funny story in hindsight. The Italians and Sicilians on board were just joking about how we had the opportunity to experience “agriturismo” which perfectly sums up how laidback most of these people are.
Have any questions about Southern Italy travel or Italy in general? As mentioned, I lived in Naples and Sicily and my heritage is Neapolitan. Feel free to reach out to me via the comments below or via email with any questions/concerns that you may have! Safe travels, Melissa xo