Can you experience Italy on a budget?

Is it possible to experience the culture and cuisine of Italy on a budget?

Can you experience Italy on a budget?

Travel photojournalist John Maddocks writes regularly for national and international newspapers, magazines and websites. John enjoys sharing his travel experiences and any tips he’s picked up along the way.

Every year thousands of Australians are lured by the history of Rome, the architecture of Venice and the art of Florence. And then there’s the fabulous food. But is it possible to experience the culture and cuisine of Italy on a budget?

The key to keeping costs down is planning. Timing your trip and booking ahead can save thousands of dollars. I find that the best and cheapest months to visit are May and October, when you can avoid the extreme heat of summer and the long museum and gallery queues. September is the next best option, but it is becoming increasingly crowded.

Brunelleschi’s Duomo (Dome) at Florence’s cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is a central landmark. Entry is free

Cash is still very popular in Italy, but if you want to avoid carrying too much money consider using a prepaid travel money card. Compare the fees and exchange rates of banks and other providers on the Canstar and Mozo websites before purchasing. Some credit cards, such as the 28 Degrees Mastercard, have no currency conversion fees, no international ATM withdrawal fees and no annual fees.

It pays to book accommodation well in advance. Check out the best deals on websites such as and Agoda. Many hotels and pensiones on these sites allow cancellation without charge up to a number of days before arrival and most accept credit or travel money cards when checking out rather than cash. Airbnb is another option, but watch for additional cleaning and other costs as well as conditions such as full pre-payment or cash only on arrival.

Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori markets offer outstanding regional produce

Where possible I choose accommodation with cooking facilities so that I can save by eating in occasionally. Many Italian supermarkets sell quality cheap wine and excellent bread, cheese, fruit and vegetables. Markets, such as the Sant’Ambrogio in Florence or the one at Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, offer outstanding regional produce. 

Italian markets are always colourful and lively

Food is a highlight in Italy and you wouldn't want to miss out on the best local cuisine and customs. In Tuscany, for example, there’s a fine tradition of serving finger food with any pre-dinner drinks (aperitivo). But be aware that sitting down to have that morning coffee and croissant can cost more than twice the stand-up price, so always ask about any cover charge. Some guidebook research on the best-priced restaurants will also pay off. I avoid restaurants close to major attractions, as these are always more expensive.

Florence is regarded as the archetypal Renaissance city. Wander the streets to appreciate its beauty

Hiring a car in advance can save money, but driving in the centre of major Italian cities is a hassle and parking is a nightmare. Trains and buses are the way to go. But before purchasing a Eurail or Italy rail pass, keep in mind that they only cover trips between major cities. You’ll have to pay extra to get to smaller regional destinations such as Siena and Pisa. Apps for Trainline and Trenit will give your itinerary some flexibility and will reveal the cheapest trains, times and tickets. If you choose to travel second class on intercity bullet trains, you'll save even more. There is also a free app for the Rome metro. 

It costs nothing to enjoy Rome’s Spanish Steps. Go early to avoid the crowds.

Many of the pleasures of travelling in Italy are free. I spend days simply walking around Rome, Florence and Venice admiring the architecture and absorbing the atmosphere. In visits to Rome, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, along with visiting most churches and the produce and flea markets will cost nothing. Chill out in the expansive Villa Borghese Gardens. For a cheap but fascinating day away from the tourist traps, catch the Rome metro to Testaccio district and visit the ancient Pyramid of Cestius, then wander through the elegant Protestant Cemetery nearby, where the poets Keats and Shelley are buried.

Venice’s Murano precinct is famous for glass but there’s no need to pay for a guided tour. This wonderful sculpture called ‘Comet Glass Star’ by master glassmaker Simone Cenedese can be viewed for free at Campo San Stefano.

A quick online search will reveal similar free attractions and activities in Florence and Venice. Make your smart phone work for you, as there are free iPhone and Android apps with useful information for all major Italian cities. Two of the best are Triposo and Tripadvisor city guides. Another valuable tip is to book entry to museums and galleries directly by phone instead of using ticketing websites. It’s cheaper and you won’t have to queue.

Lastly, while travel insurance is a must, remember to take your Medicare card, as Italy has a reciprocal arrangement with Australia for basic medical cover.  

John's recent trip to Italy was self-funded. Follow John on Instagram at john.maddocks and Twitter @zentipede

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    To make a comment, please register or login
    29th Jan 2017
    The walk back down from the Protestant Cemetery is one of the best urban walks available.

    Follow the old wall down to the piazza outside the Knights templar keyhole. Then along past the oldest church in Rome, brilliant views over the Vatican and Tibor, down through the Orange Grove and Rose gardens to the heart of the CBD. Past that mouth you can see if you are truthful. It is usually not a crowded walk. I recommend catching a taxi to the Cemetery as it is steep uphill. Lots of little piazza along the way to enjoy.

    Food can be very cheap if you watch where the locals are buying such things as pizza by weight or small meals in restaurants crowded with locals. Avoid the tourist traps which are expensive. Street food carried away to a suitable place is cheaper.

    The markets down by the river not far from St Peter's Square are good.

    I also like the Main Gardens and the Museums around there as well as all the beautiful embassy buildings and gardens.

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