Italy is a diverse, confusing, wondrous country where cutting-edge modernity and style live alongside the treasures and traditions of several thousand years of civilisation. With so much contrast, the Boot of Europe kicks up its fair share of travel challenges.
What do we mean? Well, English is spoken less commonly than in some other European countries. So even if you learn some Italian, the different dialects north to south mean this preparation can still strand you.
Further, some cities (such as the 9000-year old Matera), overbuilt again and again for eons, the resulting delightful hodgepodge of little alleyways and winding cobblestone streets can also mean finding the fastest way from A to B is a confusing headache.
So, give thanks to the digital gods for the convenience of the smartphone. Nowadays, great travel apps have made travelling through Italy so much easier.
Here are our top 5.
- Google Maps, but offline
There’s a reason this is probably the world’s most used travel app. It just works. However, most people think it requires you to have an active mobile data or Wi-Fi connection. Not so. You can download maps for entire cities and store them on your phone.
Yes, these downloaded maps are missing some features (such as bike routes) and are only valid for a few weeks (until Google’s next Maps update) but they’re still really useful. Be aware that downloading an entire city map can use around 1GB of data, so try to do it on unmonitored networks (such as the one in your hostel or hotel). The Download Area Map function is under the Options menu in Google Maps.
A further bonus is you don’t need to be connected to mobile data or Wi-Fi to find your location when you’re out and about and using on one of your downloaded maps. Your phone can usually triangulate your location based on the signal strength of the local mobile phone network – even if your phone isn’t connected to a phone carrier in that country. Your phone can also use the Wi-Fi networks it can detect (but not necessarily connect to) to fix your position. If both of these fail, you can always activate your PrePaid data SIM card for a few seconds and your current position should pop up.
Platform: Apple, Android, Windows
Billed as ‘the storytelling platform’, izi.TRAVEL is a great way to explore Italian heritage and culture in a structured way. This globe-spanning platform of free audio guides features more than 100 guided walks and audio tours of Italian attractions. There’s quite a range: from archaeological discussions accompanying countryside walks, to a 21-stop lap of Venice, to more inventively narrated tours that play out like scavenger hunts.
In general though, guides follow interesting routes and pack in a lot of history. They tend towards being informative rather than entertaining. And fair enough, as the newest, latest and most exciting stuff tends to fade away fairly fast, while historical facts last longer – and in Italy that can be thousands of years!
Price: Free (with in-app purchases)
Platform: Apple, Android, Windows
Like the rest of Western Europe, Italy has a rock-solid backpacker hostel industry. There is so much variation in what a backpacker hostel can be – and we have stayed in some doozies. In both the good and bad sense. Hostelworld helps you figure out where to stay and where to avoid.
Looking for flashpacking? You can find it. Looking for privacy? It covers that too. Just looking for a basic bed? Yep. And if you are looking for the full communal backpacker experience – the sort of place from which life-changing pub crawls being – well, you can find that too. Oddly, despite how well this app works, it’s still in Beta – but then again, it might be one of those that is always in Beta.
As for comprehensive, it lists over 350 places to bed down in Rome alone! Each is profiled by price, room type and facilities. Crucially, the reviews section is also not the usual ghost town. A few hostels have thousands of testimonials.
Platform: Apple, Android
It is the big daddy of travel apps for a reason. The volume of listings is colossal, the user base is massive, the reviews are pretty accurate and the info is good. Yes, TripAdvisor is everywhere and ranks just about everything – that’s why it is great and also a bit of a problem. See, it puts everything in a neat order, when in fact a good backpacking trip should be filled with shambolic spur-of-the-moment discoveries.
If you follow TripAdvisor to the letter, you end up having the same Italian holiday as everyone else. However, we’re including it in our list because when you need the easy answers for where to eat, where to stay and what to do in the tiny town you’re stuck in on a 5-hour coach trip layover, then TripAdvisor is golden.
If, on the other hand, you want to immerse yourself in local culture, go off the beaten path (to attractions that might not be listed anywhere near the top of the charts) and have unique experiences, well you wouldn’t use TripAdvisor until it all turns a bit south and you once again need reliable advice fast. So, choose it to help solve service industry problems, not to uncover hidden surprises.
Platform: Apple, Android, Windows
Bottled water is heavy. Bottled water is expensive. If only it came free out of a pipe… In terms of water on the go, Rome was a pioneer. In the 1870s around 2500 public drinking fountains – called ‘nasone’ or ‘fontanella’ – were installed all around the city to provide cool, free and fresh water to the citizenry. They were popular then and have become part of everyday life for the locals now.
Better yet, the water these continually flowing stone fountains circulate is exactly the same as the clean and safe tap water you get from the city grid. There is a little trick in how to use them, but you’ll easily figure it out (or just watch the locals).
Best of all, using WeTap to find and fill up at the nasone near you will take you into new areas of the city and is far, far more romantic than dropping a few € into the vending machine at the nearest convenience store. Plus, it’ll save you a lot of money too, because Italy gets really hot in summer.
Platform: Apple, with Android soon to launch
Download and get out there
Now that you have our top 5 FREE apps for making your Italy holiday so much easier, you better get downloading. Because, your smartphone will be a lifesaver when you are on the road. So, getting the most from it just makes sense. And remember, every app you have saves you from spending your precious data balance on internet searches, leaving you more space to upload photos or keep in contact with friends or check out the latest rumours about something cool happening later on wherever you happen to end up.
When planning your trip to Italy, check out our pre-paid SIM card for Italy and learn how to make the most of your pre-paid phone card. We hope you will enjoy your stay!