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Salute, Italy!

Here's everything you need to know to plan for your gran ritorno to the Belpaese.

On May 9, 2021, I was officially back. That’s how it felt anyway: It had been more than a year since I’d dug my dusty passport out of its drawer in my filing cabinet, and, in many ways, it had felt like a lifetime since I’d even allowed myself to think about traveling abroad to European destinations. And then, suddenly, I was in Venice, flying through the lagoon in a water taxi, the crisp morning wind blowing through my hair. It was a fever dream. No, better yet, it was something out of a Fellini flick. I couldn’t contain myself — I yelled, “I’m back!”

Actually, there was nothing sudden about my visit to Italy. My arrival was the result of a little bit of good fortune, a lot of paperwork, and three—yes, three! — COVID tests. At the time, tourism was still banned throughout the country, but valid work visits were still permitted, and, lucky me, I had one: My husband, an architect, was exhibiting at the Venice Biennale, which, against all odds, was going forward with its May 22 opening, despite the fact that uncertainty still loomed over the country’s vaccination rollout and subsequent reopening. 

A gondolier on the Grand Canal
Sunset at Piazza San Marco

We arrived on a COVID-tested, quarantine-free flight that allowed us to hit the ground running, and though the city was still somewhat under lockdown—there was no dining indoors (except in hotels), masks were still required indoors and out, and a mandatory curfew of 10 PM was observed—it felt like the dawn of a new era to be back in La Serenissima. We practically had the city to ourselves. Piazza San Marco was an empty playground where we waltzed from end to end, nary a tour group or selfie stick in sight. We could get a table anywhere; we didn’t need a reservation most of the time, and we even became regulars at a few places (I’ll forever remember Diane from Al Covo). And we made friends too, joining them for dinner parties and pumping them for recommendations on how to make the most of this unprecedented, and likely-never-to-be-duplicated, time in history.

Then, Italy slowly started to come back to life, first opening its regional borders, then allowing tourists, and finally, eliminating quarantine requirements for vaccinated American visitors. And still, as we traveled from Venice to Emilia-Romagna, then on to Umbria and Tuscany, it seemed we were among only a few visitors from outside the country. The great en masse return of tourists was — and is — yet to come, which means that those who are ready to cross the Atlantic now will be handsomely rewarded.

Ready to go yourself? Here’s what to expect during your travel experience, how to do it right, and why now really is the perfect time to do it.

Start Planning Now

Though restrictions have largely ended, tourism is still only slowly coming back. Some in the travel industry estimate that visitors won’t reach their full pre-pandemic numbers again for another couple of years. Take advantage and book now, while infection rates are down, restrictions are few, and tourists are scant. Even with most restrictions on Americans lifted—the new rules require only proof of vaccination, or, for the unvaccinated, a negative PCR test or proof of a recent recovery from COVID—travel numbers remain low. That means availability is up and, for now anyway, short-lead travel is easier than ever to book, even during the high season.

Read the Fine Print—Again and Again

Of course, regulations and requirements can change on a dime. (Even as I write this, government officials in both Italy and the U.S. are likely working on new decrees that could potentially affect future travel!) Keep abreast of the latest by monitoring the CDC travel alerts and Italy’s national tourism site. Airlines generally do their best to keep travelers informed of protocols and regulations, so make sure to read all emails from your carrier in the weeks prior to travel. And check for any required paperwork; currently, Americans traveling to Italy or anywhere in the E.U. must fill out a passenger locator form prior to departure (and no, vaccinated travelers are not exempt from any of this). A rule of thumb: Always err on the side of caution. If something doesn’t make sense or is unclear, call your airline or travel agent to clarify. It’s better to spend the time upfront to ensure you are well-informed than to risk missing your trip due to lack of preparation.

Piazza San Marco
Mussels alla Tarantina

Be Patient

In the airport. At the hotel. In the restaurant. Everywhere! As regulations continue to shift and reshape post-pandemic life, the service industry must constantly adjust accordingly. That means agents at the airport check-in counter are working double-duty to check passengers’ additional documents. Restaurants and luxury hotels that were forced to close during the pandemic may also be operating with new regulations — and newly hired staff. Be patient as they gain their own footholds in our new normal, and know that, wherever you are, everyone is happy to be back in business. Be generous, be kind, and be grateful that you’re fortunate enough to travel again.

Don’t Toss Your COVID Survival Kit Just Yet

It may start to feel like the pandemic is over but, from country to country and region to region in most European destinations, different regulations may still be in place...and you never know what the locals have been through either. Keep a mask handy, keep your vaccination card at the ready, and always be willing to follow the local guidelines. You’re thrilled to be there, whether you have a mask on or not, right?

Do Your Research

Alas, now is not the time to be a spontaneous traveler. While museums across Italy have reopened, many of them are still operating at reduced capacity, which is fabulous for an afternoon of soaking in art and history — unless you forgot to make a reservation. Map out your day — the restaurants, the museums, the shops — and hop online (or start dialing) to book an entry time and ensure opening hours. We promise the exclusivity you’ll get out of the extra effort will be worth it.

Photos courtesy of Jackie Caradonio.