What Italian hotels are like

A quick guide to Italian hotels and what to expect from them

Traditional Italian hotels tend to be simpler and have fewer bells and whistles than Americans ones. Free HBO is considered a God-given right in the cheapest American motel. In Italy, few hotels below the moderate level will even have TVs, let alone satellite channels such as CNN and the BBC.

Italians just have different standards and expectations when it comes to lodgings. Their hotels tend to focus on cleanliness and friendliness over amenities. They're old-fashioned, somewhat worn around the edges, with small rooms and furniture that's either mismatched or aging ’60s functional units—but they're great deals.

The ratings game: Don't get star-struck

Italian hotels are rated from one to five stars (plus an extra "Five-Star DeLuxe" category for places that really want to pad their prices).

As hotels get more expensive (four- and five-star), they get more similar to standard hotels in the U.S.—where hotels are renowned for their absolute lack of character and cookie-cutter sameness.

There's rarely a good reason to book anything fancier than a three-star hotel in Italy, where you'll still get most of the amenities you'd expect at home, just perhaps not as standardized.

As far as the cheaper, more traditional Italian hotels at the one- and two-star levels, here are the "worst" of the differences you can expect to find.

A note on the ReidsItaly.com star ratings...

You will notice that all hotels (and sights and restaurants) on this site have a ReidsItaly.com star designation from [none] to ★★★.

This merely indicate the hotels that I feel offer a little something that makes them special (or extra-special, or extra-extra special, etc.).

These star ratings are entirely based on personal opinion, and have nothing to do with the official Italian hotel ratings—which, again, have more to do with quantifiable amenities such as minibars, and not the intangibles that make a hotel truly stand out, like a combination of great location, friendly owners, nice style, and low prices.

In general, a pricier hotel has to impress me that it is worth the added expense.

This is why I give ★★★ to some (official) "two-star" hotels that happen to provide amazing value for the money—and similarly have ranked a few (official) "four-star" properties just ★★.

Americans should keep in mind...

The vast majority of the "complaints" about Italian hotels I read, hear, or see—in e-mails and reader letters, posted on review sites like TripAdvisor, and included in hotel reviews on booking engines like Booking.comhave nothing to do with the hotel and everything to do with unfair expectations.

Mostly, these complaints boil down to a difference between expectations of an American audience and the realities of hotels in Europe—not any problems with a particular hotel.

In other words, to be blunt: it's not the hotel, it's you.

I don't mean this to be rude; just to jar your brain a bit into realizing that you shouldn't go into a foreign country expecting everything to work exactly the way it does at home.

If that were the case, there would be no reason to travel in the first place.

I'm not saying either is better or worse than the other; they're just different.

Try to put aside your assumptions and expectations and learn to judge and value an Italian hotel on its own merits according to Italian standards, not American ones.

On a similar note, don't book a cheap room at a simple mom-and-pop-run B&B and then turn around and expect the amenities of a four-star, business-class hotel. That's blatantly unfair—both to the hotel's owners and to your enjoyment of your own vacation.

Also, "different" doesn't necessarily mean "worse."

To take an example from another side of Italian life: Once I got used to the idea that most shops were going to close for riposo between noon and 3pm, I actually came to enjoy it—it forces you to slow down and enjoy a taste of that la dolce vita.

Besides, it also means shops stay open until 8pm or 9pm in the evening, rather than closing at the ridiculously inconveniently early hour of 5pm, as they so often do in the States.

So read user reviews with a grain of salt, and keep in mind that most complaints they have about the following factors are not the failing of a hotel; just the failing of a small-minded person who thinks America is always right and everywhere else is wrong.

How Italian hotels are different

Just keep in mind one overarching factor and you will understand many of the "shortcomings" most American guests find in hotels in Italy (all of Europe, actually): space.

Americans have nothing if not plenty of space. When we think of hotels, we tend to think either of roadside chain motels at highway interchanges or glass tower skyscrapers in city centers.

What nearly all of these have in common, from the swankiest Manhattan Sheraton or Hilton to the humblest Motel 6 in Mississippi, is that they were purpose-built to be hotels—and there was plenty of room on which to build.

That's why even a cheap, grungy, off-brand motel in the States will usually have two double or queen beds in it, separated by an end table with a TV remote control bolted down so you can watch your "Free HBO!"

In Italy, most hotels—at least, most of those in the historic city centers and small towns tourists love to stay in—are converted from existing buildings, many of them hundreds of years old.

Rooms were smaller back then, and it is often impractical (and, in many cases of historic buildings, illegal) to enlarge them.

Also, indoor plumbing is a recent phenomenon—Renaissance architects didn't plan for a private bathroom in every chamber of the palazzo, see. So bathrooms tend to be teensy, modular jobs wedged into one corner of the existing room—there was simply no other way to do it.

So, expect the following from a hotel in Italy (and be pleasantly surprised on those occasions when things turn out to be better than expected):

  • Rooms will be small. No, even smaller than you are imagining.
  • Bathrooms will be even smaller (and given to all sort of other "shortcomings") » more
  • Lobbies and rooms rarely agree. Never judge a hotel by its entrance; expensive hotels almost always invest heavily in the lobby, often skimping on the rooms, whereas cheaper hotels may just have a dingy desk in a hallway, but spotless, fine accommodations.
  • Beds are a bit narrower than in America. Also, a standard "double room" in Italy comes with a single double bed, sometimes a queen—never two queens side by side with an end table in between; you're thinking of an American motel. Even at that, "double beds" are often two twins shoved together under a single top sheet and blanket (or two twin sheets made up to overlap). Hint: Turn the mattress parts parallel to the springs and you won't suffer from separation anxiety (or end up slipping through the crack) in the middle of the night. In cheap hotels, the beds may have all the spinal support of a wet noodle, bowing deeply in the center on very lazy cot springs, or bulging up and bucking like a bronco every time you stir, dumping you unceremoniously on the floor should you attempt to do something as drastic as roll over in your sleep. Enjoy!
  • Elevators are a nice bonus, not a given. (Again: Medieval architects were not prescient enough to include elevator shafts when designing the buildings: just lots and lots of steep staircases. Look at it as a chance to get in some more exercise while you're on vacation.) Those hotels that do have elevators often feature rickety, slow lifts that really belong on the city's official register of historic relics.
  • Walls will be thin. Also, Italians are an amorous bunch. View it as encouragement: they're setting the bar high and challenging you to rise to new levels of performance.
  • Breakfast will likely be mediocre—rolls and jam with cappuccino at worst; more likely packaged pastries and cappuccino—and maybe some fresh cornetti or brioche (lightly sweetened croissants). Sometimes you get a table laid out with ham and salamis, cheese, boiled eggs, yogurt, and fresh fruit. Occasionally meusli (a Swiss granola that tastes like slightly sweetened home insulation material) will make an appearance, but don't expect American cereals or omlettes and bacon. If you want that, skip Italy and go to Denny's.
  • Floors are often tile or linoleum, not carpeted. Also, Europeans count floors—as in the stories of a building—differently. The ground floor is called the piano terra (ground floor). Simple enough. But the floor above that is called the primo piano (first floor—what in the U.S. we'd call the "second floor"), and so on. I know this tidbit has nothing to do with surfacing materials, but it didn't fit anywhere else and it's useful to know.

Tips & links

Lodging links & resources
Useful Italian
Useful Italian phrases and terms for lodging

English (Inglese) Italian (Italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...a hotel un albergo oon al-BEAR-go
...a B&B un bed-and-breakfast oon bet hand BREK-fust
...a rental room un'affittacamera oon ah-feet-ah-CAH-mair-ra
...an apartment for rent un appartamento oon ah-part-tah-MENT-toh
...a farm stay un agriturismo oon ah-gree-tour-EES-moh
...a hostel un ostello oon oh-STEHL-loh
How much is...? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
a single room una singola OO-nah SEEN-go-la
double room for single use [will often be offered if singles are unavailable] doppia uso singola DOPE-pee-ya OO-so SEEN-go-la
a double room with two beds una doppia con due letti OO-nah DOPE-pee-ya cone DOO-way LET-tee
a double room with one big bed una matrimoniale OO-nah mat-tree-moan-nee-YAAL-lay
triple room una tripla OO-nah TREE-plah
with private bathroom con bagno cone BAHN-yoh
without private bathroom senza bagno [they might say con bagno in comune—"with a communal bath"] SEN-zah BAHN-yoh
for one night per una notte pair OO-nah NOH-tay
for two nights per due notti pair DOO-way NOH-tee
for three nights per tre notti pair tray NOH-tee
Is breakfast included? É incluso la prima colazione? ay in-CLOO-soh lah PREE-mah coal-laht-zee-YOAN-nay
Is there WiFi? C'é WiFi? chay WHY-fy?
May I see the room? Posso vedere la camera? POH-soh veh-DAIR-eh lah CAH-mair-rah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Is there a cheaper one? C'é una più economica? chay OO-nah pew eh-ko-NO-mee-kah

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