Why you need a strategy for maps in Italy

How do you find a new location in your home city? If you’re like most people you probably rely on your smartphone most of the time and you may use a GPS in the car (or your smartphone’s GPS). You may even stop someone on the street and ask for directions. Now imagine you’re in a place where you can’t use your smartphone and passers-by may not speak English. How are you going to find your way around? Maps are included in our platinum level itineraries, but with every other client, we discuss a strategy for maps. The good news is that there are options – and I recommend using more than one. Here’s a summary, with pros and cons of each.


Google maps on your smartphone

Activate your international calling plan and take your smartphone to Italy. Use it sparingly for calls and text messages. Use it over wi-fi for email and for making skype calls. But if you are going to be roaming internationally, you should avoid data usage at all costs, which means you cannot pull out your smartphone while walking down the street in Rome and get directions to your destination. Well, you can, but it will cost you an arm and a leg.

Let’s say you put an Italian SIM card that includes data in your smartphone, which is what I do. But using maps on my smartphone is still my back-up plan, because I need my phone for calls, sending text messages, checking addresses, and taking photos. Using maps all day – especially if I turn on GPS – will drain the battery, and when I’m out 10 hours a day sightseeing, I need the battery to last beyond 4 pm.

Pros: It’s your pocket; you already know how to use it; you get specific directions just by typing in the address; you can stand on a corner and look at your smartphone and nobody will assume you’re a tourist.

Cons: uses lots of battery; very expensive unless you have an Italian SIM card that includes data.


An offline map app

There are some great apps that allow you to download specific maps you can use offline, like Maplets. If you really want to use your phone for maps, this is a great option, and some of the maps even include GPS. It’s also a really good solution for public transportation route maps in many cities. For example you can get a map of the bus routes in Florence, the vaporetto routes in Venice, and more. A great overall map strategy could be to use a few map apps plus paper maps of major cities. Note: I had clients recently who were intending to download map apps to their iPad. I don’t recommend pulling out an iPad when sightseeing unless you can use it discreetly, because it’s a high-value item that could attract unwanted attention.

Pros: does not use expensive data; convenient for public transportation routes; easy to use; inexpensive.

Cons: still drains battery and if your phone dies you can’t access it; not available for every place in Italy, though the selection is impressive.



If you are going to be driving in Italy, you must must must have a GPS. Bring it with you from home (the plug is the same, so no adapter needed) – having loaded it with Italian maps, of course – or rent it when you rent your car. Use GPS coordinates rather than addresses when navigating and locate your destination on a paper map as well. If  you’re going to be doing a lot of driving, get an Italian Road Atlas.

Pros: Too many to list – if you are driving in Italy, make sure you have a GPS.

Cons: They are a magnet for thieves. Make sure your GPS is put away or hidden from view any time you are out of the car, even for a 5 minute gas station bathroom break. In the Italian countryside the GPS will work much better with GPS coordinates rather than addresses, and cross-check your destination on a paper map or if your destination has a website that includes driving directions, print those out.


Paper maps

I love paper maps and I recommend ordering them online before you go. Order hiking maps, biking maps, maps for the car, city maps – you’ll be glad to have them when you’re there.  The plasticized Streetwise city maps are great, though not available for every city. Get them online or even at some book stores in the US for the major Italian cities.

Pros: professionally done paper maps have the best detail, and are usually the most accurate (unless you’re borrowing Uncle Ed’s Italy map from the time he went in 1960, y’know, when he spent $5/day). They have no opening / closing hours, no battery that can die, are free to use after you buy them, and include trails, small roads, large roads, and points of interest.

Cons: they are bulky; annoying to fold and re-fold; you can’t zoom in and out; they don’t have GPS so you have to figure out where you are and find your own destination address; they don’t show traffic patterns. Plus, standing on a corner holding a map screams tourist! way more than standing on a corner looking at your smart phone.


Custom Google maps, printed

Although I love paper maps, paper maps with my destinations pre-marked on them are even better. My platinum itineraries include custom google maps that have the information my clients need, which might be just 2 places or might be 10. They look like this:



For my own trips to Italy, I always create a custom google map that includes everywhere I want to go, and then I print it. I also print all the addresses and bring them with me. I like to wander, but then when I get hungry I can easily see which places on my want-to-eat list are nearby.

Pros: it’s one sheet of paper, with only the destinations you need on it; no folding and re-folding; free, if you print it (compared to accessing it online); a great way to get a map for small, out-of-the-way towns for which you probably can’t even buy an online map.

Cons: it takes time to create; it’s still paper, and you still have to pull it out and look at it. Google maps is terrible for some cities, for example for Venice or Taormina. For those cities, I use the same method but I’ll rely on Michelin maps instead.



Maps? Who needs maps?

You could of course arrive in Italy with no maps, get a free map from your hotel or from the tourist information office. Or you could rely on maps on the street in tourist areas. But free city maps provided by hotels are often not great; tourist offices can be inconveniently closed; and you can’t rely on finding a map on the street. This approach stresses me out, because I like to either know where I’m going, or be lost on purpose. But if you love to wander aimlessly or find your destination using the “zen” method (in which, according to my uncle, you relax and enjoy the journey because you’ll get there eventually, and if you don’t ever get there, then you weren’t meant to go), then arriving in Italy with no maps may work fine.


All images by Madeline Jhawar and may not be used without permission 

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