American Express -- Travel agencies representing AmEx are found in large cities, including La Duca Viaggi, Viale Africa 14, in Catania (tel. 095-7222295); La Duca Viaggi, Via Don Bosco 39, in Taormina (tel. 0942-625255); and Giovanni Ruggieri e Figli, Emerico Armari 40, in Palermo (tel. 091-587144).
Area Code -- Dial tel. 011, then the country code for Italy (39), and then the city code (for example, 091 for Palermo or 095 for Catania). Then dial the specific phone number. To call abroad from Italy, dial the specific country code (001 U.S. and Canada, 0044 U.K., 0061 Australia, 0064 New Zealand), then dial the area code and number.
Business Hours -- Regular business hours are generally Monday to Saturday 8 or 9am to 1pm and 4 or 5 to 7 or 9pm. The riposo (mid-afternoon siesta) is observed in Sicily, though the shops on main thoroughfares in the big cities (Via Ruggero Settimo in Palermo and Via Etnea in Catania) stay open through lunchtime. Shops are also generally open the first Sunday of the month. If you're on the island in summer, when the heat is intense, you too may want to observe the custom of riposo, retreating back to your hotel for a long nap during the hottest part of the day. Banking hours vary from town to town, but in general are Monday to Friday 8:30am to 1:20pm and 3 to 4pm.
Drinking Laws -- In the last few years Italy has toughened up on the sale of alcohol to minors, as teenage drinking has become a nationwide problem. It is illegal to serve or sell alcoholic beverages to minors under the age of 16, though many establishments do not enforce this rule.
Drugstores/Pharmacies -- Opening hours are usually from 8:30am to 1:30pm and from 4 or 5 to 8pm. Every farmacia (drugstore) posts a list of those that are on duty during afternoon closing hours, at night, and during the weekend and holidays. Over-the-counter medicines are also available at parafarmacie, which have a blue cross to distinguish them from pharmacies (green cross).
Electricity -- The electricity in Sicily varies considerably. It's usually alternating current (AC); the cycle is 50Hz 220V. Check the local current at the hotel where you're staying. I recommend obtaining a transformer if you're carrying any electrical appliances. Plugs have 2 or 3 prongs that are round, not flat; therefore, an adapter plug is also needed.
Embassies & Consulates -- There's a U.S. Consular Agency at Via Vaccarini 1, in Palermo (tel. 091-305857), while the U.S. Embassy is in Rome at Via Veneto 121 (tel. 06-46741).
The Canadian Embassy is at Via Zara 30, in Rome (tel. 06-854441).
There's a U.K. Consulate at Via Cavour 117, in Palermo (tel. 091-326412), and a U.K. Embassy at Via XX Settembre 80A, in Rome (tel. 06-422-00001).
The Irish Embassy is at Piazza di Campitelli 3, in Rome (tel. 06-697-9121). For consular queries, call tel. 06-697-9121.
The Australian Embassy is at Via Antonio Bosio 15, in Rome (tel. 06-852-721). The New Zealand Embassy is at Via Zara 28, in Rome (tel. 06-441-7171).
Emergencies -- For a general crisis dial the police at tel. 113 or the Carabinieri (army police corps) at tel. 112; for an ambulance, tel. 118; and to report a fire, tel. 115. To report a forest fire dial tel. 1515, and for distress at sea call tel. 1530. For road assistance, dial tel. 803116.
Emergency Money -- If you need emergency cash over the weekend when all banks and American Express offices are closed, you can have money wired to you via Western Union (www.westernunion.com) or Money Gram (tel. 800-088-256 in Italy; (www.moneygram.com).
Holidays -- Offices, banks, and shops in Sicily are closed on the following national holidays: January 1 (New Year's Day); January 6 (Epiphany); Easter and Easter Monday; April 25 (Liberation Day); May 1 (Labor Day); June 2 (Republic Day); August 15 (Assumption of the Virgin); November 1 (All Saints' Day); December 8 (Feast of the Immaculate Conception), December 25 (Christmas Day); and December 26 (Saint Stephen). Offices and shops are also generally closed on the day dedicated to a city or town's patron saint. Before a major holiday banks are often open only in the morning, closing before noon. Transportation is either on a reduced schedule or suspended altogether.
Language -- Except in remote backwaters, Italian, of course, is the language of the land. English is often understood at attractions such as museums and at most hotels and restaurants, especially in larger cities where there is a great influx of foreign visitors. Even if no one speaks English, with a good amount of pointing and gesticulating you'll make yourself understood. Most islanders also speak a Sicilian dialect, which is considered by some experts to be a distinct Romance language. It is an idiom composed of words and grammar structures left over from various conquerors, including Arabic, Greek, French, and Spanish, as well as elements absorbed into the vernacular after the American occupation.
Legal Aid -- The consulate of your country is the place to turn to for legal advice, although offices can't interfere in the Italian legal process. They can, however, inform you of your rights and provide a list of attorneys. You'll have to pay for the attorney out of your pocket -- there's no free legal assistance. If you're arrested for a drug offense, about all the consulate will do is notify a lawyer about your case and perhaps inform your family. If the problem is serious enough, most nationals will be referred to their embassies or consulates in Rome.
Mail & Post Offices -- Mail delivery is infamously bad, and central post offices in big cities are a veritable competition of the survival of the fittest, especially at the beginning of the month, when customers start gathering outside at the crack of dawn just to secure a place in line for postal services. Although you most likely won't be paying bills or receiving your pension -- the main reason why post offices are so crowded -- even simple things like parcel-shipping or buying stamps may require a frustratingly long wait. You are better off buying stamps at tabacchi (tobacco shops), even though they might not always be stocked. A stamp for a postcard within the E.U. costs .65€, for the U.S. & Canada .85€, for Australia and New Zealand 1€. To locate the nearest post office and other information call tel. 803-160, or visit www.posteitaliane.it.
Newspapers & Magazines -- In major cities, most newsagents often carry English-language newspapers and magazines -- your best bet is to head to newsagents at the main railway stations, as they are well-stocked with international reading matter. There are no English-language magazines or newspapers published in Sicily.
Safety -- Despite what stereotyping and urban legends would lead you to believe, you won't be shaken down by any mafiosi, since the Mafia is virtually invisible to tourists. That's not to say however that there aren't shady types who like to improvise the part in the hopes of gouging naive tourists. Before agreeing to use a service always ask, "Quanto costa?" (How much does it cost?), and get a clear price -- if the response is "Non ti preoccupare!" (Don't worry!), walk away; often that's the code word for "I'll take you to the cleaners." Pickpockets operate in crowded areas and on buses, while juvenile delinquents whizzing by on scooters won't think twice about knocking you down in an attempt to snatch your purse or valuables -- regrettably Palermo, Messina, and Catania are full of them, and they often prey on tourists. Avoid walking alone at night, and even in the daytime be aware when walking in seedy areas. Never leave valuables in a car, even if they're well hidden, and never travel with your car unlocked. If your window is rolled down, keep valuables out of sight.
Smoking -- In 2005 Italy launched one of Europe's toughest laws against smoking in public places, including bars and restaurants. All restaurants and bars come under the ruling except those with ventilated smoking rooms. Smokers face fines from 29€ to 290€ if caught lighting up. While outdoor bars and restaurants will allow smoking, it might bother your fellow diners; always ask if you can light up. Cigar smoking is usually frowned upon.
Taxes -- As a member of the European Union (E.U.), Italy imposes a value-added tax (called IVA in Italy) on most goods and services. The tax that most affects visitors is the one imposed on hotel rates, which ranges from 9% in first- and second-class hotels to 19% in deluxe hotels.
Non-E.U. citizens are entitled to a refund of the IVA if they spend more than 155€ at any one store, before tax. For more information on the procedure, visit www.globalrefund.com. Many shops are now part of the "Tax Free for Tourists" network (look for the sticker in the window). After you have the invoice stamped at Customs, you can redeem the check for cash directly at the Tax Free booth in the airport at Palermo or Catania, or mail it back in the envelope provided within 60 days.
Theft -- Be sure to inform all of your credit card companies the minute you discover your wallet has been lost or stolen; keep the emergency contact numbers found on the back of the card together with other emergency numbers. Your credit card company or insurer may also require you file a police report and provide a report number or record of the loss. Some credit card companies may be able to wire you a cash advance immediately; check if this option is available with your company before leaving. The emergency number for Visa in Italy is tel. 800-819. American Express cardholders should call collect tel. 06/7220-348, or contact an American Express office in Sicily . MasterCard holders should call tel. 800-870-866. Before you begin your trip, inform your credit card company that you will be using your card overseas.
Before traveling abroad it's a good idea to make a color photocopy of your passport and keep it separate from other documents (it's also a good idea to leave a copy back home with a trusted person). The same goes for your driver's license, especially if you intend on renting a car. Note: By Italian law you are required to have ID with you at all times. You cannot use a photocopy of your driver's license when driving. If you're afraid of losing your documents, make a photocopy of your ID for non-official business (write the name and phone number of the place you are staying at on the photocopy, if stopped by a police officer or Carabiniere he/she might request to see the original).
Time Zone -- Sicily is at GMT+1, that is 6 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time in the United States. Daylight saving time goes into effect in Italy each year from the end of March to the end of October.
Tipping -- In hotels, the service charge of 15% to 19% is already added to your bill. In addition, it's customary to tip the chambermaid .50€ per day, the doorman (for calling a cab) .50€, and the bellhop or porter 1.50€ to 2.50€ for carrying bags to your room. The concierge expects about 15% of his or her bill, as well as tips for extra services performed, which may include help with long-distance calls. In expensive hotels, these amounts are often doubled.
In restaurants and cafes, 10% to 15% is usually added to your bill as a service and cover charge. If you're not sure whether this has been done, ask, "È incluso il servizio?" (eh een-cloo-soh eel ser-vee-tsyoh?). An additional tip isn't expected, but it's nice to leave the equivalent of an extra couple of dollars if you're pleased with the service. If you feel you got bad service, do not feel compelled to leave a tip, even if the waiter starts to grumble. Restaurants are required by law to give customers official receipts (ricevuta fiscale), itemizing everything ordered. Checkroom attendants expect 1€; washroom attendants, .50€.
Taxi drivers expect 10% to 15% of the fare, but if you feel you've been overcharged or the driver was discourteous, you don't need to tip.
Toilets -- All airport and rail stations have toilets, often with attendants who expect to be tipped. Many large rail stations apply a mandatory entrance fee (usually 1 €). Having hand sanitizers and pre-moistened tissues with you is a good idea. Public toilets are also found near many of the major sights. Usually they're designated WC (water closet), bagno (bath), donne (women), or uomini (men). The most confusing designation is Signori (gentlemen) and Signore (ladies), so watch that final i and e! Tip: if you happen to be around town and are desperate, head for the nearest department store -- you're bound to find a restroom there.
Water -- Most Sicilians have mineral water with their meals. Tap water is normally potable everywhere, including at public drinking fountains. Unsafe sources will be marked ACQUA NON POTABILE. Some cities along the southern coast get their water supply exclusively from a sea-water desalinator, making it non-potable. It's always good to ask first; if in doubt, stick to bottled water, even for cooking.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.