Stay safe in Italy
In case of emergency, call 113 (Polizia di Stato – State Police), 112 (Carabinieri – Gendarmerie), 117 (Guardia di Finanza – Financial Police), 115 (Fire Brigade), 118 (Medical Rescue Service), 1515 (State Forestry Administration), 1530 (Coast Guard), 1528 (Traffic News).
Italy, like most developed countries, is a safe place to travel. There have been few incidents of serious terrorism/violence and these episodes have been almost exclusively domestically motivated. An example is the 1993 bombing of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence by the Italian mafia. Almost all major incidents are attributed to organised crime or anarchist movements and are rarely, if ever, directed against travellers or foreigners.
The rate of violent crime in Italy is low compared to most European countries. If you are reasonably careful and use common sense, you will not find any risks to your personal safety even in the less affluent areas of the big cities. However, petty crime can be a problem for unwary travellers. Travellers should be aware that pickpockets often work in pairs or teams, sometimes in collaboration with street vendors; the usual precautions against pickpockets should be taken. Cases of rape and armed robbery are increasing slightly.
You should exercise the usual caution when walking alone at night, although it is still reasonably safe for single women to walk alone at night. Italians often offer to accompany their girlfriends home for safety, although crime statistics show that sexual violence against women is rare compared to most other Western countries.
The Mafia, the Camorra and other crime syndicates, although notorious, are never involved in petty crime and do not harass tourists or passers-by.
Prostitution, mostly run by criminal organisations of semi-legal foreigners such as Nigerians, Albanians and Romanians, is widespread in the night-time streets of medium-sized and large cities. In Italy, prostitution is not exactly illegal, although the authorities are taking a tougher stance than before. Brothels are illegal, however, and pimping is a serious offence, considered by the law to be a form of slavery. In some areas, it is even a criminal offence to stop your car in front of a prostitute, although the rows of prostitutes along many streets, especially in the suburbs, indicate that the law is not enforced. Due to the ambivalent situation regarding prostitution, many prostitutes are victims of trafficking. In general, being a client of a prostitute is of dubious legality and is discouraged. It is a criminal offence to be a client of a prostitute under the age of 18.
There are four types of police forces that a tourist may encounter in Italy. The Polizia di Stato (State Police) is the national police force and is mainly stationed in the big cities and near railway stations; they wear blue shirts and grey trousers and drive cars painted light blue with the word “POLIZIA” on the side. The Carabinieri are the national gendarmerie and are present in both small communities and towns; they wear very dark blue uniforms with vertical fire-red stripes on the trousers and drive cars of a similar colour. There is no real difference between the roles of these two large police forces: both can intervene, investigate and prosecute in the same way. The Guardia di Finanza is a police force responsible for border controls and fiscal matters; although they are not patrol police, they sometimes help other forces to control the territory. They are dressed all in light grey and drive blue or grey cars with yellow markings. All these police forces are generally professional and trustworthy, corruption is practically unknown. Finally, the municipalities have a local police force, with names like “Polizia municipale” or “Polizia locale” (in the recent past it was called “Vigili urbani”). Their style of dress varies from town to town, but they always wear some kind of blue uniform with white piping and details, and drive cars with similar markings, which should be easy to recognise. These local police forces are not trained for major police operations, as until recently they were mainly traffic officers assigned to minor tasks; in case of major crimes, the Polizia or the Carabinieri are more likely to be called.
After leaving a restaurant or other commercial establishment, it is possible, though unlikely, that you will be asked to present your bill and documents to Guardia di Finanza officials. This is perfectly legitimate (they check that the establishment has printed a proper receipt and therefore pay tax on what has been sold).
For all practical matters, including reporting a crime or requesting information, you can contact one of the types of police mentioned above. Recently, the Italian army has also been directly responsible for protecting important places, including some sites in the city that you want to visit and that could be the target of terrorist attacks; in case of emergency, you can definitely ask them for help, but be aware that they are not police officers and they have to call the real police so that you can report a crime, etc.
In Italy, police officers are not allowed to levy fines and do not have the power to ask you for money for any reason (unless you are stopped in your foreign vehicle and have to pay a fine, see the section on driving above).
Possession of drugs is still illegal, but only punishable above a certain amount.
The main emergency number operated by the State Police is 113. The emergency medical number is 118, but the 113 call centre staff are trained to deal with errors and will put you in touch with the actual emergency medical services immediately.
In Italy, there are many bars that appeal to tourists and foreigners on the theme of “country of origin” and are called “American bars” or “Irish pubs”. In addition to travellers, these bars attract a large number of Italians who go there specifically to meet travellers and other foreigners, among other reasons. While the motivation of the vast majority of these Italians is simply to have a good time with new friends, there may be the odd petty criminal lurking in these establishments hoping to take advantage of disoriented or drunken travellers. Travelling in groups to these places is an easy solution to this problem. Otherwise, if you are alone, avoid getting drunk!
If you go into town by car, avoid the pedestrian zones (ZTL [www]), otherwise you will face a fine of about 100 euros.
As in other countries, there are gangs known to manipulate ATMs by placing “skimmers” in front of the card slot and obtaining a clone of your card. Check the machine carefully and if in doubt, use another one.
Naples and Rome are the cities with the highest crime rates against tourists. Both cities are teeming with shady characters and special attention should be paid to places near the main historical monuments (e.g. the Colosseum) and tourist meeting points (e.g. Piazza Campo de’ Fiori in Rome). It should also be noted that all train stations in the country attract “shady characters” and that train stations at night are generally not places where you want to stay too long.
Read legends about tourist scams. Most of them occur regularly in big cities like Rome, Milan or Naples.
Around popular tourist spots are groups of Indian (or Bangladeshi, or sometimes African) men trying to sell cheap souvenirs. They may also carry roses and say they are giving you a gift because they like you, but as soon as you accept their “gift” they demand money. They are very persistent, begging and pessimistic, and often the only way to get rid of them is to simply be rude. Do your best not to accept their “gifts” because they will follow you everywhere and ask you for money. By simply saying “no” or “vai via” (“go away”), you can get rid of them until the next vendor comes to you. Another typical encounter in tourist places is that of the fake “deaf-mutes” who enter restaurants or bars and leave small items (lighters, key rings or small toys) on the tables with a note asking for financial help. Do not examine their goods; leave them downstairs and they will come and get them and leave again.
A special scam is when plainclothes police officers approach you and ask you to look for “drug money” or to see your passport. This is a scam to take your money away. You can scare them by asking to see your ID. The Guardia di Finanza (policemen in grey uniform) do the customs work.
A newer scam is that men will approach you, ask you where you are from and start putting bracelets around your wrists. When they are done, they will try to charge you more than 20 euros per bracelet. If someone tries to grab your hand, pull it back quickly. If you are caught, you can refuse to pay, but this may not make sense if there are not many people around. Carry small notes or change in your wallet. If you get caught paying for the wristband, you can convince them that you only have one or two euros.
Another scam is to be approached by a man who asks you to help him pay a large bill, usually 20 or 50 euros. Do not give him your money. The bill he gives you is a fake, but at first glance it looks real.
The best advice to avoid scams is to stay away from anyone you have never seen before who starts talking to you.
When you take a taxi, don’t forget the number plate on the car door. In seconds, the taxi bill has increased by 10 euros or more. Be careful when giving money to the taxi driver. In Italy, until 2012, all licensed taxi drivers are actually native Italians. Any car claiming to be a private taxi driven by a non-Italian, e.g. an Indian or Hispanic, is therefore most likely a scam.
Racist violence is rare, but it is in the news several times a year.
Italians may regard a person with significant “foreign” characteristics as an immigrant and, unfortunately, treat them with some contempt or condescension.
Tourists can generally expect not to be insulted to their faces, but unfortunately occasional racism and bigotry are not absent from conversation (especially in bars and especially when sports games are played with non-white players).
Sporting aggression (hooliganism) against foreigners is not unknown and supporters of foreign teams playing in Italy should take particular care not to wear their colours openly outside the sports ground on the day of the match.
The open display of affection by same-sex couples can be frowned upon, especially in the more conservative regions.
Stay healthy in Italy
Italian hospitals are public and offer quality care free of charge to EU travellers, although, as elsewhere, you may have to wait a long time for treatment unless you have a serious condition. Emergency rooms are called PRONTO SOCCORSO. Emergency assistance is also provided for non-EU travellers. For non-emergency assistance, non-European citizens must pay out of pocket, there is no agreement with the American health insurance (although some insurance companies may reimburse these costs later). In Italy, there is a four-colour emergency code, with red being the most immediate (help will be given without delay) and white being the lowest (anyone with a red, yellow and green code will beat you to it). With a white code, which means the treatment is not urgent and no emergency staff are needed, you will also have to pay for the whole consultation. So don’t go to Pronto Soccorso just to check your knee after last year’s fall.
In southern Italy, the water may come from desalination plants and sometimes have a strange taste due to prolonged droughts, but it is always perfectly safe as the state carries out continuous testing. If in doubt, use bottled water. Elsewhere, tap water is perfectly drinkable and very well maintained. If it is not, the warning “NOT DRINKABLE” will be displayed.