A trip to Italy is a definite bucket list item for nearly everyone who likes to travel-including yourself! The food, the wine and the culture are like nowhere else on earth. The Italian people are warm and welcoming, the art is legendary and the scenery and sites, from Sicily to Roma to Piemonte to Toscana, the Amalfi Coast and everywhere in between, are simply breathtaking! Wherever your Italian destination, or destinations, there are things you need to know before you go. Here we offer a mini ”master class” in Italy 101.
While every region in Italy, and really, every town, has its own delightful culture there are some general travel tips that cover the whole of a lovely Italian get-away. Here we offer our inside information to help you get the most out of your Italian adventure.
Eating in Italy
Let’s get right to the point-while the art and architecture are iconic, the scenery sublime and the people delightfully warm, Italy is all about the food! Who can resist bowls of freshly made pasta, mouthwatering cured meats, artisan pizzas and gelato, gelato and more gelato? There are so many ways to please your palate in Italy. But there are customs and certain practices of which you should be aware, and which will help you fully taste your way through Italy.
- Breakfast is traditionally a sweet and simple affair. A cornetto, which is a pastry similar to a croissant, a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and cappuccino (customary) or coffee is the typical Italian breakfast. If you’re a 2-eggs-and-a-side-of-bacon-for-breakfast person, don’t worry, you won’t go hungry! There are plenty of places to grab a quick nosh along your way.
- Eating is serious business in Italy and Italian “street food” is unlike any other. In nearly every city and town you will find foods being sold out of carts and kiosks along the way, around the town square or in front of the shops. You really must sample some of these classic and regional delights. Italians are masterful at these small pleasures.
- Always find a reason to indulge in gelato. This cool and creamy delight is quite possibly the most famous ice cream in the world and you should enjoy it as often as you can. Don’t stress the calories. Italian gelato has far less butterfat than American ice cream, which is why the flavors are so rich and intense.
- Expect to enjoy your dinner after 8:00 pm. Italians (and most Europeans) prefer a later dinner hour. And speaking of dinner hour, like many other European countries a meal in Italy is an event! Dinner typically lasts at least a few hours. You want to enjoy this luscious food, each and every morsel.
- Tipping is not expected in Italy. Most of the restaurants charge a coperto, which is like a cover charge. This cover charge is pretty much standard and includes your bread that is served with the meal, but if you do choose to tip, it is greatly appreciated.
- Like many other countries around the world, restaurants don’t usually serve you ice water. You may ask for bottled water but tap water isn’t customarily requested or offered.
- Most Italians don’t drink coffee with a meal (except, perhaps, breakfast). Enjoy your coffee after your meal. Italians are used to drink espresso few times a day.
Out and About in Italy
When you’re out and about, soaking in all the local culture and flavor, being aware of some of the local customs and caveats helps tremendously. Here are some of the tips we think will serve you best.
- Learn a few words and phrases in Italian. While everyone knows Ciao as an Italian greeting for hello or goodbye it is a very informal way of greeting a friend. When you walk into a shop, for instance, you would not say “Ciao” but rather a more respectful greeting such as Buongiorno (Good morning) or Buona Sera (Good evening). A few more words that will endear you to the local people? Grazie (thank you), and Bravo (for men) and Brava (for women) to offer praise and appreciation.
- In larger cities (Venice, Milan, Rome and Florence) you will always find water fountains around the town squares. Be sure to take along a refillable water bottle and fill them up at these sources. Its important to stay hydrated!
- In Italy lining up for any event or attraction is often a source of frustration for Americans. Between a very different concept of personal space and the fact that lining up just isn’t the norm here you may find yourself pushed back while waiting to board a train, buying food and the like.
- In Italy the churches are sacred places of worship. There are dress codes for everyone entering the church, but they are simple and easy to follow. You must cover your shoulders and your knees and you must wear shoes. In warmer locales you may want to tuck a scarf and sarong into your tote if you prefer to wear shorts or sleeveless shirts. The Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica have rules regarding bags, backpacks and purses. They are simply not allowed. There are, however, lockers available in and around the area. Please don’t ever eat in a church, speak loudly, take photos (especially flash photos as flash photography may degrade some of the precious and centuries-old artwork) and please always silence your cell phone.
- In larger cities especially, but smaller towns too, traffic is very hectic and pedestrians aren’t given the right-of-way. Much like the fabled chicken, when you cross the street in Italy you want to get to the other side. Look both ways-several times-before you cross (even at marked pedestrian crosswalks). Even though the way appears clear there’s always that Vespa careening down the road or around the corner!
- Italy is really quite a safe country, with one exception (well, two if you count the traffic!). Pickpockets are everywhere, especially the more tourist-crowded places. Be mindful of your possessions. Use your common sense and stay aware of those around you.
- Riposino means nap in Italian and every day between 1:00 pm and 4:00 pm most Italian shops shut down so the shop owners and workers can enjoy a leisurely lunch and relax a bit before finishing out their day.
- Italian people are very affectionate and often a greeting will involve a kiss on each cheek. This is usually between friends but sometimes friends of friends will offer this type of greeting to someone they’ve just met. It is considered quite normal.
- Loud talking and shouting is also quite normal. It’s not unusual to witness two friends greeting one another in loud and seemingly antagonistic tones but they are really just being friendly.
- Keep some cash on hand. In the larger cities most shops accept cards but in small towns and artisan-type shops “cash only” is typically the rule.
- One thing to bear in mind if you take any public transportation such as trains or buses, you will need to validate your ticket by stamping it in the little machine either on board your transportation or at the platform. These machines are most common on trains but many buses also have them. If an inspector sees you haven’t validated your ticket with a stamp you will be fined. They accept no excuses!
So now that you know the most important tips for vacationing in this beautiful country you can absolutely get the most out of your next Italian adventure.