Italy is a traveler’s dream, with stimulating culture, world-famous cuisine, sun drenched beaches, vibrant cities and peaceful countryside all tightly contained in a tiny little boot-shaped peninsula (+ islands!).
Traveling through the Bel Paese can be a very rewarding experience, but it does not come without its share of challenges. However, with the right expectations and a little preparation, Italy is awesome (full disclosure here – I am Italian, therefore I may be biased!)
There are a few things that every person should know before traveling to Italy, and it’s very important to become acquainted with its customs and etiquette. Knowing these main cultural peculiarities before visiting Italy will help you fit in and enrich your experience.
So when in Rome – but not only in Rome – check for these basic social customs and etiquette:
∼ ITALIAN GREETINGS ∼
In Italy it’s very important to use the correct greeting depending on who you are greeting.
1. COMMON GREETINGS
The most common way to greet someone is simply to say:
- Ciao! (Hello/Hi, informal; the most common way of saying hello and goodbye.
- Buongiorno! (Good morning) or Buona sera! (Good evening); used in more formal situations
2. KISS (THE AIR)
A kiss on either cheek is common when greeting one another, particularly after the first meeting, and common practice is to “brush” cheeks and make a kissing sound.
Many people still don’t know how to kiss Italian style and find themselves in awkward situations. It’s simple, left side first! And remember, Italians usually only kiss twice. This is usually between two women, or a man and a woman; men don’t generally kiss each other on the cheek but rather handshake. Hugging is usually reserved to close friends and family.
∼ ITALIAN TIPPING ∼
There’s a kind of mystery for visitors when coming to Italy: tipping. It’s controversial, regularly debated, and it might be hard to decide when, how much and how to tip.
3. SO…HOW TO TIP?
Here’s the deal: we don’t tip in Italy. No, wait, let me rephrase that. We tip only for very good service or leave the change when paying cash because we don’t want to wait for the waiter, and in that case we round the bill.
You’re probably already paying a supplement through the servizio (service charge) on your restaurant bill and/or the coperto (cover charge). Of course people in the service industry love these international tippers, but I think it’s correct to point out that tipping is by no means obligatory.
It is, however, customary to tip a hotel porter for helping you with your luggage, housekeepers, your tour guide, and you can consider leaving some cents on your receipt at the bar when you order a coffee.
∼ ITALIAN DINING ETIQUETTE ∼
When it comes to food, (most) Italians love etiquette. Doesn’t matter if you’re eating at a fancy restaurant or chowing down on pizza on plastic plates, there are some table manners that are going to get you nothing but dirty looks.
5. ITALIAN DINING TIME
Most restaurants have specific opening times, and they will close in the afternoon. Pressing your hungry face to the restaurant’s window at 6:00 p.m. will not change that. Try, instead, to eat when Italians eat – lunch hour is usually 1-2 p.m. and most will be done by 2.30. Dinner is a little different, as we tend to sit down to eat around 8pm, but the further south you go, the later you’ll start eating. A good rule of thumb is a reservation for 8.30pm.
6. PICK THE RIGHT RESTAURANT
Avoid eating in restaurants with menus translated into 14 languages. Also, if the dishes are pictured on the menu, it’s most likely that that restaurant isn’t going to provide the most authentic Italian dining experience.
7. ORDER LIKE AN ITALIAN
(Most) Italians don’t eat an antipasto, primo, secondo and dolce at every meal, and you don’t have to, either. Feel free just to pick a primo for your lunch and a secondo for your dinner.
8. NO BREAD BEFORE THE MEAL*
Stuffing yourself with bread before the meal arrives should be avoided – try some grissini instead.
*Between you and me, I eat all the bread before the food comes almost every time, but it’s usually there as an accompaniment to your meal, not as a way to fill you up.
9. DINING DON’Ts
Don’t ask your waiter for cheese to put on your seafood pasta. Don’t ask for coffee before the meal and don’t ask ketchup for your meat. Unless you want to see a grown adult cry.
“Peperoni” (single “p”) is Italian for the plural of bell pepper. So if you want “pepperoni” (double “p”), and not strips of peppers, check the menu for “pizza al salamino” or “pizza diavola”.
11. DON’T RUSH
While in Italy, do like Italians do: sit down, saver each bite, sip your wine with a smile and enjoy your foodl. Most of us never rush through a meal.
12. BE PATIENT
The concept of “il cliente comanda” (the client is always right) is not present here. The fact is that most restaurants have few waiters working many tables, so they won’t ask if you like the food, or whatever – they just don’t have the time. Be patient, and flag down your waiter when you need something
13. ASK FOR THE BILL
Don’t get annoyed if your bill hasn’t yet come. In short: You must ask for it. Only rude waiters whisk away your plates and bring your bill as soon as you’ve finished your food. Once you’re ready to go, call the waiter and say, “Il conto, per favore.”
∼ ITALIAN COFFEE ETIQUETTE ∼
“Prendiamo un caffè?” (“Fancy a coffee?”). Coffee is so much a part of Italian culture that its rituals are set in stone, and it’s not always easy for foreigners to understand them. But don’t worry, I got you covered!
14. DRINKING CUSTOMS
A shot of espresso is okay for all day, while you should drink cappuccino, caffé-latte, latte macchiato or any milky form of coffee only in the morning, and never after a meal. At a bar (cafe) you can order whatever you want but in a home they’re not going to make you a cappuccino or Americano, so don’t ask for them.
Be careful when ordering a latte, because “latte” is the Italian word for milk and you may end up with a glass of milk, no coffee implied. Order Café Latte or Cappuccino to get what you want (in a cappuccino the milk is “frothed”, while in a latte the milk is merely “steamed”).
16. GET A RECEIPT
In many bars you will be asked to get a receipt (“fare lo scontrino”) before ordering. When in doubt, observe for a few minutes or just ask at the cash register how to proceed.
17. TRY THE APERITIF
“Wait, what the fish do you mean 10 euros for a beer?”
If you find yourself shouting this to some poor Italian barista, congratulations, you’ve probably walked into an aperitif.
During the Italian aperitif, buying a drink gives you license to eat as much as you like of the bar food. This bar food will range from some chips and nuts, to full out buffets filled with all kinds of gourmet goodnesses. The drink prices are raised temporarily to compensate for all the food they provide you with, and they range from 4 euros to 10 generally, with most lying in the middle, and you can easily have a whole dinner at one of these places.
∼ ITALIAN DRESS CODE ∼
While it’s very important to be comfortable in what you wear, immersing yourself in the culture can be part of the fun. Check out these tips and try to dress like the locals do:
18. ELEVATE YOUR SENSE OF CASUAL
Just make a bit of an effort. Italy deserves it, you’ll see. Yes, as I said before, I do understand the need to be comfy when traveling and spending a day walking around, but Italy is a fashion-conscious nation and most Italians take their clothing seriously.
Also, you will be judged. Mercilessly. But not perfidiously. Italians just love to check each other out.
19. WARDROBE DON’Ts:
Don’t pack your beloved multi-pocket jackets, your college basketball shirt or Nike hoodie. Also, don’t copy the Jersey Shore look, it’s the emblem of bad taste. And don’t even think about pairing sandals with knee-high white socks. Please…just don’t.
20. SUNGLASSES ARE A MUST
The sun seemingly never stops shining on Italy, so never ever leave your hotel without your sunglasses. Oh, and during spring and summer months you should pack proper sun (and after-sun) protection if your skin is not used to the sun’s rays.
21. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE SHOES
Italian women love their sky-high heels and I’m certainly one of them, but I do understand that it’s not easy (or safe) to walk in them on cobblestoned streets. To blend in without sacrificing comfort, look for some nice leather and suede boots and shoes.
∼ GENERAL ITALIAN CUSTOMS ∼
There are some other Italian customs that you may find unusual, so here there are some tips:
22. YOU CAN’T BUY TICKETS DIRECTLY ON THE BUS/TRAM
And not just that, but most bus stops will not have a ticket machine next to the stop. You’ll need to find a newspaper stand (edicola) or a tobacco shop (tabaccaio) to purchase your tickets. If you’re planning on using public transportation on a Sunday, buy your tickets the day before – you’ll thank me later. And once on the bus/tram, make sure you validate the ticket.
23. CASH IS (STILL) KING
Most Italians pay for things on a day to day basis with cash, from their morning coffee to dinner, so don’t pull out your card to pay for a coke.
24. LEARN SOME ITALIAN
You’re going to Italy in a month? Two weeks? Yesterday? That’s plenty of time to learn some Italian! Especially in less touristy small towns a lot of people will not be able to speak English. As a result, it’s important to learn the basics at the very least. The locals will be happy to help with the rest.
Per favore, Grazie (please, thankyou)
Un tavolo per due (a table for two)
Sono americano/inglese/ francese, etc. (I’m American, English, French, etc.)
Può ripetere, per favore? (Can you repeat, please?)
Parla inglese? (Do you speak English?)
Come si dice……in italiano? (How do you say …… in Italian?)
The longer you plan on staying in Italy, the more I’d recommend learning the language. It’s not just an ability to communicate, but it gives you a welcome to many places, makes people a lot more friendly towards you and a lot more interested in you.
I frequently get questions from people headed to Rome for the first time who want to “see it all” in their 5 days, same as for Florence, Venice or Naples. If you’ve been to either of those cities I don’t have to tell you how impossible that is, but for those who haven’t been to Italy yet it’s worth repeating the concept: you won’t “see it all” during your first trip, whether you’ve got 5 days or 5 weeks or 5 months.
You’ll need to create a solid itinerary and a nice list of things to see and do, putting them in order depending on how heartbroken you’d be if you missed them. It may seem naive to say “I’ll see it next time,” but trust me, you sort of need to adopt this attitude to stay sane.
26. HAVE FUN
You’ve made it to a country that has inspired visitors for centuries. Soak in its beauty, its art, music, and lifestyle. Trade smiles with Italians. Take home wonderful memories of my beloved country.
Lots of love, and see you out here. In bocca al lupo!
27.THAT MEANS “GOOD LUCK” IN ITALIAN