Updated August 14, 2020.
You can’t help but love Italy! I mean, who can dislike a place known for pasta and pizza? But like anywhere else, there are some customs to know ahead of time and some tell-tale signs you’re a foreigner, which you will want to avoid! Check out this list, compiled with the help of my good friend Lisa, who grew up in Italy!
Quick Essential Facts
Here’s the short list of essentials to know before you even start planning:
Once you’re in the Schengen area, you can move about the other Schengen countries freely. For example, both times I’ve been to Italy I changed planes in Frankfurt, Germany (FRA), which is also Schengen. So we went through passport control and customs in Frankfurt and didn’t have to do any of that in Italy.
Cash will always be accepted, but credit cards may or may not be, especially in small villages or charming shops around the country. Always keep cash on hand!
Driving: On the Right
My Italian friend does not suggest driving in Italy! The trains and buses are so efficient, traveling within Italy is easy without renting a car.
Time Zone: GMT+1
Since most of my readers are in the United States, that’s six hours ahead of United States Eastern Time, seven hours ahead of Central Time, eight hours ahead of Mountain Time, and nine hours ahead of Pacific Time.
Want to stay a while? How to Plan Long-term Travel in Europe
You don’t have to be fluent in Italian to travel in Italy, but knowing a few key words will help! And you can get a good grip on the basics using the DuoLingo app, too!
Not all Letters Apply
The Italian language excludes J, Y, K, and W!
Be careful about where you get your drinking water. Er on the side of not drinking from the tap; if you can drink from the tap, it will be labeled as potabile. Plan to buy bottled water. You will have the choice of naturale (still, or flat water) or fritzante, which is sparkling water.
Ciao (“Chow”): Hello and Goodbye
This is very common among the young folks in Italy, but it’s very informal. If you’re speaking to an older person or in a more formal setting, it’s better to stick with “buonjiorno” or “arrivederci.”
Helpful info: Words to Learn in the Local Language
Riposo: Mid-day Break
Much like a siesta in Spain, the Italians take a couple of hours in the afternoon to relax, have lunch, or perhaps nap! They take it pretty seriously, so embrace it and don’t be surprised to find shops closed during this time!
Passeggiata: An Evening Walk
Italians have a reputation for taking life more slowly and enjoying it more. You’ll often see Italians taking an evening stroll after a late dinner.
Coperto: Service Charge
Don’t let the whole “no tipping” concept fool you. It’s just called a “service charge” instead and added right onto your bill. It was usually only a flat fee of a few Euro instead of a percentage of your check, but nonetheless, expect it to be added on. You can avoid this sometimes by taking your meal to go instead of dining in, if you’re looking to save some money!
Helpful info: The Ultimate Guide to Travel and Your Money
Good to Know
There are some things that will pinpoint you as a tourist. Not that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with being a tourist, but sometimes it really is beneficial to blend in! Aside from blending, it’s also good to know what to expect when you find yourself faced with the unexpected. Here are some tips for touring Italy with the knowledge of an Italian!
Learn to Love the Regions and the Seasons
Italy is remarkably regional! That means you can’t find every “Italian” thing everywhere. For instance, I promised a friend I would bring back some biscotti from Verona. Unfortunately, that’s a Tuscan thing! We were able to find exactly one bag of biscotti (which is actually cantucci!), and we had to go to several different stores to find it!
We also didn’t find as much pasta as we expected in Verona, but we did find a lot of risotto. As it turns out, the northern region of Italy is the location where all the rice for Italy is grown… so there was a ton of rice to be had!
Keep eating: What to Eat in Verona
Additionally, we were surprised to find so many varieties of mushrooms and ways they could be used in food–everything from pizza toppings to sandwich stuffings, from salad ingredients to risotto additions. Italy’s regions are driven by the seasons, and I love that!
Some other regional and seasonal items are:
- Northern Italy grows the rice.
- Tuscany is home to cantucci, or what Americans call biscotti!
- Florence and points north will offer Parmesan cheese for pasta (but none with fish!).
- Florence and points south will offer Peccorino cheese instead of Parmesan!
More here: What to Eat in Venice
Validate Your Bus Ticket
On that note, don’t forget to validate your bus ticket every time you get on a bus! Just slide it top-end first into the machine at the front of the bus, and you’re good to go.
Read on: Top 10 Travel Hacks
Where to Get a Bus Ticket
At the Tabacchi store! You’ll know it by the “T” signage out front. Here you can buy bus tickets, stamps, etc. They are a very common convenience store all throughout Italy.
A coffee bar is not like Starbucks! It’s also not like a bar—there’s no alcohol at an Italian coffee bar! Or like traditional coffee shops you find all over the United States these days. You won’t find Italians sitting around sipping their morning coffee, though, because they will be standing at the bar, drinking their coffee, and going on their merry way. There are places you can sit and enjoy your coffee, but you’ll pay more, and it’s not the Italian way!
Additionally, cappuccino is for morning only; espresso is an acceptable beverage any time of day!
Coffee Around the World: Will Travel for Coffee
Don’t Touch the Produce!
If you shop at the markets, you will find everything fresh and beautiful. But don’t touch the produce with your bare hands! There will be gloves for you to use.
If You Like It, Buy It!
If you do see something you like in a shop and want to take it home with you, go ahead and buy it. Don’t wait until the end of your trip or until you get to another destination because it may not be available!
Read on: What to Pack for Fall in Venice
It’s no secret the Italians are known for being well dressed, but dressing nicely isn’t the only way to make sure you fit in instead of stick out!
There are some things you should know when packing for your trip:
- Italians do not wear shorts except at the beach; doing so will definitely mark you as “not Italian”!
- Italians wear comfortable shoes, but not athletic shoes. That means no trainers, tennis shoes, running shoes, etc. You won’t be sent to fashion prison if you’re caught wearing these in public, but people will know you’re not from Italy.
- Dress modestly to enter the churches: covered shoulders, no racy cleavage, no tank tops or shorts, and it’s probably best to leave the short-short skirt for another day!
Don’t get hurt: Your Guide to Travel and Your Feet
Just like anywhere else in the world, Italy has pickpockets. Italy just has a reputation for having a few more of them than usual. I have some help for you with my posts How to Outsmart the Pickpocket and Pickpocket Tricks of the Trade, but here is a short list for quick reference:
- Wear your purse or backpack in front of you.
- Don’t flash your cash, keep it out of sight.
- Don’t hang your purse on the back of your chair at a restaurant.
- Walk with purpose; don’t look like a target.
- Do a quick Internet search for “scams in Italy” so you know what tricks to look out for.
- Try to blend in!
Want more Italian inspiration, travel tips, and packing lists? Check out my Italy Page!
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