Italy is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, and Italian culture is one of the most imitated outside of Italy. Paste “made in Italy” on any knock-off and it’s immediately more coveted.
The trouble is that Italy is so popular that we go into a trip thinking we know what we’re doing. We think research is unnecessary, because we’ve eaten at Italian restaurants before, we’ve long since given up plain coffee for the much-more-Italian “latte” at Starbucks, and we already know what “ciao” means.
Lots of travelers end up in Italy with that mindset and then they’re shocked to find they’re paying for those bread sticks on the table (they’re unlimited back home!), asking for a “latte” gets them a glass of cold milk, and the nice old lady at the market looked put off when she heard “ciao.”
Rather than settle for the “made in Italy” knock-off (that you only find out later was made in China), then, let’s set the record straight on a few things so you can have a genuinely Italian experience on your next trip.
Here are 15 things you should know and tips for visiting Italy.
1. Italy is younger than the United States.
A unified Italy, that is. The country was a collection of city-states and autonomous regions until the whole thing was united under the name “Italy” in 1871. This is one of the many reasons you’ll still find Italians who identify far more with their home region than the idea of being “Italian.” That kind of allegiance is handed down through generations.
2. Don’t say “ciao” to everyone.
It’s one of the (many) Italian words understood around the world, but it doesn’t just mean “hello” and “goodbye.” It comes from the Venetian dialect, where a phrase that sounded very much like today’s “ciao” literally meant, “I am your slave.” The gist is more like, “I’m at your service,” but the fact is that many Italians – especially older generations – think of “ciao” as far too casual for everyday use. Younger Italians use it among friends, but those same kids would probably not say, “ciao” to a grandmother. Using a more formal greeting will mean you’re less likely to get a sideways glare from the old lady at the market. Try “salve” for a greeting and either “buongiorno” if it’s morning or “buona sera” if it’s evening for goodbye.
3. There are two independent city-states within Italian borders.
Most people know that Vatican City, the world’s smallest independent state, is wholly inside the borders of Rome. Far fewer people realize that Italy contains yet another independent city-state – San Marino. The “Most Serene Republic of San Marino” is on the border between the regions of Emilia-Romagna and Le Marche and it’s a little more than 24 miles (61kms) square. Both the Vatican and San Marino use the euro as their currency, and neither has any sort of border or passport control, though in San Marino you can go to the tourist information office to buy a souvenir passport stamp.
4. Hotels need your passport when you check in.
We’re all concerned about identity theft, so when the concierge at your hotel in Italy asks for your passport and then says they may need to keep it overnight, you might get a little jumpy. Don’t fret. It’s perfectly fine. Italian law requires all accommodation to register guests with local police. They’ll return your passport the following morning, if not before.
5. Tipping is not required.
It can take some getting used to, and may feel wrong, but leaving tips of 15-20% in restaurants is absolutely not the norm in Italy. Italians typically round up if service has been especially good – leaving a €20 note, for instance, on a bill of €17-18 – but no more. It’s also important to note that credit cards are not as widely accepted in Italy as they may be where you live, so even for a restaurant bill of €50 or more you should be prepared to pay in cash. If you do use a credit card, there often isn’t space to write in a tip – further indication that not tipping is completely normal – but you can leave a couple euro on the table or give it directly to the waiter if you like.
6. The waiter isn’t ignoring you.
In Italy, when you sit down to a meal in a restaurant the assumption is that the table is yours until you’re done. They are not trying to get you to finish quickly so they can seat another party. Dining is a sacred social activity, and dinner can take several hours, so they are absolutely not going to rush you. If you’re not aware of that, it’s going to seem like the waiter is deliberating ignoring the fact that you’re clearly done with your meal and are ready for your bill. You are not being ignored. You are being allowed the freedom to be social as long as you like. The waiter will bring the check only when prompted. A simple, “Il conto, per favore,” will do.
7. Mussolini didn’t make the trains run on time.
There’s a popular urban legend that some older Italians used to occasionally mutter when lamenting the lost order of Mussolini’s regime: at least the dictator “made the trains run on time.” You don’t hear it as often anymore, thank goodness, not least because it isn’t even true. Today, Italy’s robust rail network is by far the best way to get around for most travelers, especially on the fast and efficient high-speed trains. Getting around in the south by train is a bit more challenging, and to really get off the proverbial beaten path you’ll need a car, but the train will serve most travelers perfectly well.
8. Don’t forget to validate your ticket.
This is true whether you’re talking about a train from one city to another or public transit within a city. Just buying a ticket isn’t enough – you must validate it before you board. Most tickets are not date or time specific, so if you don’t validate it before boarding it’s as if you haven’t paid for your ride. Sometimes the ticket validation machines are on platforms before you get on the train, sometimes they’re on the bus. Learn what to look for and don’t risk a hefty fine.
9. “Italian food” doesn’t exist.
Italy is made up of 20 regions, each with its own unique culinary identity and traditions. For instance, pizza comes from Naples, and though you can now get a pizza in just about every town throughout Italy, you shouldn’t count on it being sublime everywhere. Ordering pizza in Venice also means you’re missing out on typical Venetian dishes that you may never have heard of before and won’t find anywhere else. The more you learn about regional specialties, what’s in season when, and what ingredients are local, the better your eating experience will be no matter where you go in Italy.
10. There’s history in Italy that’s more ancient than ancient Rome.
You know you’ve got ancient Roman ruins on your must-see list in Rome, not to mention other parts of Italy, but have you heard of the Etruscans? They’re a civilization about which little is known (still) that dominated much of what is now central Italy from about 750-500 BCE. They were eventually assimilated by the ancient Romans. There are also some incredibly well-preserved ancient Greek ruins in Italy, including at Peastum in Campania and in Sicily near Agrigento. Remember that even the ancient Romans thought Greek relics were ancient; that’ll give you an idea of just how old those Greek temples are.
11. The afternoon “ban” on cappuccino isn’t about the cappuccino.
Maybe you’ve heard that you’re not allowed to have a cappuccino after 11am. That’s not strictly true, of course, because if you order one you’ll get one – though it may come with a, “If you insist,” look from the barista. The issue at the heart of this often-repeated bit of (misguided) advice is that Italians think milk is bad for digestion, so they would never think of ordering a cappuccino – or any other milk-based drink – after a meal. On a related note, you’ve been misled by coffee shops outside Italy. The word “latte” means “milk,” nothing more, so if you order a “latte” at an Italian bar you’ll get a glass of cold milk. Ask for a “caffè con latte“ if you want the Italian (AKA original) version.
12. There’s more than tobacco at the tobacco shop.
One of the ubiquitous signs in Italian cities and towns is a big T outside what usually looks like a tiny convenience store. The T stands for “tabaccheria,” or tobacco shop, but don’t skip these even if you’re not a smoker. Yes, you can get cigarettes at a tabaccheria, but you can also buy bus tickets, phone cards, and postage stamps in them, as well as candy and gum and (sometimes) postcards.
13. Even if you’re being spontaneous, book museum tickets in advance.
There’s very little that kills the buzz of spontaneous travel faster than a long line to get into that one thing you really wanted to see. Outside top sights like the Vatican Museums or Uffizi Gallery, the line can be several hours long, particularly (but not exclusively) during the summer high season. You can easily avoid the line by either booking a ticket in advance through the museum’s ticket site for a DIY visit, or booking a guided tour that bypasses the queue.
14. There are no doggy bags.
Italian cooks are proud of their food, and they are fully aware that reheating their leftovers in a microwave at home (or eating them cold, heaven forbid) will not do their cooking justice. This isn’t the only reason the concept of the doggy bag is anathema to Italians, but it’s the biggest one. Thankfully, most Italian portion sizes are reasonable, so it’s less likely to be a problem. Note that pizzas are single-serving, though, so if you’re looking for a lighter meal at a pizzeria maybe get one pizza to share.
15. Electricity is really expensive.
No, you won’t be aware of the high cost of electricity in a tangible way as a traveler. There’s no surcharge for electricity usage on your hotel bill, for instance. I’m including this one as a way of saying, “That tradition you think is so charming, so adorable, so retro-photographable, might just be done out of necessity.” All of those laundry lines you see strung between buildings in Italian towns aren’t there to be charming. They’re there because electricity – and therefore a clothes dryer – is exceedingly expensive. The life you see as appealingly old school may be one the Italians would trade in a heartbeat. It’s just something to keep in mind as you soak in the idiosyncrasies of this familiar but foreign culture.
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