Preparing for a trip to Italy? Then you’re probably asking yourself: “How do I not look like a tourist in Italy?!” or “What if I do something embarrassing?!”
As an Italian and local expat with over 30 years of combined expertise in traveling Italy, we’re here to let you in on the essential do’s and don’ts of Italian culture and etiquette. Life is a little different around here, but we have a feeling that you’ll fall in love with living La Dolce Vita fast!
LOCAL DINING CULTURE
The rhythm of life is a little slower here in Italy – and yes, it’s true! Those long lunch breaks and late dinners do exist! Plan accordingly, go with the flow, and immerse yourself in Italian life by following the local meal times.
Lunch Hour Pausa di Pranzo
Italians take the Pausa di Pranzo (“Lunch Break”) very seriously! Whether dining out or returning home to eat with family, slowing down to enjoy lunch and relaxing is key to getting a feel for genuine Italian life.
For tourists, you may be surprised that most family-run shops in smaller towns are closed from 1 – 4 PM on weekdays. But, most shops reopen at 4 PM and stay open until 8 PM.
On Mondays, most shops are closed in the morning and reopen in the afternoon. Sunday is a respected day off for everyone (unless you’re a restaurant owner, as Italians love to enjoy a big Sunday lunch out with the family), and most shops are closed all day.
Don’t expect the early-bird 4 PM dinner in Italy! They don’t even eat in most hospitals until at least 7 PM! With lunch at around 1 PM, most restaurants do not open for dinner before 7:30 PM. Especially during the summer months, it’s not unusual to find Italians dining out after dark, which can be as late as 8:30 – 9 PM and even later the further South you go in Italy.
When making a reservation, don’t ask for a time earlier than 7:30 – 7:45 PM. And, generally, if you make a reservation at a restaurant, particularly the non-touristy variety, your table will be waiting for you the entire evening. So you’ve got nothing to worry about should you arrive a few minutes late.
End up in a bind with too long of a gap between lunch and dinner? No problem! Italy has the ritual of Aperitivo buffet where you can grab a cocktail and a tasting of delicious bites and charcuterie at select restaurants.
Pro-tip: Headed to Venice (or another trendy tourist city)? Then be punctual as many of these places have two serving times for dinner or lunch, one earlier for the tourists and one later for the locals.
Should I tip in Italy?
Tips are not expected in Italy but are greatly appreciated by service staff! Local Italians only tip if it is a special occasion or event. Service staff are generally career professionals rather than college or high school students, as you may be used to in American culture.
Should I pay with cash or cards?
Although many places in Italy now take cards, we always recommend that you carry some cash with you. Italy is still quite cash-centric, with many locals using cash daily. You may even get a better deal by paying with cash, which helps the vendor avoid any fees associated with card payments.
Remember, Italy uses the Euro as its currency! Plan accordingly ahead of your trip to have the necessary cash for your additional expenditures outside of prepaid tours or events.
Many Italians drink coffee throughout the day, with the most popular option is a quick espresso at the bar of the neighborhood coffee shop rather than sitting at a table. It’s typically not necessary to specify “for here” or “to go”; servers assume you’ll be taking it “to go.”
You’ll be served an espresso by default if you ask for a coffee in Italy. Otherwise, order an Americano, an espresso with a shot of water, or a Caffe Lungo for a long espresso shot. Note that Italy has no “sizes”; the name indicates the amount you want.
A classic Italian favorite is the after-dessert coffee, served only after dessert, not during!
Pro-tip: Don’t know whether to order a digestif or an espresso after your meal? Order a Caffe Corretto! It’s an espresso “corrected” with liquor. A popular choice of the locals in Ascoli Piceno, which you can read more about by clicking here, is espresso with a splash of Anisetta Meletti.
Contrary to popular belief, Italians rarely drink wine, or any alcoholic drink for that matter, on its own. Even if you do not ask for it, expect to be served food with your glass of vino, which commonly includes small portions of peanuts, chips, or olives.
Italian Customs and Culture
Do people speak English in Italy?
Many Italians do not speak English on a regular basis. To be polite, it’s best to not expect people to speak English (as you are in Italy, after all!), particularly the older generation. Italians are grateful to tourists that try to speak Italian. They may even want to practice their English skills on you!
Pro-tip: In a bind and need to be understood? Seek out a high schooler, as many are learning English at school, and if they’re not too shy, they’ll be more than happy to help you out!
What should I do to not look like a tourist in Italy?
Want to stick out like a tourist in Italy? The perfect recipe for looking like a tourist is to wear flip-flops to dinner or, better yet – socks with sandals!
Italians tend to dress up even when they head to the town square or a neighborhood spot for dinner. Comfy and casual vacation wear may be your go-to, but when traveling in Italy you’ll want to leave the exercise clothes for the gym. Instead, opt for something smart and put together!
Pro-Tip: Save your Lululemons for hitting the gym!
Another important “rule” to note when packing is that you may not be permitted to enter a church unless you cover your shoulders. For women, we highly recommend packing a shawl or cardigan to cover your shoulders before entering a church, especially if you’re planning your Italian vacation during the summer months.
Bars are not bars in Italy
Italians don’t go to the bar to party, they head to the bar for anything from a morning cappuccino and cornetto to ending the work day with an Aperol Spritz. In Italy, think of bars as coffee shops that turn into cafes that serve alcohol in the evening. Bars can be anything from a hole in the wall, just serving espresso and pastries to being an upscale restaurant included in the Michelin guide for their contemporary cuisine. Bottom line is if you want to be called a bar in Italy, you have to have a physical bar.
Pro-tip: Want to pay less for your espresso? Take it standing up at the bar! Just like restaurants in Italy charge a cover fee (aka “coperto”) for sitting down to eat, bars tend to charge more if you take your coffee at the table.
Cash is King
Don’t expect to roll up for your morning espresso and pay with your shiny new Amex card on your Italian vacation (that is unless you’re ready to pay for your entire crew). In Italy, cash is expected, especially when it comes to paying for items that are under 10 euros. And since an espresso usually won’t set you back more than a euro 1.50 (could be more if you’re dining at one of Italy’s 150 historic cafes in the highly touristry cities of Rome, Florence, Venice… you get my drift), you’ll be needing some pocket change to get your caffeine fix and/or hit up the local outdoor markets.
Pro-tip: Avoid the big transaction exchange fees and check out which banks your bank has preferable rates with in Italy and use those ATMs (which are called Bancomats in Italy) to get out Euros. Don’t use the exchange at the airport unless you’re desperate as these usually have the highest fees.
Driving in Italy
Whether you’ve opted to rent a car to explore Italy off-the-beaten path, or you’re simply a pedestrian, it’s essential to know the rules of the road in Italy!
When driving, you should only use the left lane for passing. And remember, there is always someone that will be going faster than you in the passing lane! Drivers may use high beams to gently signal that they want to pass you; no need to be scared; just move out of the way and let them pass!
As a pedestrian, remember to look both ways when crossing the street. Italian drivers do not expect pedestrians to jump out in front of them. Cars have the right of way over pedestrians.
And don’t be alarmed if you see cars hitting other parked cars while parking, especially in the historic centers where spaces are tight!
Of all the do’s and don’ts in Italy, the most important thing is not to take anything too seriously and immerse yourself in Italian culture! Visiting Italy is a unique experience that should be embraced fully.
The surefire way to look like a tourist? Only participate in the touristy activities you see online and in the movies!
Looking like a tourist isn’t the worst-case scenario at the end of the day, and it’s bound to happen one time or another during your trip. Simply acknowledge your mistake, laugh about it, and move on!
Cultural faux pauxs will surely make you feel uncomfortable. The easiest way to skirt those cultural faux pauxs before they happen?
Immerse yourself in the local culture with someone on the inside to help. That’s where The Italian On Tour steps in!
Forget the planning, unpack once, and arrive in Italy as an honored guest and friend when you join us on tour.? You’ll experience the real Italy with The Italian On Tour’s boutique small group tours for food and wine lovers.
When you book your trip with us, you’ll travel stress-free, knowing that everything has been tried and tested by us – no tourist traps, subpar service, or second-rate Italian food. On your trip with The Italian On Tour, you won’t be a tourist – you’ll be supporting local businesses, connecting with real Italian locals, and experiencing Italy’s Hidden Gems for yourself!
Start by becoming an Italy Insider! Click HERE to download our guide – The Top 10 Mistakes Even Smart Travelers Make in Italy.
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