Italy is a beautiful and breathtaking country, with a culture rich in tradition and history. For first time visitors to Italy, the difference in customs and language might be overwhelming. Read these tips to give you a better idea of what life in Italy looks like. Many of them are based around food, because when you’re traveling in Italy, it often becomes the main focus!
1. The coffee culture is different.
It’s hard to know where to begin when diving into Italian coffee culture! First of all, most Italians drink their espresso or cappuccino (the two most popular options) while standing at the bar. It’s actually cheaper this way than sitting at a table. To order, don’t be afraid to shout “un caffè” for a shot of espresso or “un cappuccino” to the barista. If you aren’t assertive, you may never get a drink!
It’s best to stick to either a shot of espresso or a cappuccino (most places have dairy-free options if you need it). If you want an American style latte, you’ll have to order it by saying “cafe latte” because if you order just “latte” you will receive a cup of milk!
2. Breakfast is usually something sweet.
Not all Italians eat a croissant for breakfast every morning, but some do. Another popular option is just biscotti, or cookies. If you’re going out to breakfast, try a fresh pastry like a brioche or a filled croissant. They are so delicious when they’re fresh!
3. You don’t have to tip.
This is one of the reasons I love Italy. The tip for your servers is already built into the price you see on the menu, and they make a living wage. This is also the reason your waiter will never rush you or bring you your bill without you asking (the exception being some of those tiny restaurants that have a line every night). It doesn’t matter if you sit there for two or three hours, their pay won’t change and it’s probably easier to take care of a table where everyone has finished eating, than one that’s just arrived. If you really feel inclined after a spectacular meal, it’s definitely okay to leave some extra euros. Just know that it’s not expected of you.
4. Always have small bills and coins.
Italy is a bit behind the times in a lot of ways, one being that some establishments don’t take credit cards unless there’s a five or ten euro minimum. This means that if you’re just going to the cafe, or grabbing a few postcards, you’ll have to pay with either cash or coins. One and two euro coins are widely used for this, and you will come to love being able to pay for your coffee with just a coin or two. Some restaurants may still be cash only, so just pay attention when you’re dining out. In addition, some small businesses don’t accept cards like American Express or Discover, so I usually have a Visa credit card as another option just in case.
5. Aperitivo is the Italian version of Happy Hour.
Aperitivo is one of Italy’s best traditions, and a personal favorite to partake in when I’m there. Typically bars offer aperitivo starting at 6 pm until dinner time, anywhere from 7:30-9 pm. Italians believe that drinking should always involve eating too, so expect to have food with whatever you order to satisfy your thirst. The classic options for an aperitivo drink are the Aperol Spritz or a Negroni. Many bars and restaurants offer either a buffet of food with your drink or they will bring you your own tray full of delicious snacks! The range of food served during aperitivo is broad, and can be anything from simple chips and olives, to pizza or risotto.
6. Expect to eat later than normal.
In most places across Europe, dinner never starts before 7 pm. In Italy, the most common time to eat dinner is probably closer to 8 pm, which means lunch is usually around 1 or even 2 pm. It’s best to adjust to the local eating schedule because that’s when restaurants are open and serving meals. Many restaurants even close after lunch then reopen for dinner. In larger cities it isn’t a problem to find food between lunch and dinner, but if you’re in a smaller town the restaurants will most likely adhere to this protocol. The nice thing is that there are plenty of “snack” options in between meals for when you inevitably get hungry. In Rome, grab a slice of pizza al taglio or an arrancini (a fried ball of rice, sauce, and cheese). If you’re in Florence, consider trying lampredotto. It’s a tasty sandwich made of the cow’s fourth stomach, and locals line up for it.
7. Never eat bread before your pasta arrives.
This isn’t a cardinal sin, but your server may think it’s strange if you dive into the bread before your food arrives. In Italy, the bread is typically only used to soak up the remaining sauce once you’ve finished your meal. They call this action “fare la scarpetta” which means make the little boot.
8. A few words of Italian will go a long way.
Italians are generally very kind and welcoming people, and when you try to speak their language they get very excited! Before you go, try learning some common Italian phrases to use in restaurants, museums, and at the train station. You might even consider buying a small book of common phrases that you can carry around with you.
9. You have to ask for your check.
Like I mentioned, most servers don’t rely on tips so they will let you stay at the table as long as you want. Some dinners can even be a three hour affair! In Italy you always have to ask your server to bring the bill. I really appreciate this aspect of Italian culture, because it means you’re never rushed and are free to enjoy the meal. Why not enjoy an espresso after dinner or sip a digestivo (like limoncello or amaro)? I can assure you the waiter will give you the time to do all that and more!
10. Restaurant leftovers don’t exist in Italy.
Unlike in America, Italian portion sizes are actually just the right amount of food. Most places do not even have to-go containers, and some may even get offended if you don’t finish everything. I once had a five course meal in Milan where I was stuffed (I had enjoyed an aperitivo before, not realizing our dinner would be so filling). The Italian I was with asked if I didn’t like the food, because when dessert arrived I couldn’t even take one bite! So, expect to eat well and expect to eat everything when you’re dining out!
People in Italy are kind and welcoming, they love their food and are proud of their culture. If you travel there with this knowledge, you will have an enjoyable time. Share this article with the person you want to travel to Italy with!
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Maggie is the blogger behind The Artful Everyday, a travel and lifestyle blog dedicated to living intentionally and finding beauty in the ordinary. She loves the idea that we get to escape our normal lives when we travel, and that it allows us to be more open to the world and its cultures. Maggie lived in Florence while studying abroad, then was an au pair in Rome last fall. She is very passionate about traveling in Europe, especially Italy, and living abroad. Maggie studied Interior Design at the University of Minnesota, but is currently pursuing a career in writing.