If you plan to visit Italy for the first time, I’m sure you will be asking yourself what things you shall know before going and what customs and traditions to expect. As a small Mediterranean country, Italy is known to have a rich heritage, but the Italian lifestyle and its values vary dramatically between the South and the North. Italy has been my home country for +20 years, and after a long time abroad I returned to reside in what we call IL BEL PAESE.
However, things over the years have been changing for the better in some respects, especially for tourists, it has become easier to travel around. There are things I love about my home-country but many that I hate too! As a tourist, you will not get confronted with the bad and the ugly, fortunately. By writing this post, I put on my traveller goggles to give you my best tips and advice about all those things to help you get familiar when planning an Italy trip.
Essential things to know before travelling to Italy
Here is a list of tips for you to get familiar with the Italian culture and what to expect when visiting Italy for the first time.
Common Italian Greetings – How do you greet people in Italy?
We are a funny country, indeed. We have the same word for informal “Hello” and “Bye” which is the Word >>CIAO<< (pronounced Chow). Are you now asking yourself, what CIAO means in Italian? Well, it comes from the Venetian word s-cìao (I’m your slave) and the mediaeval Latin “Servus” (still used in daily life in Austria and southern Germany). You say Ciao for non-formal greetings, but you will hear some people tell Salve too.
The formal hello is Buon Giorno (translates good morning + good day). People use it a lot, sometimes, till late afternoon. Buon pomeriggio (good afternoon) is less used, but it is correct and used on emails and chats. If you meet someone at midday a plan to see again in the evening, you will say Buon Pomeriggio! After lunch, at 2 pm you are meant to say Good Evening! Buona Notte or Notte translates >>Good Night<<.
What About CIAO BELLA?(Hi, beautiful). It is a warm-hearted way of greeting a woman which you know well. It is often used from woman to woman and from men to a woman. However, the other way round is almost non-existing. You will not hear a woman say Ciao Bello to a man! But Ciao Caro is common and translates “Hi Dear”! Nowadays it is more often used than Ciao Bella also among women. Ciao Cara! Hi, Dear! To a woman.
Do Italians speak English? Eh…”Mi scusi”
Don’t assume everyone understands and speaks English in Italy, cause you will be disappointed. Italians, like most Mediterranean people, do not like to learn foreign languages. A good 70% of Italians know a few words of English. So if you are willing to learn some basic Italian before going to Italy, those spare sentences will go a long way! By learning simple Italian words, you can make friends in Italy!
Learn these simple Italian words!
Grazie (Thank you)
Come, scusi (sorry I didn’t get it),
Non-capisco (I don’t understand)
Piacere (my pleasure..)
Buon Giorno (Good Day)
Buona Sera (Good Evening)
Buona Notte(Good Night)
It will put a big smile on Italians’ face. They will love it and appreciate your efforts to make yourself understood!
Get familiar with the funny Italian Slang Phrases.
If you have been brushing up your Italian months before going to Italy only to realise that you don’t get what people say, don’t worry, speaking slang – and dialect – is very popular in Italy. Italians will switch to Italian – hopefully with no accent – when they notice you are a foreigner.
Don’t worry we Italians don’t understand the many local slangs either! In Italy, there are hundreds of slangs and dozens of dialects throughout the peninsula. Each Italian region has its peculiarities, but if you are interested in learning more about the common Italian slang phrases, you need to pay attention to how people speak in Italy!
Here are just a few for a bit of fun:
Basta >>”That’s enough!” <<
Boh >> “I Don’t know” <<
Dai >> Com’on
Meno Male >>“Thank Goodness”!
Magari >>no translation but would translate… “if only …this could happen”! 🙂
Figurati >>”No Worries”!
Why do Italians speak so loud ?
Italians are famous for speaking loudly, it’s part of the Italian temperament, and it’s widely spread. However, I’d say that southern Italian are typically the loudest folks. And the nicest too! Ha, as a northern Italian I love and hate the warm-hearted temperament of southern Italians.
While Italians are generally well-mannered and hospitable with tourists, they tend to be quite reserved in the north. They are unlikely to strike up a conversation with a traveller walking past. In contrast, a southern Italian is likely to smile at you and enchant you with their storytelling.
Italian gestures – the good, the bad and the ugly
Next, to speaking loud, Italian gestures are also something Italians are known for in the world. That’s part of the colourful Italian culture that characterises the Italian spirit. While some are easy to recognise some are different, some others may be offensive if not use appropriate, so don’t just try to mimic Italian gestures if you don’t know what they mean. If in doubt, ask for an explanation. There are somehow funny gestures worth learning when you are travelling to Italy.
What makes the Italian Culture unique
Italian culture is all about Food, Fashion and Flair; what Italy is most known. All of them are deep-rooted in the Italians’ lifestyle and are essential values. They shine through their gestures, the way they dress, how they eat and speak. Here are a few things that stand out in the day-to-day life of Italians.
When you first visit Italy, no matter how extended your stay is, you will soon notice the importance of food in Italians’ daily lives. People are passionate about Italian food; they can talk about food traditions and recipes for hours.
How and where to drink coffee in Italy
Italians love their coffee. It is the first thing an Italian do in the morning. And it would be best if you did too when in Italy. They drink an espresso or a cappuccino or anything in between.
Either at home or in a bar. The “Italian Bar” is not a wine bar, it is the ordinary coffee shop, where you have the typical Italian breakfast: a cappuccino with brioche or the famous cornetto! When you order a coffee, feel free to customise your one, as you prefer, waiters are used to all different kinds of requests so that you may hear an espresso Corto macchiato caldo, espresso lungo macchiato freddo, in tazza piccola, grande, in bicchiere and so many more. In some cities, they have +30 different ways of serving coffee! As a coffee lover, be prepared for the fun!
Drinking coffee Etiquette in Italy
In general, you can drink as much coffee and whenever you want during the day. The myth about not ordering a cappuccino after 12.00 pm is something it NEVER existed. Not sure who made it up. People in Italy do drink cappuccino in the afternoon too. The only way you should not do is ordering a coffee (any type) for lunch, as a drink to your meal. If you do so, you will get a weird look. Coffee is okay soon after your meal, a shot of espresso, macchiato or corretto (w a shot of grappa). To recap a few don’ts:
1. Don’t order a LATTE cause latte means milk in Italian. They will serve you a glass of milk. Instead, say “Caffelatte or Latte Macchiato” which is similar to a cappuccino but in a glass and steamed milk only!
2. Don’t drink any coffee with your meal. It’s something you shouldn’t do in Italy!
Usual Time for Lunch and Dinner in Italy
Lunchtime and Dinner time in Italy varies depending on the location. In the North, Italy people tend to eat early, around 12.00-1.00 pm and 19-00-20.00 in the night. Whereas in the south (by south I mean from Rome down south) they eat later, for lunch 13.00-14.00 and 20.30-21.30. These for eating at home. If you go out to a restaurant, add one hour on top.
Some restaurants open early around 6.30-7.00, but it’s not common to go to a restaurant before 8.00 pm. So what if you want to eat earlier? You can get food from Bakeries, Take-aways or shops that sell fresh food-on-the-go the old good McDonald’s and any fast-food chains will serve food with no breaks.
The Best Places to Eat in Italy
If there is something we are proud of in the world is the exquisite Italian food. I’m always sorry to hear when people travelling from overseas don’t have a good experience. The only reason I can think of is getting into touristy places. But yes it does happen, that food is not up to your expectations.
Make sure you ask around when choosing a place where to eat in Italy. Prefer smaller restaurant outside the touristy areas and where the locals go for their lunch break or dinner.
Italians are very happy to share their best tips for eating out, so ask them! Look for a cosy Osteria or Trattoria; they usually have a daily menu of freshly cooked food. But if you don’t fancy eating out a lot, well there are a few hundreds of groceries and supermarkets chains in Italy where you can shop for groceries and all necessities.
You can also buy gourmet food, freshly cooked dishes at very reasonable prices. Street food is also popular but usually in festivals or at markets. Shop at a Mercato Della Frutta e Verdura for fresh food and excellent local produce! They are the best.
Shopping in Italy – How expensive in Italy.
Italy used to be a cheap country. In the 80s many people used to come from other EU countries over the weekend to shop here. In the last 30 years, Italy has become more expensive to live and travel around. However, there are ways to go to Italy on a budget and save money.
Restaurants are expensive, there are weird rules like the damn coperto, and staying in hotels is also costly. For solo travellers will have to pay the single supplement.
Some regions and cities are just overrated. You must know where to go, where to shop and where to eat to save money on your trip to Italy. If you travel for the first time is a bit difficult to gather all this information at once. I hope to give you a broad overview of what to do and not to do in Italy with my tips.
Shops and Restaurants Opening Hours in Italy
Opening hours in Italy are from 8.00 to 23.00 (we use 24 hours not am and pm). Only shopping malls and supermarkets have non-stop opening hours. Outside of a shopping mall, everything else has an extended lunch break between 2 to 4 hours.
Usually in main cities, shops open at 3-3.30 in the afternoon. But in summer it gets worse, shops on coastal towns both from North to South have the 4 hours lunch break, from 13.00-17.00 (1.00-5.00 pm) and when then they stay open till 11.00 pm every night.
Each shop or restaurant or coffee bar are closed on one week-day mostly Mondays or Tuesdays or Wednesdays. It is known as “turno di riposo” a simple “day of rest“. It is regular as they are open over weekends. Some smaller Osteria may be closed on Sundays too.
How do you pay in Italy? – Credit cards vs Using cash in Italy
Although in Italy you can use your credit or debit card in shops, restaurants, cafes, train and bus stations, almost everywhere, it depends where in Italy you are. In all main Italian cities and towns, in North and Central Italy cards are widely accepted, the southern you go the most difficult it gets though.
Some smaller shops have a 10 euro limit below this you will have to use cash. So I would highly recommend you taking money with you al the time. In South Italy and in all suburban areas you may have to use some cash in smaller outlets or shops.
The most popular cards are MasterCard and visa. American Express may be turned down in some places. Contactless payment is also accepted in supermarkets and everywhere where the sign is displayed. Debit cards with a chip work best but with those with a magnetic strip. Nowadays, you don’t need any more signature, but some debit and credit cards may require a security PIN to enter when you pay.
Tipping in Italy – Are you supposed to tip in Italy?
Tipping is as good as non-existent. You don’t need to tip a taxi driver in Italy. However, it’s up to you. If you want to show your gratitude for a taxi driver that has helped you finding a place or carrying your luggage, feel free to give him a tip. 1-3 Euro is what they would expect.
Rounding up the bill is also a good idea. The same for good hotels, eating at the restaurant, or with tour-guides. If the service is very satisfying, then tipping is okay. I wouldn’t tip in any other eateries where a coperto applies! A coperto is a fee that everyone hates but is part of the Italian traditions (covers the cutlery, table-cloth, bread, grissini, oil or butter, and the waiter service).
The minimum coperto fee is 1-1.50 up to 3 Euro per person, depending on their offer.
Travelling to Italy for the first time – How to get around
Getting around Italy is pretty much secure. The train and bus network is excellent and reliable. Car rental is something that needs thorough consideration. I would suggest it only for those itineraries that are not serviced by public transportation. Here are my best tips for travelling around Italy.
Things to know when using public transportation in Italy
Italy is known for its bus and train ticketing system, mainly because it’s different from other European countries. You need to purchase your ticket from a ticketing machine in train stations and for bus-tickets in a tabacchino or a newsagent.
You must validate your ticket before boarding the train. Many tickets validating machines across all trains stations across all rail tracks platforms and in the main entrance. If you fail you will get a fine and not knowing about it, will not help you.
Fine is between 50 and 200 Euro on trains. For buses, it’s the same. You can also purchase a ticket on city buses, but you will 99% get a chance, so make sure you have the exact money. A bus ride is usually 1.50 Euro in most cities.
Why you will love travelling by train in Italy
I love train travel, and this is my favourite way of getting around in Italy. The train service has improved in the last years. The Frecce is the most common fast trains to get from Milano to Rome and Naples and Florence, Venice, Verona etc. South of Rome things change dramatically; you are better off flying and taking a bus or hiring a car, rather than travelling by trains. There is also a high-speed train service and more expensive ITALO (around 300 Km /speed /hour).
Purchase Online your Train Tickets
For longer train journeys in Italy, you’d better off purchasing your ticket online and carrying with you a copy of the digital card on your mobile. It will wave the validating process. It would help if you showed your barcode. That will do! Moreover online there are many offers and train specials, really worth checking out.
Italian Train Strikes and Delays – Myths debunked for good!
In the 70s-80s, there used to be many strikes, but in the past 20 years, things have changed for the better and while there are still some now and then. They are mostly regional train strikes. Fact is that it is quite tricky to get to know about it. Unless you check in Google in the local newspaper or online, you will not automatically find out.
Train delays are also non-existing in northern Italy unless there is a real cause like a rail track accident or technical issues trains in Italy are by 90% on time! Moreover please note that if you take a FRECCE Train, a this has a considerable delays Trenitalia is supposed to reimburse part of your ticket.
Public toilets in train stations are not for free!
Some are, but most aren’t. In most train stations and public places, you will have to pay 1 Euro for accessing a public toilet. On rest-areas on highways are usually free tipping. They are very clean and safe.
Renting a car in Italy – The pros and cons
Getting about by car in Italy is not my first choice way of getting around in Italy. For many reasons. Driving a car on the Italian highways is not fun at all. Italian drivers are crazy, and traffic congestion is something terrible. If you are not a good driver or don’t like driving on the right, I would not put your life in danger. Thankfully there are many good alternatives to Driving in Italy. Train Travel and Bus Travel. Hiring a car isn’t cheap, around 50-70 Euro a day depending on the vehicle.
On top of that, you will have to pay when driving on highways, the Italians toll roads are so expensive, it almost doubles the amount of petrol you will use for a ride.
Suppose you plan to travel alone in Italy, renting a car will not be an economical way of getting around. You’d better use a car-sharing service like BlaBlacar as a cheaper and safer alternative.
Tips for crossing roads in Italy
Please don’t assume that Italian drivers stop when you attempt to cross the street, cause in 90% of cases they will not. Period. However, you have the right to cross roads safely, of course. For your safety, ensure that the driver has seen you by signalising that you want to pass. Best tip: cross where a traffic light is or on zebra stripes. When a larger group of people gather, it’s safer cause drivers have no choice than to stop!
Medical Service for overseas travellers in Italy
If you are an EU citizen get the free medical card before visiting Italy; it will entitle you to the same health care assistance you have in your own country of residence. As an overseas traveller, you should get a travel insurance quote (like this one I use for my travels.)
Especially when hiking in Italy the new rules and regulations are stringent for us Italian too) without proper travel insurance covering you for adventures in the mountain, you will have to pay for Alpine Rescue Services and Assistance if you have an accident.
While this list is probably not complete, I hope this list of things before going to Italy gives you a basic understanding of what you can do and cannot do when travelling around the country.
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First published in 2018, last updated in Jan 2021
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