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40 Things You Need To Know Before Traveling in Italy

“Eat the spaghetti to forget your regretti”

Chances are, you’ve heard of this wonderful country where all your wildest pasta and gelato dreams come true. It’s no surprise that people flock to this boot-shaped country each year, eager to experience Italy’s renown culinary scene and to marvel at some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. I don’t know a single person who hasn’t fallen in love with Italy; for some, it happens the moment you hear your first “Mamma Mia!”, or when you receive your first double-cheeked kiss from a sweet nonno (grandfather). Perhaps it’s when you take a bite of your very first real pizza, tasting the freshness of the tomatoes grown just a kilometer away. The moment it happens may be the first time you taste limoncello on your lips, or when you see the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Maybe it’s when you look out into the rolling hills of Tuscany and wine vineyards of Chianti, or swim amongst the dramatic cliffs of the Riviera in Cinque Terre, or hike to the rugged mountaintops of the Dolomites and swim in the sparkling seas of Puglia. Each visitor to Italy has a different experience of love, but it always happens, and it’s what leaves us with hearts in our eyes and imprints on our hearts.

With 55 UNESCO world heritage sites (and counting), Italy’s protected beauty should be a must see on your travel bucket list. But before you visit, there are several important things that you should know, in order to avoid costly mistakes or embarrassing tourist faux pas, and I’m here to help you with that!

Matera, Southern Italy

Sasha and I have spent a cumulative total of two months in Italy, covering the country from top to bottom, and East to West. You can find all of my Italy blog posts below.

10 Unmissable Villages and Beaches in Puglia
How to Visit Cinque Terre – The Italian Riviera
Fiats, Chocolate and Lakes – The Foodie Town of Torino
Lake Garda & Emilia-Romagna
Everything You Need to Know About Visiting Venice and the Biennale 
Italian Alps – Hiking in the Dolomites
Inland Tuscany: Siena, San Gimignano & Florence
10 Things to Do in Rome, Italy’s Eternal City
Turning 30 in Vescovato

Whether you’re planning a trip to Italy in the future or you’ve already visited and loved it so much you want to return, here are 40 things you need to know before you travel to Italy. If I missed any, feel free to leave them in the comments section below! I love writing these “know before you go” posts because they have helped me so much in my own travel planning. My most popular one has been 61 Things You Should Know Before Visiting Japan.

The Language, The People and The Attire

1) People actually say “Mamma Mia!” for anything ranging from “no way” to “wow” to “oh my God”. It spans a wide emotional range and is a wonderful expression of life.

2) Italians are passionate; if you see an Italian speaking without their hands gesticulating feverishly, voice raising and arms flailing about, I am sorry to tell you that this person is likely not Italian.

3) You will hear the word, allora everywhere you go, and you’ll probably wonder what this means and why everyone is saying it. Albeit a bit anticlimactic, it is simply a filler word such as so, okay, well or the. It is also a way to begin a sentence.

4) It is polite to say “buon appetito!” to anybody who is about to enjoy a meal, even if you are walking past them and they are strangers. I witnessed a beautiful human interaction while in La Spezia near Cinque Terre: two punky-looking twenty-something-year-old guys were sitting on a bench smoking a cigarette and eating junk food (chips and a hamburger), pants low around their hips exposing their boxers. An elderly lady with a cane was walking towards them with a look of scorn on her face. I thought she would give them a dirty look as she passed, thinking they were a bunch of young hooligans. Instead, as she approached, she gave them a big smile and said, “buon appetito!” Making eye contact with her, the two guys returned the smile and replied with, “grazie signora.” And she went on her way. I thought this was such a sweet encounter and not something I often see in America. The level of respect here for elders is lovely, and I’ve noticed it all over Italy. It warms my heart. 

5) Get used to being stared at, especially if you’re visiting the smaller villages less frequented by tourists. Do not take offense to this; they are merely curious and probably want to know where you’re from and if you’re staying with anyone they know in their village. Sasha is nearly two meters tall (6’7″) and fair skinned, so he gets a lot of stares.

6) (Most) people dress well in Italy, even the nonnas (grandmas) in smaller villages. Unless you’re on the sea or going for a run, it is not as acceptable to dress sloppily (i.e. workout clothing in the city.) We also noticed that Northern Italy seemed to be less body conservative than Southern Italy (i.e. Northern beaches had more topless women, and we saw zero topless women in the South.)

7) PDA (public displays of affection) really is a thing here, and that’s an understatement. And you won’t just see it in teenagers young and in love. We giggled when we passed a grown adult couple making out on a park bench, and had to stop ourselves from staring when we later saw a couple probably in their 70’s doing the same! I love it! Keeping that love alive!

8) Children are revered in Italy. If you’re traveling with your baby or small children (especially if they’re really cute or have big cheeks), do not be surprised if a nonna (grandmother) comes right up to them and takes their cheeks in her hand. This is a loving gesture, and you should not be alarmed.

The Food & The Tipping Culture

9) Gelato (ice cream in Italian) is not just a dessert, it is its own food group and a way of life. Gelato merely becomes an accessory, like a must-have item of your everyday wardrobe.

10) Most restaurants stop serving food between the hours of 3:00 – 7:30 PM, which I appropriately named “the starvation window”, as we made the mistake several times before we learned why nobody was serving food, and ended up hungry and grumpy, eventually succumbing to tiding ourselves over with a few gelato (I know, tough life, right? I guess I’ll eat a gelato for a snack before dinner, twist my arm.) Be sure to plan your meals around these time frames, and have some snacks handy. Something to note is that the restaurant may still stay open, but their kitchen will be closed and they will only serve drinks, nuts or bread, so you can’t always rely on the published hours on TripAdvisor or Google. Also, keep in mind that many shops and restaurants are closed on Sundays.

11) Is tipping necessary in Italy? The short answer is: not really (and don’t worry, we have verified this with a handful of locals as well as heard it on Rick Steves’ audio guides.) Unlike in America, Italy pays their servers a living wage rather than relying on patrons to make up for the lack of income in tips. In Italy, you do not need to tip a percentage of your total bill. Four of the local Italian friends I’ve made here, say that they never tip unless it’s outstanding service, or if the bill is higher than €50. If you’re paying with cash and the bill is €20 or under, a good rule of thumb is to simply round to the nearest euro, or if you’re paying by card, leave a €1 coin. If the service was really outstanding, or the bill is higher, your server will appreciate the gesture of leaving a few euro coins. It will be highly appreciated but never expected. This goes for all services from dining to haircuts, manicures, cafes, massages, etc. This is one of the reasons you should always carry a coin purse. One thing to note, is that if you overtip, it may be seen as flaunting your wealth, which is not appreciated, so keep that in mind.

12) What is a Coperto? A coperto is a standard fee in nearly all Italian restaurants across the country and is a service or “tableware” charge. Unfortunately this charge is unavoidable, even if you don’t touch the bread. In some restaurants, part or all of this charge goes to the server, which is why tipping is not necessary.

13) Gas stations often have delicious food! If you’re from America, all your preconceived notions of the standard Twinkie-and-Pringles-filled gas stations, will be immediately dispelled the moment you enter an Italian gas station. If you’re on a road trip in Italy, you will be delighted to find anything from pizza to pasta, healthy salads and even steaks, cooked to your liking, at the larger service stations. (AutoGrill is legit!) AutoGrills actually serve local food based on the region. Unlike in America, the stores are not all standardized. Italians LOVE regional cuisine and fresh ingredients.

14) When you order an espresso or light snack such as a panino, if you don’t want to pay the coperto (service charge), then don’t sit down at a table. Once you sit, you are charged the coperto. If you drink the coffee and eat your snack at the bar (this is very common and you will see locals doing it all the time), you’ll avoid the coperto (which is typically €1 – €3 per person).

15) You will often see the initials D.O.P printed on food and beverage labels or on restaurant menus. D.O.P. = Protected Region of Origin. This simply means that the ingredients are local.

16) There are actual rules in Italy when it comes to how you consume a meal. You can order a cappuccino (espresso with a small amount of steamed milk) in the morning, but after lunch, it is considered nearly blasphemous to order espresso with milk. They see milk as a heavy substance, and you would never put milk atop tomatoes, for example. That’s how they see it; do not layer milk in your stomach after eating pasta or pizza, it just doesn’t sit well together.

The other day we enjoyed lunch at a beautiful restaurant run by a husband and wife overlooking the Amalfi Coast (it’s rated the #4 most romantic restaurant in all of Italy), and I ordered a mojito. The husband (and owner), said, “no, no, it’s no good to have the mojito with pasta because of the sugar. It will change the flavor of the sauce in the pasta.” I very much appreciated his advice, and I asked him what I should order instead. He said, “I will bring you a surprise.” – Wonderful! Out came a Prosecco with fresh squeezed orange juice (mimosa), and it paired wonderfully. In America the customer is always right, but in Italy, you should listen to and trust the locals. They know what’s right.

17) When shopping at a mercato (market / grocery store), you will need to weigh fruits and vegetables and print out a sticker with a bar code on it, to stick to the plastic bag. If you bring to the checkout counter, loose fruits or vegetables, such as an onion or peppers, the clerk will tell you to go back and weigh it. Sometimes there is a designated clerk to do it for you, but most of the time you’ll need to do it yourself, so just enter the number listed on the item, and it prints out a sticker for you.

18) In Italy, pizza will be served to you uncut. 😳 The first time we saw this, we were so confused and thought perhaps the Chef forgot. Nope! That’s how the locals do it! You’re meant to cut it on your own with a fork and knife.

19) When paying, always select “euro” on the payment machine rather than your country’s local currency, to ensure you are charged by your bank’s conversion.

20) In America, we have become accustomed to saying, “I don’t need a receipt” when shopping at a grocery store or shop, to save paper. However, in Italy you must take your receipt and keep it with you until you are 100 meters away from the store / restaurant where you made a purchase. Police can actually stop you and ask to see the receipt when you exit an establishment, and if you don’t have it with you, they can ticket you.

21) How to order meals in Italy: The first time an Italian menu was put in front of us, we spoke maybe two words in Italian and we were hopelessly lost. Thankfully, after spending quite a bit of time here, we’ve learned more of the language, the customs, and how to order food. I’ve created for you, a short guide:

Antipasti –  appetizer, usually smaller dishes

Primi/Primo/Minestre – first course. These dishes are often the same portion size as a secondi dish, so it is perfectly acceptable to order a primi as your main

Secondi/Secondo – second course

*Note: You do not have to order a primi and a secondi. There is no written rule on how you should order. Have a look around you and see what the portion sizes are and that should help you determine how much you need based on the level of your appetite

Pasta and Pizze (pizza) are often in their own categories

Contorno – side dishes. Unlike in America where most mains come with a starch, a vegetable and a protein, in Italy dishes are typically served a la carte. For example, a whole fish will simply come on a plate with a few slices of carrot as a garnish. A pasta dish will be only pasta with its accompanied sauce. If you want extra veggies, you must order them as a side dish.

Fish in Italy

Dolci – dessert

Mare – seafood

Terra – from the Earth (typically meat, or carne)

22) Breakfast is not a thing in Italy. Literally, when you enter “breakfast” into Googlemaps in Italy, it comes up with bed & breakfast accommodation. Italians are quite content merely with a cornetto (croissant), espresso and a cigarette. If you’re a breakfast or brunch person, prepare for this by stopping at the local mercato (market) and pick up some eggs and prosciutto to make at home.

Here we have a cornetto amareno (cream and fruit-filled), a bio grapefruit soda, and Finocchietto (fennel liquor).

Holidays

23) The 15th of August begins a holiday called Ferragosto, where it seems that nearly half of Italy shuts down and heads to the sea for their holiday. This means that many shops and restaurants in cities (even large ones like Torino) will be closed and will look like a ghost town. The plus side: you get the city to yourself!

Turin
One of the central piazzas of Turin, nearly completely empty on the 16th of August.

I would also advise you to avoid traveling in coastal areas in August, unless you’re okay with beaches that will look like this:

Lana Monachile in August – Polignano a Mare, Puglia

Driving in Italy

What Is It Like To Drive In Italy?

I’m not going to lie to you; driving in Italy (depending on where you are in the country), can be quite harrowing. People drive fast, swerve in and out of lanes like snakes racing to catch their prey, Vespas and motorcycles whiz by you within a few centimeters, people don’t use their indicators, and highway merges are shorter than a corgi’s tail. Here are a few tips to help you be aware of what it’s like to drive in Italy:

24) There are SOS pullouts nearly every 200 yards. These are also very commonly used for “pee breaks” if there are few rest areas around, as you will see toilet paper everywhere, which is a shame because of the litter, but when you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go.

25) Be prepared for tolls; they are everywhere. You’ll take the ticket first and pay later upon exiting. The price will be determined by the distance you drove.

26) Rent a car with diesel because diesel gas is cheaper in Italy.

27) All Italian rental cars come with a self-adjusted timer on the right corner of the windshield inside the car. This is for when you park somewhere that requires you to pay for a specific amount of time. For example, if the limit is three hours and you arrive at 12 noon, you set your car timer to 15:00 hours so the parking attendants know the time you arrived.

28) Watch out for limited traffic zones, which exist in many cities. They are marked as a white sign with a red circle in the middle, that says “zona traffico limitato” with a video camera atop. If you accidentally go through one of these, you’re unfortunately out of luck because the camera will take a photo of your license plate and send the bill to your rental car agency up to one year later!!! Sasha and I can attest to this because it happened to us, and we actually received the bill 11 months later! Be vigilant, as the signs are often difficult to spot, or not in obvious areas!

29) Just as in many other countries, the left lane is the fast lane and the lane used for passing. You are not meant to stay in the left lane. Unlike in America where slow people in the fast lane get honked at, and the fast driver frustratedly gets into the right lane to pass, and then moves back into the left lane, in Italy if you drive slowly in the fast lane, you will be tailgated and flashed with brights until you move over. People will not pass you when you’re in the left lane, YOU are expected to move over, so unless you want a car hot on your tail for a good five minutes, you’d better move over when a fast car approaches, or simply stay in the right lane. You might deduce from this observation that Italians are a bit stubborn, perhaps?

30) Merges on the highways are very short; be prepared to step up your (safe) aggressive driving game in Italy if you want to blend in with the flow of traffic.

31) Unlike in America, the land of driving and ridiculously over-sized beverages, you will not find cup holders in cars in Italy. In fact, ordering a drink for takeaway is still a strange concept here, and you may get some confused looks from baristas. Most locals sip their espresso at the counter or at a restaurant, finish it, and then leave.

32) Italians are generally not in a hurry (unless you’re in larger cities), and the pace of life can be frustrating if you’re trying to get somewhere. Italians never seem to be in a hurry, until they get on the road and start driving, then all hell breaks loose. I found this so curious, because Italians are so patient; they’ll wait for 15 minutes in queue at a mercato for their number to be called at the deli counter, whilst an old nonna takes her sweet time slicing the salami, walking slowly to put it back in its place, wrap it carefully, before finally moving on to the next customer. But once they get on the road, their patience is out the window.

33) Cops rarely patrol speed on the highways. Instead, there are speed cameras, which are indicated by a sign with an outline of a policeman. Coming from America where cops are always hiding at every turn, waiting to pull you over for going 5 miles per hour over the speed limit, this was a bit strange for us not to see them. Because of this, locals know exactly where the cameras are located, and drive very fast and often swerve into and out of lanes without using their signal, which leads me to the next point:

34) Drivers rarely use their indicators (turn signals), but this is one example that I would ask you not to “do as the Romans do”. Using your turn signal is much safer for everyone on the road, so please use it.

35) Just like in most other countries in the world (besides the U.S.), it is customary to turn on your hazard lights when approaching a slow down. It’s best to leave them flashing until the driver behind you turns on their hazard lights to alert the driver behind them.

36) PARKING: Blue lines means you can park, but you have to pay, so look for the machine. White lines mean it’s free (but always double check!)

37) Enter “parcheggio” into Googlemaps to find car parks in cities.

38) Always carry a coin purse, as many machines in Italy still only accept coins, or the credit card reader doesn’t work.

39) A bullseye on a sign signifies the town center (be careful, as this is where many of the zona trafico limitayos are located!)

40) Fiats are everywhere. They’re manufactured in Turin and they proudly support their local automaker!

Now you are well-equipped to visit Italy and already have some local knowledge under your belt!

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