Mike Grindle is a digital nomad and culture writer sharing insights from his travels
Known for its incredible architecture, fashion, Mediterranean coasts, and some of the world's best cuisine, Italy is a popular bucket-list destination for many. But despite being a tourist hotspot, the people of Italy have also retained many proud cultural traditions. As such, there are certain etiquettes and customs any visitor will do well to understand if they don't wish to stand out as a bumbling tourist.
Of course, Italians are also polite and good-natured; no one's going to get mad if you order the wrong coffee or eat your spaghetti the wrong way. Nonetheless, here are eight things worth knowing in advance to avoid misunderstandings or embarrassment.
1. Dinner Starts After 7
Italians don't eat as late as the Spanish, but dinner doesn't typically start until after 7 pm. So don't be surprised if you struggle to find a place to eat before then (unless you're in the especially touristy areas). Furthermore, it's worth noting that restauranters tend to take a casual approach to business hours, and places will often shut down for the weekend without much notice.
2. How to navigate Coffee Culture
Coffee is a big deal in Italy, but it can also be a bit of a culture shock for those who are used to coffee houses. Firstly, don't be looking for your favorite frappuccino or pumpkin-spiced latte. It isn't on the menu. Instead, you'll find espresso, macchiato, or cappuccino are typically your three choices. And don't order a latte unless you want a glass of milk.
Italians are not big on the idea of milk in the afternoon or on a full stomach, partly because lactose intolerance is more prevalent in Italy compared to their butter-eating cousins to the north. So while you can still order a cappuccino later in the day, you might get a few funny looks.
Finally, don't plan on sitting in a cafe with your laptop. That kind of cafe culture doesn't exist there. But don't let all this info put you off. Not only do Italians make a great cup of coffee, but coffee is also really cheap there, often costing less than a couple of euros.
3. Italians Don't Tip (But It's Also Not That Simple)
Tipping isn't a thing in Italy since servers get paid a fair salary. So while no one will complain if you insist on it, know it's neither required nor expected. However, you will find some other charges on your bill that might confound you at first. Namely the 'Coperto' and 'Sercizio' charges.
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Coperto is essentially the charge for the seat and is charged per person. So, if you're going in a large group, expect a higher cost. Servizio is less common, but you might encounter it in the more touristy areas. It's a charge for the service you've received, but unlike a tip, it doesn't necessarily go to the staff. The Servizio often comes to 10%-20% of the meal. Keep in mind that, according to Italian law, the Servizio must be displayed prominently on the restaurant's menu, so don't let yourself get duped.
4. Vatican City Has a Dress Code
The Vatican city and many churches and other religious sites throughout Italy enforce strict dress codes for both women and men. No one found wearing low-cut or sleeveless tops, miniskirts, hats, or shorts is permitted entry. You might disagree with it, but you'll have to respect it if you want to enter sites such as the Vatican museum, the basilica, or the Sistan chapel.
5. Shopping? Wait Till 4 pm
Italians take Riposo (Italy's version of a siesta) very seriously, especially during the hot summer months. When the early afternoon rolls around, Italians take a few hours to head home, eat lunch and relax, meaning most things shut down. If you've ever faced the mid-afternoon Italian summer sun, you'll soon understand why (and will probably want to take a Riposo yourself).
6. Validate Your Train Tickets
You can save yourself a lot of money by staying close to the metro in Italy, and it's relatively straightforward to use. However, there are a couple of things you need to keep in mind. Firstly, if you've got any children under the age of ten, you don't need to buy them a ticket as they can ride with you for free! Secondly, buying a ticket is only the first step. You also have to validate it at a machine before you board. If you don't, you might find yourself facing a fine and a grumpy inspector.
7. It Pays to Learn a Few Words of the Language
It's true that a lot of Italians know English, but don't assume that everyone you encounter does (the majority don't). In any case, it always pays to show good manners in your host's language. Here are just a few words and phrases that will help you get by:
- "Ciao" - hello and goodbye
- "Grazie" - thanks
- "Non-Capisco" - I don't understand
- Scusi – Sorry.
- Non-parlo Italiano – I don't speak Italian.
8. Forget Everything You “Know” About Italian Cuisine
Italian food is incredible, but many people have misconceptions about what to expect when they visit. Despite what you've seen on the telly, Italians don't eat bolognese every other day, and garlic bread and pepperoni don't even exist there. A lot of the food is also very regionalized. For example, you'll need to head to Naples for truly incredible (and surprisingly cheap) pizza, and cannolis are a Sicily thing.
© 2022 Mike Grindle