- By AbruzzoCibus
- On Jan 15, 2019
It’s easy to find information about currency, passports, and getting a visa, but if you’re wondering what you really need to know before you travel to Italy, this post is for you. Find out how to eat in a restaurant, what to wear, and how to avoid a coffee faux pas – along with lots of other essential information for first-time visitors. Did we miss something you’re dying to know? Let us know in the comments!
Eat like a local
Dining out is one of Italy’s great joys. And there’s no shortage of eateries, with everything from Michelin-starred restaurants to neighbourhood trattorias, wine bars, cafes and pizzerias. Italians generally eat late, so if you want to fit in, stop for lunch at around 1:30 pm and dinner at 8:30 to 9 pm – the further south you go, the later they eat.
A full Italian meal consists of an antipasto, a “primo” (usually pasta or risotto), “secondo” (main course, typically fish or meat), “contorno” (side dish), and “dolce” (dessert). You’re not expected to eat all that, so feel free to mix ‘n’ match when ordering. And when you’ve finished, ask for the bill – it won’t be delivered automatically.
Some other pointers: eat spaghetti with a fork, not a spoon. Never eat bread with pasta, though it’s OK to wipe up any leftover sauce with it. Drink wine with pasta and beer with pizzas. It’s fine to eat pizza with your hands.
Most of the famous attractions have skip-the-line options
Italy’s historic cities are littered with awe-inspiring art and famous buildings, and often sightseeing is just a case of walking the streets. But for top sights, entrance queues are the norm. You can avoid long, slow lines by booking tickets in advance for most of the attractions you want to see. Alternatively, try to arrive first thing in the morning or late afternoon when the queues have died down.
Museum opening times vary, but many are closed on Mondays. Also, state museums are free on the first Sunday of each month.
Learn basic phrases before you go
A must for any country you visit. If you can, it would be useful to learn at least a few phrases such as how to ask for directions, how to ask the price of something, the correct forms of excuse me, please and thank you, and perhaps even how to say you have an allergy to certain foods or medications in case of an emergency. Although most large tourist cities in Italy have plenty of English speakers, never underestimate how something as small as a courtesy in the local language can go a long way.
“Coperto”, “servizio” & “mancia”
Your restaurant bill will look decidedly different from what you’re used to at home. In addition to your food charges (sales tax is included in the price), you’ll see a few other “mystery” charges.
The “coperto” is basically a cover charge. It’s charged per person, and even children will be hit with the fee. In less popular areas, it’s typically between €1 and €2, but in some restaurants it can be higher (€4 or €5, or even more). The coperto should be listed on the menu, so be sure to check to avoid an unpleasant surprise.
The “servizio” is a type of “service charge,” and it more or less replaces the tip. In practice, it’s more of a tourist tax, since you see it most often in the popular tourist areas of Rome, Venice, Florence, and the Amalfi Coast. It’s usually between 10% and 20% of the bill—and like the coperto, it should be listed on the menu.
The “mancia” is what Americans would consider a tip. Tipping on a trip to Italy is a bit different from tipping in the US because a service charge is automatically added to your bill in restaurants. For good service, you can round up your bill a few Euro to say “grazie.”
Stopping at a cafe for a quick coffee is one of the great rituals of Italian life. To do it like a local, first pay at the cash register, then, armed with your receipt, give the barista your order. When it arrives, drink standing at the bar – sitting at a table is fine but takes longer and costs more.
The classic Italian caffè is an espresso – though, strangely, the term espresso is hardly ever used in Italy. Cappuccinos are popular for breakfast and are often paired with a “cornetto” (an Italian croissant).
When eating in restaurants, un caffè after dessert is OK, but not with your main meal.
Remember to validate your train ticket
Train travel is cheap in Italy compared to other countries in Europe, and there are trains to get you pretty much anywhere you want to go. In most cases, the train schedules are easy to decipher. Buying a ticket is simple too.
But pay attention: you must validate your ticket before you board the train! Look for the validation machine and insert the ticket so that it prints the date and time. You will probably need to show your ticket to the conductor before or during your journey, and if it isn’t validated, you won’t be allowed to travel.
Enjoy Italian “riposo”
“Chiuso” means “closed” in Italian—and that’s exactly what just about everything will be during “riposo”, the afternoon rest. It generally lasts about two hours and takes place sometime between 1:30 and 4:00 pm, depending on the business. Banks close, shops close, museums close — even most restaurants and bars close except in the most touristy areas.
Don’t fight it — enjoy it! Take a little nap yourself, or just stroll in a park and enjoy a picnic lunch. It’s easy to fall in love with the Italian rhythms of life!
Dress like a local
For your travel in Italy, you’ll have to dress comfortably for sightseeing because you’ll be walking a lot. Practical shoes are a must as cobblestoned streets play havoc with heels and ankles.
As a general rule, Italians care deeply about clothing and appearance. They view it as a sign of respect, for themselves and for others. For this reason, religious sites require appropriate attire, that includes covered legs and shoulders. Long sleeves shirts or blouses and skirts or long pants are a good idea — and they do double-duty at the nicer restaurants, where you can’t get in with shorts, flip-flops, and other casual clothing you might bring on vacation.