Italy is at the top of many people’s bucket lists, and for good reason! After all, it’s home to some of the best food, history, and people in the world. I’ve spent a good deal of time in Italy, and like many, have fallen absolutely in love with it.
While you may be expecting pizza, pasta, and the Tower of Pisa, there are a few other things that might surprise you about this complex country and its culture. So I’ve come up with a list of what you need to know about traveling to Italy for the first time.
Dining is Different
Dining in Italy takes a small learning curve. There are a few key things to know.
1. The Italian dinner hour is later. It’s not Spain late, but it typically starts around 7:30 or 8pm. If you go to a restaurant before this time, you might be the only one there, or be surrounded by the company of other Americans.
2. Servers are not being rude if they ignore you. After servers take your order, you may not see them again until you motion to them for the check. Dinner is not meant to be rushed, so servers are simply being polite by letting you enjoy your meal uninterrupted.
3. You do not need to tip in Italy, but you can expect to be charged a coperto (usually around 2 euros) which is a per-person fee for sit-down-restaurants. This usually covers the price of bread and sometimes water.
4. Speaking of bread, it’s not really on the table to snack on before your food comes out, although you certainly can. But it’s really for you to use to scoop up the excess sauce and goodness from your meal.
5. The menu will contain four courses: antipasti (appetizer), primi piatti (first course, usually pasta), secondi piatti (a main), and dolce (dessert). You are not expected to order all four, but to enjoy a meal Italian style, I’d recommend ordering at least 2 courses.
6. It’s not common to bring your leftovers home. If you ask for a “to-go box” your server will probably look at you funny. You might have a little more luck by using the term “take-away” but even then it’s a little iffy. An exception to this is ordering pizza to take out, but those are usually from pizzerias, not ristorantes.
Apertivo…The Better Happy Hour
Before dinner, go enjoy “apertivo” at a restaurant or café. Easily one of my favorite parts of Italian culture right here. You’ll pay anything from 5-12 euros to participate in apertivo, and for that get your choice of drink plus access to an endless buffet of small snacks. Some apertivos have such a generous selection of food that you might end up skipping your dinner plans altogether.
Cash is King
In bigger city centers, card is more widely accepted, but you should always keep cash on you when visiting smaller towns. Don’t worry about exchanging money before your trip; it’s not difficult to find ATMs.
Not All Gelato is Created Equal
All gelato is pretty good, but it’s definitely not all created equal. You might as well spend your euros, time, and calories on the best. Steer away from super brightly colored gelato piled high in the windows. Natural, fresh gelato won’t come in hot pink, and probably won’t be served first thing in the morning either.
Don’t Ask for a Latte or Coffee To-Go
Italian coffee culture is beautiful, but it’s very different than in the States.
1. A café is often called a bar. If it’s 8am and someone says “let’s meet at the bar” that’s what they mean. Probably…
2. When walking around the streets of Florence or Rome, you’ll notice something missing: people holding to-go coffee cups. Italians enjoy their coffee at the café, not on the road. They usually stand at the bar for a few minutes to drink their espresso and maybe have a pastry before heading to work. If you don’t want to stand at the bar, you can also sit inside most cafes, but you may end up paying a “coperto.”
3. Sometimes you pay for your drink before you take it, sometimes after. The best way to know how to navigate a café is just to watch the people around you.
4. The most common drinks to order are caffé (espresso) and cappuccino (espresso and steamed and foamed milk). If you need your large cup of American coffee, order a caffé americano (espresso and hot water).
5. After 11am, Italians don’t typically order creamy drinks like cappuccino, but they will have caffé (remember, espresso) throughout the day or after dinner.
6. One more hint: don’t order a latte unless you’re really craving a cup of warm milk, because that’s what you’ll get. Your better bet is ordering a latte macchiato or cappuccino.
You May Have to Pay for the Restroom
Public restrooms aren’t hard to find in Italy, but be prepared to cough up a euro. But no big deal. The restrooms are almost always clean, and you don’t have to pretend to be a customer at some random bar to use them–win-win!
Businesses Close on Sundays
A lot of businesses close on Sunday, so plan accordingly. Another time that you might find the streets to be mysteriously quiet is in the afternoons from 1-4pm. This is a traditional midday break time but it is not a siesta. Italians don’t take naps during the day, but they do take longer lunches, often at home with their families.
Travel by Train and Always Validate Your Ticket
Italy has fantastic train systems. Using Trenitalia or Italo services, you can get to just about anywhere. Buy your ticket online and use your phone, or buy a paper ticket at the station. If your ticket is not on your phone, make sure to validate it before you board, using one of the green and white machines along the platforms.
Regional Differences in Italy
Italy is made up of a lot of different regions, and you may notice distinctions between them. Rome, Florence, and Venice are all in different regions of Italy, and they each have unique history, style, and food. Research the place you are visiting before you go, so you can seek out the specialties of that region.
Anything I left out that you think someone should know about their first trip to Italy? Leave it in the comments below!
While you’re planning your trip to Italy, add Lake Como to your itinerary. After the hustle and crowds of Venice and Milan, take a train bit farther north to one of the lakefront towns to relax for a few days.
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