Italians are an easygoing bunch from what I’ve found, so take this article with a grain of salt. If you want be a cultural chameleon though and fit in as much as possible, here is a list of what not to do in Italy.
- Don’t go in August. Not only is Italy very hot in August, but it is also a popular month for Italians to vacation, which means restaurants, shops, and other venues may be closed.
- Don’t rent a car if you can avoid it. Many cities in Italy have limited access and you can get a big fine if you drive into a ZTL (zono traffico limitato). Italy has an excellent infrastructure in the tourist areas for public transportation. If you do have to rent a car, make sure to get an international driving permit from AAA/CAA.
- Don’t sit down at the caffè for your morning espresso. If you want the lowest price for your coffee, stand at the counter and have your drink there. There is a higher price for those who take a seat. If you do take a seat though, take your time and enjoy your drink and the view.
- Don’t tip excessively. Servers get paid a living wage and don’t count on tips like they do in the United States, so they only expect you to round up slightly for a bill…if at all.
- Don’t ask for a doggy bag. If you find that Italian portion sizes are too big for you, especially if you plan on ordering several courses, ask for a half portion (mezza porzione) of your primo course.
- Don’t forget to check the hours of opening. Many businesses and churches close in the afternoon for a few hours. Restaurants, too, open for lunch then close and reopen for dinner at 7 or 7:30. Make sure to check.
- Don’t bare too much skin in church—covering shoulders is standard in most churches and some request that knees be covered, as well. If I’m wearing a sleeveless top, I carry a scarf or lightweight sweater to cover my shoulders.
- Don’t order pineapple on pizza. This is a good rule, in general.
- Don’t ask for steak sauce or—god forbid—ketchup on a Florentine steak. The bistecca alla fiorentina is a national treasure. Restaurants will serve it at the doneness that they think is perfect (rare to medium-rare, generally). I don’t know a self-respecting restaurant that would serve it with steak sauce or ketchup.
- Don’t cut your pasta…twirl. Cutting pasta is something done for a child. Italians have mastered the art of twirling long pasta around a fork and effortlessly consuming it. If you want to fit in, you will too.
- Don’t expect tap water with your meal. Unlike in North America, water isn’t automatically brought to your table when you sit at a restaurant. You are expected to purchase water to go with your meal—sparkling or still.
- Don’t expect bread either. Unlike many Italian restaurants in North America, bread is generally not brought to the table before the meal. Most Italians use the bread to scoop up the leftover sauce from their pasta, so they ask for the bread with their meal.
- Don’t assume your check will be brought to you after a meal. You will likely have to ask for the bill, “il conto, per favore.”
- Don’t eat at a tourist trap. Easy to say, right? To find non-touristy eateries, look for ones that have menus in Italian (most restaurants will give you a menu in English if needed, but be wary of those whose menu is automatically in multiple languages), serve seasonal dishes that change regularly (menus will show if they are serving frozen food), have smaller selections, serve regional cuisine (avoid those serving typical foreign dishes in addition to Italian which means they’re pandering to tourists), have people eating there who are speaking Italian, open after 7 for dinner (means they are catering to local expectations of dinner times), and do not serve Italian-American cuisine.
- Don’t miss out on the major sites and experiences. You’re in Italy—and likely traveled far to do it—see the Colosseum, the Vatican, toss a coin in the Trevi, take a silly picture with the Leaning Tower of Pisa, go on a gondola ride in Venice, and generally take advantage of all the history, art, and culture you can. See my link for Tour Guy below for tours I find excellent.
- Don’t forget the niceties—per favore (please), grazie (thank you), Buongiorno (good day).
- Don’t expect washcloths. I have been in numerous hotels and short-term rentals that didn’t have washcloths–just hand towels and bath towels. I bring my own.
There are many more tips I can think of regarding what not to do in Italy, but I don’t want to give a negative impression. These are not rules, but just Italy travel tips so you can fit in and feel comfortable. Italy has dining and cultural norms that are different from other countries and may seem foreign to those traveling there for the first time. I enjoy trying to be a cultural chameleon (even though I’m sure my Americanness comes across); if you do too, hopefully, you will find these tips helpful for your next Italy vacation.
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