By Jessica Russo
Traveling to Italy? Here's what you need to know before you go!
Culture and customs
Don't always say "ciao"
Most Americans were taught that "ciao" is the go-to word when saying "hello" to an Italian person. If it's your close friend, sure, "ciao" away! In Italy, however, most people expect the more formal greetings of "buon giorno" if it's morning or "buona sera" if it's evening.
Try not to be too picky
If you're used to eating a seafood pasta dish with grated cheese on top at home, you might want to skip it in Italy. Asking for ketchup? Get out of here! In other words, they might think, "So, you're saying this dish doesn't have enough flavor?" Meanwhile, you might just really like ketchup. Italians take extreme pride in their cuisine, so asking for extra condiments is often seen as rude.
Prepare to eat dinner late
If you're wondering why you can't find an open restaurant at 5 or 6pm, it's because most restaurants don't even open for dinner until 7 or 8pm! Most Italians enjoy a pleasant light breakfast of a cappuccino and a pastry, a hefty lunch around 1, an aperitivo (a pre-dinner drink) around 5, and a few-course meal for dinner around 8.
Due to its geographical position, Italy generally boasts mild winters and hot summers. Now, we all know that "the boot" is long, so while it might be a warm 70 degrees farenheit in Sicily - let's say, in February - it could be a chilly 30 degrees farenheit in Florence. Yes, the differences between region are that drastic! If you're visiting Italy in the high season, from May to August, you can safely bet that you're in for a hot one just about anywhere. Start looking up the weather a few weeks before you travel to get an idea of the area's weather patterns.
Italy uses the Euro, just like the rest of Europe. When traveling in the country, it's a good idea to bring your own euros, as long lines and limits on ATMs make it somewhat tricky to take out money. Speaking of ATMs, it's always a good idea to only take money out of labeled bank ATMs, just for your own peace of mind. While most restaurants and larger stores take card, you don't want to be in an adorable glass shop in Murano with the perfect souvenir in-hand, and have the cashier tell you "sorry, cash only."
Sorry, no "chicken parm" here.
While you may love the American-Italian favorites of "chicken parm" and "penne ala vodka," don't expect to find those on menus in Italy. Womp, womp. But don't worry - you're about to try some of the best food of your life! Each of Italy's 20-or-so regions boasts its own unique culinary identity. For instance, in Tuscany, you'll taste lots of hearty dishes like pesto pastas, steaks, and bean soups. Naples is the known pizza capital, and farther down in Amalfi and Sicily, you'll savor some of the freshest seafood you've ever had. The easiest solution is: try everything. You won't be disappointed.
"How much should I leave for tip?"
North Americans are all about tipping - usually somewhere around 20%. It may take some getting used to, and it may feel morally wrong, but leaving tips of this percentage in Italy is so not the norm. On most checks or receipts, you'll see a "coperto," which means "cover charge" and a "servizio," which means service charge. If these are automatically added onto your bill, feel free to leave no more. If they aren't, or you're just feeling extra generous, 10% of the check is the general rule of thumb.
Don't get tourist-trapped
While you might be hungry during your visit to the Trevi Fountain or Colosseum, your best bet is to walk away from the tourist areas before eating your next meal. There's nothing wrong with touristy restaurants by any means, but if you're looking for a more authentic experience - and looking to not get ripped off - try to follow local Italians to that off-the-beaten-path family-owned trattoria a few blocks away.
Hopping from city to city? Take the train! Italy's rail system is modern, clean, and timely. Simply purchase a train ticket from an electronic machine or a ticket teller, then be sure to validate it before boarding. This means: look for the small rectangular and/or green boxes around the train station and stamp your ticket before you step on.
Pack your walking shoes
The best way to see Italy is to walk around. From street art to beautiful statues to hidden restaurants, you never know what you might find around every corner! If your legs get way too tired, there are always cabs in larger cities - however, cabs aren't treated the same way as yellow NYC taxis. You don't really "hail" a cab on command, you either need to go to a taxi stand or call a cab company to come pick you up.
Practice your driving skills
There's almost nothing better than cruising down the Amalfi coast with the windows down. Be mindful, however, that Italy's beautiful landscapes come with mountainous terrain and winding roads. As long as you use a little extra caution, having a car in Italy grants you an amazing amount of freedom to roam far and wide.
Try your best, but don't sweat it.
Especially if you plan to travel around by train, it would be in your favor to learn some helpful Italian phrases. In addition, try to memorize some phrases to use at restaurants, especially the simple please, thank you, and you're welcome ("per favore," "grazie," and "prego"). While most people do speak English in major cities, you'll need some more knowledge of Italian if you plan on venturing to the countryside. You might think I can always look it up on my phone! That may be true, but you also might not have cell service in some areas. Keep a small dictionary with you, or jot down a list of important phrases.
Most people who travel to Italy wind up coming home with everything they came with - and more, if you add in souvenirs. It is true that Italian cities and trains, however, are notorious for pickpocketting. Keep your bags zipped, don't keep your wallet in your back pocket, and don't flash lots of cash in public - just as a precaution. Don't give a theif the chance to swipe your stuff!
Buy tickets in advance
Traveling to a major city like Rome or Florence? Of course you'll want to visit the museums! From the Uffizi Gallery to the Vatican Museums, there is so much to see. In order to not waste time on long lines, try to purchase tickets in advance, if possible. You can usually find this option on the museum's website! Certain attractions, such as Brunelleschi's Duomo in Florence, require timed reservations, so be mindful of that when planning, too.
Take tons of pictures, eat way too much pasta, and slurp up endless creamy gelato. From the hills of Tuscany to the mountains of Lake Como to the sparkling seascapes of Amalfi, every inch of Italy is magnificent in its own unique way. For a short list of what to do in Rome, the eternal city, visit our Travel Editor's Rome bucketlist