10 Things You Need to Know Before You Visit Italy
I am often asked, “What are the things you need to know before you visit Italy?” Italy is, by far, the European country requested the most by my clients. In fact, over 46 million tourists visit this amazing country every year. They come from all over the world, for many different reasons, and many will return again and again for that magic that only Italy can deliver.
Italians are very kind, outgoing, family-centric and extremely patient (unless they are driving!). The Italians realize how blessed they are to be the safe-keepers of some of history’s most magnificent relics and art treasures, and they are happy to share them. However, there are a few things that most Italians want Americans to know before we arrive in their country.
Here is my list of the 10 Things You Need to Know before You Visit Italy:
1. Slow Down: You will NOT see it all!
Trust me, the reason that the 46 million tourists descent upon Italy each year is because there is so much beauty to see and experience: culture, art, vineyards, food, museums, and the amazing people. A lifetime isn’t even enough time! So, slow down, take it all in, appreciate what you DO see…and then plan to return!
2. Dress more conservatively than you do at home.
Miniskirts, short-shorts (they are for the beach only, in my opinion), halter tops and saggy jeans will not live up to the classic fashion taste of Italians. You don’t have to be formal and uncomfortable. You just have to appear neat, put-together and a little more modest than what American culture allows for. Some Cathedrals (including the Vatican) will not let you enter if your shoulders and knees are not covered. Cover up, unless you really are spending the day on a beautiful Italian beach. And leave the stilettos at home: Cobblestone streets and high heels don’t get along very well!
3. Cappuccino and Café Lattes are morning-only drinks.
A true Italian would never dream of ordering one after late morning, or especially after a meal. If you need a caffeine pick-me-up later in the day, stop in a coffee bar for a quick shot of espresso. Italian coffee is superior and should be enjoyed as the real Italians do. Give it a “shot”! (Pun intended.)
4. Dinner is not usually served earlier than 8:00pm.
Showing up at a restaurant before 7:30 will probably get you a view of the staff having their own pre-service meal and a totally empty dining room. Your meal will be more enjoyable in a restaurant full of happy locals, and with the wait staff ready to do their thing. Most places charge a coperto, or cover charge, for each table. This is NOT a ploy to take advantage of you; it is routine. It is explained as the cost of washing the linens, dishes, and providing the “free stuff” like bread (pane in Italian) or tap water.
5. Simplify your schedule.
Leave time in your day to just wander around and poke your head into the real Italy. If you only get a couple of blocks away from some of the most famous tourist sites, real Italian life will be in front of you. Stop to listen to a street performer (and tip!), stop into a neighborhood café for a glass of wine or a coffee, or slurp a cone of gelato with the locals. If you are always trying to keep up with a tight schedule, you and your travel companions will almost certainly get grumpy!
6. You need to call for a taxi, or go to an actual taxi stand.
You cannot just hail a taxi off the street in Italy, and many Italian taxi drivers get their entertainment from watching tourists try to do so! As an alternative, familiarize yourself with the public transportation systems in your town. Busses, subways, trains and boats are remarkably efficient, and manage to get millions of Italians where they need to go every day. Why not you, too?
7. Italian is the official language of Italy.
I know this seems obvious. So why do so many “ugly Americans” go barging in to other countries expecting everyone to speak English fluently? Just learning a few common words and phrases in the local language will make a big difference in your experience. Instead of shouting, “DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?” at someone (they aren’t deaf; just Italian!), try “I’m sorry, but my Italian is poor. Parla inglese?” (Watch this brief YouTube video to learn the proper pronunciation.) Even if you find yourself in the rare circumstance with no English speakers nearby, Italians speak with their hands, so go back to your charade talents and you will get your point across, and likely have a good laugh doing so!
8. In restaurants, slow service is good service.
European restaurants are drastically different than most here in America. When you take a table for a meal, it is yours for as long as you want. Waiters are NOT trying to “turn tables” fast so they can make more tips. (Tips are not required, but a small gratuity for good service is always welcomed.) Waiting tables is a respected profession in most of Europe, and wait staff are paid well. Italians enjoy their mealtimes, and are not in a rush to dash off to a movie or other event. In fact, dinner is usually the big event. Relax and go with the slow flow. When you are ready to leave, you will need to request the check. It is considered rude for a waiter to bring your check before you ask because he doesn’t want to rush you! Try asking in Italian: Il conto, per favore. (Click here to listen to the proper pronunciation at Duolingo.)
9. Everyone in Italy doesn’t want to kiss you!
Italians are very welcoming people, but there is a certain etiquette for reaching out and saying hello. You will see friends, family and even acquaintances kissing each other on the cheeks and saying, “ciao” all over. However, as a stranger, that would typically be considered a little bit overboard. When you meet an Italian, take their lead. And remember that a smile and a firm handshake is probably the most appropriate until you get to know someone a little better. Also, Italian culture respects its elders and, if someone is introduced as Signore (Mr.) or Signora (Mrs.), it is best not to address them by their first names until they request it.
You are in a country that has welcomed and inspired visitors for centuries! Enjoy the people, the beauty, the art, and the music and literature. You are very lucky to be here! The Italians will be happy to share a smile with you, and you will return home already planning your next visit to Italy.