Whilst travelling around Europe, you will often notice every country comes with its own unique habits, customs and cultures — whether it’s the food they eat, the hours they work or the way they dress. It’s safe to say, Italy is no different.
With Italy so well talked about in books and films, it’s easy to feel familiar with this beautiful country. However, until you actually visit, there are plenty of lesser-known, and often unspoken rules that you may be unaware of.
If you want to avoid making any mistakes — or should we say faux pas — in Italy then don’t worry, we’ve put together the ultimate guide on things to avoid in Italy, so you can live like a local.
Ordering A Cappuccino In The Afternoon
Coffee is treated as an art in Italy, which is probably why it’s served so differently to other countries. However, although you may be tempted to sit outside a café and sip on frothy coffee regardless of the time of day, you should never order a cappuccino after 11am.
In Italy, they consider certain coffees — including cappuccinos or a caffé lattes — to be breakfast drinks, due mostly to their high milk content. Therefore, a true Italian would never enjoy these milky beverages in the afternoon, and definitely not after a meal, as Italians also believe the milk will affect your digestion. They prefer to reserve these coffees for the early morning, typically enjoyed with a freshly baked pastry. Of course, you will find cappuccinos on the all-day menu at most cafés, but this offering is usually only utilised by tourists.
If you wish to live like a true Italian, order a “caffè” — the Italian equivalent of an espresso — in the late afternoon to keep your energy levels high until it’s time for dinner. Alternatively, if you simply can’t give up your milky coffee altogether, try a ”caffè macchiato” – a regular coffee with a small amount of steamed milk.
Forget To Validate Your Train Tickets
One of the best ways to travel between Italy’s towns and cities is by train; it’s only 2-and-a-half hours from Milan to Florence, and 3 hours from Rome to Venice on the high-speed rail network. However, it’s important not to hop aboard in Italy without validating your ticket first.
Train tickets in Italy often don’t have a time or date on, providing you with flexible travel to utilize whenever suits you. However, when you do come to use your tickets, you’ll need to have them stamped at one of the yellow machines located in the station. However, if you’ve bought your ticket online beforehand, you’ll not have to worry as these will have times and dates allocated already.
If you forget to validate your ticket at the train station, make sure you tell the conductor immediately upon boarding your train. You may still have to pay a small fee to validate your ticket onboard, but you’re likely to avoid the hefty fine – up to €200 euros in some cases – that you would incur if the conductor arrives to check your ticket and finds you did not validate at the station.
Dressing Inappropriately For Religious Venues
Whilst Italian fashion is often stylish, bold and made to be seen, locals are also very respectful of their culture and long standing traditions — and they expect tourists to follow suit. When heading out sightseeing in Italy, make sure you consider the place you are visiting, the occasion and the time of day as a rule of thumb.
When visiting places like the Vatican City, including St. Peter’s Basilica and other churches, you’ll find each venue has a dress code. The general rule is that your knees and shoulders should be covered at all times, regardless of whether you’re a man or woman. This means no shorts or skirts above the knee, tank tops or sleeveless dresses will be permitted. If you aren’t appropriately dressed for a place of worship, you may be turned away from entering altogether.
Whilst touring the less sacred sights of Italy — like the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum — you can dress as you would expect to on a holiday in Italy. These tourist traps are often flooded with people in flip flops, shorts and sundresses in the height of summer. Regardless of what time of year you are travelling, we advise remembering to pack comfortable walking shoes and a light jacket for the evenings.
Accepting Free Gifts On The Street
Like in many cities right around the world, Italy’s streets and squares are filled with performers, artists and characters who bring the city to life. Some are happy just to keep themselves to themselves, others will try to approach you with tempting treats, gifts and souvenirs.
However, don’t assume they’re free. Whether it’s posing for a picture, a chance to attend an event or simply a fresh flower, street vendors will often approach you with items and offers that sound too good to be true — and that’s usually because they are. Most common in Italy’s biggest cities like Rome, once you accept the gifted item, you’re often suddenly faced with the individual demanding payment.
The best way to avoid falling for this common tourist scam? Politely decline the offer of any free items, regardless of whether it’s a bracelet, a rose or a hat. Beware; they’ll often target walking tours where there’s a large group of tourists in one place at one time, so remember to keep your wits about you wherever you are and whatever you’re doing in Italy.
Not Learning Any Italian
Yes, many Italians who work in jobs that regularly involve speaking to tourists speak at least some English. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate when someone has taken the time and effort to immerse themselves in their culture and language.
When visiting the less traversed towns and villages of Italy, often home to time-old boutiques and quaint shops well worth exploring, you’ll often find Italian natives speak little to no English — so don’t let your lack of preparation mean you miss out on these lesser-known experiences. Learning a few basic phrases and greetings before your trip to Italy can get you a long way, and many locals will be particularly appreciative of your efforts.
It’s true, the Italian language is not the easiest to learn — you would need to start well in advance of your trip if you wanted to speak with a level of fluency! However, a handful of useful phrases and courtesies for you to learn before you visit Italy may include buongiorno” and “buonasera”, meaning “good morning” and “good evening”; “per favore” and “grazie”, meaning “please” and “thank you”; and “Dov’è la…” which means “Where is…?”, which is guaranteed to come in handy, whether you’re looking for the nearest train station or the nearest toilet!
Committing A Culinary Crime
There’s no doubt one of the top reasons to travel to Italy is for the food. From regional specialties to traditional recipes which have been passed down through the generations, their heart and soul goes into producing some of the world’s favourite foods — but they’re also very particular about how they are eaten.
If you want to dine like a local, there’s some simple rules to follow. Firstly, if you order a classic king prawn linguine or seafood risotto, cheese is a no-go. While it may seem normal, mixing fish and cheese is frowned upon by food-loving Italians! Although the reasoning behind this isn’t entirely clear, it’s thought to be down to the strong flavor overwhelming the intended delicate taste of the dish. Similarly, many restaurants in Italy will not recommend cheese with main courses, other than pasta and risotto dishes that don’t feature fish.
Another firm favourite with any tourist in Italy — pizza. However, whilst you might imagine Italians would serve every variety of the delicious dish, similarly to pasta, they play by the rules of tradition. In Italy, the only acceptable meat on a pizza is pork — whether that’s in the form of bacon, ham, salami or chorizo, that’s your preference!
Overtipping For Meals and Services
Whilst leaving a tip when on holiday is common in many countries, Italy — yet again — follows rules of its own. Whether it’s for restaurant servers, hotel porters or taxi drivers, tipping in Italy is usually only given as a bonus for exceptional service.
When it comes to eating out, it’s only common to tip in Italy when eating at fine dining venues, or when you believe you have received an outstanding level of service. Dissimilarly to countries like the USA, tips do not typically make up the majority of the waiter’s wage, so they’re usually happy with just the change left over from the bill in many cases. Any more than this would not be frowned upon, but considered a courteous gesture to show your appreciation for their help.
You may also consider tipping the staff in your hotel – the maid, the concierge or doorman, for example. Again, it’s often not expected, but leaving a couple of euros per night for your maid or handing the concierge five or ten euros for their assistance for their help is considered polite. Wherever you’re tipping, it’s also important to carry cash for this purpose — Italian credit and debit card slips often don’t include the option to add a gratuity, so carrying coins with you is often the best tactic.