Italy is one of the most popular travel destinations the world over, but how well do you actually know it? As a real insider (born, bred and currently resident!), let me tell you a couple of things you should know before you travel to Italy and plan your 10-day or two-week itinerary.
Even though millions of visitors of all nationalities flock to the Bel Paese every year, more often than not mass tourism stops at the main landmarks and rarely goes beyond the guidebook. While I’m aware some historical places are simply inevitable, it’s also true that by limiting your visit to the most famous sites you are missing out on many authentic and quirky bits of local life.
So, to get you fully ready for your Italian holiday, here are some of the things you should know before you travel to Italy.
1. Italy is a very young country
It sounds weird, doesn’t it? The Romans one of the ancient world’s greatest civilizations, one of the strongest military powers, equally important civilizations thriving even before the Romans, such as the Etruscans, and yet Italy became a unified country only 155 years ago, officially on March 17th, 1861. Before that, it was a collection of small states, powerful city-states, and kingdoms with their own rules and rulers.
2. Every region is like a small country
This is directly linked to the point above and one of the very important things to know when traveling to Italy in order to understand how to better enjoy the country. Since Italy was a collection of small countries, in fact, it goes without saying that every region has its own language, gastronomy, culture, traditions, festivals, its own history even. This is what makes Italy an unlimited bucket list of places to see, things to do, sites to visit, cultures to explore. The island of Sardinia, for example, not only is different from all the other Italian regions, but it’s also a very diverse reality where every single town is a microcosm in itself, even nearby villages have different dishes, dialects, even different traditional clothes.
3. Cappuccino for dinner is a no-no
I know you love your cappuccino so much that you can drink it with anything from spaghetti alla carbonara to bistecca alla fiorentina (Florentine steak), but you should know that every time you do this, an Italian will have nightmares for a week in a row. Okay, maybe that was a bit of an overstatement, but still among the important things you should know before you travel to Italy. Let me explain to you what’s a cappuccino: a strong, hearty espresso softened with fresh milk and topped with a velvety foam that will melt under your taste buds. If you feel gluttonous and audacious, you can ask the barista to sprinkle a bit of cocoa powder on top, and if you feel romantic, you can even ask him to do it heart-shaped. Either way, please enjoy your cappuccino for breakfast or generally far from your main meals.
4. Pasta is NOT a side dish
If you are French, I’m talking to you. Spaghetti, fusilli, rigatoni, pennette, call it as you like, but pasta is the main course. It can be made with different flours, the most common being wheat flour, and you can enjoy it with the most different toppings, from simple tomato and basil to porcini mushrooms to truffles to seafood, but it’s not a side dish. A salad is a side dish, gratin veggies, roasted potatoes are a side dish, but to really appreciate your pasta, make it a full dish with only its delicious sauce.
If you are in Rome and want to discover what’s new, exciting and different in the local food scene, check out my eBook “Tasting Rome by Neighbourhood“. Here I mapped out five itineraries in as many Rome neighbourhoods suggesting the top things to do in each of them as well as the best restaurants you won’t want to miss. I collected names and address for every taste, from traditional to contemporary, vegan and seafood, with some stop for pastries and gelato.
5. Know how to order your coffee
When we want a single-shot coffee, in Italy we simply stand in front of the bar counter and have it there quickly before carrying on with our chores. While we all agree about the meaning of cappuccino, often foreigners are not sure how to order their coffee. If you want an espresso you can just order a caffè, lungo (long) if you wish it to be a bit less strong, while if you want the coffee-flavored watery beverage, you can ask the barista for a caffè americano, American coffee.
One word about the price. I often read news about foreign tourists in Italy who have been cheated into paying 10 euro for a coffee. While I agree this is too expensive, there is a rule not many foreigners know and it’s shameful that some bars take advantage of that. When you enter a bar, especially a fancy one in a tourist area, if you drink your coffee at the counter it must be around 1 euro, it can range from 90 cents to 1,20 euros, but certainly not 10 euro (usually prices are shown on a board on the wall), while if you sit on a table they can charge you a much higher price, in some places like Venice even 10 euro. This is the rule also to protect customers’ rights and impose commercial exercises to charge a fixed price for a simple coffee. Among the things you should know before you travel to Italy, this is important, so if you have it on the counter and they try to charge you too much, feel free to call the police, even the traffic police you will see often in the streets.
6. Hand gesturing is a real language
I’m sure who’s been to Italy knows this already, but it’s always good to remind future visitors that we Italians like to make ourselves very clear, so if words are not enough (and we rarely think they are), we incorporate some gestures in our conversations. This applies to both friendly and not-so-friendly occasions. For example, to ask someone what they want, we join our thumb with the rest of the fingers and we swing our hand up and down, while when we want to mean that we don’t know something and play innocent, we stretch our forearms outwards, palms up and sometimes, to be more effective, shoulders up and head slightly leaning to one side. This terminology extension is so embedded in our language that we use it also when talking over the phone even if our interlocutor can’t see us.
7. Italians are loud
This is not just a rumour, and if you have met any Italian abroad you know it already. Whether we are talking on the phone, greeting someone or just chatting, we express our affection out loud. If you don’t speak Italian, it might seem we are arguing, but even though this can also happen, it’s not always the case, we are just overall passionate.
8. In Italy, we like to take it easy
Working 80 hours a week, skipping lunch breaks, grabbing the fastest junk food and all the things that apply to a fast-paced modern life, it’s not our cup of tea. In Italy, we like to take things a bit slower. As a matter of fact, slow life is our motto and with this comes our slow food philosophy: we love our culinary tradition and our trattorias, fast food chains are definitely not our favourite choice when it comes to eating out, and our dinners or weekend lunches can last a couple of hours. It’s all part of the package, adopt a bit of our lifestyle and you’ll go back home regenerated.
9. We don’t give up on our lunch break
Directly linked to the point above, as part of our taking it easy, even during working days we don’t give up on our lunch break. We unwind and take the time to have our lunch and relax before going back to work in the afternoon. Tourists are often surprised when they see that many shops even close from 1 pm to 4 pm (in summer even 5 pm!), especially those in strictly Italian areas, while in tourist spots they are usually open all day. It might not be as evident as in Spain, but also in Italy, we like to take a siesta.
10. We have late dinner
In Italy, dinner is around 8-9 pm and while in tourist areas most restaurants will start serving earlier to meet visitors’ needs, if you are in a non-tourist town or district, don’t expect to have dinner, or even to find open, at 6 pm.
11. Italians speak Italian
This might sound obvious, but especially off the tourist track, Italians speak ONLY Italian, or at most the local dialect. If this is the case, however, I suggest you stick to the official national language if you don’t want to get lost in different layers of translation. Plus, if you make the effort to learn some of the most useful phrases and words, you’ll make your life a lot easier and you’ll become part of the family quicker. As a piece of advice and one of the important things to know before travelling to Italy, carrying a small glossary with you comes in always handy.
12. Tipping is not mandatory
Unlike the US, where I heard tipping is pretty expected, among the important things to know when travelling to Italy is that you don’t need to feel as if you have to leave a tip. Sure it’s appreciated, but especially restaurants most of the times charge the so-called coperto, a 10% service on top of the bill that can count as a tip.
13. To slam or not to slam
Italians love to complain, especially about politics and the endemic recession, and they love making fun of their political class. However, we are also protective of our country, so as long as we are the ones complaining all is fine, but as soon as some “stranger”, for as friendly and Italy-loving as he/she might be, starts slamming a little too hard, we take it personally and stop playing our mandolin.
14. Football is the national religion
When there is a football game in Rome’s stadium roads are closed and traffic and bus routes get diverted, so this is one of the most important things you should know before you travel to Italy. If you happen in a big city on the day of a crucial game, please avoid the area right after the end of it, when hooligans from Italy and other countries exchange some cavemen-like insults or even get into fights.
15. Italy is the country with the most UNESCO-listed sites
With 51 sites that made it to UNESCO Heritage List, Italy is steady in the first place immediately followed by China that occupies the second place of the podium with 50 UNESCO-listed sites. It is said that Italy boasts two or three art masterpieces per capita, and even though we like to play it cool, we are proud of each of them.
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16. Inside Italy are two independent countries
Even though not much of a big country itself, Italy hosts other two independent and sovereign countries within its soil, the Vatican City, and the San Marino Republic. The Vatican, we all know it, lies in the heart of Rome, while San Marino is located not far from Rimini, and even though you won’t need to apply for a visa to enter, both of them have their own laws, Presidents, Parliament, armed forces, police and governmental bodies.