It’s easy to find information about currency, passports, and getting a visa, but if you’re wondering what you really need to know before you jet off to Rome, this post is for you. Find out how to eat in a restaurant, where to get WiFi, what to wear, and how to avoid a coffee faux pas—along with lots of other essential information for first-time visitors. Did we miss something you’re dying to know? Let us know in the comments!
Italy is a dream destination—incredible art and architecture, amazing food, fabulous wines, and more culture than you can handle in a week or two. It’s a place you really need to visit at least once in your life.
Like every country, Italy has its own customs and quirks, and if you’ve never been, it’s tough to know what to expect. We put together this handy guide for first-time visitors to help you make great decisions about your trip, and enjoy your time in this beautiful place.
If a trip to Italy is in your future (or even if you’re just dreaming of one), you’re definitely going to want to read this post.
1. Yes, you can do Italy in one week—but two is definitely better.
Let’s start with the obvious—whether you’re in Italy for 5 days or 15, you’re going to have to buy an airline ticket to get here. If you break out the cost of the ticket over one week, it adds more per day to the cost of your trip than it does if you break it out over two. From a purely financial point of view, it makes sense to get the most out of the cost of your ticket.
But then there’s the difference in what you can do and see. On a one-week “highlights” tour of Italy, you’ll get to sample the Big Three (Rome, Florence, and Venice), and not much else—although the Big Three are definitely a bucket-list experience.
With a two-week Grand Tour, on the other hand, you get the Big Three—but you’ll also see Sorrento and the Cinque Terre and the gorgeous Lake District. It’s Italy from north to south, with all the amazing variations in landscape, culture, and cuisine.
2. Northern Italy and Southern Italy are like two different countries.
Until the late 1800s, Italy wasn’t a country—it was a collection of several tiny, autonomous countries. And each of those “countries” had its own customs, cuisine, and culture. Although it’s a single country now, those regional differences remain fairly pronounced.
Northern Italy lies at the foot of the Dolomites and the Alps, and is bordered by Austria, Switzerland, and France. The food resembles that of its neighbors more so than the Mediterranean cuisine of the South. The pace of life is different, too. The hustle and bustle of the more industrialized north is distinctly different from the laid-back vibe of the south. To understand Italy, you really need to visit both.
3. There’s the coperto, the servizio, and the mancia. It’s good to know the difference.
Your restaurant bill will look decidedly different from what you’re used to at home. In addition to your food charges (sales tax is included in the price), you’ll see a few other “mystery” charges.
The coperto is basically a cover charge. It’s charged per person, and even children will be hit with the fee. In less popular areas, it’s typically between €1 and €2, but in swankier parts of town, it can be as high as €4 or €5 (or even more). The coperto should be listed on the menu, so be sure to check to avoid an unpleasant surprise.
The servizio is a type of “service charge,” and it more or less replaces the tip. In practice, it’s more of a tourist tax, since you see it most often in the popular tourist areas of Rome, Venice, Florence, and the Amalfi Coast. It’s usually between 10% and 20% of the bill—and like the coperto, it should be listed on the menu.
The mancia is what Americans would consider a tip. Tipping in Italy is never based on a percentage of the bill, and tipping isn’t really a custom in Italy. However, if you feel you must leave something for your server, you can leave a mancia—but do it Italian style. The most common mancia is to simply round up your bill to the nearest 5 or 10, or leave a couple €1 or €2 coins as a token of appreciation.
4. You don’t need to learn Italian, but it’s not a bad idea to practice some tourist phrases before you go.
Italians speak Italian, which shouldn’t be a surprise. In the major tourist areas, you’ll hear a good bit of English, but if you want to enjoy authentic experiences on your trip, it’s a good idea to learn a little tourist Italian.
And unlike the French, who can be a bit sniffy if you mispronounce their language, Italians appreciate your attempts. You’ll be surprised how much goodwill a few Italian words will get you on a tour of Italy.
5. The riposo is a beautiful thing.
Chiuso means “closed” in Italian—and that’s exactly what just about everything will be during riposo, the afternoon rest. It generally lasts about two hours and takes place sometime between 1:30 and 4:00 pm, depending on the business. Banks close, shops close, museums close—even most restaurants and bars close except in the most touristy areas.
Don’t fight it—enjoy it! Take a little nap yourself, or just stroll in a park and enjoy a picnic lunch. It’s easy to fall in love with the Italian rhythms of life.
6. There’s no such thing as an early dinner.
Italians are late eaters. It’s a fact of life that works extremely well with their passion for long, leisurely meals. On the other hand, if you’re used to lunch at noon and dinner at 6 pm, you’re going to be sadly out of sync in Italy.
Don’t expect to eat dinner in a restaurant before 7:30 at the earliest—some restaurants don’t open for dinner until 8 pm or later (and no amount of standing with your face pressed against the window will get them to open even one minute before it’s time).
If you’re traveling with children, plan ahead with heavy snacks—or simply look for more tourist-friendly restaurants that stay open all afternoon and evening.
7. Churches and restaurants have dress codes.
As a general rule, Italians care deeply about clothing and appearance. They view it as a sign of respect—for themselves and for others. For this reason, religious sites require appropriate attire, a level of modesty, that includes covered legs and shoulders. Long sleeves shirts or blouses and skirts or long pants are a good idea—and they do double-duty at the nicer restaurants, where you can’t get in with shorts, flip-flops, and other casual clothing you might bring on vacation.
8. Speaking of clothes, it’s good to dress like a local.
Italy is a safe place to visit—but as with the tourist areas in any major city, there are places petty criminals like to prey on tourists. Dressing like an Italian is a good way to protect yourself. Besides, it feels good not to stand out like a sore thumb and blend into the crowd of beautiful Italians passing you by.
A few pointers:
- Don’t show too much flesh. Leave your short-shorts and skimpy tops at home.
- Do bring a few gorgeous accessories—a beautiful bag, oversized sunglasses, a bright scarf.
- Leave your flip-flops and sneakers at home and opt for stylish low-heeled walking shoes or wedges.
- Shorts are considered beach and resort wear, especially for men; opt for tailored jeans, cotton pants, skirts, or capri pants instead.
- When in doubt, it’s better to overdress than underdress.
9. Most of the famous attractions have skip-the-line options.
You can avoid long, painfully slow lines by booking tickets in advance for most of the attractions you want to see. Better yet, book with a tour operator and get special VIP access to attractions like the Sistine Chapel and the Uffizi with an expert guide who can show you areas not generally open to the general public.
10. Observe the Ten Commandments of coffee
A standard greeting in Italy is prendiamo un caffe (care for a coffee)? Italians love coffee that much. Therefore, when in Italy, it’s important to observe the customs and accord it the proper respect. For example:
- Milky coffee is only for mornings.
- Don’t ask for an espresso—that’s the default when you ask for un caffe.
- Take your coffee standing up at the bar.
- Keep it simple. No mint mocha frappuccino with soy milk, please.
11. There is WiFi, but…
Most hotels in Italy offer free WiFi—but Internet speed is among the lowest in all of Europe. You can check your email, post a few pics of your trip, look for a restaurant recommendation, and that’s about it. Skype, live videos, streaming—not so much.
Ditto the free public hotspots offered in most Italian cities. If you’re lucky enough to connect, you’ll enjoy blazing-fast dial-up speeds.
If you absolutely count on WiFi when you’re out and about, and you need fast, reliable connections to communicate with family and friends back home, your best bet is to rent a pocket WiFi for a few euros a day.
12. No, you cannot get ranch dressing on your salad.
Italy has an amazing food culture and you’ll eat some incredible dishes—but there are certain rules you should observe when dining out. How you dress your salad is one of them: Always just olio e aceto (olive oil and vinegar). Sure, you can ask for ranch or French at some of the touristy spots, but what you get won’t resemble anything like what you’re used to back home.
Just go with the food rules—Italians have been making incredible food for thousands of years. So when in Italy, just eat like an Italian.
13. Yes, the wine is really that amazing.
One of the greatest pleasures of eating in Italy is sampling its incredible wines with your meal. And the really great thing is that wine-drinking is a universal pleasure—everyone drinks it, so you don’t need to be a wine connoisseur to enjoy a really great bottle.
A little Italian wine secret: Many small, relaxed trattorie may not have wine lists at all, but that doesn’t mean they don’t serve delicious wine. You will always have house wines, which are usually quite cheap (it’s not uncommon to see prices as low as €5 or €10 a liter). But cheap doesn’t necessarily mean bad, and it’s almost like Christmas when you discover a diamond in the rough.
14. Train travel is awesome—just remember to validate your ticket!
Train travel is cheap in Italy compared to other countries in Europe, and there are trains to get you pretty much anywhere you want to go—around a particular city, or between two different cities. In most cases, the train schedules are easy to decipher and the routes fairly simple to understand. Buying a ticket is a piece of cake, too.
But here’s the catch: You must validate your ticket before you board the train! The process is simple—just look for the green and white validation machine and insert the end of your ticket so that it prints the date and time. You will probably need to show your ticket to the conductor before or during your journey, and if it isn’t validated, you won’t be allowed to ride.
15. Coffee and pastry—it’s what’s for breakfast.
We’ve said before that Italians love to eat, but for some reason, that rule doesn’t apply to breakfast, or colazione. Those huge breakfast buffets you’re used to in chain hotels back home just don’t exist in Italy. Forget scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and heaps of hash browns or grits.
The customary Italian breakfast is un caffe, or perhaps a cappuccino or caffe latte, with a cornetto (the Italian version of a croissant), crostata (a jam-filled buttery breakfast tart), or doughnut.
Pro tip: Don’t make the mistake of ordering a latte in Italy, unless you want a glass of milk. To get the hot, milky coffee beverage you’re looking for, you have to ask for a caffe latte.
16. One way or another, you will pay to use the bathroom.
It’s an indelicate subject, but if you’re on a walking tour of Rome or just sightseeing on your own, you’ll need to know how to find (and use) a bathroom. Technically, most Italian cities have public restrooms, but they’re ridiculously hard to find and generally not very convenient. And even if you are lucky enough to locate one, you will have to pay the attendant (or put a coin in a machine) in order to use it.
On the other hand, there are bars and cafes with private bathrooms just about everywhere you look in Italy’s cities. But you can’t just walk in and ask to use the restroom, until and unless you buy something. But truly, the cost of a coffee is a small price to pay for the privilege of using a clean, well-maintained toilet.
Ready to conquer your first-timer fears?
We love sharing our Italy with first-time visitors—and there’s no better way to see it for the first time than on a guided tour. If Italy’s calling your name this year, get in touch today and let’s talk about what most excites you. We specialize in creating custom vacation packages for first-time guests! And if you’re not ready to chat today, sign up for our free email course to learn everything you need to know about planning the perfect Italian vacation.