Your first trip to Italy should be an exciting one full of culture shock, new experiences, and a lifetime of amazing stories but, for some, certain aspects of Italian life may come as a bit of a surprise. Here is what you need to know to make the best of your first trip to Italy.
In Italy, walking is one of the main modes of transportation, since many things are accessible by foot and taxis can be expensive. You can expect to be on your feet all day, even if you take public transportation from here to there. It is highly recommended to wear shoes with thick soles since the cobblestone, which is especially common in the older parts of the cities, is not kind to your joints and feet. Be sure to look where you are walking. As beautiful as the thousands-of-years old cobblestone streets of Rome are, time has definitely worn them. Many tourists slip (which can partly be attributed to their choice of shoe) or trip on broken or missing stones.
The most beautiful and ancient monuments tend to neighbor the most expensive and low quality restaurants. Although they are not a bad option if you are tired and hungry, even a ten-minute walk will bring you to a wide array of budget-friendly and delicious Italian cuisine. For example, if you are visiting the Altare della Patria, you can head to the Trastevere area (which is about a fifteen-minute walk away), and you will be met with a large variety of cheap places to eat.
Most come to Rome with visions of Americanized Italian food that cannot be found in Italy. Certain dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, chicken alfredo, fluffy bread sticks, and buttery garlic bread are just not on the menu. However, you will not be disappointed! You will be met with exquisite food that is far superior (and healthier!) than most ‘Italian’ dishes across the ocean.
Portion sizes are a lot smaller in Italy than in the United States. In Italy, pasta is considered a first course, not an entrée, and is meant to be a small dish of well-crafted food, rather than a large meal. For example, when you order ravioli at restaurants, they will typically give you between three and ten, depending on how big they are.
Shop timetables in Italy tend to be a little more restricted since Italian culture is one that values food, relaxation, family, and community. Small, non-chain stores sometimes open as late as 9 or 10am and typically take a break for lunch from around 1pm to 3pm. Furthermore, many shops and restaurants are closed on Sundays, while museums tend to be closed on Mondays. If the place is not fully closed, it will surely have shorter hours, either opening later, closing earlier, or both, so make sure to check the schedule for individual locations before making the hike to them.
In Italy, August is a month of rest when most Italians make use of their summer vacation. Due to this, some stores (or even restaurants) may be closed completely. Additionally, many restaurants and stores have different hours during August.
Many of those who visit Italy for the first time often complain about the quality of customer service in both stores and restaurants. Waiters can sometimes be a little more impatient, and not as chatty. Please do not misconstrue these actions as rudeness, or take them personally. In Italian culture, those who serve/help you are not reliant on customer satisfaction for money or performance reviews and “the customer is always right” ideology is virtually non-existent. That being said, be patient and bear in mind that they are simply doing their job the way they were trained to, and try to find the Italian charm in the situation.
Italian bars (which are like cafés that can legally serve alcohol) have different prices for standing at the bar, sitting at a table, and sitting outside. Bars may add an extra fee to each article of food, which should be written on the menu, or a general cover charge could be applied to your bill. If you are worried about this, you can always ask how much more expensive it would be to sit at a table. Additionally, another extra-fee could be applied if you choose to sit outside. This is done to pay the waiters, and is one of the reasons why you are not legally obligated to tip in Italy. Also, it should be noted that when having a coffee and cornetto at the bar you are expected not to linger so as to make room for new customers.
Pickpockets and Scammers:
Italy is home to some of the most talented pickpockets in the world, but they can be avoided! Always be aware of your belongings, keep your purse in front of you, or your hands in your pockets. Avoid wearing backpacks, because they are a lot easier to rob, and do not carry purses that do not zip properly. Should you be in Italy during the winter try wearing a large, long coat over your purse or backpack, because it will make it harder for them to get to (just be sure not to store anything valuable in the coat’s pockets). Also, wearing your purse’s strap across your chest, rather than just off of one shoulder could help prevent you from becoming a target for a purse-snatcher.
Young women and couples are frequently approached by men carrying roses who will offer you one for free. Do not accept the rose, unless you are willing to pay a hefty price for it. These men are scammers and, should you take the rose, they will undoubtedly start haggling you for money and refuse to take it back.
All this said, Italy is not uncommonly dangerous and most pickpockets and scammers are non-violent. Just be aware and do not accept anything “free” and you will (usually) be okay.
No one is expected to come to Italy for the first time and know Italian fluently. That being said, Italians really appreciate when you try to speak even a few words of their language, because it shows that you respect their beautiful history and culture. Even just saying ‘hello’, ‘please’, and ‘thank you’ can help you be welcomed more warmly. In the end, Italians do not care if tourists have an accent, make grammar mistakes here or there, or forget certain words, they care that you want to embrace their wonderful country as much they do.
Cash and Cards:
Lots of restaurants and stores, specifically small ones, refuse cards and only accept cash. Make sure you do not rely solely on your card for making purchases. Furthermore, some places will not accept big bills when paying a small fee (e.g. paying for a 2 euro drink with a 50 euro bill). Should you need change, try going to a Tabachhi (which are marked with a large “T” sign) and ask them for change, or “spicci” (pronounced spee-chee) in Italian.
Only withdraw money from ATMs attached to banks. ATMs that stand on their own can leave you vulnerable to thieves who place small scanners in the machine in order to retrieve your card information, so it is highly recommended to avoid using them at all.
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Keep these handy tips in mind and enjoy your trip to Italy!
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