Italy is one of the most visited countries in the world thanks to its world-famous sights, its drop dead gorgeous beaches and its legendary cuisine.
The downside of this ever-increasing popularity is that many Italian sights are way beyond their actual tourism capacity and have thereby completely lost their former sense of authenticity. The first problem is that lots of foreigners travel to the wrong Italian locations during the wrong periods. Another factor is that many tourists do not know enough about Italy and just visit the country for the sake of some social media pictures. To avoid these two scenarios, we are here to help you out, prego.
Based on multiple local sources and on over 30 trips to Italy, here are our 12 most essential and most crucial things to know before travelling to Italy.
- Skip the tourist traps and go off the beaten path
Italy has some of the most beautiful cities on the planet and while their picturesque cobbled alleys are awash with good looking restaurants, be aware that every Italian city is full of tourist traps which should be avoided if you want to have the best experience.
In terms of restaurants, everything with a ‘tourist menu’ or with pictures on the menu should be discarded immediately. The food in these places is usually low quality and overpriced. As always, the best thing to do is to ask locals where to eat or to read our city guides.
In order to experience the real Italy, it is crucial to stay away from all the main landmarks when it comes to eating and drinking. You should visit the landmarks during the day but when electing where to eat or where to spend a night out, go as far away from them as you can. This is a general rule true for the major tourist hubs but obviously not for smaller cities.
- Not every church has to be on your Instagram profile
Many tourists try to snap as many pictures of Italy’s ancient buildings as possible and thereby completely omit to enjoy their experience. Italy has the highest number of churches per sqkm and the highest number of UNESCO World Heritage buildings in the world. It is of course important to take pictures as memories from your trip but you shouldn’t overdo it.
While aesthetic Instagram pictures are great, do not forget to actually observe the charming winding streets and decorated façades with your own eyes rather than merely through your lens.
- Don’t think traffic rules have any value whatsoever
Italian traffic is utterly hopeless. Cars carelessly drive into every direction while honking to announce their arrival. ‘Looking good is more important than looking where you’re going’ is the impression one gets when observing Italian traffic.
Especially in the southern cities, traffic rules have absolutely zero value, this entails that if you see a red light, it doesn’t mean somebody is going to stop and if you see a priority sign, it doesn’t mean somebody is actually going to yield the priority to you.
Italian roads function in accordance with the survival of the fittest principle, which is why so many Italians drive little shoeboxes full of dents.
- Respect the coffee rules
First and foremost, Italian coffee is magnificent, Italy certainly has some of the best coffee in the world but there are quite a few rules which you should know if you don’t want to commit a cultural sin in Italy.
The first rule is: don’t order cappuccino after noon. Italians will highlight the fact that the high amount of milk will deteriorate digestion and that cappuccino is a breakfast drink. After noon, Italians drink black coffee or espresso. If you cannot savour coffee without milk, you can order a macchiato (a black coffee with a dash of milk) at any time. Don’t order an Americano, this is something that was invented for tourists and has nothing to do with Italian coffee. If the real Italian coffee is too strong for you, order a Lungo, an espresso with some water to make it weaker.
- When in Rome, do as the Romans do
This famous Italian proverb doesn’t only apply to Italy but to most countries in the world. Italians have a very distinctive set of traditions and social rules which you should follow if you want to have an authentic experience and befriend some locals. Friends usually greet with 2 kisses on the cheek and Italians have a strong respect for their elders, Italy has in fact one of the highest life expectancies in the world and especially in rural areas, elderly people play a major role in society. Tipping is not mandatory in restaurants but still recommendable if the service was satisfying. Italian restaurants usually add a cover charge (copperto) for the table, bread and cutlery. For more info on Italian customs and social norms, check this article by JustLanded.
- Learn some Italian
Italy being a very touristy country, you will be able to communicate in English in the most affluent locations. However, this is by no means true for the whole country, most Italians in fact don’t speak any English or any other language for that matter. If you want to see the lesser visited parts and the most charming hidden sweet spots, make sure to have at least a basic command of Italian (see picture below).
Local tip: ‘Except for places like Rome, Milan and Florence, the best small restaurants will certainly not have a menu in English. This is partly because most typical Italian dishes can’t even be translated into English. The best thing to do is to just ask the waiter/chef for a local dish and to name some ingredients, he will certainly be able to give you a recommendation which suits your taste’.
Author story: Once in Bari, Puglia, we found a fantastic hidden restaurant (included in our article on Bari) and although we have a solid command of Italian, we couldn’t figure out one single dish from the menu, this was because they were all regional specialities, not common to any other part of Italy. We just asked the chef to prepare us a mixture of local dishes and he did and … surprise … the platter was absolutely marvellous.
- Style is paramount
Italy is arguably the most stylish country in the world and this sense for dressing well is absolutely ubiquitous. This has nothing to do with simply wearing every high-end Italian brand, it has something to do with combining colours, styles and the right type of clothes.
This means that if you wear hiking trainers in cities or other clothes which would look better on a mountain than in an Italian plaza, you will immediately stand out as a tourist and this will be to your disadvantage. Bella figura is a cultural norm in Italy, meaning you should always look elegant and appropriately groomed, Italians in fact often argue that foreigners have no self-respect and dress too sloppily or without any sense of elegance.
You may think that Italians wear Gucci and Prada to look so stylish but they actually don’t. Most Italians cannot afford their famous luxury brands and therefore resort to the more affordable local designers of which there are plenty. This is the great thing about Italian fashion, you obviously have all the world-famous brands (which are mostly bought by Chinese tourists) but you also have high quality, local designers which do not have an international reputation but which are as stylish and good looking as their expensive counterparts. You will find small local designers in every major Italian city, just ask for a strada con negozi di vestiti locali (street with local clothes shops).
- Do not expect large platters of food or pizza with unconventional ingredients
Italian food is world renowned and there is no equivalent. What many travellers don’t know about Italian food however is that the quantities are much smaller in Italy than in Italian restaurants abroad. Italians like to savour the food without devouring large platters of it, meals are an event. Small, well decorated and extraordinarily tasty plates are what you can expect, Italian style.
Another important fact to know is that Italian pizza is different from the pizzas in the US or other parts of the world. Italian pizza is traditionally made in a stone oven and toppings only consist of a limited selection of ingredients. Although some Italian restaurants have adapted to tourists’ tastes, the real Italian pizzaiolo will under no circumstances put pineapples or other exotic ingredients on a pizza, he will keep it classic and simple.
- Be aware of the regional differences
Italy may look small compared to large countries like the US, China or Brazil but it is actually an aggregation of very diverse regions and peoples which only unified in 1871.
The North is very industrial and has a lot more in common with Central Europe than with Southern Europe while the South of Italy or mezzogiorno (middle of the day, as northern Italians call it due to the more laidback lifestyle) feels a lot more like Greece or southern Spain. The central regions are very different again while the islands of Sardinia and Sicily have yet another set of very unique traditions and local specificities. The regional differences extend to the dialects, food, art, culture and architecture and thereby make Italy one of the most alluring places to visit in Europe.
- Take it slow
Apart from driving, Italians (especially in the South) generally do not like to rush. Piano is a word you will hear frequently and guess what it means? Slow. Italians like to take their time and this lifestyle is omnipresent. An Italian meal can go on for 3-4 hours and a conversation is never meant to be conducted in a superficial, small talk manner. Keep in mind that Italians love to talk and socialize and that they like to do this in a relaxed way, never in a hurry. This is the reason why punctuality is a concept most Italians find difficult to understand and therefore hardly ever put into practice.
- Italy is not just old buildings and beaches
This is something many non-Europeans get wrong about Italy. Italy has a wide variety of utterly diverse landscapes and natural sights and doesn’t merely consist of beaches and old cities. Italy has several mountainous regions with very high peaks in the North, highlands in the Centre and volcanos in the South. Italy also has several islands which have very different geological features to mainland Italy. Some Italian ski stations are in fact less than 2 hours from the nearest beach and although you can’t ski and swim at the same time of the year, the natural contrast is still remarkable.
On that basis, you can encounter next to everything in Italy and you certainly don’t have to limit your trip to ancient historical sights and beaches, there is plenty more to see and do.
- Avoid peak season in the most visited cities
Our last point is one of the most crucial things to know about Italy. If you want to have a great experience in Rome, Florence, Milan, Venice or any other touristy city, avoid peak season (July – August) at all costs. Summer starts in May and June is usually the moment when Italians head out of the cities and into the countryside or to the beach.
You will notice that you find barely any Italians in Florence or Rome if you visit in July or August and there is a good reason for this: they all flee the arrival of the hordes of tourists that flock into most Italian cities during the summer months. Another reason for the local exodus in summer is the heat. Italy has a Mediterranean climate and although the North is generally pleasant in summer, it can still get pretty sweaty which is why locals would rather spend their summer days at the beach than in an unbearably hot city with sheer endless masses of tourists.
You obviously still want to visit the cities and there is a very simple solution: Italian cities are best in spring (March to May) or autumn (September to November) when it is still reasonably sunny and warm but less crowded and also less expensive.