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As many look forward to their upcoming trips to Italy, we look at some Italian customs and etiquette worth knowing so as not to offend and ensure cheerful interactions with the locals (and fellow tourists alike). We have some tips on how to mind your Ps and Qs in Italy and how to observe Italian customs while you’re enjoying the magnificent sites, gorgeous surroundings and delicious food the country has to offer.
During Untold Italy founder Katy’s recent time in Rome and Venice, she witnessed some incidents where it appeared that somehow people had left some basic manners at home. It’s understandable that it can be a bit stressful away from home, somewhere unfamiliar, but it’s important to remember that you’re a guest in beautiful Italy and you should behave as you would visiting your grandma or even your best friend’s grandma. Please excuse any bossiness in this episode, but travel in Italy is such a wonderful experience, so we’re keen that you take home only memories and local souvenirs from your trip and leave behind only footprints and certainly no bad encounters. When in doubt always put on your biggest and best friendly smile.
What you’ll learn in this episode
- Always say Buongiorno or Buona sera when entering a shop or restaurant. You can also say Buona Giornata or Grazie when leaving
- Make sure you smile too. It’s amazing how far that will get you!
- Italians like to shake hands when meeting someone for the first time. Kissing on two cheeks is for friends or close colleagues. Admittedly, this bit can get a bit confusing – the French do 3 kisses and who knows which side to start!
- If you need to move past someone you can say “permesso” which roughly translates as “may I or excuse me”. Our tip is to learn some Italian! We have several episodes on getting yourself ready with some useful phrases: Episode #091 Learning Italian for your trip, Episode #123 5 tips for learning Italian fast and Episode #164 Italian phrases you need to know for your trip to Italy
Most trips to Italy will involve peeking inside a church to admire some of the incredible art on display, so it’s important to know the etiquette here.
- Cover up – both men and women are expected to cover their shoulders and knees and remove hats in churches. This includes not only the large places like St Peters Basilica in Rome or San Marco in Venice but all the little churches and chapels you come across
- We’ve had people email us or comment in our Italy travel planning Facebook group saying they weren’t asked to cover up and others looking for tips on how to get around these customs. This is missing the point – please don’t be that person. It’s showing respect to follow any country’s customs. It’s not difficult and if you can’t handle such little (perceived) discomfort to show that respect we’d argue that you should stay home. TIP: ladies – wear a maxi dress and bring a shawl to cover your shoulders in summer
- Churches are first and foremost places of worship so don’t talk loudly and never on your mobile phone. You should never try to take photos of someone praying. Also, do not get in the way of people trying to pray or conduct ceremonies. Let people pray and worship in peace and quiet because it is really generous of them to allow visitors to come and admire their space
Coffee and bars
- Italians don’t drink milky coffees like cappuccinos after around 11am. This is because they have some strong beliefs on milk digestion and think it is. bad for your body. If you want to order a cappuccino after 11am go right ahead. You’ll get one but you might also get a quizzical look
- Typically you order your coffee at the cashier, get a receipt that you hand to the barista, and then tell them which coffee you’d like to order. This can also apply to busy gelateria – you choose the size and type of your order – cone or cup and how many scoops, pay and then wait for another server to scoop the flavors you’ve chosen
- If you choose to sit outside in the piazza it’s going to be more expensive. Sometimes a LOT more expensive because you will be served by waiting staff and it’s all part of the experience. In Piazza San Marco in Venice it is not uncommon to pay €8 for a coffee so understand you are not getting ripped off, make it count and enjoy the spectacle around you
- We have a whole episode (Episode #7 Do you need to tip in Italy) on this topic. This topic comes up almost daily on our Itay Travel Planning community on Facebook and can lead to some heated debates. Unlike in the United States and some other countries, large tips are not customary or expected as a general rule in Italy. Of course, if you have had an amazing time and service on a tour or in a restaurant then do show your appreciation in whichever way you feel comfortable
- Usually, Italians will round up their check or bill to the nearest €10 or €5 depending on the cost of the meal but it’s completely up to you. No one is going to be offended if you show your appreciation with a tip or if you don’t leave one (unless you are in a very touristy area which has been tainted by other country’s customs and with an inauthentic culture. Tipping is also more common in higher-end restaurants
- This is one of those customs that you can be aware of but can adapt to your circumstances. If we’ve had a particularly great tour guide, we do like to give them a little extra to show our appreciation
Food and Restaurants
- Don’t touch the produce when at a local market, the vendor will select the best fruit and vegetable. They’ll probably ask what you want to use it for to select the perfect dish – for instance a. tomatoes ripeness should be different if you’re making a sauce to if you’re making a salad. If you want to see how the market vendors react – check out Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy – the episode set in Venice, where he gets a telling-off!
- Eating and walking is considered strange and if you are getting take out make sure to check the rules as it is forbidden to sit down on steps or fountain edges to eat in many places – the Spanish Steps in Rome for instance. Italians take their food very seriously, so they like to sit down and enjoy their meal over a long period of time. When out and about, you can grab something quick to eat but in these shops there’ll usually be a bar/some high tables that you can stand up against to eat
- Wait until everyone is at your table and say Buon Appetito before eating
- It’s totally ok to order just a primi or pasta dish – you do not need to order a full 3-course meal every time
- If you didn’t finish your meal, take-out is not really a thing in Italy
Visiting tourist sites
- Try to conduct yourself in a way that is helpful for everyone. Disappointingly, there have been many instances reported of people removing artifacts from Pompeii, carving their names into the Colosseum and even driving electric scooters/ a car down the Spanish Steps. Not to mention people jumping in the canals of Venice to go swimming. We know our listeners/readers are way too smart to do anything like that but sometimes when we’re traveling and having a great time we forget that people live and work in these places. Always remember you’re a guest in this beautiful country and treat the sights and locals with the respect they deserve
- Practice patience. Particularly in popular places, there will be lots of people and big lines. Arrive 10-15 minutes before an allotted ticket or tour time as logistics is a huge part of moving people around the tourist sites
- Mind your manners – travel can be a bit stressful but there is absolutely no excuse for interrupting a tour guide mid-speech to ask if they are your tour guide and if not, where yours is? – this just happened to Katy on a tour just last week!
- Be aware of the space you’re taking up – standing in front of thoroughfares and generally being unaware that you’re blocking other people who have a genuine need to move about their city is something that is a huge problem and makes tourists unpopular
- When you’re traveling on intercity trains try to get your luggage in the overhead racks as there is limited space for big cases in each carriage. If you can avoid traveling with big luggage it’s going to help but if you do have to, then book a business class seat, which only costs a few euros more, to give you the best chance of storing your luggage at ground level
- Always sit in your allocated seat. If you want to change – do that after your ticket has been checked but don’t assume people will want to swap seats if you want to sit with your friends/family
- On local transport make sure to validate your ticket as soon as you board the bus/tram/train or enter a train station and get that time stamp. When people are unaware of this it can cause some problems when the ticket inspectors come around. We’ve seen many, many times visitors arguing with the ticket inspectors, which holds everything up and they’re never going to win. Pleading ignorance does not come into consideration. Getting those tickets validated will same any embarrassment and being fined
- Arrive on the platform that you’re going to be traveling from a little bit earlier and get on the carriage that’s allocated to you on your ticket. Trying to wheel luggage through multiple carriages, is not fun and you can end up blocking people and it can all get very frustrating. When you get to the station, you’ll see the platform that you need to go to and your ticket should say which carriage. You can find the carriage on the train or even sometimes signified on the platform
- If you’re an influencer, Instagrammer, or someone who’s really serious about your photos. get up super early to avoid the crowds and enjoy your time taking photos. Otherwise, you’re just limited to a minute or so posing at amazing sites like the Trevi Fountain, due to the crowds. Don’t be the person that needs to pose for 10 minutes while hundreds of people wait. You’re going to get the best shots with hundreds of people around you photo-bombing by accident or on purpose. If you really want amazing people-free photos and the ability and time to pose as much as you like head out early – maybe around 7am or earlier
- Do not take photos of people without their permission – especially children and older people. They may look adorable but consider whether you’d want random strangers taking and sharing photos of your loved ones. Consider people’s privacy and at least ask people permission, and if it’s a child, ask their parents for permission
Do take a little extra care when you’re traveling and remember to be polite and sensitive. Travel can get stressful but you’re not going to make it any better by upsetting the people around you. When in doubt, use your best friendly smile, a big Buongiorno, and we are sure you’ll have a beautiful time.
- Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy – TV show with US actor of Italian heritage visiting different parts of Italy
Resources from Untold Italy
- Find out more about tips about Italy in 101 Essential travel tips for Italy, How much does a trip to Italy cost? and what to pack in our Italy packing guide.
- Discover our favorite ways to learn Italian, how to say I love you in Italian, and top travel words for your trip
- Listen: discover episodes with useful planing tips and resources Episode #155 2023 Italy trip inspiration, Episode #120 Mistakes to avoid when planning your trip to Italy, Episode #123 5 tips for learning Italian fast and Episode #159 Popular tourist scams in Italy and how to avoid them
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.