Info guide to Italian culture and customs
Italy is a mix of many different cultures and traditions you’ll discover while driving through. Depending on the region, town, or city you are staying in you’ll come across all types of people, accents, local dialects, customs and cuisines, and while some stereotypes we all have about Italians can be seen, it is importantissimo that you don’t let those ideas of Italy ruin your own unique experience! Try to really explore the culture, history, food and drink that comes from each place you visit around Italy! If you’re in Venice, why not try some Nero di Seppia (a delicious squid ink pasta dish) and save the Pasta Bolognese (actually called Tagliatelle al Ragú in its home city) for your trip to Bologna?
Here are some important tips on basic customs and etiquette to follow when travelling in Italy
- When you meet an Italian for the first time you normally shake hands. Depending on the circumstances, you generally greet with kisses on the cheek (starting with left cheek to left cheek, then the right) the next time you meet. Do the same when saying goodbye. In the north it’s less of a must to kiss literally everyone before leaving, but as you go farther south, make sure to properly greet and say goodbye to everyone!
- We all know the fame of Italian food. In general, Italian cuisine is marked by its bursting flavor and simplicity. Dishes are often made up of few ingredients, although the ingredients are usually as fresh as possible, providing a rich, unbeatable flavor. The actual cooking must also be done precisely and those with the most experience can make masterpieces out of just a few ingredients. If you’re looking for some typical cuisine in the city or town you’re visiting, do not look for it on the main road! Go down a side street and find the smallest, most unsuspecting ostería or trattoría where someone’s grandmother is hand-making the pasta in the back kitchen. Those are by far the best and most authentic places to eat, and definitely won’t break the bank.
- Another important aspect of dining is the bill, il conto. Unlike in the US, the bill is never brought to you before you ask for it. You can be there for hours after finishing your meal and no one will ever encourage you to leave. The focus is rather on enjoying the food and conversation with your companions and when you are satisfied and ready for the next move, you can ask for the conto. Just ask the cammeriere, or waiter, “mi scusi, il conto per favore?” and you’re set!
- Tipping in Italy, la mancia, is usually included in il coperto, or the service charge, which can be found on your receipt. Generally servers do not expect a tip, but feel free to leave one or two euros if the service was outstanding. But attenzione, don’t leave too much because waiters and waitresses are generally well paid in Italy and getting too much of a tip could be viewed as an insult to their profession.
- Is it after lunch? Don’t drink that cappuccino! Despite what many think, Italians do not hang out in cafés, in fact, the “bar” is where they stop for a quick shot of espresso (un caffé) while standing at the counter before heading on their way. A bigger drink like a cappuccino means that you have the time to stay around and have a proper Italian breakfast, usually consisting of a coffee or tea with something sweet. The customary time to have a cappuccino is in the morning, after 11:30 is already pushing it, and if you have one after lunch then that’s it, you are clearly not Italian! But if it’s after lunch and can’t handle the espresso don’t worry. Just get a caffé macchiato, which is fundamentally a shot of espresso with some milk foam on top, like a mini cappuccino. The coffee is quite strong, so that should tide you over until the next coffee break!
- Another important aspect of Italian culture is respect. Respect comes in all forms; through language, dress, and acknowledgement. Whenever you go into a shop you should acknowledge the shopkeeper with a ‘buon giorno’ or ‘buonasera’ (‘good day’ or ‘good evening’). The same goes for when you leave. Even if you didn’t buy anything, simply say ‘grazie, buona giornata/buona serata’ (‘thank you, have a good day/good evening’). Dressing appropriately is also important. This doesn’t mean you should always be elegant, but the key word here is tasteful. Wear something comfortable and stylish that doesn’t show off too much skin. But, the best way to go in Italy is to observe what the Italians around you do and follow their lead!
- When travelling through Italy there are some mentalities that you should be aware of and try to cultivate. One of these is patience. You’ll find, especially if you’re coming from the multitasking city life in the US, that everything has a different pace in Italy. Food is very important and eating is a ritual which allows you to socialize and appreciate good company and good flavors. But, good things take time and it is important to be patient. You’ll find that the wait increases the sense of appreciation! But while Italians take the due time to appreciate the finer things in life, they can also move dangerously quickly, especially in big cities. Traffic tends to go fast, so if you’re driving through make sure to keep up!
Going by car is the best way to get around Italy if you want the luxury of stopping in the small towns, making day trips or going quickly and cost effectively from one part of Italy to another. Travelling by car with Sixt is easy as you can take the highways or autostrade, to pretty much any major city. The roads to all other smaller cities and towns are easily navigable with the GPS navigation system Sixt provides in their car rentals. You can take the Autostrada del Sole (the Highway of the Sun) all the way from Milan to Reggio di Calabria, in the south. The A2 connects Rome to Naples and the A3 takes you from Napels to Reggio di Calabria. Tolls are present in all of Italy, and you can pay in cash or with a credit card. However, you can also get a pass (Telepass or Viacard) which will save you both time and money.
So, go forth and explore whichever area of Italy suits your fancy! Italy has it all and if you have time, curiosity, and patience, you will see a unique part of this country that brings the best of Italy to the front seat.