Learn basic phrases before you go
This is a must for any country you visit. If you can, it would be useful to learn at least a few phrases such as how to ask for directions, how to ask the price of something, the correct forms of excuse me, please and thank you, and perhaps even how to say you have an allergy to certain foods or medications in case of an emergency. Although most large tourist cities in Italy have plenty of English speakers, never underestimate how something as small as a courtesy in the local language can go a long way. It might even save your life.
Beware of pickpockets
This one is obvious, but what isn’t obvious is how to spot them. They’re good – really good. Keep your bag zipped, and always keep a hand on your personal belongings while in crowds, even if you can see it, or you think no one could get to it without you noticing. They are professionals and they strike when people least expect it. Even when shopping in a store, people can easily squeeze by and reach their sticky fingers in the bag you’re not focused on, or prep your backpack to be worked by their partner unbeknownst to you.
Be careful of who you speak to
It’s not necessarily just pickpockets you need to be worried about. It’s important to be friendly as not to offend anyone, but there are also some people you should be wary of. Gypsies are real and unfortunately, some of them hold true to the stereotype of being thieves. They beg in the streets, work in pairs or groups, and are not afraid to get confrontational. As a tourist, it’s best to politely keep your distance, firmly stick with no for an answer, and keep walking. There are also plenty of very friendly African merchants selling a few goods trying to make a living (packets of tissues, lighters, selfie sticks, etc), and other merchants offering bracelets or other simple trinkets as a gift to tourists even if you don’t buy anything. If you accept them (they are adamant and will put something in your hand and refuse to take it back), be prepared to be followed and harassed until you pay for the so called free gift. It’s not a gift. It’s not free. It’s a scam to pressure you to pay and keep them off your case.
Italians drink a lot of espresso
There are a handful of ways to order coffee in Italy, but no matter how you order it, it’s still espresso based. The American cup of Joe you might be craving and want to carry around in a paper to-go cup is hard to come by, unless specifically advertised in a bar’s window. You will almost never see an Italian carrying one of those to-go cups. They take their single shot of espresso (known as a caffè normale) at the counter or bar, and they get on their way. It may seem silly, but as a rule of thumb, no cappuccinos past 11:30am (it’s only for breakfast), if you order a double shot you will get two caffè normali (so order a caffè lungo, long espresso, instead), and they don’t do flavours in their caffè lattes like Starbucks, so don’t ask.
Always buy (and validate) your train and bus tickets
The public transportation companies in Italy prey on tourists who don’t know the rules since there are no signs posted, and if there are, they’re in Italian. Whether you’re riding the train, bus, or tram, simply having a ticket in hand is not enough. You need to validate your ticket as soon as you enter for authorities to know that you’re not using the same ticket for multiple rides, thus manipulating the system. Although the transportation authorities are not always checking, they do hop on and off at random to do a sweep. If you are caught without a valid ticket, be prepared to be taken off the bus, asked to sign a document, or pay in cash for the ticket fine. Be aware that although you can pay the transportation agents directly in cash properly, there is a process, and if they don’t go through the normal procedure (as most don’t bother to do with tourists) that €50 fine you just paid will go straight into their pockets. You can request that the ticket be mailed to your home address that is listed on your home country’s documents and avoid paying in person, thus forcing them to have to write you a proper receipt which you sign. Just validate your ticket.
Buying fake designer brands is illegal
Italy is known for its high fashion brands such as Prada, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and the likes. It is tempting to want to bring home an Italian souvenir, especially if you can find a great copy at nearly half price. You will see plenty of foreigners peddling fake designer bags, but in Italy it is illegal. Many merchants carry the bags on their arms, or lay them out on a sheet with a chord around that they can easily pull and run when they police are nearby. It happens all the time. It is such a problem in Florence that the city has undercover police surveying markets and tourist attractions for these illegal merchants. People get away with it most of the time, but better safe than sorry.
Always look both ways before crossing the street, then check again
Be aware that Italian drivers may seem more ruthless than what you’re used to back home. Rome is notorious for having many drivers and lots of traffic, and even more known for being dangerous to pedestrians. It is not uncommon that people get hit by cars who refuse to stop for people crossing the road. Although not every city in Italy is like Rome in that way, there is a balance to be had when walking in the city between caution and confidence when crossing the street.
Sturdy shoes are a must
Common sense suggests that you should wear comfortable shoes when you will be walking all day in a new place. Then there’s Italy with all the cobblestone streets, uneven pavement, potholes, and narrow sidewalks, not to mention dodging cars and scooters. If you can, find a great balance between comfort and style. All white Chuck Taylors are in fashion, along with Stan Smith Adidas right now, so if you’re having a hard time deciding what to wear, one of those will be fine. Don’t wear beach sandals in Italian cities as it is considered tacky and also very dangerous. Your feet will be filthy, the flimsy thongs will not do well protecting your feet, and you run the risk of having them break during your intense walking day.
Skip the currency exchange desk
This is something all avid travellers know, but worth a mention for everyone else. Skip the currency conversion desk at the airport and head straight to the ATM (in Italy called a bancomat) to grab some local currency. You will avoid overpaying fees for the currency conversion, along with the fees for using their services, and come out with more euros in hand. Always be sure to keep your money concealed, and divide large amounts in multiple safe places while you travel. Most places in Italy are still old school so they prefer payments in cash, although most places do accept card payments over a certain minimum.
Know the difference between northern and southern Italy
This is a big one many people don’t realise. Italy, like any country, has many different lifestyles and types of people depending on geography. Northern Italians tend to be more refined, stylish, modern, and white collar. Southern Italians are the more traditional, hospitable, blue collar types. The descriptions are a bit generalised, but for the most part, that’s what you can expect to notice immediately. The food varies greatly region by region, and so does the mentality. It is said that northern Italian cities function better (government-wise) and southern cities are more of the laid back mentality. You will notice an immediate difference if you travel to different parts of the country. Also be aware that the north and south also have a bit of rivalry, with Rome being the one large city that is accepted to be considered central Italy.
Don’t ask for substitutions at restaurants
You will insult the chef, and make everyone’s job more difficult by asking for a substitution for something on the menu. Food is taken seriously in Italy and is not to be altered. If you have an allergy, let your server know and they will help you choose something else. Don’t be that entitled tourist who wants a specialised dish from an Italian kitchen.
Don’t expect amazing service
Although this seems harsh, remember that Italians don’t have a tipping culture like the US. It is only in more touristy areas where tips are normal, and even then it is your choice. Therefore, the servers do their jobs efficiently, and don’t need to behave like American servers who, to the Italians, seem over the top, fake and even slightly annoying. Italians enjoy long meals, so if you’re in a rush, it may be better to grab something quicker than a sit down meal, or tell the server ahead of time. Although the service may not be what you’re used to, that’s not to say Italians don’t take care of their guests.
It is legal to drink in the streets
Go ahead and take that glass of wine to go and enjoy it people watching in a piazza. Perfectly legal. It is not in their culture to be drunk and disorderly in public, so if you do drink, try to maintain composure as the Italians do.
Expect disorderly drivers if you rent a car
Referring back to the traffic and pedestrians, this goes along with the driving habits of the culture. The lines painted in the road to create lanes seem like mere suggestions. Very often you will see the tiny Italian cars driving wherever there is space on the road. There are traffic rules, obviously, but some are not taken as seriously as others. For example, the rules everyone seems to agree on are don’t pass from the right, scooters need to stay off to the side, don’t drive slow in the fast lane and don’t obstruct traffic. Everything else seems to be up to the driver. Italians love honking their horns as a form of communication for good and bad and there seems to be an every man for himself mentality. If you’re renting a car in Italy, beware.
Almost everyone smokes everywhere
There are no laws prohibiting smoking in public places, although now smoking indoors is frowned upon. If you’re a smoker, feel free to light up almost anywhere. If you’re a non-smoker, be prepared to breathe in the secondhand smoke of everyone you pass.
You will be charged more if you’re an obvious tourist
No, it’s not fair. Yes, it does happen all the time. Be sure to check the menu before ordering something, and also remember that the same pizza will cost you a few euros more in the tourist areas. Most places in Italy are small businesses, so tourist season is important for them. Unfortunately, their verbal answers and what they charge you could be different than the prices listed on the menu, so always double check that you’re not getting taken advantage of, especially if you’re drinking.
Avoid shopping and dining in the main tourism areas
This one may seem obvious, but unfortunately the prices are high and quality is low. This goes for almost every tourist city in the world, but if you can, try to head away from the main attractions. Not only will you get better food and shopping, but also a different experience with the culture.
Mosquito spray will save your life
In many parts of Italy, there are mosquitoes everywhere. If you’re not used to them, you could end up with big red splotches all over your body in the summer, so be smart and bring some repellant.
Italians don’t form lines while waiting
This is a stark difference between your culture and Italians when you realise that no one ever forms a proper line. It’s more like a semi-organised group. Italians are clever, so if you’re not paying attention, you will lose your place in the so called line, and you’ll never even realise that you did. This happens at bars for coffee in the morning, train stations, airports and stores. Try to be patient and don’t be afraid to stand your ground.