5 Tips for Traveling in Italy
How to embrace the Italian culture, and not look like a tourist.
Adapt to their fantastic coffee culture.
When in Rome do as the Romans do. This means not asking for a caramel macchiato or frappuccino. The closest you'll get to a traditional cold drink is coffee shaken over ice (which is then sometimes strained out). 9/10 times if you ask for a latte, you're just going to get a cup of steamed milk.
Italy is famous for their traditional coffee culture, so even if you're addicted to Starbucks and American-sized coffee cups, stick with what's on the cafe's menu. If you're unsure of what the drink is, don't be afraid to ask the barista. If you prefer your espresso with milk or sweetener, ask what they would recommend. Get curious, because they are all great in their own way, and you'll soon find your favourite morning pick-me-up.
If you're at a busy cafe, and you gotta run, you can put a euro or two on your receipt and the barista will move your order forward. Although tipping isn't mandatory in Italy, a good old-fashioned coffee bribe is acceptable (I've seen this work better in some places than others, so save this tip for when you're really on the run).
Don't order coffee after noon (especially in smaller, old-fashioned towns). Even though drinking coffee as a digestive after dinner is acceptable, I've heard some rumours of Italians thinking the milk in a cappuccino ruins the appetite for dinner. However when I asked for an espresso before dinner (thinking I would be safe without milk) the poor waitress put a hand to her heart in shock.
It'll cost you extra to sit down. Actually, I found standing at the bar drinking my coffee a surprisingly classy way to do things. Especially in the busier districts, there's never enough room to sit down anyways, and you'll want to save the fee when you can.
Dress Properly for places of Worship
Italy is very traditional. It's great that they don't let tourists and Western influences warp their original culture. But this means you may not be allowed to enter churches and other holy places if you're dressed like a casual Summer tourist. For women it's more strict (but guys, try and be respectful and not wear shorts and a tank top too). Ladies, you gotta have your shoulders covered and your skirt/pants below the knees! In some places they:
- Might make you wear a blue, rain-jackety-type frock. Which is a little embarrassing, and will ruin any cool pictures you want taken of you inside these gorgeous places.
- Or deny you entrance entirely. Which means you're missing out on all those places you flew so far to see!
To avoid this, wear a light summer dress, or shorts that are the required length, and keep a small shoulder cover (a light button up or even a scarf to wear as a peasant shawl) in your backpack. You only have to wear it inside the churches (which isn't too bad as the stones of the building make a great natural air conditioner) then throw it into your bag or backpack once you're out in the scorching heat again.
Guys be warned, you might get a fine from the by-law officers if you take your shirt off to walk around Italy!
You can't sit in public.
Patio decks and benches are fine, but I'm talking about the beautiful and (admittedly very comfortable-looking) steps and fountains nearby tourist attractions and churches. It is disrespectful to lounge (and eat) on the steps of these beautiful buildings. Enough so that in some very tourist saturated places (like Rome and Venice) they have people in bright safety vests prowling the area and telling tourists to stand up. So although it's 38 degrees outside, and you're in formal blacks for a concert (and as a woman you gotta cover those scandalous legs and shoulders) you might feel like you're dying, keep standing, and be proud that you don't look like an average tourist, and aren't getting reprimanded by the local law enforcement.
Don't eat near the tourist attractions
It doesn't matter how starved you are, if you want to keep within your travel budget, don't stop at the huge, patio-ed restaurants near the lining places like the Piazza Navona and other popular squares. The tourist rates are insanely racked up, and the food is "meh" at best. Walk in literally any other direction for 10-15 minutes, and watch those menu prices drop from 15-20 euro to 5-10. If you have google maps, make an effort to locate small businesses. They are usually visited by locals, which means their prices are reasonable and their food is much more traditional. Even best, the owners and servers are usually a lot more friendly! You'll get less of a tourist-drowned environment, and more of, I dunno, the owner whipping out an accordion and serenading you while other customers dance between the tables.
Make an effort to learn the language
Now I'm not saying you have to study hard-core weeks in advance, (though some people do and good on them), but knowing how to say "please" and "thank you" are a respectful addition to any tourist's vocabulary. On my choir tour, a lot of us picked up enough Italian to order coffee and food, or thank our receptionist in the hotel lobby for holding our keys. We had very few people who refused to speak any Italian, but it was a little cringey watching them order, and I guarantee you'll make more smiles along the way if you make an effort to speak the local language. And hey, it's totally fine if (and when) you mess up! They appreciate you're still learning, and like the effort, so just have a laugh and keep practicing.