The land of vino, pasta and love - of course when you read these words you know that we are referring to Italy.
In Italia the air is a little sweeter, the sun is a lot hotter and the sounds are exactly what you might expect them to be; happy birds chirping, neighbours gossiping in the street, nonni (or grandfathers) arguing over their card games outside the bar - all totally normal. That being said, there are going to be some things you simply would never expect as a foreigner visiting Italy for the first time. For example, you may not be sure why the people of Italy seem to be glaring not so subtly at your flip flops that you sport proudly everywhere (they do not consider them shoes anywhere off the beach) or why they are wearing winter coats in spring weather (they are perpetually afraid of catching ‘the wind’ because #illness).
Rest assured, this blog post will help you to find your feet before you fall victim to shock. This way you can spend your time happily soaking in the Mediterranean vibes in comfort and style.
20 What is coperto?
It may seem strange that when you visit a restaurant that you see this word written on your bill with a charge next to it. However, it is very common in Italy to be charged coperto or ‘cover’ for use of the flatware, napkins, and a basket of bread. It may seem a bit strange that they don’t just build it into the prices of the food but for whatever reason, this is the way it’s done.
As a tourist, you should never see a coperto charge of more than 3 euros per person - anything more is likely someone taking advantage of tourists so it’s best not to support that kind of establishment. Especially when there are so many wonderful and deserving restaurants to enjoy!
19 There’s a pre-dinner dinner?
That’s right, Italy has two sizes of dinner. Cena (dinner) and the smaller dinner known as apericena which literally translates to before dinner. Don’t worry, theu aren’t really that crazy to have two dinners (all of the time, anyways). The apericena is actually in place of dinner and is somewhere between an aperitivo (cocktail and finger foods) and cena (3 course meal).
The apericena allows you to eat earlier than usual when most restaurants could still be closed and the food is usually inclusive of the price of a drink or unbelievably affordable! Great for anyone who doesn’t eat a lot and is on a bit of a budget.
18 I’m never driving here again
As a first time visitor you might be eager to rent a bright red Fiat Cinquecento and tour the countryside in style which really is a GREAT idea. We just feel we should warn you of a few things before you put the pedal to the metal.
Firstly, the roads in some places are very poorly maintained and it can be a bit discombobulating for long journeys. Secondly, if you are driving in the southern regions you have to exercise extra caution as roadside scams are quite rampant. Lastly, you will be paying for the use of the highways.
It’s super annoying but it’s a fact of life in Italy and although you may be tempted to avoid the toll roads, it could end up costing you in car repairs (see point one) or hours of extra time.
17 I should have hit the sun bed
If you arrive in Italy anytime between May and September you will notice that the olive complexions are in full force.
If Italy had a second anthem it’d probably be Here Comes The Sun by The Beatles, because they have an undying devotion to its warm rays.
The people of Italy seem almost effortlessly and entirely bronzed from head to toe faster than you can say beach umbrellas! If you aren’t one who cares for sunbathing, it may be helpful to note that your pale complexion will be more than likely be commented on (with a small degree of affection) by numerous locals in jest. It can save you a bit of time (and loving shaming) to slather on some fake tanner before touching down in Italia.
16 Dessert is... For Breakfast?
A double edged sword is the custom to eat dessert for breakfast in Italy. At first it seems like a great thing! All the chocolate croissants, biscotti, cakes with jam that your heart desires is perfectly acceptable to eat first thing in the morning.
After a few days you might begin to miss a plain old bowl of cereal, or toast with peanut butter. Weird, right? The good news is that peanut butter has made its way to grocery shop shelves in Italy now whereas before it was near impossible to find.
So don’t fret because you can still cook up your favourite ‘American style’ bacon, eggs and toast with a swift trip to the grocery shop. And by the way, the eggs in Italy are probably, if not certainly, the best in the world so be sure to do this at least once.
15 Constant church bells, really?!
In the movies it all seems so quaint! The clumsy tourist bustling through the piazza with her map searching for some particular building. She’s all frazzled as she accidentally clamours into the arms of a handsome local man who yells signora, attento!, revealing perfect teeth and whipping his gorgeous mane back as he climbs onto a nearby vespa/motorcycle/bicycle while church bells ring melodically, signalling the beginning of a romance. How enchanting!
That is, until you hear them 4 times an HOUR every single day. Luckily, they stop at night because, even Priests have to sleep! Just don’t feel bad if you find them to be incredibly frustrating at first, soon enough you won’t even notice them (as much).
14 Pinch Me I Must Be Dreaming
Visiting Italy for the first time is like walking through the pages of a fairytale. The rolling hills with crops neatly aligned to their curves, the tall and skinny pine trees lining the roads, the ancient hamlets darting along the countryside - it’s almost too much to handle!
You will utter the words "is this real life?" at least once during your first trip to Italy guaranteed. In fact, the locals are so in love with these beautiful vistas after years of being immersed. It just never gets old (even if in truth, it’s really, really old).
Even if you live in a naturally beautiful state or country, nothing will compare to what you see on your first trip to Italy.
13 Honey, You Shrunk My Coffee!
Sorry Starbucks, but grande is in no shape or form an Italy thing. Neither is adding 100 flavour shots and all the other tricked out toppings that the company is famous for other countries.
Here, locals simply enjoy the strength of the coffee on its own, condensed to three simple sips.
If you want a large coffee you might find what you’re looking for with a cappuccino but don’t even think about ordering one after 10:30 am because it is truly against the rules. They will make it for you but they will probably make a face while doing it.
12 So, This is Really living
As someone from the USA it can be a culture shock to witness how well locals balance work and other competing priorities with leisure time. After work? They take the bicycle to the beach to have a swim or meet a friend for aperitivo in the city center.
For all the hours they put into their work day, you don’t often hear them complain or plonking down in front of the television to zone out until bedtime. An after dinner gelato and a walk is a common pick me up and when you head out you’ll see just how common it is as the streets are often littered with people of all ages enjoying the evening air.
11 What Am I Supposed to do Between 1-3pm?
Perhaps the secret to the people of Italy's boundless energy in the evening is the commonplace afternoon siesta or nap time that is in full practice even in this day and age.
It is almost laughable as an American to imagine leaving work to go home, have a nice big lunch with your whole family and a 2 hour nap before returning to work for the day but that’s how they roll.
If you are not a napper you might struggle to find something to do because literally all the shops, restaurants, etc., are closed for this purpose. Don’t let it catch you off guard! Plan your time around the daily siesta accordingly.
10 Cheese is Cheap Here!!!!
Perhaps one of the most beautiful aspects of visiting Italy as a foreigner is witnessing affordable cheese. You can get some of the highest quality cheeses at an absolute bargain in Italy. This is also regional, high quality cheese that comes from the farms!
People who have digestive issues are often amazed by how they can tolerate various local cheeses like Parmigiana and Pecorino (named after sheep because that’s where it comes from).
You could have a pretty satisfyingly delightful (albeit not super balanced) lunch feasting on cheese and fresh bread from the forno (bakery) without breaking the bank - and that’s something to write home about.
9 Is That A Model? Nope, Just A High Schooler.
With Milan, a definite fashion hub to the North, the world has come to understand that locals are pretty into fashion. What’s interesting is that the men are no exception!
Don’t be surprised when you catch a teenage boy wearing pleated linen pants or a more mature man wearing ripped and distressed jeans. They really don’t impose the normal age limits on what they wear which can either be really cool or kinda horrifying depending on the person and their outfit choice.
As an outsider it can be a little intimidating when you realize just how deep the knowledge, pride and passion for fashion runs in Italy.
8 Is That A Grandma On a Bicycle? In stilettos?
Why yes! Yes, it is. Italy has one of the healthiest and longest-living populations on the planet and it could be for any number of reasons; the freshly grown vegetation that they eat right from their garden, the exposure to the elements of salt water and sun in abundance and of course, their consistently active lifestyle.
For locals, taking a passigiata (or walk) midday or after dinner isn’t an item on the to-do list, it’s simply for pleasure. Using a bicycle is not only a great way to get around in the sometimes unbearably warm months, but it’s also a way of life. As such, children and elderly persons are incredibly gifted at biking! Rocking a pair of heels while balancing two large bags of groceries, in addition to a large purse under one arm, is totally normal to them.
7 This Customer Service Is Average At Best
Ah yes, this will be a tricky one for a lot foreigners, particularly those from North America who are used to being catered to and accommodated with a smile. In Italy, the culture of customer service just doesn’t exist.
Granted, it’s starting to change, but it’s still an incredibly new concept so there are definitely growing pains and will likely still be subpar to US or German standards.
The reason is that people in Italy are used to taking what they are given without complaint. You might overhear a theatrical bicker match at the market if the produce isn’t fresh or the prices are too high but that’s about as far as it goes and is still incredibly rare.
Locals are far more likely to suffer in silence or emit an audible disappointed sigh than to risk the embarrassment of verbally complaining. As a visitor you might be tempted to pipe up when something isn’t satisfactory, but truth be told, it won’t get you very far.
You have to be very committed to your cause to take on the lacklustre customer service attitude so be sure that it’s worth the extra effort and energy.
6 This Isn’t Pepperoni!
The pepperoni of Italy definitely got lost in translation with the rest of the world because in most places we associate pepperoni with the small circles of processed mystery meat we lovingly adorn our pizzas with, while in Italy, it is peppers.
Yes, a bell pepper pizza is what you will receive if you ask for pepperoni pizza unless you are in a blasphemous tourist trap. If you are looking for something similar (but of course, more delicious) go for a salame piccante (spicy salami) or salsicha (sausage) topping - you probably won’t even remember pepperoni after you have tried a bite of the good stuff.
5 What I Would Give For Some Cheetos
This is really a good thing because Italy has strictly upheld codes of what is considered acceptable on the ingredient list of most of the products you find in the grocery store. Sadly, you will not find the same variety of flavours when it comes to snack foods because it isn’t really their cache.
Plain old patatine (potatoe chips) seem to suit the locals quite well so there just isn’t a huge demand for Doritos or fancy Lays (yeah, we said fancy). If you’re planning to stay in Italy a long time to study or work, there is a little website (you might have heard of it) called Amazon where you can order all your home favourites like ginger-ale, chili sauce and other items that are more difficult to find in Italy.
Just beware that the rules on duties from items coming from outside the country are a bit random and taxes can add up.
4 Where Is My Beloved Vanilla Gelato, Yo?!
With flavours like Fiore Di Latte (milk) and Crema (cream), locals decided that vanilla was just too, well… vanilla! It’s hard to compute this for those of us who really like a traditional ice cream cone but once you try a stracciatella - which is like vanilla ice cream but with shaved flakes of chocolate inside - you'll soon understand.
Other flavours to try would be zabaione (custard cream) or coco (coconut) as they are in the same palette of vanilla. If you are really putting your foot down on the whole thing you can always visit the grocery store and buy some manufactured vanilla ice cream but you should be aware that it will in no way, shape or form, resemble the gelato standards that you can find in an gelataria.
3 I Love A Flower Covered Terrazza... but I Miss Greasy Take Out.
It is not very common for local restaurants to provide take-out because they truly take such pride in their restaurants and adorn them to be enjoyed!
Sometimes if you are unable to finish your meal, you may receive an aluminum tray with some foil on top but that is what they will use for everything (even soup!) so it can be less than ideal. To avoid this, prepare enough time to enjoy your pasta in-house at the table or you can opt for a street food option like a porchetta panino (pork sandwich), piadina (flatbread style wrap a la Romagna), slice of pizza or fried items to go.
You may find a proprietor who is willing to wrap up something more elaborate for you to go but in a lot of cases, they will take offence to your transporting their delicacies carelessly out of the restaurant where they are intended to be eaten.
2 Patience Really is A Virtue…
Whoever said patience is a virtue was probably waiting in line at Posteitalien for hours in Italy only to find out that you get the marco di bolo (stamps) at the Tabacchi down the road. Of course it's closed now until 4pm.
There is a relatively high level of nonsensical organization / instruction in Italy which makes it fairly unproductive. This can be irritating for foreigners who appreciate efficiency but also a practice in patience.
There is a reason we travel to Italy to experience the slow food and artisanal handmade goods. They take their time, so like everything else, you have to take both sides of the same coin in stride and try to grin and bear it(with a mouth full of cannoli) while visiting.
1 Where On Earth is The Toilet Seat?!
Is there a toilet seat graveyard somewhere? Why are all these public restrooms missing the potentially, most essential part of the potty?
It can be disorienting considering that lavatories in the homes of family and friends in Italy are so clean that you could practically eat off the floor only to discover the public restrooms are less than stellar.
There have been numerous speculations as to why the toilet seats aren’t considered status quo in this beautiful country. Apparently people are afraid of the germs so they stand on the seats which causes them to crack. After many times, an owner could decide it’s not worth the cost of replacement. Others have stated that it’s simply more hygienic to omit the seat altogether (I guess that depends on whether you fall in or not). Finally, some argue that it’s a waste of money since it’s not commonly 'appreciated' in public restrooms.
Whatever the case may be, you can prepare by doing your squats at the gym in the weeks leading up to your trip.