12 Things You Never Knew About Italy

My husband Tim and I just recently celebrated three years of living in Italy. I think back to previous trips to Italy and if I had only known then what we know now! We’ve learned by making mistakes and falling into the tourists traps of overpriced cappuccinos and bad gelato (yes, bad gelato does exist!). So when Johnny and Natalie recently visited Italy, we were all to keen to share our insider tips with them. Now we’d like to share 12 things we think are import for every traveler going to Italy to know with you:

1. Tipping is not required and can even be considered offensive
No, really. Let me repeat: You do not need to tip in Italy. Tim and I tried explaining this concept to my father-in-law on his visit to see us. He didn’t believe it until a breathless restaurant owner came chasing after us, wildly waving the extra €10 note that my father-in-law had left and yelling in Italian that he had forgot his change.  In general, the attitude in Italy toward tipping is that you can’t buy a person off.

Espresso in Italy

2. Standing at the bar is cheaper than sitting down
Ever noticed all the Italians standing at the bar drinking their cafes? That’s because there is one base price for coffee and pastries and another price for table service if you sit down. So order your cappuccino al banco (at the counter) and enjoy it standing with the rest of the crowd!

Gelato in Italy

3. Spotting artisan gelato
High-quality, artisan gelato can only be stored for a few days. It’s also a time consuming process to make it (as I recently learned at the Carpigiani Gelato University), so some shops in Italy are beginning to sell industrial, mass-produced gelato instead of making it using traditional methods.

Still, you can find the good stuff if you know what to look for. Beware of the photo-worthy gelato bulging high from its container; that’s a sure-fire sign it was made from an artificial mix. The color of gelato should be a muted, natural color. Brightly colored gelato is another sign it is made with artificial flavoring and colors.

The easiest trick is to check the banana gelato: if it is a grayish hue, it was made with real bananas. If it is bright yellow, move on to another gelateria.

Euros

4. Cash is king
For me, one of the biggest cultural differences I had to adjust to after moving to Italy was always needing to have cash on me instead of relying on my debit card. Credit cards still aren’t widely accepted in Italy. Also good to know is you can’t pay for anything under €10 with a credit or debit card in establishments that do accept them.

Always have cash with you and have a variety of notes. If you present a €20 note for your €1 cappuccino, you’ll be frowned upon.

5. Don’t walk off without the bill or receipt
Ever had the cashier thrust the receipt at you for your €2 gelato? There’s a reason for that! The Guardia di Finanza (tax police) may stop you as you leave an establishment and ask you to present your receipt. The shop keeper can be fined €2500 if you can’t produce it.

Why all the fuss over a piece of paper? Taxes are expensive in Italy and some shop keepers skim off the top to avoid paying taxes. It is their responsibility to make sure you leave with your receipt. So always take your receipt and wait until you are at least 100 meters from the establishment before tossing it out.

6. Speaking of fines…
In Italy, your train/bus/vaporetto (water bus) ticket isn’t considered valid unless you validate it at a machine before boarding said train/bus/vaporetto. The machine time and date stamps your ticket so that it cannot be reused.

Just yesterday I was headed home from Florence and had one minute to change trains. The validation machine said fuori servizio (out of service) and I didn’t have time to look for another machine if I was going to make that train. So I hopped on without a validated ticket. The conductor came around just a few minutes later and to avoid the €30 fine, made me get off at the next stop to validate my ticket. I was lucky that he didn’t make me pay the €30 fine; turning my €5 fare into a €35 one!

7. Don’t assume you can buy your train/bus/vaporetto ticket on board
You’re required to buy your train/bus/vaporetto ticket before boarding, which can be challenging when there isn’t a ticket machine next to the stop. Instead, look for the tabaccaio (tobacco shop) to purchase your ticket. If you plan to travel on a Sunday, purchase your ticket ahead of time. You’ll save yourself the time and stress of looking for an open tabaccaio on a Sunday.

And don’t forget to validate your ticket just before you get on board!

Dress appropriately

8. Cover bare shoulders and knees when entering a church
Churches such as St. Peters Basilica in Rome, the Duomo in Florence, and St. Mark’s in Venice have strictly enforced dress codes. Basically no bare shoulders, midriffs, or knees. And while there isn’t a door keeper at every single church in Italy, these are still places of worship and you should be respectful when entering them.

I always carry a scarf that I can wrap around my shoulders or even use as a sarong.

9. Riposo
Stores and businesses close for riposo (like an extended lunch hour) generally between 12pm and 3/3:30pm. Store and business hours are set at the Comune (city) level, so opening times vary from city to city.

10. Don’t touch without permission at the markets
Visiting markets in Italy is something I highly recommend. Not only can you find the freshest, local produce but you’ll find clothes, cheeses, leather goods, kitchen supplies, and more.

But when visiting markets, keep your hands to yourself! Always ask permission to see something and the vendor will wait on you attentively, getting you the correct sizes or selecting your produce for you while wearing plastic gloves.

And if you visit a grocery store, you’ll also notice plastic gloves in the produce section. Be sure to wear them when handling produce.

Pizza in Italy

11. Peperoni means peppers
Ever ordered a peperoni pizza only to be surprised when it arrived at the table? Peperoni means sweet peppers in Italian. If you want American pepperoni, order a pizza with salami picanti (spicy salami).

Italian condom machine

12. Condom vending machines
Just last week I was walking around my little town with Johnny and Natalie. As we passed the farmacia (pharmacy), I jokingly pointed and said “Anyone need a condom?” We proceeded to discuss not only the 24/7 availability of condoms, but also the variety on offer. This particular vending machine had quite the selection!

Italy doesn’t have one of the lowest birth rates in Europe without reason. These little vending machines have popped up all around the country in the last year. They even caused quite the controversy when they were installed in schools in Rome.

The farmacia may close at 7:30pm, but if you find yourself in a pinch and in need of a condom, you’re likely to find a condom vending machine outside of most farmacias these days. Just make sure you have Euro coins. Vending machines take €2, €1, €.50, and €.20 coins.

For more from Jennifer on traveling smart in Italy—and avoiding tourist traps in Venice—click here. For her tips on how to do Venice’s Carnival on any travel budget, click here.

About the author: 

We’re Jennifer and Tim and we love traveling! We are just one ordinary couple who have found that travel brought us closer together, taught us patience, the art of compromise, and how to truly appreciate the diversity of this extraordinary world. Our bucket list continues to grow with far flung places on this beautiful planet. Join us as we share our travels and adventures with you! We aim to inspire you to travel and we’re always happy to offer our advice. Follow their adventures on Twitter at @jdomb or on Facebook.

About Jennifer Dombrowski

Jennifer Dombrowski is a location independent globe trotter and bases herself in Prata di Pordenone, Italy. She works as a social media and innovation strategist in higher education and is a regular contributor on johnnyjet.com. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or on her blog, JdombsTravels.com

Comments

  1. I spent a week in Italy this Spring and would have liked to read this post beforehand. Great tips!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Great tips! Seeing others not follow #8 is a pet peeve of mine – travelers need to respect going into places that are considered holy in any format in any country (be a good guest!)

  3. Wonderful tips!

  4. Nice post! I’m italian and I can confirm every word you said. One more tip about gelato, the best ones are those you don’t even see exposed and in those gelaterie that have few traditional tastes. I recently found out that in Bologna you can find one of the best Italian Gelato (try sorbetteria Castiglione).
    Enjoy Italy

  5. WOW!! I have heard about tipping being offensive, but never knew where it was. The gelato makes a lot of sense too. If you look at something that has real bananas in it, they do turn kind of grey and brown. Those are some great tips though!

  6. These are great tips! I’ve made note of them for a trip I’ll be taking to Italy soon. Thanks so much for this information.

  7. And an additional tip to the tourist traveller in Italy look out for the Zona a Traffico Limitato (ZTF) to avoid high traffic fines. It is a real tourist trap especially in big cities such as Florence.

  8. Good tips. Also remember that “sausage” usually means “hot dog,” when describing a pizz topping. if the pizza description does not say “tomato,” there may not be any sauce on it.

  9. Great list especially about the gelato colors! So many folks can get fooled by those neon colors in the display case. I’ve also been told that if the gelato is all fluffed up and set inches above the container – also a sign there are preservatives, no natural, artisanal.

  10. You are so right about the Gelato. We always look for a pistachio that’s a dull grey-green. THAT’S how we know it’s good. Best we had was in the small town of San Giminiano, in Tuscany.

  11. Wonderful post! I learned all this too when I saw just in Italy… except the condom part. Was I not having enough “fun”? :P

  12. This is great information I am planning a trip to Italy May /June 2013 I am Italian and this is my dream. I want to know as much as possible to enjoy the experience. Any recommendations, such as take a tour or not? What is the best way to go for your first trip? I know I want to see where my family was from and I know all the well-known points of interest to travel, but have no idea the best way to travel.

    • Hi Paula! Have you searched Italy on JohnnyJet.com? There are several great posts about visiting. For a first timer, taking a city tour can really help you get acquainted with the cities and the guides are generally pretty knowledgeable about the best places to eat. Enjoy your trip!

  13. Thanks for the sincere information about Italy. I love Italy and feed a dream of one day go for a visit. Again, thanks!

  14. Anonymous says:

    I agree about everything EXCEPT the tipping. You got the guy running after you because you left too big of a tip. 10% is considered almost too much, but any tip (even less) is greatly appreciated. (I’ve been living in Rome for 50 years.)

  15. Great tips! Some of these I was aware of and some were new to me. Didn’t know about pepperoni, condoms, no touching in the market, and the receipt thing. Lots of useful information for Italy. Interesting to read what makes countries so unique!

  16. I’m confused. I have a copy of DK Eyewitness Top 10 Florence & Tuscany. Under “Cover Charges & Tipping” it says that if the check does not include “il servizio”, you should tip a “discretionary 10 – 15 percent”. If it is included, “it is still customary to round up the total”.
    I recall that that’s what I did during our last visit to Italy in 2002.

  17. I think it might make for a great blog in future if you did your number things about the particular region or province of Italy where you’ve been living that would also be useful for the traveler. I think once anyone becomes more familiar with a country and culture, it’s the distinctions from one place to another that become just as interesting and even useful to know. Gelato? I’d settle for most of what I find when I’m in Italy, since 95 percent of what you find in the U.S. is done all wrong, something to do with too much dairy product. Italians have a very interesting view of the wider world and even each other. It’s fascinating. Someone’s last name tells them which part of the country the other person originates from, or someone’s behavior can even suggest they’re very typical of a certain region. My grandmother used to call me “very Calabrese”. I can’t imagine why:)

  18. Hello me and boyfriend are visiting Rome this June and staying at Hotel Caprice. Do you have any suggestions as to places to eat while there that are fairly priced. We are from PA and of course we all know that the Euro is a lot more than US dollars. Any help you could offer would be wonderful.

    • Jerry Pack says:

      Ristorante Venerina is an excellent choice, it is about 500 feet from the Vatican. you can google it. It is nicer that their pictures, we ate outside. Around lunch or dinner people are always waiting for a table, it is not expensive. It is on Borgo Pio street. Taxis are cheaper in Rome than other cities in Italy. Visit the Vatican in the early afternoon, Make a reservation for the museum, but do no miss seeing St Peters, you will never see anything like it and it is free. You are in a great location, near trevi fountain an d the spanish steps. If you walk a long distance and are tired, get a taxi back to your hotel. Have a great trip, we just got home from 3 weeks in Italy. Venice, Florence, Naples, Sorrento, Capri, Positano, Amafli, Pisa, Siena, and of ROMA!

  19. Very nice list! It is always interesting to read about cultural differences, what is usual for us may appear uncommon to may:) Concerning gelato, we say that in order to find the best gelato among different artisanal gelaterie you need to try the “nocciola” (hazelnut), because is the hardest to prepare :)

  20. I ran into every single one of these problems, and it was a constant mess of confusion whenever I tried to figure out what was going on. I rode several trains without stamping the ticket, I eventually learned I should stand up to eat, etc etc. It was somehow more complicated than cultural adjustments in certain non-Western countries. But it was all fun and the confusion usually led to some interesting stories.

  21. I am not Italian but work in Italy since 1998 in a big hotel in Florence. 90% of our guests are Americans and, yes, I believe that, at this point, my experience about American behaviours is quite big. Beside many points already considered in the comments above, I\’d like to point on a basic aspect that many American tourists have in common: they like to point on situations they dislike about other countries (in this case Italy) and keep forgetting the real situation of the country they are coming from. The first example coming to my mind is when a lady from Texas complained with my director that in the country she was coming from you don\’t have to pay for water at a restaurant, ever! She totally forgot, however (but not so my director), that her sweet husband had to go the the hospital in Florence after a bad fall he had walking downtown. His wrist had to be put in a plaster cast and, believe it or not, at a cost of 7 euros (ER fees) all included. Try to do the same in the US… The father of a good friend of mine (American from upstate New York, Buffalo), had to sell his house to pay for part of the hospital expenses after he was diagnosed with brain cancer (insurance, apparently, did not over that disease!?). He died in 2009… He had to go to live with his son in the last period of his unlucky life, but, my friends, at the restaurant the water, from the faucet of course, was FREE!!!! Another thing, and this happened to me during my last trip to the US, which is apparently common among Americans flying abroad, is the sense of safety they feel just in their homeland. The thing could be considered quite normal, I know, since it is obvious to have more confidence in areas and situations we know perfectly and we are at ease with. But to get to the point, and this is what I have seen with my eyes, to kiss the tar of the airport\’s runway (we were just landed in Boston) to show the happiness of being back to \”supersafe\” USA from an American couple (quite funny, btw, since they were pretty huge people indeed and had a few problems to kneel), it makes me think that, maybe, many Americans (I am saying many because i heard the conversations of many other Americans tourists talking about this particular subject) are partially unaware of the country they are living in. Maybe, just to refresh their mind, they should go here sometimes: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crime/2012/12/gun_death_tally_every_american_gun_death_since_newtown_sandy_hook_shooting.html. I\’ve never, never, never seen such a warzone neither in Italy, nor in Greece, where I am from. Maybe, if they considered more also the negative aspects of the country they come from, and not just the positive ones (like the free water at the restaurants), the Americans would get along much better with the rest of the world. No offense people. Be positive! Licia

    • Mary Kay Vicencia says:

      Interesting what you wrote about Americans. I am American and have traveled quite a bit. Americans are great people and we do have a great country but I agree with you somewhat that some Americans can be quite naive when traveling and expect to find things the way they are in the states which is not so. I think anyone from any country should have an open mind when traveling to a different country and accept their way of doing things or don’t travel or don’t complain.

    • So true, Licia! Should have reminded that lady from Texas that in American restaurants nowadays water is no longer free. Just like in Italy, you must specify if you want “tap water” (which is free) or “mineral/bottled water”. If you don’t, the waiter will bring you bottled water and you’ll be charged for it. Also, in Italy, when you order a Coca (Coke) or any other soda, that is all you get: one! No refills! You’re better off ordering a bottle of house wine. Enjoy the wonderful experience of working and living in beautiful Firenze! Happy travels!

  22. All the points highlighted in this post are fantastic tips for anyone travelling to Italy. I have been a frequent traveller to the North of Italy since I was a young girl and have to say it amazes me how some people fall into the tourist traps even with the internet now at their fingertips to research before going. Another top tip I would like to add is learn a few phrases in Italian – this goes a long way with Italians – there is nothing worse than watching an English speaker thinking that people should speak to them in English when they are not in their own country. I have watched locals having a lot of fun with those that are truly ignorant! Even remembering that when ordering more than one cappuccino you need to change the ‘o’ at the end to an ‘i’ eg. cappuccini will get you brownie points.

  23. that was awesome news thanks!

  24. Chanel @ LaViajeraMorena says:

    Great information that I am sure will be VERY beneficial for my trip to Italy :D Thanks!

  25. Great tips. Thank you! Question: I’m going from Cinque Terre (Monterosso) to Roma. Where and when should I purchase train tickets? There will be 9 of us. Can I purchase all the tickets on behalf of everyone?

  26. These are all fantastic tips. I’m glad you explained the receipt and the tipping…definitely a cultural difference!

  27. Mitchell says:

    I’ve visited Italy three times. Italians can be “weirdos” sometime, but I must admit it is the most beautiful country I’ve ever visited (and I’m a US flight attendant, so I had the chance to fly around the world a bit).

  28. Been to Italy many many times and never have I found tipping to be considered offensive in fact many times I have been harangued and chased down the street with Hand out for more. I tipped not only what was already included in the check but also added more. Same nonsense from bellman. I know how to tip and I’m generous. Pretty obnoxious behavior from the Italians and I am one.

  29. ALL (except the last one) were very true during my 6 weeks in Italy! Great post!
    The bus ticket situation is oh so dangerous if you risk getting on without a ticket/pass — not that it happened to me but I heard they fine you 50-100 euros???!

  30. These are all very valid points but only one I don’t agree with having travelled to Italy extensively for the past 18 years is that tipping is appreciated except where the owner of the establishment is serving you. In most bars and coffee shops there is a container on the counter for tips and the menu will say whether the tip is included or not.

  31. Jennifer’s dozen tips are terrific, many we know to be true from past trips. But a question: any that aren’t applicable in the Dolomites, close to the Austrian border? Any new ones needed in that mostly-German speaking region?

Trackbacks

  1. […] that our very own Jennifer Dombrowski who’s an American and living in Italy wrote a great post on 12 Things you never knew about Italy. I can pretty much guarantee you this post will save you money on your next trip to […]

  2. […] About Italy After walking around Italy with Jennifer I talked her into writing this great post on 12 Things you never knew about Italy. I can pretty much guarantee you this post will save you money on your next trip to Italy. […]

  3. […] For more from Jennifer on traveling smart in Italy, click here. […]

  4. […] lead-up to Ash Wednesday (which this year is March 5). Check out more of her Italy insider tips in 12 Things You Never Knew About Italy and Venice’s Biggest Tourist Traps and How to Avoid […]

  5. […] If you are going to any part of Italy, you might want to read Jennifer Dombrowski’s articles: 12 Things You Never Knew About Italy and Venice’s Biggest Tourist Traps and How to Avoid Them. I guarantee you, these tips will help […]

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