Looking forward to experiencing that rich Italian culture on your next vacation plans? Check Fodor’s guide on the traditions and etiquette in Italy.
Italian culture is famous throughout the world, and Italy’s deep-rooted traditions and core cultural values influence every aspect of daily life, from food and clothing to coffee and language. Gain a unique insight into Italy’s fascinating cultural differences, and avoid making any awkward gaffes with our guide to the customs and etiquette that make Italy so special.
Sightseeing Dos and Don’ts
Unless you are at the beach, flip-flops and skimpy clothing are a big no-no and will immediately mark you out as a tourist among the sharply-dressed locals. Dress comfortably but appropriately, and choose light, loose clothing in the hot summer months. When the summer temperatures soar over 100°F, the fresh, cool water of Italy’s fountains may look very tempting, but resist the urge to leap in. Jumping in any ornamental fountain carries a severe rebuke and a hefty fine.
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With so much to see, do, and experience in Italy, it’s also a good idea to grab a quick snack or lunch on the go, but watch out where you eat it. Picnicking is banned by many major sights, and you may be fined for sitting and eating on the steps of churches, fountains, and monuments.
It’s also worth noting that Italy is full of churches, many of which contain world-famous works of art. However, they are also sacred places of worship, so take care to cover up with modest clothing and make sure your shoulders and knees are not showing before entering.
You should never bring food into a church and do not sip from your water bottle while inside. If you have a cell phone, turn it off before entering. And never enter a church when a service is in progress, especially if it is a private affair such as a wedding or baptism.
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Italian Dining Etiquette
Italians eat dinner late, so non-touristy restaurants tend to open around 7:30 pm, but only families and foreigners dine that early, and tables will really start filling up at 9 or even 10 pm. To last until later dinnertime, do as the Italians do and go for an aperitivo first. Order a glass of wine or spritz at a bar, and they will bring you snacks to help bridge the hunger gap.
Italians take eating out seriously, and table manners can be rather formal. Be polite with your waiter, keep noise at a reasonable level, and don’t call across the room for attention. When you have finished your meal and are ready to go, ask your waiter for the check (il conto). Italians don’t like to rush where food is concerned, so no waiter will bring you the bill until you have requested it. Don’t ask for a doggy bag, taking leftover food to go is not a done thing.
The custom of tipping is a little hazy in Italy, so here are the facts: tipping is not obligatory, but it is a nice gesture to leave a few euros to your waiter if you have received good service. If you had a bad experience, don’t feel forced to leave anything. Your bill may also include a 10% service charge, and many restaurants will charge a nominal amount for bread and water, so be sure to read the menu’s small print carefully.
While smoking has been banned in bars and restaurants since 2005, it is still permitted at outside tables. Given that smoking is still very prevalent in Italy take a spot inside if you want to avoid any second-hand fumes. And finally, when invited to dinner at one’s home, it is common Italian etiquette to bring sweets or a tray of small pastries. Other appropriate gifts include flowers, chocolates, or a bottle of wine.
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Italian Drinking Customs
Italians don’t like to drink without eating, so most alcoholic drinks are consumed during the pre-dinner aperitivo or with a meal. It is frowned upon in Italian culture to be excessively drunk in public, so take it easy.
Wine is the most common drink with most meals, as well as water which can be still (liscia) or sparkling (frizzante). However, in the pizzeria, beer is the popular choice, with most Italians ordering a cold, fresh, birra chiara to degrease the palate.
After a meal it is common practice to order a digestivo, a strong alcoholic shot to aid digestion. The most common are grappa, limoncello, and amaro which are served along with the post-dinner espresso.
Coffee Culture in Italy
Italy is renowned for its coffee culture, but there are specific rules to follow and traditions to honor. When entering a bar, you have the choice of consuming standing al banco (at the counter) or al tavolo (at the table). It is cheaper to drink standing up, but you must first pay at the cash desk and then take your receipt to the counter. If you sit down, the price will be higher, and you will receive table service.
Italians never consume milky coffee drinks such as caffè latte or cappuccino after a meal. They are generally considered morning beverages to be sipped with a cornetto (croissant) for breakfast. Pouring warm milk on top of a full stomach is said to mess with digestion, so you may see some raised eyebrows if you order a cappuccino after dinner.
One of the best ways to avoid standing out as a tourist is to learn a little of the local language. You need not strive for fluency; Italians love to chat, so even just mastering a few basic words and terms will make interacting with the locals much more rewarding.
Simple words that make all the difference are “Please” (per favore), “thank you” (grazie), and “you’re welcome” (prego).
When meeting a stranger or entering a shop, it is customary to formally say good day or good evening (buongiorno, buonasera), and when leaving you should say goodbye (arriverderci). Ciao is a more informal greeting used between friends and younger people.
Italians who are friends greet each other with a kiss, usually first on the left cheek, then on the right. When you are introduced to a new person, shake hands, repeat your name, and say piacere (nice to meet you).
In larger cities such as Venice, Rome, and Florence, language is not a big problem. Most hotels have English speakers at their reception desks; if not, they can always find someone who speaks at least a little English. If your Italy itinerary takes you out into smaller towns, you may have more trouble, but a few easy phrases, some expressive hand gestures, and a big smile will go a long way.
Being late is one of the most famous cultural traits of Italians. Everything moves slower, so embrace the slower pace. Don’t expect punctuality or speedy service, instead, be patient, relax into an easier rhythm, and take the time to soak up your surroundings.
Italian Business Culture
Showing up on time for business appointments is the norm and is expected in Italy. There are more business lunches than business dinners, and even business lunches aren’t common, as Italians view mealtimes as periods of pleasure and relaxation.
Business cards are used throughout Italy, and smart, elegant business suits are worn by both men and women. To be on the safe side, it is best not to use first names or a familiar form of address until invited to do so.
Business gifts are not common, but if one is given, it is usually small and symbolic of your home country, culture, or type of business.