5 things I wish I knew before going to Italy

By , Travel Insights Editor Home > travel-safety > Italy > travel-safety-tips, travel-smart

Despite the language hurdle most travellers face in Italy, it's still an incredibly easy and comfortable country to visit, even if you've never been outside your home country before. Still, there are a few things that it's handy to know before you step out of the airport. Such as:

Here are 5 more things to know, courtesy of Jessica Spiegel a Portland-based travel writer for BootsnAll Travel, who also writes the WhyGo Italy travel guide.

Photo courtesy of cameronparkins, Flickr.com

In some ways, it's hard to remember what life was like before I went to Italy - but on the flip side of that coin, every single time I'm there I learn something new about the country and traveling in it.

1. There's no such thing as "Italian food."

We all know what to expect when we go to an Italian restaurant back home - the usual array of pasta dishes, maybe a couple pizzas, and of course a tiramisu on the dessert menu. Would it surprise you, then, to learn that in some parts of Italy you'll be hard-pressed to find tomatoes in the local dishes at all?

Italy is a young country, formerly made up of independent city states - now called regions - with which most residents of those regions still primarily identify. Each region has its own personality, its own dialect (sometimes its own language), and its own cuisine. Moving from region to region - and sometimes from town to town - introduces travelers to new local specialties, and it's a shock to those of us who think we already know what Italian food is.

Get to know what's produced locally and what's in season, and you'll be eating the freshest and best of what that area has to offer. Steer clear of so-called "Italian food" that's not typical of the region you're in and you stand a much better chance of avoiding touristy (and overpriced) restaurants.

2. In Italy, cash is king.

Most Italians pay for things on a day to day basis with cash - from their morning coffee to dinner that evening and everything in between. For those of us who have grown accustomed to paying for milk and bread at the grocery store with a debit card, it can be a little jarring when the waiter at a decent-sized restaurant balks when you hand him a Visa.

Most of us know that businesses pay a fee each time we pay for something with plastic, but in many countries businesses are willing to pay that fee because the culture leans toward the "customer is always right" end of the scale. Italy, for all its perks, is not the land of customer service. If something is an inconvenience for a shopkeeper - such as paying the Visa fee - he'd just as soon not have the machine at all. This works in Italy, because it's already so cash-centric - it's the visitors who sometimes get caught out. Oh, and don't worry - almost every hotel in the country (and certainly all the big ones) take plastic, as do train stations.

WorldNomads: This means you'll be carrying around more cash than usual, so with Italy's reputation as the number one destinaton for pickpockets, it's vital you know how to keep your cash secure.

3. Mussolini didn't make the trains run on time, either.

There's that great line about how "at least Mussolini made the trains run on time" - we've all heard it, and it's funny, but it's not true. It's an urban legend (one that some older Italians still repeat - don't try to argue with them).

Today, the trains in Italy are notorious for being a bit late, or for occasionally not running at all due to periodic labor strikes - and yet they remain, in my mind, the best way to get around most of the country. There are certainly places where you'll want to have a car, or where a bus might serve your needs better, but in most cases I still recommend trains as transportation - especially if you're sticking to bigger cities and towns.

I should note that while people will complain that trains are always late in Italy, that's not license to show up late for your train and then be annoyed when it's already left the station. In my experience, trains in Italy are more often on time than they are weirdly delayed.

4. The waiter isn't being rude when he leaves you alone to eat.

This phenomenon isn't unique to Italy, but it bears mentioning because it catches so many off guard.

Where I live, waiters come check on you 90 seconds after deposting a plate in front of you, wondering if "everything is okay" before you've had a chance to even take a bite. They'll check on you a few times during the meal, and then when it looks like you're close to being done they'll leave your bill on the table for you to take care of at your convenience.

In Italy, after your meal is delivered, you may not see the waiter at your table again until it's time to clear your plates. And when you're done with your meal, after coffee or dessert or whatever your final course was, no one's going to come by with a bill without you specifically asking for it.

This is not the waiter being rude. This is the waiter letting you enjoy your meal and your dinner conversation for as long as you want. Restaurants in Italy are not looking to "turn over" tables every 1.5 hours - once you sit down, that's it, that's your table. It's yours as long as you're there. So when you're ready to leave, you just flag down your waiter the next time he passes by and say, "Il conto, per favore." You'll get your check, and you're not being rude for asking for it. Oh, and don't forget to bring cash. (See point 2.)

Photo courtesy of scalleja, Flickr.com

5. An empty restaurant doesn't mean the place is bad.

I can't tell you how many times I've gone into restaurants in Italy at what I thought was dinner time only to find the place nearly empty. This is usually a good reason to leave a restaurant, because if the locals won't eat there, why should you? In Italy, however, you need to check the time before you make that judgement call.

Italians eat late - not as late as the Spanish, in most cases, but the dinner hour in many cities doesn't start until at least 8pm if not later (in Milan, restaurants don't get busy until 9pm, even on weeknights). Many restaurants in bigger cities and towns (especially if they're even relatively popular with tourists) will be open earlier than that, but the earlier opening time isn't for the locals. It's for visitors.

If you can't adjust your dinner hour to match that of the locals, that's fine - just remember that if a restaurant is dead quiet at 6:30 or 7 in the evening that may have nothing to do with the quality of the establishment and everything to do with the time.

Photo courtesy of Nick Bramhall, Flickr.com

Bonus 6th thing: Relax.

You'll note in a few of the things listed above that the concept of time may seem a bit fungible in Italy - and it is, in a way. Breakfast may be a tiny shot of coffee and a pastry inhaled while standing at the bar, and Italian drivers may seem like they all think they're in a Formula 1 race, but generally speaking Italians aren't wedded to the clock. You'd do well to try adopt this mentality while in Italy (when in Rome, etc.), as it will help you avoid frustration with things like train delays and waiting to get the bill in a restaurant. Relax. You're on vacation, after all.

WorldNomads: Great advice, especially if you're thinking of taking to the roads of Italy. It's not just that congestion in Rome and Florence is legendary. They also have two of the most dangerous roads in Europe. Find out which they are, and why.


  • saraeloca said

    Hello!<br><br>Great article, keeping in mind number 6 is possibly the most important. Learning to laugh instead of getting frustrated :) <br><br>Here is a helpful site for anyone traveling in Italy, http://bit.ly/lOUmMT , it lists all of the DECLARED strikes. Sciopero means strike in Italian. This is another common Italian phenomenon. However, it's up to every driver to decide whether or not they are striking. One time my train stopped half way to my final destination because the driver didn't know he was supposed to be on strike, yet, another time,d a train wasn't supposed to depart because there was a strike and it did. Again... Number 6.<br><br>Great article!<br>Sara Loca

  • Giulia said

    Hi Jessica! Fantastic post and deep remarks! You should also analyze differencies in culture between Region and Region and City by City, U will discovers so many other things! <br><br>1) Many people think Italian food is all about pasta and pizza, but this is wrong. These 2 main products are the most easily exportable , that's why in many Italian restaurants or " pseudo " everything is reduced to "that's it". But it's not true, we have a huge variety of "secondi" which are mainly made by meat or fish and regionally adapted. I love Italian local specialities, unfortunately abroad (where I live) it's just "pasta al pesto", "pasta alla bolognese"... :(<br>2) In italy cash is the king and the land is not made for customer service. Yes. They look very suspiciously when U give a credit card, it looks like it isn't real money.. <br>3) Trains are mostly more in time than people think and say. there are many mussolinian fans which state as number 1 benefit from that time "trains ran on time", especially very old people, and it's better do not argue with them, they will never change their mind :) <br>4) Restaurant is as much important (even more) as a church, enjoying food together with friends is like a mistical experience, waiter has to bother as less as possible. Time of table's occupancy is very relative (except in touristic and busy spots in rome).<br>5) At 7 or 8 is too early! Of course also the best restaurant of the city will be empty.<br><br>"Despite the language hurdle most travelers face in Italy, it's still an incredibly easy and comfortable country to visit, even if you've never been outside your home country before. " [LOVE IT!]<br><br>thx!!

  • Eugenio said

    I am Italian and I mainly hang out with visitors in my town in my free time.<br>I have to say this tips are extremely accurate especially for a north american visiting italy. it's not easy to find a guide that tell things the way they are. I like how you pointed out the differences between the american culture and the italian one.<br>Although I would spend a few more words about food, which is way more important than anything else for an italian. even when we eat the dinner table, we spend at least half of the time talking about the food we're eating.<br>It's also very strange for us to hear that our food is labelled as "italian food" because we simply think that food varies according to the place you are and not with the culture, because it is something that naturally evolves with the geographical place more than with the people who makes it. maybe that is because our food includes all the other cuisine in the world. any foreign product that reaches italy, is soon elaborated in a thousand different ways according to the local tradition (local food).<br><br>I recommend to be well prepared about local food before visiting a town in italy, or you will find yourself ordering a hot dog made with a german low quality wurst while you are in one of the best "lampredottaio" of Florence (like that american woman sitting next to me yesterday)...

  • Mike said

    Great article! So bang on and there are a few similarities to Buenos Aires where I am currently residing. I love the relaxed atmosphere in restaurants. It's the same in BA and North Americans have trouble understanding it. Time to slow down and enjoy life people.

  • goowai.adele said

    Very interesting. I'm not that observant, but since I've read about this then maybe I'll try to be watchful when I get back to Italy this summer.

    And with regards to the train, I have to agree with you. I even read about "Mussolini made the trains run on time" that it is actually false haha Anyway I have to see it for myself :)


  • trx said

    It's the best time to make some plans for the future and it's time to be happy. I've read this post and if I could I want to suggest you few interesting things or tips. Perhaps you could write next articles referring to this article. I wish to read more things about it!

  • EM said

    I am italian, born and mostly raised in Italy. One side of my family is canadian and I've been living in USA for a while so I understand some of your points. I even can agree with you...but well we have a saying "paese che vai, cultura che trovi". :) You did understand some relevant things, and I can tell these tips are really cool.
    You are righ about our trains, I always complain about that. It's a bigger problem than it seems...very complicated situation that involves not only the infrastructures but also the govenment way of using public money..it's not an excuse, I become very frustrated all the times as well.
    I have to disagree at one sentence you wrote: "Italy is a young country".
    We are NOT a young country. I don't know what you mean by that...politically young? Can be. Tecnically/legally, with the denomination of Italy? Yes. But italians have been existing centuries before the unification of our territory..the cultural tradition we have now, belongs to this long past; the fact that we have "campanilismo" doens't make us a less united nation. Italians like to complain a lot, is the 2^ national sport after soccer haha :) but at the end we love our country for his warm and welcoming way of being. We had the roman empire and that makes us one of the oldest countries in Europe. Sometimes I wish we were younger so I could have studied less history in high school! Haha :D In this point I think America is way younger than we are, since you were discovered in 1492 and got the independence in 1776, but yeah, I think you have a longer political tradition than we have.
    I personally appreciate the waiter live me eating my dinner. That even depends to the places you go: in some really high quality (and super expensive) restaurants you are gonna have your personal waiter, he is gonna stand in the corner next to the table, (keeping the courtesy distance) and he is going to be there every time you want, to refill your glass of water or wine and anything else. We use the time at the restaurant to talk with the people we are hanging out with so there is nothing weird about having privacy. Food is a social thing, and yes, is very important for us. We enjoy our culinary specificities. There is no reason to be in a hurry...every clubs and bars are open until late (4/5 am and even 6am if it's summer), so why would you go at dinner at 6pm and eat in 10 minutes?! You have plenty of time!
    Would be a pleasure to read something about USA or Canada if you have time to write it!
    Greetings form Italy

  • Lillie Lewis said

    Fantastic article. Trains on time in Italy ... you can forget it :) LOL I have been only to Rome. But moving to Italy is my dream. It doesn`t matter that there are several disadvantages. There is a lot of romantic in this country, too. Best regards!

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